Kids love dinosaurs

December 13th, 2017

As a near-universal rule, kids love dinosaurs. Or, as psychologists might say, many children develop an intense interest in dinosaurs:

Researchers don’t know exactly what sparks them — the majority of parents can’t pinpoint the moment or event that kicked off their kids’ interest — but almost a third of all children have one at some point, typically between the ages of 2 and 6 (though for some the interest lasts further into childhood). And while studies have shown that the most common intense interest is vehicles — planes, trains, and cars — the next most popular, by a wide margin, is dinosaurs.

[...]

“I hear it over and over” from parents, he says: ‘They know all the names! I don’t know how they remember that stuff.’” But Lacovara does, or at least he has some theories. “I think for many of these children, that’s their first taste of mastery, of being an expert in something and having command of something their parent or coach or doctor doesn’t know,” he says. “It makes them feel powerful. Their parent may be able to name three or four dinosaurs and the kid can name 20, and the kid seems like a real authority.”

Intense interests are a big confidence booster for kids, agrees Kelli Chen, a pediatric psychiatric occupational therapist at Johns Hopkins.

They’re also particularly beneficial for cognitive development. A 2008 study found that sustained intense interests, particularly in a conceptual domain like dinosaurs, can help children develop increased knowledge and persistence, a better attention span, and deeper information-processing skills. In short, they make better learners and smarter kids. There’s decades of research to back that up: Three separate studies have found that older children with intense interests tend to be of above-average intelligence.

[...]

And it’s probably not a coincidence that the age range for developing intense interests overlaps with the peak ages of imagination-based play (which is from age 3 through age 5).

[...]

In a study published in 2007, researchers who followed up with the parents of 177 kids found that the interests only lasted between six months and three years.

There are a number of reasons kids stop wanting to learn anything and everything about a particular topic, and one of the biggest is, ironically, school. As they enter a traditional educational environment, they’re expected to hit a range of targets in various subjects, which doesn’t leave much room for a specialization.

[...]

“Maybe at home the interest was being reinforced, and the positive feedback loop was, ‘Johnny knows that’s a pterodactyl, Johnny’s a genius!’ When you’re getting praise over and over again for having information about a subject, you’re on a runaway train to Dinosaurland,” Chatel says. “But then school begins and the positive feedback loops shift to, ‘Johnny played so well with others, Johnny shared his toys and made a friend.’”

An ordinary politician would have been powerless

December 12th, 2017

Ryan Holiday describes the most durable form of influence and power:

In 1931, Winston Churchill found himself more or less exiled from political life. In the previous years he had found himself vehemently fighting members of his own party over a number of issues and when a new government was formed, Churchill was not invited. He was viewed as out of date and out of touch by his fellow politicians and so began a period now known as his “wilderness years.”

An ordinary politician would have been powerless when voted out of office or driven to the fringes by political enemies. Not Churchill. Because he held onto something even more valuable than office — he had a platform.

Most people are unaware that Churchill made his living as a writer, publishing some ten million words in his lifetime in hundreds of publications and published works. In fact, it was his enormous worldwide readership that Churchill cultivated through books, newspaper columns, and radio appearances that allowed him to survive the periods in which he did not have the ability to directly shape policy. Instead, he was able to reach directly to the people about the rising threat of world war, not just in Britain but worldwide, including in America.

During his infamous time in the so-called political wilderness between 1931 and 1939, Churchill published 11 volumes and more than 400 articles, and delivered more than 350 speeches. His enormous platform — based on his editorial contacts, his extraordinary gift with words, and his relentless energy — allowed him not only to be relevant but also to guide policy and opinion across the globe until he was eventually brought back in to save Britain and eventually and in many ways, the world. For any kind of leader, creator or entrepreneur, this kind of platform is essential. Because it is the ultimate insurance policy and the most durable form of influence and power.

He presents another, quite different example:

Think about a band like Iron Maiden — radio hasn’t played their kind of music since the mid 80′s. MTV hasn’t played their kind of videos in almost as long. But in that time they’ve put out a dozen albums which have sold millions of copies. How? Because their relationship was directly with their audience. They had a platform. They have an enormous email list.

They had 1,000 true fans.

The one knocking on the door

December 11th, 2017

The New Yorker traces the origins of “You will not replace us!” back to a cosmopolitan gay Gascon named Renaud Camus — no relation to Albert:

In recent years, though, Camus’s name has been associated less with erotica than with a single poignant phrase, le grand remplacement. In 2012, he made this the title of an alarmist book. Native “white” Europeans, he argues, are being reverse-colonized by black and brown immigrants, who are flooding the Continent in what amounts to an extinction-level event. “The great replacement is very simple,” he has said. “You have one people, and in the space of a generation you have a different people.” The specific identity of the replacement population, he suggests, is of less importance than the act of replacement itself. “Individuals, yes, can join a people, integrate with it, assimilate to it,” he writes in the book. “But peoples, civilizations, religions — and especially when these religions are themselves civilizations, types of society, almost States — cannot and cannot even want to…blend into other peoples, other civilizations.”

Camus believes that all Western countries are faced with varying degrees of “ethnic and civilizational substitution.” He points to the increasing prevalence of Spanish, and other foreign languages, in the United States as evidence of the same phenomenon. Although his arguments are scarcely available in translation, they have been picked up by right-wing and white-nationalist circles throughout the English-speaking world. In July, Lauren Southern, the Canadian alt-right Internet personality, posted, on YouTube, a video titled “The Great Replacement”; it has received more than a quarter of a million views. On great-replacement.com, a Web site maintained anonymously, the introductory text declares, “The same term can be applied to many other European peoples both in Europe and abroad…where the same policy of mass immigration of non-European people poses a demographic threat. Of all the different races of people on this planet, only the European races are facing the possibility of extinction in a relatively near future.” The site announces its mission as “spreading awareness” of Camus’s term, which, the site’s author concludes, is more palatable than a similar concept, “white genocide.” (A search for that phrase on YouTube yields more than fifty thousand videos.)

“I don’t have any genetic conception of races,” Camus told me. “I don’t use the word ‘superior.’ ” He insisted that he would feel equally sad if Japanese culture or “African culture” were to disappear because of immigration. On Twitter, he has quipped, “The only race I hate is the one knocking on the door.”

Leave the colonists to fend for themselves

December 10th, 2017

I would not call the foundation of American gun culture the “American Indian foundation of American gun culture,” but the Indians did have a clear influence:

In England, there was no written, express guarantee of a right to arms until 1689, when Parliament enacted the English Bill of Rights. In America, arms rights were recognized in the Virginia Charter of 1606 and by the New England Charter of 1620. Geographically, the two charters covered all the future English colonies in what would become the United States of America. According to the charters, the colonists had the perpetual right to import arms, ammunition and other goods for their “Defence or otherwise.”

The Virginians and New Englanders also had an express guarantee of the right to use their arms at ‘‘all times forever hereafter, for their several Defences,’’ to “encounter, expulse, repel and resist’’ anyone who attempted ‘‘the Hurt, Detriment, or Annoyance of the said several Colonies or Plantations.’’ In practice, the colonists’ right of self-defense against invaders and criminals would need to be exercised through the collective action of the colonists, there being no British army anywhere near.

As history turned out, the willingness of Americans to be subjects of the British crown ended when the crown began violating its guarantees of American arms rights. The American Revolution began when Americans used their firearms to resist house-to-house gun and powder confiscation at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. The attempted confiscation was part of a royal plan to disarm America, set in motion by King George III’s October 1774 embargo on the shipment of firearms and gunpowder to America. (By that point, Americans considered their arms rights to have been guaranteed by the 1689 Bill of Rights, because the 1606 and 1620 charters had long since been replaced.)

[...]

The despotic Stuart kings ruled England from 1603 to 1688. They were terrified of popular revolution and worked hard to disarm most of the population. Even under Queen Elizabeth I (who reigned from 1558 to 1603), militia training and practice were often desultory.

In the early 17th century, many English militia arms were centrally stored rather than kept at home. There were muster days, when a community would have to demonstrate that it had arms for its militia. But practice days were fewer.

[...]

In Great Britain, there was little opportunity for commoners lawfully to develop hunting skills. In the British Isles in the 17th century, hunting was very strictly regulated by the bewilderingly complex Game Laws.

[...]

But conditions in North America demanded a change. First of all, the early settlers had a greater need to hunt for survival. This is one reason that Anglo-Americans — far sooner than the English still in England — shifted from matchlocks to flintlocks. The flintlock’s ignition is much simpler than a matchlock’s: When the flintlock user pulls the trigger, a piece of flint is struck against a piece of steel, producing a shower of sparks that ignite the gunpowder. So a flintlock could be kept permanently loaded and always ready to fire in an instant. In ready mode, it does not reveal the user’s location. The flintlock was more reliable in damp or windy conditions. It was also simpler and faster to reload than a matchlock. It had obvious superiority for hunting in the forests of North America. Captain Myles Standish, an early leader of the Plymouth Colony, was America’s first famous flintlock user. A flintlock was three times more expensive than a matchlock, and in America, the extra price was well worth it.

Unlike England, America had no class-based hunting restrictions. The presumption was that everyone could hunt. Whatever restrictions might be imposed would apply to everyone equally.

An example of a neutral law was the Plymouth Colony’s statute against firing a gun after sunset. This was because when there was an emergency (e.g., an Indian attack), guns would be fired to raise the alarm. (That was how Paul Revere’s news that “The British are coming” was broadcast beyond the sound of his voice, on the night of April 18, 1775.) So Plymouth said that target practice, hunting and so on should be conducted in daylight and not when they might create a false alarm. An exception to the sundown law allowed shooting a wolf.

[...]

The Anglo-Americans faced a dilemma in their Indian trade. On the one hand, firearms sales were often a sine qua non for trade relations with any tribe of unconquered friendly Indians. On the other hand, the colonists were desperate to keep firearms out of the hands of hostile Indians. The colonists enacted many laws to attempt to control the Indian arms trade, but they were exercises in futility. To the limited extent that the laws deterred Anglo-Americans from selling arms to the Indians, Indians could acquire arms from trade networks linked to New Netherland (Delaware to Albany) or New France (Canada down to New Orleans, via the Mississippi River). Indian wars continued until the late 19th century, and nobody’s policies, including those of the U.S. government, managed to prevent Indians from acquiring arms. (See David J. Silverman’s Thundersticks: Firearms and Violent Transformation of Native America.)

Especially in frontier regions, many colonists lived in a state of constant peril from Indian raids. Even when there were formal treaty relations with the most proximate Indians, the Indians might change their minds and launch a surprise attack. For example, Virginia was nearly wiped out by the Powhatan in the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, which began in 1622.

To defend families and communities, the colonists were on their own. The general 17th century model of Spanish and French colonialism centered on trade outposts run by the central government in Europe and protected by that government’s standing army and navy. The English approach, though, was usually to grant a charter to a joint stock company or to a proprietor, to create some basic rules for colonial governance and relations with the mother country, and mostly to leave the colonists to fend for themselves. The English policy reduced the central government’s burden of expense for the colonies and forced the colonists to provide for their own defense.

Accordingly, most colonies enacted strict laws to instill and foster a firearms culture. This required changing the habits of some of the immigrants from Europe, most of whom came from places with much weaker arms cultures.

Of course the colonial laws included mandatory participation in the militia by able-bodied males and mandatory personal arms ownership for such participation. That part of the story is well-known. But the colonial laws went further.

Many laws required firearms ownership by any head of a household, even if the head were not militia-eligible (e.g., the head of the household was a woman or an old man.) Heads of households had to ensure that there was at least one firearm for every male in the household age 16 or over. This included free servants and indentured servants. Some colonies required that when a male indentured servant completed his term of service, his “freedom dues” (goods given by the master, so that the former servant could live independently) had to include a firearm.

To encourage settlement, the Carolina colony (today, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia) induced immigration by offering immigrants freehold land ownership, along with strong guarantees of religious liberty. To receive the land grant, an immigrant had to bring six months worth of provisions to take care of his family while his farm was being cleared and cultivated. Also required: ‘‘provided always, that every man be armed with a good musket full bore, 10 pounds powder and 20 pounds of bullet.’’ (See “A Brief Description of the Province of Carolina” (London 1666), a pamphlet by proprietors encouraging immigration, reprinted in “9 English Historical Documents: American Colonial Documents to 1776,” David C. Douglas gen. ed., Merrill Jensen ed., 1955).

The Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered parents to arrange for arms training for all their children aged 10 or above, both boys and girls. Conscientious objectors were exempt.

Arms carrying was often mandatory for travel outside of towns and for attendance at large public events, particularly church services. Then, as now, unarmed church services were favorite targets for attack, because there would be lots of people gathered in a small space.

So one effect of the Anglo-Indian encounter was to foster a culture of widespread household gun ownership and widespread arms carrying. This was very different from conditions back in England, where the government was certainly not ordering people to always carry guns to the weekly (and mandatory) Church of England services.

It starts much, much too early for me

December 9th, 2017

Studies have shown the benefits of later school starts, but what about really late school starts?

Here we report on the implementation and impact of a 10 a.m. school start time for 13-16-year-old students. A four-year observational study using a before-after-before (A-B-A) design was carried out in an English state-funded high school. School start times were changed from 8:50 a.m. in study year 0, to 10 a.m. in years 1-2, and then back to 8:50 a.m. in year 3. Measures of student health (absence due to illness) and academic performance (national examination results) were used for all students. Implementing a 10 a.m. start saw a decrease in student illness after two years of over 50% (p< .0005 and effect size: Cohen’s d = 1.07), and reverting to an 8:50 a.m. start reversed this improvement, leading to an increase of 30% in student illness (p<.0005 and Cohen’s d = 0.47). The 10:00 a.m. start was associated with a 12% increase in the value-added number of students making good academic progress (in standard national examinations) that was significant (<.0005) and equivalent to 20% of the national benchmark.

My teenage self would be nodding in agreement — as would Brian Setzer:

Hey, man, I don’t feel like goin’ to school no more / Me neither. They can’t make you go. No you daddyo yeah! / I ain’t goin’ to school it starts too early for me / Well listen man I ain’t goin’ to school no more it starts much, much too early for me / I don’t care about readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic or history

The class clown is onto something

December 8th, 2017

Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education comes out soon, and he managed to get The Atlantic to publish a summary — which is sure to ruffle some feathers:

How, you may ask, can anyone call higher education wasteful in an age when its financial payoff is greater than ever? The earnings premium for college graduates has rocketed to 73 percent — that is, those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 73 percent more than those who have only a high-school diploma, up from about 50 percent in the late 1970s. The key issue, however, isn’t whether college pays, but why. The simple, popular answer is that schools teach students useful job skills. But this dodges puzzling questions.

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

[...]

Suppose your law firm wants a summer associate. A law student with a doctorate in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom. If you’re looking for that kind of worker — and what employer isn’t? — you’ll make an offer, knowing full well that nothing the philosopher learned at Stanford will be relevant to this job.

The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them. This is not a fringe idea. Michael Spence, Kenneth Arrow, and Joseph Stiglitz — all Nobel laureates in economics — made seminal contributions to the theory of educational signaling. Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory. But signaling plays almost no role in public discourse or policy making. As a society, we continue to push ever larger numbers of students into ever higher levels of education. The main effect is not better jobs or greater skill levels, but a credentialist arms race.

Lest I be misinterpreted, I emphatically affirm that education confers some marketable skills, namely literacy and numeracy. Nonetheless, I believe that signaling accounts for at least half of college’s financial reward, and probably more.

Definitely read the whole thing. You might learn — and even retain — something.

Evolving towards ever-more-optimal and ever-more-efficient institutions for the good of all

December 8th, 2017

Scott Alexander sees the idea of cultural evolution idea as a bit too optimistic:

Like, there’s a perspective where lots of countries have a King, because societies that have a single central nexus to their coordination structure are able to coordinate better than ones that don’t, and having them rule for life promotes long-term thinking, and them be hereditary provides a clear Schelling Point for secession disputes that prevents civil war and cleverly ensures that the previous ruler is incentivized to promote the peaceful transfer of power to the next one, and this is why constitutional monarchies have slightly higher yearly GDP growth than other forms of government.

And there’s another perspective where lots of countries have a King, because some guy seized so much power that he can live in a giant palace and order people around all day instead of doing work. And if anyone tries to prevent him from doing that, he can arrange to have that person beheaded.

Legal Systems Very Different From Ours is very much part of the first perspective. It’s a story of nations and legal systems evolving towards ever-more-optimal and ever-more-efficient institutions for the good of all, and it presents strong evidence supporting that story. I can’t disagree with its evidence from within its narrative, but I still wonder how much to worry about this alternate way of looking at things.

Pearl Harbor Day snuck up on me

December 7th, 2017

Pearl Harbor Day snuck up on me. Here are some posts on the topic:

They really, really didn’t seem prepared for crime

December 7th, 2017

Something kept seeming off about all the legal systems mentioned in Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, which only clicked into place for Scott Alexander about halfway through — they really, really didn’t seem prepared for crime:

A lot of them worked on a principle like: “If there’s a crime, we’ll call together a court made of all the town elders, plus at least three different religious leaders, plus the heads of the families of everybody involved, plus a representative of the Great King, plus nine different jurists from nine different universities, and all of them will meet on the Field Of Meeting, and a great tent will be erected, and…” The whole thing sounded like it might work as long as there was like one crime a year. Any more than that and none of the society’s officials would ever have time for anything else.

As weird as it is to punish murder with a fine, the fines these societies levied for murder sounded really high: the Islamic price was a hundred camels, the Irish price was seven female slaves. The average person wouldn’t have that many slaves or camels, so people in Arabia or Ireland would band together into clan/family-based blood-money-paying-groups that acted kind of like insurance companies. If a member got convicted of a crime, everyone else would come together to help them pony up the money. I assume this helped incentivize people’s families to discourage them from committing crimes. But it has the same feeling of nobody expecting very many crimes to be committed. How much of medieval Arabia’s GDP consisted of transfers of 100 camels from murderers to victims’ families?

One little-admitted but much-worried-about justification for mass incarceration in our society is the concern that some people are just so naturally violent that, left in the outside world, they would offend again and again until they died. The societies in this book didn’t seem to worry about this. If someone killed, their family would give up the relevant number of camels, and then everyone would be on their way. As far as I can tell, the Amish have no idea what to do about any crime more dire than using a telephone. Nobody used anything at all like incarceration. 18th century England occasionally sent prisoners somewhere horrible like America, but once the colonies revolted they experimented with jails, found them too expensive, and just sort of flailed around punishment-less until they finally discovered Australia.

There’s a lot of concern about police brutality, police racism, police failure-to-actually-control crime, et cetera. A few far-leftists have flirted with the idea of abolishing police, and the only way I can make sense of this is by analogy to something like Somali or Icelandic law. These were genuine community-based non-hierarchical legal systems. And, for the place and the time, they seem to have worked really well (Somaliland, which uses traditional Somali law, is doing way better than Somalia proper, whose law system is somewhat westernized). But I also know that it’s weirdly hard to get a good picture of how modern crime rates compare to ancient ones. On the one hand are statistics like the ones saying crime has increased by an order of magnitude since 1900 or so; on the other are findings like Steven Pinker’s that violence is constantly declining. Apply the “court made of town elders plus at least three different religious leaders plus…” to Baltimore, and the Field Of Meeting is going to get pretty crowded. On the other hand, in my past work with criminals I’ve been constantly surprised by how much role their families and their communities still play in their lives, and maybe a system that left legal enforcement up to them would do better than the overstretched and underperforming police.

All legal systems need a punishment of last resort

December 6th, 2017

One of the most interesting things Scott Alexander got from Legal Systems Very Different From Ours is that all legal systems need a punishment of last resort — one that can be enforced whether or not the offender agrees with it — but these punishments practically never happen in real life:

The Gypsies and Amish will ostracize members who defy the court — but since everyone lives in fear of ostracization, in real life they’ll just pay the fine or make their public confession or whatever. The English will hang criminals at the drop of a hat — but since the threat of hanging incentivizes them to bribe prosecutors, in reality few people will need to be hanged. The Icelandic courts could declare offenders outlaws who can be killed without repercussion — but the threat encourages Icelanders to pay the wergeld, and nobody has to get outlawed. The Somalis are ready to have murderous family feuds — but the possibility of such a feud keeps people willing to go to arbitration. Even our own legal system works like this. The police can physically drag you to jail, kicking and screaming. But more likely you’re going to plea bargain, or agree to community service, or at least be cooperative and polite while the police take you away. Plea bargains — which are easier for prosecutors, easier for defendants, and easier for taxpayers — seem like a good example of cultural evolution in action; once someone thought them up, there was no way they weren’t going to take over everything despite their very serious costs.

Ordinary people blunder into highly advanced systems

December 5th, 2017

Friedman’s Legal Systems Very Different From Ours and Scott’s Seeing Like A State — “the book G.K. Chesterton would have written if he had gone into economic history instead of literature” — both discuss cultural evolution and its magical results:

In Seeing Like A State, ordinary people living their daily lives blunder into highly advanced systems for doing whatever it is they do. Primitive farmers will know every tiny detail about exactly when to plant which crops, and how to exploit microvariations in soil quality, and know ridiculous tricks like planting fish heads in the ground as fertilizer. Ordinary city-dwellers will organically build houses and stores and streets in exactly the right fractal patterns to maximize some measure of quality of life. Scott dubs this “metis”, an evolved intuitive sense of practical wisdom that often outperforms seemingly more scientific solutions.

Many of the societies Friedman profiles in Legal Systems Very Different From Ours seem to operate on metis. Most don’t know who developed their legal system; in a few of them, it is explicitly declared to have been the work of God. Most don’t really know why their legal system works — in some cases, Friedman only gives an economic analysis of why some rule might exist after admitting that previous scholarship (both modern academic, and within the society in question) has failed to come up with answers. And a lot of them are too brilliant, and need too many weird interlocking parts, to be the work of any single person.

“Cultural evolution” is the idea that cultures evolve in a way analogous to biological organisms. The definition gets kind of fuzzy — if I come up with a good idea and my culture adopts it, is that the result of “cultural evolution” or ordinary human ingenuity? `But a lot of people find the concept to have some value — and if it has any at all, Legal Systems Very Different From Ours has to include some of the best examples.

Friedman frames this in economic terms. Social “entrepreneurs” come up with some new system that solves a need, and it catches on by raising the utility of everyone involved. The mutual-protection-insurance-groups of 18th century England work this way: somebody invents them and offers the opportunity for other people to sign on, everyone who does ends up better off than the people who doesn’t, and they eventually reach fixation. Same with the criminal-prosecutor bribes; someone thinks it up, it leaves both sides better off, so everybody who hears about it does it. Viewed very optimistically, wherever there’s a problem in your culture, institutions to solve the problem will magically appear and spread until everybody does them.

Conflict is an especially fertile ground for cultural innovation. Friedman stresses how many legal systems, including advanced ones with lawyers and codes and everything, show signs of originating from feud systems, which might be the most basic form of law. They work like this: “If you offend me in some way, I will try to kill you”. A slightly more advanced version that takes account of possibly power differentials between offender and victim: “If you offend me in some way, everybody in my family will try to kill everybody in your family”. This originally sounds unpromising, but it turns out that people really don’t want their family members murdered. So we end up with an even more advanced version: “If you offend me in some way, we had better find some way to arbitrate our dispute, or else everybody in my family will try to kill everybody in your family”.

The Somali system seems to be somewhere around here: if two people have a dispute, they find a mutually agreeable judge to arbitrate; the judge will decide who’s in the wrong and what fine they need to pay to make it right. If someone refuses to go to the judge, or refuses to abide by the judge’s decision, then it’s family-member-killing time. Needless to say, Somali judges’ services remain popular. And since judges gain status by arbitrating, and since only judges who make widely-regarded-as-good decisions get invited to keep doing so, there’s economic pressure for the judges to make good decisions (which then go down as precedent and inspire future cases). It’s easy to see how something like this can turn into a perfectly respectable legal system where people totally forget that killing each other’s family members is even an option. Catch it at this last stage, and hear enough people admit they have no idea who “invented” their legal system, and it looks like it appeared by magic.

An account which is both amoral and alegal

December 4th, 2017

Scott Alexander describes David Friedman’s A Positive Account of Property Rights as maybe the single most mind-opening essay he’s ever read. I came away with much the same impression. Read the whole thing, but here’s the last bit of the introduction:

For all of these reasons, I believe it is worth attempting a positive account of rights — an account which is both amoral and alegal. In part I of this essay I present such an account — one in which rights, in particular property rights, are a consequence of strategic behavior and may exist with no moral or legal support.[3] The account is presented both as an explanation of how rights could arise in a Hobbesian anarchy and as an explanation of the nature of rights as we observe them around us. In Part II I suggest ways in which something like the present structure of rights might have developed.

One puzzling feature of rights as we observe them is the degree to which the same conclusions seem to follow from very different assumptions. Thus roughly similar structures of rights can be and are deduced by libertarian philosophers trying to show what set of natural rights is just and by economists trying to show what set of legal rules would be efficient. And the structures of rights that they deduce seem similar to those observed in human behavior and embodied in the common law. In Part III of this essay I will try to suggest at least partial explanations for this triple coincidence — the apparent similarity between what is, what is just, and what is efficient.

He will break up the fight before they kill more men than they can afford

December 3rd, 2017

Iceland, from the 10th through 13th Centuries, had a legislature (the Althing) and courts, but no executive branch:

Unlike the Rom, the Icelanders’ problem wasn’t foreign oppressors — it was that they were the Viking equivalent of those hard-core libertarians who live in compounds in Montana where the Feds can’t reach them. In this case “the Feds” were the forces of King Harald Fairhair, who had just taken over and centralized power in Norway. Some Norwegians decided they would rather live on a remote and frequently-exploding piece of rock on the edge of the world than be anyone’s subject: thus, medieval Iceland.

If an Icelander thought a crime had happened, they would go to court and plead the case themselves. If the court pronounced a guilty verdict, it would demand a penalty from the criminal. Usually this was a fine paid to the victim; even murders were punished with wergeld. If the criminal paid the fine voluntarily, all was well. If they refused — or didn’t even come to court — then the court could declare the criminal an outlaw, meaning it was legal to kill him and take his stuff. And:

One obvious objection to a system of private enforcement is that the poor (or weak) would be defenseless. The Icelandic system dealt with this problem by giving the victim a property right — the right to be reimbursed by the criminal — and making that right transferable. The victim could turn over his case to someone else, either gratis or in return for a consideration. A man who did not have sufficient resources to prosecute a case or enforce a verdict could sell it to another who did and who expected to make a profit in both money and reputation by winning the case and collecting the fine. This meant that an attack on even the poorest victim could lead to eventual punishment.

A second objection is that the rich (or powerful) could commit crimes with impunity, since nobody would be able to enforce judgment against them. Where power is sufficiently concentrated this might be true; this was one of the problems which led to the eventual breakdown of the Icelandic legal system in the thirteenth century. But so long as power was reasonably dispersed, as it seems to have been for the first two centuries after the system was established, this was a less serious problem. A man who refused to pay his fines was outlawed and would probably not be supported by as many of his friends as the plaintiff seeking to enforce judgment, since in case of violent conflict his defenders would find themselves legally in the wrong. If the lawbreaker defended himself by force, every injury inflicted on the partisans of the other side would result in another suit, and every refusal to pay another fine would pull more people into the coalition against him.

There is a scene in Njal’s Saga that provides striking evidence of the stability of this system. Conflict between two groups has become so intense that open fighting threatens to break out in the middle of the court. A leader of one faction asks a benevolent neutral what he will do for them in case of a fight. He replies that if they are losing he will help them, and if they are winning he will break up the fight before they kill more men than they can afford! Even when the system seems so near to breaking down, it is still assumed that every enemy killed must eventually be paid for. The reason is obvious enough; each man killed will have friends and relations who are still neutral — and will remain neutral if and only if the killing is made up for by an appropriate wergeld.

The exotic anarcho-capitalist part comes in later

December 2nd, 2017

Eighteenth-Century England had a government, a court system, and some minimal law enforcement, but the system seems ludicrously backward at first glance:

There were no public prosecutors; anyone who felt like it could bring a criminal to court and start prosecuting him, but if nobody felt like it then the crime remained unpunished. Prosecuting took a lot of time and money and was generally a thankless task. And the government didn’t want to go to the expense of imprisoning people, so they usually just hanged convicted offenders (if the crime seemed really bad) or pardoned them (if it didn’t seem to merit hanging). The exotic anarcho-capitalist part comes in as English civil society creates its own structures to work around these limitations.

Merchants, landowners, and other people with wealth banded together in mutual-protection-insurance-groups. Everyone in the group would pay a fixed amount yearly, and if one of them got robbed the group would use the money to hire a prosecutor to try the criminal. Group members would publish their names in the newspaper to help inform thieves whom it was a bad idea to rob. But this wasn’t about leaving poor people out to dry. The groups would also help indigents who couldn’t afford their own prosecutors, partly out of a desire to crack down on crime before it reached the point where it could inconvenience them. They wouldn’t help people who could have afforded insurance but declined anyway, though — otherwise there would be no incentive to buy in.

What about the lack of good punishments? Once a trial was underway, prosecutors would usually cut a deal: the offender would bribe the prosecutor with a certain amount, and the prosecutor would drop the case. The size of the bribe would vary based on how much the offender could pay, the extent of their crime, and the facts of the case (and therefore the likelihood of the magistrate choosing hanging vs. pardon). This not only helped tailor the punishment more precisely to the crime, but helped defer the cost of prosecution: victims (or their mutual-protection-insurance-groups) were incentivized to press charges because they could recoup their costs through the bribes paid to drop them:

What both modern and contemporary commentators seem to have missed is that, however corrupt such arrangements might be from a legal standpoint, they helped solve the fundamental problem of private prosecution. The possibility of compounding provided an incentive to prosecute — it converted the system into something more like a civil system, where a victim sues in the hope of collecting money damages. And while compounding might save the criminal from the noose, he did not get off scott free. He ended up paying, to the prosecutor, what was in effect a fine.

Peter Robinson interviews VDH about The Second World Wars

December 1st, 2017

Peter Robinson of Uncommon Knowledge interviews Victor Davis Hanson about his new book, The Second World Wars:

Hanson gave a longer, more in-depth talk at the Hoover Institute: