Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for September, 2012|Monthly archive page

Getting it wrong on libertarianism

In Libertarianism, Rothbard on September 17, 2012 at 5:49 PM

Max Dunbar is a friend of mine and I enjoy reading his articles. Given my interest in libertarianism, I was particularly interested to read his article that was alerted to me via his Facebook status: “the trouble with libertarians: notes on the sex myth.” The post is actually a review of Dr. Brooke Magnanti’s recently published book, The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told is Wrong. I have not read this book and thus cannot comment upon it; what I do wish to comment upon is a  section in Max’s review where he makes an observation about libertarianism:

I give you Vincent Tabak. He murdered Joanna Yeates by strangulation in 2010, and a search of his computer revealed an internet history full of hardcore, violent pornography that depicted women being bound and choked. Nothing to see here, says Belle. ‘The judge made the right call, and Tabak was convicted of murder on a case that was strong enough on its own.’ She is right that the evil came before the influence, and that attributing the murder entirely to the effect of hardcore porn takes away the responsibility that Tabak should carry forever himself. But can we really say that Tabak’s obsessive interest in sadomasochistic imagery had no influence whatsoever on his crime?

The libertarian fallacy is to assume such a thing as the pure individual. [Emphasis added]

I asked Max what he meant by the sentence that I have emphasised above. He explained to me that it was “the idea that we can remain totally immune from external influence.”

Where Max is wrong is that libertarians qua libertarians do not have a position as to whether individuals can remain free from external influence. They are not specialists in being able to determine whether or not sadomasochistic imagery does or does not influence violent and/or sexual crimes. The libertarian view is simply that one should not initiate the use of non-consensual force. She would allow hardcore, violent pornography providing it was made with the consent of the actors. This is because  the rights of actors have not been violated.

Ridiculing liberals, libertarian thinker Murray Rothbard explained in 1973:

[W]hile liberals are in favor of any sexual activity engaged in by two consenting adults, when these consenting adults engage in trade or exchange, the liberals step in to harass, cripple, restrict, or prohibit that trade. And yet both the consenting sexual activity and the trade are similar expressions of liberty in action. Both should be favored by any consistent libertarian. But the government, especially a liberal government, habitually steps in to regulate and restrict such trade.

The effect of allowing pornography or prostitution is not something  with which classical libertarian theory concerns itself.  The libertarian is just concerned that everyone involved was doing so of their own free will as opposed to under coercion. Even if it is true that hardcore violent pornography does influence violent and sexual crimes, the libertarian would not seek to prohibit it. Likewise, the libertarian would not ban alcohol or narcotics because some people who drink alcohol or use drugs become violent. The libertarian qua libertarian is concerned with the rights of the individual, she does not concern herself with determining whether violent pornography leads to violence.

The Iranian Nuclear Programme

In Book Review, Iran on September 13, 2012 at 9:29 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place  on September 13, 2012 at  10:17 pm

Book Review:

David Patrikarakos, Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, (I.B. Tauris, 2012) 368pp. £25.00. (£17.50 via Amazon)

The problem with the debate about Iran’s nuclear programme is that it is largely ideological, and, what is worse, Manichean: either bomb Iran, or, do anything but bomb Iran. The facts about of the Iranian nuclear programme are only relevant to the extent that they back up the case for either side.

The hawks cite Senator John McCain’s mantra from his 2007 Presidential election campaign: “there is only one thing worse than a military solution, and that… is a nuclear armed Iran.” This formulation has also been used by Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary, in articles that appeared in that magazine in June 2007 (“The Case for Bombing Iran”) and February 2008 (“Stopping Iran: Why the Case for Military Action Still Stands.”) But the hawks have not been helped, as Patrikarakos notes, by repeatedly crying wolf on timescale. He cites a January 1995 estimate where, according to US and Israeli sources, Iran could have a nuclear weapon in “more or less five years.” (p.156). In his February 2008 article, Podhoretz cited an official Israeli estimate where 2009 was “the point of no return.” There was no bomb “more or less five years” after 1995 and 2009 came and went without a nuclear-armed Iran.

But it is not just the hawks with problems; the naysayers have a problem too: they can’t get round the fact that the President of Iran said Israel should be “wiped off the map.” (Patrikarakos translation, p239.) The best that they can do is suggest the 2005 quotation was a translation error and what he had really said was “This occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the arena of time.” How this alternative translation really changes things for the population of Israel is a mystery to me. In any event, with Iranian state sponsored demonstrations where the Israeli flag is burned, and banners read “Death to Israel” combined with President Ahmadinejad appearing on national television to refer to Israel as “cancerous tumour,” the quibble about the exact translations should be irrelevant: the position of the Iranian regime is clear. There is also a further problem: if Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia will want one too and there could be substantial nuclear proliferation in a volatile region of the world.

Standing away from the polemicists and providing a magisterial study with a meticulous attention to detail is David Patrikarakos with his new book, Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State: the culmination of six years of his research in which he travelled across several continents to speak to key players in Iran, the USA, Europe, the Arab world and Israel, and to make copious use of primary archival sources. The fruits of this research enabled Patrikarakos to piece together a complete history of the Iranian nuclear programme since its beginnings in the 1950s right up until the present day. The information is presented in an eminently readable fashion for non-specialists, but would no doubt be of interest to specialists, too.

Patrikarakos largely accepts the McCain formulation: “if the spectre of a possible attack on Iran is deeply troubling, the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran is worse,” he writes.  As far as he is concerned, a nuclear armed Iran “is a deeply undesirable outcome – one that must be avoided at all costs.” But he understands the nuances behind Iran’s nuclear programme, stressing that it is the country’s “attempt to deal with modernity.” (pp.xix-xx).

Much of the book deals with the history of the nuclear programme, and Patrikarakos examines Iran’s negative experiences with the modern world, citing the 1941 invasion of Iran by Britain and Russia, which was “only the latest” incursion into Iran by foreign powers and was “deeply shameful” to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran. For the Shah, as Patrikarakos explains, nuclear power, and perhaps a bomb, was not just about security, but prestige: “If Iran was strong it would also be proud.” (p68). The nuclear programme was Iran’s, or The Empire of Iran’s – to use the country’s official name – equivalent of sending a “man to the moon.” (p.87) And it all perfectly suited a man whose ambition, according to the CIA, was “to make Iran a power to be reckoned with.” (p73).

After the Iranian revolution, Khomeini initially rejected the nuclear programme, denouncing it in 1980 as “harmful for the country from the economic, political and technical points of view” and “a cause of greater dependence on imperialist countries.”  (pp.98-99). But this policy was reversed and in 1982 work on the nuclear reactors at the Bushehr power plant recommenced. (p104).  All the twists and turns in Iran’s nuclear development combined with the reaction from the international community in the period right up to mid 2012 are laid out in a comprehensive fashion in this handy volume.

In his conclusion, Patrikarakos notes that “Iran has lied to the IAEA for over two decades” (p283) but adds that “there remains no ‘smoking gun’ for a weapons programme.”  (p283). He dismisses any claim that Iran’s nuclear activities are purely for civilian purposes (p286). But at the same time, he states that it cannot be known whether Iran has actually decided to build a bomb. His own view is that Iran wishes to achieve a nuclear weapons capability. He explains: “by which the state has surmounted all the technological obstacles to a bomb without actually proceeding to the final stages of weaponization (which could be achieved quickly if the need arose.)” (P287).

If all one wants is a polemical argument for or against bombing Iran, there is no need to read this book, one can read, for example, one of the articles published this year in Foreign Affairs on both sides of this continuing debate. However, if someone has genuine interest in the topical subject of Iran and its nuclear programme, and desires an even-handed analysis, this book is a must read.

Infinity and Beyond

In Mathematics on September 3, 2012 at 2:17 PM

I noticed a cute story on the BBC website where a four year old wanted to know the number before infinity. Johnny Ball, a television presenter who specialises in explaining mathematical ideas to children, does his best to explain it. But the question reminds me of Hilbert’s paradox of the Grand Hotel:

Imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, and all the rooms are occupied. To this hotel…comes a new guest and asks for a room. “But of course!” – explains the proprietor, and he moves the person previously occupying room N1 into room N2, the person from room N2 into room N3, the person from room N3 into N4, and so on…. And the next customer receives room N1, which becomes free as the result of these transpositions.

Source: Patrick Hughes and George Brecht, Vicious Circles and Infinity: An Anthology of Paradoxes, (Penguin Books, 1978) p.29.


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