All posts by Rand Simberg

Libertarian Wars

I’ve been reluctant to get into the silly food fight between Jonah Goldberg and the various flavors of libertarians, because I have little confidence that I can make a useful contribution.

But, what the hey–if I let that stop me, I’d probably never post anything.

It seems to me that everyone is arguing past one another, and that Jonah in particular is kicking the stuffing out of strawmen. Jonah seems to think that being libertarian means never having to say, “I judge.” He also thinks that all libertarians are supposed to be of like mind, and that they claim to have a simple philosophy, and then feigns shock to discover that they come in various flavors, some of which he finds less distasteful than others, but all of which put the lie to the (straw) notion–(his)–that libertarianism is a single, coherent ideology. Also, like many conservatives, who confuse libertarians with libertines, he suspects that the libertarian position is not a valid intellectual one, but rather, that all of this talk about freedom and liberty is just a thinly-veiled cover for people who like sex, drugs, and rock and/or roll.

As to the first point, few libertarians are non-judgmental. They can be, and often are, quite intolerant, perhaps even more so than Jonah Goldberg. The point that Jonah seems to miss is that libertarianism isn’t about making judgments per se, it’s about whether or not such moralizing should become encoded into actual law. I can think that lots of things are morally wrong without necessarily thinking that they should therefore be illegal. At the risk of making the mistake of attempting to speak for most libertarians, I suspect that what most people who call themselves libertarian object to is the notion that, if someone finds something objectionable, that “there oughtta be a law” (though to be consistent, they don’t think that there should actually be a law against people saying that).

With regard to the second point, it just shows how silly and useless labels are (even though Jonah seems to think that anyone who objects to labels is a “leftie”). Is conservatism really that much more coherent than libertarianism? Most people would (correctly or not) call both Pat Buchanan and William Buckley a conservative. Yet I think that one could find them farther apart on many individual issues than most libertarians. Any single issue of National Review itself will reveal a broad spectrum of thinking–on drug legalization, on foreign engagement, etc., yet it is considered a “conservative” magazine. I think that Jonah is kicking an empty pillow here.

And finally, it is just as insulting to accuse a libertarian (or conservative, for that matter) who wants to end the War on (Some) Drugs of being a drug user as it is to accuse someone who is opposed to affirmative action of being a racist. In both cases, the accuser refuses to recognize the possibility that someone might take a position on principle–he thinks that they can only be doing it out of some amoral need to indulge themselves.

‘Nuff said.

Come Fly With Me

I’m back from St. Thomas, and as I said, also back in California, as promised. For those who are jealous, the weather was lousy. This would have been readily apparent to anyone who looked at a map of the central Atlantic on, or Weather Underground at–there was a mass of cumulus there that just wouldn’t quit, and it brought tidings not of comfort and joy, but rather of clouds and rain for the Leeward Islands and the Greater Antilles including, particularly the Virgins.

We went diving on Saturday, and it was the darkest dive that I’ve ever done in the daytime. The visibility sucked, and if I hadn’t carried a dive light, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish a fan coral from a fin. I did, however, on the second and worst dive, see a southern sting ray, and the most beautiful spotted eagle ray that I’ve ever seen (not to imply that I’m a connoisseur). We also spent some time driving around the island (on the left side of the road with left-hand drive, of course, which is de rigeur on the less-than-safety-conscious Virgin Islands, both US and British). This was nice, because my only previous experience with St. Thomas was a brief taxi ride from the airport to the ferry at Red Hook bound for St. John.

But as I said in my previous post about our diving excursion and lobster-shopping trip to Parguera, my purpose is not (just) to invoke envy. Particularly in light of all my well-justified kvetching about flying post 911, I want to praise an airline that’s doing it right (and hope they won’t get in trouble with the annoyance enforcers for it).

We flew on a start-up airline called Seaborne, and for me it was a return to the golden days of aviation, when flying was exotic and romantic. And fun.

They use seaplanes. I didn’t catch the make or model, but it was a high-wing (as all seaplanes generally are, to keep spray out of the engines) twin turboprop that could carry about twenty people. They accordingly don’t operate out of Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, as most airlines do, but off a dock that they’ve set up in San Juan Harbor, down by the cruise terminals in Old San Juan.

We drove in and parked. No fee, and twenty-four hora (as they would say down there) security. We lugged our baggage up a few stairs and stepped into a trailer. We put our bags on a scale. The baggage situation is eminently rational–first thirty pounds is free, fifty cents a pound for everything over. We were allowed to combine our weight for a total of sixty pounds free for the two of us. We were overweight, because we were carrying dive equipment for the weekend, but that was cool–only an extra fourteen bucks.

No metal detector. No long check in. No wandings or strip searches, random or otherwise. All our baggage was checked, but we could watch them put it on the plane. We walked outside and down a small flight of stairs on to a floating dock, and got into the plane. We sat in our seats (a couple rows behind the cockpit–I like to watch instruments). Because it was an unpressurized cabin, the windows were huge (for an airplane)–like sitting in the family minivan. We pulled away from the dock, and bobbed across the choppy harbor like a drunken duck. We hoped that the vehicle would be a better plane than it was a boat.

After getting far enough upwind, the throttles were opened, we quickly hydroplaned the pontoons mostly out of the water, and picked up speed. Once the water released us, the plane jumped up quickly, and made a turn over one of the forts that in bloodier times had defended the old city. Another turn, and we were heading east along the northern Puerto Rican coast.

We followed the coast, not exceeding four hundred feet altitude, so we got a good view of the beach and reefs, and island to our left. As it fell away behind us at Fajardo, on the northeast coast, we approached the island of Culebra. The plane climbed to go over it (some of the peaks exceed four hundred feet) but we never exceeded eleven hundred. We were skimming along just below the level of the heavy and rain-filled clouds. A few minutes later, we passed over the airport in St. Thomas, and performed a rapid but smooth descent into the harbor at Charlotte Amalie, the island’s capital. Just as it seemed we were going to plunge into the water, the pilot pulled back on the yoke, the plane flared and we set down in the harbor.

Same thing on the return trip. Minimal security, just check all the baggage and pay for the overage. The flight back was similar, but nicer, as the weather was much improved, and the visibility much better. We flew back along the north coast of Puerto Rico again, passed by the airport, the hotels and casinos in Isle Verde and Condado, and along the ancient walls of the forts defending the old city, at just a few hundred feet altitude all the way. We made a graceful left turn around the old Spanish fort of El Morro, providing a bird’s-eye view of Old San Juan, and settled gently back down in San Juan Harbor.

The ticket price for the round trip was a hundred and fifteen bucks (not including extra luggage weight). A steal. People pay that much for sightseeing airplane rides. Unfortunately, it’s an introductory rate, so I don’t know how much it will go up, but the airplane was less than half full both ways, so I fear for their economic survival.

Anyway, the point of this post is that even in the environment of the post-911 security insanity, it is still possible to make flying a pleasant experience, and not just something to dread as a necessary evil to get from one place to another, at least under limited circumstances. We should encourage such efforts by giving them our custom, so that both they, and perhaps competitors who will outdo them, will succeed. (Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in this company.) So if anyone who reads this happens to be in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, and wants to see another island, please check them out, and help take us back to the days of yore when flying really was fun.

Back Stateside

I’m back in California, for two or three days, prior to heading off to Missouri and Michigan for a week or so. Still recombobulating, but I’ll get some readable posts up a little later today. Trip back from San Juan was uneventful, except for a random wanding in Dallas. I retained the presence of mind not to tell them what I thought of the procedures. It wouldn’t have done any good anyway–they’re just doing their (stupid) job.

The War Of Caribbean Aggression

My email box is scorching over my inadvertent libel of bourbon and Kentucky. Several gentlemen (and at least one bellicose pistol-packin’ momma) have drawled into their keyboards, “Ah demand satisfaction, suh…”

Well, not that I would hesitate to die on the field of honor, but I fear that, being so well loved down here, it might set off another international incident that could result in a renewal of the tensions of the Recent Unpleasantness, except this time between Caribbean rum partisans and regional bourbon connoisseurs, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that!

So, I think I’ll go off to St. Thomas for the weekend until the passions of my beloved brethren from just below the Mason-Dixon line (instead of waaaaaaay below, like me) have had time to temper and cool.

This is a slightly-hyperbolic and apocryphal way of saying that my posts will be sparse or non-existent for the next three days, after which I’ll be back in California, whereupon I can once again become a partisan for wine…

More Missile Defense Defense

Tony Andragna comments:

Unless you can convince me that an anti-missile defense system would be 100% effective in operation, then I’m not comfortable with it’s utility – even one missile getting through would result in deaths to numerous to write-off as an “acceptable failure rate”.

Even accepting your premise that we can’t make a leak-proof defense (we can, at least against anyone except Russia, and eventually, we can defend against them as well–it’s just a matter of building enough redundancy into the system), would you prefer that all missiles get through, instead of only one? That’s the consequence of having no defense, which is where we’re at right now.

I think that you’re assuming that if we don’t build a defense, they (any they) won’t build missiles. What is the basis for that assumption? In fact, building a missile defense reduces the utility of building missiles, since it minimizes or zeros their value.

There are obviously a lot of implicit assumptions in this statement, but debate over these issues has been going on for literally decades, and there is a vast literature available on it, including extensive game theory analysis. You (and many readers) may not be familiar with it, but it’s been argued into the ground, though there remains no consensus.

My experience is that ultimately (and I’m not accusing you of this), the most die-hard opponents oppose it not because it won’t work, but because it will, and the arguments are just rationalizations for their positions. They are uncomfortable with the United States being “too powerful.” Madeleine Albright herself fell into this camp, of guilt over being the only remaining superpower.

Live Or Memorex?

People have been saying that the Osama home video couldn’t have been done by Hollywood, because the quality is too poor. But that just proves how clever those Zionist film producers are–they knew that if they did it too well, that many would suspect that it was a forgery, so they deliberately did it badly…

By the way, I thought that that I’d seen the ultimate in pathetic koolaid drinkers during the OJ trial and Clinton impeachment, but these people they have to dredge up to defend Moussaoui et al raise the pathos to new heights. They just had a woman on Fox News being grilled by Linda Vester. “Anyone can take flying lessons–is that a crime?” “I have seen no proof that he was being sent money.” etc.

Splitting The Difference

Reader Andy Freeman opines via email:

The phrase “northern CA” is geographically unfortunate. The real dividing line in CA runs north/south, between the coast and the rest. (SF is really just LA with hills and the smugness born

of inferiority and backwards-looking.)

Hmmmm… I suspect you’re in for a lot of angry hate email from the Bay-Area types. Lucky I didn’t provide your address…

Sacramento’s problem is that it is a capital of a state that includes LA, SF, SJ.

True, but that’s true of any state with both rural and big-city areas. You could say that Albany’s problem is that it is a capital of a state that includes NYC, or Lansing’s problem is that it is the capital of a state that includes Detroit. My point was just that–that people’s lives in the hinterlands are run by bureaucrats and legislators elected by the cities. My problem with doing an east-west split is that I like the northern coast (above Bodega Bay). Actually what would make the most sense to me is a southern coastal California (dominated by San Diego-LA metroplex), a Central Coastal California (managed by the Bay Area), an inland California (consisting of the deserts and the Sierra) and a true northern California. Then you’d have two city states, and two rural states.

Convenient Technology Limits

At some point, I was going to get around to commenting on Tony Andragna’s unjustified skepticism over our technical ability to defend ourselves against missiles, but Will Vehrs beat me to it in the same archive.

Many look at the test failures (and ignore the successes) so far and conclude that it’s Just Too Hard.

That’s extremely myopic. If we’d had the same attitude early in the missile program in the late fifties, we would have neither missiles nor a space program–launch failures were a regular and discouraging occurrence (remember post-Sputnik panic from the book, “The Right Stuff”? “Our rockets always blow up”).

Most technical arguments against missile defense (by people like Dick Garwin, Kosta Tsipis, et al) are of the form:

Here is how I think a missile defense would work (i.e., set up strawman).

Here are all the problems with this scenario, and what I believe to be trivial countermeasures.

I’m really smart, and if I can’t think up ways around these problems, neither can anyone else (thereby knocking the straw out of the man).

While there have been some sincere, and even good arguments against missile defense, most are of the disingenuous variety described above. Will’s right–if we can land a man on the moon, we can (eventually) defend ourselves against missiles. We can quickly come up with a defense against North Korean missiles. It would take a little longer to come up with a defense against Chinese, or even Russian missiles, but we can do it if we need to. The Soviets knew this, which is one of the primary reasons that they threw in the towel. Ultimately, defense is favored in economic terms for two reasons. The first is that for any intelligently-designed system, the kill vehicle is cheaper than the offensive warhead, on the margin. The second is that, even if this is not the case, and the marginal costs of defense are greater than the marginal costs of offense, we’re a lot richer than our adversaries, and will remain so for some time, so we can afford to outspend them–it’s still cheaper for us in terms of percentage GDP. Again, the Soviets recognized this.

It should also be noted (as Don Rumsfeld did the other day) that while there are game-theoretical arguments to be made for both cases (that defense will encourage an offensive arms race, and that defense will suppress one), the empirical evidence is in. For the thirty years that we had the ABM treaty, missile inventories were growing like mushrooms after a spring rain, unchecked by ABM treaties or (on the Soviet side) even by arms-control treaties. But in the past few years, and particularly in the past year, despite, or more likely because of, all the talk about scrapping the ABM treaty, we are reducing inventories.

But whether or not it will defend against a Russian onslaught is not a relevant issue to current decisions. Regardless of one’s view of its morality (mine is dim), an argument can be made that MAD is stable in a bi-polar world. Such an argument falls apart in a multi-polar world, and it just becomes a matter of time until some dictator with bin-Laden ethics and intelligence (re: intelligence–that’s not a compliment) flunks Game Theory 101 and decides to lob something at us. In such an event, just as with the gun-control debate in general, as an engineer, I’ll trust hardware over paper every time.

And Will, the actual expression, post Apollo, among space policy enthusiasts is “If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we put a man on the Moon?” Realistically, right now it would take us longer to put a man on the Moon than it did in 1960 (at least as a government effort). It’s not because we don’t have the technology…

Osama’s Friends The Afghans

More Afghan unhappiness over being colonized by Arabs is expressed in this article from the Boston Globe.

When Kandaharis first got used to seeing Arabs in their city several years ago, he said, ”we thought they were just mujahideen [anti-Soviet holy warriors], innocent people. Then when we heard our new government was called `The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,’ we knew it had become the country of Osama bin Laden.”

Shah Wali, a 21-year-old neighbor who memorizes the Koran at a religious seminary, shook his head when he was shown a paper calling for war by all Muslims against all non-Muslims. ”Even if they say this is a jihad [holy war], why didn’t they do it in their country, Saudi Arabia,” he asked, ”instead of ruining ours?”

I don’t recall an explanation of this in Osama’s video. I also didn’t hear him asking “Why do they hate us?”

The article also discusses a lot of evidence discovered of generalized plans for terrorist activities over here, along with an inventory of US naval assets and locations.