Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Bibo Ergo Sum

Time to consider the beverages that we drink. I'll concentrate on the fundamentals: water, milk, beer, coffee, and tea. Another time maybe I'll post about the disorienting feeling of seeing Coca Cola in a place like India.

So the problem with water is that I want to get rid of the impurities like lead and mercury, but I'm not sure about cutting out fluoride. Reverse osmosis systems take it all out, so I wonder if that's the right thing to get if you have young kids. My Brita pitcher doesn't remove fluoride, but it's inconvenient relative to a reverse osmosis system.

Milk is great, especially skim milk. Still, there's something special about the milk I had in India. It's not goat's milk, it's just cow's milk that comes in plastic bags and you have to boil it yourself to make sure it's safe. A layer of solid stuff forms on the top, and you skim it off, but if little bits of it get into the cereal it's actually kind of good, creamy and flavorful. Also, since it's warm after being boiled, you get used to warm milk and cereal. It's nice once you're used to it.

I've already posted about beer, I'll just mention that it's healthy, and that Budweiser is preferable to Miller for health reasons.

Coffee is something I can't have very often for caffeine-addiction related reasons. The great thing about coffee is that when you drink it you can almost taste our colonial heritage. Especially if you're in a place like New Orleans, it tastes like the fruit of a morally dubious but historically epic movement.

Tea is colonial, too, but it has a much different feeling for me, a little less romantic (which is perhaps unwarranted given its history). The best tea I've had is Darjeeling tea with milk and sugar. Some people say you can't put milk in, and other say no sugar, but I say do what makes you happy. Don't scald the tea; Darjeeling is delicate and sweet, not robust.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Life Update 5: Dream Engineering

So the other night I fell asleep while lying on my arm. I had a dream that a big dog was biting my hand, and when I woke up I realized it was just the feeling of pressure from lying on it. The thing is, the dog was really cute, and he wasn't hurting me - it was more of a playful bite. Clearly what I need to do is think of ways to make good dreams more likely, such as lying on my hand. One possibility is to lie with my feet at the head of the bed and my head at the foot. The disorientation might allow me to dream I'm not James McDonnell.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Liberty and the ADA

Libertarians frustrate me sometimes. Partly, it's because I can almost agree with them until they start talking about how national parks are Stalinist and evil. Partly, it's the ridiculous factual claims they make. Mostly, though, it's their rigid and arbitrary conception of freedom.

Take the Americans with Disabilities Act. I don't know much about it, but I know that companies have to make reasonable accomodations for disabled employees, and many new buildings have to be accessible. To a libertarian, this is an unconscionable intrusion on liberty. What this misses is that the loss of liberty on one hand must be weighed against the gain of liberty on the other. Businesses aren't free to build certain kinds of buildings, but disabled people are more free to participate in business, education, entertainment, and other things that the rest of us take for granted.

I don't know enough about the ADA to know whether it strikes a good balance between costs and benefits. I don't know whether the market would have been adequate (but I suspect not). My point is that you can't rule out programs like the ADA unless your suspicion of government runs so deep that it undermines your preference for more liberty.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Bush League Government

I closed my post "Bad Faith Bush" with what some people consider inflammatory language: [Bush] "is a man with utter contempt for the basic structure of our government." My point was that otherwise he wouldn't nominate people like Janice Rogers Brown. I can't find all the things I've read about her, but I think this speech illustrates my point fairly well. Note the ominous final passage, and think about what it means for our government.

[update: just fixed a spelling mistake]

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Life Update 4: Birthday Masala

So last night Dave, Konica, Hitesh, and Joe took me out to dinner at a great Indian place downtown. You can read the details here. It was a lovely meal, marred by the occasional profane comment from yours truly. We ordered kulfi, and then they brought extra kulfi as a birthday treat for me, so I'm kulfied out for the time being. I'm not sick of mango lassi, though (not sure I ever could be), so let me know if anyone is up for a trip to Devon.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Bad Faith Bush

Picking nominees for the bench is an important power of the president. What goes into the choice, and what does this tell us about Bush's priorities?

First, I should note that political ideology isn't everything. It's the only thing. Just kidding! Seriously, though, I imagine that the pool of willing candidates is large enough to encompass competent lawyers all along the ideological spectrum. The political question is thus the most salient. My proposition (qualified below) is that most presidents would have no reason to pick nominees who differ from their own ideology. Judicial appointments are also unusually important because they are permanent, so a president's true beliefs are on display in his nominees.

Why choose someone with your own ideology? No one really pretends any more that judicial decisions are politically neutral or irrelevant, so part of promoting the president's agenda is finding judges who will do his work for him later. Starting with this assumption, what are the forces pushing in either direction? Put another way, why would a moderate president appoint an extreme judge, or vice versa?

One is that extreme judges might be able to force compromises that moderate judges can't. Thus, even a moderate president might want extreme nominees to pull the law toward the president's ideology, though he prefers that it not actually go as far as the judge wants. This concept is similar to the work that Professor Sunstein has done on judicial ideology, though his findings weren't quite tailored to this question.

Another factor is predictability. If extreme politics make a judge more predictable, a risk-averse moderate president might nominate an extremist. Similarly, an extreme president might nominate a moderate judge if the opposite is true (lots of neoconservatives are former Marxists, I believe, and I'm sure they were equally annoying back then).

Meanwhile, while the decision is very important relative to its political effects, the public does care about appointments. Interest groups care very much, so possibly presidents can be pushed around by the politics of the moment. Of course, control of the Senate is another factor that plays into all of this.

So, what about Bush? Well, he has a friendly senate and little need to leverage appointments for political gain. If anything, he's risking his popularity to nominate extreme judges. I'm not convinced that extreme judges are more predictable. The trick with predictability is to nominate someone with a solid record; the record need not be more extreme than the president would otherwise choose. Forcing compromise within a judicial panel is a factor, but I'm not sure extremeness helps; it's at least plausible that moderates would be better at forcing compromise.

All of this leads me to believe that Bush is nominating judges who actually reflect his political viewpoint. The problem is, these judges are wildly conservative. Bush claims to be a conservative, of course, but he also claims to represent the values of a majority of Americans. He basically ran as Gore Lite in 2000. If I'm right, Bush has pushed his conservative agenda within the constraints of the political process, which has somewhat obscured his ideology. These appointments, as a window into his actual political preferences, are revealing. What they reveal is a man with utter contempt for the basic structure of our government.

You'll Pardon Me...

So, the reason I think the compromise on filibustering Bush's judicial nominees was a bad deal is that the worst ones appear to be guaranteed a vote. TAPPED has some decent posts on the subject, including the suggestion that the Senate might refuse to confirm one of the nominees. Professor Stone, meanwhile, does the math and comes up with a Democratic win. Matthew Yglesias thinks a bit about it and isn't convinced that it was a good deal for Democrats.

I'm not really convinced either. I think all nominees that get a vote will be approved. I think the Republicans will inevitably cry foul when the Democrats filibuster, and after letting these judges through, what could possibly count as an extraordinary circumstance? If the agreement included an implict promise that one of the judges won't be confirmed, then it's great, but if not, I think it's a pretty one-sided deal.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Baby Don't Hurt Me

What is love? Why do people fall in love? How can you avoid this fate?

Love is just a linked utility function. If you care about someone else's utility for its own sake, then you love that person. Love isn't an on-off thing; it's a continuum. In fact, I guess hate is just negative love: getting utility out of someone else's suffering.

Falling in love means establishing a pattern of behavior that is self-sustaining. It actually doesn't require love at all. As an example, imagine a sex act that requires two people. If the sex act has substantial positive utility for both parties, then neither has to love the other: complete self-regard will compel the two to stay together and, you know, enjoy life.

What about a sex act that requires two people, but confers disutility on one and utility on the other? Assuming the utility is greater than the disutility, and there is some compensation for the party with the disutility, the relationship can be self-sustaining even in the absence of love. The key is that each party expects to benefit over time from the relationship, despite momentary discomfort or whatever.

Now it's easy to see that love, while not strictly necessary for a relationship, helps. If you get utility from your partner's utility, then an asymmetric sex act can still be pleasurable for both parties, or at least tolerable enough that the relationship is worth it. Basically, the range of efficient relationships is broadened by love.

One quick note: for many people, the biggest cost of a relationship is probably foregoing other relationships. This is a tricky calculation because a relationship is like a book: you don't know how good it is until you've invested a lot of time in it. It's even trickier, though. Picture a mountain range. Imagine that elevation = utility. Now, each mountain is a relationship. The tallest mountain is the best relationship, but imagine that you can't really see the other mountains. You can only guess which one might be the tallest. Furthermore, when you switch to a new mountain, you don't start at the top; you have to adjust and learn about the other person before you "climb the mountain" and maximize the utility of the relationship. This implies that most switches will be quite costly, since you will be very likely to start at a lower elevation than previously, with no guarantee that the peak is higher. Sometimes it's hard even finding another mountain, but of course, that just implies low opportunity costs for staying in your relationship.

So, given all this, how can you avoid love? I think a little prevention goes a long way. It's hard to fall in love with someone you barely know. So, if you meet someone who seems as though he/she would make a good partner, avoid that person from then on. Another trick is to keep some offensive remarks in the back of your mind in case things get dicey. This won't keep you from falling in love, but it will remove the possibility of actually being with the person, thus reducing the chance of entanglement. Beyond that I don't have much advice; sadly many people fall in love every year, despite their best efforts.

You're Doing a Bang-up Job So Far

So, it appears that the Senate has reached a "compromise" on filibustering judicial nominees. The great thing about this compromise is that the Democrats get nothing and the Republicans get their worst nominees confirmed without a fight. Unless I'm missing something important, this looks like a bunch of centrist Democrats selling out their beliefs for a few minutes in the spotlight. By the way, correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure Bill Pryor isn't from Arkansas, as the Times claims.

UPDATE: I see that the Times fixed up their piece and no longer claim that Pryor is from Arkansas. The question is, how did they see my blog that quickly? I guess I'm at the top of their list.

Life Update 3: My Addictions

A quick reply to Anonymous: When I said of the NYTimes class series, "you can't miss it," I meant that it was prominently featured on their website, not that it's a must-read. I guess I'll start providing Times links, I just hate links that get broken. As for whether I like my readers - that's like asking whether I like dairy products. Sure, I like some, not others.

Now, my addictions. I am battling a catastrophic caffeine addiction. A few weeks ago I had a small mocha, and I was buzzing for hours. Since then I've had coffee quite a bit, and I swear it's like a slightly milder form of cocaine. I'm cutting back significantly in an effort to curb the intense dependency that I feel developing.

How do I know coffee is like a mild form of cocaine? I did cocaine, in a dream, a few weeks ago. It was great, but it was marred to a great extent by my constant worries over getting addicted. Also, in the dream, cocaine came from peppers, not coca leaves. Hey, I don't choose the dreams.

Meanwhile, beer. Ahhhh. What can I say? Beer makes me happy and leaves me sleepy, which is pretty much the perfect combination for a chronically sad insomniac like myself. Luckily I'm perfectly content to drink beer once a week or so, which I think is acceptable (if not positive) for health purposes. Wine is also pleasant, but a bit more intense, so I'll leave it for special occasions. Wine, by the way, is to be enjoyed, not used as a cultural cudgel. It's great from a bottle with a screwtop, or from a can, or from a box. Do whatever makes you happy: it won't be too long before nothing will.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Class Consciousness

So, the New York Times is running a series about class in America. I'd link, but as usual, I don't trust Times links (they don't last). Anyway, you can't miss it. My big objection is that the people in the articles seem very much to be responding to a reporter who won't stop asking about class. Pretty soon everything starts to seem class-related, but when you abandon rigor, you cease to be a journalist! Sorry. The real problem is that it's hard to separate the anxieties that people have about class from their other anxieties. People in the series attribute their problems and their fears to class, but a lot of the feelings they talk about seem pretty universal. The things that are really poverty-related are told mostly in a matter-of-fact way, while the emotion comes through when the subjects talk about their social anxieties. I can't help thinking that class has a much bigger impact in other areas of life.

A more interesting question, I think, is the relationship between wealth and class. One article emphasizes that middle-class children tend to get lots of parental attention, particularly when it comes to educational activities. Certainly, though, this isn't an attribute that has a whole lot to do with income. Above a certain (not so high) income, parents have time to encourage their children's curiosity and imagination, if they are so inclined. It's that inclination that makes a big class difference, not wealth per se. I would guess that a lot of school teachers are "higher class" in this sense than a lot of very wealthy people.

Another interesting point is whether class is converging because of mass entertainment. To some extent we watch the same TV shows and movies, listen to the same music, play the same video games, etc. I wonder, then, if values and aesthetics are becoming less distinctively class-based. I wonder if race is a more meaningful line than class, and if so, whether the gap is growing or shrinking. I wonder whether churches bridge class more effectively than they bridge race. I wonder how effectively education can erase class differences. I guess what I'm saying is that the Times series raises a lot more questions than it answers, which maybe is as much as we can demand.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Life Update 2: Ubuntu

So I'm running Ubuntu! It's a distribution of Linux, which is itself a derivative of Unix, which is... well, actually, that's why this is something of a milestone. I don't know much about computers. The fact that I can run Ubuntu and enjoy it is ample evidence that Linux has reached the point where it can have mass appeal.

I will say, though, that I wouldn't feel comfortable with it without the help of some friends, and my brother, who can help me if I get stuck. In this sense, Linux is a bit like India: awesome if you have a trustworthy guide.

Why Ubuntu? Well, it feels nice, and it came highly recommended. Why not Windows, though? Well, I don't approve of their business practices in general. Furthermore, they recently chickened out on gay rights. Finally, there's this. I just can't do it anymore. It's sad, too, because Rhapsody (music streaming) won't run on Linux, and they just got Pinkerton, which is the best Weezer album. All that's behind me, though; and anyway if I dig through my stuff, I can probably find my Pinkerton CD.

A Few Notes About... Plagiarism?

So I just want to point out that my recent posts derive mostly from ideas found in Professor Picker's paper. I hadn't realized just how similar my posts were, because I hadn't read the paper and had only heard about it at a talk Picker gave. You'll kind of have to trust me that I came up with my apple orchard example independently (or at least I think I did). Anyway, what struck me is that my ideas aren't original anyway. I learned about the (questionable) efficiency of property rights in several economics classes, and a bit in a political philosophy class. In fact, very very few of my ideas are original at all, and I doubt any is novel. I can't possibly give proper attribution for all my ideas, but somehow it's worse in this case... why?

I think the answer is very similar to Picker's reasoning on Sony. Basically, it would be prohibitively costly for me to provide attribution for all my ideas. In this case, though, it wouldn't have been that costly to point out more clearly that my ideas all stemmed from a talk Picker gave. In fact, I didn't present the ideas as entirely my own; the marginal cost of being absolutely clear on the matter would have been negligible.

How is this like Sony? Picker's critique of Sony is that it fails to make a rational tradeoff between costs and benefits. My critique of my own posts is the same. Anyway, it's okay as long as everyone realizes that my posts are just my way of expressing ideas you can find in Picker's paper.

A Few Notes About Beer

Beer is lovely. Unfortunately, just as snobs have taken over wine and threaten to take over coffee, tea, and countless other products, they have attacked beer as well.

Snobs aren't entirely bad. In general they bring a certain level of knowledge to their purchases, and they force producers to live up to certain standards. The problem is that snobs are much more interested in demonstrating their good taste than they are in, say, enjoying a good-tasting beverage. This is because consumption serves as a good signalling function... I could get into it more, but I've had several Rolling Rocks and don't care to think that hard. Suffice it to say that snobs learn a few rules about each product, and then apply those rules as a signal to others, not because the rules yield better-tasting beer, say.

So, Rolling Rock. It doesn't have a lot of flavor; it tastes mildly like grain and yeast and warm fuzzy happiness. Of course, it's not beer beer, but its characteristics are all pleasing.

So my recommendation is: drink lots of Rolling Rock. Or Budweiser (easily the best of the big beers; all-natural). My favorite, though, is Magic Hat #9. It's made in Vermont, and you can't get it out here. It has a mild apricot flavor, and it's just perfection. There's nothing quite like sitting around with your friends on a warm, lazy afternoon, drinking lots of beer, and bullshitting. Don't listen to the snobs; just remember that, unlike them, you might actually make love in a canoe if it suits your fancy.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Helmholz Will Have His Revenge on Seattle

So, Gus has some things to say about my previous post on Sony. Check out Professor Picker's paper for yourself here (Acrobat required). I haven't read it myself, though I plan to shortly.

Now, to deal with Gus and his mad ramblings. I'll summarize my argument briefly, mention his strongest points, and analyze them.

My point was quite simple. People often talk about technological solutions to IP infringement as if they make law obsolete. What they don't recognize is that technological solutions exist to protect most property, and we still find the law useful. This is, in part, because protection technology begets infringing technology, and the resulting arms race is costly with no net benefit to society. The law can circumvent that wasteful struggle with a credible threat to bring down the hammer on thieves. Meanwhile, however, the law is fairly relaxed about pirating technology (it only has to have substantial non-infringing use to be legal). My argument, following Picker, was that this doesn't make sense and shouldn't be justified by technological triumphalism.

Gus argues that the Sony standard (a product is legal so long as it has substantial non-infringing use) is used all the time, not just for IP. I don't know if this is true, but if it is, I don't think that's a good thing. The problem with that standard is that it doesn't weigh the costs of allowing certain products that, while sometimes used legitimately, are often used for criminal purposes. A nuanced approach would ask about the relative benefits and costs of the product. Iron pipes can be used to hit people, but it would be very expensive to make pipe that couldn't be used for this purpose. Furthermore, the benefit of plumbing far outweighs the cost of pipe violence. Guns are a closer call, and with new technology maybe gun makers should have to equip their guns with locks so that only the owners can use them. The point is, we don't ignore the costs that guns impose on society; we balance them against the benefits that they provide, and we bear in mind the cost of making "safe" guns that can't be used illegally. We should do the same thing with digital equipment.

Gus says: "I challenge anyone to demonstrate that there is a better way to accomplish the legal ends enabled by P2P networks than that currently in place." I don't know - probably Picker has some ideas - but anyway if that's true, then P2P networks should pass a more stringent test than Sony.

Gus then argues (I think) that there are large positive externalities to the technological arms race. This is like forests - if all the trees could commit to growing ten feet shorter, they would all save that much energy and would get the same amount of sunlight. Luckily, they can't make that deal, or we wouldn't have as much lumber. Technological advance might be the lumber that results from otherwise wasteful battles over copyright protection. Gus says this is indeterminate, so without empirical determination we don't really know which way the argument goes. I'm not so sure - I think positive externalities are rare enough that the burden of proof is on those who claim their existence. Otherwise speculative benefits are matched against demonstrable costs, and the results are skewed.

Gus then asks: "The question is therefore become: do we arbitrarily destroy one side in this battle, because we know that they can not co-exist, but do not know which is better; or is there a better solution?"

At this point I think Gus is getting a little, well... agnostic about right and wrong. Welcome to the club! Seriously, though, the "sides" are those who have created something of value and want to enjoy its benefits and, on the other hand, those who want to enjoy valuable things without paying for them. I don't think it's that hard for law to pick sides in this case... the fact that Gus does is a sign of how far the technological elite have strayed from the basic precepts of fairness and efficiency. I think this is a common problem among techies; they have disdain for the government because of its ham-handed and ignorant approach to technology, and they aren't sensitive to the advantages of traditional law. I'm not arguing for blind application of outmoded law - I'm just pointing out the aspects of law that aren't outmoded and asking why we should ignore them. The techies are asking us to just trust them. I know a few techies, and I'm not buying it.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Property and Technology

Professor Picker gave a talk today on copyright and the Sony case, which allows companies to sell products that can be used to infringe on copyright so long as they have a substantial non-infringing use. Picker doesn't like this standard, and he was fairly persuasive, but what really interested me is the interaction between technology and property rights. As a quick note, I didn't see Gus at the talk, which is more evidence that when it comes to technology and intellectual property rights, he's a dilettante. That, or he has delusions of grandeur and was at the law review meeting.

So here's the concept. There's no reason in particular why property rights can't be enforced on a might-makes-right basis. In fact, libertarians sometimes espouse this view, although more frequently they see property protection as the one role that government legitimately exercises. Whether this is at all consistent is a subject for another post. Imagine that I own an apple orchard. I can protect it by, say, building a fence (the "technological" solution). My neighbor can then invest in a ladder. I might respond by building a taller fence, or spending a lot of time in my orchard. Eventually he might get over the fence, and I might end up fighting him. The winner, I suppose, will get the apples.

The problem with this state of affairs is obvious. It is very costly for individuals to compete in this manner. Remember that when I build a fence, I'm not producing any wealth, I'm merely preventing my wealth from being transferred to someone else. Similarly with the ladder, the taller fence, and the physical damage incurred in the fight. Sure, there might coincidentally be other uses for the fence, but if so then it should be built regardless of the property struggle.

Now the government steps in and bans theft. The land is mine and the trees are mine, so the apples are mine. I don't have to build a fence, because if my neighbor takes my apples, I can invoke the power of the state and punish him. We have the same number of apples (or maybe even more) with a lot less effort necessary to enjoy their fruit. You can see why lots of people prefer the legal solution to the technological solution.

Apply this to intellectual property. There are technological solutions to pirating, such as better and better encryption (taller and taller fences). The problem is that pirates have lots of technical skills, too, and can at the very least force continual spending on security measures. All of this is costly to society. If we could use the law to preclude this struggle, we could spend our resources more efficiently. This, I think, is Picker's main point.

So is there anything to be said for the other side? I'm not sure, but here's my stab at it. Property enforcement by the government isn't costless. When its costs are high enough, it makes more sense to switch over to private enforcement, despite its pathologies. Note that we frequently supplement the law with technological protection as it is; to replace it entirely might not be such a big step when it comes to file sharing. The competence of law to protect intellectual property is an empirical question, and most hackers scoff at legal efforts (I don't use the term pejoratively; it just means people who can write code).

As Professor Helmholz would say, "Of course, that can't be right." I don't know much about technology, but I do know this. Encryption is pathetic at protecting intellectual property. This is because, without any exception that I can think of, whatever you can see and hear you can also rip off. So the only way to make a video immune from pirating would be to make it unviewable. Meanwhile, encryption is an excellent tool to escape detection as a pirate. Public key cryptography is so powerful that, absent a quantum computer, it can effectively never be broken. This is a bar both to private and public enforcement of property rights, of course, but at least the government can in theory subpoena the private key, etc.

All of this is not to say that technological solutions don't matter. They can always supplement legal solutions, and their cheapness and feasibility will feed back into which laws make sense and which ones don't. Still, I'm fairly convinced that traditional property rights make sense in the digital world, and that Sony should be distinguished or overturned. The funny thing is, I bet Sony agrees.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A Few Things About Birds

So I have some good pictures of monk parakeets, mostly from the grassy parts of the Midway. I am too lazy right now to figure out how to post them, but eventually I'll get around to it. Meanwhile, I should point out something about crows. A lot of people don't like their call, which admittedly isn't musical. It is, however, poetic, because they are in fact saying, "Cras! Cras!" which is Latin for tomorrow. They are warning us... what the Romans never figured out, though, is whether something good or bad happens tomorrow. It's just something important. In any case, we should be grateful that they warn us at all. By the way, they tell me something big is happening tomorrow. Watch out.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Confusion with an Ugly Face

The other day I was thinking that I am a purple person - neither red nor blue - and that I don't really fit into either party in the United States. Of course, I'm a bluish shade of purple, but I should probably figure out what my core political beliefs are. I administered a simple test, and found that I'm a pragmatic liberal.

Here's the test. I said, "Socialism with a human face." I immediately felt a surge of emotion. Dubcek! Redistribution! The new socialist government in Spain! Gay marriage! Health care! Separation of church and state!

Not the most coherent reaction, but the emphasis was definitely on the power of government to engender equality and improve people's lives. On the other hand, though, I have a great deal of sympathy for traditional liberalism, meaning strong protection of individual rights, including property. The question is whether I can reconcile these beliefs. If not, I have to choose one.

Some people, libertarians I suppose, don't think that government should be in the business of redistributing wealth. This absolutist position is untenable, I think. First, the government can't help redistributing wealth through inflation. Changes in the rate of inflation benefit either borrowers or lenders. This redistribution can be minimized, but not eliminated. This is true of many government activities, not just monetary policy. More fundamentally, redistribution is called for when it is a public good. The idea is that people can free ride on the charity of others; when a philanthropist builds a new homeless shelter, many people feel better knowing that the homeless people are safe (or, more crassly, that they're not visible). Thus there will be suboptimal redistribution in the absence of government enforcement (or social norms; more on that below). This idea is not mine, I borrowed it from Milton Friedman.

Of course, I've assumed away the problem. By allowing economic concerns to outweigh liberty concerns, I've already endorsed the idea that property rights aren't absolute, even against government redistribution. I might defend this idea further, but for now I'll just say that I can't accept the absolutist position that no redistribution is tolerable.

This doesn't mean that massive redistribution is desirable. Redistribution tends to be costly, and it tends to draw resources into wasteful political battles. On the other hand, a wealthy country like the United States can afford to provide substantial opportunities and protections for its poor with relatively little pain to the better off. My answer on redistribution ends up sounding like Scalia on sex discrimination: redistribution is a good idea when it's a good idea.

Why can't social norms evolve to bring about optimal redistribution? I suspect it's because most social norms evolve within a close-knit community. Charity to individuals outside that community is nice, but it's not the subject of strong social pressure. Furthermore, there's no particular reason to expect charitable norms to evolve. We have observed efficient norms in some situations, but we have also observed wasteful norms, and certainly in the aggregate we should be surprised when norms work well. More on this soon!