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This is the old libertarian saw, stated by P.J. O’Rourke like this (only longer, better, and funnier): If your grandmother doesn’t pay her taxes, she’ll be fined. If she doesn’t pay her fine, she’ll eventually be put in jail. If she tries to escape from jail, she’ll be shot. So!: Anything that you agree the government should do, you should be willing to put a gun to your grandmother’s head and threaten to shoot her for. Something like that.
This is a pretty old libertarian saw (contrary to the folks who posted the video above, libertarianism doesn’t argue for a completely stateless society, just for a minimal state): the government should do the minimum amount necessary to keep a society functioning, and no more. This means enforcing minimal laws against harming others, and a small national defense system. Everything else, the argument goes, is better privatized. I’ve been a registered Libertarian since the day I registered to vote, so I’ve given these arguments some thought.
One day the libertarians may go off and create their dream society, maybe on a floating island. In the meantime, we have Somalia, which has been without a central government since 1991.
So here’s the solution, and it has more than a little to do with game theory. Stuff that the government does is not like forcing some one individual to contribute to something. There’s a whole range of things that, if we weren’t all contributing, it wouldn’t make sense for an individual to give any money towards. Let’s start with the Libertarian’s example of national defense. It makes sense to have a national defense system only if everyone contributes. But it ends up that there are lots of things that directly or indirectly help everyone in a society. And while there are ways that a lot of these things could be accomplished by groups of private individuals, it makes sense for the government to do them. Would you shoot your grandmother for the interstate highway system? Probably not. But the highways unquestionably help our society in ways that a privatly-funded and tolled highway system would not.
The welfare system, public education, food safety inspections, drone strikes in foreign countries, eviction of protesters from public spaces, public healthcare, air traffic control. You probably agree that some of these things are good, and that some are bad. That’s not the point, though. The point is that they’re all things that a central government is in a unique position to provide, and that arguments exist that they are a net benefit. Once we’ve agreed to create the structure of the government, we’re all in it together, and we all need to decide together what we think are appropriate roles for that government.
It’s not that we need a system to make George help Oliver. It’s that we’re all better off if there’s a system that helps all those that need help, not just those that can find someone willing to help them.
“Like a father fingering his Blackberry rather than playing with his kids, Congress shows us that we don’t matter.”
Copyright activist Lawrence Lessig has given up the fight — he’s realized that before anything else, there’s a more fundamental problem that has to be solved: the corruption of congress by money. In this video, he does a remarkable job of outlining the problem. He does a somewhat less then perfectly convincing job of suggesting a solution. Specifically. Since congress is unable to reform itself, he has a strategy that would — eventually — lead to a constitutional convention, per Article 5 of the Constitution. Bold stuff. This guy’s serious: there is soon coming a book, and here’s his presentation at the Conference on the Constitutional Convention, which he organized, at Harvard, where he teaches:
EMILY: Did you hear about this? They just passed a law in Florida that says Doctors can’t ask their patients whether there is a gun in their house.
JOSH: That’s weird. Why is the government telling doctors what they can and can’t say to their patients? And why are doctors asking about guns? I could see asking someone if they’ve been shot … but asking if there’s a gun in the house? What medical relevance could that possibly have?
EMILY: They’re concerned about safety. Pediatricians often ask parents if they have a gun in the house, and if so, whether it is stored safely. Haven’t you heard of all the kids that accidentally kill themselves or their friends playing with a gun they found around the house?
JOSH: Are those doctors also trying to get the parents to stop driving? Are they talking to them about pool safety, matches, blankets and plastic bags the kids can suffocate on, stairs, and a million other things? Because all those things are way more likely to kill a kid a kid than an accidental gunshot. Seems to me that, of all the household dangers facing a kid, a gun would be the most obvious to a parent. If they’re not a complete imbecile, they’ve already got it stored properly. And if they are an imbecile, having a doctor up in their face isn’t going to help.
EMILY: Well, the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “the absence of guns from children’s homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries.” Meanwhile, of course the legislation to muzzle doctors is written by the good ‘ol NRA.
JOSH: Oh, so the pediatricians are open about trying to get guns out of the homes? It seems that we have a right to own guns in this country whether we have kids or not. If I had a gun, I sure wouldn’t want my kid’s doctor giving me crap about it every time I take my kid in.
EMILY: It’s not necessarily to try to get rid of the gun. If they know there’s a gun in the house, and then they later become aware of some other dangerous circumstance, they’ll be informed. “There’s a gun in that house! Do something NOW.”
JOSH: What possible set of circumstances would warrant action with a gun that wouldn’t warrant action without one? If you’ve got a dangerous adult in the house, it seems to me they’re just as dangerous without the gun. Aren’t kids much more likely to be beaten to death by their parents than shot to death?
EMILY: So you’re okay with the law dictating what doctors can and cannot say to their patients?
JOSH: Well, something sure as heck dictates what doctors should and shouldn’t say to patients. Some things are useful to discuss, and some things are a waste of time. Doctors sure as heck better make the best use they can of the limited time they have with their patients, right? Traffic accidents kill 45 times as many kids as gun accidents, and four times as many as all homicides combined. So hopefully doctors are spending way more time lecturing parents about driving as safely — and as little as possible — as they spend talking about guns.
EMILY: There’s something different about guns though. ‘The possession of firearms in the home is a professionally-recognized risk factor for both gun-related homicide and suicide.’
JOSH: Well, sure. And living near a cliff is a risk factor for falling homicides and suicides. A sea-front home is a risk factor for drowning homicides and suicides. A slippery floor is a risk factor for tripping —
EMILY: OK, suppose you have a suicidal teen talking to a doctor. You’re really saying the doctor can’t bring up guns?
JOSH: Actually, it turns out that there’s an exception in the law if the doctor feels the gun issue is directly relevant to the patient’s care or safety. Suicidal teens would be a great example of that.
EMILY: What about the example of a kid being bullied at school. Can a doctor ask if the kid has a gun in the house? If he’s ever brought a gun to school? If he’s though about harming himself or anyone else with a gun? This type of law will have a chilling effect on doctors — force them to try to figure out whether the question they want to ask meets the legal standard for being directly relevant or not. Do you really want doctors to have to keep these legal distinctions in the back of their mind when talking to patients?
JOSH: Everything doctors do is governed by laws. Doctors make these sorts of decisions all the time — often wrongly, which is why we have so many malpractice suits in this country. But I don’t get the example — you can ask a kid if he’s thought about hurting himself or anyone else. If he has, you take action. At that point, telling the parents to make sure the gun is stored safely pretty obviously falls into the legal exception.
EMILY: I don’t know. It still seems wrong for a state legislature to dictate what doctors can and can’t talk about with patients.
JOSH: Look, guns are a touchy subject in our society. But it’s been legally determined that they’re permissible. Understandably anti-gun folks want to continue the fight, but should doctors really be allowed to use their position of power to promote their particular views? We have laws that prevent teachers from spreading their political views to their kids. Why not similar laws for Doctors?
EMILY: Vaccines and abortion are both touchy subjects in society. Are laws that tell doctors what they can say about those things next?
JOSH: Okay, that’s the slippery slope argument. People who are in support of those things will pass whatever laws they can. The existence of this law isn’t going to make much of a difference. But for the record, if anyone passes a law that tells doctors they can’t strongly encourage parents to get their kids vaccinated, I’m moving to Canada.
Thanks to Steve for hashing out this debate with me, and for most of the links above.
Directly, each charter city would allow millions of people to better their lives by integration with the world economy. While critics often belittle this achievement as mere “cream-skimming,” the sad truth is that much if not most of the world’s cream now curdles in backwards farms and dysfunctional slums. If the native entrepreneurs who built Hong Kong had been trapped in mainland China, most would have wasted their lives in dead-end jobs on Maoist communes or joined the Communist elite. Hong Kong gave them opportunities to use talents that otherwise would have gone to waste.
The case for charter cities as a effective way to fight third-world poverty (based on the example of Hong Kong). Interesting? From this list of “40 things I’ve learned” by Bryan Kaplan, which is actually mostly right-wing free-market dogma. (E.g., here is the republican strategy for reducing the size of government laid out as nakedly as you’re likely to find.)
Richard Prince, famous for re-photographing Marlboro cigarette ads and selling them as high-concept artwork, recently lost a lawsuit about yet more flagrant appropriation. He took photos made by Patrick Cariou of Rastafarians, and manipulated them and painted over them and just generally had a grand time. In court records, Prince was incredulous, claiming fair use and citing the history of appropriation in contemporary art.
Defendants [Prince et al.] assert that Cariou’s Photos are mere compilations of facts concerning Rastafarians and the Jamaican landscape, arranged with minimum creativity in a manner typical of their genre, and that the Photos are therefore not protectable as a matter of law, despite Plaintiff’s extensive testimony about the creative choices he made in taking, processing, developing, and selecting them.
It’s tough to know how serious Prince was with all this. The man is a prankster. He’s said of himself, “I am a liar. And I cheat too. I make things up and I can’t be trusted. It’s not my fault.” Obviously taking the work of another artist, and taking multiple pieces from the same body of work, is a new level of appropriation (and plenty of people were pretty pissed off about that). But given the way the ruling is worded, it by extension implicates a whole tradition of appropriation-based work.
I note all this mainly for its amusement value. Prince is out a lot of money, but it seems that everyone involved benefits from the notoriety, including collectors who bought the paintings which can now “not be legally displayed.” If anything, we can take it as another signal of how screwed up our copyright/fair-use law is: that sampling/appropriation, so widely practiced in so many different practices, can be so curtailed by one aggrieved party.
I just finished reading the article where Malcolm Gladwell compares football to dog fighting (persuasively!), and here comes Kottke with some suplementary links. You Americans, I tell ya!!
New York City police operations order regarding photography:
- Members of the service are reminded that photography and the videotaping of public places, buildings and structures are common activities within New York City. Given the City’s prominence as a tourist destination, practically all such photography will have no connection to terrorism or unlawful conduct. […]
- Members of the service may not demand to view photographs taken by a person absent consent or exigent circumstances. […]
After a legal dispute, Danger Mouse said ‘fuck you’ to his label and released his new album with all artwork and packaging intact, and with a blank recordable CD-R. (If he’s a bad ass it’ll also have a quick guide on using teh bittorrentz.) There is something very refreshing, logical, and even beautiful about this, much more so then the ‘pay what you like’ scheme I think. Update: Listen to the album on NPR. Worth it! Oh right — it’s a collaboration with Sparklehorse, with photos by David Lynch.
Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo confesses to using BitTorrent, and explains why there’s no on-demand movie service that offers all the movies you can get at Blockbuster. Film studios are locked into contracts that dictate who gets exclusive rights to films after release — movie theaters, video rental chains, premium channels, broadcast channels. That’s why, for example, “Netflix’s Watch Instantly streaming plan offers a smattering of popular new releases and a slightly wider selection of films from the ’80s and ’90s.” In the end, Manjoo says it’ll take about 10 years before we can stream any movie we want legally.
And I’m just not so sure. Manjoo is apparently not afraid that the film studios are going to sue him RIAA style, otherwise he wouldn’t be so open about using BitTorrent to download films. But neither are the studios oblivious to BitTorrent. They’re monitoring the situation, and they know exactly how much money they’re leaving on the table. The record industry and the newspaper industry are just two they’ve recently seen go down the crapper after not dealing with the internet. If these people have two slivers of brain to rub together, they’re working right now to fix the situation.
And there’s evidence that they’re making progress. Hulu is adding new movies for online streaming, some of them as recent as 2008. Of course they’re not blockbusters — it’s a free service, after all. And if some outdated contracts are all that’s in the way, well, one Steve Jobs demonstrated that where there’s a will, contracts can be re-negotiated. And here again, movie studios have a powerful precedents on their side in the negotiations.
Napster shut down in 2001, and the iTunes store opened two years later, in 2003. In other words, it took two years to get music online legally even after it was obvious that suing filesharing sites was not without hope. Contrast this with the recent verdict against ThePirateBay, after which the site continues to operate with relative impunity. How long until a streaming service that has anything out on DVD opens? I’d say a lot less than 10 years.
Torture memos released! “These ten techniques are: (1) attention grasp (2) walling (3) facial hold (4) facial slap (insult slap) (5) cramped confinement (6) wall standing (7) stress positions (8) sleep deprivation (9) insects placed in a confinement box and (10) waterboard. You have informed us that the use of these techniques would be on an as-needed basis and that not all of these techniques will necessarily be used.” The ACLU has the complete scans for your reading displeasure. Or, if you want instant ungratification, skip to the “update” section here and just read some choice excerpts and commentary.
Predictions for when various states will legalize gay marriage. Fairly rigorous, the model uses data on when various states attempted to pass gay marriage bans, and the level of religiosity in the population. The tipping point comes between 2012 and 2013, which is also the year where we find Florida in the list. Mississippi is dead last, at 2024. (via)
There is a little bit of panic circulating on the internet over the last few days about a bill which is in the early stages of working through Congress (it’s been referred to two House committees). It’s a food safety bill, but the message being circulated claims in all-caps that it will “OUTLAW ORGANIC FARMING,” and links to videos that claim the video will also outlaw home gardens, heirloom seeds, and basically any growing of food that doesn’t involve toxic chemicals.
Here is a slightly more articulate statement of the accusations against the bill, HR 875. Note the use of the term “food police” in the title. Is this a tip-off that this is at best knee-jerk conspiracy theory paranoia, at worst astroturfing by the industry that may be financially hurt by the regulation? I read the sections the article suggests reading, and the bill seems in fact to go out of its way to exclude any place where food is prepared for the purpose of being served. The following is from section 13.B of the definitions section of the bill; it modifies what the term “food establishment” means in the text of the bill:
EXCLUSIONS- For the purposes of registration, the term ‘food establishment’ does not include a food production facility as defined in paragraph (14), restaurant, other retail food establishment, nonprofit food establishment in which food is prepared for or served directly to the consumer
Here’s the full text of HR 875, go look for yourself and if I’m wrong point me to what I’m missing.
Here’s the video that most of the links seem to point back to as their source. Wow! It opens with the an Orwelian quote from a science-fiction movie, cuts to a guy in a baseball cap who claims that the bill “nationalizes the food industry.” Give me a break. He then goes on to give us his reading of the bill, which you can go see for yourself if you’re so inclined.
We already have a “food police.” That’s right, the government has people that inspect food production facilities to make sure they’re operating in a way the government considers safe. Does this seem like a bad idea?
Update: Snopes has finally tagged this: Mostly False.
- Obama thinks legalizing marijuana would not help the economy. Economists disagree. (via) Not entirely true — legalizing pot is politically dicey, and President Obama already has a lot of dice games going. Also, remember that he de-facto legalized it in California, and now several other states are pursuing medicinal marijuana laws.
- Speaking of legalizing stuff, should raw milk be legalized? (via) Aspiring home cheese-makers want raw milk because pasteurized milk makes for sub-ideal cheese.
- Wanna swim faster then Michael Phelps? Just strap on one of these dolphin-inspired swimming tails.
- Free online college courses.
- Ted talk of the week: David Pogue on cool phone tricks (no rant about the cost of text messages, though).
- Revo uninstaller is cool because you don’t need to know the name of a program to zap it — you just point at anything on your computer that seems wrong and Revo kills it. (Or so it’s billed — haven’t tested this one yet.)
- “Don’t leave me a voicemail when you call.” Also, has anyone seen my phone?
- For the Twitter people: Tinyarro.ws makes URL’s even shorter then Tinyurl or Is.Gd.
- Hey, don’t think I didn’t notice that you didn’t get me a birthday present. The good news is that it’s not too late — buy me this. BUY IT FOR ME BUY IT FOR ME NOOOOW!
- Soy tu Aire, a pretty flash app that’s one part drawing program, two parts music video.
One of the truly inspirational and thought-provoking things I’ve read is Howard Gossage’s essay from the February 1960 issue of Harpers, How to look at billboards. I got so exited when I found it yesterday that I whipped up a little home for it on the internet. Thanks to Carrie McLaren for hosting it all this time. It’s probably through Stay Free that I originally ran across it (but I couldn’t find it despite much googling when I was writing about billboards back in 2006).
Gossage is not prescient — he argues that billboards are on their way out. But his arguments that billboards have no right to exist rings just as true as it ever has:
What a billboard looks like has nothing to do with whether it ought to be there. Nor does the fact that it carries advertising have anything to do with it, either. It would be the same thing if it were devoted exclusively to reproductions of the old masters; just as the open range would have been the same thing if they had only run peacocks on it. The real question is: has outdoor advertising the right to exist at all?
The industry says it has. It claims two rights, in fact. In asserting the first of these it clasps the flag firmly to its bosom and, in cadences worthy of William Jennings Bryan, invokes the spirit of free enterprise. Now, it should be understood that the outdoor industry is fighting only against what it regards as discriminatory regulation. It seems never to have occurred to the industry to question its basic right to any existence whatsoever. Therefore, when it protests against operational restrictions, it is not effrontery, as one might think, but outraged indignation. Its reaction is that of an old-time cattle baron the first time a farmer dared to fence in his potato patch.
Outdoor advertising is, of course, a business and as such would ordinarily have a strong case against inroads on its domain. However, there is a very real question whether it has title to its domain. Outdoor advertising is peddling a commodity it does not own and without the owner’s permission: your field of vision. Possibly you have never thought to consider your rights in the matter. Nations put the utmost importance on unintentional violations of their air space. The individual’s air space is intentionally violated by billboards every day of the year.
Please go read the whole thing. It’s a pleasure, and while its arguments are unlikely to sway any public policy now, almost 50 years later, you never know. At the end, Gossage asks you to complete a little billboard ballot, indicating “there ought to be billboards” or “there ought not to be billboards,” and send it back to him so he can track the results. The Stay Free version of the article says, “since Howard Gossage is dead, you can send your coupon to us at Stay Free! . . . and we will take care of it.” I’m not sure whether someone is still compiling these, but even if so it doesn’t seem particularly useful. If you don’t like looking at billboards, I think a much better course is to write to your city, county, and state elected officials. They are the ones that can actually do something, and a little sometimes goes a long way with moving your local governments. Good luck.
I’ve been catching up on my reading of Slate, and this caught my attention: Lawyers aren’t Special. Milan Markovic argues that Bush administration lawyers ought to be investigated for their role in the commission of war crimes. Traditionally lawyers are exempt from such investigations, but this may be absurd:
[S]ince the Nuremberg trials, it has been a fundamental precept of international law that soldiers must disobey orders to commit war crimes. If soldiers are supposed to differentiate between lawful and unlawful orders, why should lawyers, who are trained to know the law, have the privilege of never being held accountable if they advise unlawful conduct?
That stance seems especially unwarranted since lawyers can offer legal advice in such a way as to account for differing points of view when addressing controversial legal issues. In fact, lawyers are mandated to at least consider opposing points of view. They may, moreover, refer to moral and political considerations when advising clients, not purely legal ones. And yet John Yoo and other administration attorneys wrote one-sided arguments about crucial aspects of the coercive interrogation policy.
Also, if you haven’t already listened to the Fresh Air interview with Philippe Sands, you really should. He argues not only that Bush administration officials (including the president) ought to be indited for war crimes, but that there is an excellent chance that they will be at some point, in a foreign country. This may or may not be little more then a thought experiment, but it’s a dazzling listen.
I wonder what they mean by “loitering.”
Lawrence Lessig on gay marriage. I love the way this guy puts an argument together, but this is rather depressing, because I think the people who want to make gay marriage illegal are almost the same group as those who are least susceptible to rational human logic. Here in Florida we have Amendment 2 — please vote “no.”