Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Must the Senate Butt In?

Tibor R. Machan

As I do my frequent working trips around Europe, I often listen to webcasts from various good radio stations. I am especially fond of one that offers all piano jazz, all day round, with just a few ads.

There is a persistent message, though, that the management airs, having to do with a bill in the US Senate that aims to establish what its promoters call Internet Radio Equality. One Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) has introduced one in the House that would reportedly overturn a recent ruling that requires webcasters to pay a flat rate per song streamed, rather than the traditional percentage of their revenue.

The website about this bill reports that something called “the Copyright Royalty Board recently raised rates on Internet webcasters, who will soon face greatly-increased fees for streaming music on their stations.” It goes on to state that when this occurred it “affected not just Internet broadcasters but noncommercial groups like NPR, and the broadcasters filed an appeal of the decision earlier this month, but were denied.” The management of the piano jazz station to which I listen so loyally urges listeners to call their senators and leave messages urging the passage of the Senate version of Jay Inslee’s bill so they can continue to offer the music they feature without what they fear will be onerous fees.

Not being an expert on the ins and outs of copyright law regarding the use of recorded music by radio stations, I am not about to try to figure out the legal intricacies of the matter at hand. I do however have my doubts that this, as so many other issues in our country, requires the federal government to enter the fray and make yet another cumbersome law.

In particular, I believe that the way music can be featured by radio stations and webcasters could be decided by way of contracts between the composers, producers, and the stations (or their representatives). The idea that radio stations shouldn’t be billed in line with what the producers are willing to settle for as they use the music they want seems bizarre to me—after all, how are all those engaged in working to produce the music the radio stations are using going to make a living? They cannot go to their gas stations, dentists, grocery stores, and such and insist that the goods and services they want be provided to them free of charge or even at some set low price. Market forces will play the major role in coming up with the prices and we should know by now that fixing them by some central authority is a very bad idea both in the short and the long run.

Admittedly there are complications. The history of intellectual property is confusing. Just consider public libraries that lend out books to people in their neighborhood nearly free of charge. How does that help compensate the authors, editors, publishers, and sellers of these books or magazines the libraries provide? Yet the practice of stocking these books in libraries and making them available to readers is a very old one and seems not to have destroyed literature and scholarship. Even apart from that, millions of books and other reading materials are circulated among readers once they have been purchased by some one individual or organization. When the dentist subscribes to People or TIME, all those in his or her office can read it without having to pay for it again and again and there appears to be no movement afoot to bring this to a halt, nor does it appear to have caused the destruction of the magazine industry.

True, it could be argued that just because we don’t detect the destruction it doesn’t follow that it isn’t there. In the spirit of Frederick Bastiat’s famous insight that often the economic consequences of destructive policies aren’t seen—a tax may well lead one to forgo the purchase of a vital automobile tire, which then can lead to a deadly crash but will not be connected to the tax—perhaps there would be a lot more writing and composing going on if people would be required to pay for what they consume. Or perhaps they wouldn’t consume these things in the first place if they would have to purchase them. It is difficult to know.

But isn’t there a principle that should guide our thinking about all this? After all, the producers, creators did invest part of their lives and resources in bringing these goods and services to market, so why should they not have a chance to bargain for a good return on their investment? Why should radio stations and webcasters be authorized to serve their costumers without having to meet the terms of their suppliers?

I am not sure about the answer but I am doubtful that I will call my Senator to insist that the bill enabling radio stations and webcasters to avoid having to meet the terms of those who supply them with the product they transmit. This despite how much I enjoy receiving their webcasts of fine music. I think some accommodation needs to be reached wherein all the parties can bargain freely and reach an un-coerced resolution of the controversy.
Proof of Free Will

Tibor R. Machan

Some of my readers may be getting tired of and even exasperated with me about my repeated discussions of free will. Part of this is because the topic has been around for ages and some hope for some kind of final resolution. There will never be that! But this doesn’t mean there cannot be a right answer, only not one that will lead to some kind of world wide consensus. Indeed, is there any inquiry that leads to that?

I have a good friend who insists that the only proof of free will he is going to respect is one that is put in purely biochemical form, one that spells out the precise molecular mechanism that is involved and shows that it isn’t deterministic. And I admit it is an attractive prospect—after all, a good deal of what we worry about in medicine as well as other areas of human affairs comes to the best light when rendered in such precise detail.

But a proof of free will does not require such total, detailed involvement, even if it could be had. Just think, do you need to know the full inner workings of your car to know it is moving down the road? Ordinary perception suffices for that—let those working on the machine worry about all the inner details. For the rest it is sufficient to experience the overt movement of the car.

Free will is evident to us by several means. For one, without it the idea of independent, objective knowledge is unfounded. Those in the sciences, for example, who insist that unprejudiced, unbiased findings trump prejudiced and biased ones implicitly accept that free will is real because only if our judgments can be free, can they be unbiased, independent, objective. Anyone who deplores racial, sexual or ethnic prejudice also implicitly accepts that people have free will and can exercise it badly or well. Racists allow themselves to judge by reference to irrelevant factors about another person and it is their capacity for free, independent perception and judgment that can serve to escape their prejudices, distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant. This is true with all other kinds of prejudice. So to deny free will is, implicitly, to endorse the unavoidability of prejudice, bias, subjectivity when it comes to human knowledge and understanding about the world.

There is also the fact that we can observe ourselves as we are aware of things—we can notice when we rush to judgment versus take the time to get things right. We can monitor how we think, indeed, whether we think at all, instead of just indulge our wishes and hopes regardless of what the facts we could examine tell us. That, too, implies that we have free will.

I haven’t even come to the issue that even criticizing those who accept free will implies free will because it implies they could have come to different conclusions about this issue. So they were not compelled to believe one and only one way but were free to choose between different ways and, it is suggested, ought to have chosen differently. But if we aren’t free, how can this make any sense?

Of course, the persistence of the belief by most human beings that there exists a significant moral dimension in human life also attests to the acceptance of the presence in free will. How could anyone be held responsible for how he or she acts if they have no control over their own conduct? How could there be a valid criminal law without the human freedom to choose to do what is lawful rather than unlawful?

There is, furthermore, the plain fact of the enormous differences among human beings, in their practices, institutions, beliefs, styles, culture, art, politics, and philosophy, all of which implies that people are free to choose in very many different ways rather than compelled to do as they are allegedly hard wired or forced by their environment. Even those who strongly defend determinism falter on this point because they realize that what they believe about free will versus determinism is not shared by many others and to explain that without crediting people with the freedom to think as they will is impossible. (No other living being exhibits the immense variety of ways of life that human beings do! And this variety is evident even in the life of just one person, from day to day.)

What about the fact, however, that much of what people do can be predicted? Does that not favor the idea that we are determined in how we behave?

Not really because human beings, while free to choose, are also, for that very reason, free to make long term commitments that then tell others what they are likely going to do, at least in many circumstances. Saying at one’s wedding “I do” is a case in point, although, clearly, it is not decisive without the ongoing choice to carry through with the stated commitment. Taking up other responsibilities, vocations, jobs, etc., all help us to make predictions about how people will act, although there are no guarantees, precisely because we are free to change our minds, for better or for worse.

So, no, laying out the biochemical details of the mechanism of free will probably will have to wait—although a few scientists, like the late Roger W. Sperry, have gotten a pretty good start on it. But that is not the only way to learn whether free will exists.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

TSA, Über Alles!

Tibor R. Machan

Lord Acton’s famous insight, that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” seems to apply to the behavior of nearly all those security personnel at airports across the world. No doubt, exceptions can be found because some of those holding these jobs are determined, committed to acting in a civilized manner and resist the all too easily indulged temptation to wield needless power over airline passengers. But going by my and many of my fellow very frequent flyer friends’ experiences, all too many security personnel yield to the power-over-others temptation. And they aren’t alone—I have noticed this even on the part of some, the much fewer, security guards at the main entrances of gated communities.

The power involved here is a specific sort—the legal authority to make others act as one wants them to act quite apart from what is necessary. Immediately once can differentiate such power form what professionals—doctors, auto-mechanics, professors or personal trainers—exert. Theses are avoidable or at least non-arbitrary and also decentralized, often in competition with one another. So professional power is mostly restrained, confined to whatever is required to properly carry on with the profession. The dentist makes the patient do mostly what is needed to keep the teeth healthy, the coach to keep the team in shape, etc.

The power deployed by security officials and other bureaucrats is not so restrained. There is nowhere else to go for what they provide and so what one is ordered to do is often quite arbitrary, even deliberately so (maybe to drive home the need to obey instead of to voluntarily cooperate). In some regions of officialdom due process is in place but at airport check points such retrain on power is largely missing. “Go there, stand here, open your coat, take off your shoes, discard those plastic bottles, etc.” and there is rarely any civility in the issuing of these commands.

An example of this occurs in how often different officials impose different rules—“Yes” to gels at one gate, “No” to them at another. Sometimes the rules are changed from one moment to the next: “Go pour out half of your shampoo,” but then once you have, “Well, we will not allow any of it.” All this is done by the very same official, just after he or she sends you out to return with the half filled bottle. If you protest, you risk being detained and missing your flight, even be dragged off to be searched and questioned.

While the rules are mostly uniform and predictable—so much so that they are easily circumvented—often they are very unevenly applied, depending on the mood of the officials. Here is where the arbitrariness becomes so evident! Over a long trip, with many stops and the need to re-board after a stop-over, the arbitrariness of the procedures is blatant.

One response to these beefs is that arbitrariness itself is a tactic for combating terrorism or, indeed, other crime. It is supposed to be a device for keeping those at bay who attempt to breach security. If the policies are uniform and predictable, they become ineffective.

First, they are ineffective anyway—I personal took aboard the very stuff the security people told me to dump by simply putting them in my pockets! (I was going away for 8 weeks and wasn’t about to comply with idiotic rules that would deprive me of my special shampoo or hair cream!) More importantly, none of that is an excuse for abandoning the rule of law. If that principle makes security measures difficult to apply, them’s the breaks! The alternative of unconstrained power by officials is unacceptable to free men and women, period. That is especially so when airport security is itself mostly moot—closing the barn door after the horses have split! Such power by anyone is an affront to the principles of a free society, so instead of unleashing it upon us all, officials need to work without violating them.

Some may believe this to be a small price for—well, for what, exactly? When we travel by bus or train or on the road, it seems to be quite OK to live without these measures and the accompanying arbitrariness of officialdom. Why then at airports?

As my friend Mike said, “Because these folks can get away with it pretty much unopposed.” And that in the country that used to be called the leader of the free world! And now, of course, all the rest as well. Welcome to George Orwell’s world!