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Self in Society Roundup 5

Internet data, George H. Smith, the economics of slavery, baby formula, and more.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
May 20, 2022; ported here on June 4, 2024

Consent and Internet Data

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet wants the federal government to get serious about regulating internet companies. I remain extremely skeptical. Such a regulatory body easily could, and almost certainly would, violate rights of property, contract, and speech.

But that doesn't mean there are no problems or that government should play no role. I think there are big problems with internet companies mining and selling people's data in ways that users never clearly consent to.

Recently Zeynep Tufekci wrote about her concerns, pointing out that data-mining could be used by law enforcement and by vigilantes tracking down women seeking "illegal" or possibly illegal abortions.

Tufekci points to the problem of consent:

Turning off settings in apps doesn't stop the phone or the cellphone company from continuing to collect location data. It's also not that reliable. I have turned off location tracking many times in reputable apps only to be surprised to notice later that it turned itself back on because I clicked on something unrelated that, the fine print might reveal, turns location tracking back on.

I already felt terrified reading Tufekci's article when she threw in this line, "Now let's get to the truly scary stuff." The idea is that fancy software can make stunning predictions about people, including whether they are pregnant, based on seemingly unrelated or innocuous data.

An underlying problem is that government ought not criminalize behavior that is not rights-violating. As I have argued, abortion falls in that category at least in the vast majority of cases (with some possible late-term exceptions). The main problem in this context is that various state governments are outlawing or severely restricting abortions; the data collection associated with this is a secondary issue.

I did not know this:

Many of our existing legal protections are effectively outdated. For example, law enforcement can obtain emails, pictures or any data you stored in the cloud without a warrant, and without notifying you, so long as it is older than six months.

There's no justification for that.

Tufekci explicitly addresses the matter of consent:

Many location collectors get their data from ordinary apps—could be weather, games, or anything else—that often bury that they will share the data with others in vague terms deep in their fine print. Under these conditions, requiring people to click "I accept" to lengthy legalese for access to functions that have become integral to modern life is a masquerade, not informed consent.

This, to my mind, provides grounds for government involvement, of some variety. But, given Congress almost certainly will screw this up, the cure may be worse than the disease.

George H. Smith Has Passed Away

The atheist and libertarian writer George H. Smith died on April 8. His book Atheism: The Case Against God was influential. offers many of his political writings.

Smith is probably the best-read person I ever met. Once I saw him defend anarchy in a debate, and he was masterful. (At the time I agreed with him on that matter; now I don't.)

Johan Norberg wrote, "Smith's The System of Liberty and Atheism: The Case Against God are two of the best books I've read. And his essays are glorious adventures in intellectual history."

Aaron Ross Powell wrote, "George was brilliant, the depth of his knowledge unrivaled.

David Boaz wrote a nice review of Smith's career.

Slavery Is Anti-Capitalist and Economically Destructive

Capitalism properly understood is rooted in individual rights. Turning others into slaves horribly violates their rights; hence, slavery is anti-capitalist.

Slavery also slowed rather than fostered economic growth in the South.

Jason Brennan summarizes the debate:

Economists in the 1700s-early 1800s: Slavery is bad for the economy and retards growth.

[Thomas] Carlyle: Economics is the dismal science because economists aren't racist enough and are anti-slavery.

King Cotton people in 1861: Ignore what the economists say, with all their data and evidence. Slavery is the foundation of American prosperity!

Economists in the 1900s–2000s: We have even better data than our forbears did. Slavery was bad for the economy and retarded growth.

1619/Woke people today: Ignore what the economists say, with all their data and evidence. Slavery was the foundation of American prosperity!

A recent paper by Gavin Wright argues:

The essay considers the claim that slavery played a leading role in the acceleration of US economic growth in the nineteenth century. Although popular among pro-slavery apologists, the proposition fails under rigorous historical scrutiny. The slave South discouraged immigration, underinvested in transportation infrastructure, and failed to educate the majority of its population. It is not even clear that the region produced more cotton than it would have under a counterfactual alternative settlement by free family farmers, on the free-state pattern. The grain of truth in recently popular narratives is that many northerners and business interests were complicit in the crime of slavery: routinely engaging in transactions with slaveholders, even promoting activities that facilitated slavery and the domestic slave trade. Complicity complicates simple historical moralism, but it is quite different from the notion that the prosperity of the nation as a whole derived from slavery in any fundamental way.

But various people simply do not wish to believe that.

The Baby Formula Problem

I was very fortunate that my son lived on donated breast milk after he was born, before my wife could effectively pump milk for him. But obviously for many parents "formula" food is important. There's been a shortage in the U.S. Why?

As Elizabeth Nolan Brown explains, much of the problem has to do with tariffs, quotas, FDA labeling restrictions. She writes:

The FDA is preventing perfectly good—perhaps better than American—baby formula from coming here because of things like labels not explicitly stating that it contains less than 1 milligram of iron per 100 calories or not listing all ingredients (which can be found elsewhere).

Without government, who would deprive the babies of food?

In related news, "Some Republicans have advanced a novel—and ugly—idea: Take food from migrant babies in federal detention and give it to American children."

Quick Takes

Russia: Yes, "Russia is fascist."

Disney: Imagine if there were two Disney Worlds, one for Republicans, one for Democrats.

Abortion: Leah Torres claims some doctors in Alabama turn away women suffering a miscarriage for fear they'll be investigated for facilitating an abortion.

Religion: "Previously excavated bodies of two ritually sacrificed Inca children, including this girl still wearing a ceremonial headdress, have yielded chemical clues to a beverage that may have been used to calm them in the days or weeks before being killed," Science News reports.

Red Flag: "The massacre at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo on Saturday should have been thwarted by New York's red flag law," reports NBC. I think red-flag laws are in principle reasonable (although they can be written well or badly). But they don't do anything if they're not enforced. However, as Jacob Sullum writes, predicting people's future actions is no easy matter. Still, I think if someone has made explicit threats, throwing a "red flag" probably makes sense.

Free Speech: Ilya Somin writes that Texas's "HB 20 is blatantly unconstitutional because it compels speech, forbids the exercise of editorial discretion by social media firms, and is meant to target firms the Texas state government believes are hostile to 'conservative' speech specifically."

Drug War: The drug war means police get to harass people, continually. Recently, on a bullshit pretext and looking randomly for drugs, police searched a bus carrying Delaware State University's women's lacrosse team.

Reality: From the New York Times: "What psychiatry calls psychosis, the Hearing Voices Movement calls nonconsensus realities. It provides support groups for people with hallucinations and is part of an effort to reform how the mental health field approaches severe psychiatric conditions." No.

Mars: There's an alien doorway on Mars! There are also faces and canals on Mars, and the face of Jesus on burnt toast.

Rationality: Steven Pinker joins Gene Gorlin and others to discuss rationality and what that means in terms of pursuing goals. People familiar with the Objectivist movement will recognize several people in the discussion (including Gorlin). Of particular interest is an exchange between Pinker and Greg Salmieri at 1:06:51 about ultimate ends and their relation to our biological nature.

Honesty: Speaking of Gorlin, she has out an essay, "5 Steps to Earning Your Own Trust." She writes, "You can't make truly informed decisions if you distort or censor uncomfortable truths from yourself."

Self-Advancement: More Gorlin! She wrote, "Among the hardest and most vital facts of reality to reckon with are: the tremendous heights that others of your current age, ability, and means have gone on to achieve; the tremendous struggle by which they did it; and the fact that you could, but need not, choose to do the same."

Libertarianism: Aaron Ross Powell, John Hudak, and Andy Craig discuss "How Libertarians Went Off the Rails." Specifically, so-called "paleo-libertarianism" supported Pat Buchanan and then Donald Trump, along with various "alt-right" causes.

Charter Schools: Chalkbeat explains the dust-up about federal rules involving charter schools: "The Biden administration has proposed new rules for a federal program that offers start-up money to charter schools. Reflecting longstanding critiques of the charter sector, the rules would consider how prospective charter schools affect nearby district schools."

Criticism: Tyler Cowen says, on one hand, "Criticizing others is a form of 'devalue and dismiss,' and that tends to make the criticizing people stupider." On the other hand, "Criticizing others may induce people to fear you in a useful way."

Education: Matt Bateman of Higher Ground schools (and Gorlin's husband) explains Montessori's approach. One of his points is that students need to learn what formulas mean and where they come from, rather than just memorize them. If you don't know how to derive the area of a circle, here's a video explaining it. Here's another video with an alternate method.

Spangler: My kid loves Steve Spangler of DIY Sci, who does fancy science demonstrations. Recently he joined Ellen DeGeneris on her show, for the last time.

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