The Nightmare of a Free Market: Buying Drugs from Strangers

PillsFromStrangerThis week’s featured guide at Liberty.me is Dr. John Hunt’s “Surviving Obamacare”— which is about navigating around Obamacare in order to pursue free-market healthcare in an ever-less-free healthcare market.

John is a local comrade. I only met him in person about a year ago, but we had already worked together extensively online to put together his great libertarian action-adventure thriller Higher Cause for Laissez Faire Books. (I’m sorry to say that I had nothing to do with his wonderfully funny novel Assume the Physician — free to Liberty.me members this month.)

When the Young Americans for Liberty, University of Virginia chapter, hosted John for a talk on the same subject as his Liberty.me guide, I of course had to attend. [Read the rest at Liberty.me.]

Yes, We Have No Bananas

YesWeHaveNoBananasIn a recent post ("Is mediocrity intelligent?"), I talked about the importance of a diversity of strategies — even apparently "wrong" ones — to the long-term survival of a species. The corollary of course is that overinvestment in any single strategy can be catastrophic.

We see this issue at play in modern agribusiness.

As Popular Science informs us,

The 1923 musical hit "Yes! We Have No Bananas" is said to have been written after songwriters Frank Silver and Irving Cohn were denied in an attempt to purchase their favorite fruit by a syntactically colorful, out-of-stock neighborhood grocer.

It seems that an early infestation of Panama disease was already causing shortages in 1923. But the out-of-stock bananas in question were not the Cavendish variety we all eat today; they were Gros Michel ("Big Mike") bananas, and they were all that American banana lovers ate until the 1950s, when the disease finally finished them off.

I would love to know what a Gros Michel banana tastes like. I’m a big fan of bananas and eat them every day. (Actually, I drink them, blended into smoothies.) But the reason I only know the taste of Cavendish — and the reason you do too, unless you’re old enough to have had some Gros Michel mixed into your pablum — is that Cavendish bananas are resistant to the strain of disease that wiped out our original bananas. We have to assume that the Plan B bananas we now enjoy are only second best as far as flavor goes. They may not even be first best at survival, because the banana industry is searching for a Plan C banana to take the place of the Cavendish once the inevitable crop disease sends it the way of the Gros Michel — something that they predict will happen in the next decade or two. (See Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.)

Why are bananas so vulnerable to these blights? Why aren’t agricultural scientists worried about our other favorite fruits — apples, for example?

Because there are many different types of apples. I’m dizzied by the variety at our local produce warehouse.

But not only is there just the one type of banana at the green grocers and in supermarkets; each banana you’ve probably every eaten is a clone of every other banana you’ve eaten. One genetic pattern manifested billions of times over, across millions of households in the past half century. And each Gros Michel was a clone of every other one, too. That’s because bananas reproduce asexually (as do potatoes, another food that’s especially vulnerable to disease — remember the Irish potato famine?).

Cavendish DNA is different enough from Gros Michel DNA that the disease that targeted the one species was no threat to the other. But any infection that can kill one Cavendish plant can wipe out the worldwide supply.

There are many reasons food activists attack Big Agribusiness — some good, some bad, and some wacky. One criticism that seems eminently reasonable to me is a concern that Big Agra puts all its billions of eggs in one giant basket.

Once upon a time, genetic diversity in farm products was built into how farming took place. Farmers farmed local land with local genetic strains of plants and animals. Chickens may have come from Asia, and Europe never saw a tomato until the Spanish brought some back from the New World, but even as trade began to go global several centuries ago, the limits of transportation and technology meant that gene pools could be local and diverse in a way that is much harder in our era of global overnight shipping and transnational corporate bureaucracies.

If an infestation wipes out the Golden Delicious, I can eat Fugi apples instead. But if the Cavendish disappears tomorrow, there isn’t yet a different banana to take its place.

CalvinPlanB

Do you remember in my earlier post when my professor presented to the "artificial life" department at Bell Labs? In the context of a communications-research lab, artificial life was about using the lessons of biology, ecology, and evolution to make telephone networks more robust.

You may think that agriculture is more "natural" than phone switches and fiberoptics, but farming often short-circuits nature’s mechanisms to suit our short-term goals. One of the main such strategies of nature is diversity. And as I tried to illustrate with the concept of the genetic deme and the relativity of fitness, diversity means that what looks like an inferior strategy today could turn out to be the salvation of the species tomorrow.

As Larry Reed wrote recently in the Freeman,

Statists those who prefer force-based political action over spontaneous, peaceful, and voluntary initiatives — excel at distilling their views into slogans. ("A Slogan Worth Your Bumper?")

But what I find revealing is the contradictions at play in the juxtaposition of different bumper stickers on the same car. (And when you see a whole bunch of bumper stickers on the same car, odds are you’re driving behind a left-wing statist.)

CelebrateDiversity

This past weekend, at a red light, I was behind a minivan that brandished three bumper stickers:

One said, "Women for Obama."

If that wasn’t enough to declare the driver’s politics, the next bumper sticker made the claim that strong public schools create strong communities.

The last bumper sticker advised us in rainbow colors to "Celebrate Diversity!"

(Pop quiz: Are bumper stickers #2 and #3 in accord or at odds?)

Now, it’s a standard complaint against leftists that they talk diversity while pushing ideological conformity. Political correctness, and all that.

But to me the greater irony is that the Left consistently pushes centralization. Eat local, buy local, but decide everything in Washington DC.

I know that there are left-wing decentralists, and perhaps they genuinely do see the important parallels between genetic diversity and political federalism, between local communities and local authority. But I keep thinking of a story Tom Woods tells of his attending a decentralist conference back in the 1990s, where he happily discovered like-minded activists from both Left and Right. But to the apparent delight of the left-wing so-called decentralists, the highlight of the event was the keynote speaker: Vice President Al Gore.

BananaBookNo, in my experience, the vast majority of people with Buy Local bumper stickers, as with the Celebrate Diversity crowd, are also often, e.g., Women for Obama — that is to say, champions of ever-more-centralized authority. I’m confident that the driver in front of me at the intersection saw no irony in celebrating diversity while advocating strong public schools — and an even stronger central government.

But in the biosphere, where diversity rules, order is spontaneous. That spontaneous order is both the cause of and the result from overwhelming diversity. There are no central strategies in evolution, only in the human world, and only in recent human history. Evolution gave the natural world hundreds of varieties of banana. The United Fruit Company (hardly a free-market firm, by the way) gave us only one.

[Cross-posted at LibertarianStandard.com]

Is mediocrity intelligent?

ShortNeckedGiraffeWhen I graduated from college, I took a job working for the psychology department. I had unofficially minored in psychology and a couple of the professors liked me and wanted to keep me around.

One perk of this arrangement was that I got to go to Bell Labs (though it wasn’t called that anymore) with the biopsych professor as part of his entourage for a talk he was giving on signs of collective intelligence in species — not in the organisms, in the species itself as a sort of superorganism.

He was presenting to the "artificial life" department within Bell Labs, who wanted to see if phone networks could be made more robust by modeling the patterns of biological life.

The reason I was able to go was, in a sense, that I had decided not to go to graduate school, but here I was surrounded by PhDs who loved their jobs and were fascinated and passionate about their disciplines. And they got to work with high-tech everything. Very different from the bucolic environs of our tiny college campus. It didn’t quite inspire me to reconsider graduate school, but I think it did play a role in getting the biopsych prof to leave the academy for the private sector.

Anyway, it was in this presentation at Bell Labs that I first learned the evolutionary concept of the deme — an idea that has informed my thinking ever since, including my thoughts on politics. Before I was a full-blown libertarian, I was already opposed to uniformity, opposed to central plans, and in favor of decentralization of authority and decision making. That decentralism came from my understanding of evolution and information theory — of cybernetics in its broader sense.

Here’s what a deme is:

A deme is an isolated gene pool within a species. If a gene pool is isolated for long enough, its members can no longer reproduce with organisms from the main gene pool, and the deme becomes a distinct species. But while the deme is still a deme, still compatible with the species’ genetic mainstream (though distinct from it) it plays a crucial role in that species’ survival and future evolution.

The irony, from the perspective of the ever-upward model of evolution, is that this important subspecies is generally considered less "fit" than the main population. Because of its isolation, the deme hasn’t had the full benefit of progress made through the genetic trial-and-error process enjoyed by the mainstream. Not enough "cross fertilization."

Imagine an island where the giraffes aren’t as tall as their distant cousins on the mainland.

But what we often forget about the "survival of the fittest" is that fitness is relative and entirely contextual. What makes an organism better able to pass on its pattern to another generation depends entirely on the environment in which it strives to do so.

There is no absolute "better" evolutionary strategy. Better and worse depend entirely on time and place. As the environment changes, today’s better may become tomorrow’s worse.

FitnessHillClimbingTo make his point, my professor friend showed a "fitness landscape," a 3D graph, with fitness, in the evolutionary sense, mapped onto the vertical access, higher being more fit. Each horizontal axis represented some adaptation or variation of evolutionary strategy. You can only fit two more into a 3D map, but there could be an endless number of such dimensions. The purpose of this graph was to show "hill-climbing" behavior on the part of the abstract blobs that represented different species’ collections of survival strategies.

Now, hill-climbing behavior is not by itself a sign of intelligence. We don’t consider plants to be intelligent just because vines climb up out of the dark undergrowth or because leaves turn toward the sunlight.

But we do tend to consider an entity intelligent (or at least more intelligent) if it shows the ability to seek out higher peeks than the local hilltop it has managed to climb to. You can see that behavior in the graph above. The blob isn’t cohering at the hilltop; it’s sending tendrils downhill to explore the valleys and neighboring slopes. Those tendrils are the demes, lower on the fitness axis but essential to keeping the species-blob from stagnating on a peek that may prove temporary as the environment changes.

That may be too much to take in from such a sketchy but still dense description. You can download the paper here, if you’re interested in the details.

For now, just imagine some catastrophe that makes our vertically challenged island giraffes a successful Plan B for the species. Higher leaves are suddenly detrimental, but that’s what it’s easiest for the mainland giraffes to get to. If there is any cross-fertilization at all, the runty descendants of the island giraffes will begin to take over the mainland.

How fortunate for the species that it didn’t invest everything in the taller-neck strategy.

I have much more to say on this topic, but for now I will leave the political parallels as an exercise for the astute reader.

still roaming the plains of Poland

Paul Cantor, The Invisible Hand in Popular CultureI pointed Professor Cantor to my Freeman article yesterday.

Here’s his wonderful reply:

This is a terrific article and thanks for sending it to me (and mentioning me in it). I’m glad to see that Thompson seems to be on board with us on these issues. I own his book but haven’t read it yet. It’s nearing the top of my "to read" pile, and you’ve pushed it up a few places. It’s good that we’re not alone on these issues.

As I recall what you wrote about radio, all this could have happened back in the 1920s if a subscriber model had been adopted for radio instead of the broadcasting model. Essentially, we’re finally getting where we should have been in the first place — real consumers for TV. I notice that young people now have no interest in seeing TV as broadcasted. They want direct access and know how to get it. When I was at Hans-Hermann Hoppe‘s recent conference in Turkey, I was amazed at how current the young people from central and eastern Europe were with American TV — maybe one episode behind on BREAKING BAD. When I asked: "Is BREAKING BAD broadcast in your country?" they stared at me as if I were saying: "Do dinosaurs still roam the plains of Poland?" They were getting the show — well, frankly, I don’t know how they were getting the show, but it was definitely online and quite possibly illegal.

Paul

Hedy Lamarr bet on the wrong horse

NakedHedwig

“Hedy stands naked in a field. She looks off-camera in dismay as her horse gallops away with the clothes she had draped over its back to take a dip in a woodland pond.”


That’s the opening line of my article “Putting Hedy Lamarr on Hold,” featured today in the Freeman.

I shared a draft with a writer friend of mine over the weekend. She is far more educated and literary than I am. She saw a parallel between the opening scene and the larger story that I confess I was not conscious of. I thought I’d just been going for sex appeal.

Here’s more of the opening:

She is not called Lamarr yet. That name will come later, in Hollywood. For now she is still Hedwig Kiesler, a Viennese teenager in Prague, playing her first starring role in a feature film, Ekstase (“Ecstasy,” 1933). The controversial Czechoslovakian film will become famous for Hedy’s nude scenes (which are not sexual) and its sex scenes (which show only her face, in close-up, in the throes of passion).

The film will give Hedy her first taste of fame. She will be known as the Ecstasy girl. An Austrian director will tell the press, “Hedy Kiesler is the most beautiful girl in the world.” Later, MGM movie mogul Louis B. Mayer will repeat the claim, using the name he insisted she change to: Hedy Lamarr.

But while the world of her time will remember her for her photogenic beauty, history will remember her as the inventor of frequency hopping, the foundational technology of today’s mobile phones and wireless Internet. [FULL ARTICLE]

FreemanHedyThe piece goes on to explain how Hedy invented frequency-hopping spread spectrum during World War II and why it took so long for that invention to usher in the wireless Internet age. Short answer: the government kept the technology secret for decades. Not only did Hedy Lamarr not see a cent from her invention; she didn’t even get credit for it until the end of the century.

So here’s what my writer friend said:

The more I think about it, the movie image you start with — Hedy looking at her runaway horse and thinking, ok now what? is exactly what you describe in your title: Hedy Lamarr on hold. She’s on hold in the movie (for a moment, I guess — given the movie title, I imagine that she’s not alone for long) and then her invention is on hold for a much longer time. … A Hollywood starlet and inventive genius who made millions in the market surrendered her most innovative idea to Leviathan, who stifled it. And she did so, ironically, because of a lack of imagination on her part — a naive faith that the state would protect and serve its citizens.

(By the way, I’m especially pleased that FEE decided not only to feature my article but also to use the image I put together for it!)

anarchonet

AnarchyNetStephen Davies points to an interesting article in the Economist on the younger generation’s move away from both left and right: "The strange rebirth of liberal England"

(As the piece makes clear, they’re using "liberal" in its classical, more libertarian sense: "In the United States our creed is so misunderstood that people associate liberalism with big government, when it advocates the opposite.")

It’s a very encouraging article, and I hope what it says is true, but a minor point caught my eye:

There are several explanations for this commendable fashion. During their formative years they were exposed to the internet — an organ with an inbuilt resistance to government meddling. [emphasis added]

In my blog post "Should we thank the State for the Internet?" I mentioned that Read more of this post

Does capitalism make us dumb?

201305301_laughdetail

The anti-capitalists contend that the market fosters whatever has the broadest appeal, even when the lowest common denominator indulges our basest appetites.

Defenders of freedom and markets tend to fall back on one of two strategies: either explaining why capitalism’s apparent vice is really a virtue (would we really prefer a system in which a self-selected elite got to plan the supply independent of demand?), or championing the products impugned by capitalism’s critics.

Ludwig von Mises took the first position. In The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, he defended the popularity of detective stories not because of any inherent virtue in the genre but because murder mysteries were what the reading public wanted, whether or not the literati approved of their preferences.

Attempts at the second approach include compelling defenses of car culture, panegyrics to the Twinkie, even praise for shoddy products.

Some targets of disparagement, however, deserve a third approach.

One such target is the canned laughter of television comedies, which has been the object of critical censure for over half a century.

As University of Minnesota art history professor Karal Ann Marling says,

Most critics think that the laugh track is the worst thing that ever happened to the medium, because it treats the audience as though they were sheep who need to be told when something is funny — even if, in fact, it’s not very funny.

James Parker, entertainment columnist for the Atlantic, disagrees. In fact, he laments the laugh track’s recent decline:

Silence now encases the sitcom, the lovely, corny crackle of the laugh track having vaporized into little bathetic air pockets and farts of anticlimax. Enough, I say. This burlesque of naturalism has depleted us.… Who knew irony could be so cloying?

So do we file the laugh track in the same category into which Mises put pulp fiction?

Or should we instead follow the model of the staunch defenders, and explain why the elitists are simply wrong?

The third approach is to question the premise. Is the laugh track really a product of the market, or did it dominate TV comedies for decades because of government regulation of broadcast media?

In "Did Capitalism Give Us the Laugh Track?" I act as defense attorney in the case of The People versus Capitalism, pleading not guilty in the case of the laugh track.

Postscript:

Given the limited length of a Freeman article, I had to give an extremely condensed version of the history of broadcast media and cartelization. You can find a more thorough account of that story in my 2006 article for the Journal of Libertarian Studies: "Radio Free Rothbard," available in PDF and HTML.

Cross-posted to the Libertarian Standard.

Should we thank the State for the Internet?

ARPAnetIn a comment on my post “recycling regress” Scott Lahti points us to an article by the author of The Ghost Map, defending Silicon Valley against the slanderous accusation that it’s full of libertarians. Scott describes the article this way:

Steven Johnson v. Libertarianism 101, if not 2.0.

Here’s the opening of Johnson’s article:

Read more of this post

a PDF is not an ebook

Ceci n'est pas un ebook.On the Invisible Order blog, my beloved missus explains why a PDF is not an ebook, despite what the advertising may claim.

Here’s my summary:

It’s not an ebook if you can’t read it on your iPhone.

She also explains why there is no automated process for converting PDF files to ebooks. (And there won’t be, until artificial intelligence improves significantly.)

For the full story, read her post.

Which e-reader is right for you?

iPadMiniWhite4IOOnce you’ve read a few ebooks on the right handheld device, it’s very hard to go back to paper. But which is the right e-reader? The three most popular e-readers today are the iPad, Kindle, and Nook. And each has its uses.

iPad?

I know ebook enthusiasts who will only read on the iPad. Jeffrey Tucker was giving thumbs-down reviews to the most popular ebook readers back when I was already a complete convert to digital text. He said that turning the pages was too slow, that you couldn’t flip around in the book. “I can see how this might be valuable if this is the way we mostly read — the way people navigate the latest best-selling novel — but I have my doubts that this is the way most of us use books.”

Five years later, he wrote,

The iPad was a revelation to me.… That thing changed my whole life. I only needed to see my first epub on iPad to realize that I would only read paper and ink with great reluctance from then on. It’s still the same today. In fact, I’ve turned the epub into my main profession: I run the Laissez Faire Club that releases top-of-the-line epubs weekly on a subscription basis.

Read more of this post