Archive for the ‘liberty’ Category

Matt Yglesias points my attention to voter intimidation within a McDonald’s franchise:

The letter doesn’t elucidate what laws are being broken, so I’m curious to know what the legal argument is and where else it might apply. If you drive by my office, for instance, you’ll see half a dozen campaign signs for every applicable Democratic election in the front lawn. If you step inside, you might hear, as I have, off-handed remarks about how Republican candidates are crazy and evil. Today in the office, I was encouraged to vote and facetiously reminded that Republicans vote Wednesday. That stuff I can take in stride and good humor because I don’t really give a damn, but mightn’t it intimidate some? Keep in mind I’m interning for a corporation (albeit mononational), a fact which Mr. Schulman’s letter indicates is terribly relevant.

As it happens, I don’t think the paycheck handbill is appropriate, just as I don’t think the lopsided signs in front of my office are appropriate (though if I indulged my subversiveness, I suppose I could always hammer in a Republican picket sign without fuss). Yet I think it’s inappropriate because it’s incongruous with the larger workplace culture, not because there’s something immoral or illicit about it. Given that the threat (giving the handbill its least charitable reading) is ultimately empty because voting is anonymous, what’s the issue? Repression or intimidation alone, in explicit print? If an atheist were working as a secretary at a church office, does he have a legitimate grievance if he’s always asked to join in office prayer?

These workplace wickets are stickier than that mayhaps, but in the end the lesson everyone seems to agree on is to keep tacit things tacit.

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The 4th of July is a holiday in Rwanda, too. There they celebrate Liberation Day, which commemorates the symbolic end of the genocide in 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by now-president Kagame captured Kigali. As the name attests, they were patriots, too, fighting for the freedom of their people. You might even say they were fighting, as were we, against colonial oppression, which had lingered long after most of the colonials had left in the form of a deeply inculcated mindset which emphasized differences among man more arbitrary than man can usually tolerate. But blood and violence changed that, and a new mindset prevails.  A “liberated” one, Kagame called it today.

Who knows what being liberated means to Kagame, but my year in his country did give me a better sense of what being liberated meant to me.

Americans, especially on days like these, fancy themselves the freest of the free (we’re at least in the top ten, anyway). But this emphasizes a loud fife-and-drum conception of liberty from some tyrannical control, when the real beauty of it is found in a quiet evolved respect for the individual prerogative. The more I jaunt around the globe–itself a wonderful benefit of liberty–the more I’ve come to appreciate the ability to act alone.

In Rwanda, for instance, as in many places around the world, an individual never stops being accountable to and responsible for the family from whence he came. His decisions may not be coerced with the threat of violence, but they aren’t made freely because of the powerful cultural forces at play. He may prefer to live the life of a penniless artist, but can’t because he’s expected to support some lazy cousin and his wife. Liberation from the repression of a culture isn’t even an option, because it may well never occur to the person he’s being repressed. Minorities everywhere are victimless victims.

Wonderfully, liberty does not embrace tradition, though that is the conceit of conservatives. To be liberated is to question always and to be suspicious of settled ways. Decisions are inevitably framed by biases both cognitive and cultural, a fact I understand well coming from a childhood thoroughly saturated with religion. But even in this relatively (for America) repressive environment, I was able to leave it without too much distress. Cultural values were strong, but not omnipotent.

And I could have returned from my rumspringa rather than stayed astray. Though I doubt many Rwandans are liberated by my definition, I may be mistaken. And if nothing else, what provides me the most comfort about liberty is it recognizes confusion, complexity, and all the rest, and makes the most provision for being wholly wrong.

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Pick and Choose

In rich countries it is becoming increasingly difficult to find people to do this at wages farmers say they can afford. Seasonal demand adds to the problems: in California, where some 450,000 people, mostly immigrants, are employed on fruit farms at the peak of the harvest, growers often leave some produce to rot. Even Japan’s exquisite and expensive strawberries are becoming too costly to pick because of a shortage of workers, in part caused by an ageing population. Despite worries about food shortages in the coming years, many farmers are more worried about labour shortages.

In part, says the article, because of an aging population but mostly because the Japanese government doesn’t let in many foreigners. After all, where in the world would be the benefit of letting poor people work for better pay and having cheaper fruit? Yes, let’s protect the delicate grapes of our social Chablis by restricting the freedom of others; the higher labor costs will make machines economical, and then the migrants won’t have a reason to come!

Just as the mechanical reaper transformed the economics of cereal farming, a new wave of agricultural automation promises to do the same in other areas of horticulture.



Bonus points for anyone who can point out the relevance between this and minimum wage legislation.

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Fenced Fourth Estate

How could you not take subversive pleasure in this letter-duo found in the week’s Economist?

SIR – Philip Bowring’s account of the Far Eastern Economic Review’s encounter with the Singapore government is inaccurate (Letters, October 17th). In 1987 the government restricted the circulation of the Review after it had engaged in Singapore’s domestic politics. But an advertisement-free version was distributed widely at bookshops and supermarkets, and sold more than 1,000 copies. In March 1988 the Review applied to produce a similar version. The government agreed, subject to a ceiling of 2,000 copies, but the Review refused its offer. Would this have happened in Maoist China and North Korea?

Michael Eng Cheng Teo
High commissioner for Singapore

SIR – You will be tempted to give the Singapore government the last word on its censorship strategy—as its “right of reply” policy demands—but this will neutralise the criticism of Mr Bowring and others. Readers will simply assume you agree with the government. Assuming you don’t, please print this alongside its next rebuttal, to expose this subtle yet powerful manipulation of the press.

Duncan M. Butlin
Chichester, West Sussex

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In Rostock, where I lived for several months, a 23-year-old state-level politician has lost his job and been fined 200 Euro for publishing this photo on the German rip-off of Facebook:

His crime was “Verunglimpfung der Bundesrepublik Deutschland,” or denigrating the Federal Republic of Germany (that’s a German flag in there). In the newspaper article, he claims the photo was intended to counter the nationalism that is accompanying the ongoing Eurocup.

Imagine how Westerners would react if the country were some South American autocracy, say, rather than Germany. Wouldn’t it be criticized–even haughtily so–as deeply illiberal and wrong?

A good way to check for bias is to perform that little thought experiment when considering your stance on any given policy.  Consider if your opinion on e.g. trade, torture, immigration, going to war, etc. would change if it were not your home country advocating it but some unfamiliar foreign land. If your opinion would change, or reverse, it’s worth attempting  to pin down why that is. You might discover your rationale was as soggy as a flushed flag.


Update: What about state-run media?

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This week’s Economist has a series of articles about drug prohibition. Here’s the main point from the leader:

Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless.

I’d like to think I’m a reasonable guy with empathy percolating out of every pore, but in this case I just don’t see how someone concerned with the effects of drug policy could not help but favor liberalization.  There will always be disagreement about how far liberalization should go, but virtually any step in that direction would seem to bring more benefit than cost. Insofar as one is not concerned with outcomes, however, but rather with good intentions or what legal drug use “says” about a society, then I am certainly able to understand one’s seeing liberalization as a solution administered through a dark and dirty needle.

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My roommate was born in Mexico and immigrated legally to the US where he was one of my classmates at university. He graduated from a well-ranked program, speaks English fluently, has ten times as many American friends as I do, and as far as I know did not acquire his current job at an environmental fabrics company by stealing it from an American. Nonetheless, because the American government restricts the number of people like him who can live here legally to a number far below the amount employers demand, he has now spent over a month in Mexico proving–among many other things–that he is not an alcoholic or otherwise poses a danger to Americans. All of this to renew for one year his coveted visa.

Meanwhile, because the American government has made the import of certain drugs illegal despite large domestic demand, organized crime in Mexico is posing a danger to life, liberty, and democracy. Nearly 5,000 people have died in the struggle since the end of 2006, more than the number of Americans killed in Iraq. Some border towns are entirely controlled by gangsters, and the high profits earned in the black market are serving to stunt the growth of nascent political institutions.

To achieve more, demand less from your government.

Addendum: Then again, my roommate does have Lebanese roots and shares a surname with Bin Laden’s former driver, so he is probably a terrorist. Touché, America.

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