Absurd and Dangerous

Monday, September 05, 2011

Rachael Larimore of Slate epitomizes a serious problem among Americans, including many who are beginning to realize just how absurd many nanny-state laws (in force or proposed) really are: She fails to appreciate how dangerous such laws really are, when considered in the context of other, similar,  laws and the enormous, intrusive, and often improper reach of our government.

State assemblyman Tom Ammiano (shockingly, a San Francisco Democrat) has introduced legislation that would require worker's comp and substitute caregivers to provide break time for all domestic workers, and by domestic workers, he is including the teenager you hire to come watch your kids so you can catch dinner once a month at a restaurant that doesn't offer crayons with its menus. 
Larimore sees the absurdity, and correctly realizes that something like this is basically impossible to enforce -- uniformly, anyway. But with only the conspiracy theory-like fears of social conservatives as a foil to her conventional, altruistic focus on the "little people" most obviously affected by the law, she remains oblivious to its actual danger.
I suspect that even teenagers are smart enough to know that if they go around demanding detailed pay stubs and worker's comp insurance that parents they work for will be only to happy to find someone else. So enforcement won't likely be high. But why pass legislation that is unlikely to be enforced? It could still have a chilling effect [on parents hiring babysitters and result in poor teenagers].
That chilling effect won't end with date night, however. Suppose a parent gets on the wrong side of some government functionary with enforcement power (or a favor to call in with someone who does), or someone with a good lawyer? How hard would it really be to establish the use of an illegal baby-sitter or, worse, a pattern of such activity?

Laws like this -- and there are plenty -- serve as a means for people in government to arbitrarily hassle people, with the added benefit (but not for the people whose rights government is supposed to protect) that any example of enforcement will make others more timid in the face of a government with its hands in everything.

Speaking about arbitrary laws, Ayn Rand once had this to say:
The threat of sudden destruction, of unpredictable retaliation for unnamed offenses, is a much more potent means of enslavement than explicit dictatorial laws. It demands more than mere obedience; it leaves men no policy save one: to please the authorities; to please -- blindly, uncritically, without standards or principles; to please -- in any issue, matter or circumstance, for fear of an unknowable, unprovable vengeance.
Granted, this law does spell out what it forbids, but with so many prescriptive laws already on the books that nobody can keep track of; and with so many things that are illegal that shouldn't be, and so aren't apparent to common sense; and so much capricious enforcement, this proposed law might as well be arbitrary. Consider how an average Joe might see this: If something so blatantly stupid as worker's comp for baby-sitters is on the books, God only knows what other mundane activities can get you in trouble!

If Rachael Larimore wants to know why some lawmakers make such asinine proposals, this is her answer.

-- CAV

--- In Other News ---

An excellent and very accessible essay about the role of natural selection in evolution by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin recently came to my attention. I highly recommend it to anyone with a serious interest in understanding that subject. 

I love my new smart phone, but find the atomization of much of the web into individual "apps" a little odd. Apparently, that's not the way things are done everywhere. One writer who visited Taiwan with a WebOS phone learned from his experience that, "As long as you have a good browser, your device won't become a brick."

An article in the Wall Street Journal defines several commonly-cited measures of our national debt and makes the following valuable point: "[T]he intra-governmental debt should be counted as though it were publicly held debt, as that's exactly what it will be in the fullness of time." (via HBL)


RussK said...

Yeah, the whole app thing is kind of ridiculous. The main reason that an app should be superior is because it shouldn't have to take data from the internet; however, even most apps iOS, Android, or webOS still take data. Really, this makes the $99 TouchPad an even better offer; with Flash and other support native, the whole web experience is there for use, regardless of what apps may be missing fro the app catalog. I think that as more and more smart mobile devices are in the wild, the more the web will become mobile friendly, leaving apps for things that are more isolated to the phone itself.

Richard said...

Having studied biology & Darwinian evolution in University in the 1970s, I rather think Gould and Lewontin overstate the ubiquity of the adaptationist view point. Reductionism and Holism constitute a false dichotomy, and often arguments and interpretations that appear to be coming from one side or the other are not de facto claims to one side or the other. A microscope is needed to understand an elephant's skin cells, but that does not make the microbiologist a reductionist. My professors understood this; they and various texts and journal articles presented Evolution accordingly.

Gould, in his later (retirement) years, argued that the true Evolutionary unit was the entire species, not the individuals within the species. He seemed oblivious to the implication of his idea to cladistic evolution: it would end species divergence and negate Darwin. His rejection of reductionism went too far.

Gus Van Horn said...


I suspect that lots of those kinds of apps are around in the US primarily because of Apple's business model, and iPod's role as the first common smart phone. The term itself is marketing buzz: Nobody had a problem with the word "application" before, but this is short, and "in the know" and "what the cool kids say."


Thanks for your critique of the essay and comments on Gould's other work. Regarding their overstatement of the ubiquity of the adaptationist viewpoint, I agree that this was true for academics then, but based on how I hear evolution discussed by non-academics, I am not so sure this ISN'T how many (most?) laymen with an interest in evolution see things.

I am inclined to agree that Gould focused too much on speciation.

I looked a Gould's biography on Wikipedia before posting yesterday and found several things about his larger body of thought I disagreed with, too. Philosophically, he tried using dualism (or something that looks like it) to protect science. I am also not sure where I would stand regarding his punctuated equilibrium model of evolutionary progress, although I don't see that as relevant to the issue he takes on in the Spandrels essay.


Richard said...

Hah, perhaps I am being an elitist Philosopher King in thinking that the layman view is likely to be a muddle of truth and confusion anyway.

By about 1990 I actually lost so much respect for Gould that I feel uncomfortable with the very idea of reading his Wiki. I don't want to spend time parsing the arguments.

I stuck to reading the (1979) Spandrel article (a great title) almost entirely because you recommended it.

Am I missing something, or is the example of Voltaire being against arbitrary explanations (for adaptive purposes) as bad as I think it is?

Gould and Lewontin say, of the adaptationists:
"...inviting the same ridicule that Voltaire heaped on Dr. Pangloss: 'Things cannot be other than they are... Everything is made for the best purpose. Our noses were made to carry spectacles, so we have spectacles. Legs were clearly intended for breeches, and we wear them.'"

Since the nose is NOT made for carrying spectacles Voltaire commits the very error G&L are arguing against.

Gus Van Horn said...

Candide is a satirical novel by Voltaire, and it is precisely the point in quoting Voltaire's clueless character, Dr. Pangloss as he makes that idiotic statement. (Saying Voltaire thinks noses are made to carry spectacles would be like quoting one of Ellsworth Toohey's more villainous pronouncements and attributing it to Rand.)

The point here is that claiming that everything that happens in evolution results in an optimal level of adaptation is as ridiculous as claiming that noses are for carrying glasses. Other things, such as body plans inherited from ancestral species, get in the way.

Richard said...

I have not read Candide. Perhaps if I had, I would have taken the G&L wording to mean as you explain. I even expected it to be that way. However, as I see it in the article, G&L attribute the quoted words to Voltaire, not Pangloss! G&L say, "inviting the same ridicule that Voltaire heaped on Dr. Pangloss". Is Voltaire using sarcasm, which I could not see in so short an excerpt?

Gus Van Horn said...

The quote is from the novel, as you can see in an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on Candide.

Perhaps the quote was more famous then, and that manner of quoting less likely to cause confusion.