Quick Roundup 338

Monday, June 30, 2008

Boston Taxis: No Fare

C. August wrote a very interesting and thoughtful piece last week about how Boston has made life hard for cab drivers and stranded pedestrians alike.

The problem is with the medallion system itself, and the myriad regulations that go along with it. The government caps the supply of taxis, imposing an artificial scarcity, driving up the cost of starting a cab business immensely and skewing the entire "market" from the very beginning. In a Boston Magazine article from 2004, Chris Berdik writes, "Medallions were introduced in the 1930s to curb a glut of cabs on city streets. The number was capped at 1,525 and remained there for six decades until a 10-year legal battle led to 260 more being sold at auction in the late 1990s."

As a result of this artificial scarcity -- with a supply that has changed little in nearly 80 years -- all the other strange problems start popping up. The government adds a regulation here or a price hike there to try and fix things, and new issues crop up. Eventually we see a system that is horribly complex, incomprehensible, and basically unfixable. That is, until we start talking about deregulating the industry and abolishing the medallion scheme. [bold added]
The situation is so bad that I first heard about this from my wife, who is very intelligent, but not that interested in politics or economics. In other words, the situation there is so bad that anyone who might want to use a cab will notice. Read the whole thing.

Objectivist Roundup

Also at Titanic Deck Chairs is the latest Objectivist Roundup, in case you missed it, didn't get through all of it, or missed Myrhaf's article.

Gus Wins an Award!

No, Rational Jenn's baby will astound us with his precociousness when he's good and ready. And no, although I did get quoted by an Australian news site recently, I have nothing in the awards department to bring up here, either.

No. I'm speaking here of another Gus entirely: the one, pictured at right, who recently took top honors in a contest for "World's Ugliest Dog"!

The idea that morality is optional is the real "luxury".

Via Glenn Reynolds, I got wind of an interesting discussion by Megan McArdle about morality as a luxury good. Reynolds cites the following quote from a Nature review of the novel, Lucifer's Hammer:
The authors' main theme is that, comet or no, a civilization has the morality its machinery allows it to afford. [bold added]
Unsurprisingly, given the near-universal acceptance of the incorrect premises that (1) there is no rational basis for morality, and (2) altruism (a type of morality) is the same thing as morality, it is hardly surprising that at least five well-educated, intelligent adults regard this idea as true.

McArdle's point of departure is the notion that the lives of animals "count for something" aside from whatever status as property they might have, and she quotes an anarchist who labors over the question at great length, but unfortunately this only slips in popular confusions about good will and altruism and sloppiness about what "moral status" (let alone morality) is.

McArdle states of the sacrifice of man's interests to animals that is currently all the rage that it shows that, "Prosperity allows us to have things that we all now regard as moral requirements." This is an excellent observation in the sense that the closer we are to abject savagery, the less we can afford to flout our need, as a species, to exploit the earth.

On the other hand, to the extent that we commit the human self-sacrifice of altruism, we will live our lives less fully. An example of swinging a bat at a cow's head in a cited passage is beside the point because it drops all context and considers the act in isolation, as if we live our daily lives in a vacuum. Swinging a bat at a cow's head "just because" would be almost always immoral on egoistic grounds because it would be a waste of time, but the cow, not being rational, has no rights of its own and thus has "the moral status of [a] mere object".

How does this differ from Wimbledon shooting down pigeons that were dive-bombing spectators? The pigeons were making the tournament less enjoyable for its fans and probably would have made it less lucrative for its backers in the future if nothing was done about it. Shooting them was a quick, cost-effective solution that protected the value that the tournament had to offer to all involved.

The dive-bombing probably could be stopped in the future with netting or some other such measure, but if it is more expensive or troublesome than simply shooting the birds down, it is against the self-interest of the tournament's officials and backers to do so, and to that extent, it is wrong.

So yes, the tournament probably would go on if we didn't shoot down the pigeons, but how is it that we can afford to do this, and what does that really mean? This is where another, more subtle error than equating altruism and morality comes in. Note that nobody in this discussion is arguing (explicitly) that we should all exterminate ourselves. They implicitly understand that altruism is deadly (else they wouldn't speak of "morality" -- the rules by which to live one's life -- as an impediment to life or its enjoyment). At the same time, they see life and some possible values (like eating meat) as valuable enough to them to trump "morality".

None of these debaters would, I hazard to guess, be satisfied with mere bodily survival. They want something else in addition, like enjoyment, personal fulfillment, or just comfort. All these things are part of what Tara Smith, author of Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics, called "flourishing". I would put this loosely as something like, "living fully and realizing one's potential."

It is this, and not mere bodily survival that many people in the West take for granted as a legitimate reason not to sacrifice themselves, and which Ayn Rand meant when she said that, "The Objectivist ethics holds man's life as the standard of value -- and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man."

In the sense that we can, as individuals or a society, physically survive a certain amount of self-sacrifice, we can "afford" to practice a degree of altruism, but to the extent we do so, we will -- at best -- fail to flourish in some respect. In other words, when the nature of and need for morality is properly understood, we see that egoism is man's proper form of morality and that altruism is a "luxury" he can ill-afford.

Morality -- a proper one -- is a necessity, not a luxury.

Also, come to think of it, a better formulation for the proposition might be, "Neither a man nor a civilization can afford to live, let alone flourish, without the proper moral machinery in place."

-- CAV

PS: Diana Hsieh is posting highlights from this year's OCON. I'm missing it this year in part because an oral surgery date looms. You won't hear me complain, though. These things can be deadly if not treated. My present difficulties come in part from a botched root canal.


Today: (1) Added PS. (2) Corrected a typo. (3) Added final comment on morality.


Monica said...

Ooooh...ooowww! Yikes! I was under the impression that not sterilizing fully for root canals was rare these days. Good luck, hope all is well soon.

Gus Van Horn said...


In my case, the work was done over a decade ago to repair an already-botched root canal. I am puzzled myself as to why I'm having a problem only now. Perhaps the oral surgeon will explain what might have happened during the consult....

Daniel Rigby said...

You're right. My good friend's Dad died from a tooth abscess, it's really a shame.

Gus Van Horn said...

Sad to hear that.

I was scheduled for a consult today, and as I suspected they would, they decided to go ahead and take it out today. I'm just now feeling de-fogged from the anesthetic.

It may take months of work to fix the damage this caused, but at least it is gone now.