Who Decides?

Who decides what we eat, drink, and how to go about being merry? Societies range from those that rely heavily on government determination to those that leave most choices to individuals. At one end of the spectrum, the government determines what it is healthy or safe for us to consume and do and at the other end each person freely makes their own decisions about most aspects of their life.  Neither of these extremes is absolute, of course. At the freedom end we are not free to violate the freedom of others (steal their property, assault their bodies, etc.).  At the cradle-to-the-grave -government-protection end we safely eat, drink, and enjoy the activities the government allows us to.

America flourished economically and culturally because we were largely free to make our own decisions. Government largely enforced property rights and public safety and provided information on which we could make better informed private choices. We innovated and took calculated risks with the deployment of our ideas and flourished.

In recent decades the government has increasingly restricted our choices to what it determined was good or safe.  The superiority of our private choices depends on how well informed and responsible we are. While we and the government may both think we are motivated to act in our personal best interest, the incentive to get it right is stronger for the individual actor.  And incentives always matter.

Take but one example—the “War on Drugs.”  Despite this war, 11,712 people died from drug overdoses in 2000 rising in two decades to 83,558 in 2020 (from 6,190 to 64,183 for opioids). “Drug overdose deaths-fentanyl-Greenville NC” I believe, with many others, that ending the drug war (legalizing the purchase and consumption of them) and instead educating the public about their effects (honest, fact-based information) would reduce such deaths.

The growing, selling and consuming of Cannabis is now legal in 21 states. When I gave into the social pressure in college to take a drag as a joint was passed around, I learned that it makes me less social. Wine was my better option. Not only do I enjoy wine, but I appreciate its socializing properties.  So, it has probably been 50 years since I have smoked marijuana. Its not clear whether its legalization along with better information and education on its pros and cons will increase or decrease or leave unchanged its consumption. The destructive prohibition of alcohol and the organized crime syndicates that grew up to circumvent it and its subsequent repeal did not eliminate the damage that alcoholism visited on some people.  However, Americans have generally benefited from the reliance on education and persuasion rather than government coercion.  Rather than crime syndicates to distribute illegal booze, we have AA and health facilities to help those who have not been able to resist overusing it.

Challenging and sensitive examples concern racial, sexual and religious discrimination.  The Civil Rights Law of 1964 attempted to address racial discrimination but in some ways overreached. The case of same sex marriage and the cake baker come to mind. We are still struggling to find the best balance between potentially conflicting individual rights.  I fail to see how the refusal of a baker to cook for the marriage of two men (which violates his religious beliefs), interferes with their right and ability to marry —an arrangement society has always seen as beneficial and important (and thus not to be denied to homosexuals).

The case of affirmative action also provides a challenging example of addressing a problem with social attitudes vs coercion. The Supreme Court decided in 1978 that the prohibition against racial discrimination could be violated for a temporary period in the interest of greater racial diversity and balance.  Harvard University chose to discriminate against Asian students, who would have been overrepresented if admitted on the basis of academic merit only, in order to admit a larger number of African Americans.  Asian students have challenged Harvard’s policy and the Supreme Court is expected to rule next year in “STUDENTS FOR FAIR ADMISSIONS, INC., Petitioner, v. PRESIDENT & FELLOWS OF HARVARD COLLEGE, Respondent” on the question “Should this Court overrule Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), and hold that institutions of higher education cannot use race as a factor in admissions?”

I believe that a public discussion of the benefits of diversity to schools and other institutions as well its contribution toward overcoming earlier and existing negative discrimination against African Americans is the more promising and flexible approach to this issue than government coercion. I find it interesting that many federal court judges take race into account in hiring their clerks.  “Appeals court judges consider race of their clerks”  This is also an interesting perspective: “How liberals lost their way on affirmative action”

The times are changing

In 1978 China began to free up and open its economy to move its economic policies toward ours. Although the Communist Party of China remained in complete control of the political domain, the growth in China’s economy was dramatic. “According to the World Bank, more than 850 million Chinese people have been lifted out of extreme poverty; China’s poverty rate fell from 88 percent in 1981 to 0.7 percent in 2015, as measured by the percentage of people living on the equivalent of US$1.90 or less per day in 2011 purchasing price parity terms.” “Poverty in China”

As I wrote 11 years ago: “Chinese people strike me as more like us than most any other people (including Europeans) I have met. And who do I mean by “us?” I don’t mean just Anglo Saxons like myself. I mean the hard working, innovative, entrepreneur types who are creating most of the wealth in this country like Google founders, Larry Page (American born Jew) and Sergey Brin (Russian born Jew), or Steve Jobs, who was born in San Francisco to a Syrian father and German-American mother, as well as many Anglo Saxons like myself.” ‘My G20 trip to China”

Sadly, Xi Jinping has been reversing this free market trend with very damaging results to economic growth and personal privacy and freedom in China.  

Sadder still, the United States has reversed direction since 9/11 as well, though more slowly. Not only has our government increasingly intruded into our privacy (it didn’t end with Edward Snowden’s revelations:  “Civil rights-Brennan-domestic terror-white supremacy”), but it has flooded the economy with excessive regulations, increasing trade restrictions and even the launch of industrial policies and subsidies that violate WTO rules. “US chip war to hit allies as hard as it does China”   “Competing with China” Our championing of the rule of law is growing increasingly hollow. Asset forfeiture provides but one example: Coats on the abuse of civil forfeiture”  and George Will on civil forfeiture nightmare”

How can this be? Why do we seem to want to be more like China? Many of today’s voters had not been born when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. We must make the case for free markets and limited government again and again, but in a way that is understood by, and appeals to the concerns and sensitivities of, generations X and Z and our future children.   “Global protests-democracy-autocracy”

Affirmative Action

Like most Americans I believe that our laws should be color blind. That means that race should not be a factor in who to hire or who to admit to college. But put aside what is required by the law for a moment and ask: what is good admission policy for a university? What we consider “good policy” itself depends on the purpose or objective of the policy.

Let me focus on private universities and colleges that are not benefiting from taxpayer (our) money, if there are any, who are thus free to determine what they consider “good policy.” Such universities are likely to want to provide the best educational experience for their students possible.  Having smart, motivated students is an important component of an enriching intellectually stimulating environment.  Diversity of ideas, personalities, and ethnic backgrounds is also a good component of such an environment.

Basing student admissions solely on SAT scores or such metrics will, unfortunately, over-represent Asians and underrepresent blacks. The goal would not necessarily be exact proportionality of the share of these groups in the population (U.S. population or global population??), but it might well be sensible given the desire for diversity, to shade admissions a bit toward more blacks and fewer Asians. Enlightened university admissions officers might well operate this way. Catholic and Hebrew schools have a different purpose, but it is expressed more on the side of applicants than admissions officers. My point is that there can be a good and proper place for such judgements in a “good” society.

“In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing the majority opinion upholding affirmative action in Grutter v. Bollinger, expressed the hope that race-conscious admissions would be unnecessary 25 years hence.”  “Harvard UNC affirmative action admissions before Supreme Court”  Because of earlier discrimination against blacks, in part through inferior elementary and secondary education, it was accepted as OK to temporarily discriminate modestly in favor of blacks when admitting students to a college or university. Such “affirmative action” has increased black college enrollment considerably. “Affirmative action-supreme court cases”

But 40 years of affirmative action (the waving of equal treatment under the law) is stretching the notion of temporary and the SC is likely to end it. In many respects it is about time. However, it also illustrates that the rigidity of a legal remedy in place of more nuanced judgement can be second best. This is a dilemma.

While enjoying an intellectually stimulating time in college may help attract good students, the real test of a college’s success is the extent to which the experience promotes a richer (in all senses) life after graduation. This requires admitting students who will benefit most from what the college offers, whatever their starting point. It requires looking deeper than such indicators as SAT scores. Prof. Roland Fryer’s experience suggests possible approaches. “Affirmative action-Supreme Court and college admissions”

As he often does, George Will confronts us with the frequent contradictions in our thinking on such tricky issues: “College racial discrimination and affirmative action”

What is appropriate to teach our kids?

Obviously, the knowledge and skills taught to kids should be appropriate to their age. At whatever age kids can meaningfully absorb the history and message of religions, for example (don’t ask me what age that is), the real question is what they should be taught about them. Given our constitutional separation of Church and State and our commitment to individual choice and the enriching benefits of a multiethnic population, public schools can not “teach Christianity”. But it is highly desirable to teach students about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the other major religions—their histories and beliefs. Parents have a right to be satisfied that what is taught fairly represents their religion.

At an appropriate age kids need to learn about races—about why some kids in the room are black, white, brown, and yellow. At an appropriate, presumably older age, they need to learn the history of these races and especially slavery as it is particularly relevant in America, as are Chinese rail road workers and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.

At appropriate ages kids also need to learn about how their bodies function and how to keep them healthy. As they approach puberty, they will want to know all about what is going on in their bodies. If they are not given this information in the classroom, they will seek it elsewhere. Current controversies over teaching information about sexuality and sexual functions to kids at the age needing and wanting such information and over the availability of affinity clubs for young teenagers to discusses these pressing questions, reflects, in my view, two serious mistakes in confronting this issue. The first is to overlook or deny that kids will seek out what ever information they can about every aspect of sex whether presented in the classroom or not. The second serious mistake is the claim that teaching about homosexuality and providing clubs in which kids can discuss their questions about it with their piers will recruit heterosexual students to join up with the gays as if being gay is so desirable. We cannot chose our sexual orientation.

I want to focus on the second of these. We are born with our sexual attractions. We are not and cannot be recruited from it to its opposite. The survival of the species requires that most people are heterosexual and happy to procreate and so overwhelmingly most people are heterosexual. Those who are not are acutely aware that their attractions are not the norm. As they attempt to establish their goals for their lives, most homosexuals try to hide from, or deny to, themselves that they are different. Most would rather not be. But they cannot change the facts. Their goal should be to accept the facts and carry on building the most fulfilling lives possible. This is much easier today than earlier because of honest and factual classroom information and public role models of successful gay men and lesbian women.

Sixty-five years ago as I struggled to sort out my own attractions (yes I know that that was a rather long time ago and a different world) I did not know any, or of any, gay people as models or better still to talk to. There was no Will and Grace, or Peter Buttigieg, or Peter Thiel, or Lily Tomlin. I had only heard of child molesters—bad people who were run out of town. I hated what I felt. It threatened to destroy the life I hoped to have. So I buried it away for many year at the cost of considerable internal pain. What a relief it would have been to have learn in class that some people are just that way and can have otherwise normal lives.

Thus, it is quite distressing to me that some poorly informed parents are rising up against such instruction. While I assume that they mean well, I see their actions as child abuse. They mistakenly believe that homosexuality is a choice. They understandably don’t want their child to make that choice. But it is not a choice. We often say that God made us homosexual, and we chose to be gay.

All children need the facts about the various urges god gave us and help with their struggle to accept their own sexual orientation and to fit in with the rest of society. Clubs at which they can socialize and feel comfortable and discuss the fact of their homosexuality can be a helpful part of their development. Despite the enormous progress in public understanding, ignorance persists in some quarters on which the Washington Post gives an interesting report:

Flyers at school advertising Safe Place club meetings, “set off a wave of parent anger and rumors that Safe Place club advisers including Melissa Panico, a teacher who has LGBTQ children, would “indoctrinate” students.

“Spurred by these concerns, legislatures in at least 19 states have passed or are considering laws that bar discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for younger children while limiting teaching on those topics for older students….

 “’Safe Space’ signs had to come down. The posters were ‘political in nature,’ he wrote, and might cause ‘disruption to the learning environment.’ The signs could run afoul of two legal considerations, he added: ‘One, will what is posted or worn be seen as indoctrinating our students to believe or think in a certain way. Two, would we allow anything that represents the opposite viewpoint?’” It is hard to believe that these were the words of an adult educator.  “Gay-straight alliance-indoctrination-school club”

Progress has been made but we still have a ways to go:

“When Sen. Barry Goldwater, dubbed “Mr. Conservative,” learned that his grandson and grandniece were gay, he worked for new laws that would protect their civil rights. When Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House, and his lesbian half-sister, Candace, became a gay activist, he took a more neutral stance. “It’s a free country,” he told the press. State Sen. William “Pete” Knight has been estranged from his son since learning four years ago he is gay.

“And now, Dick and Lynne Cheney are faced with their decision, how to handle in public what is essentially a private matter: the sexual orientation of their daughter, Mary.”  “The Cheney’s”

Where does the desire to explore come from?

Long ago I had the pleasure of introducing a young friend to types of food he hadn’t tasted before.  He was quite comfortable with his American style hot dog and hamburger meals and wasn’t certain he wanted to try new and strange dishes.  People differ in this regard.  Some are eager to try new cuisine, see new places, and encounter new people and cultures. Some are not.  And some are even rather intimidated and reluctant to leave their familiar comfort zone. There is a lot to be said for the predictability of the familiar, perhaps similar to well-worn shoes.

After some gentle persuasion, my friend agreed to sample a few dishes.  I reassured him that nothing would be forced on him and that he might even discover some exciting new tastes.  If he found that he didn’t like a dish he would not have to finish it.  But he would never know what he might be missing if he didn’t explore a bit.  Once he started, however, it was hard to stop him.  He was pleasantly surprised at how interesting and tasty some dishes were.  He was particularly reluctant to try foie gras knowing it was goose liver, though he fell in love with it by the second bite.

As I noted earlier, people differ in their tastes for adventure.  We might just leave it at that but for two reasons.  The first is that being rich is more interesting and exciting than being poor.  I am speaking here of experience rather than money.  Seeing and engaging new and different places, meeting new and different people of different cultures, listening to new and different music can make life richer.  The core of a liberal arts education (as opposed to acquiring professional skills) is the introduction to and broadening of our understanding and appreciation of ours and other cultures. It makes our lives richer.

The second is that openness to change is a necessary aspect of economic progress.  Technical progress disrupts the established order but increases our productivity and standards of living.  Global trade not only significantly increases our material standard of living but confronts us with other people and cultures as well.  Both–technical progress and global trade often impose changes on us (such as the job skills demanded in the market) that we might otherwise not choose or want.  If people can choose to live where their opportunities are greatest and if firms are able to employ people with the skills that best fit the firms needs, economies will be more efficient and will raise the standard of living for everyone.  By allowing the disruption of innovation and trade we will have the opportunity to, or be forced to, confront and deal with strangers more often.

This can have a negative side for those who do not easily embrace adventure—those who prefer the familiar (hot dogs and hamburgers). If new neighbors come from different backgrounds and cultures, adventure lovers can enjoy the excitement of learning more about other places and people.  But those uncomfortable with strangers can be – well – uncomfortable.  Economic advances can also have negative impacts on those whose skills are no longer needed and we would be wise to develop and support government measures to soften and facilitate the needed adjustments.

A predisposition to seek and embrace adventures or to shun them is given to us by nature. However, civilization and its advance builds on nurturing more social skills and openness. Failure to teach/convince our fellow citizens of the rewards of adventure (or merely accepting and adjusting to change) can lead to disastrous results.  In extreme cases unease can turn to fear/hate as in the recent white nationalist terrorist attack in El Paso by Patrick Crusius.  As-his-environment-changed-suspect-in-el-paso-shooting-learned-to-hate.  The nature of public debate on race relations, religious freedom, globalization, etc., and the words of role models can have a profound impact on how those confronting change formulate their views on these subjects.

The world is a better, richer place when all of its people respect one another and live peaceably together. We and our education systems (school, churches, clubs, jobs) should do our best to encourage those reluctant to welcome strangers of the positive experiences it can open to them.  By learning to understand different ways of thinking and doing, we not only enrich our lives but can strengthen our own ways of doing things (our own cultures). Such interactions can show us what we like and value about our own ways and what we might adjust in light of the interesting practices of others. This is what the American melting pot is all about. It has produced a vibrant, dynamic and economically flourishing country. However, it is more friendly to the adventuresome types than to those resistant to change. We would do ourselves and our country a favor to kindly encourage those “left behind” to open up more to the wonders of our changing world.  With regard to a difference subject of misinformation Anne Applebaum explores multiple approaches to this task: Italians-decided-to-fight-a-conspiracy-theory-heres-what-happened-next?