Freedom

Book Review: Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on Global Labor Mobility by Lant Pritchett.
This book is primarily written for economists and academics in related fields, but most of it can be understood by an average person.
I was a little hesitant to read this book because I suspected it would do little more than reinforce my existing beliefs. There were certainly parts of the book that I would have been better off skipping for that reason.
But one important effect of the book was to convince me that the effects on the poor of migration to wealthier countries is so large compared to things like “foreign aid” and free trade that anyone trying to help the poor by influencing government policies shouldn’t spend any time thinking about how to improve “foreign aid” or trade barriers.
I’ve long been wondering how to respond to remarks such as Jimmy Carter’s ‘We are the stingiest nation of all’ based the U.S.’s low “foreign aid” to GDP ratio. Pointing out that “foreign aid” is mostly wasted or even harmful requires too much analysis of lots of not-too-strong evidence. Pritchett shows that the wealth affects of allowing the poor to work in rich countries should dominate any measure of how those rich countries treat the poor. By that measure, adjusting for country size, the U.S. ranks better than countries in the EU, but is embarrassingly callous compared to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Jordan.
The book addresses both moral and selfish arguments for restricting immigration. It treats the selfish arguments (even those based on myths) as problems that can’t be overcome, but which can be reduced via compromises. These pragmatic parts of the book are too ordinary to be worth much.
The sections about moral arguments are more powerful. He clearly demonstrates a large blind spot in the moral vision of those who think they’re opposed to all discrimination but who aren’t offended by discrimination on the basis of the nationality a person was assigned at birth. But he exaggerates when he claims that nationality is the only exception to a widely agreed on outrage at discrimination based on “condition of birth”. Discrimination based on date of birth still gets wide support (e.g. the drinking age). And if you’re born as a conjoined twin, don’t expect much protection from surgery that looks about as moral as brain surgery designed to cure a child’s homosexuality should.
Perhaps this book is one small step toward creating a movement with a slogan such as “Tear down that kinder, gentler Berlin wall!”.

Seasteading Institute

When I first heard and read about Seasteading, I thought it was mostly well thought out, but that it hadn’t reached its goal of providing a business plan that would support a small group of non-wealthy people to set up the first seastead in international waters.
Now Peter Thiel has donated $500,000 to fund a new organization called The Seasteading Institute. My intuition is that it will take somewhere between $2 million and $20 million of charitable contributions to reach the threshold of resources needed for a seastead to become viable in international waters. But the first big donation is typically harder for a nonprofit to get than subsequent donations, and the size of this initial donation (with only a rudimentary organization) suggests that there’s a good chance that more money can be raised once more specific plans are developed and more people indicate commitments to implement them.

Book Review: 1491 : New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
This book does a good job of discrediting several myths about the nature New World civilizations before Europeans arrived. It implies that significant parts of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel are wrong (in ways that Diamond should have avoided by consulting experts) – Indians were quite capable of repelling Europeans when their advantage consisted of guns and steel. After smallpox spread across the Americas (faster than Europeans), guns and steel were largely superfluous advantages.
The book presents evidence (alas, not enough to be conclusive) that most of the land in the Americas had been altered by civilizations that were much more sophisticated and varied than is commonly realized, and the myth that Indians were primitive savages is largely due to people mistaking the disease-ravaged remnants that the typical European colonist encountered for the pre-European norm.
The book also provides a few bits of evidence against historical determinism by pointing out how differently some aspects of civilization developed in the two worlds. For instance, the New World seems to have been first to get the concept of zero, but only used wheels for toys, and valued metals for their malleability rather than strength.
One very intriguing report is that the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederation society was freer and more egalitarian than European society, and that this caused a number of Europeans to prefer Haudenosaunee society, but no Indians in that region preferred European society. It’s unclear how strong the evidence is for these somewhat controversial claims. I guess I ought to track down the books he references for this subject.
The book also describes the Inka empire as socialist, without any markets, but I’m disappointed at how little the books says about that (e.g. how broad a definition of market is he using?).
The main shortcomings of this book are the numerous anecdotes that add little to our understanding of Indian civilizations.

Book Reviews: Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism (Paperback)
by Pat Califia
and Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex by Pat Califia
Sex Changes provides a good history of nonstandard genders. It describes a rather dramatic change in how typical transsexuals see themselves, from a time when sex change operations were considered attempted cures for a somewhat embarrassing disease and strongly desired to fit in to a standard gender stereotype to a time when many celebrate their diversity and see their gender (both before and after any hormones or surgery they may get) as something different from male or female.
I was a bit surprised by some things the book reports, such as that cross-dressing was illegal in parts of the U.S. as recently as the 1980s, or that some people approach sex reassignment with the same mindset as they do when getting tattoos.
The book has fairly good discussions of the problems with access to surgery and hormones that are created by disagreements over whether they are cures for a disease or something closer to cosmetic surgery. It is disturbing how much incentive there is to lie to doctors (and maybe insurers) in order to fit a somewhat arbitrary stereotype of someone with more mental problems than the average transsexual experiences.
I’m disappointed that the book does little to analyze the politics of how gender-segregated restrooms deal with people who don’t consider themselves male or female. It seems likely that this will generate political controversy soon, but few people seem prepared for it.
The book mostly deals with U.S. culture, but one chapter deals unusually-gendered roles in other cultures, mainly Berdaches in Native American cultures, and arguments about whether they should be thought of as transgender roles.

I have a few objections to what the book says:

The roots of prejudice against homosexuals and the hatred and fear of transsexuals are so closely woven together that it is not really all that difficult to educate people simultaneously about both communities.

This seems only half right. There are ways to argue for queer rights that apply to both groups, but I don’t see how they address many of the fears of bigots. Prejudice against gays has little to do with the fears that restrooms will be unsafe for some women if there is no clear boundary between male and female, or the fear that someone will put a lot of time and prestige at risk courting a potential mate only to discover that it won’t be possible to produce children via such a mating. Fear of transsexuals has little to do with the fear that gay men will spread sexually transmitted diseases.
There are many things that could have been done better to advance respect for transsexuals without hindering homosexuals. We could have used the word queer a good deal more often, and we could have tried harder to insure that queer was used in an inclusive way. (The obstacles to that weren’t just conservative tendencies among some homosexuals, but also intolerance among radicals who want to show off their ideological purity by distancing themselves from non-radicals who could be called queer).
Another way would be for gay rights advocates to focus more on disagreements about whether the primary purpose of sex and romance is reproduction. Many leading gay marriage opponents are trying to maintain or recreate a culture in which sex is more strongly connected to reproduction than I think the swing voter is comfortable with. Yet too many gay rights activists prefer to stereotype opponents as simply ignorant rather than having controversial but coherent goals.
These two approaches could have helped transsexuals somewhat without any cost to gays, but much of the reason gays have been accepted faster than transsexuals is that there have been more gays around to demand respect from their friends and neighbors, and no change in queer activist strategies would have much effect on that difference.

despite the fact that SRS has been performed for three decades, most insurance companies and HMOs classify it as an experimental procedure, and will not cover it. This should be compared to the response to organ transplants

Yet there’s much clearer evidence that organ transplants usually accomplish their goals well than there is that sexual reassignment surgery does. Insurers treatment of SRS doesn’t seem significantly more arbitrary than their decision to not cover experimental treatments in general. The main problem is the inadequate innovation in the surgical practices.

Public Sex is a fairly good survey of unconventional sexual practices. Much of it simply reports that people (often the author) are proud to engage in this and that practice. The book occasionally makes arguments that attempt to convince people to approve of those practices, but mostly it will fail to change many minds. People who are unashamed of sex will mostly already agree with the ideas in the book, and prudes will be unwilling to consider them.
The rants against puritanical feminists might convince a few gays that some feminists are their enemies, but mostly they will just reinforce existing beliefs.
Many of the essays were written in the 1980s, and the sometimes tedious descriptions of legal and political details of that time are of little value except to historians.
Some of the older essays include an occasional annoyingly overbroad quasi-marxist class struggle rant, but the more recent essays indicate the author has become more sensible over time.

More evidence that people strongly overestimate the need for government.
The latest issue of Reason magazine has a nice report (based on this report in Motoring) that Ukraine fired all of the country’s traffic cops, and preliminary evidence indicates that the predictions of increased traffic accidents were false.

Dubai

Liberty Magazine has an interesting article on Dubai called Freedom Blossoms in the Arabian Desert about the remarkable prosperity and freedom in that city.
A quick internet search shows reports such as this Report on International Religious Freedom and this report on Sunshine and censorship: Press freedom in UAE suggest the Liberty article exaggerates how free it is, suggesting it’s more like another Singapore than a Hong Kong. But even with that caveat, there’s still plenty of room to hope that it’s providing an opportunity for the Muslim world to escape the political systems that have kept it primitive.

The 2004 Accelerating Change Conference focused much more on current changes than last year’s attempts at providing long-term visions led me to expect.

The one topic that excited me was a virtual world called Second Life. While it might sound superficially like just a virtual Burning Man, the designers are serious enough about their nationbuilding to encourage commerce, both within the system and via currency exchanges such as The Gaming Open Market with other worlds. Their VP of Product Development Cory Ondrejka described Hernando de Soto’s book The Mystery of Capital as "must reading". They have been careful to insure that people have few incentives to take disputes arising in the virtual world to meatspace courts. For instance, they once banned a vandal from the game who owned a fair amount of land; they auctioned off the land and sent him a check for most of the proceeds – $1600.

Some of their customers are doing well enough in the virtual world that the company that runs Second Life has trouble offering them a salary good enough to compete with what they’re making in virtual life.

They don’t seem as concerned about the highly deflationary effects of their monetary policy as I expect they ought to be. Why will people buy their land (the sale of which seems to be their main source of income) if they can earn a safe and sure return by just holding the local currency?

The responsiveness of the company to citizen complaints (e.g. simplifying and later abolishing taxes in response to tax revolts) is fairly strong evidence that a non-monopolistic dictator is better than a democracy with monopoly power.

Seasteading

I got a refreshing break from the gloomy election news at a talk on Wednesday by Patri Friedman, who seems determined to give his father some competition for the title of most effective advocate of freedom.

Mike Linksvayer (whose blog I ought to read more regularly) has a good summary of the talk. I’ll try to comment on this topic once I’ve read the online book on the subject, hopefully in time for the related talk by Spencer MacCallum at the Nov. 13 meeting of the Saturday Night Anarchy Club.