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Michael Shermer - Science, Skepticism and Libertarianism
Posted: 02 July 2009 08:22 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Michael Shermer is one of the most well-known skeptics in America, working for decades to advance the scientific outlook in society. He is a contributing editor and monthly columnist for Scientific American, and is the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech. Since his founding of the Skeptics Society in Southern California and Skeptic magazine, he has appeared widely on TV and radio on shows such as 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, Oprah, Unsolved Mysteries, and many more. He is the author of many books, including Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown, and Why People Believe Weird Things.  His most recent book is The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Michael Shermer discusses skepticism and its possible relationship to libertarianism. He argues that what some organizations define as “humanism” are actually positions that have nothing to do with humanism, but with Marxism and social democracy. He talks about why he has begun speaking out more about libertarianism as a leader in the skeptical movement. He admits that he may be more of a moderate libertarian than some others who defend that political and economic perspective. He talks about tensions within libertarianism as regards national defense, and what he sees as the need for national armies after 9-11. He explains which came first for him: libertarianism or skepticism, and talks about the influence of Ayn Rand on his intellectual development. He argues that Ayn Rand is still relevant even if her view of human nature (that people are basically selfish and that there is no such thing as altruism) upon which her economic theories are based is not born out by recent developments in cognitive and evolutionary psychology. He talks about Adam Smith, and how this year is the 250th anniversary of his first book, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, which presents his views regarding people’s natural propensity for empathy and sympathy.  He defends free market capitalism despite what some consider recent wholesale failures of the market, and criticizes Alan Greenspan’s betrayal of free market ideals. He attacks the current economic system which engages in corporate welfare and “economic tribalism” for being “capitalist in profits but socialist in losses.” Other topics he touches on include the gold standard, tax revolt anarchism, income redistribution, and how he would prefer religion and the private sector to help the poor as opposed the government providing for the welfare of the economically disadvantaged. He defends the growing disparity between the super rich and the very poor, and the position that most poor people in the West deserve their lot in life due to their own bad decisions. He talks about his book The Mind of the Market and why people believe weird things about money. He explores the implications of the burgeoning fields of behavioral economics and neuroeconomics for his libertarian position. He describes the basic elements of evolutionary economics, a field he has pioneered. And he defends the position that skepticism should not remain apolitical — instead, he argues that skeptics should apply their skepticism to religion and God, pseudoscience and the paranormal, and also economics and politics.

http://www.pointofinquiry.org/michael_shermer_science_skepticism_and_libertarianism

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Posted: 03 July 2009 02:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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A point made during the podcast I want to respond to: the idea that Northern Europe is “high tax”. Some countries are, some aren’t.

Take the United Kingdom. We have a tax wedge of 31.5%. The US tax wedge is 29.5%. What’s the difference between the countries? Well, for that extra 2%, we have a system of national healthcare that provides cradle-to-grave medical coverage and heavily subsidised dental coverage. Prescription medicine costs very little compared to the US. We have a pretty good train system - not as good as in some other European countries, but good enough. We have dramatically lower university fees - when I went to university, I paid about £1,100 a year in fees - most private colleges in the US would charge $20-30k per year. The fees have gone up and are now about £4k a year, but that’s a flat rate across the country - if you are some bright spark going to Cambridge to study physics, you pay the same as someone going to a polytechnic to study marketing.

Am I dramatically less free in the UK than I would be in the US? Economically, no. Socially? Hard to say. Our laws regarding drink are a bit more civilised as we haven’t had MADD and the feds force a drinking limit of 21 on us. As for pot? Well, “personal use” and police prioritising harder drugs means the average pot user doesn’t end up in jail. And, well, flights and trains to Amsterdam are cheap. If your chosen vice is cigarettes or saturated fats, life is getting harder. The huge amount of CCTV in London irritates me, and the anti-terror stuff went from silly to shocking with the de Menezes killing and stuff like this.

What keeps me from libertarianism? Simple. Climate change. All the “Obama is a socialist, I’m off to hoard guns in Nebraska” stuff is silly when you consider the fact that my (currently hypothetical) children or grand-children could witness the start of the next century with London, New York, Mumbai and Tokyo - some of our most important global cities - underwater. Call me an old Romantic, but I find the idea of a few million people becoming climate refugees coupled with the destruction of some of our important cultural landmarks - the Empire State Building, the British Museum, St. Paul’s and so on - quite an important issue. And it’s something libertarians have shirked because, well, “global warming is just part of a socialist conspiracy” or whatever. The big problem climate change poses is not higher taxes: it’s that if we don’t do anything, we wave goodbye to civilisation.

The other reason I am not a libertarian is just the experience of the market not working in practice: there are always practical limitations which inhibit competition. I’d really love some competition in the British train travel market. It doesn’t exist though. Practically, only one company can run the trains in a particular region. I can’t suddenly decide tomorrow that I don’t like my local train company, so I’ll use a different train company. There is one train company in my area. Is this some socialist innovation? No, this is the “privatisation” given to us by Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s Conservatives. They privatised British Telecom from being a state-run monopoly into being a privately-run monopoly - it’s only now, twenty years later, that small amounts of competition are being injected into the market. The government privatised these industries, but they didn’t “marketise” them. But I don’t see how the train system could ever be ‘marketised’.

What has the government ever done for me? Well, schooled me, allowed me to go to university, given me cheap transport, libraries, museums, a mostly-just court system, police bound by law and regulation, free legal representation if I’m arrested, hospitals, doctors and dentists. Not to mention things like plumbing, electricity and infrastructure that keeps society running, a group of people who will come and rescue me from emergencies and accidents and so on. And they do minor things like pay for fundamental scientific research that saves lives. That seems well worth 31.5%.

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Posted: 03 July 2009 07:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Tom Morris: Couldn’t have said it better myself. If we in the US are approaching European levels of taxation, I want European levels of social benefits. Instead, our hard-earned tax money goes to the military and corporate welfare (Shermer and I agree on that). Here’s a humorous article about how one American learned to love the Dutch welfare state: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/magazine/03european-t.html

However, the larger issue is that Shermer’s quaint and provincial libertarianism really harms the perception of him as an objective observer—and harms the burgeoning skeptical movement as well. Actually, in my view, the takeover of skepticism by libertarians is one reason why the skeptical movement is failing to gain traction in mainstream culture.

The worst offenders—Penn & Teller, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid, and Shermer—ruin the credibility of skepticism by flying the flag of their political bias so clearly. After all, Penn & Teller are not only libertarians, they are actually activists for the Libertarian Party! Believe me, Ron Paul is not who we want as the public face of skepticism.

So, libertarians: please keep your faith in so-called “free markets” to yourself, for the sake of the skeptical movement. Skepticism is about so much more than rationalizing personal greed, the raison d’être of libertarianism. Let’s stick to the objective science and not descend to that lowest form of human discourse: political punditry.

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Posted: 03 July 2009 07:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I agree with MemeInjector and Tom.
As we see in the US a shift away from the family values/religion crowd which is equated with it’s nearest power center-Republicanism.
I see an opportunity for Libertarianism to fill the gap by latching on to the Neo-Values/skepticism crowd Niche-Libertarianism.(in otherwords, humanism centers may be ripe for soapboxing, amongst many other group/types-such as Ex Republicans/Wealthy)
Other than that-it looks like the Core values are the same! Keep your hands off of MY profits!
Sheremer states a wide array of variation of Libertarianism- ie For strong National defense,or Isolationists Minor Defense Expenditure.
With wide variations such as these, how would libertarianism ever try to solidify themselves ideologically, in the framework of Less government.(which seems to be the only real purpose of libertarianism).
Ideas such as libertarianism can only flourish in a place like the US. Europe would be out of the question, as these populations are concreted in solidly with the benefits of Govt. Socialization. Likewise it would never work in poor nations, or it is, but under another guise- say Imperialistic Pressures.
No-it can only flourish in the US. A place already rampantly Hyper-capitalized, where the population is well gentrified, and under control. One reason for this is the US has the largest population of prisoners in the world-I think both in size, and per-capita.(One or both, but regardless the numbers are astronomical comparitively) I wonder what Libertarianism thinks of this example of Liberty- and the consequences that would directly effect libertarianism, if these prison populations were suddenly given their “Liberties”?
The US, ripe for ideas of libertarianism- where people may be swayed to these platforms by small token ideas of better liberties-such as less strict laws, and more property rights. Whereas these laws will have no discernible effects on the commoners, the idea of even less restrictions on Corporate Giants, and aspiring Capitalists would be highly spoiling.Environment, Food and Drug laws, Regulations of advertisement, greed, zoning laws etc etc etc ad-infinitum.
Of course,there must always be some government, no matter how small. Where do we draw the line right now between Corporations and Government? It’s pretty flippin hazy! As a matter of fact, I would say that Corporations already control more government, than the other way around. So how would Libertarianism ever dream of reducing corporate influence on Government?
For example- How important is reforming health care in this country? I was made to understand it was important, through the news, talking with my peers, listening to politicians Since LBJ, and my own personal beliefs, not withstanding the current Presidents declarations. So, I would say that it is an important issue. And yet look at the stonewalling, the hemming and hawing in the halls of the Policy makers, and lawmakers(not to mention previous failed attempts) How important an issue is this? What kind of real traction is it getting? Would I be correct in saying private Corporations are exerting any influence on the matter? Hmmmnnn? Yeah, maybe a little!!! That’s just one example- current and looming. There are countless other examples.
Finally, was Shermer there briefly about to touch upon the benefits of religion? AS A PLACATER FOR THE MASSES WHO MAKE THE WRONG CHOICES. A kind of smoke screen for those who get a smaller dose of Liberty????!!!!!
Was he also making a connection between Corporations and Egalitarianism? Really?

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Posted: 03 July 2009 09:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Tom Morris - 03 July 2009 02:58 AM

A point made during the podcast I want to respond to: the idea that Northern Europe is “high tax”. Some countries are, some aren’t.

Take the United Kingdom. We have a tax wedge of 31.5%. The US tax wedge is 29.5%. What’s the difference between the countries? Well, for that extra 2%...That seems well worth 31.5%.

I strongly disagree with Mr. Shermer’s view that poor people are in their circumstances entirely because of the decisions they’ve made in their lives.  As a self-proclaimed skeptic, I would think that the fact that the single best predictor of one’s personal wealth is that of one’s parents’ wealth would be enough for him to reject this.  One does not prefer to be born into poor circumstances; not only because it’s unpleasant at the time, it also makes future success less likely.  It is, as Warren Buffet says, the ovarian lottery.  (a side note, Warren Buffet is HOT).

However, I have to disagree with Tom Morris’ description of taxes in Europe vs the United States.  The marginal tax rates I have are slightly different, but the big story isn’t the marginal rate - it’s the (adjusted) salary to which it’s applied.  Here are some examples of marginal tax rates and the associated tax bracket (converted to USD using today’s Oanda rates) (and I apologize for this dive into geeky tax details):

United States: 
USD 82,000 - 28%
USD 171,000 - 33%
USD 372,000 - 35%

United Kingdom
GBP 37,000 / 1.62 = USD 61,111 - 40%

Australia
AUD 80,000 / 1.24 = USD 64,516 - 38%
AUD 180,000 / 1.24 = USD 145,161 - 45%

France
EUR 69,505 / 1.40 = USD 45,360 - 40%

Germany
EUR 52,000 / 1.40 = USD 37,142 - 42%
EUR 250,000 / 1.40 = USD 178,571 - 45%

As you can see, the highest marginal tax rates for Americans do not kick in until much higher salaries than in other countries, and these do not include Social Security contributions which are also much lower for Americans than for other nationalities. 

This, combined with the fact that the US is a fairly low-cost location for goods and services, housing and automobiles, would suggest that Americans are better off.  Three things that offset this seeming wealth are medical costs, education costs, and pension/social security. 

- As we’ve all heard recently, Americans pay much more out of pocket for our medical costs, whether for pregnancies, birth control, dental work, cancer treatments, etc.  The vast majority of personal bankruptcies in the US are due to a catastrophic illness or medical condition. 

- Americans with advanced degrees often end up with USD 50,000 to USD 100,000 in debt when they are in their early 20’s; and spend the first 15 years of their working lives paying off this debt (unless they are fortunate enough to have parents who can foot the bill). 

- As American companies have moved from defined benefit pension plans (the payment is guaranteed, company bears the risk of it’s funding) to defined contribution plans (company makes provision for contributions but no guarantees on payments, employee bears risk of sufficient funds for retirement), increasing proportions of salary have to be set aside for ever increasing numbers of retirement years.  Both the US and other countries’ Social Security systems are defined benefit plans; the other countries’ plans are simply more generous.

It is worth noting that tax rates in Europe and other countries as well as their social plans are currently trending down - tax rates are decreasing, the salaries they are applied to are increasing.  Why?

If you look at the countries around the world with high taxes and correspondingly generous social plans, they tend to be countries that are ethnically homogeneous.  In other words, the closer our fellow citizens are to our respective kinship groups, the more likely we are to be generous via government programs.  My take is that as globalization increases the mix of ethnic groups in all countries, the natural inclination for all of us is to shift from delivering this “kinship generosity” publically and move to private familial and kinship group support, aka tribalism.

So, what effect does tribalism have on social ‘tranquility?’  In a study done in India several years ago, they found that cities where people of different faiths were integrated at the local level (school board, fire departments) did not experience the outbreaks of severe rioting that occurred in cities where people were separated along the lines of faith.

For this reason, even those who are primarily focused on their own security can find good reasons to support public approaches that tend to mitigate the concentration of wealth, health, and security.  For the rest of us (who probably just have a more sensitive empathic response module), it’s just another good reason to do what seems obviously the right thing.

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Posted: 03 July 2009 10:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Libertarianism is the most ridiculous political philosophy ever devised. They’re basically conservatives who want to smoke dope with their hookers. Ron Paul is pro-life, after all. Fuck those three-piece suit CATO INSTITUTE assholes. People don’t seem to realise that no true socialist country has ever existed in the modern world, with maybe the exception of Israel’s collectives. They’ve all been pretty much state capitalism regimes, with the party boss acting as the CEO. Human beings lived in socialist, non-profit groupings for most of their pre-historic existence. People made goods and services according to need, not money or profit. With the exception of lack of technology, they probably lived better than we do today. I’m not saying that’s a situation we could return to in the modern world. But, it does reveal what true wealth is, which are goods and services, and not high finance. People talk about stocks, profits, dividents, deficits like they were actual physical objects. The profit motive should be used like a fine tool and not a blunt instrument. Corporate capitalism must be taken apart. We need to return to a country where small companies and a democratic government dominate the economy. I think people like Bill Maher are better examples of humanism than Mr. Shermer.

[ Edited: 04 July 2009 07:35 AM by thoughtsurfer ]
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Posted: 03 July 2009 11:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Science and politics don’t mix for the most part. Ultimately libertarianism is a subjective value. You can use science to confirm or refute the intended effects of a particular policy but the values that cause us to support a policy can not be confirmed by science. The best we can do is refute inaccurate descriptions about the way people are, and reality is which may effect values we believe we ought to have.

My personal belief is that it is in our long term interest to have a moderate sized government that insures people have an equal opportunity in the free market. We need government to provide certain services that private institutions should not be involved in like defense, prisons, roads ... etc. I think radical deregulation would be damaging to the economy, society, and personal choice.

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Posted: 03 July 2009 12:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Great episode.
It is disappointing, but not unexpected, to see the silly straw men arguments and ridiculous caricatures of libertarianism on display in the comments. It’s not unexpected because so many people seem to react this way when they get a button pushed - and for most “scientific skeptical people”, its the politics button.
Something about online disinhibition and anonymity probably contributes to this.

You would think skeptics would remember that skepticism is a method, not a position, and that they should fully investigate something before developing an opinion about it. Well, once politics comes up, people just become irrational, it seems. I would expect better from skeptics, but I’ve just too much experience with this to be surprised at this reaction.

What I do know is that this podcast will help more people be exposed to ideas of liberty and self determination. Those content to sputter on about profits and evil corporations are not those reachable by DJ’s interview with Dr Shermer. But many people looking for an internally and externally consistent worldview based in science, reason, compassion for others, and individual freedom may come to appreciate this podcast and see how well libertarianism and a skeptical scientific worldview can fit together. That is, if they take the time to actually investigate the relevant positions and actually think about the issues.

Now back to the straw men, silly caricatures, and unwillingness to really read or investigate a position before developing an opinion about it. Perhaps I can start:
“Libertarians are selfish evil people who just want to be free to shoot guns and do drugs while working for THE EVIL CORPORATIONS who will take away your children while laughing at people who die in the street because they have no healthcare!!! And OMG Ron Paul!!!!”
Discuss.

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Posted: 03 July 2009 12:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Well Veggieronin, I would say most are under the impression that Libertarianism, is another word for Laizze-Faire. How does this Libertarian Party differ in any way from what has been tried in this country since the beginning?
And are you aware of the current trend that people are calling for more government regulation and more social-democracy?
Yes people want more regulation of the Financial and health care industries. And they want the government to come in and make legislative, and judicial decisions for them, ranging from marriage to employment rights.
How are you going to answer my question concerning the benefits of Libertarianism? By quoting Ayn Rand, or Friedman, or Shermer?
We’ve heard all this before, from the Right wing GOP, and Fiscal Conservatives. It’s nothing new.
I guess it means the commoner can water his lawn anytime he wants, and marijuana will be legalized. Other than that FMC can continue to pollute, and in the future, The corporations will directly levy taxes, not having a need for any wasteful governmental middle-men.

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Posted: 03 July 2009 02:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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VYAZMA-
I have no intention of making an argument for libertarianism in a comment thread on a forum. Least of all to someone who obviously has not attempted to parse the issues here and has nothing more than the most superficial understanding of the issues. This is exactly the situation I like to avoid as a skeptic - I like to fully investigate and think about something while addressing the argument in its strongest form before developing an opinion about it and deciding whether or not I agree with it or not. Or whether it fits my outlook on life. There are places where people who actually want to research the issues involved can go and read, think and reflect, and then decide for themselves if libertarian positions make sense for them in their worldview. Places like the libertarian party website, the Cato institute, the Advocates for Self Government, etc.

I don’t happen to believe in the ridiculous “Left Wing-Right Wing” dichotomy and I think most of us in the world don’t have a nice happy home in one particular party all the time. I also have found personally that being a libertarian and a skeptic with a scientific worldview is an extremely internally and externally consistent worldview, and one that allowed me to mesh together a worldview based on principle and not opinion. I’m sure others have managed to do so as well - and when they did it was the result of actually investigating the relevant issues and thinking about them, rather than spouting nonsense on an internet forum as an anonymous commenter.

I encourage those interested in libertarian positions to actually think and read and reflect before judging. Like a skeptic should do for all issues.
Or I guess one can just say they’ve heard it before, boil down all issues to a few hot-button words, associate the ideas with a group you already don’t like, and burn a few strawmen on a forum.
How many logical fallacies is that at once, anyway?

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Posted: 03 July 2009 03:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Well Veggie, seeing as how Libertarianism has come up on this forum before, I took the time to check out the Libertarian’s Website, a few weeks ago. I like the part where it says “So send in your membership dues and you can be a Card Carrying Libertarian”. It really said that!! That was neat.
I’ve discussed some issues with various libertarians I meet through work. Plus I just listened to Shermer and his take on libertarianism.
If you have the time, why don’t you give us your take on how Libertarianism, or the Libertarian Party can improve Govt.
One of the most peculiar things I remember about the last election was how fervently convinced the various Libertarians I meet were convinced R.Paul was going to win. Even in the face of daunting odds.
Not that I don’t agree with some of the tenants of what Libertarianism espouses, I just feel it all boils down to snake oil, once any party gains the Reins Of Power. Especially a party who tries to concentrate on the relationship between corporations and govt. As if they will somehow be separate from one another-like church and state.
Please, extrapolate on the benefits of Libertarianism.

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Posted: 03 July 2009 03:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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VeggieRonin - 03 July 2009 02:39 PM

VYAZMA-
I have no intention of making an argument for libertarianism in a comment thread on a forum. Least of all to someone who obviously has not attempted to parse the issues here and has nothing more than the most superficial understanding of the issues.

Your previous post proves my point above. I have lurked this forum before on issues and read contributions from various commenters, including you. No dice. I don’t engage with “pec” from the Science-based Medicine blog either. Same reason.

[ Edited: 03 July 2009 03:15 PM by VeggieRonin ]
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Posted: 03 July 2009 03:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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VeggieRonin - 03 July 2009 03:11 PM
VeggieRonin - 03 July 2009 02:39 PM

VYAZMA-
I have no intention of making an argument for libertarianism in a comment thread on a forum. Least of all to someone who obviously has not attempted to parse the issues here and has nothing more than the most superficial understanding of the issues.

Your previous post proves my point above. I have lurked this forum before on issues and read contributions from various commenters, including you. No dice. I don’t engage with “pec” from the Science-based Medicine blog either. Same reason.

It seems you have found the ultimate rational and object worldview. Everyone else is ignorant and irrational you are superior. I wish I could be morally and intellectually superior to other people, and not just some irrational reactionary jerk sputtering ad hominem. Alas I am a typical non-libertarian moron.

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Posted: 03 July 2009 03:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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VeggieRonin - 03 July 2009 03:11 PM
VeggieRonin - 03 July 2009 02:39 PM

VYAZMA-
I have no intention of making an argument for libertarianism in a comment thread on a forum. Least of all to someone who obviously has not attempted to parse the issues here and has nothing more than the most superficial understanding of the issues.

Your previous post proves my point above. I have lurked this forum before on issues and read contributions from various commenters, including you. No dice. I don’t engage with “pec” from the Science-based Medicine blog either. Same reason.

What’s “pec”?

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Posted: 03 July 2009 03:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Folks, let’s try to dial the attacks down here a bit. Focus on the issues and not each other.

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Posted: 03 July 2009 03:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Hello Dan. Who said I was superior? Who said I was objective? Who said everyone else was irrational? Who said I was morally or intellectually superior to anyone?
I’ve made no such claims.
Whose posts are you reading?

I said everyone should read the issues in depth and decide for themselves. I said I found a worldview that worked for me through reflection and consideration. I said others have done the same - through thinking and reflection and considering the issues in depth.
Evidently you feel that line of argument merits your post above. I’m flabbergasted and honestly unsure of how to respond.

I think its a testimony to how crazy people get about politics, and the utter futility of arguing politics on internet forums, that such bland and inclusive posts as mine have already been so unbelievably distorted and misunderstood.  Perhaps I should bow out now before the inferring gets any crazier than it already has.

I renew my basic message that people should investigate anything in detail - including things like politics and economics - before developing an opinion. They should view arguments in their strongest form and decide whether or not they fit with their personal beliefs through reflection and consideration. Including libertarianism.
It’s a crazy thought, I know.

ps thanks Doug

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