Jan 232003

Philosoblogger Jim discusses slippery slopes today:

It is obviously an unjust society that lets cripples and children die of starvation and exposure. I don’t see how that is a misuse of the term “unjust” in ordinary usage. (I’m not arguing all of the unfortunate can be helped, that’s Paul Wellstone-ism, not my view.

No one has ever shown that the slippery slope to socialism exists. You can imagine slippery slopes anywhere. “One drink, and you’ll inevitably become an alcoholic.” “Give the state the power to imprison citizens, and it will eventually imprison people arbitrarily, en masse, with no justification.” America doesn’t let cripples die, and it still isn’t socialist. We use reason and debate to stop ourselves from slipping.

The argument is certainly not respectable as he puts it. In my family we used to call it The Fatal Glass of Beer Theory, after a W.C. Fields short whose plot you can imagine. It is easy to do something in moderation; people, and even governments, manage it all the time.

Slippery slope theorists, however, rarely make the argument in this bald form, and if they do it isn’t really what they mean. They are asking for a principle, an intellectualy tenable distinction, something beyond “less” and “more.” One can drink so long as it doesn’t seriously impair one’s ability to function. The state can imprison people so long as they have violated the rights of others. The state can seize assets from its citizens to keep cripples from dying so long as — well, this time it’s not so simple. To ask for a distinction between seizing assets to help some of the unfortunate a little and seizing them to help all of the unfortunate a lot — between Jim’s position and “Wellstone-ism” — seems to me a perfectly respectable demand.

(Update: Jim answers.)

(Another: Eugene Volokh has posted a draft of his forthcoming Harvard Law Review article on this very subject.)

Jan 232003

Valdis Krebs performed a simple experiment. He looked at the “buddy list” on Amazon of several dozen top-selling political books and graphed the results. (Link from BoingBoing.) The result is two clusters, as one would expect, but with one book in the middle, with “buddies” on both sides: What Went Wrong by Bernard Lewis. (Also, arguably, The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington.)

The “cocooning” controversy could be resolved the same way. Steven Den Beste theorized last year about blog clusters but without data to back him up. So the assignment, for someone less lazy than I am, is to create a chart, after Krebs, for blogs instead of books, using for data the top 100 blogs and, say, the first ten blogs in their neighborhoods at BlogStreet. This would be imperfect but indicative. How many clusters would there be? Who would be in the middle? Do people often read blogs that they disagree with or are blog readers, like book readers, blinkered by confirmation bias?

Jan 222003

If we had finished the Gulf War Saddam Hussein would be dead. If we had finished the Korean War no one would have ever heard of Kim Jong-il. There may be a lesson in this somewhere.

Jan 222003

Ian Hamet writes:

Dear Mr. Haspel,

I’ve just launched my own blog, and included you on my blogroll. Since I’m not up on blog etiquette, letting you know seemed the decent thing to do. I’m not asking for reciprocal links or a mention or anything, just letting you know that I’m here.

My blog roll is broken up by lines from classic movies. There’s no real rhyme or reason to your being listed under “I have two ex-wives, a mother and several bartenders depending on me,” from North by Northwest (1959), so if you want something else, just drop me a line.

Thank you for your time.

Now wouldn’t you give a link to someone who asked so politely? I would. His blog is called Banana Oil, and it’s about movies mostly. He explains the title here.

Jan 212003

From Tropic of Cancer:

The book must be absolutely original, absolutely perfect. That is why, among other things, it is impossible for him to get started on it. As soon as he gets an idea he begins to question it. He remembers that Doestoevski used it, or Hamsun, or somebody else. “I’m not saying I want to be better than them, I want to be different,” he explains. And so, instead of tackling his book, he reads one author after another to make absolutely certain that he is not going to tread on their private property. And the more he reads the more disdainful he becomes. None of them are satisfying; none of them arrive at that degree of perfection which he has imposed on himself. And forgetting completely that he has not written so much as a chapter he talks about them condescendingly, quite as though there existed a shelf of books bearing his name, books which everyone is familiar with and the titles of which it is therefore superfluous to mention.

I don’t know anybody like that. Do you?