Archive for June, 2022

“Servant of the People” on Netflix

June 29, 2022

Scrolling through Netflix, we stumbled on Servant of the People. A 2015 Ukrainian TV comedy series (with English subtitles).*

Vasya is a young high school history teacher, whose private profanity-laden rant about the country’s corrupt dysfunctional politics is surreptitiously videotaped by a student. Posted online, it goes viral. And Vasya suddenly finds himself elected president!

It’s a slick production, reasonably laugh-inducing, fast-paced, a bit confusing in places. We watched it because this was a bizarre case of life imitating art. The show’s impresario — who played Vasya — was of course Volodymyr Zelensky. It catapulted him into the presidency in real life.

Recent times have seen democratic elections producing some very bad choices. Ukraine’s, however oddball, turned out otherwise. Indeed, the choice of Zelensky has proven to be an inspired one. It’s hard to imagine a more heroic leader for this moment, so effectively rallying his people and the world to Ukraine’s embattled cause. Things might be very different with a Ukrainian president more like the others over the last three decades — the sort that Vasya flayed in his videotaped philippic.

I’ve always been a history buff, finding truth often stranger than fiction. Recent times have epitomized that. American politics has gone in a flabbergasting direction. I often wish for a more “normal” world. One less interesting.

Russia’s Ukraine crime is of course ghastly, but less visible to many is its dire global impact, coming on top of the pandemic. We do know about $5 gas, a direct consequence of the war’s disrupting energy markets. Perversely, higher gas and oil prices reward Russia, a major seller of those commodities, defraying its war cost and offsetting the bite of sanctions. While hurting consumers world wide. Then there are food price hikes and shortages due to supply blockages in two of the world’s key granaries, Russia and Ukraine. The combined energy and food impacts are ravaging living standards all over, knocking back into poverty millions who had climbed out of it, while wrecking many countries’ budgets and finances, and sparking waves of mass civil unrest.

When I root for the deaths of Russian soldiers, I stop and remind myself they are human beings — victims too, really. But then I remind myself I want them killed to stop their killing. With this runaway trolley, yes, I would push the Russian soldier to his death.

* My 1990s Russia trips equipped me to recognize some related Ukrainian words: spasibo (thanks), pozholousta (please), dobray utra (good morning). I noted that “emperor” was imperator — the Latin word that titled Roman rulers.

My book talk Tuesday: Pinker on Rationality

June 29, 2022

On Tuesday, July 5, at noon, I will present a review of Steven Pinker’s new book, Rationality, at the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Avenue. This is a live, in-person event!

The book covers all aspects of how people employ reason — and how and why, often, we don’t.

Supreme Court Insanity

June 26, 2022

Just when the public is demanding, as never before, action to curb our gun violence epidemic, the Supreme Court does the opposite. Disallowing reasonable gun regulation for the sake of public safety. The court’s most insane decision ever.

It struck down New York’s century-old “Sullivan law,” requiring a showing of some particular need, for a permit to carry a gun in public. Thus making the Second Amendment right “to keep and bear arms” practically absolute. Public safety be damned.

No right is ever unbounded. Your right to swing your fist proverbially stops at my nose. Ordinary citizens — the vast majority of us — have rights too. A right to live without fear of guns, and without being shot more than occasionally.

This is about men who fancy swaggering as tough guys packing heat. Supposedly to “protect themselves” by being able to shoot someone. But let’s be real, that’s a complete silly fantasy. Can you cite a single instance where anyone “protected” themselves against some miscreant by whipping out a gun and plugging them? It simply never happens.

What does happen — with tragic regularity — is those weapons injuring or killing those macho gun nuts themselves, or their family members or pals, or other innocent people.

Guns do not make anyone safer — least of all their owners. Instead, the more guns there are around, the less safe we all are; the more shooting there is.

This is real “American exceptionalism.” Not only with gun violence orders of magnitude greater than in any other country, but way more police shootings. Often killing innocents. That’s again because so many guns abound. So the police often face guns, but moreover there’s a very real fear that in any encounter they might face a gun. Making them tragically trigger-happy.

This the Supreme Court’s insane ruling exacerbates. Putting more guns on the streets. And for what? For men’s moronic juvenile fantasies of shooting bad guys, which never actually happens in real life.

And even if you hallucinate that guns protect anyone, surely nobody needs a military style assault weapon whose only purpose is to kill a lot of people fast. Surely the founders who enacted the Second Amendment 231 years ago never imagined it covering such extreme modern weapons. Might as well allow howitzers. Yet so deep is America’s gun craziness that Congress can’t even agree, not to ban such weapons, but to prohibit their sale to kids under 21! Best we can get is some background checking, and good luck enforcing that.

The day after its gun decision, the Court overturned Roe v. Wade.* A big victory for “pro-lifers.” The juxtaposition between the two cases could not be more surreal. Pro-life? With tens of thousands of Americans killed annually by guns. And these people also prattle about “law and order” — when a key reason for so much violent crime is the ubiquity of guns. It makes my head explode.

And only days earlier, the rampaging high court also blew up the wall of separation between church and state. Forcing Maine taxpayers to subsidize religious indoctrination of school kids. As Justice Sotomayor’s dissent says, church-state separation is now unconstitutional. Indeed, three justices even say government neutrality toward religion isn’t required — it can actually favor religion.

It’s getting lonely and dispiriting in rationalityland.

* I previously wrote about that:

Was Mike Pence a Hero? Is there hope for America?

June 22, 2022

Now Mike Pence is called a hero — for shrinking back from the greatest crime in U.S. history. He’s credited with saving the country, which in a sense is actually true. Had Trump’s coup plot succeeded, that would have blown up America.

Pence as Vice President presided over Congress’s electoral vote certification. Trump wanted him to just throw out Biden votes. That Pence even considered this was crazy. At least he was sane enough (unlike many in Trump’s circle) to finally refuse. Pence realized it couldn’t be legal for one person to decide the presidency. (He’d also be re-electing himself VP.)*

At 2:24 PM on January 6, after being begged to call off the dogs, Trump instead unleashed a tweet cursing out Pence. Further enflaming the mob already baying “Hang Mike Pence!” It came within forty feet of him.

Aides tried to evacuate Pence from the besieged Capitol, but he insisted on staying to complete the election formalities. For that at least Pence does merit praise.

But if he really had moral courage, he’d denounce Trump for January 6. He still won’t, despite his own near-death experience. Calling the whole thing just a small difference of opinion. Because he still fantasizes a presidential nomination — by the Trump cult party — that would still actually rather see Pence dead than president.

In a rational world, the January 6 committee’s fact-based presentation would be like a Heimlich maneuver upchucking Trump from our body politic. His crimes make Nixon’s Watergate transgressions look like jaywalking in comparison. Republicans ultimately did upchuck Nixon, but are circling the wagons around Trump. The hearings, instead of opening their eyes, further enrage them against the truth tellers. (My own puny efforts will change no minds.) Trump-sucking election deniers are winning GOP primaries. The Texas Republican party has voted not to recognize Biden as president.

In a recent poll, about half of Americans opined that our democracy is in grave peril. Mostly Democrats, I assumed. Wrong! Both parties were evenly split. So only around half of Democrats see the threat. While half of Republicans (swallowing Trump’s lies) imagine it comes from Democrats.

But Republicans don’t believe in democracy anyway. Not if it means losing elections. They’ll stop at nothing to prevent it. They’re now empowering GOP election officials to throw out lawful votes. If Republicans control Congress after 2024, they’ll do that. And if all else fails, there will be a repeat of January 6 — with more guns.

Prosecuting Trump for his coup attempt apparently hinges on intent — whether he knew his election fraud claims were lies, or actually believed them. Maybe a dicey point when it comes to a mentality so sick. Perhaps his defective mind did convince itself — and he should plead “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

The Justice Department understands that prosecuting Trump would pour gasoline on what’s already our political conflagration. And could backfire if he gets off. Those are grave considerations. But his return to power would be worse. If prosecution might forestall that, let it be our gotterdammerung.

Yet it’s doubtful America’s democracy can still be saved. The necessary sense of national togetherness among citizens has been shredded. Likewise our democratic ideals, when the country just yawns at Trump’s shocking assault upon them.

Perhaps there’s this slim hope: that his death might lance the boil and open a restorative path.

* If the VP had that power, Al Gore would have liked to know it when he presided over the count for the 2000 election — decided by 537 genuinely disputed votes in just one state. Trump’s idea of Pence messing with the electoral vote was cooked up by law professor John Eastman, and even he apparently realized it was illegal. The plot also included sending fake electoral vote certificates to Congress — talk about ballot fraud!

Menthol Madness

June 20, 2022

A proposed FDA ban on menthol cigarettes is being hailed as a victory for health and civil rights advocates both. Because methols are particularly favored by Black American smokers (85% use menthols), 40,000 of whom die annually of smoking related illnesses. A rate higher than for whites, who tend to smoke less.

A local newspaper commentary favoring the ban says “[t]he history of menthol cigarettes is a history of racial injustice,” and lashes the tobacco industry, opposing the measure, as deceptively self-interested. And it’s true it has aggressively marketed methols to Blacks in particular.

We’ve long known that tobacco is unhealthy, yet it remains legal. Are menthol cigarettes more unhealthy than regular ones? No! Nothing makes menthols, puff for puff, more dangerous. The problem is that they’re more pleasurable, hence people smoke more. Especially Blacks.

So the government wants to tell them: you can’t smoke menthols, which you prefer, but can only smoke regular cigarettes, which you like less. That’s how we’re protecting your health!

Talk about racial injustice. Remember how crack cocaine (popular among Blacks) entailed much harsher penalties than powdered stuff (favored by whites)? Here it’s the product favored by Blacks being outlawed, while the version mostly used by whites remains perfectly legal. And as if Blacks aren’t already disproportionately incarcerated, how many will be jailed for violating a menthol ban?

We seem to realize that banning tobacco and alcohol won’t fly, even though they’re more dangerous than many other substances we do outlaw. Now we’re going to ban a tobacco product on grounds of popularity. The whole picture makes no sense. Nobody should be punished for their personal choice to use any of these things.

Ukraine: Half Measures and the Nuclear Threat

June 17, 2022

As a PSC staff lawyer, I got frustrated when an administrative law judge couldn’t make up his mind on a ruling. “It should be me up there!” I told myself. So I applied for the job and got it. I think I was a pretty good decider.

So too in life. Not one to agonize over decisions, I’ve become convinced that generally, more deliberation doesn’t make them better. And when I decide on something, I’m all in. No half measures.

America and Europe are helping Ukraine fight Russia — with a strength of commitment perhaps unexpected. Yet they’re far from doing all they can. France’s Macron says Russia should not be “humiliated.” Germany’s Scholz heralded an “historic turning point” in foreign policy, promising heavy weapons, but still agonizes in public, and Germany seems to be dragging its feet. President Biden has been at pains to say we’re not fighting Russia, nor seeking regime change.

Well, why not?

In hindsight, as soon as a Russian invasion was looming, we should have put U.S. troops and weapons into Ukraine. Following Vegetius’s ancient dictum, if you wish for peace, prepare for war. Of course Putin would have gone ballistic. But what would he have done — any worse than what he did do? While the prospect of a direct confrontation with U.S. forces might have persuaded him to back off altogether.

Now there’s fear of escalation to nuclear war. Putin threatened that. It seems to have worked, intimidating us as to what help we will or won’t give Ukraine.

So Biden ruled out a no-fly zone, and anything else that might be seen as America fighting Russia. Yet that’s certainly how Putin saw it from the start. Thus limiting ourselves to half measures, to avoid provoking Russia, seems silly squeamishness. Russia already acts maximally provoked.

And if we fear Ukraine’s success might cause Russia to go nuclear, then why help Ukraine at all? What exactly is the strategic aim? A stalemated war that drags on for years?

The Economist recently analyzed the nuclear aspect. Noting numerous ways in which what once seemed an absolute taboo on nuclear weapons use has eroded. Putin’s threat the latest and most serious breech of that taboo. As if just talking about it makes it actually more thinkable.

But two points should be borne in mind. First, Russia’s military operates under the doctrine that nuclear weapons are only a last resort against an existential threat. Ukraine clearly does not qualify, so it’s doubtful they’d permit Putin to use nukes there. And secondly, even Putin should be deterred by the unforeseeable and likely grave repercussions. Too risky even for him. His threats should be seen as bluffs.

Meantime, The Economist says those arguing for a quick accommodation with Russia to end the war “could not be more wrong.” That would not make Europe safer, it would make Russia (and other bad actors) more dangerous. Must we repeat the lessons of appeasement in 1938-39? Allowing Putin to get away with his military aggressions before 2022 surely encouraged him to up the ante in Ukraine. There are plenty of other places an emboldened Russia could invade.

The Hearings: January 6, Trump, The Big Lie, and Democracy in Peril

June 14, 2022

Trump concocted his big “stolen election” lie because his sick psyche couldn’t face losing — and to help him overthrow democracy and retain office by coup.

Any sensible person already knew that, but the January 6 Congressional committee’s hearings, says The Economist, are the most important in U.S. history. The scandal bigger than any before. And the hearings are filling in compelling details. Trump’s own hitherto toady Attorney General Barr testified that he told Trump his vote fraud claims were “complete nonsense . . . idiotic . . . silly . . . crazy stuff . . . bullshit.”* Yet the evidence shows how Trump nevertheless worked a host of illegitimate schemes to undo his election loss, conniving at the Capitol violence as his last-ditch ploy. Gleefully watching it unfold, refusing to act to stop it, even endorsing the insurrectionists’ cry, “Hang Mike Pence!” Failing only by a hairsbreadth.

Who could ever have imagined so criminal a U.S. president? So why hasn’t he been indicted? The Department of Justice seems to be proceeding very carefully, striving to avoid any appearance of a partisan witch-hunt (though Republicans will scream that anyway). Even in normal circumstances the DOJ wants to be pretty sure an indictment will result in conviction. These are far from normal circumstances. The last thing we need is Trump indicted and then acquitted. Plus, even a conviction would provoke endless appeals, and the politically tainted Supreme Court majority might find some pretext to exonerate Trump. Maybe better to leave the case to the court of public opinion. Despite its questionable wisdom.

For a moment after January 6, it seemed GOP officialdom was washing its hands of Trump for what he’d wrought. But they quickly turned tail upon realizing the cult of Trump voters was unshaken. So Republicans refused to support a congressional investigation, they denounce it as a partisan sham, and even obstruct its work by defying subpoenas. The committee’s two Republican members, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, are lonely heroes, being purged from a party now making itself totally complicit in the attempt to overthrow American democracy.

You’d think this would destroy its credibility and bona fides forever among most voters. How could any serious civic-minded person, believing in America’s founding democratic values and ideals, continue to support such a party?

I’d long warned that our democracy was not ordained by God forever, and could not endure without a citizenry steeped in those values. Now we’re seeing what little presence those values still have in our political landscape. A president’s attempt to overthrow democracy is shrugged off. Candidates embracing him and his big lie suffer no electoral penalty. We’re told voters care more about issues like inflation, crime, gas prices. And that Democrats will fail if they stress January 6 in their midterm election campaign.

It’s tempting to say, I give up. Like I’m howling at the moon.

Meantime, columnist David Brooks has a different take on the congressional hearings. Again, all honest people already know the truth about January 6 and Trump’s ghastly malfeasance. But what really needs investigation and exposure — ringing a five alarm fire bell — is the ongoing Republican effort to make sure they “win” future elections — regardless of votes. All under the dishonest guise of “protecting election integrity” while actually blowing it up.

This will culminate in January 2025 with a GOP-controlled Congress making Trump president, setting aside if necessary the actual election results.

Voting Republican now is insane.

* Barr also denounced as rubbish the feature film Two Thousand Mules, pushing false vote fraud claims and garnering huge audiences in Trump country.

Alternatives to capitalism?

June 12, 2022

Denounce “capitalism” or the market economy all you want – but what’s your alternative? This system was not foisted on us. Rather, it’s the natural paradigm for human economic relationships; everything else is an attempt to impose some artificial one. Stone age people had a market economy – trading flints for pelts, for instance, at an exchange rate they’d negotiate.

The invention of money made things a whole lot easier. Yet some people demonize money (“the root of all evil”) and the whole concept of selling anything for money (not to mention that bugbear, “profit”). They fantasize instead a “sharing economy” – you share your flints with me, and I share my pelts with you.

Indeed, such sharing too is fundamental to human nature. We share a lot, especially among friends and family. Among strangers, not so much – we are altruistic, but only up to a point. That greatly limits the scope for a “sharing economy.” You may persuade your pal to share some flints, but will have a tough time cajoling GM to share its cars. In fact, how would cars get made at all in a “sharing economy?”

The great beauty of a money/market economy is that all the contributions of the many disparate people needed to produce a car get rationally and efficiently organized, via everyone in the picture being compensated for what they provide, out of the money you pay for the car. Otherwise – no cars. Nor pretty much anything else you buy.

So a “sharing economy” would be fine, as long as you’re happy living in a cave sharing flints and pelts.

Of course, the real-world alternative to a capitalist, market economy has been socialism, where the government does everything. And I say “has been” because few apart from Bernie Sanders still think this is a good idea. Turns out that absent a profit motive, with the associated impetus to satisfy customers, you get East Germany’s Trabant car rather than West Germany’s BMW.  And also a government too powerful for its own good (or yours). “Democratic socialism” has proven an oxymoron; whatever you can say about Cuba, or Venezuela, “democratic” ain’t one of them (unless you torture the word’s meaning, as socialists will do).

However, there’s another conceivable alternative – worker cooperatives – businesses owned by their employees, bridging the divide between capital and labor. Nothing incompatible here with market economics or even capitalism. And the profits go to those who produced them, nowhere else. What’s not to love?

Actually, we’ve gone partway toward that model, with many employees owning stock in their companies, especially in 401k plans; and pension funds have huge shareholdings. Yet we’ve seen very few firms owned outright by their workers.

You might wonder why workers in a plant being closed don’t just organize to buy and run it themselves, so they can keep their jobs. Well, plants get closed for economic reasons. Workers won’t ship their own jobs overseas, but wishing won’t make them and their products competitive in the global market. Workers investing their own hard-earned money in a struggling business is not a great idea.

But what about a thriving one? Employees pooling funds to take over, say, Delta Airlines, might be theoretically conceivable, but the sum required would be daunting. And even a seemingly healthy firm might not be a sound long-term investment. The world changes. Too many people have put their nest-eggs in their own employers’ stock that plummets. Enron was a prime example. Not to mention the managerial problems, with big conflicts of interest, that employee ownership would entail.

Guess we’re pretty much stuck with plain old capitalism. Boo hoo; but it’s raised global average real dollar incomes five-fold in the last century, lifting billions out of poverty. Maybe not such a bad system when you really think about it.

Meantime, a kind of “sharing economy” is emerging in the form of enterprises like Uber and Airbnb – people sharing their cars and homes. Of course they don’t do it altruistically, but for money. Thus this actually highlights the true virtue of free market economics – people finding ways to create value for other people, and thereby benefiting themselves. What’s not to love?

Hitler, Stalin, Mao . . . Putin . . .

June 8, 2022

Hitler, Stalin, Mao. The Big Three. Greatest monsters of the 20th Century. Or GOAT? Well, Genghis Khan; Tamerlane; Ivan the Terrible; and others. But such figures lacked the scope to kill at modern industrial scale. And anyway, they’re too far back to be vivid to us like our “Big Three.”

And now Putin. Quite the achievement, breaking into those rarefied ranks.

But nobody sets out to become an historic villain. No, the ego soaks up adulation. Being treated like a god, and actually considering yourself one. Stalin’s mind is opaque to me, don’t know if he really saw himself on some epic mission (“building Communism”) or simply loved cruelty. But Hitler and Mao definitely had the grandiosity thing. Messianic to the max, believing themselves achieving Great Things, and sustained by mass idolatry.

Where does Putin fit in? A totally cynical Stalin-like self-aggrandizing opportunist? Partly, to be sure. But he also does have the messianic syndrome. Himself a victim of his own propaganda, apparently believing his murderous destruction of Ukraine fulfills some God-ordained historical destiny. Though one doubts he actually believes in God. He believes totally in himself. It comes to the same thing.

Is he a “madman,” as often said? The word can hardly fit such extreme psychological phenomenology. His success (thus far) bespeaks a certain rationality in what he’s doing. He may yet ultimately win in Ukraine, or win enough ground to claim victory, simply by refusing to quit. Some Western voices (the “peace” camp; Kissinger, Macron, others) urge giving Putin a face-saving “off-ramp.” Others (the “justice” camp) say that would only encourage him and other such villains; they must be crushed.

And rationality and morality are two different things. Though perhaps we can say such a total moral disregard necessarily bespeaks a kind of insanity. Yet of course Putin would deem his actions of the highest morality — reasoning so perverted, it too could be considered insane. Monsters never see themselves as monsters.

Stalin ruled by terror, but like with Hitler and Mao, Putin’s horror show is bolstered by a population cheering its support. Or at least much if not most of Russia’s citizenry. What are they thinking? Critical thinking it’s not. Of course they’re marinated in pervasive propaganda, painting Putin’s alternate reality (heroically fighting to “denazify” Ukraine), with all other information sources blocked. Still, it defies sense. When it’s obvious other information is stifled, and all you see is what the regime spoon-feeds you, how much brainpower does it take to realize something’s wrong with this picture? That you’re being played for fools. Worse, made complicit in atrocity.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao — so 20th Century. Now we’re in a new century, and its big monster is Putin. So far. But this century is young, with much history to unfold.

And when that history is written, with all the wisdom of hindsight, it may turn out that Putin was not, after all, the monster who damaged human civilization the most. Trump is not done yet.

Libertarianism: a crazy idea?

June 4, 2022

I’ve always considered myself basically libertarian. Recently I read Libertarianism: A Primer, by David Boaz. Published in 1997 — it might seem an artifact from a distant past.

And Boaz starts off saying libertarianism is (was) resonating with more and more people. But lately, it’s mostly become a dark perversion of itself, the word “freedom” fetishized by a deranged political right that no longer even believes in democracy. Their idea of “freedom” is to refuse mask wearing and vaccination, and allowing anyone to buy military assault weapons.

Actually violating libertarianism’s core idea of freedom to act as one chooses — provided no one else is harmed. Today’s vocal “freedom” lovers exposing others to potential infection (and shooting) certainly harms them.

Libertarianism assumes we have natural rights to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Where do they come from? The Declaration of Independence said the “creator.” But nonesuch exists. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously called the idea of natural rights “nonsense on stilts.”

But imagine a world with just one person, John. Obviously John is free to act as he pleases. Then Sue shows up. By what right could Sue interfere with John’s liberty? That is the real question posed by the concept of natural rights. Not what’s the basis for John’s rights, but rather what’s the basis for anyone trumping them? If John’s rights are somehow debatable, surely that’s more true of a right to negate them. And this is always the issue regarding natural rights — not what justifies them, but what can justify their denial.

Boaz stressed the centrality of property rights. All liberty really equates to the right to own and enjoy the use of property. Without that, there isn’t much of anything you can freely do; making freedom meaningless.

Proudhon declared “property is theft,” and some indeed deem the whole idea of property problematic because some have more and others less. Romanticizing an imagined utopia where there is no “property” and everything is shared in common. A friend of mine thinks the solution to inequality and poverty is simple, with no need for economic growth. Humanity as a whole has enough wealth. Just (!) distribute it more equally.

But recall John and Sue. Similarly, the issue isn’t John’s right to his property, but the right of anyone else — Sue, the government, “society” — to dispossess John and grab control of his property.

Some (like my friend) do try to justify that by invoking some supposed greater good. Perhaps even John’s own good. But consider the arrogance of thinking you know what’s best for other people. Libertarianism is a stance of humility vis-a-vis other people. Unlike the “nanny state,” libertarians recognize that people differ in their wants and needs and what serves them; of which they themselves are the best judges. Furthermore, when government involves itself in so many matters, putting them all in the public square, that’s a recipe for conflict. A public square so thick with issues is a key cause of our political polarization.

Boaz argues that much government activity exceeds enumerated constitutional powers. He omits mention of the power to regulate interstate commerce, which has been interpreted quite broadly to cover all that. But anyhow, hasn’t this horse long ago left the barn? Making Boaz’s libertarianism seem a quaint if not irrelevant idea?

And government’s growth wasn’t usurpation. Voters have mostly welcomed government action, sold as improving lives and preventing harms. Even under Reagan and Thatcher, governments actually grew.

True, eliminating this or that government program or regulatory scheme would always harm some people. A full libertarian rollback would entail much harm. But — that harm would be dwarfed by the benefits in terms of greater overall societal wealth, enjoyed by most citizens. Simply put, less restriction on economic activity means more scope for wealth creation. But that foregone boon is invisible to the public when thinking about government activity.

Here’s a small example. Governments require licenses for innumerable professions, not just doctors and lawyers, but hairdressers, real estate agents, interior decorators, cosmetologists, and a zillion others. Sure, all justified to protect the public, and without licensing there would be horror stories. But the true main impetus for such licensing is that those professions want to stifle competition, and enlist government to do it for them. Eliminating the licensing would open up vast opportunities for more people to earn money and innovate to provide services to consumers, who would benefit from wider choices and lower prices. All that would far outweigh the occasional horror stories.

And here’s a bigger case in point: drug prohibition. Does it prevent harms from drug use? Maybe the tiniest bit. But even if it stopped all drug use, that benefit would still be dwarfed by the vast incalculable harm drug prohibition visits upon society. All the lives destroyed by incarceration, neighborhoods shattered by violence, all the corruption. America’s drug war creates murderous criminality in other countries too (a big cause of our immigration problems).

Imagine if we just stopped making drugs illegal. All those harms would go away. That would be a libertarian approach. Maybe not so crazy after all.