On the importance of the free availability, development and distribution of encryption technology, and the dystopian implications that follow if we fail to protect ourselves against government intrusion in the digital era.
When I was in Switzerland last year climbing in the Alps, I noticed that CBD (the marijuana extract, Cannabidiol) was available over the counter in pharmacies, without a script. I’d been wanting to test out CBD for a long time, given its reputation in assisting with improving sleep cycles, and alleviating symptoms of anxiety, depression and mood disorders, without the medical side effects of prescription meds, such as benzos (liable to cause tolerance, addiction, and subsequent withdrawal) or SSRIs (which have countless side effects, including rapid weight change and loss of sleep), both of which I have used in the past, but want to avoid as much as conceivably possible.
The reason CBD struck me as such an attractive alternative is that, to the best of my understanding, it:
- Is not psychoactive (in the recreational sense that it makes you high).
- Does not cause dependence or addiction.
- Does not lead to withdrawal symptoms upon cessation.
- Is non-toxic.
- Does not have adverse side effects such as weight change, or liver/kidney problems.
- Can be safely used long-term.
- Does not cause any kind of hangover or inhibited cognitive or physical function that hinders work.
- Cannot result in overdose.
That is to say, CBD is safer than taking an aspirin or a Panadol.
Note that CBD is entirely distinct from THC, the recreationally sought-after cannabis compound that makes you high. THC also has legitimate medical uses, also legal in Australia for medical purposes. But this is not what I was exploring – I only wanted CBD.
Upon trialling over-the-counter CBD in Switzerland, my self-reported response was very positive. My partner and climbing buddy, who was with me during this trial, agreed with my self-assessment. We both agreed that this was something worth pursuing once back in Australia, given that only just recently (in the last few years) Australia had legalised medical cannabis.
So upon returning to Australia, I went to see a GP about it. They declined and said to see a specialist. I spoke to a neurologist (for about $600, and a significant waiting time). They also declined. I spoke to a psychiatrist (for about another $600, and another substantial wait time), who also declined. Using their own words (paraphrasing),
The medical marijuana legislation is a complete shambles. You’re best off going to one of the dodgy telephone companies or sourcing it on the black market.
I did both.
First the black market.
Because it’s the black market, despite it being quick (as in 30 minutes quick), there is by definition no quality control, and no guarantee that what you’re getting is what’s advertised (every recreational drug user is aware of how large the variance is in the purity of black market products – Don’t trust the coke from the Ukranianian syndicate on the north side, whatever you do!). That is, if the intent is a medical one, rather than a recreational one, where you require consistent and predictable dosage, this is obviously completely unreliable. Anyway, I approached one of the underground Uberised drug dealers — who asked if I’d like any LSD tabs or MDMA pills while he was at it (I won’t comment on the answer I provided). This turns up.
It certainly smelt like distilled pot. I have no idea what was in it though. It doesn’t even have a label! (Apparently it was illegally imported from Amsterdam, and therefore was legit).
So I moved onto the grey market, via one of the seemingly legitimate online dealers, who don’t advertise the CBD content overtly (instead just calling it ‘hemp oil’), in which case it’s just an obvious online racket via lack of enforcement of guarantee. Here’s me with a bottle from one of the ‘legit’ online suppliers. They privately communicated that it contained 10% CBD. I have literally no idea whether that’s true or not, and it’s not even written anywhere on the label.
After that whole nonsensical debacle, on which I wasted hundreds of dollars, I decided to try the (using the words of the psychiatrist) ‘dodgy phone guys’. What awaited me was the most stunningly medically unethical distribution and protection racket I could conceivably imagine. The whole system is so self-evidently implicating that it might as well be considered a political sex scandal.
First, I had to send through my doctor’s certificates by email, then have a phone interview with a ‘specialist’ doctor, that lasted less than 5 minutes and cost $95. The doc immediately said “yep, all good, you meet the criteria, we’ll lodge an application for you”. On my behalf, they sent an individual application to the federal government for approval. Despite only requesting CBD, not THC, each application has to be individually considered, and signed off on by the federal government. The ‘dodgy telephone guys’ specifically advertise that they are experts in lobbying the federal government on behalf of their patients. It’s not beginning to sound the slightest bit unethical at this point, is it? Paying a highly secretive, non-disclosing third-party to lobby the federal government for your right to access a legally sanctioned medicine? It’s literally easier for me to walk into a GP and fabricate a reason for requiring strong synthetic opiates than this (I know). Nothing to see here, guys…
Two weeks later I receive a congratulatory email from the company, advising me that my application with the federal government was successful, and I am now approved for CBD use!! Hurrah!
Does this mean I get a script that I can use to approach competing pharmacies to seek the most competitive price? Oh no, that’s where you’d be forgiven for thinking that a pro-free market, neo-liberal government were in power.
Instead, it turns out that the doctor is part of a fully vertically-integrated supply chain between the prescribing doctor, producer and distributor. I don’t even get to hold the physical script in my hand at any point. Instead, the doctor ships the oral CBD product to a cooperating pharmacy, from whom I pick it up. The cost of the product was never even advertised beforehand online. Who wants price transparency to enable market competition? The cost is only revealed after you’ve already invested into the upfront cost, at which point they have vendor lock-in regardless. Anyway, at a cost of $400 for a 25mL bottle, I was able to pick up the product several weeks later from a nearby pharmacy. Btw, as an initial customer they gave me a two-for-one deal, which I’m pretty sure would be illegal (or at least considered an unethical medical marketing practise – except in the United States) for any other medicine. Can you imagine if they started offering two-for-one first customer deals on Oxies? What could possibly go wrong?
Upon turning up at the pharmacy, a small privately run pharmacy in Newtown, the poor guy was so overwhelmed (showing visible signs of anxiety — he probably needs some CBD himself) by the complexities of the online system, that after me sitting there for more than half an hour waiting, he completely gave up and gave me the product, promising to navigate the ridiculously over-protective online system later on when he had the time.
So then I had this, an actual legitimate CBD product, with pharmaceutical quality control, and all the other bells and whistles you’d expect in contemporary medicine, at a cost of only $400 for a small bottle of plant extract (notwithstanding the two-for-one first customer deal).
Seriously, it’d be so much cheaper if I just started smoking bongs every night, especially given that none of this is PBS subsidised, leaving legitimate medical users with astronomical out-of-pocket expenses (in excess of $10k annually from some patients I have spoken to). If I did so, it might even score me a free sexual interaction with the NSW Police (get your annual NSW Police sexual abuse calendar here).
So after many months and countless hundreds of dollars down the drain, I finally have a legitimate medical supplier. Of course, given that the supply chain is fully vertically-integrated from doctor to producer to distributor, this thing is so obviously intentionally overprotected that I could swear it was some kind of mob-like political protection racket. In fact, I’d be willing to place bets on who’s friends with the federal Health Minister at this point, given that they need to be individually lobbied on behalf of patients, and that the suppliers benefit from full vendor lock-in (should I want to switch to another supplier, I’d have to go through their full process from scratch).
And all of this red-taped protectionism coming from so-called Liberal governments. Give me a break — I’m willing to take a position in the betting markets you guys are sleeping with the doctors.
PS: To give you an idea of just how safe and non-psychoactive CBD is, here’s a picture I took of a bottle of Swiss 10% CBD oil, of which I drank half the bottle (almost 100 times the recommended daily dose) near the summit of the Lagginhorn in Switzerland, at an altitude of 3,750m, from which I nonetheless managed to safely return to the hut in time for dinner, despite the route being almost entirely unprotected. Here’s the video to prove it.
There’s an enormous cost and regulatory barrier of entry to people seeking access to medical cannabis, and from what I gather it’s not uncommon for people to fork out in excess of $1000 in out-of-pocket expenses to gain entry into the system, not to mention the time required to navigate it. So to save you all from an enormous waste of time and money…
Executive summary: Use the dodgy phone guys for now, because for the remainder of the medical industry, from GP to high-charging specialist, it isn’t worth their time to do the paperwork.
Or buy a bong…
Following the revelations, prosecution, and subsequent death of former billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, relating to his incredibly sinister history of sexual exploitation and trafficking of minors, and the multitude of high-profile names implicated in the countless and ongoing allegations, my own community — the quantum computing academic community — has even found itself being drawn in, via the research donations given to prominent MIT Professor Seth Lloyd by Jeffrey Epstein.
For those who don’t know, Seth is an extremely prolific and influential figure in our field, who has made a beyond-staggering academic contribution to our area of research.
Although there hasn’t been any suggestion (to my knowledge) that Seth was in any way involved in or supported Epstein’s sexual depravity, following the revelations that he had accepted donations from Epstein to fund his research, who is currently on paid leave, many are calling for him to be dismissed from MIT outright for his lack of judgement in accepting these donations, including student-led protests against him.
I have no knowledge whatsoever of the nature of the personal relationship between the two, what they talked about when Seth visited Epstein in jail, or anything remotely along those lines. I want to avoid all of that altogether, because I’m simply not in a position to have an opinion on it, less so to express one.
I don’t personally know Seth very well, having only ever socialised with him on a few occasions at conferences overseas (of course, I know his academic work very well). Needless to say, I never knew Epstein at all. So none of this should be interpreted as some kind of underhanded attempt to ‘stand up for a mate’, or anything of the sort. There are no partiality issues at play here.
Having said this, what I want to raise is (in my mind) a very glaring moral equivalence between Seth’s actions and something that is, moralistically, highly comparable, which people in our research community engage in all the time (and to be clear, I am no exception to this) — accepting money from major international defence contractors, where in many instances it is very well known they knowingly provide material support for war crimes and other crimes against humanity at a global scale, engage in war profiteering, and use their immense wealth to engage in extensive political lobbying to forever promote the expansion of this self-reinforcing agenda of permanent armed conflict.
They also happen to dish out tons of cash to researchers in forefront scientific areas, such as ours.
I recall the first time I accepted a university position directly funded by a major international defence contractor (they financed my entire salary at the time). I was extremely aware of their highly morally questionable history. Upon being offered the position, a point in my life at which I had few other career options, I genuinely emotionally and morally struggled with myself in ways I never had before (to the point of falling into a prolonged state of deep depression upon making the decision to accept it), and internally debated with myself about it for quite some time before coming to terms with it via the following conclusion:
So long as the research I am conducting using their money is open research, accessible to all, and not in any way kept secret for the select benefit of the financiers, then every dollar I accept from them is a dollar less spent on raining down missiles on some impoverished country, under illegal military assault or occupation. Surely it’s far better for me to take their cash and use it to advance science for the benefit of all, than let it contribute to rolling the next cruise missile off the production line?
I’ve thought about it a lot since, and I am still in retrospect very comfortable with the above moral justification, and would be open to accepting further such cash contributions from similar entities, assuming the caveats and conditions stated above remained in place.
Without having any special inside knowledge of the Lloyd vs Epstein case, what is clear to me is that there seems to be a significant moral equivalence between these two scenarios. As far as I’m aware (and do correct me if I’m wrong), all research conducted by Seth using Epstein’s money was openly-published scientific research, where the funding source (Epstein) was acknowledged accordingly for financial support (as is the expected scientific norm, in the same way that defence contractors are acknowledged accordingly).
What I’m interested in hearing from those in academia (or outside for that matter), who receive money, directly or indirectly, from highly morally questionable defence sources (which is most of us at some point or another in our careers as quantum computer scientists), is what is fundamentally different between accepting money from sex criminals as opposed to war criminals, provided that the research is scientifically open, for all to access, and does not preferentially benefit the financier in any way?
One could indeed go further by pointing out that those accepting research funds from defence contractors knowingly engage in the following:
- Accepting money from organisations known to promote and contribute to illegal wars.
- Enhancing their reputation via the required funding source acknowledgements in published work.
- Developing science and technology that may be of direct material benefit to their efforts.
- Enhancing their networking and influence potential, via the provision of direct high-level access to upper university leadership.
- Reporting on the latest scientific advancements, providing them with the intelligence to project a potential competitive edge.
- Recognition within the academic community as the ‘go-to people’ to seek partnerships when major developments are made.
- In some instances, the organisations provide direct guidance as to the nature of the research being undertaken (in others there are very few strings attached).
In the case of donations sourced from a private individual, much of this does not apply. Certainly, networking ability and reputational enhancement may be of benefit. Direct scientific and technological developments are highly unlikely to be — certainly not in any manner that would foreseeably benefit the depraved acts of someone like Epstein.
The second issue — that of Seth visiting Epstein in jail following his initial conviction — is one where I believe we should all be extremely ethically mindful of what the nature of that visit might have entailed. Were a friend of mine to end up in jail, for whatever reason, I’d almost certainly pay them a visit. That would not automatically imply that the visit was a tacit statement of endorsement — it could very well be entirely the opposite. Speaking to someone needn’t at all imply it be positive, pleasant or supportive in nature. This is something that presumably none of us are in a position to pass full judgement on, based on lack of information. That’s not to say I don’t absolutely recognise that making such a visit at all brings with it enormous potential for a complete PR disaster (clearly that’s exactly what followed).
I want to be absolutely clear that I’m not attempting to morally absolve or implicate anyone (Seth Lloyd, MIT, myself, my colleagues, our industry, nor the academic community at large), nor take sides. Rather, what I would like to promote is consistency in the way we view such issues, from a humanist perspective, both within academia and beyond, and hear sound and consistent arguments as to why Seth Lloyd’s decision to accept research funding from a sex criminal is inherently different to (or indeed worse than) the far more common, and accepted, practise of accepting research money from known war criminals and war profiteers (which most in my industry are guilty of — especially those at the top).
In terms of the way in which I have personally morally justified accepting money (under appropriate constraints) from war profiteers, why should a similar moral justification not apply more generally, for example to the scenario presently involving Seth Lloyd?
If Lloyd is to lose his job for having used the money from a known sex criminal for the purposes of open scientific research, should the rest of us also lose ours for accepting money derived from war profiteers, who support the violation of international law, knowingly enable war crimes, and other crimes against humanity?
Frankly, those of us who have, have far more to answer for. And I, like most, am one of them.
Nb: I realise that writing anything whatsoever on this particular topic at the present moment is incredibly dangerous territory to wade into. Given the nature of the crimes committed by Epstein, any discussion of this topic has tremendous potential to cause enormous hurt to countless people. I really do want to make this clear, and I mean this as genuinely as I possibly can, that in writing this the absolute last thing I want to do is come across as trivialising the depravity of Epstein, or turning a blind eye to it. For very personal reasons, the crimes Epstein committed are ones that are deeply emotionally upsetting to me. If any reader interprets this post as dismissive or trivialising in tone, let me assure you that’s not at all what was intended. My intention is very different to that — depraved sex criminals aren’t the only criminals in the world, and if we are to take a strong moral stance against criminal depravity, and ensure that scientific research funding is sparkling clean, it should be applied in a self-consistent and uniform manner. To all the victims of Epstein, and those like him, you have my unwavering support.
In Australia, call Lifeline (13 11 14) if these issues affect you. Similar free and confidential services are available in many other jurisdictions around the world.
Thank you for your invitation to review this manuscript for your journal. Unfortunately, I must decline the invitation given that, as a matter of principle, I do not support or endorse the activities of for-profit scientific journals.
The scientific community has previously offered this industry, free of charge:
- Conducting all scientific research.
- Writing all scientific manuscripts.
- Acting voluntarily in editorial roles.
- Performing all refereeing.
- (i.e the entire workload of your organisation, other than hosting the website on which you serve the PDFs).
In exchange, we receive:
- Massive journal subscription fees.
- Article download fees.
- Article publication fees.
- Intimidation tactics employed against us when we prefer not to be a part of it.
- Anti-competitive and financially predatory distribution tactics.
- Institutionalised mandates for the above.
This is not a symbiotic relationship, but a parasitic one, for the larger part financed by the taxpayer, who should rather be financing our research. I can no longer endorse this one-sided relationship, in which for-profit journals effectively tax scientific research, to the tune of billions of dollars annually, often using coercive and intimidatory sales tactics, whilst providing very little or no value in return. This capital is best spent on what it was intended for — scientific research for the benefit of humankind — training students, hiring research staff, financing equipment, travel and infrastructure — to which your organisation contributes nothing whatsoever other than to extort value.
In addition to declining this offer, please for future reference:
- Remove my name from your referee database.
- Immediately cease and desist from using intimidatory tactics when I decline to volunteer my labour (which is of very high value) to your pursuit of profit (in exchange for nothing).
- Hassling me for failing to voluntarily contribute my labour to your revenue-raising is tantamount to harassment and extortion.
- Do not request that I voluntarily act as your journal editor.
- Do not work in cahoots with national scientific funding agencies to enforce your own vendor lock in, thereby effectively mandating your own services, which are in fact of very little or no value whatsoever. This in an indirect form of taxation upon scientific research, which I have no interest in paying, and which we should be expected or forced to.
- I do not intend personally to submit any further manuscripts to your journal for consideration (if my co-authors do, I won’t stand in their way).
Personal note to the Editor: this should not be construed as a personal attack against you, who I absolutely respect, but rather against the industry which is exploiting you in a slave-like work relationship, whilst using you as a conduit to engage me for the same purpose. I write this as an act of solidarity with you, not as a personal attack against you.
We advance human knowledge for the benefit of humanity, and provide it as a gift for all.
(This post may be freely linked to, reused, or modified without acknowledgement)
Several days ago NZ PM Jacinda Ardern released her now-viral 2-minute policy achievement challenge.
I have prepared a response on behalf of Australia.
Given the rate of information flow in the social media generation, and the ability for information to go internationally viral in a matter of minutes — which only requires thoughtless button-clicking within a few degrees of separation — it’s undeniable that the propagation of Fake News poses a major threat. Whether it be malicious electoral interference, or the perpetration of nonsensical views on medicine, leading to the reemergence of deadly, but entirely preventable diseases, the implications are undeniably catastrophic, already have been, and pose a major threat to humanity.
For this reason it’s understandable that people want to put an end to it. Of course we don’t want measles (or Trump). But how do we achieve this? Many politicians around the world are pressuring social media giants to filter content to eliminate fake news, while others are advocating legislation to force them to.
I oppose such approaches outright, and believe they pave the way for even greater thought manipulation. (Interpret the terminology fake news prevention, as being synonymous with terrorists, drugs and pedophiles, as per my last article).
Most news is fake (or misrepresented)
What constitutes fake news, anyway? Given that even upon reading articles about the same event, as portrayed by two ideologically distinct, yet well-respected mainstream newspapers, the tilt can be so astronomical, with both sides criticising the other for bias and corruption, the notion of fakeness is hardly an objective one. When it comes to statements made by politicians it’s even more perverse.
There is no such thing as an unbiased media source, nor will any story we read have full access to all information, or the full background context, or be 100% verifiably correct. Essentially what propagates over the internet is a close approximation to white-noise. Applying the appropriate filter, you can extract any signal you want.
Any kind of enforcement of filtering or information suppression implies certain types of information being removed at the behest of those with the ability to do so. Those people are necessarily in positions of power and influence, and will pursue their own interests over the collective one. The ability to impose filtering, enables post-selection bias by mandate. In conjunction with the false sense of security that a filtering system creates, the outcome is even greater vulnerability to the self-reinforcement and confirmation biases we seek to avoid.
The pretext for power
The implications of the ability for those in power to manipulate this to their advantage is obvious, and the basis upon which totalitarian societies are built. Already in Singapore there have been deep concerns surrounding this, where anti-fake news legislation requires organisations to,
“carry corrections or remove content the government considers to be false, with penalties for perpetrators including prison terms of up to 10 years or fines up to S$1m.”
The term “the government considers to be false” is an illuminating one.
Once a mandate for filtering is established, its application cannot be confined to what is ‘fake’, nor can we trust those making that determination to wield this extraordinary power. With such a mandate in place, the parameters defining its implementation will evolve with the political agenda, likely via regulation than via legislation — isolating it entirely from any democratic oversight or debate. Regardless who is at the helm, be sure that it will be used to undermine those who are not. History substantiates this — it is why we hold them to account, rather than blindly trust them to do what is right.
How to fight fake news
Instead of relying on those with vested interests to take on fake news, we must arm ourselves to do it in their absence. We must do so in a manner that is collective, transparent, decentralised, and robust against malign political interference (i.e all political interference).
By far the most powerful avenue towards combating fake news is for people being equipped with the skills to do so themselves. For this reason, the following should be taught to all, from the earliest possible age, including making them essential components of our education system:
- Critical thinking and rationalism.
- Recognising logical fallacies.
- Elementary statistics and probability theory (even if only qualitatively at an early level).
- Online research skills, and the difference between what constitutes research versus Googling to find the answer you want to believe (i.e confirmation bias — “I was trying to find out whether the Moon landing was a conspiracy, and came across this amazing post on 8chan by this guy who runs an anti-vax blog (he’s pretty high up) that provided a really comprehensive and thoughtful analysis of this! BTW, did you know that the CIA invented Hitler in the 60’s as a distraction from the Vietnam war? I fact-checked it with more Googling, and it works out.”).
- Encouraging kids to take up debating in school, where these become essential skills.
Already Finland has reportedly had great success in pursuing precisely this approach at the school level, with similar discussions emerging in the UK and within the OECD. Finland’s approach (Nb: I don’t know the details of the curriculum), is foresighted and correct.
Sometimes our ability to spot fakeness at a glance is challenging, and even the most mindful social media users will routinely fall for things, making software tools indispensable to a robust process. Certainly, modern analytical techniques could be employed for this purpose to reveal the reliability of information sources, usually with a high degree of accuracy. When it comes to social media giants applying fake news filters, this is inevitably the route that will be taken. It can’t possibly be done by hand.
If the purpose of such software tools is to make us aware of misleading information, then its manipulation provides an even more powerful avenue for misleading us than the underlying information itself, based on the false sense of security, and our own subsequent subconscious loosening of internal filtering standards.
To illustrate this, the exisiting social media giants, Facebook and Twitter, are already routinely accused of implementing their anti-hate-speech policies in a highly inconsistent and asymmetric manner. Everyone will have their own views on this, but from my own observations I agree with this assessment. Note that selectively preventing hate speech from one side, whilst not doing so for the other, is an implicit endorsement of the latter, tantamount to direct political support. This type of political support — the ability to freely communicate, and simultaneous denial of one’s opponents to do so — is the single greatest political asset one can have. The ability to platform and de-platform entire organisations or ideologies is the single most politically powerful position one can hold — it’s no coincidence that the first step taken under the formation of any totalitarian state, is centralised control of the media.
This implies that any tools we rely on for this purpose must be extremely open, transparent, understandable, and robust against intentional manipulation. In the same way that you would not employ a proprietary cryptographic algorithm for encrypting sensitive data, with no knowledge of its internal functioning, the same standard of trust must be applied when interpreting the reliability of information, yet alone outright filtering.
Simultaneously, these tools must be allowed to evolve and compete. If they are written behind closed doors by governments or by corporations, none of these criteria will be met. The tools cannot fall under any kind of political control, and must be decentralised and independent.
Tools based on community evaluation and consensus should be treated with caution, given their vulnerability to self-reinforcement via positive feedback loops of their own — a new echo-chamber. Indeed, this vulnerability is precisely the one that fake news exploits to go viral in the first place.
Will machine learning save us?
Identifying unreliable information sources is something that modern machine learning techniques are extremely well-suited to, and if implemented properly, would likely be our most useful tool in fact-checking and fake news identification. However, these techniques are inherently at odds with my advocacy for algorithmic transparency.
In machine learning, by definition, we don’t hard-code software to spot certain features. Rather we train it using sample data, allowing it to uncover underlying relationships and correlations for itself. A well-trained system is then in principle able to operate upon new data it hadn’t previously been exposed to, and identify similar features and patterns. The problem is that what the system has learned to see is not represented in human-readable form, nor even comprehensible to us, given its mathematical sophistication. If the original training data were to be manipulated, the system could easily be coaxed into intentionally exhibiting the biases of its trainers, which would be extremely difficult to identify by outsiders.
I don’t advocate against the use of machine learning techniques at all. However I very much advocate for recognising their incompatibility with the desire for complete transparency and openness, and the recognition that this establishes a direct avenue for manipulation.
Design for complacency
The biggest obstacle of all to seeing through fact from fiction, is our own complacency, and desire to even do so. Given that in just minutes a Facebook or Twitter user can scroll through hundreds of posts, if establishing the reliability of a source requires opening multiple new browser windows to cross-check and research each one individually, it will undermine the user experience — the average user (especially those most vulnerable to influence by fake news) will not be bothered to.
The tools we develop for verifying reliability must accommodate for this as the most important design consideration, providing a fully integrated and user-friendly mechanism, which does not detract from the inherently addictive, slot-machine-like appeal of the social media experience. If the tools detract from the user experience, they will be rejected and become ineffective at a mass scale.
Modern-day book burning
What interest does the State have in preventing Fake News? None, this is how they subsist. What they actually have a desire for is to selectively eliminate information which works against their interests.
In the presence of overwhelming white-noise, selective elimination is just as powerful as the creation of new misinformation.
Providing them with a mandate to restrict the information we are able to see (in the ‘public interest’ no less) is to grant them the right to conduct the 21st century equivalent of 1940’s book burning ceremonies. Needless to say, having established a mandate to hold the ceremonies, they will decide for themselves which books get burnt.
Rather than burn our books on our behalf, let us decide which ones we would like to read, but let us also develop trustworthy, reliable, and accessible tools for making that determination for ourselves. Admittedly, much of society is highly fallible and unreliable when it comes to making such self-determination. To those in positions of power this applies even more so, given that they necessarily have interests to pursue, and seek a centralised approach for that reason.
There is an important relationship between free people and those in power that must be maintained, whereby our freedoms will only be upheld if accountability is enforced. The latter is our responsibility, not theirs. To delegate the accountability process — of which the free-flow of information is the single most pivotal — to those being held to account, is to capitulate entirely, and voluntarily acquiesce to subservience via population control.
I oppose the death penalty. I oppose it per se. I oppose it regardless of the crime, and regardless who it is applied to. If, like me, you oppose the death penalty, oppose it outright, not because of the nationality of the victim.
Every year around the world thousands of people are put to death. Many are put to death via barbaric means for ‘crimes’ that shouldn’t be crimes. There are parts of the world where women are publicly stoned to death for the ‘crime’ of being a rape victim. There are places where women are drenched in acid until they are dead for the ‘crime’ of bringing shame upon their family. There are places where homosexuals are thrown from the roofs of ten story buildings for the ‘crime’ of being homosexual. People are put to death for changing religion, insulting their religion, or offending the leader of their country.
Where is the outrage and the media and political spectacle when these horrific forms of the death penalty are carried out? The politicians remain silent. The media says nothing. The general population don’t threaten travel embargoes or boycott products. And there are no candle-lit vigils on the victims’ behalf. To stay silent whilst these kinds of acts are taking place, but then be outraged because two of the victims happen to be Australian, is effectively saying that the life of a guilty Australian criminal is worth more than the life of an innocent Saudi rape victim, or an innocent Iraqi homosexual teenager.
Oppose the death penalty – I do. But make your opposition to it consistent and not hypocritical. Oppose it because it’s wrong – always wrong. Don’t oppose it because the victim happens to be the same nationality as you.
This is the transcript of my speech at the recent annual Australian Libertarian Society Friedman Conference.
Today I’d like to talk to you about the role of non-monetary interests in civil society, and how they are absolutely essential for the proper functioning of society. By this, I’m referring to charity & volunteer work, donations & philanthropy, lobbying and political activism.
Your typical libertarian or fiscal conservative argues for individualism – that people should be free to pursue their own self interest, particularly when it comes to financial self-interest. And I couldn’t agree more with them on that. But having the freedom to choose to pursue financial self-interest doe not imply that we are at all times obliged to pursue financial self-interest.
I’m relatively libertarian-minded, but I also do a lot of charity work that I’ll tell you about shortly. And when I tell people about my charity work, it’s not uncommon for people to respond skeptically by saying “But Peter you’re a libertarian, don’t you believe that charity contradicts libertarianism and that all social needs can be addressed by a market comprising self-interested individuals?”. My answer to this is a resounding no.
Whilst libertarianism and fiscal conservatism argues that people should be allowed to pursue self-interest, it does not imply that they are obliged to. Libertarianism is not about forcing people to act with self-interest, it’s about allowing them to. But it’s equally about allowing them not to. And so I think that individuals engaging in charitable work without any self-interest in sight, is completely consistent with a libertarian vision for society.
The role of charities in our society is absolutely essential, both domestically and internationally. Charities are a major pillar in the proper functioning of our society, and without them, the society we live in would be a much darker place.
I’d like to tell you specifically about a charity that’s very close to my heart – Lifeline. I’ve been working for Lifeline as a telephone councillor for 2 years now. I’m sure most of you have heard of Lifeline. We’re a charity organisation that offers a free 24/7 counselling hotline to offer support to people in need of someone to talk to, for any reason whatsoever. We talk with people suffering mental illness, domestic violence, sexuality issues, rape, abuse, grief, loss, and above all else, people who are considering suicide. Lifeline takes on the order of 850,000 calls per year, many of which are people who are suffering so badly that they are on the brink of suicide. These people are typically lonely, and have no one else to turn to in life. And so, as a last resort, they turn to Lifeline. In my experience, maybe 10 or 20% of our callers are at risk of suicide. And of those, we are successful in the vast majority of cases in preventing those suicides from happening. It’s therefore safe to say that Lifeline as an organisation has saved tens of thousands of lives. Similar services exist in other countries, such as the Samaritans in the UK.
All our councillors have been subject to an intensive half year training program to train them in all the issues I mentioned, particularly in suicide intervention skills. Now, not only do our councillors work for free out of the goodness of their heart and the desire to build a better and happier society, but they actually pay $500 out of their own pocket to undergo this training program.
A Randian might argue that this is absolutely insane. Not only are these people not working for their own self-interest, but they’re actually working against their own financial self-interest, to the order of $500 and many hours per week in the investment of time, to pursue someone else’s interest.
So, how to we reconcile this apparent contradiction. Well, the answer is that a society based on the libertarian ideal of individualism does not mandate self-interest, but rather mandates personal choice. And so if someone chooses to pursue their own self-interest, that’s fine. But if someone chooses to volunteer themselves to pursue someone else’s self-interest, that’s fine too.
The example I have just given you, Lifeline, is just one single charitable organisation. Without that organisation alone, tens of thousands of Australians would have committed suicide. But there are countless other charities as well, all providing equally invaluable services. John Humphreys is with us today. Without his charity, the Human Capital Project, countless young people in Cambodia would not have had the opportunity to undertake a university education. Without Oxfam, countless people would be unnecessarily dying of malaria, missing out on basic education, or not having the resources to live a basic existence. There are literally hundreds of organisations like this in just Australia alone.
All of these organisations have a business model. They must have a business model or else they wouldn’t exist. But the point I’d like to make is that their business model is fundamentally different to the business model employed by regular companies and self-interested individuals. Their model is not about profit, but about pursuing a non-monetary interest. And having organisations with this alternate business model is as vital to our society as organisations with standard profit-driven business models.
The usual libertarian argument is that the ‘invisible hand’ magically converts self-interest into the interests of society, and that therefore all societal needs may be addressed by self-interested individuals. But this is clearly not the case. Adam Smith’s invisible hand will never provide the kind of service that Lifeline provides. I cannot conceive of how a profit-driven business model could fulfil that role. It’s inconceivable to think that a user-pays service could replicate Lifeline or most other charities. There’s just no way that Lifeline could talk someone out of suicide after asking them for their credit card number or playing them a recorded advertisement over the phone.
Now I’d like to go on a slightly philosophical tangent and examine what ‘self-interest’ actually means. US-style Republicans would argue this means pursuing our own business interests. But how about we define ‘self-interest’ a little more broadly. Are people engaging in charitable activities really not self-interested? Well you could argue that they are. But they’re not acting in financial self-interest. Rather, they’re pursuing ‘feel-good’ self-interest – they’re doing something that makes them feel good. I’ll leave it to your own philosophical leanings to decide whether this constitutes ‘self-interest’ or not.
But for argument’s sake, if it is a form of self-interest, then people who advocate people pursuing self-interest must, by definition, support this kind of self-interest – the self-interest of feeling good by helping others. On the other hand, if it’s not self-interest, then it’s nonetheless a voluntary association. And libertarians, anarchists and conservatives alike are renowned for advocating the freedom to engage in voluntary association (albeit to different degrees). Therefore, I would argue that irrespective of your philosophy on what self-interest means, if you subscribe to a right-of-centre political viewpoint, then voluntary and charitable work must not only be accepted, but encouraged, if it is a voluntary choice, made without coercion.
The final issue I’d to talk about is the role of government in all of this. I raise this issue because social democrats and socialists will typically agree completely with what I’ve said about the need for organisations not driven by profit and the failure of Adam Smith’s invisible hand to provide all of society’s needs. They would then go a step further and argue that this is proof for the need of government to fill this gap and provide these services that self-interested individuals would be unable to provide.
We could get into a philosophical debate on this issue, and spend hours and hours going around in circles arguing the philosophical merits of government charity versus self-interest. I don’t really want to go there. So let’s instead look at this empirically.
The governments of all Western societies are social democratic to some extent or another, and they all attempt to fill the gap, the hole that is left unfilled by self-interested individuals. So let’s take an empirical look at the relative successes of governments filling this void versus charitable individuals and organisations filling this void.
Let’s start by looking at what governments do. At a domestic level, first and foremost, they provide social security, most notably in the form of unemployment benefits. This results in a massive disincentive to work, and it’s paid for by higher tax rates, which prices people out of the labour market and reduces the available capital with which to employ people. The net result is that we have higher unemployment, and a reduced incentive in society for people to make and expand businesses, seek promotion, and increase their labour productivity.
At the international level, governments hand out foreign aid, which more often than not gets spent by corrupt governments on expanding their militaries or downright cronyism.
There’s very little incentive for governments to spend so-called ‘charitable money’ in an effective way, because politicians win votes by handing money out and boasting about it, rather than by achieving goals.
On the other hand, let’s look at what charitable individuals achieve. Domestically, we prevent tens of thousands of suicides – see Lifeline. We provide soup kitchens to feed the homeless, people who are completely left out by government funded social security. We provide women’s refuges, to help women escape domestic violence and rape. And at the international level we give thousands of people the gift of sight (see the Fred Hollows Foundation), we prevent thousands of cases of malaria via charitable vaccination programs, we airlift food to starving peoples. Private sector micro-loan programs have proven incredibly successful at providing people with the capital to get an education or start a small business, with very high payback rates, enabling the money to be recycled rather than swallowed up.
It’s crystal clear that charitable individuals, associating voluntarily, can achieve things that governments never could, achieving better social outcomes than governments, because governments hand out money in an ad hoc fashion purely for the purpose of boasting about how generous they are, whereas charitable individuals are goal-oriented, and only continue to attract volunteers and donations if they demonstrate that they’re achieving their goals.
Therefore, what I’d like to leave you with today, is that non-monetary interests are essential to the fabric of our society. Not only are they essential, but they cannot be replicated by any self-interest-driven business model. And having charitable organisations that provide this service, is not contradictory to the libertarian ideals of individualism and self-interest. But actually, these kinds of charities could not exist without a society that respects individualism and encourages people to pursue their own agenda, whatever that agenda might be. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a goal that governments around the world have consistently demonstrated that they are unable to replicate.