Monthly Archives: April 2008

On Freedom and Toleration

This post is inspired by the State of Texas’ recent abduction of 416 kids from a polygamist compound.

One way to measure the degree of freedom in a society is by looking at the kinds of associations made by its members. A free people can choose to enter into any association they wish, and are not forced into any associations against their will. By associations, I include both social associations, such as friendships, meeting, publications, and marriages, as well as material associations, such as gifts, trade, business agreements, and common property. Voluntary associations are those entered into by mutual consent to mutual benefit.  Non-voluntary associations (the status of minors aside) include taxes, crime, restrictions on trade and commerce, and any other regulation of consensual behavior that is imposed on individuals against their own judgment.

A free society requires a certain kind of tolerance for other people’s beliefs and associations.  Because the term is unclear, it is necessary to distinguish two kinds of toleration. Political toleration is equal treatment under the law – the presumption that every human being has the same rights as everyone else. A violation of this kind of toleration is only possible in interactions that involve the threat or use of force.  Political discrimination includes preferential or detrimental treatment of any group or individual based on any criteria other than an individual’s respect for the rights of others.  Examples of political intolerance include laws that favor the rich or poor (such any government tax or fee that is not fixed), racial quotas, or limitations on contracts based on sexual orientation or the market share of one’s business.

In contrast to political toleration, social toleration is non-judgmentalism.  As applied to cultural distinctions, it is known as multiculturalism.   A total commitment to social toleration requires the presumption that no particular culture, way of life, or value system is superior to any other. Practically everyone engages in various kinds of social intolerance when they issue moral praise and condemnation, or choose to associate or dissociate with various people or groups based on their beliefs or identities.  There are many levels of intolerance — we might buy our groceries from someone we would not necessarily want as a business partner or spouse.

I believe that a free people must be politically tolerant, but socially intolerant. Political tolerance is necessary because the freedom of association requires that individuals be able to establish any voluntary association they choose, including those that the majority disapproves of, such as polygamous relationships.  A society that does not respect this right will eventually succumb to pressure group warfare followed by dictatorship, as conflicting moral views battle in the political arena until one seizes power by force.  Social intolerance on the other hand, is necessary because in a society that does not use political means to prohibit destructive (but voluntary) behavior and ideas, people must rely on their own judgment for moral guidance.  In order to live successfully in a politically pluralistic society, individuals need to use their own judgment to decide which associations are harmful or beneficial within the context of voluntary associations.  (In this context, a presumption of innocence is equally important in social as well as political tolerance.)

Politically, freedom means the freedom to disagree – to be free to make choices regardless of the approval of others. A free people must be free to create and join religious cults, no matter how absurd their beliefs or how self-destructive their practices are. Socially, freedom requires an ethic of self-reliance and independent moral judgment. To survive and thrive in a free society, we must decide which people and groups to join and which ones to condemn and avoid.

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The digital revolution transforms art history

The world is full of great art the vast majority of people will never see. Even the world traveler who tours Chicago, New York, Paris, and St Petersburg several times over, will not see all the collections in great detail, much less a single painting. Any visitor to the Louvre will undoubtedly want to see the Mona Lisa, but he is not likely to see it in any detail, without a crowd urging him to move on, or a curator keeping him from examining the detail too closely. Once viewed, the image of a painting fades quickly from memory, with postcards, coffee table books, and even high quality reproductions offering a poor substitute for the original.

I can’t speak for other art admirers, but to me, a painting is ultimately just information. For me, the canvas is just an imperfect container for the data. It is valuable only insofar as it represents an irreplaceable source, from which all copies and memories must come from. It’s a very imperfect source – fragile, singular, and inevitably decaying in time, destroying its precious cargo as it slowly succumbs to entropy.

Imagine however, if we could clone the canvas – and not only clone it, but create a superior container for that information, one that not only does not decay over time, but reveals more information than the original source. A perfect digital representation of a painting could contain not only its state at the time of its digitization, but the record of its lifespan, including its original state, as well as the creative process itself. With a global network, such a representation could be accessed instantly from anywhere in the world. It would not be like seeing the original – it would be better than the original, representing far more information than merely viewing the canvas can provide.

Lumiere Technology is a company which hopes to do just that. They intend to digitize the world’s art and make it available (for a price) to art students and fans worldwide. Their multispectral scanning process captures images in more detail than ever before, not only in terms of resolution, but in 13 wavelengths, from ultraviolet to infrared. (45 min YouTube video.) Their digital restoration process can strip away faded varnish and hundreds of year of wear to show images in their original color. It can highlight certain wavelengths for the colorblind, or look beneath the painting in infrared.

Lumiere’s scans are certainly not the last word in digitization, but they might be the harbinger of a revolution. I can already imagine the day in which the motivation to see the original artwork is a curiosity, done for bragging rights rather than a means of studying it. Undoubtedly, a small but vocal minority will persist in silly claims that there is something to be gained from seeing the “warmth” of the original.

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Recessions are created by greedy politicians, not businessmen

Sen. John McCain this morning said “greedy” Wall Street investors are partly to blame for what he said is probably an economic recession the nation is now suffering.

“There has to be a modification of the greedy behavior of some of these people,” he said, using the word “greedy” repeatedly in remarks to the Associated Press annual meeting at the Washington Convention Center today.

By “modification” McCain means that he wants to replace the greed of investors, whose rational self-interest motivates them to maximize wealth, with the greed of politicians and government bureaucrats, whose greed motivates them to create as much economic destruction as possible, in the attempt to maximize their political prestige and power. Such economic destruction, in the form of the Federal Reserve’s manipulation of interest rates and Congress’ hampering of markets is precisely what is responsible for the economic recession McCain would like to see happen. Honest businessmen thrive in a booming market – it takes an economic crisis (real or invented) for political crooks like McCain to justify the expansion of political power.

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