“Evidence”

“But, if someone could just tell me… I mean, surely they have a reason for keeping me here. Isn’t there some evidence?”

“There is an evidence file associated with your case.”

“Am I allowed to see it?”

“You are perfectly entitled to inspect the evidence.”

“Well, where is it?”

“This is the full evidence file associated with your case.”

“It’s in there? All of it?”

“This is the full evidence file associated with your case.”

“May I open it?”

“You are perfectly entitled to inspect the evidence.”

“But this is… this is just a photograph of two hats.”

“This is the full evidence file associated with your case.”

A Second Puzzle for Libertarians: The Infinitely Rich Man

The Infinitely Rich Man is not infinitely rich. He is just very, very rich. Nobody knows quite how rich.

One day, you happened to meet the Infinitely Rich Man in a bar. At first he was friendly, but soon you found yourselves in an argument about horses. You were for them, and he was against them. Or perhaps you were against them, and he was for them. You don’t actually remember how it went.

As you parted ways, you expected never to see the Infinitely Rich Man again. Little do you know: the Infinitely Rich Man now despises you. His sole desire on earth is to see you unhappy.

This should hardly trouble you, though. After all, you have a good job at a castanet factory. You own your own home, which has a picturesque lake view. You have a wife, whom you love and who loves you. You also have a prized possession, your 1972 Pontiac Lemans. You don’t have much spare cash, but this never bothers you because of your stable job.

The Infinitely Rich Man is also a strict Libertarian. He believes it is illegitimate for anyone to initiate force against another. And because you are fortunate enough to live in a Libertarian world, you are free to enjoy those things you treasure most in the world without being bothered by the state or the Infinitely Rich Man.

The Infinitely Rich Man is not discouraged, however. He still believes he can ruin you. He will be a Count of Monte Cristo, but an extremely law-abiding one.

The first thing the Infinitely Rich Man does is buy the castanet factory where you work. He immediately fires you. He also makes sure that if any other employers inquire about you, the castanet factory will refuse to serve as a reference. Not that this matters, for he intends to bribe any other castanet company who hires you into firing you. (There are four castanet companies.)

You therefore find yourself unemployed. Fortunately, you have a skill. You know how to make castanets! (Castanets are very popular.) So you scrape together what money you have, and you open a little drive-thru castanet stand out on Route 9.

But the Infinitely Rich Man has a plan. He opens a stand next to yours. At his stand, castanets are free. He gives them away by the truckload. He sets the whole world clacking.

You cannot compete. You are ruined.

At least you still have your wife, your friends, your lakeview home, your 1972 Pontiac Lemans.

But the Infinitely Rich Man has a plan.

First, he buys the lake. He fills it with concrete. No more lake view, and your property value diminishes by $100,000.

Then, he buys every house around yours, flattens it, and turns it into a landfill. The smell doesn’t reach your home, but it turns the neighborhood unsightly and desolate. Your house becomes worthless. The Infinitely Rich Man buys the heating company and refuses to provide gas to your home at any price. (You try to talk other gas companies into competing, but they refuse; laying a new main for a single home would be absurd, they say.)

But you have a wife! And friends! And you get to drive a 1972 Pontiac Lemans!

The Infinitely Rich Man offers a bribe. Any of your friends who refuse to speak with you ever again will receive a salary of one million dollars per year. At first, many decline to take the bribe. But sooner or later, most of them have one or another sticky financial situation, and they give in. Goodbye, vast majority of your friends!

At least your wife loves you. But one day, she becomes ill. She finds out that she will die, unless she goes on a treatment regimen for the rest of her life. The regimen costs $100,000 a month.

The Infinitely Rich man pops up, and offers to pay. The one condition is that she divorce you, cut contact, and never speak with you again. As soon as she breaks the agreement, he will cease to pay for the treatment.

You love your wife, but you do not want her to die. You both agree that it is better that she should accept.

At least you can drive your 1972 Pontiac Lemans.

Oh, but wait. The Infinitely Rich Man invests heavily in electric energy. Slowly, he makes gasoline-powered transit obsolete. He buys the oil companies, burns the gasoline, and converts every gas pump to a charging station. You can only drive your Lemans short distances, using some of the last gallons of available petrol, which you ordered from the internet. (That is, if the Infinitely Rich Man didn’t outbid you!)

They don’t make the Pontiac Lemans anymore. Parts therefore exist only in small quantities. The Infinitely Rich Man buys up all existing Lemans parts. The moment it breaks, you are out of luck.

As you sit alone, broke, and starving in the garage of your unheated home, caressing your disabled Lemans, thinking about your long-gone wife, your lake view, and your job, you are thankful that you live in a world of freedom, where nobody can encroach upon the liberty of another.

Questions for Libertarians: Has the non-aggression principle been violated? Should the Infinitely Rich Man suffer any civil or criminal penalties for his actions?

Could Government-Mandated Forced Kidney Donation be a Good Thing?

The American system of kidney donation is badly broken. Every year, 4,500 people die waiting for a transplant (that’s 30 a day), even though donating a kidney carries few negative health consequences. The tragedy of this situation has been widely remarked-upon, yet for decades it has persisted. Despite a number of proposed fixes, the number of unfortunate souls awaiting transplants now tops 100,000. Yet there may be one route out of the quandary that serves both kidney patients and justice alike: a universal mandatory nationwide lottery.

In fact, the Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw has unintentionally proposed just such a system. As part of his defense of inequality, Mankiw uses the example of kidney donation in an attempt to show how abstract principles of justice are subordinate to real-life practices:

A person in the original position would surely sign an insurance contract that guarantees him at least one working kidney. That is, he would be willing to risk being a kidney donor if he is lucky, in exchange for the assurance of being a transplant recipient if he is unlucky. Thus, the same logic of social insurance that justifies income redistribution similarly justifies government-mandated kidney donation. No doubt, if such a policy were ever seriously considered, most people would oppose it. A person has a right to his own organs, they would argue, and a thought experiment about an original position behind a veil of ignorance does not vitiate that right.

Mankiw believes this unusual argument can undermine the case against inequality; but the idea of mandatory kidney donation is not the self-proving absurdity that Mankiw takes it for. In fact, it may be the fairest way out of our present dilemma.

The system would be roughly as follows: kidney duty would operate like jury duty, a responsibility of citizenship. Individual citizens would be selected at random to be kidney donors, though exemptions could be offered based on age and health. Each person would have an equal likelihood of becoming a donor, with every person on the waitlist being matched with a random mandatory donor. In this way, four thousand lives per year would be instantly be saved.

It may appear illegitimate to jeopardize one person’s health to secure the life of another. But the risks in this case are small; a kidney transplant is a simple operation that leaves the patient with all of their faculties intact. Asking citizens to donate a kidney is therefore no greater a burden than asking them to serve on a jury. (In some cases it may even be less so; trials can drag on for months while transplant operations have a short recovery time.) Furthermore, Americans are already willing to impose health risks on some for the well-being of others; this is the reasoning behind the military draft. If the country can reserve the right to take citizens’ lives in order to serve a vague “national interest,” surely it can perform a minor surgery in order to prevent thousands of very real deaths.

Admittedly, this solution is out-of-step with the present policy orthodoxy. Many economists, including the Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, have suggested that in order to solve the problem of the kidney waiting list, people should be allowed to sell their organs. This practice is currently banned, but the economic argument is that by opening up a market, the problem would solve itself. Those in need would get kidneys, those who donated would get compensated. The argument is simple, and has been repeated over and over.

Yet objections to the market proposal are powerful. Certainly, it would save lives. But in practice, the wealthy would almost certainly be less likely to auction their kidneys than the poor. The result would be that those who sold their organs would often be driven to it by economic necessity. A situation in which laid-off breadwinners must sell their organs to support their children strikes many as an unpalatable Dickensian nightmare.

By contrast, a kidney donation lottery does not disproportionately burden the poor. Each American is extremely unlikely to be called up, but those selected would be an equitable cross-section of the general public. The burden is trivial and the outcome miraculous.

Greg Mankiw suggests that a person’s “self-ownership” stands in the way of the practice. But in order accept this, we must allow a purely abstract, fictitious interest to triumph over thousands of actual human lives. Mankiw is asking us to prioritize the imagined self-ownership of some over the very real self-preservation of others. Anyone who argues this believes that people ought to die in order to preserve her own personal convenience.

At the personal level, it is almost certainly morally indefensible for an individual not to donate his or her kidney. After all, a life is saved at relatively little cost to one’s self. But the gross selfishness of withholding one’s organs does not seem a sufficient motivator for people to voluntarily close the transplant gap. (I have not donated a kidney myself, despite knowing full well that not doing so is killing someone.) More vigorous measures must therefore be taken.

Every year, America’s kidney crisis results in a number of deaths equal to more than one-and-a-half 9/11s. It is far past time to end this moral horror, by establishing a universal national kidney lottery.

A Puzzle for Libertarians

Deep in the forest, thousands of miles from civilization, there is an isolated village. It has not seen contact with any other humans for a long time. It is, however, a pleasant and flourishing community, which strongly values freedom and entrepreneurship.

There is, however, one tiny quirk. In this village, there is a ritual. Every year, a boy who reaches 18 is cannibalized. It brings the rains, or something.

But despite its taste for cannibalism, this village wishes to live in accordance with libertarian principles. Thus, they will only cannibalize the boy if he consents. In order to encourage this to happen, they will put tremendous social pressure on the boy. All through his youth, they will tell him they believe the future of the village depends on his consenting. His parents tell him that he would bring great shame on the household if he refused, which is true.

The choice nevertheless rests with the boy, and whatever he chooses will be respected. The parents and villagers attempt to persuade him, but never lie to him, and make clear that they would never force his choice.

However: if the boy refuses to be cannibalized, the village has a backup plan. The boy will be blacklisted. No shopkeeper will sell him food, no hotel will give him a room, no hospital will treat him, no employer will hire him. After all, under libertarian principles, nobody can be told how to use their property. The boy’s parents, ashamed of him, will turn him out of the house with no money. He may leave the village, but it is certain death, for thousands of miles of desolate wolf-infested wilderness stand between him and other humans and he has no food. (The wilderness is also privately-owned, and he cannot pay the admission fee.) He is shunned and despised, left to wander the streets in a futile search for shelter and sustenance. However, no force is exercised against him. He is never touched or arrested. He is treated as nonexistent, as the villagers await his demise.

So the boy starves to death. The villagers then cannibalize his emaciated corpse, reasoning that they cannot be compelled to give him a dignified burial (plus he died on private property, collapsing in a flowerbed).

Question: Is eating the boy’s corpse after he dies the only potential violation of libertarian principles in the village? Is every single other aspect of this completely permissible?

“The Sad-Eyed Man”

“You mean to tell me that you’re not actually sad?”

“No. Why would I be?”

“But you have such… sad eyes.”

“Hah, I don’t really have any control over that.”

“I thought you were so full of longing, so pained by the self-destructive folly of humankind.”

“Nope. Everything’s pretty good, actually.”

“But what about sad-eyed dogs? Are they sad?”

“Probably only some of them.”

“I just…. I can’t believe I’ve wasted so many years-worth of empathy.”

Dream Diary: Such Trivialities as Plot

I star in a film about a lonely man trapped in a decaying airport. Critics praise the film for “daring to prioritize architecture over such trivialities as plot.”

* * * *

They are trying to talk me into joining the Graduate Students Union.

“What is the Union fighting for?” I ask.

“We want all meals on the Harvard jet to be served with flowers,” they reply.

* * * *

All of the nuns’ phones rang at once. It was the Dean, telling them the good news that they would soon be upgraded to Knights.

Dream Diary: Zounds

I am put on the defensive about my novel Zounds!: Lyons and Hounds, which is about a boy who inherits a zoo. Most people seem to believe the title is intended to contain a subtle critique of Zionism.

* * * *

“But if you have admitted that believing in your philosophy would ultimately kill us all,” I ask the speaker, “isn’t that a fairly good reason for us not to adopt it?”

He is slightly taken aback. “I- I’ll have to think about that.”

Dream Diary: Font Sizes

I run into Ted Cruz while walking around my neighborhood. He is sweaty, t-shirted, and covered in filth. His hair has turned completely white. I become very nervous, thinking he will bring up the article in which I repeatedly called him an idiot. Instead he asks me if he can look at a memo I supposedly once wrote for him about font sizes.

“That was years ago,” I say. “Why do you want to see that again?”

“Because I’m running for President,” he replies, spitting everywhere. It appears he has taken some kind of drug. His eyes are crazed. “A president MUST KNOW ABOUT FONT SIZES,” he screams.

Terrified, I open my inbox to find the memo. But it is full of emails from people congratulating me for writing an article calling Ted Cruz an idiot. He notices, but does not appear to care. Instead he says:

“Let me tell you a joke I’ve been using at fundraisers.”

“Okay.” I have a sense the joke will be racist.

“The proboscis monkey has been contracting a virus that makes its flesh rot. Scientists don’t know the cause, but they say it’s okay because the only ones that die are on welfare.”

I look at him aghast.

“It’s getting huge laughs with Republican donors.”

“I have no doubt of that,” I reply.

Dream Diary: Leopard

I publish a book entitled History from the Leopard to the Crucifix. When asked to explain the premise, I say: “There are some things so inappropriate that we would not tweet them to our Common Ancestors.”