One Was Harder Than the Other

Actual Slashdot headline: Apple Defeats RIAA and France In Same Day.

(Yes, a cheap laugh. Approximately 398 Slashdotters have already made variations on the same thing in the comments.)

Kvetch, Kvetch, Kvetch

National Review's website is redesigned, and all glitzed up like J-Lo at the Grammys, but at the top I get:

[No flash]

Very funny, guys, but Flash 8 is not an option for Linux. How about putting something useful there instead?


Last Modified 2012-10-24 4:00 AM EST

Disagreeing With David

There are few public intellectuals I respect more than David Friedman, but I think he's kind of off his game in this post about hiring illegal immigrants, entitled "Doing the Right Thing." Since we're both old Usenet hands, I'll quote his entire post and intersperse my comments.

Yesterday I was listening to a radio talk show host discuss immigration. He pointed out that a lot of illegal immigrants are hired by home owners to do casual labor. He then asked his listeners to imagine they had a grand piano to move, an illegal would do it for $40, and an American citizen, perhaps the kid next door, for $100. Would the listener save money by hiring the illegal or do the right thing by hiring the citizen?
That's not bad for a thought experiment. Just to make it explicit, let's assume "other things being equal": they'd both do a job of comparable quality, they're equally well-insured against accidents, you don't have a neighborly attachment to the next door kid, etc.
My response, if I had been able to get through, would have been that I would have done the right thing—by hiring the illegal, who almost certainly has more need for the money than the kid next door.
David here drags in the assumption that one particular thing is not equal, however: by some measure, the illegal worker has more "need" for the money than the legal one.

I don't gripe about anyone spending their money according to whatever criteria they prefer. I do wonder, however, how generally David uses this particular measure in his everyday transactions: does he shop at a grocery store that "needs" his money more? Does he fly airlines that "need" his money more? When shopping for a car, does he buy from a manufacturer that is in the direst financial straits, and therefore (again) "needs" his money more? (Again, assuming other things being equal.)

It's fine if he does do that. Although I'd wager he doesn't.

Moreover, David's not holding this "need" criteria up as an arbitrary personal quirky preference. Instead it's a preference based in morality: it's "the right thing". I.e., it's not just "I would do this"; it's "I would do this, strongly implying you probably should too, because it's 'right'."

I would prefer an argument for that, rather than an assertion.

I'd also expect an economist to say something about the price differential here. If the prices were reversed, and the illegal worker was asking for $100 versus the kid's $40, would hiring the illegal still be "right"? Or would this be an indication that the "needs" of the two were also reversed?

But David does not explain or defend his position further, instead going on to attack the position assumed by the host:

Unless I missed it, the sole argument that the host offered for his unstated assumption that hiring the kid was obviously the right thing was that hiring the illegal immigrant was illegal. My response would be to ask the host if he ever drove faster than the speed limit and if he tasted wine or beer before he reached the legal drinking age. If his answer to both questions was "no," he is in a very small minority of Americans.
One obvious problem—and it should be extremely obvious to any libertarian—is that even though a position might be held by a small minority, that's not necessarily an indication of its falsehood.
If it was "yes," as I expect it would have been, I would next have asked how he would defend himself against the charge of hypocrisy.
Charging hypocrisy is fun, but it's a common example of ad hominem, and not much of an argument against the position itself. I suspect the problem David wants to complain about isn't so much hypocrisy, but inconsistency: if you think that violating laws X and Y are OK, why not violate law Z as well?
In the America I live in, despite political rhetoric to the contrary, most people believe in obeying laws selectively—ignoring the ones they think are foolish or wicked except when the risk of getting caught makes it more prudent to obey.
Again, the bandwagon fallacy. If David thinks the belief "most people" hold is the correct position, then he should probably argue for it directly. (Or just assert it, something like: "I don't think blind unquestioning obedience to legal authority is a moral or wise position.") I'd probably agree with such a clearly stated position.
When I told the story to my wife, she offered another question to put to the host. It is 1855, the fugitive slave law is the law of the land. Do you help with the underground railway or do you do "the right thing" and turn in any escaped slaves who come your way?
… which is yet another example of why blind unquestioning obedience to legal authority isn't always a good idea. But what about this case? The illegal immigrant is not an escaped slave; he's not driving over the speed limit; and he's (probably) not an underage drinker.

So what do those examples tell us about this particular situation? Not much.

In short, David doesn't explain his own position well; his argument against the talk show host's position is contains fallacies and examples that aren't really relevant to the situation under discussion.

(He can do better: to find that out for yourself, buy his books here, here, and here. Or, although it doesn't seem to bear directly on this issue, here, the one I'm currently reading.)