Monday, April 24, 2006

Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within [GC, **]

I've owned Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within for over a year now, I think. Usually I either win a game within a few weeks or get sick of it and don't finish at all. With Warrior, I played it for a while and then set it aside, having the best intention to return to it eventually. Recently, I've given it another go.

I love the Prince of Persia series. I played the original game as a freshman in college. The second game was one of the first I ever played after I bought my first sound card, so I fondly remember the experience of hearing ACTUAL VOICES in the game for the very first time.

In the Prince games, you play a character with extraordinary athletic abilities. The first two games were side-scrollers. In a typical gaming session, you might be running from a bunch of angry guards, then you duck through a gate just as it closes, jump over some spikes, and finally leap across a wide chasm, just barely grabbing the ledge.

Also characteristic of the series is that it is both brutally hard on mistakes, and generous in allowing you to recover from them. Miss the ledge, and you'll plummet to your death many screens below as the prince lets out a terrified scream. (Hooray again for the invention of sound cards.) Then you'll be transported back a couple of minutes to the beginning of the scene, where you need to start running from those guards again. Luckily, you get infinite lives. The first two games had a time limit; later games have given that up, which I considered a wise move.

In the latest incarnation of the series, the prince has gone 3D on GameCube, PlayStation 2, and XBox. (Actually the Prince went 3D in an earlier PC version called Prince of Persia 3D, but that one was so bad it's best not to speak of it.) In Sands of Time, they introduced a terrific game mechanic, which was the power to control time. You get a limited number of "sand tanks", which you can fill by fighting enemies. If you get killed by one of the many cliffs or deathtraps, you can rewind time to a point just before you died as long as you still have time sand. It was a clever way to stick with the spirit of the series, because it allows you to feel that the world is deadly while still giving you an opportunity to recover from your mistakes without starting over very often. It reduced a lot of the frustration but still kept the tension high, because if you run out of sand then your next screwup kills you. The character was well designed and the new moves (such as running along walls and flipping around poles) were very cool.

In Warrior Within, it's like some committee of corporate non-gamers tried to redesign Sands of Time to make it "hipper," realizing that Sands is a great game but not having any understanding of why. In Warrior, the prince is darker and edgier. The fighting is more violent, and requires you to memorize "combos" -- buttons you have to press in a certain sequence in order to win the battles. Also, the introductory movie has a hot goth chick in chainmail, and there's actually a closeup shot of her chainmailed butt. I like skin shots as much as the next guy, but it was just so utterly gratuitous that it was stupid. It's not all that relevant to the plot and it feels wedged in to the Prince of Persia universe.

All that aside, though, I finally managed to enjoy the game for a while, until I gradually realized that there is one aspect of Warrior Within that I truly, truly hate.

Some games are linear, dragging you from event A to event B to event C on rails. That's okay. Some games are nonlinear, giving you free reign to explore what you want. That's okay too.

But in Warrior Within, the designers have chosen the worst aspects of both. The game is linear in the sense that you must unlock events in a particular order. But the geography of the game is nonlinear, because at any given time, you can travel to just about anywhere else you've already been. And the enemies are all still there.

In other words, it's really hard to tell which way you're supposed to be going. I just recently backtracked very close to the beginning of the game, fighting newly resurrected enemies all the way, before realizing that there's nothing happening there. Apparently there was some other branch that I was supposed to take. So I went back to hunt for the other branch, and got sidetracked going to another useless location.

Adding to this horror, some areas can only be accessed by a very roundabout route, but once you're there, you can instantly take a one-way path that drops you right back where you were. So if you make a wrong jump, you'll slide down a banner and land on the floor, only to realize that you're now in the same place you were 15 minutes ago when you started climbing, leaping, swinging, and shimmying your way to the top. Now you get to do it all over again.

Finally, the game gives you nothing in the way of hints about where you want to be. One button reveals a "map", but the map is just a big artist's sketch of the exterior of the palace. There's not even a large, friendly "you are here" arrow. At the top, it just says "Gardens." At the bottom, it helpfully says "Goal: Open the second tower." Say, it would be nice if you could let me know where the second tower is, you unhip suit-wearing fogey bastards.

It's a shame that there is such a high quantity of anti-fun in this game, because there really are strong hints of the elements that have made the entire Prince of Persia series so much fun. When you're climbing around an enormous yawning chasm, and you make a dangerous running leap, and JUST BARELY manage to grab on to the ledge as you fall past it, it gets the heart pumping while simultaneously conjuring up a delightful nostalgia for the original side scrolling games.

But the first game had different levels, and once you enter a new level, the door closes behind you. When you're on level 20 and about to rescue the princess, you can't accidentally drop down a few ledges and suddenly be back fighting the guys from level 1.

I rarely give games one star, preferring to reserve that rank for the absolute worst stuff I've ever played. This isn't that bad. But it's not good.

Score: ** (out of five stars)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Libertarianism, part 2

Since I wrote my post on libertarianism, I've received quite a few comments, including a few by email and phone. Some are highly positive about what I wrote, some less so.

One particular poster, "Philanthropic Patriot", is now a repeat visitor to this blog and has written a fairly lengthy reply. I decided I can't do it justice without starting a new post. Thanks for your interesting feedback, PP.


"I believe that we are better off for having a government that actually does stuff. Not that I think the government is in good hands right now; I think that we are being run by a bunch of insane bunglers who are incapable of long term planning. Nevertheless, I believe that a government, run by competent and rational people, is critical for managing aspects of a decent society that the free market doesn't address. That's right, there are things that the free market does not, never has, and cannot do."

Philanthropic Patriot:
"The assumption on the left is that people, left to their own devices and attmepting to improve their lot in life will naturally end up rushing the planet and society headlong to their own destruction. It is believed that if we can only get the correct legislators in place and leave important decisions to these more enlightened, socially responsible individuals is the only way that man can be prevented from destroying himself. Yet I ask, what suddenly makes an elected official less self destructive than the rest of us, and why should we really want universal sufferage given the self destructive nature of most people. Are we to trust people to vote on the best legislators to solve their problems, but not trust them to solve their own problems?"

Okay, hold it right there. You're already trying to turn me into a straw man.

Sorry, you are incorrect. The belief held by me (and whether this is typical of "the left" is open for debate) is *not* that people, left to their own devices, will isolate themselves from one another and destroy themselves. Quite the contrary, I believe that because people are smart, they will eventually recognize the fact that there are things they can't do on their own, and band together in groups to accomplish larger and more important works than scrabbling out a bare existence. This is a huge distinction from the words that PP is putting in my mouth.

For example, suppose I'm writing an essay on the virtues of technology. My eyesight is awful; I correct that with very powerful contact lenses. My running speed is not very fast; luckily I can and frequently do zip across the landscape at 60 miles per hour in my car. Also, luckily for me, I am able to feed myself readily available food without bothering to learn how to hunt or farm; and luckily for me, I am able to communicate my thoughts to people thousands of miles away by tapping my fingers on a piece of plastic. Technology is terrific.

Now suppose somebody comes along and says: "The assumption of the technologists is that people, left to their own devices without their cars and computers and optometry and grocery stores, will naturally end up dying young. Why do they have such contempt for mankind?" Well, no, it's not contempt. If you take away my technology then I'm going to have a much tougher time surviving. That's why I'm pleased that humans are so intelligent and resourceful as to have invented all those things. Before those things existed, life was much shorter and more unpleasant. That's our niche. We do things the smart way.

Government, like contact lenses, is a technological advancement. Go read Guns, Germs and Steel sometime and you'll see the point. In a primitive society, it's pretty much every man for himself, and most of what occupies their time is finding or growing food. Even in primitive societies, of course, there's typically some sort of rudimentary social structure, either family based or chieftain based, but dealing with other tribes is a sketchy business.

Once a tribe discovers the principles of agriculture, suddenly it becomes easier and easier to grow food. All of a sudden, people are no longer limited to eating what they can grow by themselves. They can do other things with their time. There then arises an enormous idle class, and what those idle individuals do to occupy their time is what makes a tribe powerful. They develop technology and weapons. They organize themselves and make laws to keep things running smoothly.

The cultures that do not do this, get crushed or assimilated by the ones who do. History demonstrates, over and over again, that failure to organize is an evolutionary dead end.

"You go on to point out that a free market cannot think far enough ahead to invest in fusion research despite the potential advances for humanity in general. I could point out that politicians rarely think past 4 years, but I will instead say that the market can and would support such research when humanity needs it. If oil prices continue to rise (due to scarcity rather than inflation) than more money will be invested into finding energy alternatives. Politicians love to invest in so-called green technology, but not having any market forces to help them determine when and where that technology is needed, they are more likely to invest in useless technologies as helpfull technology. (and with our current political system I would claim that they would be much more likely to invest in technologies pormoted by those with the most political clout.)"

And yet, nevertheless, governments somehow managed to get an impressive array of large projects that individuals failed to do by themselves. Little things, like, you know... stop lights. Sewers. The internet.

I'm also kind of keen on how we no longer have widespread child labor, or a 50% poverty rate among the elderly, or 70 hour work weeks.

"However, if you tax away all the rich people's 'excess profit', you also have to deal with certain consequences. Seeing as how rich poeple invest far more heavily in new businesses and new jobs, taxing away their excess capital reduces future job growth. Reducing future job growth then reduces workers ability to negotiate for higher wages as they will end up having more competition for the fewer jobs available."

That would be a swell point if it weren't another irrelevant straw man. At no point in my post did I say a word about "taxing away all the rich people's excess profit." See, I believe that your income should be taxed at a marginal rate that is greater than 0% and less then 100%. I do think that people who have more money are better able to afford taxes, but taxing away ALL the excess profit, golly, that would be a dumb thing to say, wouldn't it?

"Your talk about vouchers is a bit misleading as any libertarian I know wants government out of education completely. Any voucher system (in fact any government money) will come with strings attached which will compromise the private school and move it closer to a public school. So what would happen if we got rid of government schools.

Many progressives assume that poor people would get no education."

What an unreasonable assumption. I guess they only say that because poor people never *have* been educated effectively in a society with no publicly supported education. Still, why bother with trifling things like evidence?

"This stems from a belief that public education is 'free education'"

No it doesn't. It stems from a belief that public education is publicly supported, in such a way that people who can't afford it get educated. Homeowners pay for it, with people who live in more expensive homes paying more. By so doing, they get to buy the privilege of living among an educated populace who don't feel that their only avenue of profit is stealing stuff from the rich houses.

"Another effect the ending of compulsary education would have would be that some people would choose not to school their children. Before public schools were common in the U.S. some of the best selling books were reading primers and there was no illiteracy problem in our country. If I have a succesfull carpentry business and I choose to keep my son home and teach him my business and what I feel he needs to learn, why is that wrong?

You go on to claim that poor children would end up in the worst schools, yet right now only wealthy people can afford to send their children to private schools because they have to, in effect, pay for that schooling twice (once through thier property taxes), so the poor are already going to the worst schools. If, however, they went to a poor private school, that school would have incentive to improve (attracting more students) that public schools lack. In addition, many businesses would understand the need for a well educated work force and would set up scholarships and other financial help for the poor. Believe the poor would be excluded from private schools? Read this:
And this:"

Nope. I don't believe that the poor would be "excluded" from private schools. One of the things I have noticed throughout this post is that you are constantly engaging in thinking that everything is all or nothing. For instance, if there are a few dimly lit ratholes serving as "schools" for a fraction of the children in third world countries, that doesn't make it an impressive substitute for widely available education.

Interesting that you need to look in underdeveloped and impoverished countries to locate examples of the ideal libertarian educational situation. Why do you suppose that is?

"You say that the free market does not provide good meals for the poor and, in this, you are correct. While charitymay not be the perview of a free market, it is much more so that it is the perview of the government. Most charity does, and should, come from private individuals yet corporations do have a good track record of giving to charity. Is that good for the bottom line? Well, it turns out it is. Companies do not just put up a sign that says 'my busines' and automagically have customers, they have to attract those customers and many businesses realize that goodwill from the community can be better than paying a high priced Madison Avenue ad firm."

Again, this is an example of all or nothing thinking. You imagine that, because a few companies have the incentive to give to charity, suddenly the problem of meals for the poor -- poof! -- just vanishes. The question isn't whether some poor people get fed; the question is whether ENOUGH poor people get fed to massively reduce the number of people who starve in the streets. While I'm sure that lots of private charity makes up some of the shortfall, it's never managed to offset hunger the way a fully funded government program does.

Prove me wrong. Find me a society of comparable prosperity and size, which has no public welfare programs and manages to stave off starvation among the poor better than we do. Or should I take this assertion on faith?

"Yet when someone is in need. Truly in need of a meal and a bed to keep them alive, do they turn to the government? No. They go to the Family Kitchen for a meal and to the YMCA for a bed."

You are talking about a starving person looking for a last resort to keep them alive. Yet you dismiss the fact that "the government" is what keeps many people from reaching that point.

Moving on to post number two...

"Your analogy of a multicelled animal with humans as the cells really gives a good insight into the progressive mindset. Viewing humans as lumps of material to be molded by those better able to see the good of society into a functioning whole. You ignore the fact that those cells (humans) have intelligence, free will, thier own hopes and dreams and even thier own ideas on how to best organize society. Individual cells in a body don't wake up every morning worried about bills, about forgetting their anniversary; they don't wake up in the morning thinking about that girl they met at the party the night before or the bonus they are hoping to get this quarter. If you look at humans as aimless, lifeless masses to be organized by 'your plan' for society than your plan is going to fail."

This should win an award for "most strained attempt to take an analogy literally." Yes, PP. My dad made that analogy because he thinks that human beings are literally microscopic cells with no brains. He's just the stupidest scientist in the world.

Or perhaps the reason that the analogy between people and cells actually works is because people, like cells, function best in a larger context. Don't believe me? Then go ahead and abandon society, cut yourself off from human contact, and become a hermit. I'm sure you'll be a very wealthy hermit. Maybe when you've managed to truly free yourself from the shackles of governments and laws, you can serve as a shining example of someone who has truly made it on his own, with no help from anyone.

"I don't know about icelands history, but I do know of a society that was far closer to the ideals of libertarianism than any socety today. This society watched over some of the greatest achievements and discoveries by man, had a booming economy, practically inflation free money, no income taxes, true property rights and a judiciary who zelously defended those rights, and a level of freedom almost unprecedented in human history."

Nothing I read about Iceland since this subject was brought up have in any way indicated to me that the economy was "booming". On the contrary, the article by Jared Diamond that I referenced earlier had this to say:

"Medieval Iceland became Europe's most backward country, poorer even than Albania. In contrast to the rich burial goods found in Viking graves elsewhere, all of the gold and silver recovered from Viking graves in Iceland could be accommodated within a small bucket. Everyone lived on scattered farms: until the 1700s Iceland didn't even have any villages, towns, or full-time merchants. It had no roads, carts, or wheeled transport until the late 1800s; at that same recent date most Icelanders still lived in houses built of turf."

The other "perks" that you mentioned seem to be either things that we already have, such as "true property rights," or cases where you are simply begging the question, such as "no income taxes." Income taxes pay for a lot of the great stuff I mentioned we have in our society, which the Icelanders seem to have notably lacked.

"You probably already know I am refering to the first one hunder and fifty years of our Constitutional Republic, before the standard bearer for the progressive movement, FDR, decided the Constitution was too binding for his plans and bullied the Supreme Court into redefining it. Now we have far too much ignorance about what the Constitution says, even among our legislators who all swear an oath to defend it. As far as I can tell about progressive thought, the Constitution starts with Amendment I and ends with Amendment XXVII."

No, I agree that people should be familiar with the whole Constitution, such as the part where it says that the government is supposed to do things like "promote the general Welfare" and "establish Post Offices" and "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts." (And yes, before you ask, I am fully aware that the definition of "welfare" is "health, happiness, or prosperity.")

"Finally, I find it funny that you spend some time disproving that Iceland was libertarian and then you turn around and say that Iceland is proof that libertatrianism is self-defeating. Which is it?"

I suppose I can concede here that you've caught me in a bit of a contradiction, which is probably understandable since, as I said, I'm not all that familiar with medieval Iceland.

So let me try to clarify. It's clear that medieval Iceland was not a pure libertarian society, but of course, there is no such thing. It does, however, make sense to talk about degrees of libertarianism, and I'll also grant that medieval Iceland was definitely CLOSER to the libertarian ideal than the United States has been in any century. Certainly there was no centralized government across a largish group of very small areas. There were laws within the tribal families, but the authority was clearly broken up into smaller groups.

So I'm going to rescind my statement that Iceland wasn't a libertarian society; it was "sort of" a libertarian society, before the scheme collapsed under the weight of the warring families. As for whether they were prosperous, I don't see any evidence of that. The fact that they simply survived for a while doesn't impress me very much.

Woodrow Wilson once said, "Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance."

Wilson was right. Liberty doesn't "come from" the government. As Thomas Jefferson said, people are endowed with inalienable rights. (Though, as I am an atheist, please excuse me if I disregard the"by their creator" part.)

But as Jefferson also went on to say, governments are instituted among men, to secure these rights, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Jefferson had just lived through a period of unjust government, so I presume he knew what he was talking about. Once Jefferson and his compatriots was free of a tyrannical monarchy, did they say "All right lads, clearly government is inherently evil, so let's abolish government from this day forward and create an anarcho-capitalist utopia"? Nope, they proceeded to spend thirteen years crafting the details of a new government, which they felt would be the best vehicle for securing their rights. I guess that was a pretty good idea.

Monday, April 10, 2006

This is how big a nerd I am

In Fox Trot this weekend, there was a comic where Jason creates a paint by number. But since Jason is a little math geek, he doesn't just write in the numbers; he writes large numbers that are either divisible by 13, 17, or 19, or else they're prime.

Based on the caption, I figured it must be a picture of his sister Paige, but I couldn't just let it go without a solution. So I wrote a quick Perl program to interpret the numbers for me so I wouldn't need a calculator, and then I solved it in MS Paint.

Here you go.

Update (4/11)
I emailed Bill Amend to let him know I solved his puzzle. He wrote back today.

"The 2261 space should've been orange, not red. Not your fault. See the
note about the ambiguity on my web page.

Bill Amend"

Also, somebody else added the correctly colored puzzle to Bill's own blog.

Damn it!!!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Why I Am Not A Libertarian

Hi. I'm a liberal.

No, really. I mean it. I'm a liberal.

For some reason, a lot of people hear that and they feel compelled to say "Oh, you don't really mean that. If you believe in freedom then you should be a libertarian." They're wrong. I'm still a liberal.

I've occasionally touched on libertarianism during my time talking on The Non-Prophets and The Atheist Experience, but whenever this happens I feel the urge to tread lightly. These shows (especially the TV show) are targeted at a general atheist audience, and so I don't want to get into liberal/conservative issues more than necessary, because I don't necessarily want to alienate right wing and libertarian atheists. Also, I am friends with a few libertarians, though not that many.

There aren't many atheist Republicans, but there sure are a lot of atheist libertarians. I suspect that this is because libertarians share much of their economic philosophy with Republicans, and yet recognize that the Republican party is hugely dependent on the religious right. Hence, people who want to be Republicans but can't stomach the Bible thumpers wind up as libertarians.

In principle, libertarians believe that they incorporate the most "pro-freedom" elements of both parties. From liberals, they believe in social freedoms such as the right to read and watch whatever you want, and have sex with whomever you want. From conservatives, they believe in the freedom to "keep your own money" and not pay for any social programs. Libertarians believe that all taxation is theft, taken at gunpoint. I prefer to think of taxes as a cost of living in a civilized world. Since I'm a liberal, I apparently hate your freedom.

I believe that we are better off for having a government that actually does stuff. Not that I think the government is in good hands right now; I think that we are being run by a bunch of insane bunglers who are incapable of long term planning. Nevertheless, I believe that a government, run by competent and rational people, is critical for managing aspects of a decent society that the free market doesn't address. That's right, there are things that the free market does not, never has, and cannot do.

Galt's Imaginary Gulch

I've read Atlas Shrugged. I quite liked it on first reading. For those who don't know about this book, I'm going to provide spoilers but you have to read them anyway.

Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical novel written by Ayn Rand, who is in many ways a hero to libertarians and the originator of many ideas within the movement. In the story, the world is increasingly run by stupid and lazy people, and clearly going to hell in a handbasket. The stupid people believe in "altruism", which in Rand's world always means "forcing productive people to give their hard earned money to people who don't deserve it."

The productive people feel more and more powerless as time goes on, and one by one they seem to disappear off the face of the planet. Finally it is revealed that they are living in Galt's Gulch, a hidden libertarian utopia where only productive geniuses (inventors and manufacturers and such) are allowed to stay. They hide in their little corner of the world until the hero, John Galt, decides the time is right; then they break out, Galt makes a speech that lasts roughly 100 pages, and the competent people take over the world again.

There were many reasons why I liked the book. For one, I appreciate the view that smart and competent people are the ones who ought to run things, and that often doesn't happen. Overall, I agree with the message that "selfishness" is not always wrong, nor in conflict with the greater good. And I like the emphasis that Rand places on individualism and creativity.

At the same time, there were a few things that bothered me about the book, but I couldn't put my finger on them until later. One of the key "villains" was a scientist, who was doing his "altruistic" research on government money. Why, this scoundrel couldn't even prove that his work was PROFITABLE enough to deserve private money, and in the Rand universe, not being profitable is the worst sin imaginable.

Here's the problem: in a nutshell, that's my dad. My dad does fusion research, and relies on the existence of a government that values the pursuit of scientific knowledge in order to generate long term benefits. If my dad and his colleagues are successful in their work, fusion could someday provide cheap energy for everyone in the world, and drastically reduce our dependence on oil.

Fusion research requires a massive amount of research dollars, over a period of decades, with no guarantee of ever recovering enough profit to justify an individual investment. This isn't the way the business world works. Stockholders who are obsessed with a three month profit and loss sheet simply don't recognize concepts such as "decades". Furthermore, it's not necessarily clear how a private company could turn an exclusive profit even if they did unlock the gateway to easily produced fusion energy. Such a momentous scientific discovery could benefit humanity best if the knowledge were freely available to everyone, and sooner or later, it would be. The long term benefit of CHEAP energy should be obvious to everyone, but "cheap" and "profitable" don't always go together.

The other problem with Rand's universe was pointed out to me by a friend whom I met only after finishing the book. Think of any child character (let's say under the age of 12) who is portrayed in a positive light in any of Ayn Rand's books.

Go on, I'm waiting.

There aren't any. And here's my theory about why there aren't any: Children are leeches on society. They don't turn a profit for their parents. Occasionally, a child will grow up and take care of his parents when they are old and feeble, but this is the exception rather than the rule. On the whole, most parents pour a lot more time and money into a child's upbringing than they get out of it, and parenting is its own nebulous reward, with financial incentives being very hard to see.

Of course, I understand that Ayn Rand, along with many other people I know, remained childless by choice. And hey, that's okay by me. If you're deliberately child-free, then all I can say is, thank you! I'm acutely aware of overpopulation. I'm a step-dad twice and a dad once. The fewer kids other people have, the more resources will be available to my descendants.

But that's not the issue. The issue is that there are billions of kids in the world, and kids aren't self-sufficient. It's not because they're lazy, it's not because they're leeches, it's because they are physically and mentally incapable of taking care of themselves. As a parent, my job is to provide the kids' physical needs to the extent that they can't provide for themselves, and supply sufficient mental and philosophical guidance so that they hopefully become the kinds of functioning adult that a Randist utopia would require.

There's more to it than that. Rand libertarians naively imagine that Adam Smith's "invisible hand" fairly and equitably distributes money purely on the basis of merit. If you're poor, it's because you're lazy and stupid and you deserve to be poor. If you're rich, it's because you are hard working and smart.

Right. And I have some beachfront property to sell you in Las Vegas.

Of course innate smarts and diligence matter, but what also matters is being in the right place at the right time. I am a moderately successful guy, and I like to think of myself as pretty smart and at least occasionally hard working. I support a family as the sole income earner, and I expect to make more after I get my Master's Degree in two years. It would be easy for me to arrogantly assume that I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and accomplished everything on my own.

But I didn't. I am lucky to have been born to a middle class family in twentieth century America. Had I been born in Rwanda, all the smarts and dedication in the world wouldn't have brought me the amount of food, shelter and comfort that I enjoy today. Had I been born in medieval Europe, it's overwhelmingly likely that my parents would have been peasants, which doesn't afford a kid much social mobility.

Furthermore, I had the benefit of two remarkably smart and dedicated parents, who valued education and pushed me to go farther than I could have without their help. I've lived in good neighborhoods. I went to some good schools, both public and private. I commuted to one of the best public high school districts for miles around. And I got to earn my Bachelor's degree without having to pay for college myself. I had inspiring teachers, and my dad used some pull help me get my first job, though I was only in it for about a year before moving on to better things.

I'd have to be one smug, pompous son of a bitch to sit here and say that "I made it on my own, with no help from anyone." I made it to where I am partly by being smart. But it only mattered because I was working within a remarkably effective system where people thrive. Hardly anybody really "makes it on their own."

But that's what I get from libertarians. They dismiss the carefully crafted government system we have, with its public works like schools and roads and zoning laws, with its cleverly constructed system of checks and balances. All this they call the tools of a tyrannical society that wants to rob you of your hard earned money. The assumption is that if you have money and success, then it's because you earned it.

Clearly this is not the case. Just look at Paris Hilton. Is there any reason in the world why she should be famous, other than her daddy's money? She's not especially talented, her looks are mostly the result of surgery and expensive makeup, and she has one of the most abrasive personalities I've ever seen. Yet people can't seem to stop being fascinated with her life. Clearly she has top-notch PR people. But PR people cost money.

This isn't an anti-rich people rant, by any means. But the economic system we have is known as "capitalism", which means that what you get rewarded for is HAVING capital. We don't live under a strict meritocracy. Often, happily, the two systems coincide with each other, so that the brightest and most deserving are rewarded with great wealth. I'm all for that, which is why I am basically a fan of capitalism over most of the alternatives.

But there's a dark side to capitalism: capital amplifies itself. The more you have, the more you are likely to get. There's an old joke: How do you make a small fortune in the stock market? Start with a large fortune. That's funny but true, and not just true of stocks. If you start with a huge pile of money, your successes amplify that money while your mistakes don't wipe you out. If you start out with nothing, a few people will be good enough to scrabble their way to the top, but most also end up with nothing. This is a simple fact of life, which any effective system of government has to take into account and deal with.

For example, what is one of the best predictors of how well a student will do in school? How well their parents did, according to a study done by the Educational Research Service. Which makes sense, of course. If your parents are smart and educated, as mine were, they'll drill into you the importance of getting your own education, and this in turn will affect the way you approach your studies. If your parents are dropouts, often they'll convey the message, whether intentionally or subliminally, that school isn't worthwhile.

We Don't Need No Public Education

One key cause célèbre for Libertarians is their opposition to public schools. This is a point where I happen to fundamentally disagree with Libertarianism, and it serves to illustrate why I disagree with the whole concept.

As everyone knows, our public primary and secondary school system is not the envy of the world. We routinely see studies lamenting how far American kids are behind kids in other countries, when it comes to subjects like math and science. Libertarians use this common knowledge as a talking point to promote their desire to ultimately eliminate the public school system altogether, replacing it with a school voucher system. The new system would give everyone a certain amount of money in vouchers, which they could then spend at the private school of their choice. Vouchers, they argue, would spur schools on to ever more excellent performance. The laws of natural selection would weed out the underperforming schools, and the great schools would thrive.

In a sense, they're probably right. Given extra funding from the government, a lot of really good private schools WOULD thrive and improve. Then they'd become more competitive, and the best and richest students would have a top notch education.

But wait a minute. The best and richest students can ALREADY get a top notch education at private schools. It's just that they don't get extra government funding on top of the money they already have. The point of funding public education is not to give an extra edge to the rich kids; it's to make sure that the poor kids also have access to a decent education, thus leveling the playing field.

The thing about free markets is that they're very efficient at giving people exactly what they can pay for. If you're rich and hungry, you can go get a steak prepared by a world class chef and served by a polite and attentive waiter. If you're not rich but still hungry, you can get a Big Mac served by a surly teenager. If you're barely scraping by, you can eat Ramen every day until the all-carb diet eventually leads you to an early death. There's simply no profit in serving you decent food.

The question that we need to face is whether we want poor people to get the educational equivalent of Ramen at every meal. That's what we'll ultimately get with the voucher system. Those who can afford to pay for great private schools, will do so and use their vouchers to pay a bit less. Those who have nothing but the vouchers, will be paying the bare minimum and going to whatever schools they can get into. Chances are very good that the best publicly supported schools will be better than they are now, and the worst schools will be much worse once their funding is yanked and only the poorest people go there.

So what do I care? you might ask. If I'm a reasonably affluent parent, then MY kid is going to get a good education, using MY money. I don't want to pay extra for some poor kid's education; that's theft. Worse yet, I might be one of those childless-by-choice adults, in which case I'm paying for other kids' education but getting nothing out of it. Help! Help! I'm being repressed!

Here's where that logic goes wrong. You do get something out of funding education for the kids of other people. You get to buy the privilege of living in a society where people are not completely uneducated morons. And in that society, other people's kids grow up to be more intelligent and productive, which benefits everybody. The educated kids are also, statistically, much less likely to commit crimes, and that also benefits you.

And this is what really gets to the heart of where I disagree with libertarianism. None of us live in a vacuum. We have to deal with other people on a daily basis, whether we like it or not. Unless you're planning to become one of those society hating hermits who lives out in the mountains with a personal arsenal of assault weapons, the things you do affect me. If you don't get a decent education and that turns you into a violent thug, that affects me. If you dump crap in the water I'm trying to drink out of, that affects me.

And as for taxes? I pay for the things that make up the societal infrastructure that makes me comfortable, thanks very much. Schools that educate kids. Roads that allow me to go from place to place. A post office that delivers EVERYWHERE, even those middle of nowhere places that wouldn't turn a profit if they were privatized. Law enforcement for everyone, not just those who can afford to hire private guards and live in gated communities.

Me paying for those things is not theft. On the other hand, if you decide to be one of those "protestors" who refuse to pay their taxes, while you still enjoy the benefits of the roads and low crime that I'm paying for? That's theft.

America is not a pure libertarian society and never has been. Yet people who live here generally believe that they are living in the greatest country on earth. We didn't get to be a great country without taxes and government work. In fact, many of the things we take for granted today, we have BECAUSE of the system of government and regulated economics that are in place.

Getting back to school vouchers, libertarians argue that we should do away with our public school system because it's broken. But what are they comparing it to? Which are the countries that outperform us in math and science? Countries like Japan, Canada, and Germany. Do these countries model the libertarian ideal? Of course not. Like us, they have public schools with national standards. They do the same thing we do, but better. Are there ANY examples around the world of the voucher program being successful?

Like so many features of libertarianism, the answer is no. So many of the concepts in a libertarian utopia have never been pulled off in any successful country. Thus, it is simply a matter of faith that creating a true libertarian society would actually work. There's no evidence to measure against. Of course, they say "If only somebody would TRY creating a society based on Libertarian ideals, it would quickly be clear how successful the theory is." Sure. That's what Communists say about their system, which has never been tried either. It's easy to make such claims when there's no evidence either way.

Losing That Loving Feeling

A story appeared in the news a few weeks ago about some libertarians who want to take over Loving County, Texas. Why Loving County? Because it's one of the most sparsely populated areas in the country, boasting a population of 71. The highest concentration of people in the county live in the "big city" of Mentone; 16 people live there. Their plan is to move en masse into Loving County so that they can set up a libertarian utopia -- a mini version of Galt's Gulch, if you will. According to the article:

The goal, said an e-mail message attributed to a group member, was to move in enough Libertarians "to control the local government and remove oppressive regulations (such as planning and zoning, and building code requirements) and stop enforcement of laws prohibiting victimless acts among consenting adults such as dueling, gambling, incest, price-gouging, cannibalism and drug handling."

Yeah, that's right: cannibalism! Because if there's one thing that's a threat to my personal liberty, it's the damn government sticking its intrusive laws in the way of my right to eat people!

But seriously. Why do the libertarians feel the need to take over a county of 71 people? If their ideas are so great, why don't they just do a PR campaign in a normal sized town, saying "Let's repeal all these laws! Why just imagine our town in ten years. You can duel me for insulting your honor, and if I lose, you can eat me!"

I'll tell you why they don't do it that way: because they'd lose. Badly. Know why? Because people LIKE having laws against cannibalism. And dueling. And price-gouging. And so on. Those laws, along with the many other laws we have, are there to maintain a stable, sane community. The things that these libertarians want... they AREN'T POPULAR.

And in a way, that's the paradox of libertarianism. If people are free to do what they want, the people will speak and they'll vote themselves laws that regulate what their fellow citizens can and can't do.

And that's a good thing.