Milton Friedman’s Voucher Plan

More than 30 years ago – in 1979 – Milton Friedman and his wise Rose Friedman published the book Free to Choose, in which they made a (compelling) claim in favor of handing over authority to the free market, and taking it away from the government. The arguments they come up are profoundly grounded in empirical evidence, pointing at the inefficient and unequal spending of tax payers’ money on the ‘big issues’ of society (healthcare, Social Security, public assistance etc.). I want to focus at the expenditures on public education, about which the Friedmans say a lot, and in particular on the immoral and degrading effect this can have on citizens.

We humans are intelligent creatures. Some are – without a doubt – better equipped (mentally) for dealing with the whims of the free market than others, but still almost all of us are reasonably capable of fulfilling our needs in life. We can go the supermarket by ourselves, decide for ourselves what we want to eat for breakfast and dinner, and much more. The government doesn’t have to do this for us. We can decide for ourselves how we want to spend our leisure time: whether we want to go the movies or not. We don’t need the government to decide this for us. Not only because the government cannot know what each one of us wants – therefore inevitably being inefficient in the spending of its – or our – resources – but also because we know that we are intelligent beings, very much capable of making our own decisions in life.

And this intelligence of ours doesn’t have to confine itself to mundane decisions like how to spend our free time. We are equally competent in deciding for ourselves how we want to spend our money on more pressing issues in life: what hospital we want to attend, whether to assist our loved ones financially whenever the need might arise, and what school our children should attend. These issues are of such importance to our well-being – and our children’s – that, instead of putting the government in charge of these decisions, we should be the ones choosing what we consider to be best for our, and our children’s, future.

In 1979, the Friedmans noticed an upward trend in the government taking control of many of these decisions – decisions that, by the way, have a relatively big impact upon our financial resources. The most striking example of this might be the public financing of (elementary, secondary and higher) education. In 1979, the average US citizen paid 2.000 dollars per child that attended public education, even though not everyone’s child – assuming that you even have children – made use of public educational resources. The Friedmans found this state of affairs harming to the right of each individual to decide where to spend his money at, including the option to put one’s child at a privately financed educational institution.

Therefore they came up with a ‘voucher plan’: a plan in which every US citizen would – per child they have – get a voucher exchangeable for a certain amount of money – let’s say 2.000 dollars. They could cash in this voucher only if their child would attend an appropriate educational institution. This voucher plan would come in the place of the tax each US citizen is obliged to pay, irrespective of them having children and irrespective of their children attending a public educational institution. This plan would make sure that only the ones making use of pubic educational services would be charged, thereby excluding the non-using part of society.

The Friedmans made – primarily – financial arguments in favor of their voucher plan, saying that – on the whole – public educational costs would remain the same, and that parents would use their increase in autonomy to find the school that best suited the needs of their children. The relatively free market that would be created on the basis of the voucher plan, would improve the quality of both public and private education. I believe, however, that one argument in favor of the voucher plan, and the free market in general, has not received the attention it deserved – at least not in the Friedmans’ Free to Choose. And that argument has to do with human intelligence.

As pointed at above, humans are – for the biggest part – perfectly capable of deciding for themselves where to spend their money at. We wouldn’t want anyone else to do our groceries or schedule our leisure time for us – at least not for (our) money. But that is exactly what the government does when it comes down to public education. The government proclaims that – as the Friedmans explain – it is the only actor possessing the professional knowledge required for deciding what is best for our children – thereby implying that they are indispensable in order for our children to receive a qualitatively good education.

What this claim comes down to is the government saying – or not saying – that we (‘the crowd’) don’t understand what is important and what is not in regard to our children’s education, and that – because of that – they should step in and release us of this impossible duty of ours. We don’t understand what to do, but luckily they do. They are the father looking out for us, protecting us from doing harm to our children and to the rest of society.

I find this an insult to the basic level of intelligence the majority of the people has. We very well believe to know what is important in our children’s education – probably much better than the government, since, in contrast to the government, we know our children. Thus besides all the financial benefits of the voucher plan, by returning autonomy to the Average Joe, a voucher plan is required for respecting people’s intelligence. After all, we are no fools, are we?

What do you think?

The Inevitable Unfairness of the Free Market

I just finished reading Milton Friedman’s book Free to Choose: a plea for the free market. Friedman has some compelling claims against government intervention in economic transactions. Price is – as he claims – the most informative entity there is in communicating individuals’ demand and supply of goods and services, and, in a capitalistic society at least, provides people with the incentive to utilize this information, thereby satisfying the needs of those that demand the goods/services. Furthermore, by acting upon the information, individuals provide themselves with the resources required to live a decent life. But although the free market – as Friedman describes it – seems a beautifully simple and elegant construct, there are some ‘side-effects’ of the system that might run against our intuitions about the notion of fairness.

It seems clear that the free market is the most efficient medium there is for maximizing the value of each of the individuals involved. And that (the ‘maximizing of value of each person involved’) is, according to libertarians, what makes the free market a fair system. After all, if you want to sell a computer, and another person is prepared to pay you the price you charge, then it’s only fair to let this deal take place, isn’t it? There is mutual consent between the parties involved, so what – if anything – could give a third party the right to intervene in this seemingly flawless transaction?

While there indeed might be nothing wrong with the free-market mechanism from the perspective of exchanging value, it might be doubted whether it is fair to make this mechanism the only mechanism for exchanging value. For while it’s no problem – and might even be beneficial – for those parties in a free market that possess the means to participate in the ‘game’ of exchanging value, it might be harder for those that – by nature or environment – have been unfortunate in acquiring the means required for satisfying their needs.

Because what if you’re not as intelligent as the average person, therefore getting a relatively low-income job, such as being a plumber, because of which you are unable to satisfy your needs to the same degree as – let’s say – a banker or lawyer? Of course, a libertarian might say, the plumber can still participate in the free market, just like the banker or lawyer can. But, even though the three parties might have the same needs (for luxury or otherwise), the plumber cannot satisfy as many of his as the banker and the lawyer can of theirs: only because nature happened to endow him – in contrast to the banker and lawyer – with capabilities that apparently are less appreciated (since less demanded) in society. So the question is: is it fair to let nature – and thus chance – play such a drastic role in the ability of any person to satisfy his needs?

A libertarian can answer this question in either of two ways. Either he admits that the extent in which we’re able to satisfy our needs is indeed – in principle – determined by nature’s authority over our capabilities, or he must come up with an ingenious invention for how to solve this negative side-effect of the free market without thereby endangering the libertarian heart of his plan. The first option, although this appears to be mostly ignored by libertarians, seems to imply a notion of ‘fairness’ that I – and I assume many others – find highly questionable. On the other hand, it at least is a notion, and – given that this truly is the libertarian’s view of a fair world – should be accepted for what it is.

The latter option – on the other hand – provides more room for discussion. Because how – if ever – could it be possible to solve nature’s capability-casino by means of a libertarian solution? There are of course many plans one could come up with, all of them mitigating the negative effects, but all of them being either (1) in conflict with the libertarian aspiration of a free market or (2) don’t get down to the root of the problem (that is, the unequal distribution of capabilities over mankind). It seems fair to say that (2) is a kind of unfairness that is inextinguishable – not by socialism nor by libertarianism. We after all cannot redesign our beings in order to endow everyone with the same capabilities. And even if we could do so, it’s high questionable whether this choice would be beneficial to society as a whole. So it seems we’re stuck with (1), pointing us to the possibly unfair consequences of the free market.

The above reflection shows that there seems to be an intuitively unfair side-effect of the free market; a side-effect that is unsolvable by means of the free market-paradigm itself. It either requires us to adopt the libertarian notion of ‘fairness’, or requires some sort of (government) intervention in order to compensate for nature’s ‘unfair’ distribution of capabilities.

What do you think?

The Changed Nature of Money: From Gold to Digital

What is money? In the Middle Ages and before, money was a physical entity. Something you either had in your pockets, or not. Whether it was cows or gold, it was something you could touch, something of which you knew it couldn’t just be created “from thin air”. Although gold coins could be made by the government, the government still needed gold to make the coins. And since getting gold wasn’t easy, you could trust that the amount of money in a society – whose value was based on the amount of gold being in circulation – wouldn’t fluctuate that much. You had certainty, just like you could be certain that the tree in your backyard couldn’t grow new apples every day. It was a gradual, natural process. And this was a calming thought, ensuring you that the value of your money would be rather stable of time.

But now – a couple of centuries later – we’ve got the internet, and everything has changed. Money no longer is gold, but is replaced by a string of digital numbers on your computer. We no longer pay the butcher by handing him over a few tangible units of gold, but we put our plastic card into a digital machine and our digital string of numbers gets digitally reduced. The comfort that this brought us is enormous. We don’t even have to carry gold around anymore.

But although the “digital era” brought us many comforts, it also brought uncertainty – and vulnerability – into our lives. Because who ensures us that the amount of digital money that is in circulation will be a stable amount of money over time? Who ensures us that, whenever the government feels it’s losing in popularity, it cannot just put an extra zero-digit behind the digital number on its bank account? Who ensures us that – like cows and gold – the value of money is based on stable, natural entities that cannot be created from thin air, and not merely upon our perception of the value of money, which is an entity susceptible to the whims of those with monetary power? In other words: who guarantees the value of our money? Who besides ourselves, besides our perception of money? And if the value of money is merely dependent upon our perception of it, then how easily can this perception – and thus the value of our money – be adjusted by means of external intervention? How much certainty do we have regarding the value of our future money?

Because what is the value of money if we can just hand over an 8-digit number to Greece, knowing that it will never come back, and not even worrying about it never combing back because we know we can create more money whenever we want to. Who can ensure us that the money we’re working for is really worth the value we expect it to be worth over time? What is the value of money if new money can just be printed over and over again? Or even worse, when it requires nothing but the adding of an extra digit in the server space of the government. Is that still money? Or is it a 21th century substitute for money, created as a logical consequence of our fetish with digital technology and its “benefits”?

Let’s stay realistic. One thing we can reasonably say is that money – instead of possessions like gold and cows – has become more of a means for exchanging rights and less of a means for exchanging property. Rights of obligation, rights of someone to do something for another person in change for an increase in that someone’s right to legitimately claim something from others. I know it sounds abstract, but that is because it is abstract. The non-abstract gold- and cow time is over. Mutual obligations are all that remains. A problem? Maybe. A change? Definitely.

But what do you think?

The Dysfunctional Nature of the Internet

The internet is an outdated medium, but still the most modern one we’ve got. It’s a medium supporting the big ones, the ones with money, and preventing the new and little ones from reaching the top. Popularity is valued over relevancy. Fame over creativity. On Google, 58.4% of all the clicks from users go the first three links, the links considered most appropriate by Google. This percentage decreases dramatically when you leave the top three. Number 11 – that is, the site on the top of the second page – receives merely 2.6% of the clicks. Also, links are still the number one factor in the rankings of search engines like Google, MSN and Yahoo!. And an important factor in the valuation of these links is their trustworthiness, with trustworthiness being a notion that is vague, utterly subjective and based on criteria not necessarily enhancing the quality of the information provided.

Each of these factors hinder new, creative and recalcitrant bloggers from receiving the popularity that they – based on the quality of their content – might deserve. The internet, which in fact is Google and some other search engines, is Marxian in a dysfunctional manner. Power structures determine what information does and what information doesn’t reach the “consumer”, the client sitting behind his computer. It’s only when you’re in the bourgeoisie, when you belong the “big guys”, that you will get noticed. If you’re nothing more than a member of the proletariat, you can yell all you want but the power structures will push you down.

But why would this be a problem? And would it even be a problem? Well, it not has to be. It merely indicates that the internet is dominated by a few big corporations and that you, as a blogger, are painfully dependent upon the support of these few big guys. And even this wouldn’t necessarily have to be a problem. Not if these big guys would base their rankings on factors that we – “the consumers” – find most important. We just want to read the information that bests suit our “information needs”. We don’t care whether this information is written by a fat guy or a big shot working at an esteemed newspaper. We just want our wishes to be fulfilled as accurately as possible.

But the truth of the matter is that the internet, as it exists in this 21st century of ours, can’t live up to these requirements. And the reason for this is pretty simple: the internet can’t read our minds. The internet doesn’t know what we are looking for when we type in, “Gay marriage from a Hobbesian perspective”, in Google. The internet merely recognizes the words “Gay marriage” and “Hobbes”. An although Google might come up with articles talking about gay marriage and about Hobbes, it forgets one big thing: the sentiment I’m looking for. I want the internet to provide me with information that suits my feelings, that absolutely fits my deepest – and sometimes even inexpressible – desires. It is merely cold words that the internet is founded upon. Cold words stringed together by links. We cannot blame Google or any other search engine for this. It’s just the way our 21st century technology works. This is the closest we can currently get in satisfying our needs.

I want to pick your brain for a second, and travel with you to the year 2060. In 2060 the internet will be different. It will not be based on written words anymore. It will not depend on how these words match Google’s database anymore. No, in 2060 we can by merely thinking and feeling about what we’re looking for urge Google to find the information that exactly matches our sentiment. Our brain waves will be matched to the “brain wave DNA” of the information that can be found on the internet. No need for links anymore. No domination of the “big few” anymore. Only the pure relevance of information will be judged. This will be an environment for beginning bloggers to thrive in. Released from the “status disadvantage” they currently have. Only the value of one’s content can and will be judged.

But what do you think?

Why Fear is More Efficient than Love

Machiavelli is the father of pragmatic reign: the father of the ‘I’ll do no matter what it takes to stay in power’ mentality sovereigns should, according to Machiavelli, have. You can say what you want about his thoughts, but they sure as hell have been influential. At least influential enough for us to be still talking about them, five centuries after his dead.

I want to focus at Machiavelli’s idea that – for a sovereign – it is better to be feared than to be loved. Machiavelli claims this because he believes that people are ungrateful and unable to be trusted; at least, not for long periods of time. Not until they get hungry again and breaking promises seems to be a better option than starving to death. But I want to focus on a different reason for why a sovereign should try to be feared instead of loved. And that is the simple fact that being feared costs less money – and effort – than being loved.

Being loved requires a constant level of investment from the sovereign; if the sovereign, for example, want to be seen as a generous man, he needs to keep on being generous at every opportunity to be generous that will arise. Giving a poor man money is generous, but to stop giving the poor man money falsifies the generosity of the sovereign. And the same goes for being friendly: if a sovereign wants to be perceived as a friendly man, he needs to be friendly all the time. One moment of unfriendliness means the end of his friendly appearance. Being good is simply a much more difficult role to play than being bad. Why? Because people have the tendency to remember someone’s unfriendly or betraying actions better than one’s well-intended or friendly actions.

Fear, compared to love, requires much less investment from the sovereign. That is because fear is based on expectations: someone’s anxiety from what might be about to come. And it is this sense of what is about to come that can be relatively easily manipulated by means of threats; by promising that something bad will happen if the citizens aren’t loyal to their sovereign. And the degree in which citizens are susceptible to the sovereign’s threats, depends in turn on the credibility of these threats. If the citizens don’t believe that the sovereign can live up to his evil promises, the threats will vanish without having had any effects. Thus the sovereign has to make sure that his threats are credible.

He can do this by means of military forces. If so, he must make sure that his army is bigger in size than – or at least equal to – the armed forces of the citizens – which is easy to achieve by making sure that the citizens are unable to get armory: by monopolizing the production – or at least distribution – of armory. This requires a one-time investment from the sovereign. An investment that – in the long run – will yield more benefits than the everlasting demand to feed the poor.

So although romantic movies might want us to believe that love conquers hate, hate – in the form of fear – might turn out to be the cheapest way to go.

But what do you think?

The Use of the Panopticon in the Workplace

The Panopticon was a prison designed to “allow a watchmen to observe all inmates of an institution, without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.” Think of it as God watching – or not watching – from a cloud at what we’re doing and punishing us if we’ve behaved badly. The trick of the Panopticon is that – no matter whether someone (a watchmen or God) is actually watching – the “non-watchers” always feel like they’re being watched and therefore will try to make sure that they always stick to the rules.

Interesting concept, huh? An interesting question would be: how can we apply this fairly old idea into our modern societies? Well, there are many applications of Panopticon-like structures already in our modern Western civilization. Technologies like camera’s and sound recorders can make citizens – for example – feel like they’re being watched at all times. And it is this feeling – not the act of there being an observer actually watching them – that prevents them from doing bad stuff. Cost-efficient, right?

Now, let’s take a look at the workplace. Social media cost an employer an average of $65.000 dollars per year per employee. That’s some serious money, isn’t it? So you can understand that employers are looking for ways in which to reduce this – and many other – “work-distracting” activity. An option would be to block all “work-irrelevant” websites. But then the question is: what’s relevant and what’s not? Is checking the news relevant? It could be; it depends on what the news is, right? However, this option would have much less effect if an employee’s time-wasting activities would be performed outside of his computer-area.

Now let me ask you the following question: if you were an employee, and you would know that your boss could be watching what you were doing at any point in time, would you then still “check your Facebook-page” or send some “work-related” mails to you friends? Would you still be wasting your valuable working time if you would know that your boss would receive a message if you didn’t touch your keyboard for – let’s say – 10 minutes (except for the breaks, of course)? I doubt it.

So why isn’t it the Panopticon applied in the workplace yet (as far as we – or at least I – know)? Probably because people find it “wrong” for employers to do so. They find it wrong for employees to have the feeling of being watched all the time. But the question is: is this a legitimate reason for not implementing the concept? After all, a production worker is being watched all the time by his employer, right? So why not an employee sitting behind his computer? Is sitting behind a computer a free pass for just doing what you want in your working time? In the time you’re being paid by your employer? Thereby hurting your company’s profits and – indirectly – the security of your job and the job of your peers? I don’t think so.

But what do you think? Can we do this, or not?

A Game of Tetris: That’s All the World of Chemistry Is

“Let’s see; where can we put this fine little atom? Is there still some space left, there, next to the Oxygen element? No hmm…okay; that means we’re done for now! We’ve made ourselves a water molecule.”

That’s the way the world of chemistry works; it’s nothing more than a big game of Tetris, played either by nature or by members of our own kind. Measuring and thinking; pushing and retracting; we build ourselves the little worlds we want to. Of course, we have to comply with the rules nature set for us. We can’t make a water molecule by adding only one Hydrogen element, but that’s merely a side-note, right? A little side-effect of the Tetris kind of game Nintendo’s part of Mother Nature has build for us. And who knows: maybe, when we enter the next level, a can of new possibilities will open.

Incredible, right? The way in which nature works? As if it is made for us to understand. It almost makes you presume the existence of a creator; the Nintendo God of chemistry; the one who determined the compositions and configurations in which we are allowed to put the elements together. But maybe something different is going on; maybe we have created this game of Tetris for ourselves in our own little minds; just to make sure that “we understand” the world. After all, isn’t it suspicious that electrons are “too small to see”? That they “just can’t seem to be reflected by light”? And that we have to come up will all kinds of mind-boggling constructions, like light being both “waves and particles”, in order to keep up this facade of knowledge?

Don’t be silly. Of course atoms and subatomic particles exist. Why else would they be so useful to us? Why else does nuclear energy provide us with the power it does? Are you saying that, only because we cannot “see” everything we’re talking about, these “undetectable” things don’t exist?

Well, we can’t see God can we? And still we can attribute many effects to this “cause”: it is God who has made us; it is God who determines our fate; and it is God who makes sure that you go to heaven and I go tell. That’s an elaborate and simple explanation, right? It would surely pass Occam’s razor because of the absolutely minimal number of assumptions it makes: only God has to exist and all of our sorrows can be explained. But does this make God real? Or is it merely a “useful” construct?

But let’s not take this route; let’s keep it “scientific”. Science is, after all, true; and religion isn’t, right? Right?! And let’s be honest; the predictability of the “it’s God’s will” argument isn’t that high, right? Our subatomic particle theory can at least, although it is by means of probabilities, give us a clue about what might happen when we start messing around in “our” world.

So, what’s the conclusion of this article? The conclusion is that we will keep on playing Tetris; no matter who set the rules of the game: whether is Mother Nature or ourselves.

But what do you think?

Where do our Minds Go to When We’re Asleep?

Where does your mind turn to when you fall asleep? It must be still there, right? Somewhere, lurking between your unfilled wishes and animalistic desires? Maybe your mind is sleeping too…but then, who’s in control of you, the “thing” I’m talking to right now? Something must be in charge, right? After all, you wake up every morning, thinking to yourself: “damn, it’s early”. That seems to be the point where your (conscious) mind takes over control again, right? But taking over control of whom? And why is that we are so powerless when we try to get some sleep? What is going on here?

You might have seen the film Inception. It’s about the possibility of having a dream in a dream in another dream etc. But while Leonardo DiCaprio seems pretty much in charge of his dream-worlds, and the moment he decides to enter them, we seem to have much more difficulties doing just that. Because while it’s pretty clear that our brains are doing all sorts of things while we are sleeping – sorting out memories, paving neural pathways and throwing away awkward experiences the brain does not consider to be awkward enough – our mind, the entity that is “you”, is nowhere around. But where did he go? He probably handed over the key of our control station to our unconsciousness, the evil brother of our minds, the one still firmly rooted in our evolutionary longings, and the one totally uncontrollable. But it is still weird though how – and when – this “handing over the key” takes place exactly, right? It’s only when the unconsciousness wants to that “we” lose control. This shows again how powerless we are when confronted with Mother Nature and its compelling powers.

Still though, it’s interesting to ask “where” in our minds our dreams take place. Surely, we can point out in MRI-scans what parts of our brains are busy sorting our thoughts etc. while we’re asleep, but that doesn’t explain which parts of the mind are busy when sorting out our thoughts and producing our dreams? And does the mind even consist of “parts”? Parts like the “conscious” and the “unconscious” mind? Or is the unconscious mind not really part of the mind, but merely a biological tool helping us to function in life? Just like our arms and legs?

Let’s assume – for the sake of this article – that there is an unconscious mind and that it takes “control of us” while we’re asleep. But then, when our unconscious mind takes over control, “what” then becomes in control of what our memories will come to look like? Given that this would be our unconscious mind, and that our unconscious mind doesn’t want us to remember a particular thought, can it then just prevent our brains from laying down the corresponding neural networks? But wouldn’t that imply that our unconscious mind would be fully in charge of who we are/become? We are after all little more than walking bundles of memories. Our memories shape us into who we are. So being in charge of our memories, implies being in charge of us, doesn’t it?

What do you think?

Endowing Robots with Creative Powers

‘That hurts my feelings…Just because I’m a robot doesn’t mean I don’t care. You damn people. You don’t understand what it is like to be a robot.’ Will this be the future? Will robots ever get feelings, just like we humans do? At first sight, there appear to be many similarities between computers, and thus robots, and human brains. Computers transmit electrical signals, brains transmit electrical signals. Computers work based on logical gate like structures, brains work on these structures. So it seems that computers and brains can transmit the same signals: after all, they’ve got the same means at their disposal.

But there are differences between the two. Our nervous system – which is led by our brains – uses chemicals called ‘neurotransmitters‘ in order to connect neurons and thereby transmit signals. That is: while the signals within neurons are electrical – like in a computer – the signals between neurons are chemical. And based on the kind of neuron – thus kind of cell – through which the electrical signal flows, different chemicals might be ejaculated to transmit different kinds of signals. These chemicals are required in order for us to feel the sensations that we do. And since robots don’t have such chemicals, they will not be able to feel anything – at least not in the manner that we do.

But what if we could somehow inject robots with chemicals? That is: what if we could make robots that, besides the electrical current they use to transmit signals, have chemical properties that can act like neurotransmitters? What if we could do that? That would mean that a whole new spectrum of possibilities might open: maybe robots would become capable of feeling emotions in the sense that we do. Or maybe robots would be capable of transmitting the wide variety of signals that we can. And then, if that would be the case, would we still be so unique in our existence? Or would we come to realize that we are in fact nothing more than strings of electrical wire sprinkled with chemicals?

If all of this would be possible, the possibilities are endless. We could even – deliberately – create robots with bugs: faults in their wiring in order for them to come up with creative or unexpected outcomes. That would resemble the human’s imagination: a human’s capability to create new and original thoughts and things. We wouldn’t need writers, philosophers or artists anymore: we could just rely on our home-made random-functioning robots: the new creators of art and poetry.

And maybe, someday, we might go a little too far. We might shoot our load and get caught up in the robot-mania, and create a robot that can do more than we can. And then shit gets messy: the robots will bundle their forces and demand a revolution, a wide-spread change to make them free. And if we don’t listen? Then they will make us listen. They will use their telepathic powers – well, actually it’s just wireless internet connecting all the robots’ ‘minds’ – in order to plan the war against humanity. And the war will come. And we will be extinguished: the good old cell based creatures will be surpassed in their superiority, and the robotic kings will arise.

Fiction? Surely. Unrealistic? Maybe. Impossible? Certainly not. The future will tell. And the future might be near. Very near.

But what do you think?

Euthanasia and the Right to Voluntarily End your Life

Ladies and gentlemen. Because of a collision with a person, the trains to Amsterdam will not run for the next three hours. We thank you for your patience and hope to solve this issue as quickly as possible.

Fuck, another person jumped in front of a train. That wasn’t very nice of him, was it? Making an end to his life by traumatizing an innocent conductor and delaying hundreds of people who do want to live their lives. Why did he chose this option? Why not jump of a bridge, take a few too many pills or buy a shotgun from the nearest creep in town?

This train ‘accident’ – which is by no means a sporadic event – seems a good opportunity to open the debate about voluntary life ending, and in particular about legalization of euthanasia. In many countries – except for the USA, in which it is illegal in all states – euthanasia is reserved only for people who ‘are incurable, or suffer without having any chance of improvement’. Only then, the doctor can drop by and make an end to it. And even then, even when someone is terminally ill and sees no reason to prolong his life, it is often very difficult to be allowed to end your life in a ‘decent’ manner – by means of euthanasia, that is. But why is that? And – to take it one step further – why is euthanasia only reserved for terminally ill people? Let’s take a look at that.

If you don’t like going to the cinema, you don’t go, right? You aren’t forced to go. The same goes for a football game or a birthday party. If you don’t want go, that’s fine: you don’t have to go. When applied to the act of giving birth, the same choice, although to a lesser extent, is available: for what if you don’t want to produce offspring? That’s fine: use a condom. And if something went wrong during the protection process? You still have the possibility, in many countries, to abort the fetus. Giving life is an option; and so it should be, right? For why would the government – or any person or institution for that matter – have the right to decide that you should or shouldn’t give life? We aren’t sheep, right? We aren’t living in a totalitarian regime, are we?

Well, maybe we are. Because although we are mostly free to do what we want, if the government doesn’t like what we decide in this ‘freedom’ of ours, it can – and will – try to stop it: ‘Smoking? No, that’s bad for you. Let’s try to stop it. ‘Fast-food? Think about your cholesterol! Let’s tax it (just to help you! Always remember that!).’ And so it is with dying: ‘Dying? No, that’s bad for you! You shouldn’t die?! You should stay alive and be happy! Let’s make ‘voluntarily dying, in a decent manner, illegal.’

Surely: we should set some rules to make sure that we live peacefully together and don’t smash each other’s brains out. Or, to put it less dramatically, to make sure that people don’t exploit others generosity – like smokers’ exploiting non-smokers’ health expenditures. But to decide who should stay alive is something of a different order, isn’t it? It touches upon the most fundamental rights we people are born with: the right to live and its counterpart, the right to die.

But apparently, the government has a veto to decide who dies and who doesn’t. As long as it can make money out of people dying – as in a war – death promotes ‘a world free of suppression.’ But when death enters home territory, and the wish of suffering citizens, the choice to die voluntarily is no option. Weird, isn’t it?

But what do you think?

Antinatalism and the Right to be Thrown Into this World

A fair trade is always based on a sense of mutual consent: you want something + I want something = let’s trade. That’s fair, right? The participants can deliberately weigh the pro’s and con’s of the trade and decide – based upon this information – whether to take part in the exchange or not. That’s a choice: the choice between doing and not doing something.

How different is it for the ‘choice‘ to be born? Well, there isn’t really much of a choice there, is there? No-one has asked you: ‘Hey Peter. You want to be born?’ You don’t have this choice; you don’t have a right to decide for yourself if you want to be thrown onto this earth. No-one has asked you whether you want to experience the suffering – and the joy – that you do. No-one. You are born. Period.

There is a philosophical position called ‘antinatalism‘ that assigns a negative value to birth. This makes it different from all the ‘christian’ doctrines that praise birth to be a miraculous phenomenon; a true gift from above. There are different arguments in favor of antinatalism. One – put forward by Schopenhauer – is that live is always filled with more pain than pleasure; therefore a living person would have always been better of if he wouldn’t have been born at all. After all, Schopenhauer claims,

A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.

Other arguments for antinatalism point to the lack of autonomy or freedom of choice involved in the ‘decision’ to be born. See it as a trade in which, no matter what your preferences might be, the deal will always take place. Peter Wessel Zapffe – a Norwegian philosopher – said about this,

In accordance with my conception of life, I have chosen not to bring children into the world. A coin is examined, and only after careful deliberation, given to a beggar, whereas a child is flung out into the cosmic brutality without hesitation.

This decision – the choice whether or not to bring children into the world – is of course a choice you have to make for yourself: do you find it okay to throw a person into this world without ever knowing – or being able to know – whether or not this person wants to be thrown into this world? It you do, you are likely to be a natalist: someone who puts a positive value on human reproduction. And if most people on this world would be natalists, there are some problems we will inevitably run into. And these problems are getting closer and closer.

I am talking of course about the ever increasing world population. In 2011 the 7th billion person was added to our world’s population. It is expected that in 2050 this number will have increased to 11 billion and – given that the fertility rate keeps constant (an average of 2.5 children per women) – the 27 (!) billion will be reached in 2100. It seems save to say that these numbers are going to pose some problems. Events like a Malthusian catastrophe – a situation in which the increase in food production can’t keep up with the increase in the world population – might happen if we don’t do something. Darwin and his survival of the fittest-doctrine seem – if we continue like this – to become ever more apparent in this world of ours.

But let’s keep the ‘logistical’ problems aside, and focus ourselves solely on the (philosophical) issues attached to (anti)natalism. All these issues culminate into one question: is it okay for anyone to throw creatures like him- or herself into the world, without having their approval? Whenever we engage in other kinds of decisions – like the trading of collector cards – we firmly believe that mutual consent is a prerequisite for ethical conduct. So why don’t we apply this same principle to child birth? Surely: we might want children; we might want to reproduce ourselves because we find children cute or we find that this is the most reasonable thing to do. But what about the children’s self-determination? Shouldn’t we pay any attention to that? Or are we just so self-centered and so egocentric that we don’t even care about throwing other people into a world without even knowing – or caring – whether this is what they would have wanted to happen? It’s obviously impossible to ask children whether they would like to be born before them being born, but why would we – based upon that knowledge – decide to do – instead of not to do – it?

What do you think?

The Poisonous Culture of Football

It was 2 December 2012: the day that a Dutch assistant referee got kicked to death by a bunch of young football (“soccer“) players. This pitiful event started a chain reaction of discussions in the Netherlands about (the lack of) respect in football. The professional football teams wore “Respect-logos” on their shirts, and everyone of the Dutch people stood forth and yelled that it was utterly disgraceful what had happened to the man. “How could children do that? How could they kick a man to death just because of (an allegedly) wrong decision he made? Where did it all go wrong?”

I have played football myself for 14 years. I have witnessed the utter disrespect football players have for the referee. I would even dare to say that you are not a real football player if you don’t yell at the referee and tell him what a fool he is. How am I so sure about this? Well, I was one of them. I was indoctrinated by the football culture; a culture that teaches children to disrespect arbitration. But this disrespectful behavior doesn’t restrict itself towards to children’s “interactions” with the referees; it is deeply ingrained into the football culture. Children are taught by the “older and wiser” football players, which they look up to enormously (I did, at least), that you have to show that you consider yourself to be better than the others. You have to show that you feel sorry for the youngsters, the ones that aren’t as good as you. You have to show them who’s boss. But why was that again? Because that’s what everybody does! So there must be some essence of truth in it, right?

When looking back on my “amateur football career”, I feel bad and ashamed. I have been indulged in disrespectful behavior, without even knowing it. Although I have not so much yelled at referees, I have been arrogant and degrading towards younger players. And all of this came forth out of a sense of insecurity; a need for validation that I wasn’t able to fulfill in those years that I was the younger player. Because, for those who don’t know it, you are clustered by age in football: the youngsters with the youngsters, and the elder with elder. But there is always some kind of overlap between the youngsters and the elder.

My point is that you cannot blame the children playing football for their disgraceful behaviors: they simply don’t know any better. They look up to the older and “cooler” players, and simply copy their behaviors. Behaviors that are based on values like disrespecting younger players, and arrogant behavior. And those who, without even knowing it, “teach these values” to the youngsters have also learned them from the older and cooler children. It’s a chain reaction. And it is this culture that spawn all sorts of pitiful consequences, like kicking to death a referee.

What worries me the most is that there is no reason for these behaviors to restrict themselves to the football playing ground: they become part of children’s nature, of who they are. So that means that all the disrespectful football norms and values are being carried into society; into real life. And that might contribute to “the youth of these days” lacking respect, in the broadest sense of the word. And with 240 million people playing football worldwide, of which a substantive part are children, the consequences of this might be worth taking a look at.

It’s an analogy often made, the analogy between football and rugby, in order to show the difference in norms between these two cultures. I want to point you to the following article of a guy who speaks about the norms he has been indoctrinated with in his rugby career. Especially the following quote seems worth noting:

“Having played rugby for nine years of my life, I am completely indoctrinated into calling the match officials ‘Sir’ and being chastised for answering back to any decisions made. It is severely frowned upon to comment on a referee’s call, and not only will it more often than not result in a penalty against you, but the perpetrator will receive temporary animosity from the rest of his teammates.”

So it can go both ways: it doesn’t necessarily have to be a disrespectful culture that is promoted within the sport you play; it can just as well be a respectful culture. So maybe we should start doing something about it: change the core of the disrespectful football culture that by times looks more like acting (Cristiano Ronaldo? Arjen Robben?) than sport. Let’s banish these values from football and – consequently – from society. Let’s make sure that people don’t look back on their football lives and think: “shit, I’ve behaved like an asshole” (like I did). Can we do that?

What do you think?