19 February 2008

Are "Legacy" Preferences in College Admissions Unlibertarian?

For the February issue, Reason magazine's Shikha Dalmia authored a scathing condemnation of preferential treatment for "legacy" candidates at U.S. universities. While the state of higher education in the United States offers much to criticize, it isn't clear that preference for "legacy" candidates is particularly unlibertarian. Although compiling the statistics would be impossible, it is a safe bet that virtually every college, public and private, puts a legacy applicant's file at the top of the stack. And why not? Those alumni whose children later apply are more likely to have offered gratuitous financial support to their alma mater. Doesn't this leave the possibility of saving tax money in end, in the case of public schools? Of course, Dalmia is quite right in her gut feeling that such rent-seeking is unseemly. It is, in fact, only the involuntary nature of public university finance that makes such arrangements inappropriate. Yet, this problem is not one of admissions standards, but of socialism.

Consider that it just may be the case that standardized test scores are attempts to put a number on personal attributes that can't be described very well in such discrete terms. Seeing that an applicant was reared by a parent who had previously succeeded in that particular educational setting offers at least a reasonable belief that an otherwise borderline applicant may fit the mold after all. Such applicants are not only the progeny of alumni and the potential inheritors of their personal attributes, but are also more likely to be practically acquainted with what that school requires for success. They are more likely to know what it is actually like to live in that place, to sit in those chairs, and to cheer for that team. Surely a libertarian must consider that an individual's appreciation for and understanding of such factors of personal proclivity may play an important role both for the matriculating students and the school.

There is no reason to worship at the altar of centralized, standardized testing at the expense of a more basic bet on nature and nurture. Individual schools are unique entities, and it is a pretty good bet that there are widely varying schools that sit right next to each other in terms of test score and GPA statistics. More qualitative information like legacy status gives admissions officers some much-needed "real world" data with which to better make admissions selections. Finding a good fit for a particular school is more important than a one-size-fits-all, egalitarian admissions policy that has the force of law.

Rather than bailing out the Titanic, libertarians should fight to privatize public universities. Transferring control of public universities to non-profit foundations for administration and development would be one fiscally responsible escape that would allow us to avoid the socialist calculation problem altogether. Simply implementing some "more libertarian" centrally-planned admissions standard is not going to fix Socialist U. Once we move schools to a private, competitive environment, we can allow the experts in the market to experiment and devise the best admissions policies for their individual enterprises.

Because Dalmia makes the mistake of assuming that the admissions policy that is the problem, she proposes even more intervention. She says,
Private schools, of course, should be free to admit whomever they want, and it is therefore tempting to ignore their use of legacies. But there are few genuinely private schools in America anymore, thanks to the enormous amount of federal funding they accept. And setting public policy aside: Just as a matter of propriety, should there be room for legacies at institutions that market themselves as bastions of meritocracy? The use of legacies by the Harvards, Yales, and Princetons of the world dilutes the standards of excellence they pretend not merely to uphold, but to embody.
While she means these thoughts to be noble, they are not self-evidently correct or noble. Institutions that market themselves a certain way and don't satisfy can be dealt with by the market. Surely Dalmia doesn't mean to suggest educational protectionism for Harvard and Yale! Why is it a matter of justice which schools are held in highest repute? Centrally planned academic prestige is no more satisfying than any other statist intervention. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton all came to exist and became prestigious in the market. Dalmia's belief that such prestige can be shored up by bureaucratic intervention in these institutions is both ill-advised as a matter of economics and historically unfounded.

(Also published at LewRockwell.com)

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03 September 2007

What is Wikipedia, and what is it good for?

There are a lot of bad things said about Wikipedia, the ninth most-visited destination on the internet. An encyclopedia that anyone can edit, critics argue, is one that is vulnerable to endless mistakes. Such criticisms have been raised by skeptics since Wikipedia's creation in 2001. Despite the critics, Wikipedia has grown to include 8.2 million articles in 253 different languages. The English Wikipedia alone includes nearly two million articles, and has a word-length fifteen times that of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia is the single largest encyclopedia ever assembled, having long since surpassed the Yongle Encyclopedia of 15th century China.

The man credited with founding Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales--known to Wikipedians as "Jimbo"--was a finance major at Auburn University when the Mises Institute's Mark Thornton suggested he readhe read "The Use of Knowledge in Society," a now-famous essay written by Austro-libertarian economist and Nobel laureate Friedrich von Hayek. The essay argues that prices in the market represent a spontaneous order that results from the interaction of individuals with diverse wants, allowing them to cooperate to achieve complex goals. According to a June 2007 Reason magazine interview, this insight of Hayek's is what led Wales to found Wikipedia. The rather lofty vision that inspired Wales? "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing."

While that ultimate goal imagined by Wales for Wikipedia has not yet come to fruition, there is no questioning the breadth and usefulness of Wikipedia. Those who refused to believe that a user-generated encyclopedia could compete with the monolithic, traditional encyclopedia written by experts and organized by professional editors, were no doubt shocked when Nature magazine published a 2006 article comparing Wikipedia to the well-known Encyclopedia Britannica. The article concluded that Wikipedia articles were comparable in accuracy and thoroughness to those of the older, paper encyclopedia.

According to a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center, Wikipedia is by far the most popular educational and reference destination on the web, with nearly a quarter of the total traffic to such sites going to the free encyclopedia. According to the study, "Wikipedia has become the No. 1 external site visited after Google's search page, receiving over half of its traffic from the search engine." All that traffic does not include sites that syndicate Wikipedia content, such as Ask.com.

Such syndication is free thanks to the special license agreement to which all contributors consent when adding content to the encyclopedia. The GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) allows for royalty-free reproduction--in original or modified form--even in for-profit projects. While some images in the project are utilized under "fair-use" doctrine, the vast majority of images and text are either subject only to the GFDL or are in the public domain.

But how does such a poly-centric, even anarchic system, composed of editors acting independently and for their own reasons, result in such an utterly useful resource? The answer goes back to the Hayekian inspiration for the project. Because editors receive both psychological satisfaction and material usefulness from their contributions, the project has grown to include safeguards that help guarantee that the development of the project will move in a positive direction--towards broad, accurate articles that depend on reliable, verifiable sources.

One could very aptly describe the Wikipedia system for directing the development of the project as being a common law system of sorts. The encyclopedia has basic policies--the constitutional law of Wikipedia--which require articles be written from a neutral point of view, make use of verifiable sources, and including no original research. Less concrete are "guidelines," which are rules based on commonly followed interpretations of policies--very similar to judicial precedents--that help users to contribute in a manner that upholds the policies. Guidelines are generally followed because they have been accepted by the community as means by which to avoid editing disputes and thus direct more energy to productive ends. Below guidelines are "essays"--arguably the dicta of Wikipedian law--which may be seen as the musings of individual users regarding certain conflicts or inefficiencies in the system.

Whenever a content dispute does arise between editors on the "talk" pages that accompany each article, there are a host of dispute resolution options available to resolve it. The community has created the "Third Opinion" board, where editors at loggerheads can request an outside perspective on a disagreement. There is also the "Request for Comment" process, where one editor may request formal oversight by the community at large, and particularly by veteran editors whose informed opinions usually carry more weight than those of new users. There are also the Mediation and Arbitration Committees, which are for solving more complex, ongoing disputes, and who actually refer to past precedents in making judgments.

Wikipedia's reflection of market dynamics is most easily observed in what many people view as the project's weakest areas: obscure articles which draw little traffic. In articles about third-rate garage bands and other topics of limited interest, one will often find factual and typographical errors at a much higher rate than in high-traffic articles like "England" or "Barry Bonds." The much higher demand for information about the latter topics means that many more eyes will be combing those much-demanded articles for mistakes. Since Wikipedia is open to correction by anyone, it only stands to reason that the articles attracting more potential editors will be of a higher quality. Rather than a failure of Wikipedia, this is a great demonstration of its efficient allocation of resources. The project, like any other, has a finite amount of productivity to apply to its various activities. It is a positive thing that those articles in greatest demand--those about topics of popular curiosity--would be those that are the most complete and reliable.

The entire system, which is fabulously complex and robust to the contributing editor, is remarkably simple for the basic user, who wants only to find data on an unfamiliar topic. So long as one exercises discretion in accepting information from Wikipedia, and so long as one's research extends beyond the Wikipedia article to the sources it cites, Wikipedia is an exceptional resource that is unique to our generation.

(Also published at LewRockwell.com, Mises.org, and in the September 2007 edition of Suffolk Law's newspaper, Dicta.)

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26 April 2007

West Palm Beach police rescue elderly from affordable dentures

On Wednesday, April 25, Roger Bean of West Palm Beach, Florida was arrested and charged for providing a service to customers who were apparently satisfied. He is a criminal without victims, at least according to those that the government claims that he victimized. Unlike other victimless criminals, though, Mr. Bean's dealings were not in prostitution, gambling, or illegal intoxicants.

For some time he had been fitting customers for dentures in his garage, manufacturing the dentures himself, and then providing them to customers for around $200 per set. This service, which usually costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $2000, was provided to elderly customers who were also Bean's neighbors and friends.

From the news reports, Mr. Bean hardly seems like a scam artist. According to the 72-year-old head of the neighborhood watch program, "He's helping the old people who don't have a few dollars. I think the world of him." Unlike back-room plastic surgeons who we occasionally hear about having horribly disfigured some hapless customer during a cut-rate corporeal upgrade, there is no evidence that Bean was performing invasive procedures, or, in fact, medical procedures of any kind. He was simply fitting clients for dentures and then manufacturing dentures for them.

Bean's "crimes" were against the American Dental Association, whose Commission on Dental Accreditation has been tasked with granting (and denying) accreditation to dental schools since 1979. This ADA commission enjoys a monopoly position as the only dental school accreditation agency recognized by the federal Department of Education.

Roger Bean and others like him are being persecuted for daring to compete with those dentists favored by the powers that be. After all, who were Roger Bean's crimes against? Did he defraud his customers? Or is this just economic protectionism for licensed dentists against a competitor who is providing a substitute for their services at a tenth of the price?

When it comes to transportation, not everyone needs a Cadillac. They are nice, to be sure, but many, many people can do without the luxury features of that high-end brand and instead make it from point A to point B in a Honda Civic or another, more affordable vehicle. To be sure, there are many benefits to the presence of top-shelf brands on the market. Many features now only available to the wealthiest customers will filter down to the buyers of economy-class cars in a matter of years. The purchasers of luxury brands make all of us better off in the sense that they subsidize the research and development of new products and features, effectively helping the relevant industries determine what to include in future product lines.

As with cars, not every consumer of dental services needs a dentist with a DDS or a DMD. Some people might choose to have their needs met through a less costly alternative. Unfortunately for bargain-seekers, the ADA cartel limits the number of dentists who can compete with its membership, and so it lobbied the feds to declare it to be the gatekeeper for entry into the dental profession. When service providers like Bean are arrested, it isn’t protecting the elderly, or the toothless, or the stupid. No, such heavy-handed enforcement is carried out with little regard for these “victims” and the plain fact that each one found himself, thanks to Mr. Bean, either able to afford dentures or, in other cases, able to direct their saved funds towards other ends, perhaps including life-saving or life-lengthening medical care.

The ADA has historically provided many useful services, including its evaluation of dental hygiene and health products. Just about everyone who has purchased a tube of toothpaste or a new toothbrush has seen the organization's familiar logo. The ADA endorsement has been a helpful metric for consumers in determining which products may be best suited for their dental hygienic needs. However, the real value of their "stamp of approval," just as with any other similar organization, plummets as soon as the evaluators are effectively granted a monopoly. While another, competing organization could theoretically be formed to test and rate dental health/hygiene products, the ADA would still benefit from its government-ordained appellation of "official" provider of this information. And with regards to the accreditation of dental schools, the ADA is the only (legal) game in town.

As soon as such an organization depends on government edict rather than consumer confidence for its authority, there is a much lower incentive to provide the most useful information to the public, and ultimately the public suffers. While this, the real crime against consumers goes on, the heroic Roger Bean sits in a jail cell, waiting for the criminal justice system to mete out his punishment for saving his friends and neighbors thousands of dollars.

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15 March 2007

Boston is pretty safe, but when something does happen you are helpless

This past Wednesday night at around 8:30pm or so, I was with my girlfriend at a "Finagle-a-Bagel" downtown across from Boston Common. This is not a particularly scary place to be in Boston, so far as I could tell. As a newcomer, having only been in Boston since January, the Common appears generally open and safe, populated with mostly respectable types and just a smattering of panhandlers.

Justina and I were casually enjoying some soup after going to a couple of stores near Downtown Crossing. Part-way through our meal I spotted a girl wearing an Auburn University zippered sweatshirt, and alerted Justina to her presence. We both let out a "War eagle!" (the school battle cry) and the girl greeted us in like manner.

She and her two companions came over to talk to us and we proceeded to chat about Auburn, about the fact that they were in Boston for the first time, and so on. Right as our conversation seemed likely to start losing steam, we heard a bit of an altercation developing off to our right. She then said, "I think they are about to fight!" noting four or five people that seemed to be exchanging heated remarks at the other end of the kitschy little bagel franchise.

Without recounting all the details, let's just say that the scene was ugly. People were yelling profanity at each other, and a guy and a girl squared off and started swinging. The female's companion got involved and got a knife in the cheek for his troubles. His two adversaries fled the scene shortly thereafter, and the police, who actually arrived pretty rapidly were nonetheless too late to do anything other than file a report about the matter.

I am not a Rambo-type by any means, but when I lived in Alabama I almost always carried either a S&W snubnose .38 or a SIG-Pro .40. Had I and other patrons been legally permitted to possess a gun that night, I have no doubts that the assailant would not have found it so easy to make a clean getaway or perhaps even to actually stab anyone to begin with. Instead, we the bystanders were more or less unable to do anything. I was left with the sole option of just standing between my girlfriend and the altercation, ready to perhaps use a chair to dissuade those fighting from bringing the fight our way.

Don't get me wrong, Boston is a pretty safe city. Compared to cities like, say, New Orleans, which had as many as 96 homicides per 100,000 pop. (161 total) in 2006, or Washington, D.C., which had 35.4 murders per 100,000 pop. (169 total in 2006), Boston seems positively placid at only 13.4 per 100,000 (75 total) last year. The police officers are paid fantastic sums of money, and they were quickly to the scene that Wednesday night. Yet, they were not there in time to prevent someone from coming to harm. How could they be? It is a simple matter of necessarily limited information that leaves them as emergency responders.

I know that there are plenty of murders and stabbings where I've lived before, but since I've been twenty-one years old I've exercised my right to bear arms in order to be prepared, just like the Boy Scouts say. Unfortunately, it only takes one dangerous situation to hurt you, and it is a shame that we folks that live here in "the Hub" cannot lawfully carry a means by which to defend ourselves--that is, to stop a crime when it is happening.

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04 January 2006

HEAD TO HEAD: Jackel vs. Clark on the Auburn Tobacco ban

(from The Auburn Plainsman, 22 January 2004)

By Roberta Jackel
More than 75 percent of Americans and 80 percent of students don't smoke. We are growing to recognize that other people's smoke is unpleasant and unhealthy.

Increasingly, people don't want smoke indoors where they are working, eating, going out for a drink or listening to music.
The Auburn City Council voted to amend our current ordinance to eliminate tobacco smoke from these places, starting in 2007.
There were many reasons to pass a strong ordinance, but the recent experience of Helena, Mont., is especially persuasive. They eliminated smoking inside public facilities.

The emergency room in the town's only hospital had 50 percent less cases of heart attacks after the ordinance was implemented. Sadly, the city leaders capitulated to pressure from a small number of people and restored indoor smoking. Heart attack rates returned to the earlier levels.

Many in Auburn have stopped patronizing some restaurants because of the smoke. Business owners should be concerned about the loss of these customers. With the low rate of smoking in the United States, for every smoker that may not patronize your business, there are three or four non-smokers who can take their place.

Customers' exposure is only part of the picture.

Consider the employees. One person told me she'd worked waiting tables in a smoke-filled restaurant/bar because it was the most lucrative employment available. But she eventually quit because the smoke affected her so badly.

My friend is not alone. A local bar owner told me that only 5 percent of her employees are non-smokers. How is this possible when so many people don't smoke? A reasonable conclusion is that the presence of smoke places a huge barrier to employment, especially for nonsmokers. People need access to good jobs and it is wrong to say non-smokers can just go look elsewhere.
Smoke-free regulations fall into the same category as those pertaining to public health or unsafe working conditions.

We don't allow businesses to force employees to work excessive hours, serve spoiled food, or avoid fire regulations, saying that people who don't like that can just go elsewhere.

Why should an owner be allowed to create a hazardous breathing environment for its workers and customers?

A few small business owners have complained that government should leave them alone, but this argument is used highly selectively. These business owners apparently have no complaint about the City's efforts at removing sources of rats and ensuring streets are safe.

People have the right to use the drug nicotine, and nobody is taking that away, but that doesn't include the right to burn it indoors and force others to breathe its cancer-causing residue. Smoking sections in a restaurant are like urination sections in a swimming pool. Smoking should be removed from all indoor public facilities, period.

Roberta Jackel is a member of the Auburn City Council, Ward 2, Place 1.
By Dick Clark

By passing a ban on smoking in “public places,” the Auburn City Council effectively removed another layer of private property rights previously afforded to the proprietors of restaurants and bars on The Plains. The driving force behind this no-smoking ordinance was Councilwoman Roberta Jackel, who first proposed making Auburn a “smoke-free city.” At that time, Jackel mentioned similar efforts in Montgomery, making her initial case as a sort of political “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Jackel, joined by Mathews and White, expressed the primary concern at issue should be the health hazard created for nonsmokers by those smoking in small, enclosed areas such as bars.

Despite the protests of numerous bar owners, employees and developer Tom Hayley, the council insisted on restricting the rights of law-abiding business proprietors. Hayley’s objection was much like that of other business owners — an economic one. Although Hayley’s suggestion was to promote the alternate idea of a smoke-free Lee County, his comment supported what many others had already said, namely, that a unilateral smoking ban in Auburn would likely have a negative effect on those Auburn businesses that previously allowed smoking.

It seems quite clear from all this that the council’s actions were based completely on the perceived health benefits of a smoking ban. The problem is that this law takes away the individual’s right to choose.

Sure, smoking is a health risk. This ban, however, leads us towards a popular but dangerous precipice for American law. By the reasoning of the council, activities in public places that may be hazardous to those who participate in them can be outlawed. Now, the council claims that this standard only applies to smoking, as smoking endangers others besides the smoker, whereas, say unhealthy food (as one council member argued) is an individual decision.

This reasoning flies in the face of my DARE training, which taught me that peer pressure makes substances more dangerous. And, honestly, who hasn’t had one more drink or stayed up a little later into the night after some friendly goading? A Dec. 5, 2003 Associated Press story reported that moderate drinking does not combat stroke as previously thought, and in fact seems to cause brain atrophy. In addition, in the Jan. 26, 2003 issue of Newsweek, a bevy of doctors reported that staying up too late has been linked to increased severity of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack and obesity. With this information, it shouldn’t be long before the forward-thinking Auburn City Council bans bars altogether, since all patrons and employees will be engaged in some sort of unhealthy social activity.

Either that, or the council will recognize that, since bars are now consummate health hazards, a little smoke might not hurt after all.

Dick Clark is president of the Auburn University Libertarians.

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