Distracted Driving, Pot, and “The Great Debate”

As balm for Christiane Amanpour’s bruises from being kicked off her ABC Sunday show back to CNN, the network honchos let her try a different format this weekend (since nobody was watching anyway.) Styled “the Great Debate,” it pitted conservatives Paul Ryan, the GOP House intellectual, and columnist George Will against soon-to-be-retired Democratic Congressman Barney Frank and Clinton’s former Labor Secretary and perpetual Munchkin Robert Reich for the full hour, exchanging familiar talking points on the usual suspect national issues. The debate wasn’t so great, for several reasons, prime among them being the natural motor-mouth tendencies of Reich and Frank, who, I would guess, took up approximately twice the air time as the conservative pair. The teams were similarly unbalanced in cheer, with Reich as perky as his Lollipop Guild training would suggest, and Frank full of his trademark wisecracks, while Will was dour as ever (when faced with liberal cant, the columnist always looks like my high school Latin teacher did when I was botching the day’s translation) and Ryan radiated the charisma of a certified public accountant.

The most interesting exchange was when George Will derided proposed federal regulations against “distracted driving” as the latest installment of the nanny state encroachment on personal rights, saying that individual freedom should trump the government’s concern for public safety except in the most extreme circumstances. One of the good uses of absolutist reasoning is that it raises a very high bar before breaching a valid principle can even be considered, since it has to be considered as an exception if it is to be contemplated at all. Barring unsafe conduct that increases the likelihood of automobile accidents, however, is not the place for absolutism, but for utilitarianism—rational balancing. Continue reading

American Lessons from the English Riots

I am going to refrain from joining the ranks of amateur psychologists trying to identify the “root cause” of the English riots. People of any age or economic status who riot are, it is fair to say, assholes, like lesser social miscreants such as vandals, computer virus inventors, Leroy Fick and Pastor Terry Jones. If I were convinced that these riots were in response to necessary government cutbacks in social programs, I would have something arguably useful to say, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

There is no question, however, that in allowing the riots to go on so long and harm so many citizens, businesses and homes, the British government has failed one of its most basic duties. Great Britain has been the anti-gun zealot’s Nirvana for a long time: not only can’t citizens own guns for their personal protection, neither can the police. That can work, if the culture is reliably non-violent, and if social and community institutions do a good job making sure that the culture of non-violence is strong, self-reenforced, and deep.

Well, it isn’t, is it?

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