Friday, 25 May 2012

Isolated libertarians

A few weeks ago, a thought experiment by Bryan Caplan attracted a lot of attention from assorted bloggers.
Suppose there are ten people on a desert island. One, named Able Abel, is extremely able. With a hard day's work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island. Eight islanders are marginally able. With a hard day's work, each can produce enough to feed one person. The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable. Harry can't produce any food at all.
1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel's surplus to support Harry?
2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?
3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel's surplus to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?
4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?
The problem with the gedankenexperiment is that these are the wrong questions.  The right question is "what should the islanders do?"  And the answer is: they should sit down and figure out what it is that makes Abel so productive.  Caplan doesn't say what the islanders are doing to produce food, but since he speaks of a day's work on an island, let's suppose that they're fishing.  So has Abel simply obtained access to the best fishing grounds?  If so, reallocate them more fairly.  Has he devised some technique for making better fish-hooks or nets?  Then let him teach it to the others.  Does he have some innate talent at casting a line which can't be taught?  Then the islanders should fish together, Abel casting the lines and passing the fishing rods to the others to manage.

Yes, I know, Caplan doesn't concern himself with the details because he's making an analogy.  And so am I.

Oh, and let's not forget about Harry.  If the nine other islanders, with their new co-operative fishing techniques can produce enough food to feed ten, and if Harry is too infirm to assist them, then yes they should support him anyway.  Because not to do so would be inhuman.

Caplan's own analysis of the questions includes this remark, which he seems to think obvious:
Unjust treatment of the able may not be the greatest moral issue of our time...But unjust treatment of the able is a serious moral issue.
I am sympathetic to the libertarian argument that governments tend to interfere in things they'd do better to leave alone. But I find (right) libertarian thought otherwise highly uncongenial, and this observation of Caplan's may explain why. Because I simply can't see that there is any moral reason to reward ability in itself. There are moral reasons to reward work, and economic reasons to reward productivity (without attempting to discover what combination of ability and application may have given rise to it). But there is nothing in morality that tells us to reward accidents of birth or upbringing.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Trayvon Martin update

Several weeks ago I wrote about the death of Trayvon Martin, mainly in order to express my horror at a law that apparently permits one when in Florida to follow and eventually shoot dead an unarmed man engaged in no criminal act.

On 11th April, a special prosecutor, appointed in reaction to the public outrage at the case, charged the shooter George Zimmerman with second degree murder: he has been released on bail.  Before and since, more evidence has been made public, including photographs which make it clear that Zimmerman did sustain minor scalp wounds (scalp wounds bleed a lot and do not easily close).  One such photograph is now included in the wikipedia article, which is long and fairly balanced (read the Talk page for an insight into how wikipedia now handles articles on controversial subjects).

There is disagreement around the question of whether it was Martin or Zimmerman who started the physical confrontation that ended with Zimmerman shooting Martin.  It may be that Florida law permits one to follow an unarmed man and shoot him only if he turns and attacks you.  That would still not be a law I agree with.

Monday, 21 May 2012

NICE approves abiraterone

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has now approved NHS funding of abiraterone for the treatment of castration-resistant metastatic prostate cancer.

Back in February, when NICE announced its preliminary decision to withhold approval, I wrote
So why has NICE announced a preliminary decision to withhold approval? It must be to give Johnson & Johnson the chance to make its offer more attractive. Probably not by anything as crude as cutting the price, but by some mechanism such as providing the drug free to any patient remaining on it beyond a specified length of time.
And NICE now says
The cost of abiraterone is £2930 for 120 tablets (excluding VAT; British national formulary [BNF] 63, March 2012). Abiraterone is administered as a single dose of 1 g per day, taken as four 250-mg tablets.The manufacturer of abiraterone (Janssen) has agreed a patient access scheme with the Department of Health. This involves a single confidential discount applied to the list price of abiraterone...
So there you have it.  The headline price of the drug is unchanged, the actual price charged has been reduced, and everyone is happy, apart from any patients who didn't get the best treatment while this slow dance was being performed.


Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted for the Lockerbie bombing, died yesterday from metastatic prostate cancer, 33 months after he was released from prison on the grounds that his median life expectancy was less than 3 months.

First, my sympathies are with the victims of the bombing.

Second, I think it likely that al-Megrahi was not guilty as charged.  However, he does seem to have been an officer in Gaddafi's intelligence service: that's not in itself a crime but it does make it likely that his imprisonment was a sort of rough justice.

Third, the medical report supporting his release was poor.  All doctors' names are redacted in the published version, but it seems to have been written by Dr Andrew Fraser, chief medical officer for the Scottish Prison Service, who is not a cancer specialist.  And it seems that no expert in the treatment of advanced prostate cancer was involved in preparing the report.  (Karol Sikora, who is not such an expert, though he is an oncologist, was hired by the Libyan government to support al-Megrahi's release, and continued for some considerable time to agree with himself in the press.)  Unlike Dr Fraser, I consulted  a well-qualified expert (this was not long after al-Megrahi's release): she estimated his median life expectancy at two years.

Putting this all together, I suspect that the politicians responsible for the decision - Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, says that he's the one - also thought that al-Megrahi might well not be guilty, and found it expedient to commission a medical report supporting his release.  I do not accuse Fraser of acting dishonestly, but I do suggest that he was given the responsibility of writing the report because he was amenable to reaching the desired conclusion, and would not have to be dishonest in order to be wrong.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Penalty shoot-out

Watching the Champions League final tonight, I was struck by Petr Cech's performance in the penalty shout-out.  I've long thought that whereas it may be good strategy for a goalkeeper facing an expert penalty taker to guess to dive one way or another, the penalty takers in a shoot-out will usually not be so good at it, and it might be better to wait for the kick.  And that tonight is just what Cech appeared to do.  As he said immediately after the match:
Today I faced six penalties and six times I went the right way.
(He's including the penalty he saved, before the shoot-out.)  He's not explicit about it, but he doesn't say that he guessed the right way.  It seemed to me that he was diving as each penalty was struck rather than before: he failed to save the first penalty, by Philipp Lahm, despite its not being particularly well struck, and despite his getting a hand to it.  He saved the fourth penalty, by Ivica Olic.  The fifth penalty was taken by the experienced Bastian Schweinsteiger, who tried a stutter step in his run up in an attempt to see which way Cech would go: Cech foiled this by standing still until the kick was actually taken, with the result that he was able to get a slight touch on Schweinsteiger's kick, deflecting it against the post and winning the cup for Chelsea.  (Schweinsteiger's decision to adopt this tactic suggests either that I am wrong or that he is none too bright.)

I checked what Cech did in the shoot-out against Manchester United in the corresponding match four years ago: clearly he guesses each time, and dives much earlier than he did tonight.
Objectively it's not good for Russian mineral wealth to be used to buy trophies for teams from Fulham, nor is it good for football that the defensive tactics adopted by Chelsea in the semi-final and final succeeded, more by good luck than by brilliant execution.  But I can't help being pleased when an English team wins this event.