Wednesday, June 4, 2014


In Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). Justice Potter Stewart famously uttered:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
Character is another of these walk-like-a-duck, know-it-when-you-see-it  pieces of the human existence that, like "hard-core pornography" or "quality" is captivating enough to pen volumes on. A shoot-from-the-hip definition might say that character is comorbid with integrity, with Aristotelian virtue, with a pointed lack of boorishness. A person of character is pleasant and accommodating without being saccharine or obsequious. A person of character is kind and generous without being indulgent or profligate. A person of character is temperate but not so much to be boring. Recall Winston Wolfe: "just because you are a character doesn't mean you have character."

I know it when I see it. I also know griping about it when I hear it. And I hear griping pretty frequently from hard-nosed paternalists. Welfare destroys character, it breeds dependency, it saps the will and weakens the spirit. I also hear it from folks with more tender affectations: big box stores rob the community of its character, corporations are soulless husks.

I know it when I see it. The problem with common gripes about character-destroying activities is that most griping is speculative, biased, blinkered, or selective. Loud people make brash claims without carefully reviewing the evidence (or when they do review the evidence, they fail to note its often severe shortcomings). Transfer payments strip recipients of character? How do you know that? Immigration ruins the character of the adoptive nation? Prove it. Far-mode bald assertion is methodologically weak. For that matter, most observational econometric analysis is pretty weak too.

What isn't weak is clear opportunity cost. Organizing to forcibly prevent Wal-Mart from opening a store clearly strips potential customers the chance to vote against incumbent firms with their feet. Regulatory organizations employ inspectors who might be otherwise productively employed.

Law enforcement agencies lob grenades at toddlers. Because drugs sap character.

I know it when I see it. Maybe I'm being selective in my judgement too, but it's hard to imagine how justice is upheld when the many millions of tax dollars spent on narcotics interdiction end up with the harassment, imprisonment, and assault of otherwise unremarkable citizens to slake the tsking of moral scolds. Building character is a fine, euvoluntary, eudaimonic endeavor. Punishing hapless people for failure to ascend Maslow's pyramid scorches the earth we share. End the drug war now.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?