Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hacking the library

I'm working on a Python script to look up basic information about books using a Library of Congress call number. The purpose of this script is to make my life easier. What I'm wondering is if there is a simple database out there my script could rely on to turn the LC numbers into book data. The actual Library of Congress Online Catalog might work, but it seems very slow. In brief, what I need is a database that has the following characteristics:

  • It has to be relatively easy for my script to access. Straightforward HTTP requests, hopefully. The data has to arrive in a format that is easy to work with.
  • It has to be reliable. I'm going to be using it a lot, so it has to be online most of the time.
  • It has to be fast. As mentioned, the L of C's online catalog is probably too slow for my needs.
Oh yeah, and it has to be free, too. But there's got to be something out there, right? I was thinking maybe I should just use a college library's server to do my dirty work. BGSU's server is kind of clunky and the output it generates will be difficult for my script to process properly. At the end of the day, I may end up using it, but it would be nice to find something better.

I realize this post has nothing to do with politics or the law. Or philosophy. But I DO have other interests!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On the California gay marriage decision

Lots of people are talking about the decision of the Supreme Court of California to strike down a statewide ban on gay marriage. For a favorable assessment from a libertarian perspective, please check out this post from Kip Esquire's blog. For a typical, ham-fisted conservative reaction, Jeff Jacoby's op ed in the Boston Globe is illustrative.

Jacoby's piece provides three reasons for Californians to vote for a proposed constitutional amendment that would "override" the Court's decision. Here are the three reasons:

First, it's not the business of judges to make public policy.

This is the standard attack on so-called "activist judges", and, more broadly, on judicial review. But it is wrong to say that the judges in this case passed public policy. What they did was rule that an existing policy was inconsistent with California's state constitution. A constitution is, in some sense, a collection of policies, ones that are supposed to have authority over all the other policies the state passes. Rather than making policy, the court simply acknowledged the supremacy of existing policy -- the constitution itself.

"Reasonable men and women," Jacoby writes, "can disagree on whether same-sex unions should be granted legal recognition, or whether such recognition should rise to the level of marriage." But the question is whether the protections built into the California constitution already do mandate the legal recognition of same sex marriage. Perhaps reasonable people can disagree on that, too -- but that would require those reasonable people to actually engage the arguments the Court put forward.

Either restricting marriages to opposite sex partners violates the provisions of California's constitution, or it does not. The court ruled that the restriction is unconstitutional, as it is supposed to do. Contrary to Jacoby's position, the fact that the court did its job is no justification at all for voters in California to alter their constitution in the manner for which he is arguing.

Jacoby also makes the familiar claim that the same reasoning supporting the legal recognition of same sex marriages also probably supports the recognition of polygamous or incestuous unions. He might be right here. I think maybe, yeah, autonomy-based arguments for same sex marriage might also provide support at least to polygamous unions.

However, contrary Jacoby (and virtually every other conservative commentator) this fact does not represent a reductio ad absurdum of the autonomy-based arguments. We might end up accepting polygamy; on the other hand, there might be weighty reasons not to accept polygamy that weight against the value of people's autonomy. But I don't think those reasons apply to the case of same sex marriage.

Which brings us to Jacoby's third point. "Society has a vested interest in promoting only traditional marriage." As usual, society's interest in promoting heterosexual marriage has something to do with its interest in ensuring new citizens are produced. "The essential function of marriage is to unite male and female," he tells us. "That is the only kind of union that can produce new life, and therefore the only kind of union in which society has a survival stake."

For various reasons, I want to put the argument in schematic form. It goes something like this:

  1. Step 1: Society can only continue to exist if a significant number of its members reproduce. Call this the sufficient reproduction condition.
  2. Step 2: The institution of traditional, heterosexual only marriage, while not a necessary requirement of the sufficient reproduction condition, does facilitate its fulfillment. A society in which traditional marriage is practiced and widely endorsed will, other things equal, better meet the sufficient reproduction condition than it would otherwise.
  3. Step 3: So one function of traditional marriage is to ensure that the sufficient reproduction condition is met.
  4. Step 4: If marriage is not restricted to heterosexual couples, then, somehow, the institution will not be able to fulfill this function.
  5. Conclusion: thus, extending marriage to same sex couples threatens society by making it harder to meet the sufficient reproduction condition.
In a weak, nearly tautological sense, I think there's probably something to the sufficient reproduction condition. And let's throw conservatives a bone: it's probably not enough for a society to just produce a sufficient number of new people; the vast majority of those new people must be brought up under certain conditions, taught certain things, etc. if the society is to survive.

Maybe the institution of marriage is a way for society to better meet the sufficient reproduction condition. Still, the most significant flaw in the argument occurs in step 4. In order for step 4 to work, the proponent of the argument has to say something like the following: if marriage is extended to same sex unions, then heterosexuals will be less likely to marry (oh, and, for whatever reason, same sex couples will not be able to pick up their reproductive slack.)

This claim just seems obviously, incredibly false. Why would heterosexuals stop marrying each other just because gays can start marrying each other? It makes no sense.

But suppose that there is something to the claim: if gays can marry, heterosexuals will choose not to do so. So what? If the lack of heterosexual unions puts society in peril, then one would think the burden would be on heterosexuals to keep -- you know, uniting with each other. It's not like gay marriages make it impossible for heterosexuals to marry. The proper conclusion of Jacoby's argument is not what he thinks it is: instead, the right conclusion to draw is that heterosexuals have a duty, not only to marry, but to produce lots of kids.

In my next post, I plan to explain why libertarians should be fans of same sex marriage, and equal treatment under the law more generally. But that will have to wait for a while.