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The trade-off triangle (or: Culture wars explained) December 11, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Freedom, Politics.
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I think many of our worst political and social conflicts are caused by failures to recognize the trade-off between two values that are both important.

Let’s start with an easy example: the relationship between the efficiency and safety of our transportation systems. We naturally want our transportation systems to be both efficient and safe; and while it’s obviously possible to have a system that is both inefficient and unsafe, it’s less obvious that it’s not possible to have a system that is both maximally efficient and maximally safe. There’s a tension between the two: once we reach a certain level of efficiency and safety, further improvements to one will necessarily come at the expense of the other. Consider speed limits, for instance. We could doubtless save many lives by reducing all speed limits to 10 mph, but we don’t do so because of the intolerable loss of efficiency; conversely, we could save many lost hours by abolishing all speed limits, but we don’t do so because of the intolerable risk to safety.

Clearly we need some reasonable balance between efficiency and safety. One problem, however, is that as humans we tend to be biased by our own personal experiences (among other things), which can cause us to focus too much on one side of the equation at the expense of the other. If you have not had any firsthand exposure to traffic deaths and injuries, for instance, but you have experienced many annoying traffic regulations and delays, you might consider safety concerns overblown and advocate against onerous safety precautions in the name of increased efficiency. If that path is followed too far, however, traffic casualties will inevitably rise; and someone who loses a loved one as a result may come to demonize the pursuit of efficiency and advocate for increasing road safety at any cost. Finding (and maintaining) an optimal compromise is not easy, but if we want to make progress while avoiding the harmful extremes we must recognize that efficiency and safety are both important, and also understand that there is a trade-off between them, so that whenever we increase one we are mindful of the impact on the other. There is never going to be a silver bullet that maximizes both.

Transportation safety versus efficiency is really just a special case of a more general dilemma: how to build a civil society while maintaining individual freedom. In this context, “freedom” refers to an individual’s ability to express themselves, make their own choices, and pursue their own goals without interference; while “civility” refers to a society’s cohesiveness and inclusiveness, the extent to which it affords equal opportunities to all its members and treats them all with justice and compassion, leaving no one behind. Unfortunately, there is a tension between freedom and civility, as illustrated by this graph:

Freedom vs Civility

At the bottom left, we have no freedom or civility, which is the lowest humanity can sink: think Nazism. (This, I believe, is the explanation for Godwin’s law: all discussions that go on long enough end up with a comparison to Hitler.) Notice, however, that it’s not possible to achieve maximal freedom and maximal civility simultaneously: we cannot escape the trade-off triangle. A world with complete freedom is a world with no civil society at all: law of the jungle, dog eat dog, every man for himself, might makes right. On the other hand, attaining perfect civility would allow no freedom: it would require enforced orthodoxy, suppression of individuality, intolerance of criticism and dissent, groupthink — a benign dictatorship, a “Brave New World” dystopia.

Most everyone agrees in principle that both freedom and civility are important and that both extremes are bad, but I think our personal experiences and other biases can lead us to focus on one axis exclusively while ignoring the trade-off implications for the other. For example, someone whose current position in society is more secure, who belongs to a more privileged class, or who has had personal experience with authoritarianism, might tend to consider freedom all-important, and might too easily dismiss calls for more civility as whining and weakness. Whereas someone whose current position in society is less secure, who belongs to an underprivileged class, or who has had personal experience with a failed state, might tend to consider civility all-important, and might too easily dismiss calls for more freedom as greed and callousness.

It’s not my intention to suggest that there are no right or wrong answers to specific policy questions, or that the correct point of balance always lies at the exact center between the two extremes: as I’ve said, there are no silver bullets. And sometimes the person disagreeing with you actually does have bad intentions. But I think there are some principles we can adopt to help keep the conversation productive, and hopefully move us closer to the optimal part of the trade-off triangle:

Recognize that both freedom and civility are important; that more of one can sometimes mean less of the other; that we need voices on both sides to stop us from going too far in either direction. Don’t live in a bubble or an echo chamber, don’t automatically take the side of your preferred axis on every issue, don’t demonize the other side or dismiss their concerns out of hand. Try to understand the point-of-view of those who have had different life experiences than you.

And always remember that despite our differences, there’s one thing we can all proudly agree on: At least we’re not Nazis.

Nobody has a better right to speak in the name of the people November 6, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Politics.
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On January 30, 1937, Adolf Hitler gave a speech before the Reichstag, commemorating the four-year anniversary of his coming to power.

Surely nobody will doubt the fact that during the last four years a revolution of the most momentous character has passed like a storm over Germany. Who could compare this new Germany with that which existed on the 30th of January four years ago, when I took my oath of loyalty before the venerable President of the Reich? …

May we not speak of a revolution when the chaotic conditions brought about by parliamentary-democracy disappear in less than three months and a regime of order and discipline takes their place, and a new energy springs forth from a firmly welded unity and a comprehensive authoritative power such as Germany never before had? …

I myself, to whom the people have given their trust and who have been called to be their leader, come from the people. All the millions of German workers know that it is not a foreign dilettante or an international revolutionary apostle who is at the head of the Reich, but a German who has come from their own ranks…

The National Socialist Movement … refuses to allow the members of a foreign race to wield an influence over our political, intellectual, or cultural life. And we refuse to accord to the members of a foreign race any predominant position in our national economic system…

Confronted with this new and vigorous ideal, all idols and relics of the past which had been upheld by dynastic interests, tribal affiliations and even party interests, now began to lose their glamour. That is why the whole party system of former times completely collapsed in a few weeks, without giving rise to the feeling that something had been lost. They were superseded by a better ideal. A new movement took their place. A re-organization of our people into a national unit that includes all those whose labour is productive simply pushed aside the old organizations…

There could be no more eloquent proof of how profoundly the German people have understood the significance of this change and new development than the manner in which the nation sanctioned our regime at the polls on so many occasions during the years that followed. So, of all those who like to point again and again to the democratic form of government as the institution which is based on the universal will of the people, in contrast to dictatorships, nobody has a better right to speak in the name of the people than I have…

But the meaning and purpose of human organizations and of all human activities can be measured by asking what value they are for the maintenance of the race or people, which is the one existing element that must abide. The people — the race — is the primary thing. Party, State, Army, the national economic structure, Justice etc, all these are only secondary and accidental. They are only the means to the end and the end is the preservation of this nation. These public institutions are right and useful according to the measure in which their energies are directed towards this task. If they are incapable of fulfilling it, then their existence is harmful and they must either be reformed or removed and replaced by something better.

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Don’t let Scalia tell you there’s nothing wrong January 5, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Politics, Religion.
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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently graced some students in Louisiana with his learned opinions.

He told the audience at Archbishop Rummel High School that there is “no place” in the country’s constitutional traditions for the idea that the state must be neutral between religion and its absence.

“To tell you the truth there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition. Where did that come from?” he said. “To be sure, you can’t favor one denomination over another but can’t favor religion over non-religion?”

I wonder, what are Scalia’s criteria for a religion to be eligible for favored status? Would he include Scientologists? Satanists? Followers of Zeus and Ra? Is any belief too crazy, or is it sufficient to believe in something for which there is no evidence?

He also said there is “nothing wrong” with the idea of presidents and others invoking God in speeches. He said God has been good to America because Americans have honored him…

“God has been very good to us. That we won the revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways,” Scalia said.

“There is nothing wrong with that and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that,” he added.

I’m afraid there are several things wrong with that. If we actually look at the other countries of the world, we find that highly nonreligious societies like Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands rank higher than the U.S. on indexes like life expectancy and education; while the poorest countries tend to be the most religious. And you know who else believed they had God on their side? The Romans. And the Mayans. And the Egyptians. For a while, anyway.

It turns out that societies do better when they base their policies on reason and evidence rather than magical thinking and dogmatic adherence to tradition. After all, one person’s religion is just another’s superstition. Do we really want our leaders invoking the magical, and our laws favoring the superstitious? Even Scalia ought to be able to see what’s wrong with that.

(via Why Evolution is True)

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You know who you are March 5, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Politics, Science.
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You know who you are

Belief is like an orange, and other fables February 9, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Democracy, Religion.
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According to a recent study by the Guttman Center, 85 percent of haredim and 49 percent of religious Jews in Israel say they would follow halacha rather than the law or democratic values in case of a clash between the two. And yet, writing in Haaretz, Yair Sheleg of the Israel Democracy Institute insists that believing in God — as 84 percent of Jewish Israelis said they do — is not a problem:

It seems that many people consider this finding to be despairing testimony regarding the inability of Israelis to maintain a rational policy and/or democratic worldview.

Yet it is precisely this reaction that endangers the future of democratic and even rational discourse in Israel, much more than the actual belief in God. This is because anyone who relies on a rational outlook that is not just philosophical, but also considers the human reality with open eyes, immediately understands that those 84 percent are not expressing devotion to any orderly theological doctrine. Rather, they are expressing a psychological need for belief.

This is a need that began at the dawn of humanity, when man first began to recognize the power of forces over which he has no control and the chaotic potential they harness. From that moment on, man began to believe in a supreme power, and he developed the desire to believe there is order behind the chaos. What’s more, he developed a special desire to believe that it is within man’s ability to influence supreme powers through his deeds.

… belief is nearly a part of man’s nature — not his biological nature, but definitely his psychological nature.

It is Sheleg whose eyes are closed to reality. First of all, the claim that those Israelis who believe in God are generally not devoted to any “orderly theological doctrine” is ludicrous, and is contradicted by the Guttman Center’s findings: for example, 65 percent of Israeli Jews think Torah and mitzvot are a divine order, 67 percent think the Jews are the chosen people, and 51 percent believe in the coming of the Messiah.

Furthermore, the claim that belief in God is inescapably built into humans seems dubious when you consider countries like Norway and Sweden, where a majority of the population are nonbelievers. In any case, just because something is in our “psychological nature” doesn’t mean it is desirable. We know of many cognitive biases that reliably cause us to believe things that are wrong and to behave in ways that are counterproductive. That is why we must use the tools of science and reason to figure out what is actually true about our world. Sheleg just doesn’t get it:

Therefore, the key question is not whether to believe in God, but rather what the nature of God is: Is He an inclusive God, a merciful and compassionate God who takes all of mankind created “in his image” under his wing? Or is He an exclusive God, a jealous and vengeful God who demands of his believers that they fight anyone who is different from them and who is perceived as not fulfilling His commands?

Sheleg seems to think that we can just choose to believe in whatever we please. But shouldn’t we want to believe in whatever actually exists? The rational way to decide what gods to believe in, if any, is by examining the state of the evidence. And there is no good evidence for the existence of a creator God at all — much less a merciful and compassionate one.

That doesn’t stop Sheleg from concluding that there need be no conflict between believers and nonbelievers:

It’s like the famous fable about the coveted orange. Two antagonists engage in a bloody struggle over the orange, until finally it becomes clear that one needs the peel while the other needs the flesh. To that end, it is better for the secular person not to define themselves in terms of their decision to disavow religion, but rather in terms of their positive values.

Nice try, but Sheleg’s profound fable is not at all relevant to our situation — apples and oranges, you might say. The conflict between religion and democracy is not just a big misunderstanding: religious people are disproportionally resistant to democratic values, because of the things they believe about God. Their belief in magic books and invisible super-beings is what motivates many of our neighbors to oppose civil liberties and the rule of law. The solution is to replace superstitious, dogmatic thinking with rational, evidence-based thinking. It is dangerous to confuse fables with reality.

Voting like it’s 1938 November 5, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Game theory, Politics.
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It’s Election Day this week in the U.S., and in Cambridge we’ll be electing the City Council (nine members) and the School Committee (six). Cambridge uses a “Proportional Representation” voting method, which allows each voter to rank all of the candidates (instead of just picking a single favorite). The advantage of such a method is that in the event that your top candidate can’t use your vote — either because he got too few votes to be elected or because he has more votes than needed — the rest of your preferences can be taken into account for choosing among the remaining candidates.

For instance, under Cambridge’s system, a City Council candidate needs a tenth of the votes (plus one) to be elected; any votes he receives above that quota are called surplus, and surplus ballots are redistributed among the remaining candidates according to the next preference on each ballot. This is not as straightforward as it sounds, however: we need to decide which of a candidate’s ballots to transfer — and the manner in which we do so can influence the election’s result.

Cambridge uses the “Cincinnati Method” for surplus distribution, wherein the surplus ballots to be transferred from a candidate are drawn at regular intervals from the ordered sequence of all that candidate’s ballots. For example: if some candidate received 500 top-rank votes and only 400 votes are needed for election (i.e. he has a 100-vote surplus), every fifth one of the candidate’s ballots (in the order they were originally counted) — ballots 5, 10, 15, 20, etc. — will be selected for redistribution.

The disturbing aspect of the Cincinnati Method is its somewhat random nature, and the fact that its outcome is dependent on the order in which the ballots happen to be counted: if they’re counted in a different order, the election results could be different!

There are alternative methods for transferring surplus ballots. As explained by mathematician Robert Winters, the method that is generally adopted these days is known as “fractional transfer,” wherein a fraction of all of an elected candidate’s ballots are transferred to the candidates ranked next on those ballots. This method has the virtue of being completely independent of the order in which the ballots are counted, and it is actually the default method built in to the tabulation software used in Cambridge elections — Cambridge explicitly overrides the default option and instructs the software to use the Cincinnati Method instead!

Why does Cambridge insist on using a flawed method instead of switching to a better one? The answer is rather depressing.

Cambridge is […] in the position where we must abide by a 1938 law (Mass. General Laws, Chapter 54A) that restricts our methods for redistributing surplus ballots to systems that were in use somewhere in the United States at that time.

Ah, tradition: things should always be done the way they were done in the past. When will our elected officials get around to repealing this embarrassingly stupid law?

Crossing red lines February 11, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Freedom, Religion.
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The police have been questioning several rabbis who wrote or endorsed the book The King’s Torah, which purports to present the Jewish “Laws of Life and Death between Israel and the Nations”:

“The prohibition ‘Thou Shalt Not Murder’” applies only “to a Jew who kills a Jew,” … Non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and attacks on them “curb their evil inclination,” while babies and children of Israel’s enemies may be killed since “it is clear that they will grow to harm us.”

Many rabbis who condemn the book’s contents, are nevertheless enraged over the police investigation, claiming that it violates freedom of expression. Thousands of people have rallied in support of Rabbi Dov Lior (who endorsed the book) — a warrant for his arrest was issued after he refused to appear for questioning.

“If the state declares that rabbis are not allowed to voice a political opinion, it will be like in the Soviet Union, where there were commissars who said what was allowed and what was forbidden,” Lior said at the rally. “It is inconceivable that a little official in the Justice Ministry can say what rabbis are permitted to do.” …

[MK Michael Ben Ari] added: “Issuing an arrest warrant against a great Torah figure of such magnitude, when all this is about is the backing he gave to a book, is a crossing of a red line, McCarthyism … Would they have behaved this way against an academic of the left?”

Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, a settlement leader and former Knesset member, said the rally was to “protest the desecration of the soul of the State of Israel. Rabbis are the soul of the state. Their dignity must not be harmed.”

First of all, it is always nice to hear rabbis supporting freedom of expression, which is a modern, secular value — in the Bible, criticizing your leaders gets you killed. But the rabbis have apparently failed to understand another fundamental democratic principle: rule of law. Freedom of expression can rightfully be limited when it conflicts with other rights — as in cases of incitement to violence. And if the law has been broken, then no one deserves special allowances because of who he is, or because his motivation happened to be religious. If anything, since rabbis are community leaders whose words can have great impact, one would expect them to be held (and to hold themselves) to a higher standard.

We can only stand in awe at the hypocrisy of those who go ballistic over the slightest infringement of their own freedom or dignity, but care nothing for the rights of others (such as the right not to be discriminated against or killed just because of your nationality). One might almost think the Torah is not such a good source of moral guidance after all.

There’s no such thing as a Jewish democracy February 4, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Equality, Politics, Religion.
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Arye Carmon, Mordechai Kremnitzer and Yedidia Stern, of the Israel Democracy Institute, are rightfully worried about the state of Israeli democracy: there seems to have been a recent increase in discriminatory laws, incitement to violence, racist rhetoric, etc.

The above phenomena are related to the ongoing struggle over Israel’s dual identity as a Jewish and democratic state, which has been under attack for years … The main source of energy that is feeding this attack is a distorted interpretation of the Jewish character of the state, which pits Israel’s Jewish character against its democratic principles…

Another aspect of the attack on democracy has its origins in religious beliefs… A number of Rabbis have challenged the validity of Knesset decisions, while others are pressing impressionable youth to disobey military commanders. The infamous “Rabbis’ Letter,” which prohibits the rental of property in Israel to non-Jews, has tried to make use of religious values to prevent equal rights for Arab citizens. At the most extreme fringe, we have witnessed systematic distortions of the Torah that permit violence and bloodshed aimed at non-Jews.

The Zionist Israeli center—religious and secular alike—must take responsibility for the Jewish character of the state and not leave this task in the hands of radicals who are not committed to democracy.  It must fight for the humanistic interpretations of Jewish sources in order to develop a nation state that respects the “Other” and treats those who are different in the classical Jewish spirit, following the precepts “and you shall love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19) and “the stranger will be like a citizen” (Leviticus 24:22).

I agree that Israeli democracy is in trouble, and I support some of the political reforms proposed by Carmon et al.; but I think they are confused about the root of the problem — and hence about the solution we should be aiming for. This confusion is illustrated by their appeal to “the classical Jewish spirit,” supported by Biblical quotations — while it is a plain fact that for every Bible verse which seems to promote tolerance and coexistence, there are ten verses (at least) that promote xenophobia, intolerance, discrimination and racism. Anyone who thinks that legitimizing “violence and bloodshed aimed at non-Jews” requires “systematic distortions of the Torah” has not read it. So if we want a liberal democracy, sending people to Jewish sources for inspiration is not a good idea.

The deeper issue is that quoting scripture in this way legitimizes appeals to tradition and authority, when we should be stressing the opposite: just because something is in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s right. We need to talk clearly about why we don’t want to live in the type of society recommended by Jewish scripture. All positions on public matters ought to be rationally defended, and we can then keep the good ideas (even if they are foreign to Judaism) and get rid of the bad ones (even if they are ancient Jewish traditions). What we need is not “humanistic interpretations of Jewish sources;” we need to argue the merits of humanism — and equality, and liberty, and rule of law, etc. — without anchoring ourselves to traditions that reject these values.

What Israel most desperately needs is complete separation between religion and the state. The government must not be allowed to pass any law privileging one religion over another, or privileging religion over non-religion. Tax money should not be used to support religious institutions. The government must not be in the business of determining a person’s religion or adjudicating religious questions. Such actions are inherently discriminatory, and they are the source of many of our never-ending political problems. For example, it is simply intolerable that two Israeli citizens who wish to marry cannot do so if they are of different religions (as determined by the state), or if they do not wish to go through certain religious rituals.

The only sense in which Israel can legitimately be a “Jewish state” is in an unofficial sense: Israel is a state with a Jewish majority, and this fact has obvious (and legitimate) implications on its culture. But a state with an officially privileged religion cannot be fully democratic. Jews immigrated to Israel to avoid discrimination in their homelands; but by officially designating Israel a Jewish state, we become guilty of discrimination ourselves.

Stupidity below and love of power above October 20, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Education, Politics.
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Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter, and I often wonder if this will ever cease to be the case. After all, if we look around us, the organizations that are most innovative and efficient, that are best at encouraging excellence and learning from mistakes, are not run democratically. Steve Jobs doesn’t need a majority of his company’s employees (or of his customers) to approve his every strategy. Generally, the greater the number of people who participate in making a decision, the worse the decision will be. (It is said that a camel is a horse designed by committee.)

Of course, this is all fine so long as Steve Jobs doesn’t have the power to put anyone in jail, levy taxes, or declare war. We have learned the hard way how important it is to limit the power given to any individual. The problem is that our system of government seems to mostly produce politicians whose main (if not only) skill is getting people to vote for them. And sadly, this is still most easily accomplished by appeals to emotion (especially fear), rather than by rational argument. Moreover, politicians have an interest in perpetuating whatever state of affairs will cause people to continue voting for them.

In “Freedom and the Colleges,” Bertrand Russell claims to have no doubt that democracy is the best form of government, and yet:

There is perhaps a special danger in democratic abuses of power — namely, that being collective they are stimulated by mob hysteria. The man who has the art of arousing the witch-hunting instincts of the mob has a quite peculiar power for evil in a democracy where the habit of the exercise of power by the majority has produced that intoxication and impulse to tyranny which the exercise of authority almost invariably produces sooner or later. Against this danger the chief protection is a sound education designed to combat the tendency to irrational eruptions of collective hate. Such an education the bulk of university teachers desire to give, but their masters in the plutocracy and the hierarchy make it as difficult as possible for them to carry out this task effectively. For it is to the irrational passions of the mass that these men owe their power, and they know that they would fall if the power of rational thinking became common. Thus the interlocking power of stupidity below and love of power above paralyzes the efforts of rational men. Only through a greater measure of academic freedom than has yet been achieved in the public educational institutions of this country can this evil be averted.

We need our educational system to produce a population that is rational enough and critical enough and well-enough informed, so that politicians will leave a five-minute conversation with the average voter feeling neither smug nor depressed, but challenged.

There is perhaps a special danger in democratic abuses of power-namely, that being collective they are stimulated by mob hysteria. The man who has the art of arousing the witch-hunting instincts of the mob has a quite peculiar power for evil in a democracy where the habit of the exercise of power by the majority has produced that intoxication and impulse to tyranny which the exercise of authority almost invariably produces sooner or later. Against this danger the chief protection is a sound education designed to combat the tendency to irrational eruptions of collective hate. Such an education the bulk of university teachers desire to give, but their masters in the plutocracy and the hierarchy make it as difficult as possible for-them. to carry out this task effectively. For it is to the irrational passions of the mass that these men owe their power, and they know that they would fall if the power of rational thinking became common. Thus the interlocking power of stupidity below and love of power above paralyzes the efforts of rational men. Only through a greater measure of academic freedom than has yet been achieved in the public educational institutions of this country can this evil be averted.

Imposing ignorance October 8, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Education.
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Under the headline “Coercive imposition of Western culture,” Yitzhak Levy, a former education minister of Israel, criticizes the attempt by “academics, public figures and the courts” to enforce the study of “core curriculum” subjects in state-funded schools (including Haredi schools):

The country’s “Western elite” has decided that in order to earn a living and compete in the labor market, 10- to 18-year-olds should study mathematics and English. Many believe this to be a self-evident truth. However, it can be shown to be untrue on several grounds.

The first, and most important, argument is that there is no need to study mathematics and English for eight years in order to gain mastery of these subjects in a way that opens the door to various types of jobs, even in high tech. Private institutions that prepare students for matriculation exams, as well as pre-academic courses in higher education institutions, have proven that one can attain a high level on matriculation exams in these two subjects as a result of studies that last a year or two, and are undertaken at any stage of a person’s life. Since this is the case, why should studies in these two areas be forced upon those who are not interested in them for such a lengthy period?

First of all, notice that in that last sentence Levy conflates parents and their children as if they were a single person. It is Haredi parents who are not interested in having English and math taught to their children. Levy is not suggesting that we let children decide for themselves what they want to study. (Can a kid in a Haredi school decide that he is not interested in studying Bible or halacha?) There are indeed many things we do not allow children to decide for themselves, and parents are usually those responsible for protecting the interests of their children — but the rest of us have the right and the obligation to make sure parents are not abusing their power and harming their children, physically or mentally.

Now, even if it’s true that some 18-year-olds can acquire a complete math and English education in a 2-year program, there are certainly many who have neither the opportunity nor the capability to do so. In the best case, such a person faces enormous barriers and is starting out from a severely disadvantaged position. The fact is that close to 70 percent of Haredi men do not work, and education is surely a big part of the problem.

In any case, though, Levy misses the main point of education. Being able to get a job is important, but it is not the most important thing in life and it is not the most important function of schools. Until our children are mature and informed enough to choose their own goals in life, we have an obligation to give them the best available knowledge and the best known tools for learning and thinking. We don’t study math just so we’ll be able to make change at the supermarket, but in order to develop abstract and logical thinking and give us the tools necessary for further learning (mathematics is “the language of science”).

We live in a democracy, where the power belongs to the people, but democracy depends on an informed citizenry. Imposing 18 years of ignorance on a child cannot be excused by the fact that afterward he will theoretically be free to learn whatever he wants by himself. By age 18, a person’s interests, learning habits and worldview are largely solidified. An 18-year-old who’s never had a history lesson in his life could theoretically go read a history book on his own, but does that excuse us from teaching all our children about World War II and the Holocaust (for example)?

Levy’s attempt to frame the issue as “trying to impose Western culture on Jewish culture” is especially ludicrous. Like it or not, English is essential nowadays for virtually all knowledge-based enterprises — the majority of scientific papers are published in English, and it is the most popular language on the World Wide Web, to name just two examples. And how exactly is mathematics “Western?” There is only the math that works, and Levy relies on it every time he uses an airplane or an elevator. Does Judaism offer its own alternative biology and astronomy and medicine? Well, actually, it does — but they’re wrong. If Levy got leprosy, would he go to a Western-educated doctor or to a priest? Is the idea that the Earth orbits the sun a Western imposition on traditional Jewish geocentrism? Whatever is actually true about the world is independent of culture and nationality.

While democracy depends on an informed citizenry, religious indoctrination depends on ignorance. A broad education is intended to empower children and ensure that every option is open to them, so they will be free to choose their own life. Haredi parents, however, are bent on forcing their own belief system and way of life on their children by cutting off all other options. I do think that every child, certainly in Israel, should learn about the basics of Judaism, and parents who wish to can supplement extra Jewish studies. But no parent has the right to disable his child by imposing ignorance.