Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On Morally Relative Moral Analysis: A Libertarian Disconnect

There are threads being pulled in the context of many national discussions lately that all, troublingly, seem to lead back to the same bare argumentative spool. The argument is one that leads to a moral judgment in favor of, and sometimes absolving, an individual or group engaged in conflict. It goes something like this:

"X has been MORE moral than Y, therefore X's actions are morally just."

This strikes me as being morally obtuse, and even surprisingly so. It's surprising in that it ignores our most basic notions of morality, and yet undoubtedly it implies the use of a tiered moral analysis to arrive at such a conclusion - the person must FIRST make a moral assessment given the existing circumstances; and then once said assessment reveals a party to be relatively moral in their actions, then the initial assessment is abandoned. I could only describe it as a kind of moral meta-judgment.

One of the news-worthy events for which this kind of moral reasoning has been pervasive is Israel's recent actions towards Gaza. Defenders of the IDF have, of course, engaged in all kinds of broad arguments spanning from historical to religious contexts. But when it comes down to morally justifying any particular action, and specifically ones that have irrevocably diminished the lives of innocents, this aforementioned line of argumentation is prevalent. The moral claims are many, "Well, they try to pin-point strikes...they telegraph their punches far ahead of time...they've acted with incredible restraint...they're dealing with terrorists...their enemies use human shields...their enemies kill the innocent...their enemies are on a religious crusade."

Now, on their own, many or most of these claims can be (and probably are) true to some extent. And so, ignoring deeper arguments about the way in which the IDF is constituted, we could then claim that they may in fact be acting more morally than their enemies. But it still does not follow that their actions are just, only that their actions are relatively just.

Supporters of the relatively just seem to want to say that the impetus of what would otherwise be seen as immoral acts falls upon the relatively unjust. But it's not immediately clear by what kind of moral reasoning such a transference is possible. Any ethical framework of rights that validates the enforcement of others' obligations to respect your own life must surely bind you to respect the lives of others as well - even if, in many cases, it would prevent you from sufficiently enforcing the obligations of others towards you.

Say, for instance, that an armed man is attacking you from a distance. He has surrounded himself with innocent hostages. You are in possession of a firearm, but are not in a position to return fire without predictably harming or killing innocents. What can we say about this situation? Well, if we believe in some reasonable right to self-defense, we can conclude that you are within your rights to bring force against your attacker to stop him. On the other hand, adopting that conception of rights also places an obligation upon you to not take the lives of the innocents involved if at all possible. That obligation may not be ultimately indefeasible, but the presumption is at least very strong.

You fire at the attacker, taking the life of a hostage before bringing his attacks to a point of cessation. What can we say now? It's probably reasonable to conclude that your actions are at least relatively just when squared against those of the attacker. But were your actions, ultimately, morally just? If our obligations to respect the rights of others are fairly weak, then perhaps so. Although, it would seem that watering down our obligations to respect the lives of others would, conversely, reduce the paramountcy of the right to forcefully defend your own life. On the other hand, if those obligations aren't so easily defeasible, we may be left with the conclusion that both acts were unjust, and simply one less so than the other.

The move the defender of the relatively just seems to want to make here is to claim that the relatively unjust is at fault for the incident and, so, is morally responsible for the actions of both parties. In this claim, the defender of the relatively just would be both partially correct and partially incorrect. There is little doubt that it is the initial aggressor who is at "fault" - namely for setting the whole chain of events in motion. It is partially for this reason that he is likely to be relatively unjust. But it doesn't necessarily follow that the relatively unjust is wholly responsible, in a moral sense, for all of the choices of various other agents that interject further down the causal chain. In fact, it doesn't even necessarily follow that the party who initiated this particular causal chain of events will even end up being the relatively unjust party. Think, for example, of someone who firebombs a city in order to stop a murderer who resides there. Surely such a reaction is dreadfully more unjust than the unjust acts that preceded it, and surely it's our obligation to respect the lives of innocents that would lead us to the moral intuition that such an act would be morally unjustifiable.

It's that particular moral outlook that I find to be in concordance with so much of what I embrace in the libertarian ethic. So you can imagine my surprise as I've watched so many prominent libertarians, who had staunchly defended and used that kind of moral reasoning to decry the U.S. government's killing of innocents in its foreign entanglements, leap to the defense of Israel and the actions taken in its own quest for "defense." It's something that's been very hard to reconcile. The same arguments that neo-conservatives and various other nationalists have been using for decades to absolve themselves of moral responsibility for their actions are now being employed by many of the same people who fought them so vigorously. Here there is a disconnect.

With so many points of intersectionality within one's own identity, it's hard to say precisely what would lead the same person to completely different moral conclusions regarding circumstances that are so morally similar. But, then again, it's something that any proselytizing libertarian is all too familiar with. It's why, for all we have in common, libertarians are so ironically factionalized - our communal commitment to consistency. We are tribal only to the extent that we trust no tribe. Moral consistency is our ideal. Reason is our currency. That doesn't mean we will always arrive at the same conclusions. But it does, and should, mean that those conclusions are always up for debate, and that our opinions are always up for correction and improvement.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Thick and Thin - Out of the Abyss

It's no secret that, as of the last several months, one sort of libertarian in-fight has risen to prominence within the heart of the movement; the battle over thick and thin conceptions of libertarianism. For the uninitiated, it's an argument about whether sets of values outside of the N.A.P. (Non-Aggression Principle) set are needed for, expected of, or implied by libertarianism as a school of thought. Admittedly, I myself was very skeptical of so-called "thick" conceptions of libertarianism. It seemed to me that the bundling of additional values with the N.A.P. could act as a wedge that could hold open a door for physical coercion.

That being said, I now think that not only have thicker conceptions of liberty (particularly of the left/eudaimonia variety) introduced incredibly valuable insights for the movement, but they actually provide much stronger, and more philosophically grounded, arguments for a very radical kind of libertarianism that its detractors aim to preserve. But what I wish to focus on here is not the many justifications for thick conceptions of libertarianism, but rather the reaction and behavior of many of its opponents which I find somewhat troubling. Here I will outline three particular categories of reaction that I see often enough to give one pause.

A. Bluster

This, of the three categories I'm outlining, is what most of what bothers me would fall under. And the subsequent categories could almost qualify as sub-categories to this one. These would be your emotional and irrational non-sequiturs. Often in a facetious, mocking tone, someone will reply to the notion of "thickism" with hyperbole and ad hominem.

"Well, I'd totally be on board with the 'thicks' but, you know, I'm not a commie."

These responses are completely devoid of substantive arguments. And, even explicitly prompting for arguments, you'll find yourself being given more of the same emotional reaction that you got previously. Moreover, they often seem confused that you don't believe refrains of "Commie!" and "Libtard!" to be actual arguments. This type of behavior has been insipidly pervasive throughout the thick/thin debate.

B. Character Assassination

Another form of argumentation (if we can call it that) is a slightly evolved version of the first which substitutes ludicrous, general assertions for more specific, and yet unrelated ones. Instead of grappling with the propositions themselves, some detractors pick out particular proponents of said propositions and attempt to refute those propositions by smearing the person behind them. And by merely knocking down certain people behind the ideas, they believe themselves to somehow be knocking down the ideas themselves. Of course, this is not how philosophical arguments work.

But, of course, this is only a side-step outside of the first behavior, improving little upon it. Instead of simply refuting ideas by claiming their proponents to be "communists", they can at least appear to have a formidable argument by providing evidence of their opponent's heterodoxy in some unrelated capacity. But this is merely another link in the chain. Calling out someone's heterodoxical parlay in one area or another is not enough to dismiss their idea(s), even if the divergence lies at the point of the subject that's currently being broached. The assertion collapses into an argument from authority/antiquity.

C. There is No Spoon

The third type of behavior is perhaps the oddest one. In this situation an interlocutor will claim victory in an argument by simply claiming that there is no argument to be had. This line of thinking goes something like:

"Thin libertarianism is the only libertarianism because libertarianism itself is thin. Of course you have other values, but they aren't related to your politics. You're just a libertarian."

But this is, I think pretty obviously, begging the question. It would be like Catholics arguing against Protestants by appealing to the idea that what it means to be Christian is simply to say that you're Catholic. Well, if you're Catholic, maybe that kind of defense makes sense to you. But Protestants believe themselves to have substantially different beliefs about certain aspects of Christianity; from its justifications, to its content, to its applications.

Now, for obvious reasons, you may wish to define out the "non-Catholic" parts as not being Christian anymore, but rather something else. But that would seem like a fairly peculiar way to look at things. If a deviant group has not truly deviated in any meaningful way, then what is the argument over? It would seem that simple engagement in an argument over the orthodoxy of this or that would entail at least, well, differing views on what should or should not be orthodox.


I've brought these things up because they are things I have seen repeatedly, over and over again, in various discussions over the last few months, and that is disconcerting. It's disconcerting because it's behavior that's unbecoming for libertarians. It's disconcerting because if we want to show the reasonableness of our political conclusions, we have to be able to appropriately illustrate the reasonableness of the concepts that underlie them. And, perhaps more personally, it's disconcerting because I've been the type of person who used to have those kinds of reactions.

I remember holding a standard neo-conservative political position. I remember the bristle and bluster I would exemplify when someone made arguments (good or bad) against my views. And, more importantly, I remember that among the monstrous sea of dissenting voices, it was those that exemplified reason and understanding that finally pulled me out of that abysmal place. And, like so many others, that was just the beginning for me. Person by person, like a chain, I was pulled by reasonable people to a reasonable place. I cannot over-stress this point.

So when I see libertarians, and particularly those of radical stripes, gnashing their teeth and substituting emotion for reason, what I see are shipwrecked friends leaving the beach and heading right back into the crashing waves. And I know that place. I know the chaos and destruction of it. I know what little good comes from it. And I know that perhaps the only thing more distressing than seeing the people still drowning in those waters is seeing survivors go back in and swim among the bodies with reckless abandon. We help no one by doing that. We need to return to higher ground.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Surfing and Diffusion of Power

A common and fundamental disagreement at the heart of a good part of American political discourse revolves around the nominal balance of power between the individual states and the federal government they constitute. Of course, the disagreements are not always expressed explicitly in these terms, but it is nonetheless integral to even the most base discourse. Should the greatest power be held by federal government, or spread among the states? I'd like to explore and confer my thoughts on this.

It's most common for modern conservatives to fall on the side of "states' rights" (at least nominally); that being that the balance of power should fall away from the federal government and into the arms of the individual states. The reasoning for this, as far as reasoning for something as bad as governments go, is a generally good one. It relies on the liberal insight that giving governing bodies power is dangerous, and that, if we must have them, their power should be divided as to pit government(s) against itself. It's not all that different than the rationale for divided powers among, say, the federal government itself.

And even beyond that (the self-juxtaposition of government power), there are also geo-political implications for power being spread out across multiple geographic entities. It leaves us with something that is more (albeit still only partially) analogous to market-competition. It's, at least in theory, easier to escape the despotism of one state by fleeing nearby to another. The prospect of escaping from underneath the thumb of an oppressive federal government seems a little less rosy.

So, this is the general idea. And I happen to think it's correct for the most part, but there is a good deal of opposition to it as well. Detractors will (and often do) claim that giving the individual states too much power will result in bad outcomes. It will allow the states, they say, to run roughshod over peoples' rights, and without a strong central government to provide correction, there will be terrible consequences. Well, do our detractors have a point?

If you think that their concerns are unfounded, they will be glad to point you to America's own history. There are certainly terrible things that states have done in the past to which the federal government justifiably put a stop to. Our history of slavery and the lingering oppression of racism seem to speak to that, do they not? After all, without the federal government, for how much longer would slavery have continued - particularly in the deep south? How much longer would have been acceptable?

I think those are serious questions and reservations; ones that honestly are not always responded to in the best way. So while I'm not going to offer any rhetorical support of individual state governance in itself (secession should end at the individual), let me at least offer my thoughts on why diffusion of power is still very important.

The criticism I want to make is that many of us have a very thin view of history. We have a view that is often, at best, cursory - a jumble of names and dates garnered from textbooks we didn't particularly enjoy reading in our youth. I think what we really get is a kind of contextless goop...and I mean this even in a post New-Left world. It's very easy to segment history in a way that we tend to pick and choose what we get out of it. And given the common progressive historical refrain regarding the justification for centralized power, a more complete understanding of historical implication is important.

Let's take the example of slavery, which is a pretty common example brought up in the course of justifying federal power. Now, it's true enough that, at certain points, the federal government stepped in and stopped certain states from upholding governing practices which were clearly wrong. But that is just a small slice of a more robust historical progression - a snapshot in time. The truth, of course, is that for the federal government to have had the democratic weight it would have taken to allow for such a thing, a cultural plurality of support must have already existed. And yet, it hadn't always existed either. So what are the implications of that?

Well, at some point slavery was generally accepted in the United States (even though there were, of course, many detractors as well). Throughout the 19th century, a cultural shift in the direction of abolition begin to swell - particularly among a few states in the north. These were the first governments in the Union to enact pro-abolitionist reform. And it was this period that stands as a historical inverse to the periods for which supporters of strong centralized government lend support.

This was a time before such sentiments flourished in any kind of meaningful demographic sense. States with strong anti-slave laws were, at the time, very out-of-step with the rest of the country. It's a time when the reins of centralized government were in the hands not of abolitionists, but of those who supported slavery. And because of that the whole of the country was burdened by deplorable laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act(s), which ostensibly forced anti-slave states to do the bidding of slaveholders by returning to them their refuged "property".

This isn't something that usually comes up in discussions about the balance of state power. And, quite frankly, that is just baffling considering the modern implications that are still in front of us right now. Right now there are states out there on the forefront of drug decriminalization and/or legalization. But, as far as I can tell, the D.E.A. is still busting down doors in no-knock raids and dragging people into cages on the daily (at record rates, no less). Or how about states that are opening up to gay marriage? Do supporters of centralized government imagine them to have the power to bar these states from doing such? What do they have to say about D.O.M.A.-type legislation?

The point of all this isn't to excuse the abuses of power perpetrated by individual states. They abound, and by my count they are no more or less wrong than the abuses of larger governments. The fundamental difference is that we've ostensibly limited the geographic scope of these particular governments a bit more. It's not a guarantee against corruption, it's just a backstop that arguably makes those instances easier to handle.

The argument for diffusion of government power is, at the very least, not completely insane. But, I think the larger point is that we need to kind of expand the context around the points in history we tend to focus on in our justifications. We tend to think that political movement and action is only present at the crest of that particular wave; that what happens between them is not important. But, in fact, it's all of what happens in between that leads to the crest in the first place. And so it goes too with history and politics. If we imagine ourselves competent enough to navigate those waves, we have to understand them in their entirety.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Limits of My World

I'm pretty disheartened to hear about the legal push-back against 23andme, a company that apparently offers incredibly accessible genetic testing/mapping. Regulators seem to have their eyes fixed on pulling them through the FDA wormhole. That it's going down in the way that it is isn't particularly surprising. What I find particularly unfortunate are the barbs being thrown by the government's supporters.

Putting aside arguments over the company's legal pragmatism or lack there-of in the run-up to this fight, there's something that I find increasingly despotic about the line of reasoning which constantly begs to save us from ourselves. Now, I don't want unsafe foods or unsafe drugs. Hell, I'm not particularly excited even by the thought of an unsafe refrigerator or toaster for that matter. And so I believe that third party review and verification is something that most consumers might kind of dig. But it's hard not to call into question these monolithic hierarchies of control and protocol; the alphabet soup of agencies that seemingly hold an increasing number of keys to an increasing number of locked doors. What are we to make of this predicament?

Well, I could choose to lay into the rather flaccid and unimpressive track record of these entities. How many countless people have been killed by how many countless consumables (or combinations thereof) thought to be safe by these agencies? And, maybe even worse, how many people are dying every single year because "unverified" consumables are out of their very terminal reach? I suppose I could even go into the ins and outs of exactly why monopolistic social structures of all kinds lead to inevitably poor outcomes for those who rely on them, but it's a point I find myself very tired of repeating.

What holds out as more interesting to me is the absolute pervasiveness of paternalism among the supporters of such regulatory schemes. Even stepping back from the specifics of this particular instance, it seems clear to me that we've almost completely accepted a sphere of permissiveness around our lives; that we've traded in any meaningful sense of autonomy or equality for what seems to be a woefully misguided sense of security and safety. Gone appear to be the days of a deeper sense of personal responsibility to ourselves and to others. We've managed to contract virtue itself out of our hands.

And at the barren heights of our conceived cleverness, what have we got to show for it? We steal in the name of charity. We war in the name of peace. We deprive in the name of security. Oh, how deeply conflicted we've become.

And so here I sit listening to countless people ridicule the defenders of freedom:

"Oh, well, I don't know about you, but I don't really miss the 'freedom' to buy unsafe, untested products. Are we really expected to believe that you'll be losing out because you can't buy snake oil?"


I do expect that of you.

I want the freedom to have any individual or group analyze my genetic make-up. I want the freedom to go to a church down the street that will lead me into believing in a false god. I want the freedom to be convinced by a blogger to start eating a steady diet of lard to improve my health. I want the freedom to engage in acupuncture therapy to cure my terminal illness. I want the freedom to buy a lighter so that I can bundle up my life-savings, in cash, and set it on fire. I want the freedom to go buy a gallon of bleach and then drink it. I want the freedom to get my 401k investment advice from a fortune teller. I want the freedom to move into some guy's compound and throw on some black clothes, dawn some Nike's, and drink shitty Kool-Aid in hopes of catching a UFO that's hiding behind a passing comet.

Sooner or later you and I are going to have to come to grips with the fact that freedom, in any amount, entails potential harm - both to ourselves and to others. And we have to realize that these ever-shifting proscriptive legal lines that we draw are ultimately arbitrary. Any and all freedoms that we enjoy, down to and including indulgence in the sacred religious texts we hold so dear (the Bible, etc.) can inform us in ways that are benign, malign, and all shades in between. The only way to make us truly safe from one another is to affect a world of individual isolation and complete arrest.

It's not clear to me that the supporters of far-reaching governmental oversight support such a vision of the future. So, then, I'm compelled to ask just what point one imagines such a reach to actually end at? It seems to me that many more people's live are entirely shifted (and often not for the better) by the common rhetoric of the priestly and metaphysical caste than by some arbitrary company providing a preliminary mapping of genetic markers for people. And yet the latter seems to be so much more obviously fit for our scorn and regulatory least according to the more vocal of us. So why is it so? Why impede and intervene upon something so seemingly innocuous while stopping miles short of the kind of social coercion that has a fairly clear track record of ruining so many lives? I should expect a relatively sound explanation for what seems to be so arbitrary of a distinction. And yet I don't think I'll find a satisfactory one. I think it should give us all a bit of pause.

Doubling Down on Prejudice

Over the years my position on free speech and its collision with political correctness has evolved fairly drastically. While I can say that I've held fairly steadfast to an absolutist conception of free speech, my views on reactionary speech and political correctness have more drastically shifted; moving from an almost complete excoriation of political correctness to a much wider embrace of it...and finally to something somewhat in between. I no longer see the contention between freedom of speech and our general duties of beneficence towards one another that I used to. And so I still hold sympathies on both sides of what seems like a common political schism.

All of that being said, there's an argument that I have heard one too many times lately (from defenders of free speech) that seems to not only ring hollow, but actually self-incriminating as well. It's an argument that gets pulled up when talking about the "correctness" (political or otherwise) of using what may be commonly seen as a prejudicial slur to excoriate (or even joke with) other people for whom the term would not literally apply. A common example would be a group of men who ridicule someone within the group for "chickening out" on something by calling them "gay". Obviously, many in the homosexual community would find that kind of behavior pretty offensive. What's almost just as offensive is this argument that I've seen people use to defend it.

The argument goes something like this:

"Well is it really that offensive? I mean, think about it. I'm not actually calling him gay. I'm just using it because that's what you say when you want to annoy someone."

Surprisingly enough, this line of argument is bought by a pretty large swath of people. And they seem fairly unaware of how they are clearly doubling down on the initial mistake. Let me flesh out that response by re-wording it, just to see if the issue can be teased out by those who might not see it:

"Oh, come on, I'm not really insulting him. I'm not saying he's actually gay. I mean, if I was, then that would really be an insult. But I'm not doing that."

It's really amazing how many people I've heard try to torpedo themselves into the clear by anchoring themselves to that line of thought. For anyone who is still unclear on the issue at hand, the error is not in the false identification of someone as being gay, but in the false identification of being gay as being something lesser. Chances are that if you're missing this finer point, you're probably missing the point of the argument against prejudiced terminology more generally.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Questions for Free-Market Moralists

Amia Srinivasan recently posed some tough questions to libertarians who like to moralize their support for free markets. The rest of her article aside, I thought I would give a quick but modest rebuttal to some of these questions (rebuttals which I might expand more on at a later date) ...

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

The answer to this question depends largely on what sense the word "free" is being applied. It is a word that is stretched over many uses, and there is a certain kind of ambiguity on which part of the question, as well as the author's overall point, relies on. There is a particular sense (1) of freedom (I'll call it the "political" sense) in which it implies the obligations that other people have to not compel you by force. This is the sense of the word that most libertarians employ (social, physical). But, of course, individuals can be compelled in other ways. I think, broadly, there are two additional categories to consider.

One other way (2) in which human beings are compelled is by suppressing each other in non-violent ways (social, non-physical). Verbal bullying, harassment, irrational hatred, derision, bigotry, extortion; these are ways in which individuals can be pushed around or coerced in non-physical ways. Admittedly, many libertarians acquiesce to this point of contention, embracing the heartless caricature being drawn before them. But one need not be this kind of libertarian to carry the mantle. In fact, many libertarians have fairly thick conceptions of ethical/moral obligations...conceptions that entail being thoroughly opposed to these kinds of coercion as well.

However, while they may recognize that such obligations exist, they may not believe them to be enforceable. There is a bevy of reasons for this (which I will not untangle at length here). One of the primary reasons is that physical impositions upon people in the aim of forcing them to abandon such behaviors would necessarily come at the cost of sacrificing freedom in the first established sense of the word. One could make the argument that the second sense of freedom is in some way more important or more primary than the first. But many libertarians would find this incoherent, as the whole justification for condemning such treatment of people as "bad" is thoroughly grounded in our right to self-ownership and "equality of authority." One may attack the prior convention, but not without sweeping the legs out from underneath the second.

The final way (3) in which people might be compelled is by their own material circumstances. Being biological organisms, humans must take action to continue living. When gasping, they must breathe. When thirsty, they must drink. When hungry, they must eat. We must consume, manipulate, and adapt to parts of our environment in order to continue living. If nothing else, surely most can agree on this. And so, in a very real sense (arguably stronger than the other two senses), we are not free from our naturally endowed obligations to ourselves. If you really want to know what it's like to be "compelled", try sitting in one place for a week without bothering to try to scrounge up some water. If a man should walk by and offer you a glass of water in exchange for your car, your desperate circumstances might compel you to oblige. And what can we say about this? Well, we can certainly say that such a by-passer may be neglecting his moral duties (beneficence) towards you. I think, were it truly an immediate question of life or death, we may even find libertarian grounds to allow you to not honor such an agreement if you should make it. But it is important to note that the imposition is not on behalf of the stranger in this situation. For you were not worse off with the offer than without it. The imposition, in this context, is on behalf of nature itself.

So, to answer the author's question, we can say:

(1) Largely, yes, in the first sense
(2) Sometimes, but not always, in the second sense
(3) Practically never, in the third sense

A thoroughly fleshed-out theory of libertarian ethics takes all three senses of the word into full (consequential) consideration. But since a good deal of that consideration is "upstream", it can often appear as though libertarians have nothing to say about (2) and (3). And, perhaps too often, the way libertarians sometimes handle these questions only invites such criticisms. That being said, making arguments against libertarianism in general that only apply to its weakest supporters says more about the author than it does about libertarianism.

Note: I find it interesting that the author chose, as an illustration, an example of a mother who feels she needs to resort to prostitution or selling her own organs in order to feed her children. Surely this is a grim situation. We might need to know more about her story to tease out any fine moral points. What I'd like to point out, however, is that although she seems to be finding herself a victim of most dire circumstances (3), we have already robbed her of the ability to make such a choice...even if it is the best one she could make. Society has decided to impose a prohibition (1) on such decisions. And so, while we may quibble about how "free" someone really is if forced up against such hard decisions, we've actually (in the process) literally restricted her freedom to make such a choice at all - even if it is the only thing that might afford her children a better life.

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

The answer to this question also, unfortunately, hinges on the use of the phrase "morally permissible." We could mean "moral, and therefore permissible" or we could just mean "permissible". This isn't a dodge of the question at hand, but bringing two highly contestable words together can cause a great deal of confusion (and sometimes purposefully). One can certainly find some kinds of "free exchanges" immoral, even in a libertarian sense. However, simply because something is, even in fact, immoral does not necessarily mean that it is not ultimately permissible (for reasons outlined above). So, for instance, in one sense it's not "morally permissible" to call people disparaging names as they pass on the street. I'm sure our author would agree that this is broadly immoral behavior. On the other hand I find it very likely that she would find it to be "permissible" behavior (provided she hasn't completely abandoned our right to speak freely as well). So I don't think I'm mincing words when I say that the answer turns on precisely what she means by "morally permissible."

For a rebuttal to her subsequent illustration, see my response above to her first question; namely parts (2) and (3).

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

I must admit, I get both suspicious and weary when I see the term "deserve" thrown about so easily. What does it mean to "deserve" something? By what measure is it demonstrable? By what method should/could it be applied? And, more importantly, by whom?

If we replaced the word "deserve" with "need" we would probably get a more meaningful question. Clearly some people have a hard time with or simply cannot acquire what they "need" to sustain their lives (although, I believe that the "poor" most people have in mind when bandying about political ideologies is probably not exactly the people I might have in mind personally). It's also certainly true that many people are capable of creating and acquiring much more than they "need" to sustain their lives. It's certainly a duty of all of us to help lift up the former as best we can. But if we force others' hands in the matter, how can such virtue belong to us or them? And, more importantly, how can we come to regard the well-being of others in such high esteem if we care not about the individual rights of people to and of themselves (as their own ends) in the first place?

Our author concludes that any answer to this question in the affirmative will yield to an even more damning conclusion that such prosperity (or lack thereof) is largely a matter of luck. Of course, that's not a fact that many libertarians would disagree with. But it's also not one they would find particularly damning either. Proper upbringing, increased physical and mental capacities, access to resources - all these things give you a huge leg up on the world, no doubt. And all that life has to offer could sit in a vault, in the corner of a dark room. But without the key (volition), it matters not a damn bit how close to the vault you were placed. I'm certainly not trying to diminish the role of capacity and circumstance with regard to prosperity. But I think it's equally a fool's errand to minimize the role of volition and personal ambition as well. In any case, pointing out disparities in circumstance does not automatically get us into the clear with regards to using other human beings as means to our own ends.

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

Once again, the answer depends on what kind of "obligation" the author imagines. One might imagine that you're obligated to buy your struggling brother a meal if she's having a hard time putting together some money for food. Imagining that such an obligation is enforceable is quite a different thing. We might morally scoff at such a thing. We might even be morally called to castigate such a thing. But few people would be willing to employ force to make us do such a thing. And that hypothetical becomes even more interesting when you consider that many of those same people (such as our author, perhaps) believe we have even more credibly enforceable obligations to strangers than we do our own relatives. It needn't be a particularly damning point (I'm sure a healthy argument could be cooked up), but it's certainly a telling one.

Although the (recurring) point about enforceable and non-enforceable types of obligations seems to elude our author, it's worth noting that what obligations fall into which category is an entirely different question - the answers to which aren't always completely obvious or clear. That takes much more thoughtful consideration, and is worth discussing at length in its own right. But the fact that such boundaries may be fuzzy does not release us from recognizing that such a dichotomy exists; a dichotomy that surely exists in practice with our author if not embodied in her words. And libertarians needn't take our moral obligations to one another more or less seriously on the basis of their enforceability, despite the misunderstandings of our critics.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Synthetic Solutions

In the past three or four years, I've been increasingly enamored of what I will call synthetic solutions, for lack of a better phrase; the collapsing of seemingly opposing arguments into a singular position or solution. It's important to note that what I mean by that isn't just a compromised middle-ground of some sort, but rather recognizing that sometimes the cores of two juxtaposing arguments need not be mutually exclusive. In other words, some things that appear to be dichotomies may just prove to be limitations of our language and bias.

I've seen this phenomenon repeatedly since I first noticed it. It can be applied to arguments about concepts as lofty as theism, consciousness, and/or materialism. But it can also be applied to arguments we're far more likely to have in our daily lives.

Take markets and basic economics for instance. I ran across a thread of arguments on Twitter last night regarding regulation on oil-drilling and pipeline excavations. Taking note of the stubbornly high gas prices under the current administration, one group of individuals slam Obama for keeping us dependent on foreign oil. Another group claims that oil is a commodity on the world market and that more drilling will have no affect on prices. The former group responds that basic supply and demand dictates that more oil will bring lower prices. The latter group rebuts by pointing to the fact that oil production is always going up and yet prices continue to rise regardless. Another party chimes in and makes the claim that both are wrong; that oil prices have nothing to do with supply and demand, but rather it is controlled by speculators.

Who are we to believe here?

My answer is "all of them." All of them have a reasonable claim (or at least some part of one) that has a bit of truth to it. Where they have gone wrong, in my opinion, is in not completely fleshing out their points. Instead what remains are almost caricatures of proper points. All these contentions seem true, on their face - is it possible to synthesize them?

I'll give it a try.

Price is most certainly a function of supply and demand. Ceteris paribus, when supply rises prices fall. And even with all the intricate factors at play regarding various market mechanisms, it's not unreasonable to assume this would be true of crude oil (or anything else for that matter). So, yes, it would seem that increasing the production of oil should bring down the price.

So what about the claim that price hasn't dropped concordantly with increased production over the years? Well, this claim is also true - depending on exactly what is meant by it. Unfortunately, and to the bane of many self-proclaimed macroeconomists, the world as it exists is never ceteris paribus. With markets, things are always in flux...which is actually a good thing in that it lets entrepreneurs and consumers redirect the allocation of resources in real time (but that is a subject for another day).

For instance, an observer who isn't particularly discerning could be looking at a nominal (as opposed to real/adjusted) price history. Looking at prices without adjusting for the steady monetary inflation can be very misleading in matters like this.

Another point worth considering, by the same token, is that crude oil is not (as of yet) a practically replenishable resource. Therefore production is never static. We consume the resources that are most easily accessible first and then, over time, move to extract resources that are more difficult to obtain. So, even though technological progress may or may have not offset it, production costs for such resources (ceteris paribus) will rise over time. You can't gauge how supply and demand is affecting the price of a commodity by looking at production alone.

A third point, which I believe to be the most obvious one in this case, is that demand for crude-oil has not remained static over time. As more and more of the world industrializes (especially with regards to India and China), demand for oil has skyrocketed. Production has had to increase by leaps and bounds just to obtain any sense of tethered pricing given the increased demand over the last twenty or thirty years.

And to the lone voice in the wilderness who cries out, "Speculators!" - well, of course speculation plays a role in the real-time price of commodities. But it does not usurp the role of supply and demand - it is part of that role. Speculation is just a betting market on future supply and demand. Nothing more and nothing less. And, interestingly, although people decry it, it actually serves an important market function.

Many people don't understand how this could be true, so let's look at an example:

Let's say there are ten people in a relatively small city that have chosen to stock up on sheet metal. There's a relatively steady flow of sheet metal to the city every week. These ten people buy a considerable amount of it but they don't use it for current projects, they simply begin to store it in a warehouse to sell at some later point. Although it's not enough of the total market cause too much of a fluctuation  it's undoubted that they contribute to an overall increased demand and subsequently somewhat higher prices for the customers.

One of the country's major metal foundries has gone under. The national supply of metals of various types has been tightened. Prices go through the roof. The people who have stored metal (or bids on it in the case of actual speculators) see the tightening supply and decide to start selling their stocks of metal to make money off the currently increased prices. Speculators selling off their goods will, in turn, increase the market supply and put downward pressure on current prices.

In this way, we can see that speculators actually do perform a market function by acting to further stabilize economies for shifts in demand and/or supply in the future. Speculators certainly affect the price of commodities, but it is because they are a part of the temporal supply and demand chain.

The oil-market argument is just a small example of something that I think is far more prominent. I think we have an unfortunate habit of taking one little piece of the truth and just running with it. I'm sure a lot of it is the result of our biases and predispositions. Maybe we simply don't consider other aspects of the argument because we feel it threatens our own beliefs on the matter. You'd certainly get that impression from witnessing any standard political debate. But it would probably be healthy, at least once in a while, to stop being quite so defensive - to step back and allow for the possibility that another point should be considered, and that we might not have to give up all of our beliefs about those arguments to embrace it.