Monday, December 27, 2010

Political Blog Tip #3,501

You will not overcome an idealist by deferring to the probability of their vision taking actual form

...present company included.

Over at Cafe Hayek there has been some squabbling regarding some comments about health care being perceived as a "right." Needless to say I generally agree with the sentiments of the author - and I've certainly made similar points several times. Something somewhat unique about this post is one of the commenters (I'll let you spot him/her for yourself) who seems to be giving some of the regulars a rather hard time. And I don't mean a hard time in the usual sense - which usually involves a speudo-intellectual progressive throwing things against the wall to see if anything sticks.

I spotted him/her immediately as a left-leaning anarchist (a la Proudhon). No one else seemed to pick up on that (or at least they chose to be silent about it). That surprised me somewhat at first. It took several responses for me to realize they had no idea where he was coming from, and they were starting to spin their collective wheels in search of a response. At least one of them seemed to resign himself to the last-ditch effort of the "the real world can't work like that" argument. And, of course, this isn't immediately persuasive to the more idealist among us.

The problem, of course, is that an anarchist of that breed has read Proudhon and George and had (at some point) pushed prevalent political questions back to principles that have remained somewhat unquestioned by the other commenters - not so different than the way in which they so often dispatch typical liberal-progressive types with lines of questioning which average leftists probably don't take the time to consider. Against the anarchist, however, they seemed impotent at best.

At the core of the squabbling was the idea of property itself. It was clear that most of the commenters had simply taken the concept of property as a given, and never had stopped to consider that such a concept is purely abstract, and derived from social interaction and tradition. And once the rug of "property" was being pulled out from under them, they had little left to stand on.

Of course, there are some excellent defenses of the concept of property rights - and much better than the religious ones provided by Locke et al. A formidable ANCAP (say, Rothbard) could more easily grapple with the question at hand (as he did, actually, in For a New Liberty). But without the drive to question not only yourself but the beliefs you hold dear, you're subject to having that ideological rug pulled out from under you. And seeing so many people fumble with what, at least in name, is something so fundamental to them, it only goes to show that sometimes we're too docile when it comes to the ideas we ultimately adopt.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What's Neutral About Net Neutrality?

I haven't been able to parse the ins and outs of the bill yet, but apparently a blow is about to be struck to the few of us who oppose "net neutrality." In a recent piece on the UK Guardian, Al Franken heralds the forthcoming passage of the bill as a victory for free speech:

Al Franken, the Democrat senator, said the vote would decide "the most important free speech issue of our time".

"Imagine if Comcast customers couldn't watch Netflix, but were limited only to Comcast's video-on-demand service. Imagine if a cable news network could get its website to load faster on your computer than your favourite local political blog. Imagine if big corporations with their own agenda could decide who wins or loses online," Franken said on Monday. "The internet as we know it would cease to exist."

Yes, and imagine if Rolling Stone magazine refused to include advertisements for Revolver, or if a restaurant chain owned by Coca-Cola refused to sell Pepsi products. Oh, the horror! We can't afford to allow such a disintegration of our freedom of speech!

All kidding aside, when did rights transition from a negative conception to a positive one?

In the debate on health care, the right to be able to receive it turned into the "right" to take it. Maybe it's just a differentiation in terms; semantics. But some terms mean something very specific (at least to me). I have the right to own a doesn't translate into the right to be given a firearm if I cannot secure one for personal use. And what of "free speech?" When did your right to speak turn into your right to use other people and their property as a vehicle for that speech? If a billboard owner wanted to charge a rival billboard owner twice the going rate for a billboard advertisement, would we collectively harangue over the abridgment of "free speech"?

Of course, there are more complex arguments for net neutrality - not the least of which is an argument that the telecoms are quasi-monopolistic. Yes, quasi-monopolistic and quasi-municipal. I have to wonder how many supporters of government intervention a la "net neutrality" have sat and pondered about the municipal nature of such companies and what role government has played in the larger scheme of things. But that conversation is for another day perhaps.

In any case, as easy as it is to jump on-board with such programs under the mental duress of feel-good language like "equality", "neutrality","hope", "compassion", etc. - I implore people to actually look closer at the issue at hand and think twice before they throw their support one way or the other. We don't have "magazine neutrality", "soft-drink neutrality", or "billboard neutrality". And if you can figure out why there's not a need for any talk of those things, then you've got at least one foot in the door.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Economics for the Neoconservative

Over at Andrew Wilkow's forum (God, help us all) I tried to engage in a discussion about the "Buy American" movement with a woman who believes we'd be better off doing just that. When I inquired about her excuse for agreeing with Obama on this matter (thought that might give her pause) she replied:

my excuse is that i want America to the best. I see that happening only when we buy things we can produce on our own first. I'd like to not have to buy anything made elsewhere. screw em all. Americans should be growing our own produce, making our own cogs, etc,,,i didnt bother to open your links,,,i dont care about your opinion all that much,,meh

The links she was referring to were to the Wikipedia entry for "comparative advantage" and an editorial on the CATO website ripping apart Obama's "Buy American" initiative. Apparently she didn't have the time to be bothered by "words and stuff." Nevertheless I pressed on with a response that I thought was generally simple enough to explain to anyone why buying American or pushing people to buy American isn't always the best thing for Americans. This is part of my response:

Maybe you don't care about my opinion much for whatever reason. I can't do anything about that. But have you ever tried digging into an economic text-book; or even Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson that Wilkow throws homage to on occasion? I'm not asking that facetiously - because this really isn't a matter of my personal opinion; it's about basic economics.

It's hard to dissect exactly what someone means when they say, "I want America to be the best." In this context I would take it to mean either you want Americans to be the most productive or the most well-off...and in either case, trying to keep trade within our own borders would hamper each of those ideals. Even though people are talking about countries like China closing the cap, Americans are BY FAR the most productive people on the planet (thanks to our excess of capital). We could make the simple products we buy from other countries (clothes, food, electronics) if we wanted. But comparative advantage tells us that even if we are better at making cheap things than other people, we are still better off doing the most productive thing we're capable of instead, and then buying the less exotic or labor demanding products from other countries.

If you try to push American labor into markets that no longer have good returns (as per our productive capacity), you will actually be lowering our GDP and subsequently our standard of living. If you try to set up trade barriers to artificially stifle the free market and protect the wages of people who engage in such labor, you will certainly make those people better off, but you will (in the process) hurt every other American who sees the price of cheap staples inflate. This is the economic problem that protectionists (who are predominantly liberal BTW) have to face.

When someone like, say, Obama politically wrangles over the idea of China flooding the market with cheap tires, what most people see is US manufacturers of tires being hurt (which is true). What they don't see are the millions of Americans who would be able to better afford tires, and would then have more discretionary income to spend on other products (which may be American-made).

If you're still scratching your head, sometimes it's better to break things down on a micro-level with simple analogies. If you think America would be better off (in whatever terms you mean) by just trading with other Americans (whenever possible) then reduce the problem. Would Virginians be better off if they only traded with Virginians? Would people in Richmond be better off if they only traded with people from Richmond? Would a household be better off only trading their services with other people in that household?

It's true that the more you limit your trading partners, the more "employed" you will be - largely because with a smaller network of trade people will find themselves doing things they're less productive doing. In an open market, I may find that I'm good at programming...and I might contract those services out to people in others states or countries for a pretty penny. If I limit trade to within my household, all of a sudden there's a smaller pool of people to produce the things I need (clothes, food, etc.), and possibly no one in that household is particularly skilled at producing any of these things. This is lower productivity - more labor being spent to produce what I consume. All of a sudden you find yourself living on a subsistence level a la the year 1,500 (AD).

You can extrapolate that (to a more or lesser degree) with restricting your trade (self-imposed or not) to/at any level. It's the "fetish of full employment" (Hazlitt term). People are so concerned with people from their particular country being employed that they blind themselves to how their ideal might actually end up hurting more people. A protectionist would implore that we still buy American cars as opposed to cheaper foreign cars (to protect American auto-workers of course). But extrapolate that out a little more.

If one morning millions of brand new vehicles started washing up on our shores it would cripple American auto-workers - but would Americans really be better off by turning down free cars, pushing them back into the sea? Was the production of farming equipment that eventually unemployed 80% of Americans a boon or a death knell? Would you implore Americans then to not use such machinery, to keep 90% of us gainfully employed picking fruits and vegetables all year round?

I would hope that you would think twice before you push for something like that (particularly if you have a significant care for your fellow countrymen). It doesn't matter whether it's a machine or inferior foreign labor - if we can get something using less of our labor, that is a good thing for us. It may temporarily hurt a specific interest group, but as long as there is something we demand, there is always an avenue for labor - it's simply a matter of time. All the liberal/collectivist protectionist aims at stifling trade or technological progress in the name of saving jobs does nothing but keep those Americans you care about so much about poorer.

I'm predicting her response will be classically bad...but we shall see.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Phenomenal Headlines

Skimming through Google's news aggregator, I ran across an article with the following headline:

Obama Admits Failing to Sell Successes to Americans

It's good to know that the only bias to be found in news media these days is that which can be found under the umbra of one Rupert Murdoch (read: Fox News). All kidding aside, there's a lot to be said about the framing of an argument, and I'm not quite sure if this particular framing is actually that of Obama, the writer of this article, or both. But one thing is for sure, responding to a political loss by acknowledging a particular candidate's convey his a kind of ego-trip that even Randians would wince at.

And I know because they're my friends.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Third Way

In a recent MSNBC article, the author seems surprised by an apparent contradiction. A recent study confirms that most Americans grossly underestimate the current level of income inequality in the United States. A related find - there is a high level of preference for more equality when presented with the numbers. So, in light of the seemingly "anti-socialist" swing underway in the current political landscape, the writer is left scratching his head:

The United States, according to this study, is a nation of people who would like to spread the wealth around. They just don't know it.

But is this really accurate? Do Americans really support redistribution through taxation and are simply too stupid and biased to realize it? I'm open to believing this to be true of some Americans, but on the whole I remain unconvinced of this notion.

The problem I have with this premise is that it only gives us enough political leg-room for two tenable positions - that either Americans with an actual preference for more equality realize current levels of it and push for government action or are ignorant of it and push against it. However, it seems quite possible that something more complex could be occurring.

Take my personal position for example. I'm currently aware of massive income inequality. I too would prefer that incomes were more in line with one another to a degree. And yet I'm in staunch opposition to government redistribution of wealth. Given the author's premise, how could someone like me resolve such a view?

Well, I'm certainly aware of the current income gap. I would like to see that gap close; but not for the sake of equality itself - rather I'd like to see the least productive people in a position to further enable their productivity to greater heights. This view is distinctly different than finding it morally objectionable that two people would prove themselves to be of different value on the market and/or that the one of greater value is somehow inflicting harm on the less productive. This difference leads into an ever greater distinction that I believe is probably a more logical solution to the intellectual dilemma.

To create a simple analogy, if I would wish or hope that every person on this planet would be able to be with the love of their life, it wouldn't lead me to a conclusion that, for people who are unable to achieve this, we should use the hand of government to subdue the objects of their affection and force them into such a role. Or, to make an even more clear analogy, if I felt that every single person should have a TV in their home, I wouldn't support the government starting a program in which they would, in the dark of night, break into homes with more than one TV to furnish the homes with none. So what does this say about me?

Well, it certainly doesn't say that I don't want more people to have TVs. On the other hand, it certainly doesn't say that I think we should engage in theft to lend people a hand. But it also certainly doesn't say anything inconsistent either - which is precisely the mental trap the aforementioned article's author finds himself in. Why is it so hard for us, collectively, to imagine a third way?

I suppose it would be too easy to chalk it up to the politics of a two-party system, but it's certainly a little scary to see bimodal dispositions on socio-political matters; simply taking into consideration what the government should do or what it should stop people from doing. It seems to be that if you believe X to be bad, then you must accordingly believe that government must remedy X. And if you believe Y to be good, then you must accordingly believe that government must provide Y. I'm left to wonder, "When did we stop considering the idea that some issues should be out of the scope of the one institution that we seem to be willing to grant a monopoly on violence to?"

In my view, a large part of what the United States was founded upon was a minimal federal government that existed only to the extent it had to - to protect us from each other. If I passed by a Salvation Army box without contributing, you wouldn't chase me down and beat me or put me in a cage. In fact, you'd probably save me from such an assailant. Yet a very large number of Americans support what is essentially the same type of coercion through the federal state apparatus via taxation and social programs. And even worse, apparently, many Americans would be likely to assume that I want the poor to suffer since I'm against such violence. Or maybe if I had contributed a few dollars they would wonder how I could be against such violence as I most obviously care about the poor.

I've felt for a very long time that the larger part of American politics is being played between the 40-yard-lines; and, in reading articles like this one, I don't think that's about to change any time soon.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Means to an End (Part II)

In a recent post I described the contention I felt in reading some of Gene Callahan's comments as of late. I wanted to (briefly) elaborate on my final point just to illustrate it further.

Gene laments the idea of people worshiping "tools" (and by that he means "stuff") as ends in and of them self. This is generally comparable to the the off-used criticism that we, modern society, are too materialistic...too focussed on this "stuff" that shouldn't constitute the whole of what we are about or what we should strive for. I parried with the notion that a view of people worshiping such tools is really not an accurate description of reality; rather that people value tools as ends (as they do with any tool) generally to the extent that the serve to facilitate even greater ends. I value money because I know it can afford me X. And, if I highly value X (although "stuff" it may very well be), it's only to the extent that it is a means to personal happiness.

I feel that this explanation is somewhat incomplete, or at least that it doesn't incorporate the more explicit notion I was trying to put forward. It would seem that maybe leaving it at X (cars, phones, houses, TVs, etc.) doesn't really resolve the question of why "stuff" makes us happy - it nearly explains that since stuff makes us happy, it serves as a means to the end of happiness, and thus you aren't valuing the item insomuch as the happiness it brings. But I did not mean to imply that objects simply bring value de facto. There are perfectly good reasons we value the things we do (even if someone objects).

My central thrust is that larger means/ends frameworks are (in most cases) composed of a network of further means/ends frameworks; a lattice which can be small and simple or large and very complex. In the example of "stuff" it's not so much that "stuff" directly makes people happy. Even this is part of a more explicit framework. What brings happiness is the product of having "stuff." You value a TV because you enjoy being entertained. You value a house because it provides shelter; larger houses because they may support a family; and even larger houses still could have a social signalling value. Likewise you may value a particular type of phone for its social signalling value; and/or you could value it simply as a way to keep in touch with your friends and family (as a tool of communication). You might value your car, also, as a tool of social signalling; you may value you it as an excellent tool to get from point A to point B as well. I think the question we should be asking is - Why is it really surprising that we would value these things?

It's true that to some degree I'm sure there is a point of excess (as there may be for everything). But I don't find it particularly peculiar that people would value "stuff" a whole hell of a lot in a tangible world where tangible people need tangible things. And what, per se, is even wrong about that? Is there some Malthusian underlay to that kind of critique of modern society? When did me wanting "stuff" and then wanting even more "stuff" for my children become such a terrible thing? I'm not sure I see anything particularly upright in being anti-"stuff" to be honest.

It seems like, in this particular context, he finds it disheartening that his students only value things (which are tools for happiness) - but that there is much more to life! Well of course there is. And your students are well aware of that unless you found yourself being robbed after class. There's nothing mutually exclusive about wanting lots of things (in this very, truly material world in which we exist) and still abiding by certain basic ethical principles. In fact, it occurs to me that several of those precious ethical notions derive from the fact that we live in a world of scarcity - it's not really detached from materialism.

If people are undervaluing the "non-stuff" in the world, I think we can have a discussion about that. But I'm not under the impression that it shares and inverse relationship with our want for things. I wanted to really sympathize with Callahan's point - because I do think the world of ethics (in our personal lives) is in disrepair...but I don't think wanting material goods is to blame. In fact, trying to cast out such demons almost immediately reeks of some progressively slavish (in the Nietzschian sense) mentality. As if a shifting purpose towards the greater good requires us to give up our personal quest to amass wealth.

I just don't happen to see it that way. And I see an attack on that want of wealth (which brings us, in many cases, some of the best and most important tools for happily living our lives) as a throwback to a kind of moralizing that I think is responsible for many terrible things. Please, feel free to try to fix what is broken. We certainly aren't perfect. But don't throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Different Worlds

Over the weekend I had a chance to spend some time with family over dinner and a bonfire. As always, it was really enjoyable. There's something about just being in the company of the people you love that makes time seem to stop. The only thing that could pull me away is the uncontrollable closing of the eyelids and a healthy worry about the drive home - that hit me at around midnight.

But among the playful banter around the fire, there was one somewhat political remark made that really caught me off guard. It didn't really offend me. It actually confused me. One of my relatives had asked me if I had ever read any of Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. I hadn't. He motioned that I would probably like the series based on its "libertarian" themes; and, if I heard him correctly, what he meant by that was that it was particularly non-pacifist.

In all honesty, I might have just heard him wrong - but I don't think I did. My first tendency was to engage the implicit notion that libertarians were anti-pacifist, but I was so confused that I forced myself to shut up, thinking to myself that he must have meant it the other way around, and that I had simply misheard him. So I kind of just let his synopsis float at that point.

But, having been plastered with the label of "social Darwinist" several times in my life, it didn't seem completely implausible to have my views framed this way I suppose. However, you do have to sit and wonder how a group so dedicated to the non-aggression principle as a tenet could be outed as "anti-pacifists." I couldn't help but think, "Most of the people I know who are actual pacifists are libertarian! Heck, my views are way more pacifist than your liberal-progressive views. What gives?"

It kind of occurred to me that if you are opposed to using violence to achieve certain ends, you may actually be regarded as violent to the extent that certain groups of people believe that non-action (or as I'd like to call it, pacifism) is actually violent in some instances. For instance, someone being against a person forcefully extracting payment from an innocent individual (via taxation perhaps) to fulfill a perceived positive right (food, water, housing, healthcare, etc.) is seen as a non-pacifist - as someone else (in their mind) has a rightful claim to it.

This is about the only way this labeling makes sense to me, and even then it seems to make little. If you believe that people have a "right" to the fruit of your labor; fine. That's an argument worth having. But it seems really weird to twist that view so much that you start believing that resistance to violence employed in achieving those ends is violent, or that violence in achieving those ends isn't violent at all. Then again, I think this is moderately close to how people with those positions actually feel; which I think accounts for precisely why people look at you as if you're crazy when you refer to taxation as theft.

It's amazing how our predispositions shape our perception of the world.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Means to an End

Over at Crash Landing, Gene Callahan offers a personal reflection about how markets shape our view of "the good life":

Having assigned my students a paper on Aristotle's economic thought, I was shocked to see how many of them characterized the Philosopher as "utopian" and "an idealist." I puzzled over this until I realized the cause: Any check, moral or legal, on acquisitiveness is seen by young people today as utopian! They cannot conceive that acquiring a certain amount of wealth, while often necessary to living a good life, is not sufficient; for them the good life simply is getting lots of stuff.

Markets are wonderful tools that promote allocative efficiency. But this is what happens when markets are allowed to run untrammeled over society: instead of being properly understood as tools, the tools are worshipped as ends in and of themselves. The moneychangers don't just have a booth in the temple; they are now the priests running it.

I take issue with this to some extent. I certainly agree that you could make a solid critique asserting that people value "stuff" too much in relation to things that are...well...less tangible. But towards the end of his thought, the lament seems to shift from this to something of a slightly different shade - that people are starting to "worship" the means to ends as ends in and of themselves. To me, this view doesn't sufficiently explain (praxeologically) what is actually occurring.

In strict terms, there doesn't seem to be any particular reason that an end cannot be a means to another end. For instance, the means-ends framework explaining my employment is as follows: I trade labor as a means to acquire money. I value money as a general end. But I value it as an end only to the extent that it acts as a means to facilitate even further ends. Now, you can semantically make an end-run around that bifurcation by saying that I trade my work as a means to the ends of acquiring "stuff" - as if it's direct. I don't necessarily have a problem with thinking about it this way, but it's important to note that means/ends often share a networked relationship with additional means/ends.

To claim that people are worshiping tools seems not so much incorrect, but incoherent in that context. There is always a causal link back to an ultimate end at some point. People want "stuff" (cell phones, cars, houses, clothes) because of the ends they facilitate - happiness derived from subjective evaluation. It would seem silly to stop at the point of people valuing money (as a means) and deride them for worshiping "tools." I don't think people literally get excitement out of having green pieces of paper as an end in itself. That is a short-sited view of what's occurring. They highly value money because they know exactly how it can help them facilitate the further end of acquiring "stuff", and they value "stuff" because they know exactly how it can help them facilitate the further end of acquiring happiness.

Now, we can certainly have a conversation in regards to why certain things bring them happiness. But to view that as people worshiping means as an (ultimate) end and completely leave out the connection regarding happiness as an end in itself seems to miss the point. I generally like Gene...he seems like a smart guy (much smarter than me, I'm sure). But sometimes I think he likes to straddle the ledge just to irk people he disagrees with. And, like some of the people he dislikes so vociferously, he sometimes overlooks the obvious when making snide remarks or forming conclusions.


Skimmed an article from The Guardian (UK) this morning with this rousing headline:

Spending review cuts will hit poorest harder, says IFS

Perish the thought.

I'm not an expert on public spending in the UK, but I don't think it would be quite a leap of faith to assume that a Western European country (which is often both hailed and derided for having more relatively "progressive" policies) might be spending a fairly large portion of its revenue on alleviating market "externalities." Even in a country like the U.S., which has a fairly bloated military, a majority of the revenue collected at the federal level is spent on payment transfers (read: social programs). So why would anyone be surprised that a cut in government spending (of almost any stripe) would hurt the poor the most - they are arguably the focus of most of the spending anyways.

Now, that being said, obviously several government programs (and regulations) act as a bulwark for business as well. Exactly what percentage of government spending leans in that direction is less obvious. Although, it's worth noting that progressive liberals often consider a tax cut as a subsidy - for which I appreciate the sentiment but reject the general notion. If the argument boils down to "Look! Master is letting those two slaves over there get away; that's not fair!" then I think the conversation starts getting a little too weird for me. If the government is taking less money (from anyone) - I think it's a move in the right direction. Likewise, if the government spends less on any given program (regardless of who it benefits), relieving a burden on current and/or future taxpayers - I think it's a move in the right direction.

Of course, they certainly don't see it this way. The purpose of the entire system has shifted in the direction of a Benthamite shell-game. And allowing anyone to throw down less money or even get up from the table would simply be unacceptable. Most people are caught up in playing the game. Few are questioning the ethics of being forced to play with the threat of violence. And if anyone should happen to find a way out of playing that particular day (and particularly if he has more to lose) you can bet he will be sorely reminded by the remaining players that it's not fair to leave - for you have much left to give, and they have much left to take.

And if you have the gull to imply that you're, in fact, a human being, and not simply a means to the ends of others - they might just wring their hands over the thought of letting you get away...maybe they'll even write an article about it in The Guardian.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Fetish of Employment

Yes, I had to reference Hazlitt once again, I'm afraid. I think I might have stumbled across the dumbest exchange I've ever witnessed on the internet (and that's really saying something). Over at Cafe Hayek Don Boudreaux relays a letter to the WSJ regarding an article on protectionism.

Free trade across borders was one of the first economic arguments I really found a firm footing on when I began to really dig in. Without thinking it through, it's easy to see the various reasons why people would be opposed to free trade. So I generally prefer a peaceable conversation with a dissenter over slamming them right off the bat. But this short communique between a doubting commenter and a faithful commenter really made me almost want to give up on economics altogether. The conversation was multi-faceted - I'll simply lift the relevant part:

Doubting: "You like to take thought experiments to their logical conclusions.... so what if some one invented a machine that produced everything the world needed."

Faithful: "If a machine produced everything the world needed - we could all go play croquet."

Doubting: "How would you pay for the croquet set or anything else for that matter? You wouldn't have a job."

Sometimes there just aren't enough words...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fire Water Burn

For those who missed the news, the world started to end yesterday and it began in Tennessee. Well, not really. But you might get that impression by reading some of the more incendiary articles popping up about the failure of "private" fire insurance in one particular instance. Apparently a man who refused or missed his $75 a year payment to a semi-local fire department had to plead while they sat and watched his house burn down. This, of course, proved to be a slam-dunk against libertarians and their quest for privatization of public services.

Well, except for the fact that it's not much of a slam-dunk at all. As had been pointed out by several libertarian-leaning commentators yesterday, the fire department wasn't private. In fact, it was a neighboring public fire department extending for-pay services to their rural neighbors whom did not have a fire department. The aforementioned article (and the comments that followed) are fairly bewildering in light of that. It's a little more than odd when someone turns the so-called lack of compassion exhibited by the all-caring public sector into knots in trying to lay blame for it at the feet of the private sector. "Don't you see!? This government-run fire department being so uncompassionate is the EXACT reason why free markets fail!" Come again? Confirmation bias is one thing - this is a bit of a stretch though...even for hardcore partisans.

Of course (as Arnold Kling points out) this doesn't denote government failure to a fundamentalist. The fact that this particular area did not have their own fire department, in it's own right, makes a case for market failure and a tangential case for government empowerment in their eyes. However it does, in my mind, push the question of immediate moral obligations (placed on the firefighters) at least back to a neutral position, if not back in their court completely. If the conjecture was that this fire department stood back and watched this house burn because the service was offered from a private provider, then they are misleading or being misled. It turns out that even organizations as benevolent as the government engage in cost-benefit analysis.

But the moral question seems to be pretty inviting either way. This story (regardless of whether the fire department was public or private) is a great analogy to the greater arguments for and against social safety nets. It's strikingly similar to the situation that Peter Singer so often proposes in defense of government intervention. He poses a seemingly simple moral question: You are alone in the wilderness and come across a pond. In the middle of the pond a small child (who cannot swim) is drowning. You calculate that you could easily save the child. The worst that might happen is you getting your clothes wet and wasting a few minutes of time. He asks, "Would it not be morally reprehensible to not save the child? If it is reprehensible, then shouldn't we use government force (safety nets) to save the 'drowning child' of our own society (the poor)?"

Likewise I heard similar remarks throughout the day, yesterday, regarding this man's house. "There's no good reason to sit and let someone's house burn down." From a intuitively moral standpoint, it's hard to argue with that line of reasoning. If you're able to help, you should probably help. At the least it would prove a virtuous act. On the other hand, whether virtuous action should translate to legal obligation, that's another story entirely.

If it wasn't simply the fault of my own amateur interest in economics, I would swear that Hazlitt's ghost haunts me. The moral question is more complex than its originators pretend it to be (or believe it to be). We are engaged in the moral musings of the seen in exchange for the moral musings which never take place for the unseen. If we believe that such an organization should be forced to provide services to those who don't pay, or that government should force people to pay for such services, what we see is a house not burning down. What we don't see is the increased cost to the people who actually pay for such a service, or what that extra money in their pockets might have meant to them personally at the margin, or the employees of other services they patron who will now suffer. This economic reality isn't new, but it's often ignored. There is a real price for every action. Benevolent intentions do not erase opportunity costs.

But beyond the economic points, which may seem distal or ethereal to some, there are very direct (and tangible) consequences to the Peter Singer line-of-reasoning for anyone attempting to bite that bullet. In the drowning-child analogy, we are to presume the logical consequence is for society to effectively force someone to save the child. But let's extend the question: Are doctor's obligated to save a dying or sick patient? Proponents of Singer's moral proposition would be inclined to say, "Well, yes." Alright, so does this apply when they are "off the clock." And if so, how about after they retire? Could we lock them up in prison for refusing? Do construction workers have obligations to house the homeless? Do grocers have obligations to feed them? Can a grocer sue a hungry person who steals their food? Does society have a right to incarcerate such laborers lest they fulfill their moral obligations to the less fortunate?

And if you find yourself tangled in a rebuttal about social contracts, the purpose of government, and taxation to defend your original proposition, start extending your critique beyond the scope of government and look at your daily life. If you've ever bought an i-phone, you should probably be morally your own actions - according to your own absolutist definition of morality of course. I'm not sure how much food that few hundred dollars could have bought on the world-market, but I'm willing to bet it would be enough to save several hundred starving children in Ethiopia from dying on the day you made that purchase. And when you sit in your air-conditioned house relaxing for a few hours tonight, watching the satellite programming you paid for, at your discretion, for the purpose of leisure, that's a few more hours you could have been working to save someone's life. What makes you any less responsible than the the construction worker, the grocer, the doctor, or the man looking upon the drowning child?

You certainly can't save everyone. On the other hand, you can certainly save more. And not in some far-stretched way that isn't analogous to the real moral proposition you might have been preaching just a few minutes ago either; you can very literally (and quite easily I might add) take that extra money from your labor and mail it off to several organizations who will turn your blood sweat and tears into the literal salvation of dying individuals on the other side of the world...right now. So which is it? Should we throw you onto the same pyre which you were so eager to toss other individuals or organizations upon for ignoring the greater good...for letting the proverbial child drown? Or is there some other mysteriously constraining value which keeps you from laying in the wake of your own moral condemnation?

For those of us who believe in individualism, the cornerstone of liberty, it's a sense of ownership in our very selves that keep us from casting moral dispersions upon those of little virtue - even when the accusers are just as guilty. Maybe sacrifice isn't the only value worth having, even if the moralizers in this instance are too blind to see the inherent contradictions in themselves. Actions often speak louder than words. To paraphrase Robert Murphy on this particular story:

[Advocates of larger government] are going on and on about how much more compassionate they are than the heartless conservatives. But of course, the way they “solve” this problem isn’t to chip in their own money to cover those who refuse to pay fire or health insurance premiums–no, their progressive, compassionate solution is to tell those people, “We are taking the money from you at gunpoint.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Does IP Really Make Sense?

It took quite a while after finding myself steeped in radical libertarian theory that I even began to look at the concept of intellectual property seriously. But over the last year or so, I've seen and heard some things that I, quite frankly, can't mentally revoke. The seed has been firmly planted, and I'm afraid that I'm now growing the flowers of contempt for a concept that I used to take so much for granted.

So what nudged me in the right (wrong?) direction? Well, Stephen Kinsella had quite an impact on my line of reasoning. Several other prominent thinkers who would identify themselves as "left-libertarian" also had quite a substantial influence. But, to be fair to myself, it was a subject that I hadn't considered too seriously in the past. I (like many of you, I'm sure) just took the idea for granted. Defending intellectual property was just part and parcel to defending any other form of property, right? Well, yes and no.

I'd venture to say that I'll stick up for property rights when and where I see it - but the operative qualifier there is the word property. "Exactly, like 'intellectual property'!" Not so fast; what is it that we're claiming a person has a property in here? "Ideas, of course!" Fair enough...but does it really make sense that someone can own something intangible - at least in the sense that we generally recognize that term? I think the defense of it as such is more of an uphill battle than one might be led to believe initially. In fact, I've come to believe that the general argument is intractable in some ways.

Kinsella has a shiny array of IP-busting rhetorical cannons on his side of the debate. I won't pretend that I could summarize them efficiently in the span of a short post, but this is a pretty good start for the uninitiated. However, it's worth noting that I'm not in complete lock-step with the likes of the infamous anti-IP-IP-lawyer here. I happen to think that one of his trusty cannons may not prove too effective in the long run.

One of his arguments seems to hinge on the fact that ideas are not scarce - that they are, for all general purposes, infinitely reproducible. This may or may not be true. I won't bore anyone with that particular debate. I tend to agree that, conceptually, property in itself has evolved along with civilization in order to govern how we handle control over finite resources. On the other hand, it seems like this could be shaky ground for considering IP law unjust - as coming along and taking a baseball bat to your car doesn't seem to necessarily be less of a tort simply because we could press a button and make a new one. Of course, a more subtle rebuttal may conclude that even in a world without scarcity, that the subjective valuation of any particular thing that is mine might be higher than that of a replacement (sentimental value perhaps). Or, if they wanted to be crafty, you could make a strong argument for not a time value of money but possibly even a time value of assets (in a world of subjective value, of course). I'm not an economist, but it seems if we can recognize the value of time given money (in the interest that we might accrue from an investment) it seems like you could make a case for a psychological return on use of an asset. In other words, any time you might have robbed me of (by taking away something I value) might prove to have value that could still constitute a tort. But I don't think we even have to go this far in argument.

The defense of IP is really wedded to the concept that someone owns an idea. And that by using their idea, you have stolen their property (or labor depending on your interpretation). But as occurs with so many complex actions or human institutions I believe we might be getting too mixed up in the semantics of the argument - the language itself. If you tell me that you have an idea, what are you really saying? You're referring to a specific neural pattern you're creating in your own brain at the cellular level (or rather a confluence of several neural patterns). This is (from what we understand) what fundamentally constitutes a thought. And you can even say that you own this thought in a very real way. It's quite literally inside your head. And as a part of you, no one could deny that.

But if you think about it, where things really start to break down is if in seeing someone else utilize the resultant of your idea or it's conveyance you begin to proclaim that he took your idea. This might seem like a rhetorical jab here (it's not intended to be), but this almost relays an ape-like understanding of the process of thought. Your thoughts aren't floating out in the ether, where you find yourself warding it from the snatch of undeserving minds. What is really occurring is that another human is seeing what you have done, and being the primo-pattern-builder that defines us, he is quite literally assimilating that pattern, inductively, within his own mind. Ladies and gentleman, we now have two distinctively separate, yet similar ideas in two separate minds.

Did the second individual derive this pattern all on his lonesome? Well, no, of course not. But like MOST LEARNING, we often observe others and incorporate their patterns (thoughts) into our own ideological index so to speak. Whenever I look at someone else's clothes, when I see what someone buys at the store, when I read a book - patterns are being deciphered if not directly communicated. We don't look at the man building a chair or a house and contend, "Hey, that's someone else's idea! Stop! Thief!" And yet, this is how we act with IP law in some regards. I think examining the very real fact that, even if we were to treat ideas as tangible objects, it would be silly to ascertain that they are being stolen; as if they are being selfishly pulled from some divinely Platonic void.

Of course, these are just my musings on the subject. I strongly suggest that anyone that's interested look into some of the IP debates that have been sparked in the libertarian sphere as those have been some of the most informative and divisive that I've witnessed. Regardless of what your opinion is, it's a debate worth having. And it just goes to show that it's never good to simply take any idea for granted, no matter how committed you are to a particular belief or group. Get out there and get your hands dirty.

NYT Quote of the Day

This little ditty comes from a gentleman named "Bruce" commenting on some new sludge conjured by Paul Krugman in a recent article:

"Money is such incomprehensible stuff. Sometimes I wish we'd just go back to exchanging precious metals and stoning people for usury."

Monday, September 27, 2010

What Does Property Imply?

Sometimes discussions about the concept of property can seem bogged down in esoteric philosophical reasoning. It's not something that necessarily piques our interest at the fundamental level. Instead, what tends to suffice is an a priori general understanding of property and its implications, in place of first-principle foundations. For most purposes, this application is roughly interchangeable with a ground-up understanding of the concept. But there seem to be instances where our vague understanding and appreciation for the social concept of property can lead people to somewhat odd conclusions, perhaps mistakenly.

One example that I'm reminded of recently pertains to the issue of theft. For instance, say a watch is stolen from someone, and that thief later sells that watch to another person. That person later finds out (by interaction with the owner) that this watch was stolen. Is he then obligated to give the watch back to the original owner upon request. If you've developed a more foundational understanding of property, the answer is a clear, "Yes!" But even some fervent defenders of property often get tangled within their own response. After all, how can you justify taking something from someone that they have paid for?

This becomes even more confusing if you move to ask such a person if title to such property has exchanged hands at any point in this, to which they will likely reply, "No." So, on the one hand, you have a customer of a thief who you believe now rightfully owns the watch. And yet you believe that the original owner still holds title to it. This is an obviously inconsistent view. For if the original owner still holds title to this property, and yet the property is now rightfully in the hands of some other person, then what does property imply at all? Is property not the rightful ownership or possession of an item? If you hold property that rightly belongs to someone else, it would seem like this is not your property at all.

One can certainly sympathize with the third party here. After all, they have likely spent hard-earned money on an item, and it would seem almost as a tort to pry it from them. But what such an observer would be failing to see is that the criminal has committed fraud against them, and has essentially stolen their money - much in the same way that if I had claimed I owned the house across the street, and "sold" it to you, on the spot, for $1,000 and left the premise, I would have just robbed you of $1,000. I'd expect that we'd certainly feel sorry for you. But what we probably wouldn't do is tell the rightful owner that his property has now effectively changed hands, and that he will now have to take it up with the criminal. No - the title of ownership was never transferred to the criminal to begin with. He was, in effect, fraudulently selling a house. In other words, he was selling you ownership that he never had...he was selling you, quite literally, nothing. The original owner has still retained the title of ownership.

It's examples like this, I think, that show how important it is for us to think about the implications of terms before we move forward with employing them. Someone who contests the right of the original owner to reclaim his property in the above story, and yet still claims that title had never been transferred, has not resolved the implications of the term "property" correctly - however fervent they may be about it.

Ayn Rand less famously used to make a similar rhetorical point regarding broader economic terminology. She argued that fascism and socialism were not really inseparable on the account of what property actually implies. In one system (socialism) the state owns the property. In the other (fascism) the state directly controls it but private ownership remains. But Rand recognized that this dichotomy was false - based purely on the implications of property. Socialism is clearly state-ownership. But how is fascism fundamentally different? What is the difference between someone owning your car and someone having ultimate control over whatever is done with that car? We could simply say, on a piece of paper, that you still "own" the car in the second example. But what does property imply if it does not imply rightful control over something? At that point, to Rand (and I for that matter), it sounds more like verbal masking than it does an accurate description of reality.

When we move back to talking about core social concepts, it's important that we're not only coherent, but consistent. If something is the property of someone, we want to recognize the consequences of that reality, and not merely pay lip-service to it and substitute for it our own sympathies. If you find yourself arguing that property isn't really property, theft isn't really theft, or that violence isn't really violence, then it's probably worth retracing your steps.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fun with Statistics

Statistics can often be a double-edged sword. They can seem very useful in argument, as it can add an element of empiricism to the point at hand. However, statistics are VERY OFTEN misleading in the worst of ways. And opponents can certainly take advantage of that fact just as well as you can. This is exactly why it's so important for an audience to have a good intuitive understanding of how statistical facts can be manipulated to sway them.

This morning, in listening to the radio, I heard a fairly negative reaction to what I believe to be (probably) an accurate statistic. An audio clip relayed the rant of a young man who claimed that Census data showed that 70% of first-time marriages are successful. Cynical reactions ensued. I think their intuitions, in mistrusting him, were correct. But they couldn't seem to reconcile their gut-feelings with the statistical data, so they disregarded it as being false.

Now, this isn't brain-surgery. I'm certainly not the brightest person in the world, and I don't claim to be bestowing some kind of esoteric knowledge on ye lay people. But, in fact, this isn't something hard to unravel if you just take a couple of seconds to question it.

What should stick out like a sore thumb to most people is the "first-time" qualifier. Now there's nothing wrong per se with looking at things this way. But it can be misleading. We're usually fed marriage statistics in relation to all marriages (or more accurately each marriage). So we're all familiar with the statistic that over half of all marriages end in divorce. Both of these statistics could be true. Let's walk through a small example.

Let's say we have a pool of 20 men and 20 women. They all get married (that's a total of 20 marriages). Let's also say that 10 of those marriages end in divorce. And now let's say that those 10 men and 10 women each end up remarrying someone else in that smaller pool of divorced people. Those couples, later, get divorced. Now, let's try to break down the statistics on this in two different ways.

In total, there were 30 separate marriages. 20 of those marriages ended in divorce (10 in the original marriages, 10 in the second set of marriages). So, in this example, about 33% of total marriages were successful. Now let's take a look at the same group of numbers in a different way. Let's just look at "first-time" marriages. In our case, there were 20 "first-time" marriages. 10 of those marriages ended in divorce. So, looking at it this way, about 50% of these marriages were successful. Now, granted, other things (sample size, bias, etc.) may have affected the statistics in a more general fashion. But this is a great example of how a seemingly meaningless qualifier can not only give you different statistical outcomes, but can push someone towards different conclusions.

This isn't a good reason to simply ignore statistics. As much as we might hate it, they are a part of our lives, and perform countless useful functions as part of the modern world, from the theoretical all the way down to the technical. But, as with any method of relaying information, we have to constantly be aware of not only the biases of the person relaying the information, but of the determinant factors constraining the data-set. In short, don't ignore the facts...just keep your head up.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

NAP Pro-tip

We all have strengths and weaknesses regarding the defense of our socio-political arguments. I'm sure there are gaping holes in mine. But sometimes I'm a little caught off guard by a weak defense, especially when it's employed often and to little effect. This probably completely captures my love-hate relationship with talk-radio, come to think of it.

One of my favorite of feeble retorts is a common response to the accusation that we (Americans) are essentially free because/if we are allowed to leave the country any time we wish. The assertion itself is incredibly weak (from my perspective) and I wouldn't think it would take much to knock the legs out from under it, but apparently I'm wrong. I've seen both the well-intentioned and well-informed whiff at this one time and time again. Among my favorite typical responses, "Well the other governments are less free so I don't have a choice!" What?!? That's the best you have? Silly commentators, you're conceding the premise just by giving that kind of answer!

My approach:

If someone started walking at you and flailing his/her arms, would it not be assault when they hit you simply because you could have stepped aside? If every time I tried to enter my house, and you attempted to corral me into a cage, would you claim you weren't usurping my freedom because I could simply go live somewhere else? Would taking my car from me by force not constitute a theft simply because I could have put it somewhere else?

These are meant to be rhetorical questions. If they are stupid enough to start biting bullets on any of it, just stand back and let them hang themselves. Any other retort you can give to their claim that starts with, "Well yes, but..." is giving them too much ground. Drag them kicking and screaming back to first principles. My guess is that anyone dumb enough to even make that initial assertion isn't going to make it out of that bog without some serious issues. Socratic method. It works.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Christian Consequentialism

There often seems to be quite the divide within the Christian sphere - one of politics. We often talk about the political pressure exerted by conservative Christians, particularly near election season. Less often we recognize their counterparts, liberal Christians, in a formal fashion. The reason for that, I'll leave for someone else to ascertain. However, it occurs to me that this particular divide may speak more to a general philosophical division that may seem less obvious; one between Consequentialists and Deontologists.

(Before delving any further, I think it's important to recognize that these divides are fuzzy. There are obviously people who don't fit neatly into this paradigm. But the schism doesn't seem any less apparent for it.)

I often hear more liberal, Christian friends and family members mocking conservatives for being somewhat inconsistent in their "Christian" values. The most obvious example that comes to mind is the issue of social programs. More liberal Christians seem to want to pound the moral war-drum on this issue, excoriating what they deem to be hypocritical Christians on the Right - who have apparently never heard of the pleas Jesus had made in the Gospels for us to give of ourselves to those in need. At first that position seems rather tenable (if not laudable) on the surface. But upon deeper reflection, I'm convinced that it's a somewhat misguided notion. So where exactly does, what seems to be, such sensible logic fail them?

If there is a single, continuous moral expression found within the New Testament, I would be hard pressed to say that it's not some form of what Christians have come to call "The Golden Rule." In fact, I'd venture to say that most Christians, liberal and conservative alike, would find this to be the most important and consistent message of Jesus. Great - so that doesn't seem so terribly divorced from the idea of redistributing wealth to charitable ends, right? Well, yes and no. The problem that many liberal Christians have to face (being largely consequentialist) is that it never seems like this is purely an application to ends. Jesus never seems to implore people to help others because this is the most pragmatic end. Rather, he seems to be imploring us to embrace the treatment of other human beings in this way as part of a larger ethical norm.

Indeed, it would seem that the "golden rule" is a norm that encompasses all modes of action without regard to any particular consequence. It implies that you're not to steal, to murder, to lie. It implies that you're to give, sacrifice, and serve. All of this without particular regards to ends, but rather with regard to moral duties to each other as human beings. An interesting implication of adhering to moral/social constructs as a norm is a fundamental regard to means as ends in an of themselves...which is something that consequentialists largely push aside (in theory). An adherence to such a moral maxim is demonstrated time and time again in the Gospels - often with one or more of the apostles making hasty decisions that they believe might further God's ends, with Jesus gently walking them through the issue. For instance, we don't see Jesus call any of his disciples to murder or steal. This isn't because it couldn't further some of the ends he endorsed (indeed it may) but rather because he treats the means as ends themselves, and calling someone to lie, cheat, or steal would be inconsistent with one's moral duty to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

So what does this mean? Well, largely it would seem to indicate that Jesus brought with him a deontological moral standard, while largely rejecting consequentialism. So when trying to connect the tenets of Christianity with a more modern liberal, utilitarian ethic, some obvious problems arise. The funding of government social programs comes practically exclusively from theft. The legitimacy of that theft is contestable, of course, but the action itself is not quite as contestable as a reality of fact. So we have an ultimate end (charity/sacrifice) that is consistent with the normative counsel Jesus provided. On the other hand we have means which are not.

Pending some kind of undiscovered scriptural text that alludes to Jesus' advocation of violence and theft to achieve the ends of charity, liberal Christians who believe Jesus' call to charity can act as a political wedge against their opposition find themselves in what appears to be an untenable position. Of course, this isn't to say that the moral or political reasoning of their opposition is any more correct, even if their beliefs are more consistent with Christian morality. In fact, I would guess that few Christian conservatives are explicitly aware of the deontoligical nature of Christianity, or the fact that this property inexplicably ties their moral views to the political theory of Natural Law in many ways. And, of course, Natural Law is the product of "classical" liberalism in many parsing through some of the transitional terminology may be a little menacing when trying to distinguish liberal vs. conservative thought historically with regards to Christianity.

That being said, the fact remains that, while conservative Christians certainly have a number of conflicting issues worth addressing, liberal Christians may find themselves backed into a serious philosophical corner if they press their "Jesus was really a communist/hippie" view too far.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My Contention

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

- James Madison

If men were angels, government would be acceptable.

- Me

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Burning Books, Buildings, and Bridges

Over at Pileus, James Otteson writes an excellent post which begs the following:

Why is burning the Koran any more offensive than building a mosque near Ground Zero?...

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that both are indeed outrageously insensitive, and people of good faith should oppose them both. But is there a consistent principle among those who oppose the one but not the other? Or is it that some people’s sensibilities are more important than those of others?...

James is one of my favorite contributors at Pileus, although my take is often somewhat different than his (Check out his great book, Actual Ethics if you get the chance!). I offer my take on his question in the comments:

The juxtaposition is kind of interesting. And, of course, the outrage is just going to continue to ramp up over the next couple of days. However, I do think there are some obvious differences – even if they don’t warrant different responses ultimately.

My two cents:

I think there are essentially two distinguishable facets to the sensibility issue; intention and perception. So I tend to compare and contrast the two items from that perspective.


On the one hand, you have an Imam with a (largely) unquestionable track record in his moderate and reconciliatory views on Islam and Western culture. His intention, if we are to take him at his word (past and present) is to build a bridge between these communities…to tear down the walls.

On the other hand, you have a pastor who’s intentions seem largely hateful and inflammatory. I don’t think anyone is under the delusion that he is trying to build bridges or promote peace between the two groups.


Regarding the “mosque”, a large portion of the American people are obviously offended by an Islamic community center being built in the somewhat near vicinity of ground-zero. What I find interesting about this reaction is that it largely seems to be the result of a somewhat tautological progression in reasoning. The first part is the somewhat obvious realization that not all Muslims were responsible for 9-11, and as Roderick Long has lamented, “banning an Islamic cultural center because the 9/11 highjackers were Muslim would be no more salient than banning a YMCA because the highjackers were male.” So justification for a profound amount of sensitivity regarding an innocent Muslim building a place of worship on private property is ultimately the vilification of Muslims in entirety – which had been going on long before this provocation. The truth, I think, is that intention does play a large role here (particularly when it comes to the actions of a person who hasn’t even committed a crime). So opponents have had to continually question the motivations not just this particular Imam, but the whole religion itself. And we’ve certainly seen this argument in spades in the last couple of weeks.

Regarding the burning of the Qu’ran, there are obviously a large amount of people in the Muslim world who are very offended by this action. So how is the perception of those people any different than those of the “sensitive” Americans? Well, since no crime has actually been committed here, I would say the largest difference would be intent. Muslims don’t have to make up a long and drawn-out conspiracy theory to convince us of the uniform hatred all Christians or Americans harbor for Muslims to pin this man as having hateful intentions – he’s being perfectly blunt regarding his actions. If, say, the Imam greatly sympathized with the 9-11 attackers and wanted to build the center as a shrine to the hijackers, I would say THEN Americans would have every right to be just as offended as Muslims around the world now seem to be.

With that being said, I have no sympathy for those that wish to coerce innocent people on the simple grounds of having their feelings hurt – this goes for disgruntled Americans who may wish to start revoking property titles or angry Muslims who are threatening violence over burnt books. So while it may seem like some people like me are being hypocritical, note that I’m certainly not excusing any Muslims who do or wish to do harm upon other people over this. It should be criticized just as swiftly and heavily as the people who are pushing to have government force used to stop the “mosque” from being built in New York. But my larger point, to reiterate, is that when it comes the sensitivity I believe a large part of that kind of response really does require untoward intentions of the “offending” party – which is precisely why, in the “mosque” conversation, opponents have quickly and forcefully woven incredibly generalized statements regarding the intentions of all Muslims into their denunciation of Feisal Abdul Rauf and his project.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Self-Effacing Arguments

From a comment in one of Gene Callahan's recent blog posts:

I've been struck by the passing resemblance anarcho-capitalism bears to feudalism -- they're both forms of landlordism, and ancaps rarely seem troubled by the idea that the "defense" agencies will have far more military power than than the people they're supposedly defending.

Oh, you mean as opposed to the situation we're in now - where "we" clearly have more military might than the agency defending us?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

How Rush Limbaugh Radicalized My Politics

Last week I took some time off to do a favor for my family. I took part of that time, as I usually do, to visit with my father and grandmother. I enjoyed it as always. Often I engage in long, drawn-out discussions with my father on political issues. He tends to talk much more than I do (believe it or not) but I still thoroughly enjoy the conversation.

One of the main themes in this particular pow-wow revolved around the "mosque at ground-zero." He started in on a somewhat lengthy dialogue about how absolutely atrocious it was that we were "letting these people get away with this." There had always been things I didn't see completely eye-to-eye with my father on, but I felt an abnormal amount of resistance to his opinions this time around. In fact, I felt such a strong reaction to it that I contributed absolutely nothing to this part of the conversation. Those who know me probably have a brow raised. Normally I'm quick to converse with people I disagree with. But with his opinion on this issue being so emotional for him, as was my opposition to it, I decided that it would be best for me (in light of the visit) to just leave it alone.

I didn't think much of it until he mentioned something to my grandmother in an offhand comment. He referenced a book I bought him several years ago (which she later read) by Mark Steyn entitled America Alone. In the book the author discusses the dangers inherent to an ever-growing Islamic demographic in the Western World. At the time, it seemed like a great refutation of the anti-American sentiment we seemed to all be buried in. And I remember enjoying the book a great deal. This gave me pause. How exactly did I get from that mental space to the one I enjoy now? I tried to trace my philosophical journey back to its source. And then it dawned on me, "Rush Limbaugh turned me into a radical anarchist!"

I grew up in a divorced household (households?). My mother and step-father were fairly liberal and religiously active (Catholic). My father was a Ronald Reagan conservative and religiously inactive (although carrying on the good fight against those dirty non-Christians). By the time I was old enough to have my preferred TV programming interrupted by my father's love for watching the news, I thoroughly hated politics. Hearing my dad groan and gripe about this and that was just enough to keep me from caring.

I started becoming politically aware in late high school. This proved to be an awkward time as I found myself politically conservative - and at the same time, in abandoning some of my previously held Christian beliefs, I also found myself clinging to more eastern (esoteric) religious philosophies. Yeah, that's right - I was one of the cool kids.

When I moved out and went to college (and subsequently away from my first-hand sources of political opinion - my parents) I began listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio from time to time. I was enamored with him at first. I thought he seemed like a pretty bright guy, and I kind of enjoyed the snarky way in which he made fun of liberals. This resulted in a pretty steady path on the political front for me, at least for a while. I was a conservative, and I couldn't stand all those hippy commies that seemed so ever-present in the landscape. But I found myself changing course drastically after being exposed to another radio host.

Whenever Rush was gone (for whatever reason) he'd often have different guest hosts, many of whom I also enjoyed listening to. On one of these occasions a particular host just seemed to be hitting grand slam after grand slam in arguments with the callers on the economic front. His conclusions might have been wrong (I didn't know anything about economics at the time) but there was a little depth to this well. I was intrigued. That host turned out to be one Jason Lewis - who has his own radio show in Minneapolis. Whadya' know, he even had his own podcast. I started listening to it fervently and soaking it all in. My favorite part of the program was listening to him get into arguments with his callers, incidents in which he was rarely operating at a handicap. I was so taken by his understanding of both law and economics that I started acquiring books from his preferred reading list. This is where my journey into the world of libertarianism began.

Two books from that list began a chain-reaction in my mind that would permanently alter my outlook on politics, economics, and ethics. The first was a book called Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. The second was a short piece entitled The Law by Frederich Bastiat. These two works proved to be the wedge that pried open my political curiosity in more ways than everything else had previously done. Then, those books led me to the Mises Institute, which then opened me to a plethora of Austrian scholars. I started reading DiLorenzo and Murphy, which prompted me tackle the big guns (namely Mises and Hayek). As I started to consume more and more, I noticed that my views were becoming less and less.....conservative. Or at least, less conservative in the modern political sense of the term. I was becoming something I didn't feel too comfortable revealing to other people. I was becoming a "Libertarian."

As I kept reading more and more, I found myself then slowly drifting from the Libertarian Party line (big "L" Libertarian) - which was fine because there wasn't enough time for me to be that attached to it in the first place. I made the fatal mistake of picking up For a New Liberty by Murray Rothbard. I can't begin to tell you about the amount of cognitive dissonance this book caused me. I could hardly get through a single chapter without dismissing the book and the author as being outrageous. This guy wasn't talking about less taxes and smaller government. He wasn't even trying to really make any arguments about what was better for the greater good - which was a hallmark of every serious political movement I'd been exposed to up until this point. He was talking about something different altogether. He was talking about the inconsistent ethical framework on which all governments are built. He was talking about pushing us in a direction of no government at all.

Had he lost his mind? He was describing anarchy! Indeed he was. And what's worse, as hard as I tried to dismiss his rhetoric, it made sense in a way that no other political philosophy ever had for me. How could having no government possibly make sense to me. It seemed so non-pragmatic (later that feeling faded). It seemed so non-sensical. What made it click so much with me in the end? It took a while, but I realized it came down to morality. For better or worse, I've been convinced that violence (and particularly violence that isn't merely in self-defense) is not virtuous - and for that matter, not even civil. That was something for animals. Communication, trade, peace...these were the means for rational compassionate entities. Whether you were the most devout Christian, or the most fervent Atheist humanitarian, it just made sense. You have no right to do things to other people without their consent. This was not only the most virtuous default position, but the most flexible. It allowed for anyone to adopt any beliefs they want, provided they do not push those beliefs on others. Nothing could be more passive. Nothing could be more neutral.

It's from that point of realization that all of the vestiges of my previous political stances unraveled. I was rebuilding all of it from the ground up. And it was probably the most humbling personal experience of my life. I'd been wrong. I'd been very wrong. And I was wrong in a way that favored violence and coercion upon innocent people. I never claimed (now or then) to be perfect or anything of the sort...but I've never felt more shameful for my transgressions than I did in those few weeks. Some of the things I'd said and/or supported still bother me...and I'm still trying to make up for it.

I never would have guessed, at the time, that many years later I'd be sitting in my grandmother's living room with my teeth clenched, listening with utter rage to a diatribe given by my father about the despicable nature of someone putting up a building in downtown New York. If you would have predicted that, I would have laughed in your face and walked away. Yet there I was, staring with the awkward discontent of a convert. And maybe I really wasn't angry with him or his position as much as I was angry that I would have shared it with him, gladly, at one point in the not-so-distant past. But maybe holding onto a crappy political ethos for a while is a good way to motivate a person to adopt a better one. After all, if it wasn't for me listening to Rush Limbaugh all that time, I probably would have never become a radical anarchist.

Monday, August 16, 2010

From the Mouths of Statists

I was reading through some commentary regarding "The 24 Types of Authoritarian" cartoon parody - located on the blog site of the person who created the original cartoon being parodied. A long, drawn-out argument between liberals and libertarians ensued. I could pull material from the comments for a long time to come. But this little piece of heaven made me smile:

There’s also public roads, the fire department, the police department, garbagemen, the Post Office, the DMV, public transportation, and public schools, all of which I can logically assume you have benefited from at some point or another. These things do not pay for themselves. By living here, you have a responsibility to contribute, just as you would in any living situation.

Here, let me try:

There's also hammers, shoes, soccer balls, umbrellas, tires, and floor tile, all of which I can logically assume you have benefited from at some point or another. These things do not pay for themselves. By living here, you have a responsibility to contribute...

Imagine how cringe-worthy and stupid that would sound to most people if I walked around saying that out loud. Reflect on that for a second...

Now you know how I feel whenever a statist presents an argument like the aforementioned one.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Quote of the Day

Over at C4SS, Gene de Nardo presents an interesting piece (which I largely disagree with) entitled "The Capital Conundrum." I'm sympathetic to many of the claims made by members of the libertarian-left regarding corporate welfare and protection. But when it comes to economics, their unbreakable latch with labor theory is just utterly enraging - they believe in it so thoroughly that they are willing to disregard the individualist/libertarian ethos they claim to hold so intimately.

For anyone willing to read through the commentary, my thoughts are largely in line with Stephan Kinsella and Less Antman.

But the quote of the day comes from this little gem of a comment provided by one "RanDomino":

I say, if a community takes something from someone, they probably had a good reason. If you don’t think it was fair, don’t have anything to do with them.

Crap like this is EXACTLY why I'm not a left-libertarian...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Water, Food, and Dirty Laundry

Hearing some bits and pieces about the on-going "net neutrality" debate, I thought I would offer a few thoughts. At it's end, the concern seems to be over various telecommunications companies gaining some kind of monopolistic stranglehold on the internet through tiered subscription arrangements and the manual blocking of certain kinds of websites or data. If that is their intention, then I believe their focus is misplaced. If proponents are really concerned about such a stranglehold arising, a focus on barriers to entry in the telecommunications market is a more apt solution; not government control and burdensome regulation on providers. Consider how the three following analogous situations present themselves in the marketplace, and consider the reaction of the common person:

WATER - Although a municipal venture, the public is not charged a flat rate for water. Like electricity, the provision for and distribution of water is scarce. Because of this, you pay per unit consumed. Data transmission is fundamentally no different. It costs money to transmit data. Bandwidth is limited. We can fundamentally understand why the price structure for most scarce goods reflects a (somewhat) linear relationship between price and quantity, yet when it comes to the transmission of data, people become enraged at the thought of paying more for consuming more.

FOOD - Product discrimination is more than apparent in the food industry. More often than not, when you go to a restaurant you will be limited to certain types of drinks, and therein certain brands. Some restaurants procure contracts with large franchises like Pepsi or Coca-Cola, and agree to offer only their products, and to exclude the competitor's products. Likewise, super-markets give visual shelving preference to their own brands and specific name brands. Yet, people do not generally demand that the government force such businesses to provide access to all brands of a given product in equity simply because they provide a product. Why? How does the market facilitate demand for a wider selection of products?

DIRTY LAUNDRY - Let's say I want to open a laundromat down the street. I set up my business in an identical fashion to many other laundromats with one distinct difference; I charge half price per load washed when my customers use Tide detergent (I've made a lucrative contract with Tide to do such). Should this be illegal? Why or why not? If the general populace does not like this arrangement, what are they likely to do?

These are all serious points and questions I have for the proponents of net neutrality. I would argue, strongly, that the extent to which markets can't resolve such issues is the exact extent to which that given industry enjoys some kind of privilege bequeathed to them by government directly or otherwise. If the government had its hands in the telecommunications industry to as little degree as it does in the industry of dirty linens, I think there would be little to nothing at all to worry about - which is why my primary concern is barriers to entry; particularly the barriers fostered or imposed by government. Unfortunately the telecommunications industry, as a largely municipal venture, is a far cry from separation when it comes to government influence and privilege.

What seems to be leading the charge on this issue is a general misunderstanding of arbitrage in a free market, peppered with a healthy dose of class warfare. Call me unimpressed. The general indictment includes sudden bouts of greed and selfishness, with no apparent tie to the reality of things. As with the financial crisis, we're led to believe that SUDDENLY certain market actors are overcome by greed and a general yearning for profit. The tragedy is that they are so right they don't even understand the implications of their conjecture.

The horrible (read sarcastically) truth is that almost all market actors are motivated by greed. To act like you're surprising someone by alerting them to that fact is to presume that someone is far dumber than they probably are - and maybe that presumption is too common. Telecommunications companies, just like banks, are out to make the largest profits they can. If they could charge you ten times what they are currently charging and make more money (after the loss of market share) they would. Don't delude yourself into thinking that there's some bulwark vestige of altruism in the boardroom that's keeping them from getting another penny out of you - there's not.

The dirty truth is that, without a true natural monopoly, businesses have a hard time keeping their prices above the average subjective evaluation of that good or service. The discrepancies between cost, price, and subjective evaluation creates arbitrage opportunities. Oil companies don't sell oil for $50 a gallon. It's not because they wouldn't like to. It's because they can't - economically, not legally. As long as that given company doesn't hold a natural monopoly on oil, another company can make a killing by offering oil to their customers for $49 a gallon...and so on and so on.

Some economic explanations are simple and some are not. Yet there are some basic truths that aren't hard to wrap your head around when you learn the basics. The reason you can buy a shirt for $5 isn't that the producer is altruistic. The reason that 98% of Americans live on wages exceeding that of minimal federal and state requirements isn't because those requirements exist. Likewise, the reason you can find an enormous variation in soft drinks when you visit your local supermarket is not because of some government mandate imposed by the disenfranchised denizens of fast food joints that give preference to certain brands or products. Granted, some of these conclusions aren't obvious. In fact, some of them are down-right counter-intuitive. But maybe we should give some of these issues more thought before we start publically calling out the hangman.