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."