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.