Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Some Gratitude

I want to take a slight departure from the usual foray into politics and philosophy and dip into something less ethereal. A couple of weeks ago I received a call from an old friend - a friend who I really haven't been close to (or really spoken to, for that matter) in about thirteen years. She's been having some marital problems that have resulted in a (possibly temporary) split. Needless to say she's been pretty broken up about it. And, for a variety of reasons, she hasn't felt like there are many people she can really reach out to. So, for whatever reason, she eventually decided to call me up and talk a little bit.

I've talked to her every day now since then. And I've happily watched her demeanor turn, gradually, from a place of distress, anger, and hopelessness towards a place of stillness, reason, and ultimately control. I'm not even sure if she's even really noticed it yet, but in all the right ways she's simply not the same person I talked to a couple of weeks ago. And, after watching her go through all of this, and seeing the person that she is all over again, at a different point in her life no less, I'm really optimistic about what lies ahead of her at this point.

But what I've found strangely endearing about all of this, even though it has very little to do with me, is how it's continually given me pause over the last several days, and subtly reminded me about parts of the human condition that I simply have not had much appreciation for in recent years. Here is a well-educated, funny, and devastatingly beautiful young woman in the prime of her life with two children (that she loves so much!), a home, and a supposedly loving husband. Let's not even try to take a passive tact here; this is quite literally THE dream for a good deal of people, and most women in particular. She had mostly done the right things in her life and had set the tiles in all the right places. And yet, almost out of nowhere, the linchpin in that dream was suddenly taken from her. It was through no fault of her own. And there was little she could do stop it. Her life became a slow-motion car-crash in just a couple of days.

Granted, talking to me isn't going to help all that much in terms of fixing a problem like that. But I know, especially in times of despair and distrust, exactly how important it can be to have someone to talk to; if for no other reason than to have a sounding board, somewhere to echo your thoughts and feelings. I was very happy to be that person if she needed it. And hopefully I haven't made things worse along the way. She knows I'm trying to be that person at any rate. What I'm fairly certain she doesn't realize, however, is how, even in her darker hours, she's facilitated some of the same comfort and resolve to me.

For a long time I've felt that there are parts of me I've just shut off to the world. For various reasons, which I won't delve into here, it's just seemed to me that there were certain parts of my life, well, not worth living (for lack of a better phrase) because I'd been let down before, and there was simply too much to lose. I'm just one of those people who doesn't deal with those kinds of things well. Distrust, cynicism, negativity - these are the things I've clung to.

And while the events seem small, there are two things about this last two weeks that have impacted me enough to shake my grip on those things. One is the obvious - seeing this woman, who really is a pretty fantastic person in my book, have her world collapse on her...and then watching her have the dignity and pride to begin to brace and pull herself up from the rubble of it all; a refusal to let this ruin the one life she has, or the happiness of her and her children. At the end of the day there are just some things out of our control. Sometimes we deserve what we get, and sometimes we don't - but we only get it once. Refusing to accept your situation will not make it go away.

The second thing, albeit interconnected with the first, seems even more subtle but it's perhaps even more important. I've literally lived half of my life not talking to this woman...and yet, once we started talking, it was like we'd never spent a day apart. Think for a second about how amazing that is - seriously. Think about how strong and yet evasive such a connection with other people can be. Here is a time in her life that is spinning out of control in a bad direction. And yet that seemingly random misfortune brought a longtime friend back to me...and subtly reminded me of how change rules the human condition in the end. It's the connections we make with the people we know and love while we're here that's lasting.

So, to my long-lost friend, thanks for bringing something important back into my life.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Words to Rule By - Liberty Edition

I found this little gem in the comments section in one of DeLong's posts...

From Yglesias' column:

"Last week, Rand Paul explained that saying people have a right to health care is a form of slavery."

According to the Declaration of Independence, the right to life is an inalianable right. Without adequate health care people die needlessly from curable diseases. Therefore an inalianble right to life implies an inalianable right to health care.

Why does Rand Paul hate the Declaration of Independence?

Alright, boys and girls - let's put on our thinking caps for a mere moment and pretend that the gelatin-like substance between our ears hasn't been beaten into a functionless beef-slab by years of forced education and poor reading skills. Let's peel this rancid onion back a little bit:

The Declaration of Independence is not a Constitutive Document of Positive Law

The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was not to outline the contours of our rights (either of the negative or positive variety). In actuality it was a formal declaration of secession (gasp!) from British rule on behalf of the (united) colonies. Admittedly, the commenter isn't explicitly appealing to the Declaration as a matter of positive law, but all too often the "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" clause is implicitly, if not rhetorically, referred to in such a matter as a measuring stick for the legitimacy of a claim regarding legal rights. It's a point worth making clear.

The Declaration of Independence is not a Constitutive Document of Natural Law

Even if the Declaration was, formally or not, some document of positive law, it still would not necessarily follow that it would be in line with with an apriori account of natural rights. Jefferson could have just as well enshrined slavery as a right in such a document. It would have caused some subsequent arguing, no doubt. But we understand that formally enshrining or advocating a right would not make any such act an actual right on that basis alone. That would rely on prior reasoning and abstractions.

But, more importantly...

Jefferson Didn't Mean What You Apparently Thought He Did

There are plenty of things the founders disagreed on. And there are plenty of things they were certainly just wrong on. But, generally speaking, the founders were drawing on a socio-political framework put forth by Locke; a framework of individual liberty denoted and defined by a system of property rights. And although the common conception (or misconception) of liberty today is that of it being individualistic or selfish, the actual philosophical/ethical conception is a negatively defined one. That is to say that our individual rights are not so much defined as some atomistic property of the individual, but rather a set of (negative) social obligations people have to any given individual. So when we say that X has "a right to speak", what we really mean is that all other rational agents have an obligation to not stop X from speaking.

Where the water begins to get a little muddy is when we introduce positive rights to such a framework. Positive rights indicate positive obligations we would have to people. So, if someone says that they have a right to a house, they mean that people are positively obligated to provide them with a house. And I believe it's in misconstruing these two different uses of the same word ("right") that our commenter goes wayward here.

So let's take a look at the "right" in question that is being referred to; the "right" to life (although the original is "preservation of life", interestingly). In the Lockean sense, a right to life would imply that people have an obligation to not take your life. In terms of positive rights, it would seem that people would have an obligation to sustain your life. Which version do you imagine this country's founders to have meant?

Well, let's jump to the actual constitutive document of positive law, The Constitution, and examine the (at the time controversial) Bill of Rights. Now, let's take a look at some of the rights outlined here. What do you think is meant by "right of the people to peaceably assemble" or "right of the people to keep and bear arms"? Do we have a positive obligation to lend out our homes for people to assemble in? Do we, perhaps, have a positive obligation to arm unarmed citizens? Or, in fact, are the rights and freedoms spoken of here a reflection of our obligation to not interfere with such actions taken by others?

So, it's quite easy to see that the efficacy of Paul's statement depends largely on what we mean by a "right to health care". If we meant it in the traditional, negative sense there wouldn't be much controversy here. Of course we have an obligation to not stop people from obtaining health care. Unless people are hanging out in front of hospitals with guns, I don't think this is the issue. On the other hand, if we're saying that people have a positive obligation to provide health care for others (either directly or indirectly through their labor) then there is certainly a sense in which the claim is justified.

If, following the flow of abolition in the United States, we allowed wealthy slave-owners to say something like, "Alright, you slaves - I'm letting you free...but if you should do anything else, you have a positive obligation to hand over %30 of what you earn to me" then I think we'd still have a serious ethical dilemma on our hands. I think a lot of people would still consider that slavery of at least some sort. Are we to pretend that we can wash away the ethical issue here by simply having the former slave-owner declare that he's poor and that he has a "right" to housing, food, health care, etc.?

Once you realize the contentious nature of accepting both conceptions of rights, ethical questions like this are bound to rise to the surface. And the imminent disregard of such problems by contrasting their scope will only let you tread argumentative water for so long. Of course this form of slavery (the fractional income variety) isn't as objectionable as that of chattel slavery. But it's still objectionable and for largely the same reasons. Punching someone in the face isn't as objectionable as the Holocaust either - but that doesn't get you to the ethical high ground on punching innocent people. As a matter of scope, the comparison that Paul made may seem like hyperbole, but in principle he can make a very good argument for calling it slavery - and he can do it while being very much in line with the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Monday, November 21, 2011

How to Lie with Statistics

Perusing my favorite blogs, I ran across this graph from Stephen Pinker's latest book:

The general charge seems to be that "war deaths" are more prolific in stateless societies than the state-based ones we're familiar with. Is anyone else ready to pull their hair out over the misleading nature of that graphic? Let's think about this for a second.

I'll go ahead and assume that the "stateless" examples indeed represent truly stateless societies, and that they are fairly representative of war within those societies (i.e. not cherry-picked examples). I want to make this argument as strong as possible before I unravel it. Notice that the metric being used is "deaths per 100,000 people." Alright, so now we're not talking about some nominal value - we're talking about a ratio or percentage. So, for this, we need the nominal number of deaths for some sample (n). I won't even bother to contest the number of deaths. I'm not a historian. I'm assuming Pinker did his homework. We'll assume that what's provided is correct. But what about the sample (n) being used?

It's stuff like this that drives me up a wall. Notice that the "stateless societies" in question are much smaller and that their wars are more regional and isolated. One might expect, when talking about a regional conflict in which the total amount of people, land, and resources more generally is much smaller, then the cost of war (as a percentage of those total resources) is going to be much higher, relatively speaking.

Contrast this with nationalistic endeavors, where the war may be fought regionally and yet largely un-involved or un-utilized resources will drive your sample (n) value up. The result, of course, is that the inflated sample makes your total cost seem low relative to smaller conflicts. Look at things this way - if two neighboring towns went to war, all of the resources, in terms of people, would be right in the middle of the fight so to speak. It would be hard to escape such conflict. So if two towns with a few thousand people each go to arms over something, having 1,000 people die in the conflict would be devastating according the the statistical analysis above.

On the other hand, in the case of, say, WWII, literally hundreds of thousands of American soldiers can perish in the battlefields of Europe, but since there are 150 million other Americans back in the homeland who aren't even remotely near such regional conflict, the total percentage of Americans killed in war seems small - despite the obvious and incredible nominal disparity. Likewise the astonishing number of deaths occurring in large nation-states like Russia or Japan all of a sudden seem almost insignificant when bundled with their massive and largely uninvolved populace (and I mean uninvolved as in actually warring for contested territory, etc.). Notice that the ratio seems more significant for each of the "states" listed as the proximity between each of them and the regions of involved conflict during the sample period tighten.

To illustrate the issue I see a little further, let's think about how this analysis/comparison would apply in another scenario:

Let's say that there was a city in Utah called "Secessionville" that tried to break ties with both the state and federal governments. And, although this is not how it would happen, let's assume that the state and federal governments, independently, sought recourse through militaristic means. Secessionville barricades itself and prepares for war. The state readies whatever regiment it decides to put together for the purpose of reclaiming the town and the federal government, separately, does likewise in their own interest(s).

So here we have three separate groups about to engage in a regional war. Secessionville has 50,000 people. Utah has about 3,000,000 people. The United States has roughly 310,000,000 people. After three long weeks of battle, federal and state troops are (somewhat) victorious. 35,000 of those hailing from Secessionville have perished before giving up. 200,000 of those hailing from Utah (proper) have somehow managed to meet their maker. And 6.5 million very inept soldiers for the U.S. government have fumbled their way into their graves. Using statistical analysis similar to what we've seen above, how would this look?

I don't know about you guys, but it seems pretty irrefutable to me that the death toll rings much larger for smaller governments when it comes to conflict. So to all you proponents of smaller government, from minarchy to anarchy, put away your Friedman and Rothbard. You've put up a good fight but my charts, metrics, and hidden assumptions have asploded your precious deductive reasoning. What say ye now, deniers of science?!

Yeah. Exactly.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Tyranny of Words

"'Tis but thy name that is my enemy..." - Juliet

Whatever you may happen to think about the OWS movement, it's surely bringing a lot of heat into front-and-center political discourse. Because its supporters and their views are somewhat diffuse, it's hard to lean too hard into any particular generalizations about specific points of policy. It isn't, however, particularly hard to pick up on their general mantra of combating wealth inequality. Or at least you might think so. That generalization sounds somewhat substantive and cogent, but I'm not completely sure to what degree such an assumption is warranted.

When I was first digging into libertarianism I became aware of two related but distinct schools of thought on the origins of natural rights (property rights). One was the familiar Lockean theory (self-ownership, homesteading, etc.), and the other was an argument for rights that sprang from philosophical arguments about language (pushed by Hoppe et al). For the longest time I thought that a linguistic foundation for rights would probably end up being very weak. I gravitated towards the former.

In recent months, however, I've been reading more into Wittgenstein. It's become increasingly apparent exactly how formative language can be not only in our individual understanding of things, but even more generally in argumentation or proposition(s). It's reopened the door to the argument for a linguistic foundation for rights for me. But, even more importantly, I've managed to conjoin some of these thoughts with previous ideas I'd already had from Ayn Rand and Roderick Long concerning how language is utilized in the political sphere.

To bring OWS back into the fold, take a look at some of the comments on this New York Times piece about the evacuation of Zuccotti Park for cleaning early this morning. Let's be clear here; I'm certainly not supporting the confiscation or destruction of personal items or effects (which is what I find questionable about the event). But take a peek at some of the ensuing comments. I don't think I could read a single one without some level of confusion regarding the wording of the commenter.

Many commenters created ambiguous allusions to authoritarian behavior in revolutions of the past by referencing "attacking peaceful protesters in the middle of the night without warning." A useful reference, no doubt. But were the protesters attacked? Were they peaceful? Don't the circumstances of the matter affect how the language should be applied. If you "occupy" my living room for two months without my consent, are you being peaceful? If I move you out (particularly without striking or maiming you) then am I attacking you? I'm inclined to answer "no" for both of these. And yet the particulars of the park occupation and it's subsequent (and probably temporary) removal doesn't seem to come up at all.

The "peacefulness" of their occupation seems to be challenged by the fact that the park is privately owned - and even if it was wholly public, there would still be very real (and very democratic) issues with fair use, collective ownership, and maintenance. The framing of such an eviction as an "attack" seems to be equally challenged by the same set of circumstances. And the claim of "secret" action "in the middle of the night", however that may ultimately apply to the rightness of wrongness of the police's actions, seems to be challenged by the fact that the city and its leaders have been haranguing the movement for a month with regards to trying to conduct basic upkeep and maintenance in the park.

Another commenter claims that OWS has done more to our politics than anything in the last 40 years. On what basis is that even remotely true? A few hundred demonstrators in various cities has proven more politically important than...

1. Vietnam War Fallout
2. Iran Contra
3. 2008 Global Recession
4. The Cold War
5. 9/11
6. The Iraq War
7. The Iraq War (Part 2)
8. The Tea Party Movement
9. Collapse of the Soviet Union
10. 2000 Electoral Recount

Of course, it's merely conjecture or opinion - but by what scale would we attempt, at this point, to color the OWS movement as currently more important than anything in the past 40 years?

Others claim that the movement is "messy" because media outlets aren't giving the movement a voice or coverage. And yet everywhere I've turned for the last two months I've seen almost nothing but complete saturation of the news cycle. Given the numbers of actual protesters, I'm not sure how you could call the coverage they've managed to get at this point anything but a complete media coup. They've managed to drown out most of the news of far, far, far more extensive protests in Europe...not to mention the buckling of the European monetary system - which is arguably the most important world-wide event since the 2008 financial crisis. Exactly what percentage must your movement constitute in the daily news diet of this country before you're not being effectively "ignored" anymore?

Still others want to stick to persecution of the wealthy, and a demand that they be brought to justice and put in jail. And yet very few seem to be willing to supplement their demands with reasons as to why being productive is inherently evil. And if the accusations are more narrowly directed at those who are wealthy at the privilege of the state, why aren't such important discriminations being made? Instead we're fed with a steady line of demands that those who occupy the skyline of NYC be thrown into jail for their crimes. Crimes such as...and...well, the crime of being wealthy it seems. Perhaps the most socially fascinating aspect of this general thrust is not a distinct plea to be helped, but instead a very vocal plea to deliver some sort of punitive justice to the wealthy.

The point is that all of these views and accusations are so vague and ambiguous that they create this viscous medium of social discourse...one that has both inert and fluid properties. It's vague enough to complement ripostes to any of my particular criticisms. They can always drill down from the more ambiguous point to say something less inclusive or controversial. On the other hand, they can continue to use particular language and meta-narratives which are bound to pull in more sympathy than is warranted to their cause. If they can claim being "peaceful" when squatting on privately owned land by pointing to their non-use of "violence", then they can rhetorically, albeit enigmatically, occupy both frames of reference in the zeitgeist - drawing on sympathies for "peace" whether you've excluded the consideration for aggression through violation of property rights or not. It's truly the best of both worlds.

Likewise, their refusal to discriminate between what would be legitimate or illegitimate wealth actually works in their favor. They, consciously or otherwise, manage to elicit a good deal of support from both those who would make such a discrimination and those who would not. This is particularly disconcerting because such groups can be and often are very different in their aims and reasoning. In a way, this explains a lot of the mixed antipathy/sympathy that many groups feel towards the OWS movement more generally.

One can imagine, taken to its logical extreme, that a group could simply claim to be against "bad" things. And there's a sense in which, upon our understanding of the language, we would all rally behind such a notion. But surely how we individually understand the term "bad" differs among us all. And I suppose my frustration with the OWS movement (and a lot of people on the left more generally) is that they've fallen into this spell of extreme semantic regression - where they can ambiguously support happiness, sunshine, and unicorns without being explicit as to their means and ends. You'll rarely hear someone on the left frame their support for "state-run indoctrination of children" in those terms. But you can be sure that if you question the public education system, you'll get a whole lot of talk about how they think a "child's education is important" (as if you don't).

Our arguments ultimately come down to assumptions (right or wrong). And our language animates but often conceals those assumptions. I think this may be where the ambition of many (but still far too few) to move back to first principles comes from. Once you feel like you've begun to unveil the many assumptions hidden in our language, there is an eerie and dominating frustration that arises - borne of the realization that most talk is, well, just talk. We've tucked so much baggage into our ordinary use of language that it seems as though most discussions are just people talking completely past one another; not connecting on what might be the true source of disagreement. Having our discourse wrought with such misunderstandings and concealment, we should all take any and every opportunity to unpack our terminology for our political opponents so that their understanding of our positions is clear and concise. It won't get you the blind support that ambiguity will. But a little intellectual honesty might let you sleep better at night.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mandatory Drug-Testing for Welfare; Why You Should Be Against It

Let me put this at the feet of the potential reader before considering my following arguments - I do not support welfare. And no, I don't mean I don't "support" it in the sense of "as it is now" or "how them liberals' is handlin' it".....I mean I really don't support the idea of coercion, period. That may sound counter-intuitive given the stance that the title of this piece clearly reveals me to have. But I suggest, if you want to look at this constructively, and if you happen to be critical of welfare more generally, that you look at this as an opportunity to take pause and truly reconsider the way you're looking at the issue.

The argument goes something like this:

"If we're going to hand out 'free' taxpayer money (welfare) to poor people we shouldn't be rewarding drug-heads."

So, from this there seems to be two main conjectures:

1. We hand out "free money" to some people at the expense of others.

2. Drug use should be punished.

Let's first consider what welfare is and isn't. Prima facie, welfare (in its various forms) seems like direct subsidization of a particular group (the poor) for a particular reason (poverty). I think this is partially right, but still somewhat misleading. Welfare is actually something much more like mandatory, public poverty-insurance. Now, you can make the argument that you're against being forced into such a program - in fact, I make that argument quite regularly. But once you've been coerced into it, it's not quite clear why the use or non-use of recreational substances should have anything to do with your eligibility as a recipient in such a program.

Take, for example, health insurance; everyone pays, collectively, into these plans that essentially pool the risk of anything requiring medical treatment. People who find themselves in need of an important treatment or operation are not simply getting handouts from other plan participants through their payer...they are simply collecting on the bet that they hedged in the first place. If, collectively, we want to restrict such payouts (which obviously makes sense on a certain level), we would focus particularly on fraudulent claims or risk-ridden actors.

In the case of health insurance it means systematically restricting claims for charges that are (hypothetically) uncalled for. It could mean price-adjustment for premiums from more medically risky participants. Essentially it would revolve around what they are insuring against. In regards to welfare programs, we're talking about insuring against poverty itself.

At this point, there are two breakaway arguments on behalf of mandatory drug-testing, each with different implications.

The Practical Argument

"If they can afford drugs then they don't need the handout."

This makes sense as far as it goes The problem here is that it's not clear why drugs are singled out for concern. If you're insuring against a given condition (in this case poverty) then any series of bars or qualifications would seem to revolve around a particular actor's ability and circumstance...which would suggest, possibly, a strong form of means-testing for qualification. Whether you're able to somehow find enough money for $500 worth of drugs every month or $500 worth of troll dolls isn't really of import in that sense. The important part would be that you have $500 tucked into your monthly discretionary spending. Means testing can, again hypothetically, account for this. If you're trying to reduce fraudulent welfare claims by singling out drug-users then you're likely missing a good deal of the problem altogether.

The Punitive Argument

"Drug use is illegal and should be punished."

I think a good debate could be had on this as there's plenty of room to contest how we look at the War on Drugs in America. I still think it largely misses the point. Society already seems to largely agree on this, which is why we have a plethora of criminal laws aimed at stifling such behavior (much to my discontent). It's already illegal (and punishable) to use most recreational substances. If you're not sure exactly how seriously our system takes it, then you haven't been paying attention.

But why are we arbitrarily singling out welfare as the one public good for which we must prove we're not committing some particular crime before we may receive it? If someone is driving recklessly or under the influence surely that in itself is a legal infraction - as would be the case if a welfare recipient got drunk and punched someone. Few people are arguing against either of those conjectures. Yet we don't insist that you get tested when you receive your licence...or every time you get in the car. Why would we demand to test you for drugs then when receiving what amounts to an insurance claim?

What other public goods and services should we make contingent on drug-use? Roads? Parks? Police? Firefighters? Courts? The military? Why the push, specifically, on social insurance? Even if we make the argument that using illicit substances necessarily keeps you in a situation where you will draw excessively on such a public good (which is a dubious claim to begin with), could we not use the same argument with regards to courts or the police, and demand periodic warrantless searches on behalf of the taxpayer(s)?

In a world absent such coercive programs, where individuals could employ the services of co-op or for-profit providers of said goods and services, people could choose what kind of structural implementation(s) they'd like to participate in. But to the extent that we are quite literally forced to participate in such programs, keeping irrelevant behavioral discrimination to a minimum has to be a priority - particularly if you are critical of such programs, as they exist, to begin with. The extent to which public goods and services play a role in our lives is the extent to which the state may curtail individual liberty. If only the supposed "small-government" types were as keen in seeing the danger of control with publicly-held social insurance as they were in seeing the danger of control with publicly-held health insurance. They'll shit a brick about a hypothetical situation where a single-payer system won't pay for their heart-operation because they eat Cheetos, but don't blink an eye at the thought of a single mother and her kids going hungry because she decided to smoke a doobie once or twice.

If you think that's apples and oranges - you're wrong.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

19 Tough Questions for Libertarians

I'm not even sure (at this point) of the story behind this list, including its context, purpose, or even accuracy. But seeing the infamous Stefan Molyneux take a swing at it earlier this morning, I figured that I could give it a rough go and see what happens. The following is a list of "19 Tough Questions for Libertarians" supposedly laid out recently by Jon Stewart. While I'm not particularly a fan of Stewart or his show, he's certainly a smart and funny guy. Considering the respect and attention that his show commands on the political entertainment front, it's certainly worth putting forth at least some type of coherent response. I don't promise to do the questions or the answers to them any real justice (there are plenty of libertarians better-suited to grapple with them), but I figured I'd put my own spin on things as I see them. In the interest of innocent readers I'll attempt to provide short, concise, and possibly open-ended (Socratic?) responses to these.

Before going forward, it's worth noting that there are many, many stripes of libertarian out there. So I don't pretend to speak for the majority nor any particular sub-set therein. My views are roughly Anarcho-Capitalist; and other Anarcho-Capitalists can feel free to disown me at any point in my responses.

1. Is government the antithesis of liberty?

It depends on what you mean by "government". Government (as we know it) has three interlocking mechanisms; one by which they offer (or in some cases force upon us) certain public goods and services, one by which they preclude competitors from offering some of those goods and services, and one by which they forcibly collect payment for the provision of those public goods and services. The last two mechanisms seem (at least to some degree) antithetical to liberty. Simply providing those goods and services are not necessarily antithetical to liberty.

2. One of the things that enhances freedoms are roads. Infrastructure enhances freedom. A social safety net enhances freedom.

I would say that these things enhance your ability to take advantage of your "freedom" - more explicitly, your rights. But so does having a car, or a boat, or shoes, or food, or shelter, or even a pen and paper. They are all means which enhance the extent to which one may utilize their freedom. And they are all things that we may produce and trade with one another to our collective benefit. A libertarian's task is to ask, in return, exactly why we should feel comfortable with a world in which government does not have a monopoly over shoes and yet we should scoff at a world in which government would not have a monopoly over roads.

3. What should we do with the losers that are picked by the free market?

Routine decimation is my best guess.

But my second-best guess would rely on the sense in which "losers" is being employed here. If we're using "losers" in a relative way - meaning the bottom X% of population X in geopolitical territory X - then I think the question is nonsensical. By that measure, even if we were all countless magnitudes richer than we are today, "losers" of this type would still exist.

If, however, we mean the truly impoverished, the sick, the disabled, etc., then I would think we'd rely on the same popular sense of charity that entrusts democracies to institute such safety nets in the first place. Unless the true "losers" under such a system make up a super-majority of the populace, it would seem as though any serious criticisms of fraternal charity as an alternate approach would undermine the very reasons we'd believe social democracy could provide such things to begin with. If a solid plurality of voters would endorse forced charity, and subsequently an even larger portion of the population would still support charity more generally, it's not particularly clear why the right hand of the general populace need assault its left hand to shake the money loose.

4. Do we live in a society or don't we? Are we a collective? Everybody's success is predicated on the hard work of all of us; nobody gets there on their own. Why should it be that the people who lose are hung out to dry? For a group that doesn't believe in evolution, it's awfully Darwinian.

Right, because, if anything describes libertarianism, it's religiously dogmatic denial of evolution. I think Ayn Rand might be rolling in her (sexy) smoke-filled grave.

It's lines of questioning like this that make me feel like either libertarians have somehow done themselves a great disservice in their explanations over the years or that non-libertarians have been simply sticking their fingers in their ears the entire time. My guess is that it's been a little of both.

Of course we are a society. To think that libertarians believe otherwise is to buy into the atomistic-individualist-caricature that libertarians are too often painted with. Yes, we are indeed islands unto ourselves! We shun social interaction - which is why we talk so little about open trade, open immigration, social acceptance, the perils of war, freedom of association, respecting the rights and choices of individuals (even the poor!), etc. Libertarians, as far as I can tell, aren't against helping people, or against forming institutions to help people, or even against shunning those who refuse to help people. What we are against, more generally, is putting your boot to the throat of sovereign individuals in the name of compassion on your behalf.

5. In a representative democracy, we are the government. We have work to do, and we have a business to run, and we have children to raise.. We elect you as our representatives to look after our interests within a democratic system.

Yes, at least that's the idea at any rate. Outside of the rhetoric the breakdown becomes more complicated. Let's start by assuming away all of the familiar public choice and regulatory capture issues that dominate actual policy today. I'm starting you at the 90-yard-line of our hundred-yard dash here. Who is "we" when we say "we are the government." Is it you? Is it me? Is it both of us? What if our views diverge? What if those with my general view only carry %10 of the vote in every election? Am I still the government, distant as I am from the views of my supposed "representative", and small as the voice I have with that representative as a constituent?

No, the government is certainly not simply "us." At the very best, the government is a representation of a simple plurality of the people - a plurality whose interests may be selfish, wrong-headed, prejudiced, and generally nonsensical. We could debate that at any given time. What we can't debate is that having a simple democratic majority is the sole measure of what should or shouldn't be done in any meaningful sense. And our country certainly has a history of repression in regards to electoral minorities of all sorts - or at least enough to give any intelligent person pause before they wave off the idea of something being pulled out of the hands of such a government.

6. Is government inherently evil?

I suppose this depends on whether we're talking about government as in the people who constitute it, or simply the personification of the abstract entity itself at some level. I'd have a hard time labeling people as purely evil. My guess is that, like other normal people, many in government are basically decent people who have some particular threshold for the malevolent. Most that I've known have had good intentions. But many people with good intentions do bad things ("The road to hell is paved with good intentions", etc.).

If we're talking about the more abstract idea of government itself, it's a somewhat different question. Calling it "inherently evil" is to say something different than what I think most libertarians are claiming. Our claim is that much (if not all) of what government does is predicated upon coercion and aggression - with regards to at least one of the three mechanisms mentioned earlier. As such, it's not an issue of intention (generally). It's about a systemic aggression upon innocent people.

7. Sometimes to protect the greater liberty you have to do things like form an army, or gather a group together to build a wall or levy.

Sure. Absolutely. And there's no part of libertarianism that would stop you from doing such - on a voluntary basis. Libertarians believe (strongly) in society. Society is not government. Until non-libertarians begin to understand that distinction, conversations are going to prove difficult if not confusing. The leftist Bastiat penned in the mid 19th century:

"Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain."

8. As soon as you've built an army, you've now said government isn't always inherently evil because we need it to help us sometimes, so now.. it's that old joke: Would you sleep with me for a million dollars? How about a dollar? -Who do you think I am?- We already decided who you are, now we're just negotiating.

I guess this subsequent question is predicated on the idea that us "right-wing-extremists" love us some government-funded walls and armies.....to oppress the darkies I guess. You might want to consult the minarchy-lite rendition of libertarianism as it pertains to neo-libertarians or libertarian-leaning conservatives. You'll have to venture somewhere else for that one. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.

9. You say: government which governs least governments best. But that were the Articles of Confederation. We tried that for 8 years, it didn't work, and went to the Constitution.

Well, I know this may be a shock for people who happen to endorse a Whig view of history, but there are some people who believe (yes, in the 21st century) that the Articles of Confederation were actually superior to the present constitution. Earth-shattering, I know. There are also people who believe that the loose way in which the powers of the central government were granted in our second constitution led the way to (gasp!) a federal government with incredible sweeping powers fueled by massive debt born onto its people. And, believe it or not, many people who helped write the new constitution had the same worries (did anyone else read the Federalist Papers?).

It's shocking to think about, but it's possible that a handful of wealthy white guys convening to centralize power between the colonies in a last-ditch effort to overthrow the most powerful imperial force in the world (lest they be hanged for treason at that point), may have been a little hasty in constructing such an authority properly - for the long term. Of course, arguably, this is the reason an amendment process was implemented. In either case, however, the drafting of a new constitution was not proof that the previous one didn't or couldn't work; nor is it proof that either of them didn't suffer from significant flaws...which they did.

10. You give money to the IRS because you think they're gonna hire a bunch of people, that if your house catches on fire, will come there with water.

I'm pretty sure the IRS doesn't have much to do with my local fire protection. But, skipping over that slight oversight, would the same argument be made to justify the government's monopolistic production and provision of shoes if we deemed it to be a public venture? If I said that shoes could be provided privately on the market, and that, at the very most, if you were concerned about people who couldn't afford it you could simply credit them for the purchase, would you snap back that we cough over money to the IRS so that we can have shoes on our feet? If the "shoes on your feet" response seems silly to you, replace it with "fire protection" and you'll see why that seems silly to us.

11. Why is it that libertarians trust a corporation, in certain matters, more than they trust representatives that are accountable to voters? The idea that I would give up my liberty to an insurance company, as opposed to my representative, seems insane.

I don't know many libertarians who inherently trust corporations, or even businesses generally. Businesses have to earn my respect and trust to garner continued patronage on my behalf. In fact, one of the chief reasons that libertarians oppose government intervention is the extent to which large companies are able to influence even seemingly restrictive policies to their advantage, extracting additional profits and rents that would likely not be possible without such subsidies and barriers to competition. As to why libertarians might view government in an even-more-dim light, it would probably have to do with the fact that businesses don't generally walk around forcing consumers to purchase their products or services at gunpoint. I'm pretty sure that's an important distinction...that whole freedom of association thing.

12. Why is it that with competition, we have such difficulty with our health care system? ..and there are choices within the educational system.

I suppose you could say that there's competition in the health care system...probably to about the same extent to which you could say it's socialized. But I'm actually struggling to think of a market more burdened by regulation and oligopoly. Working for a third-party company in the medical billing industry, I happen to see a larger extent of government's reach into the industry than a lot of people. Government is not only the largest single payor but over half of all receipts are from government as well. Think about the kind of power that any single entity would yield as half of the entire customer base (by dollar amount). Think about all the government regulations and mandates that encourage excess consumption of health care, or impede real competition all the way from zoning laws to federal medical regulations to AMA restrictive licensing policies. If we want to have a discussion about how market mechanisms have been hampered or destroyed, my first three industries to use as examples are health, education, and housing - in that order. I'm not saying there couldn't be any viable points about why government should be involved in these industries, etc., but if you're going to have a discussion about free-market failures I would think you'd want to start by looking at industries that aren't the epitome of over-regulation and government control.

13. Would you go back to 1890?

You mean, like, if I had a DeLorean and a flux capacitor? Sure.

If you're asking whether I'd personally rather live in 1890, I'd say decidedly not. We have such incredible wealth available to us thanks to technological advancement that you'd have to draw up shorter time windows to get me to want to live in the past. But all that would tell you is that I'd rather live in incredible comfort with the government control we have now than what my lack of productivity could afford me then. Of course, I'd rather have had both a smaller government and the comfort current technology affords us. In fact, I'd think my comfort now might be even greater had government not been growing in the ways it has. But that's speculation. In either case, I wouldn't make that decision on anyone else's behalf.

14. If we didn't have government, we'd all be in hovercrafts, and nobody would have cancer, and broccoli would be ice-cream?


There's some methodological pretense with which I don't feel comfortable answering in the affirmative on any particular counterfactual. I do feel comfortable with saying that government (as we know it) has a detrimental effect on progress to some extent. I couldn't tell you that cancer would be cured right now. I feel pretty confident in telling you we'd be closer to curing cancer if we hadn't already though.

15. Unregulated markets have been tried. The 80's and the 90's were the robber baron age. These regulations didn't come out of an interest in restricting liberty. What they did is came out of an interest in helping those that had been victimized by a system that they couldn't fight back against.

As far back as I can go, in our country, unregulated markets have never existed. And surely not in the 80's or 90's - unless I'm just hallucinating the hundreds of thousands of regulations at the federal level alone. I think it's pretty easy to point to any particular regulation that has been taken away or added as the culprit in any number of unwanted outcomes. Digging deeper, the truth is a little more complicated. You come to find that there are countless regulations predicated on other countless regulations - regulations often created by inept legislators and/or lobbyists or industry consultants. So what you get seems much more like a giant pile of Jenga blocks which we are constantly taking away from and adding to.

The more broad political problem that this creates is the illusion of any one block alone making or breaking the system, when in reality it's actually a good deal of the blocks together which are uniformly determining the temporary feasibility of the structure. Take out a single block and watch it tumble down. Tell yourself it was the pulled block. But don't pretend as if the blocks above and below it had nothing to do with the collapse. The point is simply this - people, the consumers, have a much more powerful voice at the end of a transaction than they do in entrusting legislators to build mile-high Jenga towers without knocking them down or making them impossible for actors (many of which have nothing but piles of money and interest in keeping it) to skillfully evade and navigate.

16. Why do you think workers that worked in the mines unionized?

Because, although possibly better than the alternative, they were still horrible working conditions. I think that's pretty obvious - even for us evil libertarians.

17. Without the government there are no labor unions, because they would be smashed by Pinkerton agencies or people hired, or even sometimes the government.

So an important part in your defense of government is to point out how they failed to protect the individual rights of workers' to associate freely...and that sometimes the government even directly helped violate their rights? Say what you will about Pinkertons or mining companies - that doesn't exactly sound like a shining endorsement of government either. Like many of the services that government provides, I think that protection from physical harm is something that's going to be high on the list for most people. The question is who provides these services and how. I wonder if the government of the Gilded Age worked to protect or subsidize any corporate interests at the expense of workers and consumers as it often does today...hmmm. I think the coal-mining example might be something that both big-government and small-government types might not want to throw out there too hastily.

18. Would the free market have desegregated restaurants in the South, or would the free market have done away with miscegenation, if it had been allowed to? Would Marten Luther King have been less effective than the free market? Those laws sprung up out of a majority sense of, in that time, that blacks should not.. The free market there would not have supported integrated lunch counters.

In all honesty, I think there would be a mix of both in a world of voluntary interaction. We expect and demand free association in almost all related facets of life, but our cultural struggle against racism and prejudice is so tightly wound into the disavowal of that freedom in that one aspect that we've seemed to lose all the connecting dots. Should a man have the right to not work in service of another man, or not let him make use of his property? I'd think so. But I'm told I'm wrong (and possibly racist). I believe that people should be allowed to associate exclusively with any particular race, gender, or creed of people - whether I find that to be rooted in prejudice or not. I can't force you to befriend a person of another religion. I can't force you to date someone of the opposite sex. I can't force you to allow people of a different race onto your property....Oh, that's right! Except for when you're selling something on your property.....which apparently makes "corrective" force on my part completely different from a moral or philosophical standpoint. It's interesting that we'd be so concerned for the economic livelihood of an individual that we'd make businesses serve people of all stripes and yet consumers are not forced to patron business-owners/workers of all stripes. Somehow withholding the purchase of your services because of prejudice doesn't sanction force but withholding my labor from a consumer does.

However, and perhaps more importantly, what people should be allowed to do is different than the question of what people should do, or even what would have happened if they had been allowed to do it. I think prejudice in the form of stereotypical generalization as a backdrop for preconceived judgment of any individual is a testament to the stupidity of humans in groups. There's an awful lot of it still around, in case you haven't noticed....on both sides of the political aisle. My personal favorite is nationalism, which drives Conservatives to blow up brown people around the world and Liberals to protect "poor" Americans from the horrid possibility of other Americans employing people outside our borders. Needless to say, I'm not a fan of prejudice in almost any sense. But, like free speech more generally, people should be allowed to talk, think, and associate in stupid and shitty ways.

As to which method would effectively combat prejudice better, it's hard to say. I do think that, culturally, we were heading in this direction in either case - after all, how would democratic support for such institutional change be garnered otherwise? My guess is that the primary differences would be that, at this point, you'd still have some above-table racism, marginally, with free markets. As to whether that's better than the subdued culture of racism that's been reinforced by the curtailment of individual liberties in the name of protecting "civil liberties", well, your guess is as good as mine there.

19. Government is necessary but must be held accountable for its decisions.

Well, that's not in the form of a question, but it's certainly begging the question. I really don't think that government (again, as described by an organization laying hold to the three mechanisms I outlined earlier) is necessary. I believe that society is necessary. I believe that law is necessary. I believe that freedom is necessary. And I don't believe that any of those require the type of government we've been discussing.

In fact, I'd proffer that the second and third mechanisms of modern government are linchpins for systemic error - errors which cannot be remedied with platitudes about regulation and "accountability" because of their systemic nature. Proponents of government intervention and oversight seem to be keen on believing that selecting the proper inputs will yield the correct outputs. And no matter how many ways it can be shown to them that this is not what happens in reality, that this structure of human interaction is not only flawed ethically but practically as well, they don't seem to be willing to give way to pause for even the briefest of moments. They become apologists for the state and its actions, excusing any and every outcome. So to these nineteen cleverly aimed questions I'll retort with a simple, open-ended question to those that endorse state-based solutions:

Even if it were to be ceded that the state is not inherently responsible for countless atrocities over human history, that it facilitates compassion, reason, and understanding amongst the governed, that it keeps humanity (socially) on some kind of vague, upward trajectory - are you so wed to state-authority that it is impossible for you to even imagine more superior, compassionate, social constructs through which we could solve problems?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Homo Economicus and Conflationism

Perusing satellite-radio this morning I stumbled across an interview of sorts with Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. Most of the conversation centered around psychological phenomena bordering on the mystical (which I gather relates to a good deal of his professional work). While discussing "herd mentality" a caller asked for the Dr.'s thoughts on the seemingly unconscious but unified push that highlights the protests as of late, peppering the general inquiry with observations about how humans have been "conditioned" to be consumers and workers and how they seem to be "waking up."

The Dr. seemed sympathetic to the idea and began to parlay his musings into a general criticism of economics. Specifically he seemed to take issue with the idea that everything is determined by money or wealth more generally and contended that economics can't explain, for instance, someone leaving a tip for a waiter in a town he'd never visit again. He said that some economists are so misguided that they've even come up with a term for the general concept of a strictly self-interested man; Homo Economicus.

Immediately I felt an urge to defend a subject that I've found quite enlightening over the years. It seemed like such a grave misunderstanding regarding the nature of economics. Even without a deep grasp of various economic minutia, this didn't seem to fit with my own understanding at the very least. Of course, I'm aware of Homo Economicus (what I would consider a caricature) , but I couldn't imagine many modern economists really pushing it as a realistic model for rational agents. So I researched a little bit regarding the origins and usage of the term. It revealed an underlying problem with the popular conception of economics; a problem that seemed to mimic a more general political issue which isn't completely unrelated.

It looks like John Stuart Mill was the first to use any version of the phrase. And, indeed, the classicals seemed to use it (perhaps, and hopefully) at an explanatory level as a model for rational actors; generally "self-interested" and, more narrowly, self-interested in the sense of pushing to acquire the most wealth or services for the least amount of effort. Given other economic concepts that prevailed at the time (the Labor Theory of Value, for instance) I can't say it's that shocking to hear such an oversimplification. Large players in the marginal revolution would cement the idea of marginal utility and lay waste to many of the classical assumptions regarding empirical derivations of preference and value. However, the (academically) successful endeavors of several notable macro-economists in the 20th century brought econometric methodologies back to the table and more generally revived the prospect of positivism as a definitive benchmark in social-scientific analysis.

When I originally began digging into economics I found the empirical approach of the Monetarists enticing. But the further inward I pushed I began to gain an appreciation for the Austrian school - specifically for the controversial methodological stances therein. It didn't immediately occur to me this morning, as I balked at the concept of Homo Economicus, that it was largely my more Austrian understanding of economics that made the criticism seem silly.

The whole of economic theory, in the Austrian tradition, is built from simple a priori truth(s) about human action - that they are the convergence of preference (ends) and capability (means). This is what constitutes "rational action" (a term Mises sees as redundant) in this framework. An action which aims at particular end(s) is "rational" in the strictest sense that the actor, subjectively, is attempting to utilize available means to achieve a certain end. In this way, it doesn't matter if the actor is correct in his thinking that said action will achieve his preferred goal or even whether such a goal is sensible to anyone else. An actor's preferences are purely subjective (in an explanatory sense) and only revealed or constituted through action itself. Thus, while we can observe the past actions of agents to see their revealed preference in specific instances in the past, we can never really know the preferences of these actors in the future or real-time without action.

It's this basic foundation of understanding which met the musings of a Harvard psychologist with dismissal this morning. All action, aside from reflexes of sorts, is both "rational" and "self-interested" in that you, by definition, are acting in a means-ends framework towards a subjectively valued preference. It doesn't matter whether you decide to steal a multi-million dollar diamond today or give all your savings away to the homeless - both are rational and self-interested actions. It's certainly not the job of the economist to explain why a person might have the subjective evaluations that they do. While an economist might assume specific means and ends to illustrate important economic foundations, his general specialty is the framework through which said means and ends interact (action) and the trade-offs actors make at the margin to act upon or amend their ordinal preferences.

So, in a basic sense, economists have no particular insight into the subjective evaluations of actors. They might apply, hypothetically, economic concepts to actors based on assumptions about the preferences of those actors. But whether an actor's desires are aimed at the material or the ethereal it does not change basic economic precepts and our understanding of human action. The framework applies regardless of preference, stated or otherwise. Understanding this, it's silly to think that any serious talk of economics includes assumptions about incredibly "selfish" (in the moral sense) desires. It doesn't - or rather it shouldn't.

The insights I've gained, explicitly, from the Austrian tradition pushed me in the direction of such a reaction to the concept of Homo Economicus. "What about someone choosing to be 'selfish' or 'charitable' dismisses the basic tenants of economics!?", I thought. I wondered if any serious conversation of the concept had survived the marginal revolution. Then I thought that if it had, Mises surely would have commented on it at some point. A quick search and there it was - on page 62 of Human Action, Mises speaks on the idea of Homo Economicus:

"According to this doctrine traditional or orthodox economics does not deal with the behavior of man as he really is and acts, but with a fictitious or hypothetical image. It pictures a being driven exclusively by "economic" motives, i.e., solely by the intention of making the greatest possible material or monetary profit. Such a being does not have and never did have a counterpart in reality; it is a phantom of a spurious arm-chair philosophy."

I also read that Mises had, I suppose mockingly to some degree, described the ideal hypothetical model of man as Homo Agens (Acting Man) instead, to drive home the point about economics being, ultimately, the study of human action.

The more I thought about all of this, the more I thought about the general methodological rivalry between the Austrians and the Neo-Classicals (including Keynesians) of the 20th century. Austrians have a contentious view of their empirical approach and feel, generally, that many of the models that lead to particular policy prescriptions assume too much about the world, and often to dismal ends. In that way, maybe, loosely speaking, the contentions of the psychologist weren't completely incorrect. Even though most Neo-Classicals would say that, while empirical analysis is scientifically sufficient, it isn't perfectly accurate - it still seems as though they are all-too-often oversimplifying if not completely looking over some things that are very important, analytically.

Looking at things this way, maybe the criticism rubbed me the wrong way because it was misdirected. Maybe, much in the same way that people conflate massively regulated markets with free markets, the doctor simply conflated Neo-Classicial economics (clearly the dominant view today) with the whole study of economics in general. In fact, maybe a lot of the arguments I get into with people who are generally disinterested with regards to economics revolve around similar contentions. Have I been roping myself into defending people and views that have little to do with me or my own views? This is why ambiguity and generalizations are so confounding and dangerous. More on this at a future date.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Anti-Market Rage: A Medical Analogy

I haven't divulged too much of my feelings on the OWS movement other than some of my basic observations, concerns, and frustrations. This isn't without reason. While I'm very skeptical of the movement as a whole, if you can address something seemingly directionless as a "movement", there's certainly a part of me that wants to sympathize with a general sense of anger and bewilderment regarding the political goings-on of the last few years. In a lot of ways I think that it's really important just to have people really standing up and saying that they're witnessing something that doesn't seem quite right. I'll never not have respect for what's taking place in that sense.

On the other hand, there's certainly part of me that feels a bit of repulsion to the populist/democratic nature of a lot of what I've seen as well. The "we are the 99%" meme may end up serving them well, rhetorically - but my view (even of history more generally) does not give a lot of credence to the concept of proving your "rightness" on any given issue by appealing to popularity. There's been an awful lot of things that have been both pretty popular and terrifyingly evil in my book. Such a contention is probably water under the bridge at this point but it's important to remind people that being part of the angry mob - while maybe giving you the power to carry forth with X - certainly does not make X right or even virtuous.

Of course, having my own niche views, there are parts of any movement or creed I'm probably not going to like. I'm trying to lend this political "happening" as much rhetorical rope as possible in my own mind before I completely dismiss them. But the single-most aggrevating thing to me, I think, so far is their seeming inability to really understand the underlying complex set of political relationships leading to the problems they are trying to address (or at least a subset of the problems that they address).

They are keen on identifying real problems, as well as real actors, but a lot of times they focus on one particular group of actors as being "evil" or "greedy" - instead of realizing, I think more realistically, that all actors are generally self-interested...and yet markets, usually, have mechanisms that work to the advantage of those who consume their services. So instead of asking what makes such a dynamic different for certain things (particularly over the last few years), you get this kind of general screed against whole categories of actors in the economy, or even less convincingly "greed" - as if those making the claim can't understand why McDonalds can't/won't charge $500 for a hamburger...even though they'd very much want to.

In other words, it's a frustratingly shitty place to start an argument for anyone who really believes in the real strength(s) of free markets. I have family members and friends who post a lot of these OWS-related videos and articles on Facebook. Most of the time I don't bother to comment (as some of the people aren't entirely receptive to arguments that might rock the emotional boat on this issue), but I do at least try to look at some of it. This morning, in particular, I saw a link to a supposed "Anonymous" video floating around (I wonder if supporters of OWS know what "Anonymous" actually is or isn't) which claimed we knew the real problem underlying all of this; it was a single word - bankers.

Not "this particular group of bankers involved in regulatory capture" or "this cartelized banking system that's outlawed competitors."

Just bankers. Period.

When you continue to hear people make general accusations like that there's a certain sense of uselessness that washes over you. You start to think that there's no way to move the goal posts with anyone. You start wanting to lock yourself in a room with those people for a week with a dry-erase board (made by greedy people) and build the whole world of economics from the ground up for them while holding their hand the entire time. Unfortunately we don't have that kind of time or pull with people. And if we did, I'm sure I wouldn't find myself so frustrated as often as I do.

But seeing this particular video about "bankers" made me think of a really simple medical analogy that kind of underpins the frustration of free-marketers with the contentions of the OWS masses:

Blaming "bankers" or "banks" generally for the issues plaguing the financial system is like blaming your arm for an infection you have on it. Yes, your arm is the part of your body that's hurting at the moment - and you might even feel like you want to cut it off. But if you walk around telling people that what the real problem is (in regards to pain) are "arms" - in general - then I think it's a safe bet to say you haven't thought through all the implications of the problems at hand.

So it seems to be with a large part of the OWS movement and the political and economic problems that lie before us. A lot of the responses seem much more about satiating populist feelings than helping the "patient" actually get better. Let's hope all the "doctors" pushing for the pre-mature amputation of limbs give a little more pause before throwing those prescriptions on the table in earnest.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Angels and Demons

In making my usual rounds at the blogs I so dearly admire, I'm always enamored of some of the general commentary directed at libertarians or libertarianism. Some of the criticism is polite and well-reasoned. At the other end of the spectrum there is quite a bit of it that is hateful and often poorly written. I get a kick out of reading both kinds. What's odd is that the posts that are actually frustrating are the ones that fall most squarely in between the two, often a comment which seems well-intentioned but poorly reasoned.

I saw one such comment on Marginal Revolution recently, a criticism that I've seen and heard countless times but one that seems to miss the whole thrust of libertarianism in the midst of critiquing it. It's a claim that comes up in discussions about the libertarian view of the government and/or its role, in general. It goes something like this; A libertarian excoriates government and wants to reduce or eliminate it in some capacity - a critic responds that this is Utopian nonsense, that libertarians foolishly believe in the good-hearted nature of man and rely on that to keep people in check.

It's really just a re-hashing of Madison from Federalist #51:

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

It may be true that libertarians, generally speaking, place more faith in the basic social institutions of man than some. They don't believe that everyone would simply abandon their normative prescriptions without a coercive monopoly to enforce them - after all, is it not those underlying moral constructs that inform our building and maintenance of such an institution as it already exists? It certainly would seem that way. The deontological claim from libertarians is that such social institutions ought not impede liberty. But, of course, this isn't the only argument libertarians make. They also, more often than not, make consequentialist arguments for why free-floating social institutions (as opposed to their self-imposed monopolist versions) actually work out better, as per their intended function, in the end.

In the political sphere, a large part of the libertarian argument against government isn't that people are simply angels and that since this is self-evident then we need no such institutions. Rather the argument is actually almost the entire opposite. Men are, indeed, not angels. They are agents that, even in supposed public capacity, are more than capable of acting as self-interested agents (there's a whole field dedicated to this idea). So our view is actually something like:

If men were angels we wouldn't need institutions of justice. And since they aren't, we can't allow a single group of actors to obtain the right to exclusively shape and administer justice.

In other words, yes - if men were angels we wouldn't need "government." But if men were angels, we wouldn't have to worry about an exclusive governing by a single group of men over other men. If there is any common theme in libertarianism it's the upholding of property rights and a general thrust for decentralization of power - concepts which evolve from the general notion that men are not perfect, and therefore must have coherent social conventions through which largely peaceful interaction is possible. I think I speak for all libertarians when I say, "If you think libertarianism isn't borne out of a heavy consideration for the malevolent capabilities of man, then you don't understand much about libertarianism."

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Libertarian Black Box

Yesterday I was browsing over a piece linked by Brad DeLong about "Libertarian Ponies". Needless to say, I wasn't exactly expecting it to be commentary that was sympathetic to any of my views. But something struck me about halfway through it, and it's something that hits me reading the vast majority of criticism lobbed at libertarians; the overwhelming impression that such critics are being purposefully obtuse regarding the arguments libertarians actually make.

It's obviously more prevalent as the shade of libertarianism being critiqued deepens. This particular piece seems to extend its reach to the most radical libertarian elements (which is fine). But in almost every case it seems like even the most intelligent critics completely ignore or invert the general framework of libertarian reasoning. I don't like to generalize, but at least most of the more radical libertarians I know make a point to actually understand the ideas and contentions of their political opponents. Why is it that conservatives and (especially) liberals can't seem to make the same effort? Again, people like Brad DeLong are not stupid...not even close. Is it a terrible thing to demand that your detractors actually understand the arguments you make before they dismiss them?

I don't mind having political disagreements, all the way from base ethics to pragmatic application. But the will of many to ignore, evade, or twist the arguments being made (and sometimes not being made) is staggering and almost systemic in presence. How many times can you throw your hands up and ask, "WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT!?!?" in reading a piece before you give up? When you have to do that at the end of almost every sentence I would say that's a sign of a serious disconnect and that it's time to re-evaluate exactly what is going on.

After some quiet thought and reflection, I've boiled my hypothesis down to a mental bosium-strip of sorts:

The Libertarian Black Box

In any kind of basic systems-analysis you can boil complex processes down a simple definition of functionality - the proverbial "black box." The "black box" is simply a way to look at the behavior of a system (by looking at inputs and outputs) without necessarily getting caught up in the why's and how's of the system. So we can view this as the way(s) libertarian arguments seem to be received or interpreted by non-libertarians.

From my experience, the psychological artifact of non-libertarians (at large) that I call the "Libertarian Black Box" has two primary functions.

Function 1: Read in a refutation of means as a refutation of premise or ends

This has to be the most prevalent form of obfuscation or confusion a libertarian will run into when talking to non-libertarians. When libertarians raise consequentialist or deontological objections to a given method to achieve a given goal, often the person in question will reply as if the libertarian doesn't see the initial problem or that they don't support any solution to it...both of which are usually unequivocally false. In trying to lay rhetorical waste to the Anarcho-Capitalist notion that market mechanisms will better direct and produce law enforcement and protection, the author of DeLong's linked piece sarcastically exclaims:

"Now wish that people should, despite that lack of any restraint on their actions such as might be formed by policemen, functioning law courts, the SEC, and so on, not spend all their time screwing each other in predictable ways ranging from ordinary rape, through the selling of fraudulent stocks in non-existent ventures, up to the wholesale dumping of mercury in the public water supplies."

Admittedly, it would be a pretty slamming argument...if radical libertarians didn't believe in rights or their rightful enforcement. But that's not the stance libertarians make. In fact, the whole consequentialist side of their argument demands better provision of these services, and further goes to explain why pseudo-monopolistic institutions, such as the ones we have, are predisposed to providing these services inadequately and poorly. Libertarians, generally, do not pretend these problems don't exist - they simply believe they have a better way, both economically and morally, to handle these problems.

To understand this point a little better, imagine that government claimed a monopoly on the production of TVs. No one else would have a right to compete with the government in this particular industry. Granted, we could choose new managers for this government-run enterprise every few years, but what would the problems be from a developmental and distributional standpoint? What are the well-known downsides to monopolistic control of any industry? How does competition alter incentives and ultimately the path of industry, the emergent relationship between consumer and producer? If we wouldn't expect affordable, quality products from a monopoly what can we expect from a monopoly on the institution of law?

David Friedman writes, in The Machinery of Freedom (p. 132):

"Imagine buying cars the way we buy governments. Ten thousand people would get together and agree to vote, each for the car he preferred. Whichever car won, each of the ten thousand would have to buy it. It would not pay any of us to make any serious effort to find out which car is best; whatever I decide, my car is being picked for me by the other members of the group. Under such institutions, the quality of cars would quickly decline."

At this point I should point out that it's more than acceptable to disagree with Friedman's conclusion here. What's not acceptable is to act as if his contention with the hypothetical production and distribution of cars in his example meant that he didn't want cars to be produced. It's worse than a non sequitur; it's simply dishonest or ignorant.

Unfortunately, the contrarian view of libertarians regarding government purview over all kinds of institutions has been suffering this argumentative fate for quite a while. The classical liberal writer Bastiat makes a clear and concise acknowledgment of similar frustrations in The Law (A Confusion of Terms):

"Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.
We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain."

Function 2: Make a critical claim about a perceived weakness in the proposed system that applies just as much if not more so to the system you defend

This function is often tangential to, or a part of, the first. Although, from personal experience, it's often much more blatant and exasperating. This occurs when non-libertarians are on the offensive, scoffing at and excoriating the simple folly of libertarianism; when, all too often, their criticism applies even more aptly to the system they so vociferously defend. The author of DeLong's linked piece takes the Anarcho-Capitalist notion of private protection to task:

"Now, everyone close your eyes and try to imagine a private, profit-making rights-enforcement organization which does not resemble the mafia, a street gang, those pesky fire-fighters/arsonists/looters who used to provide such "services" in old New York and Tokyo, medieval tax-farmers, or a Lendu militia...Nothing's happening but a buzzing noise, right?"

There are several things to point out with, particularly, the "profit-making" incentive(s) being brought up, in accord to the not-so-free-market nature of many supposed "laissez faire" fire-fighting failures (or even the failures of the quite public providers of such services). An actual discussion of how public vs. private frameworks for such provisions might develop never occurs. Instead we're left with the presumption that failure doesn't or can't happen in the public sphere. Just look at how talk of private protection or the rendering of civil disputes turns to the allusions of thieves and private gangs...the point of which, of course, is to provoke fear of "private crime" emanating from such institutions. We can ignore, for the sake of discussion, the quite private (and often efficient) arbitration and security in the employ of much of modern society already. Does the author truly believe that government and it's monopolistic control of such services is devoid of similar applicable worries and criticisms?

What is a street gang, or the mafia? We think of them more loosely as criminals. But what do they do? They lie to, cheat, rob and murder the innocent, shake people down for protection money, favor some individuals and businesses while suppressing others, extract what amounts to rent payments for land they do not own, and engage in bloody conflict with other such institutions over territory and procedure. Exactly which one of those features, again, does not describe the actions of government as well? In fact, the largest difference between the two conceptions seem to be consent of a democratic plurality and the pretense of legitimacy and just monopoly. If we're going to have a race regarding which group is worse on the scales of theft, murder, detention and/or abuse of the innocent, lying, fortune-building, cronyism, violence, and the generally unilateral prohibition of peaceful, voluntary interaction and movement I'm putting all my money on the state-sanctioned horse.

It's bad enough that someone isn't able to see how the supposedly "legitimate" institution is worse than the ones they've ostensibly pushed into the hands of criminals, but do they really not understand that there is no environment BUT the criminal one for such competitive institutions to exist under the current system? Is it possible to imagine that an actual freely competitive system for such services would produce different results than what we have now? Have we really not learned anything from the "War on Drugs"? Does anyone take seriously the notion that re-legalizing alcohol after prohibition did or would have legitimized the criminal providers who supplied said product in light of the U.S. government's prohibitive policies towards it? Even if we couldn't imagine that competition in protection would develop as easily and peacefully as post-prohibition alcohol production and distribution, does that settle the contentions over whether competition for such protection services produce better or worse results than a monopoly on those services?

Surely we can disagree regarding the conclusion. But are supporters of the state really under the delusion that governments (monopolies on law and protection) aren't responsible for countless grievous atrocities throughout history? Is it a stretch to think private crime, as bad as it is, pales in comparison to such state-sanctioned indiscretions? I don't think it's a crazy notion to consider. And the complete obliviousness towards the actions and nature of government implies some kind of ethical veil on the state; one through which immoral acts committed by the state are not immoral; that somehow the individual with a badge or uniform is not to be held to the same moral standards as the rest of us. As Murray Rothbard correctly notes in "For a New Liberty (Chapter 3: The State)":

"The State! Always and ever the government and its rulers and operators have been considered above the general moral law... Service to the State is supposed to excuse all actions that would be considered immoral or criminal if committed by "private" citizens. The distinctive feature of libertarians is that they coolly and uncompromisingly apply the general moral law to people acting in their roles as members of the State apparatus. Libertarians make no exceptions. For centuries, the State (or more strictly, individuals acting in their roles as "members of the government") has cloaked its criminal activity in high-sounding rhetoric. For centuries the State has committed mass murder and called it "war"; then ennobled the mass slaughter that "war" involves. For centuries the State has enslaved people into its armed battalions and called it "conscription" in the "national service." For centuries the State has robbed people at bayonet point and called it "taxation." In fact, if you wish to know how libertarians regard the State and any of its acts, simply think of the State as a criminal band, and all of the libertarian attitudes will logically fall into place."

Monday, October 3, 2011

Occupation and Understanding

The last few weeks I've been peppered with news articles and videos regarding the various "Occupations" occurring around the country; namely Occupy Wall Street and Occupy DC. Of course, according to supporters, these events aren't being covered at all by major media outlets...which moves me to question my own sanity. Perhaps the clips and articles I've seen were really intricate mental fabrications I've unconsciously integrated in order to deceive myself. It's not out of the question. A lot of people think that's also a plausible explanation for libertarianism as well.

At any rate, there's a contingency within that fragmented hallucination (libertarianism) who have, for various reasons, attempted to attach themselves to the "Occupation" movement in different respects. Some are simply latching as an attempt to re-direct the movement to engage what they perceive to be the true source of injustice (government), while others seemed to be under the impression that the larger movement is, in essence, already a movement running counter to government reach and power. Slowly but surely I believe the latter group are finally becoming disillusioned.

I'd like to think that there was some sudden swell of rationality in the American zeitgeist, but the literature, signage, and interviews of "Occupation" participants have proven quite otherwise. While there are plenty (and I mean plenty) of arguments to be made about how government unjustly tilts the economic game in favor of all kinds of special interests, not the least of which would be those on Wall Street, it seems instead the protesters have been focused on vintage Progressive talking-points; namely inequality of wealth...without regard to the nature of such acquisitions. Nothing new under the sun. From calls to behead the wealthy to pleas to have others embrace the cost of student-debt, it appears that participants have no moral qualms with tossing aside the rights of others to achieve their desired ends. Of course, the tragic irony is that their "protestations" are not towards the end of thwarting the truly unjust actions of government or its beneficiaries but rather to strengthen the resolve and general support for the very institution responsible for much of the plight the "protesters" evidence.

And all of this is happening, perhaps not so coincidentally, at the same time that supporters of the current administration are fending off claims of class-warfare generated from recent debate over tax-policy. For me, in both regards to tax-policy and the recent "protests", the class-warfare aspect is painfully visible if not revolting. A simple acknowledgment of general moral sympathies is more than enough to understand the socialization of compassion and charity that evolve, I would estimate, very naturally...and possibly even particularly in more reasoned post-Enlightenment societies in the Western World. But how we reconcile those very real moral sympathies with (at least some of) our predisposition to actually demonize the relatively wealthy is another question altogether.

I say "relatively" because there is no absolute definition of poverty. If we expand the (perhaps even selfish) concern for only American citizens to, say, the entire world, then a new definition of relative poverty begins to emerge. Suddenly even the very poor, by American, first world, standards, suddenly seem...wealthy. Compared to the squalor, dire famine, and impoverishment of the third world, the American poor live in relative comfort. This, of course, is not to dismiss the troubles that burden the lower class in America...or even the middle class in America. But it does make one question the aims of the supposed compassionate among us who demand, in the name love and humanity, that we tithe not to the truly poor and suffering in the world (by truly rational and relative definitions) but to those much higher in the wealth strata.

Or what of relative poverty from an inter-temporal perspective? Does anyone doubt that many of the people today in the lower rungs of income in the U.S. enjoy much vaster riches than kings and queens of past? Perhaps not in terms of mere leisure time, although we certainly enjoy more leisure time than the working classes of the past. But even just looking at the absolute marvels available to us - cars, TV, computers, cell phones, wireless internet, plumbing, air conditioning, refrigeration, heating, supermarkets - it's easy to see that even things we may consider basic necessities in the U.S. today, things that even most of the domestic "poor" have access to, were far out of the reach of the upper echelons of society mere decades ago. We can push the argument back even further. Does anyone really think the poverty of the industrial revolution (circa 1880) was the same as the poverty that existed at the turn of the 19th century? In a hundred years could poor people who have a much higher quality of life than the upper-middle class of today also be considered poor? By what standard(s) of need and want do we define poverty?

My fear, judging from the words and actions of the supporters of these recent "protests" is that poverty has no standards except relative ones. And if it is indeed the case that poverty rests not in some standard of comfort from need and want but rather in protestation of the over-productive by the less productive then I fear libertarians have a long, arduous road ahead of us. It's seven pitches of black above maddening and below disheartening to try to openly engage the people who have such predispositions. My own personal experience is that you can work their beliefs into knots and yet they'll evade, ignore, or simply dismiss your contentions. My friends, the cards are not in our favor.

If libertarians truly want to roll over the institutions of old they are going to have to start at the very bottom. No presidential race under the sun will move the ideological goal-posts for people who think that prosperity and peace can be bought with coercion and theft. So, while I have my doubts regarding many of the libertarian-minded civil disobedients out there trying to win the hearts and minds of such people, I have nothing but praise for their effort. Such attempts may seem futile in the short run, but we know what we're up against. Vassals of the state, of all stripes, will hold the comparative advantage in coercion and force. Our weapons, first and foremost, must always be love, patience, and understanding. We may never live to see its fruition, but this is how we free the ensnared. This is our part in the revolution. Reach out to them. Embrace them. Help them.