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.