Thursday, May 26, 2011

On Being Objectively Wrong

Over at Free Advice, one "RS" links to:

Needless to say, it doesn't look impressive - even at first glance. Before I pick it apart, I'd like to disclose that I obviously admire Rand a great deal. I've defended her and her ideas on numerous occasions on this very forum (and others). As far as 20th century philosophers go, you're not going to get much better than Rand in my opinion (except, of course, for Rothbard). So I don't want to make this seem as if it's a slam-fest against Rand per se. In any case, her views, and the subsequent views of her acolytes, regarding "anarchy" are disturbingly off-base. It appears that Harry Binswanger is giving us the opportunity to see precisely why:

A proper government is restricted to the protection of individual rights against violation by force or the threat of force.

And right off the bat we see a pitch hopelessly flung in the dirt. I don't think any anarchist would disagree that this is the purpose of government (or at least this is the case in the U.S. to some degree). However if my stated purpose is to protect everything in your house and I do so by filling your house with protective foam, against your wishes no less, there is a very real sense in which you're not protecting everything in my house. In fact, you're damaging the items in my house in a very real way.

If government's role is restricted to the protection of individual rights, and it must do so by explicitly violating them, then there is a sense in which government, by definition, does not protect rights - but rather it only protects some rights in exchange for the violation of other rights. I don't think it's out of the question to entertain frameworks under which ALL rights are both protected and respected by those providing services nominally designed to do so.

A proper government functions according to objective, philosophically validated procedures, as embodied in its entire legal framework, from its constitution down to its narrowest rules and ordinances.

In theory, this is certainly how government is at least supposed to function. However, it clearly is not functioning that way. For whatever good the Constitution has been conceptually, it has abysmally lacked force in practice. And even then, the use of such a contract, also, demands consent as a matter of individual liberty. As Lysander Spooner so clearly decried:

Inasmuch as the Constitution was never signed, nor agreed to, by anybody, as a contract, and therefore never bound anybody, and is now binding upon nobody; and is, moreover, such an one as no people can ever hereafter be expected to consent to, except as they may be forced to do so at the point of the bayonet, it is perhaps of no importance what its true legal meaning, as a contract, is. Nevertheless, the writer thinks it proper to say that, in his opinion, the Constitution is no such instrument as it has generally been assumed to be; but that by false interpretations, and naked usurpations, the government has been made in practice a very widely, and almost wholly, different thing from what the Constitution itself purports to authorize. He has heretofore written much, and could write much more, to prove that such is the truth. But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain — that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.
What's worse is that, by the establishment of a monopoly on said force, parties not adjoined to the majority have no refuge from its inherently oppressive misuse and/or dismissal of such a contract. I'm reminded of David Friedman who popularly points out what poor shape we'd be in if we picked cars in the way we pick government officials - that every so many years the majority chooses a car which we now all must drive. We certainly wouldn't expect the best cars to be made under such a system, but somehow the Randians miss this point entirely.

Once such a government, or anything approaching it, has been established, there is no such thing as a "right" to "compete" with the government—i.e., to act as judge, jury, and executioner.

This may constitute one of the most disturbing sentiments of the whole piece. If we're talking about rights, even in the purely Lockean sense, they don't simply vanish under special circumstances - ever. In fact, even if it's conceded that rights may be violated with good cause, I believe it's fairly clear that such rights still exist. This contention causes me to wonder precisely what rights Objectivists think exist, and what their origins are.

Interestingly enough, even by his own definition, the writer leaves himself vulnerable to pleas for anarchy. Apparently such rights (self-ownership?) don't apply under a specific circumstance; when such a functioning Utopian government is in place - ie: when autonomy is no longer needed regarding deliberative justice. But even according to Rand and her followers, clearly such a system is not in place, or at least not functionally. And so, even if motivated by her guiding sentiment, it would seem we have a very real right to not only compete with but to contest the current government under such conditions.

Nor does one gain such a "right" by joining with others to go into the "business" of wielding force.

And yet clearly this is precisely what constitutes the system we have now - is it not? If the "Objective" right to govern is not constituted through some democratic wielding of force, then how can one EVER support the current regime - regardless of whether it's properly functioning to provide justice or not? Even if such a group were to achieve the ideal system of justice, it isn't clear what principle would tautologically demand that they could claim some kind of monopoly on such services. We know all the perfectly good reasons why the first person to make the "perfect" boot shouldn't be allowed to shoot and cage other boot-makers for making boots - but suddenly we expect such actions to reap beneficial consequences when applied to the political realm?

To carry out its function of protecting individual rights, the government must forcibly bar others from using force in ways that threaten the citizens' rights.

Why? This seems like a non-sequitur...a blind assertion. We're not given any reasoning why this should be so. The boot-maker could just as easily make the same claim if we're not going to ask for specific justifications.

Private force is force not authorized by the government, not validated by its procedural safeguards, and not subject to its supervision.

And neither are the products or services of rival boot-makers.

The government has to regard such private force as a threat—i.e., as a potential violation of individual rights. In barring such private force, the government is retaliating against that threat.

Of course - and rival private law bodies may see a single body's monopoly status as a threat - and not only a potential threat but an actual violation of individual rights (as a constitutive matter of their very functioning - through taxation, regulation, etc.). If anything, this should be the very reason against allowing ANY organization to have a forcible monopoly on anything. By definition it leaves little recourse to escape such violations of rights, and in the case of social democracies it leaves precisely no recourse for violated minorities.

Note that a proper government does not prohibit a man from using force to defend himself in an emergency, when recourse to the government is not available; but it does, properly, require him to prove objectively, at a trial, that he was acting in emergency self-defense. Similarly, the government does not ban private guards; but it does, properly, bring private guards under its supervision by licensing them, and does not grant them any special rights or immunities: they remain subject to the government's authority and legal procedures.

And what then, exactly, keeps this "proper" government in check that could not or would not keep rival "governments" also in check? As the famous saying goes, "Who's watching the watchmen?" In order to support the night-watchman state we have to presuppose some way to keep the night-watchman in his proper role, and it's not clear why giving him exclusive monopolistic powers would be preferable (in that context) to allowing for competition. Generally speaking, we don't believe that giving G.E., CitiBank, or Goldman Sachs a straight-up-monopoly is a good way of keeping them in line. It would be instructive for Objectivists/Randians to explain how such a phenomenon shares no inimical attributes in the realm of politics.

Picture a band of strangers marching down Main Street, submachine guns at the ready. When confronted by the police, the leader of the band announces: "Me and the boys are only here to see that justice is done, so you have no right to interfere with us."

Wouldn't this not, even by Objectivist standards, apply only if such police are enforcing some true sense of justice? Replace the word "police" with "mafia" and you'll have a less-than-subtle reveal of the anarchist viewpoint. Yes, it would be bad to have a group violate true defenders of justice - but that's begging the question. You have to assume who is who. What if that particular group of people are defending the rights of individuals that are being violated by the supposed "defenders" of justice? What recourse would the myopically monopolistic system of justice truly offer us? And why couldn't multiple layers of arbitration and enforcement insulate organic systems from an escalation of violence? Does anyone understand how car insurance companies interact? Could we not imagine that even better systems could arise if given the opportunity?

According to the "libertarian" anarchists, in such a confrontation the police are morally bound to withdraw, on pain of betraying the rights of self-defense and free trade.

I'm pretty sure, although I can't speak for other anarchists, that the only groups we would say were morally bound to withdraw are those that are violating individual liberties. In this scenario, tellingly, it's not indicated who is violating the liberties of others and who is not. Ironically perhaps, our gripe with Randians is that they're apparently not looking at the rights themselves - they're merely defending some mystically divine sanction of the state to be the arbiters of justice; of right and wrong.

In fact, of course, there is no conflict between individual rights and outlawing private force: there is no right to the arbitrary use of force

Libertarians (anarchist or not) do not support a right to arbitrary use of force. In fact, that's precisely what makes us libertarian. The primary difference is in what separates "rightful" from "arbitrary" use. The ONLY rightful use of force for the libertarian is in defense of liberty - in restoring and protecting rights. Governments of all stripes have in the past, and still continue to, use force which is not precluded by such "rightful" motivations. As such, government is largely one of the prime users and defenders of force which we would define as "arbitrary." This is precisely why giving them a monopoly on that force is foolish.

No political or moral principle could require the police to stand by helplessly while others use force arbitrarily—i.e., according to whatever private notions of justice they happen to hold.

And, likewise, no political or moral principle would require individuals to stand by helplessly while others (including the police or, more generally, the government) use force arbitrarily - according to whatever public (aggregated private) notions of justice they hold.

The basic questions that the anti-philosophical "libertarians" ignore or evade are: what is the nature and source of individual rights, and how are these rights to be implemented? Only by answering these questions can one proceed to consider what is or is not proper self-defense in concrete cases

If there's anything hardcore libertarians are not (whether right or wrong) it is "anti-philosophical." In forming deontologically a priori ethical norms, their mindset is largely dominated and justified by purely philosophical arguments. To disregard that seems either ignorant or disingenuous. I would never accuse Randians of such sophistry - but perhaps that's because I've read a good deal of Rand's work(s). But for any Randian who has not actually engaged the anarcho-libertarian framework (and is not simply happy to leave it at ad hominem) I'd suggest the two following short works by Rothbard:

And if you'd like the consequentialist arguments, packed closely with practical applications of anarchy, try this by David Friedman:

The "libertarians" take a short-cut: they plagiarize Ayn Rand's principle that no man may initiate the use of physical force, and treat it as a mystically revealed, out-of-context absolute.

As confident and egotistical as Rand herself was, I don't think she'd approve of her followers claiming that she invented the non-aggression principle. Locke has her most popularly beat out on the idea by a few centuries if you want to cut off history at the Enlightenment. If you're not satisfied with that, we can take it back to Greek philosophers. In any case, the anarcho-libertarian foundation is probably the least "mystically" revealed justification of the NAP out of all of them - including Rand's drawn-out justification(s). The Rothbardian norms for non-aggression are born very simply out of property rights - which he fleshes out through simple deductive reasoning. For anyone who is interested, read the Rothbard pieces above for a good primer. I'd also recommended (even more concisely) the following lecture by Roderick Long:

This one principle, deprived of its philosophical base, is expected to replace jurisprudence, constitutions, legislatures, and courts. Then they imagine that the rest of us are obligated to accept, on faith, any gang's promise that their use of force will be "retaliatory."

Actually, we are not expecting to "replace" any of those things any more than we'd be asking for burger joints to be replaced by asking that McDonald's allow a Burger King to be built across the street. We simply don't want a single group keeping other providers of such services from providing said services. It's really as simple as that. Ironically, it is the Randians who imagine that the rest of us are obligated to accept, on faith, THEIR gang's promise that their use of force will be retaliatory. Anarcho-libertarians want to give you an actual choice in the matter.

Bear in mind that, in fact, those who would be granted the right to enforce their own notions of just retaliation include leftists who consider government intervention in the economy to be retaliation against business activities that the leftists view as "economic force."

Of course, the flaw with this line of justification is that it applies equally, if not more-so, to the monopolistic system the author is attempting to defend. The only difference is that, under the author's system, once these frightening leftists assume democratic control there is literally no political refuge for detractors. Our only real (legal) option is ultimately submission and possibly, should it hold up, our right to convince those in control to spare us.

The issue, then is: how are political and legal disputes to be settled: by might or by right—by street fighting or by the application of objective, philosophically validated procedures?

The ironies are starting to pile up at this point. We're being asked to consider the ill-fated nature of might-makes-right when we (anarcho-libertarians) are the ones trying to undo the monopoly on force the state has granted to itself. They already operate solely on might, regardless of whether they or right or not. So again we are presented with a clear case of question-begging; wherein the author already assumes, as a matter of fact, the "right"-ness of the state when clearly that's precisely what is often in question.

The most twisted evasion of the "libertarian" anarchists in this context is their view that disputes concerning rights could be settled by "competition" among private force-wielders on the "free market." This claim represents a staggering stolen concept: there is no free market until after force has been excluded.

I think it would be difficult for anyone to conclude that, for both market and law, that either one chronologically preceded the other. While it is true that law (although not necessarily positive law) is needed for a market to function, so too is an established market generally required for law to function - unless the enforcers of justice (public or private) are eating their hair and fingernails to stay alive. It seems fairly clear to me that both arise organically together. I don't imagine that there was a point in time where we all sat around doing precisely nothing until we all agreed upon some uniform system of law or regulation. To put forth otherwise exposes an oddly naive picture of historical evolution.

"Competition" is an economic, not a political, concept; it refers to the voluntary exchange of values, not to the exchange of gunfire.

Yes, if you ignore the nature of classically social-democratic forms of government altogether, "competition" is not a political concept. Obviously this piece was written in between relevant election cycles and far, far away from the lobbied halls of Congress. Anyone who seriously proclaims that politics is divorced from competition must, by necessity, be mistaken in thinking that we all partake from a single stream of normative thought. There may be only one "right" way, if there is a right way at all - but we all quite vehemently disagree about what that way is. The subsequent jockeying of ideas into positions of political power is, in fact, quite the competition.

Behind the puerile fantasies of "market solutions" to political and legal disputes lies the collectivist notion that the ideas of the individual are determined by social institutions, so that once the "proper" social institutions have been established, "the people" will automatically agree on political and legal issues, and government will no longer be necessary.

Once again, I don't know any libertarians who believe this. If anything, many libertarians (particularly minarchists) believe that it might actually be better to stick with what we have now until those "stateless" ideas have been fully cultivated, socially. But, in a broader sense, the notion (contention) being put forth makes little sense in our current democratic society - where much our our legal and political direction is already formed by the majority through the election process. In other words, if the Randians are worried about the collective political thought of individuals (straying from Objectivist norms) then that would just be another among many reasons why they shouldn't support the monopolistic state we have today.

But it does not occur to the anarchists that when one of their private "defense agencies" uses force, it is acting as a "monopolist" over whomever it coerces.

This simply illustrates a lack of curiosity, motivation, and, in some ways, honesty on behalf of those who question anarchism, quite frankly. Let's say that you have your arbitration/protection agency and I have mine. We have a dispute. What is the most likely thing to happen? Well, we could have something similar to arbitration between insurance companies today, where most organizations have voluntary rules of arbitration between the two bodies that are already set up should there be a conflict. But even if that's not the case, why couldn't the arbiters find a third party to arbitrate between the arbiters themselves? That doesn't seem unrealistic.

But even if you don't find that non-"monopolistic" (as his definition of monopoly seems to be ultimate use of force at all), it is still far less monopolistic than the system he so clearly advocates and defends. True enough, should I get a burger at McDonald's or Burger King, I'm still getting a burger at the end of the day. But, at the very least, it seems much less egregious in almost every capacity to have a choice then to be told I must each eat at McDonald's - no matter how terrible their food is.

The real target of the anarchist's attack is objectivity. Objectivity requires one to prove that one is acting within one's rights; they do not want to be held accountable to anyone for anything—not even regarding their use of physical force.

Again, I couldn't imagine anything further from the truth. If the Objectivist requires that individuals (whether endogenous or exogenous to legal bodies) are "acting within one's rights", then they are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Anarcho-libertarians want to hold everyone to this supposed standard of individual rights - a standard which Objectivists seem to be happy to exclude government itself from. Ironically they are being merely partially "Objective" by their own measure; applying standardized scrutiny to all individuals except those who set the standard itself. In their hap-hazard and inconsistent application of basic principle(s) they end up pushing a non-universalizable, and therefore "non-objective," political philosophy. They unwittingly bear testament to the conceptual vestiges of the "divine right of kings."

In the philosophical battle for a free society, the one crucial connection to be upheld is that between capitalism and reason. The religious conservatives are seeking to tie capitalism to mysticism; the "libertarians" are tying capitalism to the whim-worshipping subjectivism and chaos of anarchy.

To cooperate with either group is to betray capitalism, reason, and one's own future.

If "libertarians" believed in ultimately subjective ends in all contexts we would have no attachment to or preference for non-aggression at all; and yet we support those ideals far more consistently and radically than the Objectivists. So, once again, we have a remark that is either ignorant or disingenuous. In this case, I'm inclined to believe the latter. The weight of such claims, from my experience, almost seems to be born out of an almost guilt-like sentiment; a failed acknowledgment of intellectual inconsistency and lack of adherence to fundamental principles. On the road of basic property concepts, Objectivists seemingly walked off the beaten path and ended up being caught in an ideological briar-patch. But that is perhaps a psychological observation that is best left for another discussion altogether.

What Objectivists ultimately have to contend with, at the end of the day, is the inconsistency of their principles. If the non-aggression principle is an inalienable principle, then they must oppose the state, as it is literally today and generally in concept, a chief violator of that principle. In order to establish a philosophically consistent vision of justice, they must either arrive at the conclusion that we do not have equal rights (that some have greater authority than others) or they must concede that equality in authority stems from the right of self-ownership; and that given such equal rights, we cannot rightfully call for the revocation of those equal rights through some unique claim on the administration of justice - nor can we betray such equal authority by violating (through taxation, forced monopoly, etc.) the very rights that constitute its foundation.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

True, Yet Superficial

At The Big Questions (blog of Steve Landsburg), the good professor pushes a post laying anti-free-traders to waste. It seems like most of the commenters get it, but there are a few who are caught up in specific scenarios. One such commenter made an often-used observation about free trade as a rebuttal to Steve's point. DividedLine writes:

The problem is that while free trade is beneficial over all to a nation, it can lead to significant redistributions of economic privlidge within that overall national benefit. There are winners, and there are significant losers (lose your job, lose your health care etc.) This is a valid and deeply personal concern, and it is this concern that pushes the issue into the political forum. Without taking the political dimension into account, the message of the economics of the thing will fall on deaf ears.

The main thrust of his concern is rooted in truth - there are certainly immediate losers in the marketplace. And, in some ways, the more free and open that market is, the more such competition will be prevalent. This, of course, does not negate Steve's main point. But I think it's an interesting digression. I find it interesting that we hold this concern seemingly situationally. And even when we formally recognize it in other respects, we don't let it get in the way of trade.

For instance, why fear Mexicans taking your jobs as opposed to Texans or Floridians? For sure, different regulatory standards and levels of taxation may set some pegs against us as a country in terms of our labor force. On the other hand, the same factors set up various differentials throughout the states themselves as well. Should one state, for instance, consider not trading with another state that, perhaps, has a lower minimum wage and thus "unfair" advantage? I think most of us would find that pretty silly.

Well, what about the advent of capital that offsets labor? We're continually striving, through technology, to need fewer and fewer people to do the same old jobs. Farming that once took hundreds of workers now takes only a handful. The same goes for production of almost all stripes. This can just as easily, if not even more forcefully, put people out of work. Yet most of us acknowledge the benefit of such advances. The non-Luddites among us don't clamor to stop technological process on behalf of those whose labor may become displaced by it.

So then why, when it is a foreign entity in question, do we suddenly show grave concern for structural shifts in labor? It seems rather inconsistent to find this as some exception to the general economic rule. As horrible as it sounds, one has to wonder what role nationalism and xenophobia play here to some extent. For all the rhetoric of diversity, compassion, and unity, liberals find themselves in a weird position in many respects when the focus of conversation turns from other Americans and technology replacing our workers to people with different languages and skin-colors replacing them.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Tie That Binds - Defending Rothbard

Over at Free Advice, a post by Dr. Murphy has solicited some interesting comments about the legitimacy of "voluntary slavery." Blackadder, Gene Callahan, and Silas Barta enter the fray; all formidable intellects. As the conversation has already progressed a great deal, I don't think it would be productive for me to jump in. But I would like to clarify at least one interpretation (namely mine) of Rothbard's view(s) regarding selling oneself into slavery.

Some of the commenters (most notably and intelligibly Blackadder) have noted that Rothbard's view here - that one cannot voluntarily sell themselves into slavery - seems the axiom of absolute self-ownership presumably. I can't pretend to speak for Rothbard, and surely there are plenty of people more knowledgeable on his views than I, but I believe such outright criticism may be somewhat unfounded. I find Rothbard's views here to be somewhat more subtle than what has been presented.

It seems, in reading Rothbard, one gets the sense that one of the core features of property is its alienability - something by which we may part ownership and control of and of which through transfer of title may be adopted by others. It's not a term he uses very much outside of the discussion on slavery. But I don't think it's because he's trying to make a clever exception to his theory on property when it's being put to the test. I think this qualification applies across the board and is in fact consistent with the rest of his theory; he simply need not invoke such aspects when they are not of relevance.

So we can see with something like a rock, we may easily part our will, control, and ownership of it and cede these rights to others. But Rothbard contends that it's not quite as easy to do such with a human being, because our will is inalienable and cannot (at least not yet) be separated from us, materially without separating (parts of) our bodies, in some real sense, from ourselves. In other words, I can contract out and sell positive obligations to people (employment, etc.), but since I cannot divorce my will from my physical self, and thus cannot relinquish physical control in a literal way, I cannot, in any meaningful sense, parcel out ownership of that which my will still embodies. As such, all such obligations, in this sense, can be "backed out of" (and compensation may follow based on the contract at hand). And so, Rothbard's view is not that de facto chattel slavery could not or did not exist. Rather, it would have been his belief that involuntary slavery is merely coercion masquerading as title exchange, while voluntary slavery is contractual employment masquerading as title exchange.

Now, the interesting consequence of such a view - and it's not one that Rothbard delves into, to my knowledge - is that it doesn't preclude the voluntary severing of your will from your body in any meaningful sense. For instance, it's perfectly fine, as long as the action remains voluntary until completion, to let someone cut off your hair and then claim ownership of it. To push it further, you could take blood, an organ, a limb, and even the head itself. I'm not trying to be too graphic here - I just want to illustrate the point. Those things would be fine, so long as they were voluntary, under the Rothbardian view. And once those things had been literally separated from your will (or control) then they could quite literally be owned. Likewise it might be permissible, if not disrespectful, under Rothbardian norms to homestead a corpse (I smell a zombie movie!).

I'm making some of these points not to show you what creeps us Rothbardians can be, but rather to illustrate two main points. The first is that there is no mystical holy sanction or reverence that Rothbard gives to the human body per se. The second is that his views aren't saturated with the inconsistencies that some of his nominal detractors might think they are. He simply draws a line in the philosophical sand stating that if you literally cannot relinquish control over something in a very literal sense, then you simply cannot transfer ownership of it in any meaningful way.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Austrian Insight(s)

(alternative title: What They Didn't Stress in Basic Econ)

Economics is perhaps one of the most lamented subjects at an academic level. Not only do most people find it hopelessly boring - in some cases they find it infuriating. Admittedly, I didn't form an interest in economics (per se) until I got my degree. And, even then, looking back on the little econ I had at an academic level seems almost as boring as the subject itself would have sounded to me ten years prior.

When I started digging into the subject for myself it was largely an attempt to add some sound foundation to some of my political views. Interestingly enough, a little bit of econ ended up changing my political views almost completely. I found many of the different schools of economic thought interesting, but I particularly gravitated towards Austrian economics - if, for nothing else, it's peculiar predisposition to derive economic theory through logical deduction as opposed to empirics per se. Austrian methodology, in this respect, almost stands alone even though most of its logical insights are in step with classical and neo-classical insights.

Yesterday I came across a couple of things that pulled me back to when I was first learning about what distinguished Austrian theory from more conventional ones. The first was a video-lecture given by Roger Garrison on the trade cycle; from an Austrian perspective of course. The second was an article by Don Boudreaux about crony-capitalism. Regarding this item, several separate conversations and arguments ensued in the comment section. At one point, there was a roundabout discussion regarding opportunity cost and the negative effects of the 2008/2009 bailouts and taxation in general. When the US-Auto bailout was brought up specifically, a commenter named Joshua tried to defend the bailouts (against accusations of negative effects) by opening with this line:

Alot of what are called bailouts are merely loans. Didn’t I read that GM just paid back what it was given to bridge it’s restructuring?

If I had just taken the main structure of what I've learned through mainstream econ, I would have thought that the argument regarding the cost of such "bailouts" ended right there. But, given the focus of Austrian economic points that I'd been exposed to, it simply didn't cut it. Very simply, time is one dimension of cost regarding money because, as human beings, we have time-preferences. $100 dollars in your hand today is not $100 in your hand in ten years (even with no absolute inflation or deflation). Therefore, there is a cost associated with loans. This is specifically the origin of interest itself.

I think what's interesting is that mainstream economics doesn't refute this...but apparently it's not stressed enough, as I see people often getting tripped up in arguments about usury and, just like the commentary above, over the real cost of taxation, even when the government is doling the funds out in loan-form. That isn't to say that the government doesn't collect interest on some of these loans (as they might well have) - although such rates might be artificial and there's still the knowledge/signalling issues that occur when you operate outside of voluntary exchange. In either case, it's kind of odd to think that there's no cost associated with loaning money.

Maybe it's not a strictly Austrian insight per se - but I can see the failure in logic is pretty blatant here. After all, if this were true then we could all loan each other money ad infinitum without recourse. The capitalists would be very happy and the lenders would be very broke. Given that no one can seem to manage to undercut the going interest rate(s) too effectively, I think we can safely say there are some costs involved.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Vengeance Vs. Justice

Given the events that have unfolded in the last few days, I've seen a pretty clear public division on the general conception of "justice." Given how close these events are to the heart of many Americans, criticism and counter-criticism is to be expected. Put honestly - a good amount of what is on the tip of our collective tongue has been fueled by the emotions we have surrounding 9/11. But some of us would contend that this is both A and THE problem.

For those who may have been in a coma the last four days, Osama (Usama?) bin Laden has supposedly been taken out (within Pakistan) by US forces. A vast myriad of reactions followed, and the most surprising of them all - I thought at the time - was my own. I didn't feel happiness, vindication, relief, pride, or anything akin to such. Instead I felt quite a bit of apathy, and in a lesser sense even a lingering despair. I was actually kind of surprised by my reaction, or lack thereof. What's more, I couldn't help but feel the contrast between my non-reaction and the quite positively charged reaction of a good deal of the public.

Now, obviously, it's possible that some people are essentially celebrating the foiling of future attacks that might have been made by OBL. Possible. But plausible? Over the last ten years I've found my concern for what OBL might do next fading, and my concern for the over-all pretense of terrorist networks and the middle east at large growing. It didn't seem more likely to me that another 9-11 would come from the work of his hands than any other lackey within his organization. I know, simply from being, you know, awake, that I wasn't the only American who had exceedingly felt this way. So why the sudden spasm of joy and overt exaltation of the great ole' U.S. of A.?

The more I watched and listened, the more it was clear to me that many people were happy about this simply as a matter of revenge - only they called it by a different name; justice. This is where the stickiness begins. As a radical libertarian I suppose I find myself having the tendency to reject a Kantian vision of "justice." That isn't to say that I find it silly, per se. I think it's an emotional response (the seeking of vengeance) and it can often go hand-in-hand with justice...but I don't consider it the same thing at all.

To me, justice is a restoration of order. If you steal my car, justice is recovering my car or being compensated for it. Likewise, if you hurt me, justice is compensation through cost of care and other considerable opportunity costs I've been forced to bear in the interim. What justice is not, however, in my mind, is "eye for an eye." The difference between vengeance and justice is the difference between punishment and compensation. There was a time, even as a libertarian, where I felt that justice was largely constituted by punishment. But the more I thought about the foundation of my philosophy and ethics (the framework with which I feel my conception of liberty itself is solidly grounded) the less I came to see vengeance as the purview of justice.

Killing OBL cannot bring back the dead. And it also cannot thwart any future acts which detainment cannot. If anything, it robbed us of a chance to seek justice (to put him on trial before humanity formally), and it opened a door for martyrdom in some respects.

But let's assume that ending his life ultimately would have been the outcome - as a matter of "justice." It's still not clear to me why this should be celebrated. We may find relief in sealing the future off from his malevolent touch, but rejoicing in that marginally brighter future is quite different than rejoicing in his actual death - which is an act that, by what I've witnessed, included calls to mutilate his body on PPV TV, drag him through the streets, throw him off of New York sky-scrapers, etc. Drawing from an analogy I've made previously, I feel like some people are not so much rejoicing a successful open-heart surgery as they are rejoicing the cracking open of a sternum. And that is disconcerting - there is quite a difference between the two.

Justice is a cost that society bears. Justice is what happens when you fall into a hole. You can be happy you're out of the hole, at the end of the day, but rejoicing in the fact that we had to waste a bunch of resources digging our way out seems irrational. And, on the issue of OBL it's not even clear we're getting any further out of that hole by offing him at this point. Whether the act can rationally be chalked up to justice will be something for historians to figure out. The joy that I see people currently derive from vengeance, however, is something much more condemning in my eyes. It stands as a reminder of how easy it is to trade reason for our baser instincts and emotions. Aggression, along with the forceful motions we must use to thwart it, are unfortunate - and we should never lose sight of that.

One day, should we survive as a species, we may grow to wonder about how and why we ever derived so much pleasure in the discomfort of others.