Wednesday, July 25, 2012

I Didn't Build That? (Part II)

Anthony Gregory has a good recent article at HuffPo. As with far too many social hubs, the comments sections are often atrocious - and the section for this article is no exception. Most of them are so far outside the sphere of relevance that they don't deserve any serious retort. But sometimes when there is a theme recurrent enough to get under your skin, you just wanna set phasers to blast and have a field day.

So...I was going to address this particular theme I was seeing, and then these wondrous intertubes graced me with a comment that seemed to echo about anything worth saying on my end. So I thought I'd share said poster's thoughts here.

One commenter, responding to a cross-post of the original HuffPo article at BHL claims the following:

"Yes, the public has built some bad things, and some unnecessary things, along with the many good and useful and necessary things its has built. All of the things the public has built have influenced the outcomes individuals have achieved, and in some very frequent cases have been causally necessary conditions for the achievement of those outcomes."

And then the voice in my head that must have been parading as another commenter responds:

"Even if you believe that, don't you find it troubling (logically if not morally) that the end result is a situation where one party holds an open-ended claim against another?

Consider a non-state example. There are many businesses who owe their prosperity to Facebook advertising, and they've all paid some mutually agreed sum for that advantage. What if Mark Zuckerberg falls on hard times a decade from now, and shows up at their collective doorstep saying "...this network of information, this means of influencing people, you didn't build that, so it seems only right you should now be asked to pay me more."

Immediately you would see the problem with this reasoning: it has no end. If Zuckerberg somehow manages to beg a few extra dollars from these clients, surely he will come back to beg again. And why shouldn't he keep coming, if they are foolish enough to accept a retroactive adjustment of his price?

Surely you can see how much worse the problem would be if a) the advertisers never had a choice about using Facebook to begin with, and b) if Zuckerberg could simply force people to pay his new and infinitely adjustable price.

So...why is this argument any better when the party making happens to be the state?"


This a thousand times.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Didn't Build That?

In a recent blog post (as this whole ordeal so often starts), one "dkuehn" reflects on the "You didn't build that." statements made by Obama, and opines for more worthy political adversaries:

"It's incredible that this obvious point is twisted into some kind of anti-business screed. Man is not an island, and we benefit all the time from the achievements of others, the knowledge of others, and positive externalities. The market itself is a positive externality because of the benefits conferred by liquid markets and diversity. That's called a network effect. The benefits derived from one more node in a network are much broader than just the benefits enjoyed by a single person making a decision to enter that network."

I'd like to display my initial thought(s) as well as an response to a later reaction in the comment section (which hasn't been responded to as of yet)...

My initial response:

"Boy, no offense, but you've had quite a litany of posts the last couple of days that have had me shaking my head a bit. You know how you, fairly often, take something (like this Obama quote) and say that you can't even imagine how it's seen as so controversial. Well, a lot of us read your criticisms of those criticisms, and think the same thing. This is one of those times (at least for me).

I don't expect everyone who picks up quotes/memes like this and runs with it to understand the full(er) implication of their criticisms. I'm sure that there are plenty of people (if not most of them) who do not look at the content in any serious way, and use whatever they can as a ploy to further their own political views. But it's not very difficult for me to imagine the way in which people could be reading this and finding it controversial. And when a very intelligent guy likes you seems "bewildered" by it, I'm (apologetically) inclined to think you're being too clever by half.

Of course man is not an island. And anyone who supports free markets (a number of whom share criticisms of this quote) knows that. Hell, if I had a dime for every time someone proffered that, as a libertarian, I must believe in some kind of atomistic individualism, maybe I'd have more time to respond to posts like this.

The context of his comments are narrower than that. He's talking (pretty specifically in light of the extended quote provided) of public/political goods within that network. By coupling that with the eschewing of atomistic thinking he's (not so subtly) creating a false dichotomy. People might be wrong to fight against the provision and securing of political "goods", but that doesn't make their views atomistic. You can be very aware and supportive of the concept of working with others and not support the types of things he seems to think are justified by such a sentiment. The ideas aren't mutually inclusive.

Put more concisely, if he's just axiomatically stating that we benefit from each other, then there's no point in bringing it up (in a political context). If he's using it to lend support to an array of political initiatives, then his argument is contentious at best - and I would think anyone would expect heavy criticism at the very least."

dkuehn later writes in response to another commenter:

"Nowhere in Obama's statement did say any version of "and if you disagree with me you must think production is atomistic".

Wills is worrying over nothing. I didn't respond much to that point because I didn't think it was a very insightful point.

Now, if Wills actually wants to generate an argument against this argument for public goods, that's fine. It's just a campaign speech - you probably could put together several successful counter-arguments. But don't put words in Obama's mouth about what the thinks of libertarians, and don't say he's creating a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is saying "either you think people are atomistic or you think we should have lots and lots of public goods". Obama never said that."

And this was my response to that:

"Why do I feel like I've been sucked into a black hole and came out the other side as Bob Murphy?

"A false dichotomy is saying 'either you think people are atomistic or you think we should have lots and lots of public goods'. Obama never said that."

Alright, Daniel, Obama certainly never explicitly says that. But I do believe this statement approximates what is implicit therein. And somehow I get the feeling that you'd disagree (probably quite vociferously). So let's take a Socratic approach and see if we can broach the core issue more easily:

In the context of Obama talking about taxes, government expenditures, and various public goods & services, what exactly do you believe to be the rhetorical relevance of his foray into the "there are some things we do better together" rant? Is all of this talk actually decoupled from his policy prescriptions? Unless that's the case, then I stand by my previous point(s).

Either he understands opponents of his prescriptions are, in fact, generally not atomistic - in which case, what's the point of his rant? Or he believes those who disagree with his policy prescriptions are somehow eschewing the benefits of social interaction - in which case we have a large non sequitur on our hands."

Now, I think we can be charitable enough to believe that what Obama said was poorly worded...and that he doesn't believe that we have no significant part in building what we do (individually). But I believe what I've pointed out above is a pretty dirty thing to do rhetorically...and as human beings we do this type of thing way too often and should try to not only avoid it, but to call others on it when we see it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Charity in Argumentation

Over at his blog Gene makes a quick criticism of an argument pushed by Robert Murphy:

When Microsoft and Apple have a dispute, they go to court, and let a judge resolve it for them. But, for, say, drug dealers, government justice is not an option, so instead they (often) resort to violence.

Therefore, concludes Bob Murphy, if we entirely eliminate the government justice system... all organizations will resolve their disputes peacefully!

This is the sort of deft, counter-intuitive logic that makes libertarians so very tricksy to debate.

I don't want to belabor the libertarian resolution to such a contention, but I'll go ahead and lay it out there before I get to my own criticism:

The reason why black markets are notoriously violent is precisely because they are shielded from dominant commercial institutions. By definition, such trade is relegated to the swaths of humanity who've generally resorted to a life of crime in the first place. It's not particularly a mystery that bootleggers during Prohibition had a quite violent way of settling disputes while alcoholic vendors today aren't exactly battling it out on the streets.

The larger question or contention, obviously, are which commercial institutions are necessary to promote peaceful but practically enforceable dispute resolution. Free-market anarchists believe monopolistic institutions of dispute resolution to be not only unnecessary but inadequate, while people like Gene believe they are quite necessary if not ideal. Those who believe in the functional primacy of market competition in the arena of arbitration and conflict resolution appeal to a broad array of economic arguments against oligarchical institutional models. Likewise, those who believe in the primacy of monopolistic models of justice make their own appeals.

My point is not to say who's right here. There's a long and complex debate to be had, and it's already been taking place for quite a while now - with lots of good points made on all sides, I believe. It might not ever be settled with devotees on both sides. My contention with Gene's little reductio ad absurdum is that it proves too little. Both of the regulating forces being lobbied for (trade in an open market and governmental provision of justice) are notably absent in the context of conflict resolution between drug dealers. It's not a simple slam-dunk to assume the full integration of one or the other will magically make all such violent forms of resolution disappear (and, to the extent that violent resolution is still prevalent today - with an institutional monopoly on justice already in place -, a little more humility in the supposed unraveling of opponents' arguments might be appropriate).

This brings me to the heart of the issue - Murphy has never treated it with assumption. He's written and talked extensively on the subject, as have others, pushing economic and political arguments for why such institutional competition would not only be workable, but preferable. Now, you don't have to agree with his arguments. But you can't treat it like these arguments have never been forwarded, and that the statements he makes concerning the subject are mere assertion or that they are somehow disconnected from those arguments.

And this is the problem. Gene used to be on the same proverbial side of the fence. He knows the arguments. Hell, he knows Murphy personally. But, as he does too often, he snipes at the most uncharitable and least fleshed out versions of the standard libertarian arguments. That is to say, if he were trying to make real headway on the subject (particularly with libertarians) he would engage the arguments in their most robust and extrapolated forms. The irony here is that he publicly detests the very thing here that I'm accusing him of doing as a disingenuous ploy - advancing arguments on rhetorical merit.

This isn't to say that he always does this. I actually find quite a few of his arguments pretty devastating. And the ones I find most devastating are the ones where he meets the radical libertarians out on the field, trying to get them to punt away their most advanced arguments; not shit-talking them in the locker room. And when he makes points like the above, I can't help but feel like he's doing something closer to the latter. Gene's a really smart guy. There's no doubt about it. But the chip on his shoulder regarding libertarians sometimes, I think, prevents him from forging his criticisms in the same honest but dispassionate form he'd like to see to see his own opponents employing.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

America (Fuck Yeah!)

Unfortunately I haven't been able to find the time nor mood to post too much lately, but hopefully I'll get that turned around in short order. Anyways, since we find ourselves in the most red, white, and blue part of the year, I figured I would share a couple of thoughts on patriotism.

My more libertarian-minded FaceBook acquaintances seem to have the habit of catching a whole lot of heat for inflammatory posts on days like this. I can't beat them up too much for it; God knows I've said some things that have probably pissed more than a few people off. There are surely better ways to affect some sort of outreach, but that's not really what I mean to focus on here.

In some of the comments on one particular thread that was ignited tonight there was some sparring over what patriotism means. And, depending on how any given person referenced the term, about any normative statement made sent everyone else reeling. It became clear pretty quickly that the definition of the word was contested, and, being that no one was interested in defining terms, it's continued to escalate in a pretty dismal way.

In any case, I noticed no less that five different (general) ways in which patriotism was invoked:

1. Patriotism as fealty to people.
2. Patriotism as fealty to culture.
3. Patriotism as fealty to ideology.
4. Patriotism as fealty to (rehabilitatable) government.
5. Patriotism as fealty to the nation-state (in all ventures).

I put these in order from most agreeable to least (for me, of course). And I believe the initial poster was being critical of patriotism as it pertains to #5 and perhaps #4. But the people who were pissed off (mostly conservatives and minarchists) had some variant of #1-4 in mind. Those with #1-3 in mind tried very hard to detach patriotism from the government of the United States of America. But, of course the context of each particular invocation could not be more glaring; the boundaries of these seemingly distinct fealties are all mysteriously very geopolitical.

So you take pride in or swear your allegiance to people. Good for you. But when you're using the word patriotism, specifically, you're not talking about Iranian people, or Chinese people, or Mexican people. No, when you're "patriotic" about "people" you mean to say you're "patriotic" regarding Americans - or, rather, citizens of the United States of America. The same seems to hold true with patriotism in the context of culture, ideology, and government itself. It doesn't seem like we're being pulled to feel patriotism for any one of these things based on specific qualities of each - as surely we are able to find such qualities in different places all over the world. And, yet, we don't feel such associations with them.

Indeed, even within our own nation we do not find uniformities regarding these items. To the extent that there is any real unifying theme to be had among these items, it really does seem to be the banner under which such allegiance is held; an allegiance to the nation itself. So while I can sympathize with trying to divorce the concept of patriotism from the government itself (particularly when you find yourself out of favor with its current incarnation), it does seem like it's the common denominator. And beyond the cognitively dissonant recognition of the flag's prominence in state formalities (from the flagpoles of every public office to the fabric of state-endorsed uniforms), we need look no further than the words of the Pledge of Allegiance itself - a picture of which started the whole FaceBook kerfuffle to begin with:

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one nation..."

Of course, that's not to say that Bellamy's terse verse excludes anything more inclusive. But it's hard to look at this pledge we take (most notably as children in those wonderfully government-centric institutions we call public schools) and think it's silly that people would think of patriotism or allegiance in terms of the nation-state. There's at least some level of folly in denying what seems so obvious on some level.

Nevertheless we're treated to what seems like an almost self-excusing conflation of terms. It's almost as if we find refuge in these more ambiguous meanings because we want to believe that the nation (the state) was and can still be more in line with what we wish; as if it's a way to escape losing some kind of traditional pride. In it's own quaint way, it's almost a self-enforced excuse machine for the state itself as well. I mean sure, the United States is killing lots of innocent people around the world and encroaching on liberties here at home as well, but that's not important! What's important is this specific set of ideas I like (which only some people share) that was instituted before by one administration or another or could be instituted in the future if we're lucky enough!

You see, there's the REAL America and then there's the not-so-real America. The REAL Americans are people X; the REAL American culture is culture X; the REAL American ideal is ideal X; and the REAL American style of government is government X. To the extent that thing Y isn't thing X, thing Y isn't American. So all the horrible stuff that the government or its people engage in - not American! It's something else altogether. So while you criticize America for Y and Z, it's important for you to understand that America is actually X. YOU DO NOT CRITICIZE X!!!

That really does seem to be how silly things have gotten. In a lot of ways, it's similar to some of the arguments rendered about the Constitution from the orginalist crowd. When confronted with half of Spooner's argument, that the Constitution has failed because it's allowed for all the bad laws and policy thus far, defenders will often retort that the Constitution didn't fail, that simply some of us had failed it. But given the purpose of the Constitution, you're just reiterating the damning evidence! You can retreat to saying something like what the founders intended in it was good, or the particular interpretation that I have of it is good, but that doesn't erase how it is actually being used (or misused)!

This is how some of us feel with regards to self-proclaimed "patriots". You can narrow your definition of this nation or it's governance to whatever you believe to be right or just, and simply view everything else as a coup. If your definition of the United States is just whatever portion of it is in compliance with your ideals, I can't stop you. But I can think it's silly. And I can think that your choice to use these broad national terms to describe a very particular subset of said nation is not only misleading but functionally apologetic. In trying to steal the national rhetoric to distinguish that which you believe to be good you seem to do little more than excuse the things you actually detest.