Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Limits of My World

I'm pretty disheartened to hear about the legal push-back against 23andme, a company that apparently offers incredibly accessible genetic testing/mapping. Regulators seem to have their eyes fixed on pulling them through the FDA wormhole. That it's going down in the way that it is isn't particularly surprising. What I find particularly unfortunate are the barbs being thrown by the government's supporters.

Putting aside arguments over the company's legal pragmatism or lack there-of in the run-up to this fight, there's something that I find increasingly despotic about the line of reasoning which constantly begs to save us from ourselves. Now, I don't want unsafe foods or unsafe drugs. Hell, I'm not particularly excited even by the thought of an unsafe refrigerator or toaster for that matter. And so I believe that third party review and verification is something that most consumers might kind of dig. But it's hard not to call into question these monolithic hierarchies of control and protocol; the alphabet soup of agencies that seemingly hold an increasing number of keys to an increasing number of locked doors. What are we to make of this predicament?

Well, I could choose to lay into the rather flaccid and unimpressive track record of these entities. How many countless people have been killed by how many countless consumables (or combinations thereof) thought to be safe by these agencies? And, maybe even worse, how many people are dying every single year because "unverified" consumables are out of their very terminal reach? I suppose I could even go into the ins and outs of exactly why monopolistic social structures of all kinds lead to inevitably poor outcomes for those who rely on them, but it's a point I find myself very tired of repeating.

What holds out as more interesting to me is the absolute pervasiveness of paternalism among the supporters of such regulatory schemes. Even stepping back from the specifics of this particular instance, it seems clear to me that we've almost completely accepted a sphere of permissiveness around our lives; that we've traded in any meaningful sense of autonomy or equality for what seems to be a woefully misguided sense of security and safety. Gone appear to be the days of a deeper sense of personal responsibility to ourselves and to others. We've managed to contract virtue itself out of our hands.

And at the barren heights of our conceived cleverness, what have we got to show for it? We steal in the name of charity. We war in the name of peace. We deprive in the name of security. Oh, how deeply conflicted we've become.

And so here I sit listening to countless people ridicule the defenders of freedom:

"Oh, well, I don't know about you, but I don't really miss the 'freedom' to buy unsafe, untested products. Are we really expected to believe that you'll be losing out because you can't buy snake oil?"


I do expect that of you.

I want the freedom to have any individual or group analyze my genetic make-up. I want the freedom to go to a church down the street that will lead me into believing in a false god. I want the freedom to be convinced by a blogger to start eating a steady diet of lard to improve my health. I want the freedom to engage in acupuncture therapy to cure my terminal illness. I want the freedom to buy a lighter so that I can bundle up my life-savings, in cash, and set it on fire. I want the freedom to go buy a gallon of bleach and then drink it. I want the freedom to get my 401k investment advice from a fortune teller. I want the freedom to move into some guy's compound and throw on some black clothes, dawn some Nike's, and drink shitty Kool-Aid in hopes of catching a UFO that's hiding behind a passing comet.

Sooner or later you and I are going to have to come to grips with the fact that freedom, in any amount, entails potential harm - both to ourselves and to others. And we have to realize that these ever-shifting proscriptive legal lines that we draw are ultimately arbitrary. Any and all freedoms that we enjoy, down to and including indulgence in the sacred religious texts we hold so dear (the Bible, etc.) can inform us in ways that are benign, malign, and all shades in between. The only way to make us truly safe from one another is to affect a world of individual isolation and complete arrest.

It's not clear to me that the supporters of far-reaching governmental oversight support such a vision of the future. So, then, I'm compelled to ask just what point one imagines such a reach to actually end at? It seems to me that many more people's live are entirely shifted (and often not for the better) by the common rhetoric of the priestly and metaphysical caste than by some arbitrary company providing a preliminary mapping of genetic markers for people. And yet the latter seems to be so much more obviously fit for our scorn and regulatory least according to the more vocal of us. So why is it so? Why impede and intervene upon something so seemingly innocuous while stopping miles short of the kind of social coercion that has a fairly clear track record of ruining so many lives? I should expect a relatively sound explanation for what seems to be so arbitrary of a distinction. And yet I don't think I'll find a satisfactory one. I think it should give us all a bit of pause.

Doubling Down on Prejudice

Over the years my position on free speech and its collision with political correctness has evolved fairly drastically. While I can say that I've held fairly steadfast to an absolutist conception of free speech, my views on reactionary speech and political correctness have more drastically shifted; moving from an almost complete excoriation of political correctness to a much wider embrace of it...and finally to something somewhat in between. I no longer see the contention between freedom of speech and our general duties of beneficence towards one another that I used to. And so I still hold sympathies on both sides of what seems like a common political schism.

All of that being said, there's an argument that I have heard one too many times lately (from defenders of free speech) that seems to not only ring hollow, but actually self-incriminating as well. It's an argument that gets pulled up when talking about the "correctness" (political or otherwise) of using what may be commonly seen as a prejudicial slur to excoriate (or even joke with) other people for whom the term would not literally apply. A common example would be a group of men who ridicule someone within the group for "chickening out" on something by calling them "gay". Obviously, many in the homosexual community would find that kind of behavior pretty offensive. What's almost just as offensive is this argument that I've seen people use to defend it.

The argument goes something like this:

"Well is it really that offensive? I mean, think about it. I'm not actually calling him gay. I'm just using it because that's what you say when you want to annoy someone."

Surprisingly enough, this line of argument is bought by a pretty large swath of people. And they seem fairly unaware of how they are clearly doubling down on the initial mistake. Let me flesh out that response by re-wording it, just to see if the issue can be teased out by those who might not see it:

"Oh, come on, I'm not really insulting him. I'm not saying he's actually gay. I mean, if I was, then that would really be an insult. But I'm not doing that."

It's really amazing how many people I've heard try to torpedo themselves into the clear by anchoring themselves to that line of thought. For anyone who is still unclear on the issue at hand, the error is not in the false identification of someone as being gay, but in the false identification of being gay as being something lesser. Chances are that if you're missing this finer point, you're probably missing the point of the argument against prejudiced terminology more generally.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Questions for Free-Market Moralists

Amia Srinivasan recently posed some tough questions to libertarians who like to moralize their support for free markets. The rest of her article aside, I thought I would give a quick but modest rebuttal to some of these questions (rebuttals which I might expand more on at a later date) ...

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

The answer to this question depends largely on what sense the word "free" is being applied. It is a word that is stretched over many uses, and there is a certain kind of ambiguity on which part of the question, as well as the author's overall point, relies on. There is a particular sense (1) of freedom (I'll call it the "political" sense) in which it implies the obligations that other people have to not compel you by force. This is the sense of the word that most libertarians employ (social, physical). But, of course, individuals can be compelled in other ways. I think, broadly, there are two additional categories to consider.

One other way (2) in which human beings are compelled is by suppressing each other in non-violent ways (social, non-physical). Verbal bullying, harassment, irrational hatred, derision, bigotry, extortion; these are ways in which individuals can be pushed around or coerced in non-physical ways. Admittedly, many libertarians acquiesce to this point of contention, embracing the heartless caricature being drawn before them. But one need not be this kind of libertarian to carry the mantle. In fact, many libertarians have fairly thick conceptions of ethical/moral obligations...conceptions that entail being thoroughly opposed to these kinds of coercion as well.

However, while they may recognize that such obligations exist, they may not believe them to be enforceable. There is a bevy of reasons for this (which I will not untangle at length here). One of the primary reasons is that physical impositions upon people in the aim of forcing them to abandon such behaviors would necessarily come at the cost of sacrificing freedom in the first established sense of the word. One could make the argument that the second sense of freedom is in some way more important or more primary than the first. But many libertarians would find this incoherent, as the whole justification for condemning such treatment of people as "bad" is thoroughly grounded in our right to self-ownership and "equality of authority." One may attack the prior convention, but not without sweeping the legs out from underneath the second.

The final way (3) in which people might be compelled is by their own material circumstances. Being biological organisms, humans must take action to continue living. When gasping, they must breathe. When thirsty, they must drink. When hungry, they must eat. We must consume, manipulate, and adapt to parts of our environment in order to continue living. If nothing else, surely most can agree on this. And so, in a very real sense (arguably stronger than the other two senses), we are not free from our naturally endowed obligations to ourselves. If you really want to know what it's like to be "compelled", try sitting in one place for a week without bothering to try to scrounge up some water. If a man should walk by and offer you a glass of water in exchange for your car, your desperate circumstances might compel you to oblige. And what can we say about this? Well, we can certainly say that such a by-passer may be neglecting his moral duties (beneficence) towards you. I think, were it truly an immediate question of life or death, we may even find libertarian grounds to allow you to not honor such an agreement if you should make it. But it is important to note that the imposition is not on behalf of the stranger in this situation. For you were not worse off with the offer than without it. The imposition, in this context, is on behalf of nature itself.

So, to answer the author's question, we can say:

(1) Largely, yes, in the first sense
(2) Sometimes, but not always, in the second sense
(3) Practically never, in the third sense

A thoroughly fleshed-out theory of libertarian ethics takes all three senses of the word into full (consequential) consideration. But since a good deal of that consideration is "upstream", it can often appear as though libertarians have nothing to say about (2) and (3). And, perhaps too often, the way libertarians sometimes handle these questions only invites such criticisms. That being said, making arguments against libertarianism in general that only apply to its weakest supporters says more about the author than it does about libertarianism.

Note: I find it interesting that the author chose, as an illustration, an example of a mother who feels she needs to resort to prostitution or selling her own organs in order to feed her children. Surely this is a grim situation. We might need to know more about her story to tease out any fine moral points. What I'd like to point out, however, is that although she seems to be finding herself a victim of most dire circumstances (3), we have already robbed her of the ability to make such a choice...even if it is the best one she could make. Society has decided to impose a prohibition (1) on such decisions. And so, while we may quibble about how "free" someone really is if forced up against such hard decisions, we've actually (in the process) literally restricted her freedom to make such a choice at all - even if it is the only thing that might afford her children a better life.

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

The answer to this question also, unfortunately, hinges on the use of the phrase "morally permissible." We could mean "moral, and therefore permissible" or we could just mean "permissible". This isn't a dodge of the question at hand, but bringing two highly contestable words together can cause a great deal of confusion (and sometimes purposefully). One can certainly find some kinds of "free exchanges" immoral, even in a libertarian sense. However, simply because something is, even in fact, immoral does not necessarily mean that it is not ultimately permissible (for reasons outlined above). So, for instance, in one sense it's not "morally permissible" to call people disparaging names as they pass on the street. I'm sure our author would agree that this is broadly immoral behavior. On the other hand I find it very likely that she would find it to be "permissible" behavior (provided she hasn't completely abandoned our right to speak freely as well). So I don't think I'm mincing words when I say that the answer turns on precisely what she means by "morally permissible."

For a rebuttal to her subsequent illustration, see my response above to her first question; namely parts (2) and (3).

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

I must admit, I get both suspicious and weary when I see the term "deserve" thrown about so easily. What does it mean to "deserve" something? By what measure is it demonstrable? By what method should/could it be applied? And, more importantly, by whom?

If we replaced the word "deserve" with "need" we would probably get a more meaningful question. Clearly some people have a hard time with or simply cannot acquire what they "need" to sustain their lives (although, I believe that the "poor" most people have in mind when bandying about political ideologies is probably not exactly the people I might have in mind personally). It's also certainly true that many people are capable of creating and acquiring much more than they "need" to sustain their lives. It's certainly a duty of all of us to help lift up the former as best we can. But if we force others' hands in the matter, how can such virtue belong to us or them? And, more importantly, how can we come to regard the well-being of others in such high esteem if we care not about the individual rights of people to and of themselves (as their own ends) in the first place?

Our author concludes that any answer to this question in the affirmative will yield to an even more damning conclusion that such prosperity (or lack thereof) is largely a matter of luck. Of course, that's not a fact that many libertarians would disagree with. But it's also not one they would find particularly damning either. Proper upbringing, increased physical and mental capacities, access to resources - all these things give you a huge leg up on the world, no doubt. And all that life has to offer could sit in a vault, in the corner of a dark room. But without the key (volition), it matters not a damn bit how close to the vault you were placed. I'm certainly not trying to diminish the role of capacity and circumstance with regard to prosperity. But I think it's equally a fool's errand to minimize the role of volition and personal ambition as well. In any case, pointing out disparities in circumstance does not automatically get us into the clear with regards to using other human beings as means to our own ends.

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

Once again, the answer depends on what kind of "obligation" the author imagines. One might imagine that you're obligated to buy your struggling brother a meal if he's having a hard time putting together some money for food. Imagining that such an obligation is enforceable is quite a different thing. We might morally scoff at such a thing. We might even be morally called to castigate such a thing. But few people would be willing to employ force to make us do such a thing. And that hypothetical becomes even more interesting when you consider that many of those same people (such as our author, perhaps) believe we have even more credibly enforceable obligations to strangers than we do our own relatives. It needn't be a particularly damning point (I'm sure a healthy argument could be cooked up), but it's certainly a telling one.

Although the (recurring) point about enforceable and non-enforceable types of obligations seems to elude our author, it's worth noting that what obligations fall into which category is an entirely different question - the answers to which aren't always completely obvious or clear. That takes much more thoughtful consideration, and is worth discussing at length in its own right. But the fact that such boundaries may be fuzzy does not release us from recognizing that such a dichotomy exists; a dichotomy that surely exists in practice with our author if not embodied in her words. And libertarians needn't take our moral obligations to one another more or less seriously on the basis of their enforceability, despite the misunderstandings of our critics.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Synthetic Solutions

In the past three or four years, I've been increasingly enamored of what I will call synthetic solutions, for lack of a better phrase; the collapsing of seemingly opposing arguments into a singular position or solution. It's important to note that what I mean by that isn't just a compromised middle-ground of some sort, but rather recognizing that sometimes the cores of two juxtaposing arguments need not be mutually exclusive. In other words, some things that appear to be dichotomies may just prove to be limitations of our language and bias.

I've seen this phenomenon repeatedly since I first noticed it. It can be applied to arguments about concepts as lofty as theism, consciousness, and/or materialism. But it can also be applied to arguments we're far more likely to have in our daily lives.

Take markets and basic economics for instance. I ran across a thread of arguments on Twitter last night regarding regulation on oil-drilling and pipeline excavations. Taking note of the stubbornly high gas prices under the current administration, one group of individuals slam Obama for keeping us dependent on foreign oil. Another group claims that oil is a commodity on the world market and that more drilling will have no affect on prices. The former group responds that basic supply and demand dictates that more oil will bring lower prices. The latter group rebuts by pointing to the fact that oil production is always going up and yet prices continue to rise regardless. Another party chimes in and makes the claim that both are wrong; that oil prices have nothing to do with supply and demand, but rather it is controlled by speculators.

Who are we to believe here?

My answer is "all of them." All of them have a reasonable claim (or at least some part of one) that has a bit of truth to it. Where they have gone wrong, in my opinion, is in not completely fleshing out their points. Instead what remains are almost caricatures of proper points. All these contentions seem true, on their face - is it possible to synthesize them?

I'll give it a try.

Price is most certainly a function of supply and demand. Ceteris paribus, when supply rises prices fall. And even with all the intricate factors at play regarding various market mechanisms, it's not unreasonable to assume this would be true of crude oil (or anything else for that matter). So, yes, it would seem that increasing the production of oil should bring down the price.

So what about the claim that price hasn't dropped concordantly with increased production over the years? Well, this claim is also true - depending on exactly what is meant by it. Unfortunately, and to the bane of many self-proclaimed macroeconomists, the world as it exists is never ceteris paribus. With markets, things are always in flux...which is actually a good thing in that it lets entrepreneurs and consumers redirect the allocation of resources in real time (but that is a subject for another day).

For instance, an observer who isn't particularly discerning could be looking at a nominal (as opposed to real/adjusted) price history. Looking at prices without adjusting for the steady monetary inflation can be very misleading in matters like this.

Another point worth considering, by the same token, is that crude oil is not (as of yet) a practically replenishable resource. Therefore production is never static. We consume the resources that are most easily accessible first and then, over time, move to extract resources that are more difficult to obtain. So, even though technological progress may or may have not offset it, production costs for such resources (ceteris paribus) will rise over time. You can't gauge how supply and demand is affecting the price of a commodity by looking at production alone.

A third point, which I believe to be the most obvious one in this case, is that demand for crude-oil has not remained static over time. As more and more of the world industrializes (especially with regards to India and China), demand for oil has skyrocketed. Production has had to increase by leaps and bounds just to obtain any sense of tethered pricing given the increased demand over the last twenty or thirty years.

And to the lone voice in the wilderness who cries out, "Speculators!" - well, of course speculation plays a role in the real-time price of commodities. But it does not usurp the role of supply and demand - it is part of that role. Speculation is just a betting market on future supply and demand. Nothing more and nothing less. And, interestingly, although people decry it, it actually serves an important market function.

Many people don't understand how this could be true, so let's look at an example:

Let's say there are ten people in a relatively small city that have chosen to stock up on sheet metal. There's a relatively steady flow of sheet metal to the city every week. These ten people buy a considerable amount of it but they don't use it for current projects, they simply begin to store it in a warehouse to sell at some later point. Although it's not enough of the total market cause too much of a fluctuation  it's undoubted that they contribute to an overall increased demand and subsequently somewhat higher prices for the customers.

One of the country's major metal foundries has gone under. The national supply of metals of various types has been tightened. Prices go through the roof. The people who have stored metal (or bids on it in the case of actual speculators) see the tightening supply and decide to start selling their stocks of metal to make money off the currently increased prices. Speculators selling off their goods will, in turn, increase the market supply and put downward pressure on current prices.

In this way, we can see that speculators actually do perform a market function by acting to further stabilize economies for shifts in demand and/or supply in the future. Speculators certainly affect the price of commodities, but it is because they are a part of the temporal supply and demand chain.

The oil-market argument is just a small example of something that I think is far more prominent. I think we have an unfortunate habit of taking one little piece of the truth and just running with it. I'm sure a lot of it is the result of our biases and predispositions. Maybe we simply don't consider other aspects of the argument because we feel it threatens our own beliefs on the matter. You'd certainly get that impression from witnessing any standard political debate. But it would probably be healthy, at least once in a while, to stop being quite so defensive - to step back and allow for the possibility that another point should be considered, and that we might not have to give up all of our beliefs about those arguments to embrace it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Universally Arguable Behavior

There are plenty of bad arguments which have the habit of being quite common. I would imagine that almost all of us feel this way about one argument or another. And I'm sure that quite a few of us would be astonished at the arguments that the others among us find silly. But there is one argument, for me, that sits like a shining emerald centered on the crown of human conceit; the argument that one should not be permitted to argue.

There is a particular and specific instance of this argument that, for me, really concretes how terribly silly this line of thinking is. And what proved surprising for me is that I first heard it from a man, when I was a young adult, whom I might have to regard as the most intelligent person I know. So, at the highest risk of sticking my foot in my own mouth, this is the maligned argument:

"We're men. I don't understand why we have any say at all in regards to abortion and women's bodies."

Ugh. Even typing that out made me cringe.

Let me say first that, as a libertarian, I think I'd have to ultimately come down to the conclusion that abortion should not be illegal - although I have some moral qualms about it. The arguments on both sides have not been completely fleshed out for me in a satisfactory manner. Having said that, this argument really misses the mark for me.

One problem is this; the argument seems to be rooted in the idea that women own their bodies and therefore they should be able to do whatever they want with it - including ending a life growing inside it. Of course, such an argument usually relies on a presumption that underscores the major contention about abortion in the first place. Those who are "pro-life" believe that humans in any stage of development are still humans - with all accompanying rights.

So, to those who believe in human-life at conception, that argument falls apart quickly. We could not make such arguments in favor of a woman who randomly kills a man on a street corner. "Why should we have any say in this? It's her body. It's her hand. If she wants to hold a knife with it and stab someone, why should we have any say in it?" This would not be a particularly convincing argument to most people. And to those who are pro-life, this is exactly the argument being made to them.

At this point the argument devolves into conversations about where human-life begins and the content of our moral obligations as guardians. Of course, those who are pro-choice could still make the more Rothbardian argument about abortion/abandonment and still salvage their self-ownership rhetoric (even if they conceded the "life at conception" point), but they very rarely do.

However, the way in which general arguments regarding abortion play out isn't really my focus at the moment. Rather, my real problem is with the idea that there would be some ethereal partition in a conversation of what constitutes (what I presume to be) universally human rights; on which one side women may offer their view(s), and on which the other side men may not. Now, obviously, men are not (currently) ever put in the position of such a personal moral dilemma. But that says absolutely nothing of their ability to contribute to a discussion regarding the contents of justice.

And we see variant forms of this argument all the time:

- Dismissals of arguments against war because one has not gone to war
- Dismissals of arguments against farm subsidies because one is not a farmer
- Dismissals of arguments against scientific theories because one is not a professional scientist
- Dismissals of arguments against anything because, well, how old are you? You haven't been alive long           enough

All of these are equally fallacious and abysmal; a mistake in criticizing the theorist as opposed to the content of his theories. We could surmise that someone without particularly intimate knowledge or experience is unlikely to have all the proper considerations and justifications ironed out. But that alone does not a bad argument make - even if some very intelligent people get in the habit of calling it as such.

Provocation: the Flight for Asylum

It's hard to say what will become of Edward Snowden. But, like many matters of political intrigue, public focus has drifted almost wholly onto the provocateur himself. In a more perfect world, our attention would stand at the doorstep of the largest secret espionage program ever uncovered. Instead we find it lounging at an airport in Moscow. Where will he go? What will he do? What should we do? These seem to be the most harrowing questions we can conjure. But like any moment where one might be baffled by public opinion, we're afforded an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and others.

I think the most interesting reactions have come from the "national security" wing of the Republican party. Since Obama's first election, the Right has been put in the rhetorical position of fending off the expansion of federal power. This, of course, is already a precarious position for them given their track record. At the very least, it gives a lot of Democrats plenty of ammunition to publicly gut various politicians at will.

The Snowden situation seems to be giving them enough rope to hang themselves from an even higher ledge. Now many of these same people are put in a position where they they must excoriate Obama and the federal government for this reach of power, or demonize Snowden's character (as he stands as a perceived threat to the security-state). And while there are plenty of people who simply fall on one side or the other, I have seen plenty of prominent individuals who have somehow managed to hold and defend both views, strongly, and simultaneously. It's a testament, I think, to our tendency to rationalize our views as opposed to actually changing them.

I won't speak to the arguments regarding espionage and federal power. But I do find something peculiar about the way Snowden's character is being demonized. Those who are critical of Snowden have mostly rationalized their opinions on the basis of where he has run to in order to seek asylum. They seem surprised, and often infuriated, that he might flee to China or Russia. This is no surprise, of course. A large part of the Right's "national security" wing was, and continues to be, fixed on China and Russia - the two great bastions of Cold War communism. But there are a couple of things worth noting.

Firstly, generally speaking, the Cold War is over. And while I have concerns about China, and have nothing particularly flattering to say about either country, I think, even without any other considerations, that it's a bit foolish to act as if he had gone to these places in the height of the Cold War. When the intonation of the accusation is that he is essentially working for or with the government of another country, it's important to keep historical context. If he had fled to Britain, no one would be concerned that he was a key part in a plan to re-colonize the Americas.

Secondly, if he really was part of some cooperative effort with such foreign governments, why would he go there in such a public manner? It would seem to be a pretty obvious and critical draw of suspicion regarding said countries. Indeed, why would he even step foot on their soil at all? We're a little too far into the digital age to not be able to understand that money and information can exchange hands from quite a distance. The idea that he would so publicly walk back into the open clutch of his political cohorts reads too much like a bad movie where the villain provides a detailed explanation of what he did and how he did it right before the hero makes his escape.

Thirdly, the first city he fled to (Hong Kong) is arguably the freest place on planet Earth right now. There are plenty of criticisms one can generally lob at China. Judging by many of the criticisms, though, you'd think Snowden left to go spill national secrets to communists under a statue of Mao. Meanwhile, he fled to a particular city that's far freer than any of the cities those criticisms are being lobbed from.

And, lastly, where exactly is it that one would expect someone fleeing the United States to go? They argue, "And look where he went. Of course. Right to countries that hate us. What more proof of his intentions do you need?" And I'll have to answer, "Quite a bit." The reciprocal claim seems to be that Snowden should have fled to a country with closer ties to the United States. And the problem with that, which I hope all of us could arrive at on our own, is that countries with closer ties would obviously extradite him back into the hands of our government. This, by far, would be the most logical reason why you would want to seek asylum in a country that may not particularly share the interests of the United States or its allies. For some, however, these dots don't seem to connect quite as easily.

As with anything else of this nature, I could be completely wrong here. He could really be a modern communist sympathizer, spilling tar into America's political thresher, and pounding shots of vodka with his comrades at a Moscow airport. Of course, given that he made contributions to Ron Paul's presidential campaign, I find that unlikely. Then again, Ron Paul very badly wants to stop that thresher too. Maybe there's an open stool sitting there for him at the end of that airport bar.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

An American Civics Lesson

Over the years, I've had a healthy-growing distaste for our effervescent love affair with democracy. Each stripe on the colorful flag of populism seems like a strike against it. Creed, race, nation; football teams in a seemingly inevitable clash of culture, vying for our allegiance and merchandising dollars. From U.S. president to local pastor, majoratarian politics has just not been my bag.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm mistaken on that. Maybe there's a piece of information I just haven't processed yet, and all my opposition and frustration is just some unfortunate mistake, like an IRS accounting error. But then something grabs the attention of the American public, and the subsequent discourse kicks me right in the teeth. How silly of me. Some people really just are stupid. And, boy, the idiocy can really reach a majestic height. And, lest you believe I'm dipping too much into hyperbole, I'd like to turn your attention to the Trayvon Martin case.

As a formal disclaimer, I'd like to say that I (and the vast majority of us for that matter) do not know what happened in actuality. So none of my criticisms are on the basis of what did or did not happen. What I would like to draw attention to are some of the claims of many others (particularly regarding certain hypotheticals). And I won't even go into the nuances of positive law here (because God knows the people making the claims have made no attempt to grasp them anyways).

So, if I were to look at much of the discourse on this subject and view it as an American Civics class, here are ten things I would have learned:

1. Breaking the codes of conduct for your local neighborhood watch is illegal.

2. You're legally bound to said codes even if you're not on "watch".

3. 911 operators have executive authority (on par with police officers no less).

4. Investigating or stopping a potential crime is something that only police officers have the authority to do.

5. Following someone qualifies as assault and may be physically defended against.

6. Confronting someone verbally as to their intentions qualifies as assault and may be physically defended against.

8. Your life cannot be legitimately threatened unless you have already sustained serious bodily injuries.

9. One may not use a lethal (external) weapon unless being attacked by someone with another lethal (external) weapon.

10. Once it has been ascertained that use of a lethal weapon is necessary, one must use it in a non-lethal fashion.

Class dismissed.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Confusion: Freedom, Divided

I'm not sure if it's a specifically American phenomenon, but, culturally, we seem particularly fascinated with stories of failure and redemption. And more often than not, that archetype is a very public one. A personal or moral mis-step can quickly start the timer running on an individual's fifteen minutes of fame. And when the public persecution has exceeded its welcome, we are left with a phoenix or a heap of ash.

Under one of those piles of ash lays a woman known as Paula Deen. Her old-school "homestyle" cooking has brought her to the fringes of public attention on a few occasions. But, for the most part, she is best known for her books and cooking show(s) - that is until she made the mistake of admitting to the use of racial epithets in the past. This, coupled with a couple of other incidents, has brought her back to the focus of public attention. With her fated cross planted firmly in the hillside and the public's torches well in-hand, Paula's future does not look particularly promising. But before we all watch her boat completely capsize, I'd like to take a moment to take the awkward position of defending both her supporters and detractors.

A fair amount of her supporters are haranguing her critics with appeals for freedom of speech. They believe that she has a right to say such things, even if they disagree with them. And many of her critics completely acknowledge this, but claim that she's not being censored. Instead, they say, it is just the free market at work. Her supporters, of course, claim that it is still a free-speech issue, and that punishing someone for their words by threatening their livelihood is a way of restricting free speech.

I think I want to say that both kinds of people are correct in some ways. On the one hand, of course we should all have the right to speak freely (even if that speech is detestable). And it's true enough that Paula's detractors don't seem to be calling for literal censorship. Is there, however, anything to the argument about how threats of boycott (or the organization of boycott) stand in the way of such freedoms as well? Well, yes and no. I think we can safely say that it's not a literal restriction of freedom. So it fails on its most base claims. On the other hand, it's fairly obvious that it's a form of social coercion of some sort. But whether such types of coercions are good or bad is a different story.

For instance, let's say we have a person that is very rude, obnoxious, and cruel. All of his social exchanges are inflammatory - that is to say, when is isn't just plainly ignoring the other individual(s). Let's say this man opens a garage service to the public. After more than four weeks, no customers have come into the shop.

What are we to think of this? We have good reason to believe that the reason he has no customers is that he's known as such an obnoxious person. In fact, even if he offers relatively good service, and is even nice to his customers, we could imagine that people will have formed opinions that aren't very flattering. Is this a free speech issue? If it is, who is violating his speech? Is it his would-be customers? Can we force people to purchase his services? What about their freedom to trade and associate with the people they wish? And if "would-be" customers are the violators of freedom here, then how should we sift them out? It would seem that we would need to actually determine their intentions to separate them from people that wouldn't have used his services regardless.

You can see why trying to talk about such things as actual violations of free speech is somewhat problematic. But does the accusation completely fall apart? I don't think it does. We are obviously concerned with others and their ability to be independent and to provide for themselves. And many of us believe that tolerance is an important virtue, especially when in the company of those we vociferously disagree with. If we all chose to associate only with those we completely agreed with, the world would be a very despondent place indeed. In this light, it's easier to see the point some of her supporters are making.

To a lot of people looking in on these two views of the situation, they see diametrical opposition. But I don't think the two views conflict. Although the sentiments seem contrary, I believe they are not. They are atached to two particular aspects of the same problem. In that way, each view certainly has pull on the other, but they need not lie in opposition. On the one hand, our freedom to associate with whom we wish answers the matter of justice...what we have the enforceable right to do more generally. The argument that with-holding our money or consent from someone is a violation of their freedom falls apart rather quickly as we've seen. We should not force people to associate in particular ways.

On the other hand, the moral question of social coercion and tolerance could have a completely different answer. We have the right to think, say, and do (or not do) things that other people find reprehensible. And other people have the freedom to change the ways in which they associate with us because of it. What determines the appropriateness of such actions and reactions may be more delicate and nuanced. But surely they should be predicated on the actual problem at hand.

In the case of Paula Deen, it hasn't seemed (from what I can tell) like an overt, continued, and purposeful indiscretion on her part. She seems convincingly apologetic. And while I don't know anything about her personally, the little I do know doesn't seem to command a complete castigation of her. Now, maybe we should be mindful of those past discretions. But maybe we should show enough moral fortitude to display the kind of compassion and understanding that wouldn't reduce us all to some miserable existence where we live in total fear of the slightest mistakes in life. Perhaps, socially speaking, we would do well to have our proverbial guns drawn (we sometimes need to use them), but maybe we shouldn't unload a hail of bullets on anything we see move.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Splitting Hairs

While I feel that these kinds of questions, ultimately, fall apart for similar reasons, it's worth pointing out that the questions are, in fact, different.

"If your shoes are so good, why do you have to force everyone to purchase them at gunpoint?" a little different than...

"If smashing your face in isn't a good thing, why am I doing it?"

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Path of Least Resistance

In recent years I've become more and more convinced that the soundness of particular arguments are more important than their rhetorical value. Unfortunately, in a world of soundbytes, memes, and an ever-shrinking fifteen minutes of fame, brevity is an increasingly important aspect in the world of swayed opinions. Arguments that essentially boil down to one-liners can be particularly powerful, much like the jokes of stand-up comedians. They can put forth what appears to be a casually obvious absurdity to prove a specific point. Of course, the problem is that when all its underlying assumptions are unbound, the line of thought often quickly falls apart. The truth is that, while the illustration of such apparent absurdities may take the audience captive, they are often imaginatively fragmented and unrealistic. And by dosing each other with such arguments, even if they offer us short term victories, we are simply teaching people to accept bad arguments in the long run.

What got my wheels turning on this was the Lind piece on Salon from a few days ago - "The Question that Libertarians Just Can't Answer". A question which, by the way, was not only irrelevant in many ways (to the greater argument for libertarianism), but was actually easily answerable without too much reflection. The burning question: "If libertarianism is so great, why hasn't any country anywhere in the world ever tried it?" Now, apparently, this is being seen as a quite damning question by most non-libertarians. The question was certainly rhetorically effective in that sense. But I felt it to be more frustrating than anything - in that, at its base, it seemed somewhat ambiguous, and even nonsensical.

For instance, this question relies terribly on a term which covers a pretty wide spectrum of ideas. A libertarian could be a minarchist, a liberal, a socialist, a classical liberal, a paleo-conservative, an anarcho-capitalist, a voluntaryist, a free-market anarchist, and so on. Some may quibble that such variance lies only in degrees but anyone familiar with these groups knows that there are substantive differences between them. And, depending on which group you subscribe to, you could make some pretty remarkable arguments that your ideas (or at least substantial parts of them) are certainly being incorporated in most Western societies at this point (especially if you fall within the first few groups I mentioned). So even from the start, we see this lack of defining in our terms.

What kinds of presumptions lie in such a question? It seems to make the implicit claim that if libertarianism actually "works" (whatever sense of the word one wishes to employ) that at least some national governments would have adopted such policies. But some conceptions of libertarianism see national governments themselves as the antithesis of libertarian ideals. From that view, the question becomes something like, "Why doesn't oligopoly dissolve itself?" - to which they might all heartily answer, "Haha!" This was essentially the overture Tom Woods made to the question. And it's a powerful one.

Another possible implicit claim in the question is that arguments about institutions are purely utilitarian - ie, the correct one is the the one that "works". Now, I think there is at least somewhat of a false dichotomy when it comes to utilitarian vs. deontological concerns, but I digress. To the extent that the argument for libertarianism is a seemingly non-utilitarian one, the question, again, fails to make any semblance of sense. We can view libertarian ideals as not necessarily just a means to a particular end, but part of the ends themselves. In a more straight-forward example, we could ask, "If killing and stealing didn't work, then why do so many people kill and steal?" Well, that's certainly a question worth entertaining, but is it really an effective argument against, well, killing and stealing? I'd venture to say it's not.

And this only begins to scratch the surface of how truly problematic the question is. Another implied assumption seems to be that the present is optimal, for lack of a better term. We seem to be fed a question of, "Look - if this thing is so great, why don't we see it?". But that's a silly kind of question on its face - one that could have been asked about anything we currently cherish at some point prior to its advent. We could have, for instance, asked the same questions about democracy or the abolition of slavery at various points. That the world was entrenched in a certain paradigm at one point does not speak to other paradigms it could employ, or the justness of the current one. It takes a keenly myopic view of humanity's historical progression to lapse into such frivolities - particularly when one's mantle is "Progressive".

I don't point these things out in an effort to just bash the people I disagree with. Libertarians use the same kind of rhetorically short-hand arguments all the time. And I'm just as guilty as the next guy of doing it from time to time. But I think it's good to make a concerted effort not to, even if you believe it gives those who do engage in it an upper hand. If you really think the best arguments should prevail, and you also believe you have the best arguments, then you should really try to foster that kind of environment whenever you can.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

To Protect and Serve

On a radio show I listen to frequently, I've noticed that a lot of hay has been made over the technical obligations of public servants to the people. The critique flows all the way up to the high-water mark of prominent, elected officials. But it also trickles down to the fingers of service and enforcement. In either case, but especially the latter, I think the critique is somewhat misguided.

The main thrust of the argument lies in the conception of government as a social contract, where people exchange their power and allegiance for protection and stability. Or so the story goes. The condemnation comes out of the fact that public servants are not (enforceably) obligated to live up to their end of the bargain in many ways. For instance, police officers can not be physically required to answer a distress call. That may, of course, result in such an officer losing his job. But, nonetheless, the contention seems to be over whether such servants should be physically forced to serve.

As a libertarian, it's easy to get caught up in that argument. Personal assets are being expropriated to provide for such services. And, contrary to the much of the senseless progressive mantra, libertarians just as well as anyone should expect to at least receive the services they've paid for (even if they are against the arrangement to begin with). But, it is important to consider that there may be limits to what justice can demand. We're certainly entitled to compensation for these expropriated assets. But the question of "How?" is a more complicated one.

Let's suppose that you and another individual write up a contract for lawn work. The other individual never delivers on his promise and, alas, you have already paid him ahead of time for these services. Justice would seem to demand, if nothing else, that you would be repaid. Or, if amenable to both parties, servicing the existing contractual obligations may be sufficient. What would not be acceptable, however, is tying the other individual up, leash and chain, to force him to perform those services. This is because, while that individual may owe you something, he is still a human being. And unless he is volitionally egregious with respect to the rights and well-being of the others around him, enslaving him in such a manner is beneath human dignity. Without further details, justice only seems to demand compensation in this case.

Now let's consider the same situation. But, instead, the other party has forced you into such a contractual agreement under duress. Later you're put in a position where you are able to extract justice. What is its composition? Well, clearly, we could at least demand compensation for whatever was expropriated under duress. Can we then also force such a man to actually perform those contracted services? Unless you're working with a highly punitive framework of justice, it's hard to see why that should be the case. It seems appropriate, perhaps, to demand additional compensation for the anguish you might have endured in being threatened in such ways. But it's not clear that force or incarceration are called for (unless that individual should refuse to compensate).

There will, of course, be people who disagree pretty strongly with that. But most radical libertarians are fairly skeptical if not critical of forced performance in contracts. Now, understandably, we're talking about a contract that is not only invalid but carried out under duress. So it's easy to understand how one can get angry at the person on the other side of the gun barrel. I guess what I'm saying is that such reactions speak more to our anger and desire to punish than they do to the content of justice. Maybe my view of a "truly libertarian" world differs, but in the world I envision, people are not enforceably obligated to perform as per their contracts. Restitution, not retribution - this speaks to the content of justice.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Genius of Cody Wilson

After somehow managing to let the news-pot boil over, I finally got around to listening to several interviews with Cody Wilson; one of the founders of Defense Distributed. It's probably been hard to pick up a periodical within the last few months that didn't have some piece of the evolving story on 3D-printed firearms. Well, Cody happens to be the man behind that particular story (at this point). And I came to find that he was a delightfully peculiar individual.

I had heard through other circles that Cody had political tendencies and persuasions that I might identify with. At least rhetorically, that held out to be true...almost surprisingly true. Although our intellectual paths are pretty divergent, it was hard for me to disagree with the vast majority of his points. He had seemed to reach conclusions that I would say are at least compatible with my own. And I've been somewhat delighted by the confusions of others as to what his positions and intentions are. It's mostly the interviewers that seem thrown off (even the ones that are clearly somewhat adept). But the bafflement extends, from what I've read, to even large swaths of the anarchic community that he nominally identifies with. And, charmingly enough, he seems all-too aware and accepting of it.

Many of these talks and interviews brought about the same pseudo-consequentialist concerns about the relationship between freedom and potential realities. His answers were somewhat tailored to the particular audience. Sometimes he answered directly and forthrightly. Other times, his answers seemed somewhat intentionally bound up in the sympathies of the people he was addressing that particular day. But no matter how labyrinthine the responses were, they never seemed disingenuous or opportunistic  They seemed tailored to show some amount of acceptance of those peoples' concerns, while at the same time pushing those criticisms up against other tenets of their supposed values. Say what you will about the man, he seemed to know exactly what he was doing - or at least what he was trying to do.

All that being said, there was an occasionally (and I might note, amused) dismissal of some of the more common contentions at different points. I'm sure we could chalk some of it up to the fact that he had answered these same objections many times before, or that he felt his audience wouldn't be very partial to the direct answers he wanted to give. But there was clearly something else going on here as well. His apparent reason for dismissing a lot of the questioning was that it was pointless. You can tell that he was somewhat frustrated that the interviewers weren't grasping that particular point. I think a lot of people would see such dismissals as childish. But I think it's actually kind of genius - and reflects the larger part of his actual contribution to freedom.

The beauty of that contribution, from my point of view, is that it bypasses the discussion and takes political deliberation (effectively) off the table altogether. And that's the whole point. That's why it's significant. In that sense, many of the questions being asked of him become pretty trivial. If you ported this political situation to the analogy of a chess game, Cody just called checkmate and now he's listening to his opponents caution him about it. He has short-circuited the process. The question is no longer in play. So while the justifications might be interesting and/or important (which I believe they are), his particular answer has quite effectively dissolved the entire weight of the question.

That is Wilson's legacy. And I think, unfortunately, that it's a victory of a level that most people haven't really managed to grasp yet. I suspect that will change in the years to come. And, on that level, maybe it's not particularly important that we fully understand him or his intentions. What is important is how such developments have effectively moved political goalposts. It loudly echoes the clarion call; these walls of power will crumble from within.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Why I Believe in Imaginary Lines

Liberty proponents often ridicule and excoriate supporters of state power by pointing to the arbitrariness of various rules within the system. They'll lament the concept of political jurisdictions and boundaries, and, often, literally laugh them off as "imaginary lines". They'll refer to the state itself sometimes as "a fiction". I'm not sure if this is a good rhetorical approach in the long run.

The basic thrust of such gestures is that these rules and jurisdictions are immaterial. They do not exist in a tangible sense. They are the product of men and their ideas. So far, so good. This much I think we can agree on. Where I part, however, is in thinking that this is good grounds to dismiss the claims.

Consider, for instance, that you catch a burglar in your house. You stop him at gunpoint and tell him to get out of your house. He asks you what authority you have in forcing him to leave. You reply, of course, that he is on your property. He laughs at you. "By property you mean an imaginary line you magically placed around this house?"

So, then we see the obvious question of what makes his line of argumentation any less meaningful than the one explored previously? The answer, of course, is that it isn't less meaningful. It holds the same rhetorical weight. So does that mean that this particular argument is so good that it can defeat both the concepts of property and state-authority? No; fortunately for us, I believe, it means that the argument is so bad that it defeats neither.

Property is a social construct. It is a concept. It is immaterial. That does not make it any less real. The truth-value and functionality of concepts do not lie in their (non)tangibility.

Our chief mission, in this regard, is to reveal the inconsistency and unworkable nature of concepts like political authority through reason. Banishing ideas and concepts to the realm of mystical relics based on their immaterial nature actually does a pretty big disservice to the cause. Hume's Guillotine is a powerful argument to employ. But, in using it, you have to remain mindful that it cuts both ways.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

On Relative vs. Absolute Scarcity

In mulling over some of the particulars of recent intellectual property debates, a point that has for a long time struck me as clear seemed like it wasn't a point as widely accepted as I'd thought. Serious debates about IP have to lead back to more abstract facts about our general arguments for property. And general arguments for property will usually lead back to the problem of scarcity, which is the foundational assumption behind most economic frameworks. It's often said that, without scarcity, we'd have no particular reasons for constructs like property. I think that much might be true. But when people, perhaps as a proxy for this argument, imply that super-abundance would alleviate our need for property constructs, I begin to become a bit suspicious.

I think that a distinction has to be made between the qualities of relative vs. absolute scarcity. In a universe of near infinite abundance (material copies) of various goods, relative scarcity may all but disappear by definition. Perhaps you could steal my car without worry because I could conjure infinite replacements without much issue. But, even putting aside arguments about the cost of time and self-ownership, I don't think the relief of relative scarcity, however robust, will untie absolute scarcity in the material world.

This is because, while similar configurations of separate bits of matter may be prove acceptably interhcangeable in our ongoing projects, they will still be different bits of matter, and may therefore not suffice as substitutes in other parts of our projects. It's a by-product of the way that human beings come to create meaning and value with respect to material objects. This can be illustrated with a couple of simple examples.

Take our previous car example; if we have no attachment to that specific car, in particular, then it's easy to see how swapping the car for an exact copy would not be problematic. But what if you had built the car from the ground up over six months? Would you feel justly compensated if I stole it and then simply left a different one in its place?

Let's take a different example. How about the ashes of, say, a grandmother that you keep in an urn above your fireplace? Suppose that I come in an take it for some reason. When you begin to complain, I tell you not to worry so much. After all, I have a perfectly functioning replicator. I can copy the urn and all its contents down to the atomic level. See? No harm or loss, right?

We can see pretty clearly that it's a more complicated matter. The fact is that information about particular matter informs our semantics and valuations. And while we derive our value from some objects merely from their form, we can clearly see that this is not always so. Thus, absolute scarcity, as opposed to relative scarcity, should be our preferred basis for property rights constructs.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Cost of Amnesty

I have to wonder, in reading this article, if the same argument(s) would/could be made effectively enough to dissuade Americans from buying into the dissolution of the institution of slavery as well.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Blaming the Victim

I've often been struck by a fairly common retort that comes from conversations about foreign policy and potential blow-back:

"You're blaming the victim!"

I've heard this more than a handful of times in the last couple of weeks. Whenever someone has the audacity to surmise that the recent attack in Boston could be related to our disastrous foreign policy, you'll be sure to raise an eyebrow or drop a jaw. And those aforementioned words won't be too far behind.

This reaction seems to miss the point of the musing altogether. The purpose is rarely to remove or transfer actual culpability away from the perpetrator(s). For example; Let's say that I had a problem with my neighbor. I decide to go out in front of his house and yell obscenities about his mother. After about fifteen minutes of this, he comes outside and punches me in the face. Later on, as I'm reclining on the sidewalk with an ice-pack on my face, you comment, " really shouldn't have done that. If you would have just stayed inside and not said anything, none of this would have happened." What would you say if I retorted, "You're just blaming the victim!"?

I would think your reaction would be, "No, I'm not." Because, well, you haven't said anything that would count as you blaming me at that point. Perhaps none of the culpability lies with me. I might be completely innocent. But what you're elucidating is that perhaps my actions weren't prudent, given the circumstances, and that they've contributed to the end result...even if that result was an injustice for which I bear no personal responsibility in the end.

But this brings to light a second problem. In the case of my analogy  the "victim" in the situation is fairly well defined. I'm not sure that this is the case when the claim is given as a response to the Boston attack. When someone is supposedly "just blaming the victim", what party or parties does "victim" correspond to in the claim? The obvious answers are the runners and innocent bystanders who were injured in the attack. But, if thats the case, then the claim doesn't make much sense.

Most of the people who talk about the prospect of blow-back in this kind of event wouldn't generally be aiming their questioning at the innocent civilians but rather at the government itself. Even if we wished to make some kind of serpentine argument in which individual voters were blamed for the policies of their supported administration, a sheet of guilt would still not be cast over the victims. The blast was indiscriminate. The attackers knew nothing about the political allegiances of the victims. Undoubtedly there were people who were maimed which did not support U.S. foreign policy at all. So how could a criticism of politicians and bureaucrats turn into an indictment of innocent civilians?

I'm willing to entertain the idea that there is some small sliver of commentators that purposely fail to make either distinction; ie. that feel that the U.S. literally holds full responsibility for the attacks and that the people who were hurt were part of the government and therefore shared in that responsibility  But I think this represents a very, very small portion of people who talk about blow-back and foreign policy entanglements. If such confusions are driven purposely for rhetorical reasons, it's worth mentioning that cherry-picking the worst possible interpretation of your opponents' arguments only makes your argument look weak to anyone else who's paying attention. On the other hand, if the confusion is accidental, then it reflects a malignant, if not consistent, bias on the part of many of us. In either case, we should all work a little bit harder to define our terms clearly when we engage others.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Forbidden Fruit

In light of recent events and our seemingly renewed interest in the ethnicity and culture of (some) perpetrators of violence, it seems fitting to write a small post on why I don't feel that all the hand-wringing from civil-rights defenders is just politically correct nonsense. This type of thing, of course, sits on a spectrum. So how this applies depends on the person making the argument. The people I want to address are those who offer solutions or explanations that hinge on culture or religion, subsequently disparaging wide swaths of innocent people; ostensibly in the name of security. I believe that the following analogy, while not perfect, explains pretty succinctly what I believe the problem is:

Suppose you and I jointly own a fruit stand. We only sell two types of fruits - apples and oranges. The demand for each seems to be roughly about the same. There's plenty of business for both. We notice that, in each shipment, there is a small percentage of fruit that is spoiled before it ever gets to us. We take it upon ourselves to start keeping track of the numbers.

After a couple of years, we get down to a pretty reliable projection. We receive roughly 1,000 apples and 1,000 oranges every week. On average, one of those apples is spoiled, and five of the oranges are spoiled.

Before long, I start to complain to you about the orange shipments. Spoiled fruit is lost business. We have to just drop selling oranges altogether. You retort that it is unfortunate that we have spoiled fruit. But you don't understand why we'd stop selling oranges. After all, it's a very small portion of the oranges that are bad.

I start to become frustrated with you. "Come on, man! If we come across a spoiled fruit, you can bet it's going to be an orange. There are five times as many spoiled oranges as apples!". You ask me why that has anything to do with your objection at all. I start to think that you've lost it and have somehow become an apologist for the orange-producers.

Where did we go wrong?

Well, I think we're both right in terms of the evidence we bring. But I think, in this scenario, I'm letting the pattern-detecting part of my wetware lead me to a conclusion that doesn't seem particularly rational if we follow it through. So at what point have I de-railed my own argument?

It's certainly true, in this particular example, that spoiled oranges seem to heavily outweigh spoiled apples. If someone tells me they found a spoiled fruit, I can almost reliably bet it's an orange. So it's easy to see how the oranges might more easily invoke my ire. But does that give us good reason to start chucking the oranges altogether?

No, I don't believe it's a sufficient reason to chuck the oranges. The argument for doing that merely discerns a relationship in the portions of spoilage between the two fruits. It tells us nothing about the quantity attached to the spoilage - which would be the relevant factor for that kind of argument. Yes, about 83% of the spoiled fruit is orange. But the relationship between spoiled and spoiled belies the reality of the relationship between non-spoiled and spoiled:

Unspoiled Apples - 99.9%
Unspoiled Oranges - 99.5%

A relative disparity in spoilage, sure. A relative disparity in the number of fruits that aren't spoiled, not as much so. And I think this illuminates at least some of the misunderstanding between the "politically correct" apologists and their detractors. Whether the division lines are being set up by nation, creed, or culture, it's really important to remember this distinction. We're pattern-seekers by nature. It's our biological heritage. It's our most fundamental tool. And we're good enough in our utilization of such to see that there is a very human pattern of seeing patterns that aren't sufficiently explanatory.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Primacy of Bad Arguments

I usually don't take it to be in my purview to attack political humor or satire  I generally take it for what it is - entertainment. But given how many people, apparently, turn to entertainment to be politically informed, it's occasionally worth pointing out the silliness of some of the arguments you can find therein.

That brings us to the following jab:

It almost sounds like a reasonable argument. And "almost" is just enough for a whole lot of people out there by the looks of the social frenzy that is FaceBook. So let's break down why this bit of criticism doesn't really hold up too long after put under the faintest of lights.

It seems that most criminal law (at least of the sort that is concerned with actual victims) could be roughly divided into two types of legislation; laws against violating the rights of other people, or laws against things that might aid you in violating the rights of other people. It's worth noting that things in this second group often have no intentional context. That is to say, their aim may not be solely at people who intend to commit crimes. For instance, the reason you're not allowed to own countless sticks of dynamite and horde them on your front lawn is not because people necessarily think that you plan on hurting someone. They think you might do it regardless of your intention (accidentally).

Arguably, that is (or should be) the primary reason for this second set of laws. We don't need a specific law, for instance, against murdering someone with explosives - because murder is already against the law. And if you had planned on killing people with explosives, barring their sale or incriminating their possession isn't going to be a an effective deterrent. As long as you are able to make it yourself, or purchase it illegally, then these types of laws won't sway your action at all. And if you're willing to suffer the consequences of taking another person's life, why would we believe you'd moved by the threats of punishment brought to bear for pettier crimes? At best such legislation is merely increasing the number of hoops you have to jump through.

So, given these subgroups of law, we can see that some laws are primary in that they directly concern violating the rights of people, while other laws hinge on the primacy of the first group, and are enacted to decrease the chance of such violations happening to begin with. Understanding that, we can see how someone could argue that the ineffectiveness of laws in the second group (solely as a deterrent to those who intend to commit crimes) disproves their need, while still holding onto the primacy of laws in the first group (regardless of their deterrent quality).

Laws in the first group (against murder, theft, etc.) are, at least nominally, simply reflections of my natural rights. Their efficacy, in what they effectively deter, is immaterial. They aren't simply means to the ends of preventing personal violations of rights. They are primarily the embodiment of the ends themselves (my actual rights).

No one is challenging this set of laws.

However, the efficacy of this auxiliary (or second) set of laws is their only object. Simply possessing explosives is not a direct violation of anyone else's rights. The laws against their possession are justified (if at all) only to the extent that they function in a preventative manner with respect to the primary laws. Any laws in this group that can't or won't function as such are not simply bad - they are incoherent and subsequently useless.

Let's look at a different example:

Let's say that legislators are proposing to make it illegal to drive to someone's house with an axe in your trunk. Having an axe in your trunk, by itself, is not a direct violation of anyone's rights. The attempt here, obviously, is solely to prevent you from using an axe to violate someone's rights. Now, if human beings had the uncanny habit of accidentally opening their trunk and hurling objects from it at people, maybe there would be a good argument for it as a preventative measure. But how will this function as a way to prevent people intent on murder from carrying it out?

The short answer is that it won't. If you are willing to drive to someone's house to kill them with an axe, the pettier crime of bringing the axe with you isn't going to prevent you from doing it. Just like making it illegal to wear a ski-mask in a bank isn't going to prevent people from robbing banks (or wearing ski-masks while they're doing it).

And pointing out the incoherence of laws like that doesn't push you into the fringes of calling all laws incoherent or useless. Some laws make no justificationary appeals to deterrence or prevention. They simply define the contours of our rights as human beings. And others, well, those appeals are all they have to begin with. Without asking ourselves about the purpose and function of things, we won't reasonably to able to discern the grapes from the vines; the constitutive from the instrumental. The law is no exception.

Friday, April 12, 2013

On IP: Wenzel vs. Kinsella

I was going to set up this post as a response to a specific comment over at the Economic Policy Journal website, but it seems that said comment has been deleted since I first read it. In any case, I'll go ahead and make this a more general post about the underlying topic of late in libertarian circles - the Wenzel/Kinsella debate on IP (intellectual property). Buckle in, boys and girls.

So, I'm not intimately familiar with whatever contentions lie between Wenzel and Kinsella, but after gruelling through the two and a half-hour slogfest that's been referred to as a "debate", it's safe to say there's some antipathy between these two bloggers. Truth be told, my awareness of Wenzel and his work is mostly accidental. I've perused some of his articles but I've never been particularly impressed with the alarmist demeanor that envelopes his presentation. Likewise, I can't say that I know Kinsella's work inside and out. But I've burned enough time on his articles and talks to have a general sense of where he's coming from. I agree with him at least nine times out of ten in regards to his political conclusions - particularly as it pertains to abstract theories related to property. So I'll have to admit that I rolled into this thing anticipating that I was going to agree with Kinsella in the end.

That being said, some of the fallout from this in the undercurrents of the wider libertarian movement has been sizable enough to garner what might otherwise be unwarranted attention. As expected, it seems that the more traditional Randian-style libertarians are lining up on the side of IP (and subsequently what I would refer to as "the state"...even if they don't see it that way), while most anarcho-libertarians are lining up against IP. Now, I'm still technically pretty new to the movement I think. But even I still recall the time(s) when there was still a lot of wrangling in the latter group over the IP issue. But a couple of prominent thinkers (Kinsella being one) have rapidly advanced the anti-IP banner. There has been a huge paradigm shift because of it - the importance of which, I think, has not been completely grasped yet. I will say that I think the quickness and decisevness of the shift tells me a couple of delightful things. One is that our movement is alive and breathing. We do not appeal to faith or antiquity. It seems that most of us are open to changing our views if we find ourselves in the wrong. Secondly, I believe the eminent totality of the shift in said group shows just how strong and consistent the argument against IP has ultimately been.

Anyways, all of that being said, let's dig into what I believe to be the crux of this particular debate...

If we could distill the differences between the opposing views in this debate down to a word, I believe that word would be "scarcity." "Scarcity" is a term that is used in different ways. Kinsella obviously means something more specific in his use of the term than Wenzel does. Kinsella has to repeatedly define his use of scarcity (which, by the way, is what I believe is or should be the economic understanding of the term) in his talk with Wenzel, separating his use from whatever Wenzel is imagining. Oddly enough, I don't even think I can accuse Wenzel of equivocation...because it's fairly clear that he doesn't really understand the distinction Kinsella is making in the first place. He, instead, blankets every use of the word, from either of them, in his interpretation. This might be the most frustrating thing for me in listening to the debate.

So what are the claims here? Well, Kinsella claims that property is a social construct that is, functionally, designed to allocate user-rights to resources. But, more specifically, scarce resources. Wenzel thinks this is fine (because of his understanding of the term). Ideas are scarce. Therefore, ideas can be homesteaded. Kinsella says this is silly. Ideas are conceptual. Use of ideas aren't even tangibly excludable. If we both see an apple in a field, and we both want to eat it, only one of us can (without dividing it into sub-parts). That apple is quantitatively scarce. Whereas, if you were to come up with an idea, an infinite number of people could mentally hold it, or act upon it, without removing your access to it. Wenzel then makes a move that he believes to be a rhetorical death strike. He claims to have a formula in his head that no one else is aware of; therefore, it is scarce. If it is really not scarce, then he challenges anyone else to present the formula to prove him wrong.

Again, I believe this is a misguided use of the term on Wenzel's part. Ideas (concepts) themselves are a literal sense. The objects and descriptions of which concepts refer to may have quantitative values. The concept of "sphereness" may provide you with information about the measurements of spheres. But the concept of "sphereness" itself is not a tangible object. It is qualia. It has no measurement. It has no enumeration. Things that have no enumeration, in and of themselves, cannot be scarce in any meaningful sense.

Let's use another example. Think of the number three. Is the number three scarce? How many concepts of the number three are there?

It's just as important, here, to notice what I am NOT asking. I am not asking how many referrants there are to the concept of threeness. After all, there are several systems of numerals and languages that have differing syntactical references to three. But the semantics of all of them flow downstream to the same river. They all dissolve into the same immaterial concept. If they do not, they refer to a concept other than three.

Notice, also, that I am not asking how many people have ever, are currently, or will ever be aware of the concept of threeness. How many people have access to the concept of three, mentally, has no bearing on the quantitative features of the concept of threeness...because concepts have no quantitative features themselves.

What Wenzel is actually saying (perhaps unwittingly) when he claims that ideas are scarce, is that there are a small number of people with access to the ideas. But scarcity in the absolute economic sense denotes limit, not abundancy. Therefore his rhetorical flourish about a "secret formula" fades into meaninglessness, even if we adopt his misapplication of enumeration to concepts. For the enumerability of a thing is the tautological result of its scarceness. If we replaced talk of ideas with talk about emeralds, his misapplication of the term would become apparent.

If there were only one emerald in the world, and only one person posessed it, we would certainly say that emeralds are economically scarce. But even if there were seven billion emeralds, and every human being posessed one, they would still be scarce in the absolute sense. If you don't believe that this is what scarcity means, then ask an economist if "labor" (semantic arguments aside) is scarce. And this is why his relative use of the term has no bearing on our discussion. If we asked him to justify his ownership of an emerald in that world, and he wanted to appeal to property of "scarce" resources, would his justification hinge on the actual number of emeralds? If we can prove property rights by scarcity, and then scarcity by abundance, then can we own emeralds in the seven billion emerald world? If so, what does pointing out one person's posession of or access to something prove about scarcity and subsequently ownership?

In other words, I think that both Wenzel and Kinsella ostensibly agree that the objects of ownership are "scarce" goods. But when Kinsella asks him to demonstrate how an idea could possibly be scarce, Wenzel points to the non-abundancy of his personal formula. Even if we pushed aside the fact that he's mistakenly quantifying the concept itself instead of the people who hold it, would that ever make sense as a basis for property? That is to say - If we asked him to justify the ownership of his shoes, he wouldn't prove its "scarcity" by asking all people in the world to come forth and show him their shoes. The fact is that most people in the world do own shoes. Shoes are abundant/plentiful. But they are scarce. As they would be if he was the only one who had a pair. If we can see that it would be odd to deny that people can own shoes in either case, then we must at least passively be able to see that abundancy is not a nuanced enough concept to encapsulate property rights. And this is precisely why it is an insufficient proxy for scarcity in political and economic theories.

It's things like this that make me believe that Wenzel's general conception of and subsequent justification for property is going to be on weak grounds. Without having a firm grounding in our understanding of the purpose of property rights, we're not going to be able to see why the term "scarce" can't possibly be a simple appeal to relative abundance  And without understanding the nature and scope of those rights, we'll end up opening doors to weird possibilities - like thinking that the concept "red" could be scarce because we don't see a lot of "red things" out there in the world, or believing there to be a possible righteous world where people would have been prevented from constructing chairs with their own time and resources had someone thought to somehow contractually monopolize the concept of "chairness". I'm sure that Wenzel makes a number of perfectly defensible points on various political topics. But on the efficacy of IP, his justifications are not only wrong, but simply incoherent. There is simply no contest between Wenzel's blind appeals and Kinsella's foundational approach to the question.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Lifestyles as Means and Ends

During a recent discussion about "nature vs. nurture" as it pertains to homosexuality, I heard a prominent radio host say something that seemed fairly odd to me. He said something like the following:

"I totally think that people can be born that way, but I think that there are some people who are doing it just because they enjoy that lifestyle."

I might be off in how I interpreted it, but, in context, it sounded like he was saying that there are a sizable number of people who not only are not genetically predisposed to have such a sexual orientation, but in fact don't have that orientation at all. Rather, they think it's just a cool thing to be and so play the part.

I'm not sure if this was a misguided formulation of "nature vs. nurture" on his part, or if he was aware that this particular view was somewhat heterodox. The nurture argument, as far as I understand it, states that such preferences can be the result of our environment rather than our biology. What it doesn't say, to my knowledge, is that such things aren't actual preferences at all. Can "being gay" be a means to "living the gay lifestyle"? Does this make sense?

Upon some reflection, I think I have to conclude that it's not particularly coherent; at least not in the statement's strongest form. Let's look at a hypothetical claim that might reflect such a state of affairs:

"I love being a pitcher. I don't like throwing baseballs."

Is this a coherent series of statements? I would say that they're not, or at least they are not as currently stated. The reason it doesn't make sense is that it seems like throwing a baseball is a constitutive part of being a pitcher. We can't really make sense of what it even means to be a pitcher without throwing a baseball, or to like being a pitcher, but not like throwing baseballs.

I find the argument for liking the gay lifestyle but not actually being gay to be a similar outline of thoughts. It seems to me that actually being gay is a constitutive part of the gay lifestyle. What would it mean for someone to enjoy "being gay" but not having such actual sexual preferences?

Well, there are certainly other parts of the gay lifestyle which might not include the orientation itself. Likewise, there are parts of being a pitcher that don't revolve around throwing a baseball (wearing a uniform, making lots of money, etc.). But then it seems like you simply have an affinity for some smaller individual component of the overall act/preference. And that is quite different from saying that you enjoy the product of those smaller constituents.

Think, for instance, of your favorite song. That song is composed of individual notes. Could we make sense of you saying that you liked the song, but didn't like some of its constitutuent notes? No - because the song JUST IS those notes. If we claim that we like a particular song...but without a particular set of its constituent notes...then it seems what we like is actually a different song altogether.

All that being said, it's hard to say exactly what statements like the aforementioned one could mean. I've heard similar claims in other contexts where the aim seemed to be something like:

"Well...a lot of people aren't really like that at all. They just do it because they want to be cool."

You see this type of sentiment a lot when there are two groups of people with some amount of traffic between them. For instance, some Caucasians get uncomfortable about the "urban lifestyle" of a subset of other Caucasians - claiming they aren't really urban, they are just acting it out.

You could turn such statements into something somewhat intelligible if you twist them into something that confines itself to describing action (and not preference). For instance, to go back to my earlier analogy, you could say that someone has a preference for living the life of a pitcher but fails to execute pitching very well. Or you could like a particular song, try to play it, and not be able to play it. And I suppose we could even jeer at you a bit for it in the right context. What we would have a much harder time doing is applying a similar critique to your preferences themselves.

I will lay out the important caveat that we could desire the larger thing if that thing itself was a constitutive part to an even larger thing - if it was a means to a larger end. But then it wouldn't really make sense to say that we have an individual preference for the constitutive component in its own right. For instance, I want to work because I have a preference for income. But that doesn't mean that I enjoy working. Working has become an instrumental means to something else at that point.

I feel comfortable enough to leave our commentator this kind of exit. But I'm not sure how it might apply to his comments. If living a gay lifestyle is an instrumental means, what is it then a means to? When you've moved into the realm of talking about living a whole lifestyle as a means to something, you've moved pretty high up on the praxeological totem pole. Unless a there is a post-life religious argument being made on its behalf, it doesn't seem to leave us much explanatory room. In any case, it seemed like an unjustified and somewhat perplexing statement to make - one that belies the acceptableness of such preferences to begin with.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Demography and the Limitations of Empirics

I won't mention his name (as he gets called out far too much on this blog as it is), but a certain semi-prominent libertarian defector has left a partially puzzling response to a commenter in regards to a post on gay-marriage. The blogger criticizes the move towards changing institutions as fundamental as marriage. The commenter replies that maybe such change is part of a longer, slower general evolution of the institution; ie, not brought on the hastened wings of recklessness but rather a more lengthy process of osmosis. The blogger responds with two points. It is the second one that I find at least mildly baffling. I'll paraphrase here:

"It seems to me that the societies that embrace this institutional change the most have suffered for it. Look at Western Europe's demography. Their population has been dwindling for some time now. That doesn't seem like an insignificant consequence to me!"

I think statements like this embody the raison d'etre for schools of thought similar to the camp of Austrian economics. It illuminates the limitations of empirics generally in such matters. As the blogger in question is a defector of such a camp (Austrians), I can't help but be sent reeling at such comments. Let's look at this statement on a couple of different levels.

The first presumption, to my mind, lies apart from the more general truth-value of the statement, which hinges on the connection between this particular set of social institutions and demography. The first premise is unspoken - it is, rather, smuggled in. That premise being that declining demography is, as a matter of fact, bad or at the very least undesired. Now, it's true enough that, given the structure of government(s) across Europe, declining demography will pose various problems regarding their structures of taxation and benefits - even though they aren't demonstrably insurmountable. That's certainly a good argument for maintaining positive population growth. On the other hand, there are certainly (strong) arguments for negative growth; namely growing limitations on material resources. I'm not particularly endorsing either of these views. Instead, my point is simply that asserting that negative population growth is bad assumes a certain optimum population level. And, given that this discussion has not been had nor its conclusions justified, we would probably do well to give those particular justifications if we're going to treat it as a given.

The second way in which the blogger's statement disturbs me is the more obvious one - what is the nature of the connection between such institutional changes and demography? Is there an actual co-variance  or is it mere correlation? We're given no particular justifications. It's precisely this kind of political proposition that drives the Austrians mad in the realm of economic analysis.

What we have here, generally, is a mental mapping of two trends that happen to currently enjoy a similar trajectory. But justifying their connection is a matter that's beyond the empirical nature of those trajectories. The data must be interpreted. Even though, as humans, we are inclined to see causal relationships and patterns in everything, that does not mean that all things that appear to have connection actually do. If we can discern the nature of things through a tandem use of empirics and theory, we can avoid both the accusations of scientism and anti-science.

To peel all this back a little bit, let's look at the thrust of that statement again. The context is gay-marriage. A connection is implied between the push for such changes and declining demography. But how does this make sense in the context of gay-marriage itself? The implication seems to be that if this trend reversed direction we would see more positive demographic growth. But how could this be the case given that we are talking about individuals who identify themselves as being homosexual? Do homosexuals, en masse, suddenly adopt heterosexual behavior when marriage isn't an option for them?

What could make such an assertion make sense? Are we envisioning going back to a state of affairs that's so oppressive to homosexuals that we will socially brow-beat them into heterosexuality? Surely that's not what our author quite has in mind. Maybe our author believes that sexual orientation is largely a matter of personal choice, and thus such legal discrimination will provide the incentive to make the "better" choice? At least that justification is a somewhat plausible one on its face. But of course that assumes the highly contested (and I'd say, at this point, refuted) idea that gender-orientation or sexual orientation is not biologically driven. I'm not saying there aren't good arguments for such ideas. But, again, I don't think it's something we can just presume either.

Of course, after all is said and done, our blogger could have perfectly defendable justifications for his presumptions - even if they are are also perfectly wrong. But the larger point here is that things that seem like straight-forward motions toward empirics need to be dissected and questioned. It happens far too often that someone will throw a statistic out in the course of an argument and then it is merely glossed over in subsequent argument. But ALL empirics require substantive theory. And if the logic underlying the empirical implications are not sound, then what are we to say of the conclusions drawn from them? I would hasten to say, "Not much."