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, "Man...you 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 immaterial...in 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.