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.