Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Oh Jeez; Happy First Anniversary!

So I know it's a few days late, but who cares! This blog is officially one year old! Thanks so much to the hundreds of people who have visited and read what I've had to say, and especially to the...uh...tens of people who have left comments (even the not-so-nice ones)! It's been a pleasure; thanks for reading!

On Coercion for Spammers: A Reply to Jacob

Over at the Crash Landing blog, Gene Callahan wrote:
...I often think that libertarians may tend to get confused (of course not all libertarians, and of course not all the time) between defending the general concept of property rights and defending such rights as they are currently defined. Now, I think it's fine to have a default position of "Don't tamper with current rights on a lark," but there are times I think it would be a very good idea to tamper with them. For instance, I would have no problem criminalizing what these "Wow Gold" folks have been doing to this blog. I've got to be spending a half an hour per week deleting their comments and the e-mails they generate. I consider what they are doing no different them coming over to my house with megaphones and shouting about "Wow gold" at a cocktail party I'm throwing.

Basically, the setup is this: Some spammers have somehow found a way to get past his blog's authentification defenses, and he's irate. But in the comments section of the post, a controversy arose. It appears that a fellow named Jacob is uncomfortable with the idea that we would feel justified in using coercive force against these miscreants, and thinks that Gene is dead wrong for thinking that it would be okay. In response to Jacob, I wrote the following, which I'm reposting here in case anyone finds it interesting:

Libertarian conceptions of rights are founded on the idea that others ought to be respected. When individuals don't want to be pestered, and they make that clear, then continuing to pester them is disrespectful of their individuality. We call that harrassment, and we generally think that people are justified in taking some coercive measures to act in opposition to harrassment.

If we adopt that standard, then it seems to me like we would also want to adopt another standard: people shouldn't perform actions that they can reasonably foresee pestering someone, even if the person haven't asked them to stop. Doing so would seem to fall short of treating people with respect, just like harrassing them does.

I think it's pretty reasonable to suppose that the people spamming Gene's blog are well aware that their actions are likely to pester him. If that's true, then they would indeed be failing to respect Gene by continuing to post their spam. And if libertarian conceptions of rights are built around the idea of due respect, then it wouldn't be unreasonable to suppose that Gene has some claim against having obviously irritating spam posted on his blog. If, then, we apply the same standard to obnoxious spamming as we do to harrassment, we could not unreasonably come to the conclusion that some degree of coercion might be justifiable in response to the incursion.

Now, exactly what kind of response (if any) we would advocate is an open question. But I don't think that it's so unreasonable to think that people who are knowingly seeking out and irritating other people should be stopped or reprimanded somehow. My solution: publish their names and addresses in the newspaper.

On Clean Coal (Or the Lack Thereof)

[Reposted from University and State]

I have a confession. There's something that's been eating at me for a long time, and I need to get it off my chest before my soul caves in on itself and I break a television in a rabid fury. I HATE THIS COMMERCIAL:

I'm saying this up front: this post is going to be way longer than is reasonable for a response to a tiny commercial. But someone needs to say this, so I'm saying it.

Let's dig a little bit into what's going on here. This Is Reality is a collaborative project between a number of environmental advocacy organizations, but I think it's pretty clear who's ringleading this operation: Al Gore's advocacy group, the Alliance for Climate Protection. So because it would be impossible to direct my ire at all of the organizations behind this commercial (since they all have different positions), and because the website for This Is Reality is filled with links to other Alliance projects, I will point my comments at the Alliance.

The Alliance has two other projects besides This Is Reality which represent its constructive alternative to the use of coal technology to generate electricity: We Can Solve It and Repower America. But to understand what they're talking about, it will be necessary to get some background on how electricity is currently generated. So here it goes:

Electricity demand fluctuates on a daily basis, like this:

Source: http://www.reliant.com/en_US/Platts/art/CEA_offices_fig1.gif

That's not actually an observation of demand; in reality things are a lot choppier. But the basic point you should take from it is this: during the work day when people are running lots of electricity-intensive equipment (and particularly in the summer and winter, space heaters and air conditioners), there's a rise in the amount of electricity demanded. You'll notice that there's a minimum amount of electricity that is always needed but the grid at any time of day. This daily minimum amount of power is called the "base load." And there's also a cyclical daily hump in electricity demand, called the "peak load."

Currently, base load is predominantly generated by large, centralized coal and nuclear plants (and some hydroelectric plants). These are by far the cheapest fossil fuel plants to run in terms of marginal cost per unit of power generated. But they have an important and inherent limitation: they can't ramp their output up and down very quickly. So they just chug along, producing the daily minimum amount of power around the clock.

Peak load can't be met effectively by these large scale plants, and that's where we find "peaking" or "cycling" plants. These are predominantly natural gas plants with some diesel reciprocating engines thrown into the mix. Natural gas plants are like enormous jet engines, and reciprocating engines are like giant motors; they can both be ramped up and down relatively quickly, and are therefore better suited for handling intraday fluctuations in demand, even though they cost more to operate.

So remember: Base load is the electricity that the grid needs around the clock, and it's produced in huge coal and nuclear plants (as well as hydroelectric plants). Peak load is the electricity that the grid needs to meet intraday fluctuations in demand, and it's produced in smaller natural gas and diesel plants. It all works out so electricity generation comes out looking like this (chart from 2006):

Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d4/ Sources_of_electricity_in_the_USA_2006.png

As you can see, coal generation makes up about 50% of our current electricity production. So now I think we can turn to the Alliance's proposal, from its Repower America project: "100% clean electricity within 10 years." What's going on here? Exhibit A: There is no such thing as clean coal. Exhibit B: We want 100% clean electricity within 10 years. Exhibit C: America currently generates about 50% of its electricity from coal plants, and a large majority of its baseload power.

So how, exactly, do they plan to eliminate all of the coal generation capacity in America in 10 years (never mind all the other fossil fuel generation which likely gets the label of "unclean" as well)? Repower America has a four part plan. But before trotting it out, let's look at exactly what they're trying to do, using their own graphics:

...Yea. So here it goes:

Step 1: Energy Efficiency. Now, the Repower America authors rightly cite a Department of Energy document forecasting an increase in American electricity demand by about a quarter of current use over the next two decades. To counter this, the authors propose that 28% of future electricity demand be cancelled out by efficiency gains. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt (I don't feel like fact-checking this one), and suppose that this can be done. We're saying, then, that we can keep electricity demand essentially flat over the next decade while this transformation is supposed to take place. So now we're sort of at square one: we're supposing that energy efficiency will not make the problem any worse, but we haven't made things any better yet. I don't even want to begin to think about how much it would cost to eliminate 28% of American electricity demand with energy efficiency measures. We're not talking about changing light bulbs or installing better windows. But more power to them if they can do it. Okay then, we're at flat electricity demand for the next ten years; three steps left to replace coal!

I think it'll be useful, before moving on, to quickly adjust the figures to take out the influence of energy efficiency, to normalize the contributions to actual energy produced (which should roughly match up with today's total demand). In the Repower America Scenario A, solar photovoltaics, biomass/municipal, and geothermal will be relied on for 4% of electricity production each, wind for 37.5%, and solar thermal with storage for 18%. Notice that today, these technologies combine for only 2.4% of total production. If the Alliance gets its way, we have a lot of work to do in 10 years, and it's going to be expensive! So on now to step two, where we find out how they're going to produce all that power without fossil fuels.

Step 2: Renewable Generation. And I quote: "Generate 100% of US electricity from truly clean carbon-free sources. Renewable energy generation technologies like solar thermal, photovoltaics, wind, geothermal and biomass have been adding clean reliable power to the grid for more than a decade...It is now time to dramatically ramp-up the contribution of renewables to the energy mix." Now, conspicuously absent from that list is hydroelectric power, and for good reason: there really isn't much potential for expansion there (and there are also some important environmental concerns associated with the dams that are used to generate it), and the authors accordingly hold hydroelectric generation constant in their analysis. Even more conspicuously absent is a word barely mentioned in the Repower America plan: "Nuclear." Even though nuclear electricity generation produces no CO2, is projected to increase substantially in coming years, and is currently the only major existing large-scale alternative to coal for baseload power, the authors hold nuclear generation constant as well.

We'll touch on this point again later, but for now, it will be useful to once again jiggle the calculations. So let's cancel out the influence of nuclear and hydroelectric generation, which account for roughly a quarter of total electricity production today and in the future according to the Repower America scenarios. What's left is the current influence of renewables and the fossil fuel generators: coal, natural gas, and petroleum; together they account for about three quarters of the total power generation, and we'll call this the "flexible space" (since apparently we're holding the other quarter fixed). In the future, renewables will ostensibly fill this entire space, even though they only fill about 3% of it now. Currently, the space is two-thirds filled by coal, a quarter filled by natural gas, rounded out by a 2% contribution from petroleum. In the Repower America plan, we get solar photovoltaics, biomass/munipal, and geothermal each on the hook for 6% of the flexible space, solar thermal for 26.5%, and wind for 55%.

I want to focus on the fact that "Other Renewables" make up a whopping 2.4% of electricity generation today. In spite of all the hype, this is not actually all that surprising, as there are three main hurdles facing renewable energy generation technologies today. 1) They are generally more expensive than conventional methods of generation; 2) It is often the case that the ideal places to generate electricity from renewable resources are not the places where people live, and it is expensive to build transmission lines that can carry electricity over long distances; and 3) The generation characteristics of many renewable technologies are such that electricity is either not produced consistently and reliably, or production cannot be coordinated to respond to demand. Because we're dealing with a one-dimensional analysis (that is, preventing climate change is clearly the only thing that matters to these people, no matter the cost), we'll just throw out (1) for now. Who cares what it costs! But how does Repower America respond to (2) and (3)? We need to go to the last two steps to find out.

Step 3: Build a Unified National Smart Grid. Because renewable energy is often produced far from demand centers, Repower America proposes to build a giant system of transmission lines across the entire country in order to ensure that renewable energy can be integrated into the grid. Remember, kids: cost is no object; we're fighting climate change! So now, and I quote: "It will allow us to connect solar power in Arizona with manufacturing centers in Ohio or allow us to use evening wind power on the East Coast to support late afternoon peak demand in Nevada." So what're we looking at for a price tag? American Electric Power drew up a proposal for something like this at the behest of a group of wind power advocates, and projected the cost at $60 billion (or about a half of a percent of US GDP, or six months in Iraq). But I should note that AEP's plan was based on producing enough transmission capacity to allow wind power to reach a 20% share of America's electricity needs; I'm not sure the transmission system they've described could handle the kinds of transfers that would be needed to make 100% renewable energy feasible. But remember, cost is no object, and this apparently can be done.

So now we're a little closer to seeing how coal could be replaced, but there's still an important hurdle: many renewable energy sources are either inconsistent and unreliable, or don't produce energy at the same time that it's demanded.

A little more background is needed here. As I said before, some of the biggest problems with renewable electricity generation from technologies like wind and solar have been about timing and control. For example, photovoltaic solar generators only produce energy during the day, and they can't really be adjusted to produce only the electricity that you need. During the summer and winter, when there's a lot of space heating or air conditioning going on, that doesn't matter too much. Most electricity use happens during the day anyway, and grids can pretty much use whatever electricity they can get during those times. But in the spring and fall, when intraday fluctuations are smaller, those operating characteristics aren't particularly helpful. From one study exploring the impacts of large-scale use of solar generation:

Source: http://www.nrel.gov/pv/pdfs/39683.pdf

Source: http://www.nrel.gov/pv/pdfs/39683.pdf

As you can see, in the second chart, the contribution of solar energy drops the residual peak demand (that is, the demand during peak demand periods after the impact of the contribution from the solar generator) significantly below the normal daily minimum level. If this electricity were going to be used by the system, the baseload plants would need to be ramped down to the new minimum levels, and expensive peaking plants would need to fill in the gaps. Needless to say, this wouldn't happen; utilities would just dump the extra power. This means that if solar power were going to be implemented on a very large scale, it would need to be profitable even with the use of only a portion of the electricity generated by the systems. Looking at wind generation, one can see that the problem is exacerbated by the fact that wind generation doesn't necessarily line up with the peak demand period for a grid. One example from New York yielded this result:


Source: http://www.nyiso.com/public/webdocs/documents/white_papers/ wind_management_whitepaper_11202008.pdf

At least part of the rationale for the National Unified Smart Grid seems to be the idea that power can be sent from areas with unneeded excess generation to those where the electricity can be used, so that something along the lines of a "law of averages" approach would help to ensure a more stable grid system. But can wind power really be relied on the carry the burden of base load? I'm not sure. Remember, of the flexible space in the area of generation, big baseload coal takes up about two thirds of the generation we need to replace. Solar thermal, which apparently can be effectively (if expensively) utilized for baseload power when combined with storage technology, is being relied on for 26.5% of the space. The 6% each taken up by biomass/municipal and geothermal could ostensibly go towards base load requirements as well. But we need to acknowledge that wind is being asked to do a whole lot of work here, and I'm not entirely sure if that's realistic.

And unlike natural gas and diesel plants, it appears to me that none of these technologies can be dispatched on the scale that would be necessary to completely address jumps in peak demand. You simply can't just demand that the wind blow harder or the sun shine brighter. If a heat wave comes along and the wind is dead along the West Coast while people are blasting their air conditioners like there's no tomorrow, we need a source of on demand power. Natural gas currently serves a very important role in bringing flexibility to the grid. It doesn't appear to me that there's any generation technology with that characteristic in the Repower America portfolio.

A piece of the solution to this problem is provided by the "Smart Grid" component of the "Unified National Smart Grid" plan. This basically mirrors the Department of Energy's vision of the future of the electricity grid, and involves the use of smart metering technologies and communication between utilities and end-users of electricity to allow for "demand response" programs. This would allow utilities to tell their customers in times of system stress or unexpectedly high demand that they should reduce their electricity consumption. Utilities would generally pay customers to do this, and some plans include the ability for utilities to remotely control some of the appliances in their customers' facilities in order to initiate these drops in demand instantaneously. But there's a limit to how effective a demand response program can be. Ultimately, it's an important part of the job of a utility to be able to provide electricity on demand, and relying on customers to put up with unavailability of electricity is simply not a feasible option.

What's needed to make this plan technologically feasible is an effective form of energy storage. This would allow grid operators to build up energy reserves to respond to unexpected changes in supply or demand which could not be remedied by the almost nonexistent responsive capacity of a generation portfolio pretty much entirely dependent on resources which can't ramp production quickly up and down when needed. And that's where the final step comes in.

Step 4: Clean Plug-in Cars. When I saw this, I first thought, "Here is where, as they say, the plan jumps the proverbial shark."

The way that Repower America apparently expects to provide added stability to the electricity grid of the future is to basically use plug-in electric hybrids as batteries which can be charged when excess electricity is available, and drawn upon when electricity is needed by the grid. Now, a lot of people are talking about this as an important part of our energy future, and I'm one of them. I think plug in cars are a great idea. But the authors at Repower America are nuts if they think that the adoption of plug-in hybrid cars widespread enough to bring about this kind of energy storage capability would be consistent with their use of the Department of Energy's projection of electricity demand! A large plug-in hybrid fleet (in addition to taking longer than 10 years to materialize) would put an enormous strain on the electricity grid, forcing the already tenuous production of electricity from only renewables to somehow come up with thousands or millions more gigawatts of electricity. Perhaps it could be done; after all, we're not taking cost into account, remember?

But it's at this point where we really have to step back for a moment and ask ourselves, is this really what we think is going to happen? Even if we really want to stop climate change, does it make sense to try to completely eliminate fossil fuel technologies from the electricity generation landscape? Should we really just close the doors on billions upon billions of dollars in infrastructure investment? Is it really the best idea to try to force utilities to stop using coal, natural gas, and diesel to power their grids (or to offer them the money to convince them to do it voluntarily)? OF COURSE NOT!

So now we can finally get to why I hate that frikkin' commercial. There is such a thing as CLEANER coal technology, and we'd better darned well be ready to work towards implementing it! And we'd better keep an open mind towards expanding the use of cleaner natural gas and petroleum generation (which can be more energy efficient than coal) as well! And we SURE AS HELL better start building nuclear plants!

Smaller, decentralized coal plants can be used to provide heat to nearby buildings and homes, typically producing energy efficiencies much higher than can be achieved at large, centralized plants. Natural gas turbines typically operate at higher efficiencies as well, and they can be harnessed for combined heat and power too. By gasifying coal, petroleum coke, and other carboniferous feedstocks for use in Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plants, we can also increase energy efficiency, even if we don't use the more concentrated resulting CO2 exhaust stream for Carbon Capture and Sequestration projects. Higher energy efficiency means less CO2 emitted, and doesn't necessarily force us to completely abandon cost-effectiveness. Looking for synergies for the use of waste CO2 could also be part of a solution. By burying our heads under the sand with a proposal to completely eliminate fossil fuel technologies, we draw attention away from these critical possibilities, and ultimately obstruct their development and implementation.

Nuclear power is CO2-free, and also needs to be a part of the answer. We simply can't expect to replace all of our baseload coal capacity without relying on nuclear power to help fill in the gap. To be sure, the increased use of renewable resources will need to be a huge and central part of our energy future. But to expect it to be the only part is flat out ridiculous, and trying to convince the American people otherwise is simply unreasonable and counterproductive.

Like it or not, we need fossil fuel technologies to meet our energy demands. And in addition to the technological feasibility we've discussed so far, and the monetary cost, that's because we're not going to employ the entire frikkin' country and its resources producing renewable generation facilities for the sole purpose of preventing climate change. Perhaps the most grating part of the Repower America plan is its repeated focus on job creation.

Here's something to chew on: When people consume their income, they consume goods and services that are produced by everyone else. If a substantial percentage of people are employed removing our existing infrastructure and replacing it with new infrastructure that serves exactly the same needs as the stuff that was there before, then it means that the people whose products are being consumed by the "green workers" are getting nothing in return for what they created. Imagine that Tom, Dick, and Harry are an economy. Tom produces food, Dick produces liquor, and Harry produces dirty magazines. At the end of the period, Tom, Dick, and Harry each have enough from selling to the others to end up with enough food, booze, and porn to go home happy. Now in period two, the government hires Harry to replace Tom's and Dick's doors with new doors that are no different from the old doors, except they're better for some reason which doesn't directly impact Tom or Dick. Tom and Dick still produce their food and booze, and the government taxes them to pay Harry for his services. Harry ends up with some food and some booze, but not as much as before, and Tom and Dick are in similar situations. And no one has any porn! What a terrible shame! So we can talk about jobs all we want, but what's really important is that at the end of the day, what goes around is what people produce. And if people are producing stuff that doesn't do anyone any good, everyone ends up worse off for it.

Now, it will immediately be countered that talking about costs is well and good when we're thinking about what to make for dinner, but climate change is a matter of justice. And while that would shift the debate away from my objection, which was that it's infuriating that Repowering America keeps harping about its plan's potential for job creation when it's undoubtedly going to make people generally worse off, I'll grant the point. The debate about climate change ultimately does come down to a question of ethics. But as Tom Athanasiou and Paul Baer point out in their book, Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming, "The real issue, even ethically, is what will work..." (118). And this plan being pushed by the Alliance simply won't work.

Going a step farther, I defy anyone to give me a legitimate ethical argument which ends in the conclusion, "...and therefore, we must repower America with 100% clean energy in ten years, or else we will neglect our moral duty." I can't believe I'm about to sound like Bjorn Lomborg (*shudder*), but I'm not stopping myself. Watch:

Much of the climate change we can expect in the future is already in the pipeline. Taking a slower approach to reducing emissions, and embracing our need to maintain some carbon-intensive generation, would produce enormous efficiency gains and seriously accelerate progress in other areas of our economy. If we took some of the hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars that we would save by not implementing Al Gore's plan, and put it towards fighting malaria, restoring the rainforests, researching AIDS, promoting better energy efficiency in the developing world, and helping those who will need to adapt to the now inevitable impacts of climate change, we could likely do a lot more good in the world, even from the perspective of dealing with the impacts of climate change. Further, our descendents would likely be richer and better able to deal with their changing climate, and to help those who were not brought along by the rising tide of economic prosperity.

I'm not saying that nothing should be done to fight climate change. But driving our entire economy into the ground in order to fight a problem which is already partly out of our control doesn't seem like it's the best answer from anyone's perspective: even the victims', and even the environment's. We can be more energy efficient. We can use less coal and natural gas and oil. We can learn to harness the sun and the wind and the soil. We can learn to live as responsible members of the biotic community. But we have to learn to do that. And everyone will be better off if we don't rush ourselves into a more impoverished lifestyle to make it happen. Remember, before we were comfortable and well taken care of, the environment was the last thing on anyone's mind; look at China.

And remember, we're saving the world for future generations. Imagine if the industrial revolution had been stopped to prevent mercury poisoning. 'Nuff said.

So in closing, I hate that commercial because it represents a loss of perspective. It takes an important issue and reduces it to a set of overly simplistic talking points. We need to address climate change, to be sure. And that means a shift away from CO2-intensive electricity generation and towards renewables and clean technologies. But taking half of the most reasonable and important responses entirely off the table is irresponsible and counterproductive. It makes it so I end up talking to people who say, "No! No new coal plants!" instead of, "Is the plant going to produce combined heat and power?" And that's a problem, because if they scream about wind and solar, the utilities are going to laugh at them, whereas if they scream about capturing the heat stream for the benefit of the community, they might actually end up having an impact. The commercial makes it so the people who care most about fighting global warming get the absolute wrong idea of how to go about doing that. And that's a darned shame.


For anyone interested, the current breakdown for electricity generated from renewable resources by technology is as follows: Biomass electricity accounts for about 1.1%, wind for 0.6%, geothermal for 0.3%, and solar for about 0.01%. Hopefully that puts the Alliance's plan in a little better perspective.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Who Said Anything About Legitimacy?: A Long-Winded Reply to Brainpolice and Michael

Over on the Polycentric Order blog, Brainpolice has written up a response to my post rejecting the simple argument that taxation is theft. In the comments section of that earlier post, a fellow identifying himself as "Michaek" (which I assume to be a typo-ed "Michael") also left some remarks in disagreement with my arguments. I wanted to offer some thoughts on what both had to say, and will do so in this post. There are a number of themes running through the commenters' responses, and I will do my best to isolate them and address them separately. They are: a) There is a double standard problem in supposing that government officials can justify doing things which no ordinary person would be justified in doing; b) My goal is to offer a blanket justification for the State; c) I do not offer a coherent account of why a government should have any claim to its territory; and d) By arguing that the government has some claim to its territory, I am presupposing that the government is a legitimate institution without offering a compelling reason for thinking this.

I. There is a double standard problem in supposing that government officials can justify doing things which no ordinary person would be justified in doing

Brainpolice started his reply with the idea that our commonsense moral beliefs would lead us to condemn many of the kinds of things done by state agents if they were done by ordinary citizens. But as collective decision making power is centralized and expanded, people come to embrace a double standard between themselves and state officials. This leads them to condone actions on the part of state officials which they would decry if performed by ordinary citizens. Brainpolice therefore explains that the libertarian position is that state officials do not gain new rights as a result of their positions, and that if these rights are to be ascribed to them, the burden of proof should be on those who are invoking new rights, and not on those who simply insist that our commonsense ethical beliefs be universally applied. He writes:
...given certain nearly universal social norms (such as the shunning of murder, theft, arson, rape and kidnapping), if one wants to be consistant with those norms then one must aknowledge the degree to which the state contradicts those norms...

Now, one possible response is discussed by Lester Hunt in his essay, "Why the State Needs to be Justified":
Of course, someone might say, there is a sense in which our intuitive, pre-theoretical use of our moral ideas clashes with our intuitive, pre-theoretical application of our political ideas. When I think about myself, my next-door neighbor, or my uncle Harry, I think that, whenever any one of us promotes his or her goals by using coercion against someone who is not bothering anybody, we are doing wrong. When I think about a tax collector or an immigration official, I think pre-reflectively that they are right to go after the tax-evader and the Mexican immigrant, even though the tax evader and the Mexican are not bothering anybody. I think of the immigration official as if they were on a different plane from me, from my neighbor, from my uncle Harry. But why isn’t each way of thinking perfectly okay, on its own plane?

Like Hunt, I do not accept this kind of argument. So up front, here it is: I acknowledge that in many instances, the agents of the state do things which are completely impermissible by any coherent moral standard. The fact that they often get a pass simply because of their position is inexcusable. I don't think anything I said in my earlier post suggests that I believe that government officials deserve different kinds of treatment, but it bears repeating that moral standards are based on treating people the way that they deserve, and they don't deserve anything less when the person on the other end is wearing a uniform.

II. My goal is to provide a blanket justification for the State

This next point appears in both commenters' counterarguments, and focuses on the idea that I'm somehow trying to offer a blanket justification for "the State" or "a State." But there's an important point to be made here: I'm not trying to "prove" that any State is legitimate. What I'm saying is that in communities where the central decision-making apparatus is widely embraced, and where libertarians have moved into those communities by their own volition, it's not clear that they have a very strong case to back up their claims that they are being robbed through taxes.

Things would be very different, I think, if the members of a community generally did not approve of its government apparatus, and wanted to dissolve it. In such a situation, I think it would be reasonable for the community to ask for separation from the overarching State system, and I think that it would be appropriate for the State to grant that separation. I think it's incompatible with the attitude of respect for others' individuality and a full recognition of the fact of reasonable pluralism to seek to control of groups of others who do not want to be associated with you. In the same way, it would be inappropriate for the State to want to follow an individual out into the forest and to demand continued participation in the face of dissent, as I suggested in my original post.

But as Brainpolice points out:
...the "love it or leave it" argument is an epic fail because it presumes the legitimacy of the territorial dominion to begin with. It does nothing to explain why the state has such an arbitrary claim and why the individual must leave the state's dominion rather than the state leaving the individual's dominion.

If I think that the State should allow communities to secede without leaving their established locations, and that the justification for this applies equally to individuals, then it would remain to be explained why I don't think that individuals should be able to secede from their communities without leaving their existing land property. And on this I concede, if an individual wanted to secede from her community, it would be inappropriate for the community to demand that she stay involved, or leave the town. However, it's important to acknowledge what this would entail. The community, I think, would be perfectly justified in insisting that their new territorial boundaries be respected, and that the seceding individual confine herself to her own property. So if someone wanted to separate from the community and to live on her own without leaving her land, the community would ostensibly be justified in confining her there. It seems much more reasonable to think that a person would be best suited by simply leaving, and trading her land to someone who would like to be a part of the community.

III. I do not offer any coherent account of why a government should have any claim to its territory

But on what basis can centrally ordered communities justify their collectivistic existences in the first place? Brainpolice argues that:
...one must put foreward at least something resembling a theory or meta-theory of property in order to examine and explain the state's territorial claim and the individual's claim, and one must put foreward a theory of how states form (and not just some mythical fantasy). How did the state really acquire all this land, or didn't it? How would and individual or group manage to acquire an entire country? Endless absurdities arise in the attempt to legitimize this territorial claim.

Is it so absurd, though, to suppose that in an incorporated town or city which was established by charter (as, it is my impression, most towns and cities are), and which is populated by people who freely acknowledge their membership in their community, that the method of governance explicitly set out in the charter by which the community was established is an acceptable way for the community to administrate its affairs? It sounds like what Brainpolice is looking for is a theory of legitimate original appropriation which would allow a town or city to be considered the just holder of its territory. But as others have pointed out, there is no bulletproof theory of legitimate original appropriation for individuals, much less groups. The specific form taken by a society's institutions ultimately must be defined by the way that people choose to live together in a given community or region. Property rights give us a tool for determining who gets the right of way with regard to the use of certain resources. They allow us to say, "This belongs to me, so leave it alone." But they also allow us to say, "This is ours, and this is how it is to be used." As David Schmidtz writes in his essay, "The Institution of Property":
Private property...is the preeminent vehicle for turning negative sum commons into positive sum property regimes. However, it is not the only way. Evidently, it is not always the best way, either. Public property is ubiquitous, and it is not only rapacious governments and mad ideologues who create it. Sometimes it evolves spontaneously as a response to real problems, enabling people to remove a resource from an unregulated commons and collectively take responsibility for its management.

It seems reasonable to me that in the case of a chartered town or city, there is a pretty clear social convention which says that when the town or city was incorporated by its original settlers, the territory on which the settlement existed was to be administered as a municipality. And that's how the people who have lived in that territory ever since have chosen to live together. Surely, as I alluded to in my earlier post, there are good reasons to question whether this is really a wise way to do things. But that doesn't eliminate the fact that it's the dominant form of social organization in our present society. And once a set of institutions becomes generally accepted as the way things are done, then that's just that. There's no mysterious "social contract," to be sure, but rather a strong and widely accepted "social convention,"established by the community's first settlers and passed down to its current constituents. It's much the same principle that says that even though in America, a lot of the land people currently live on was violently expropriated from the Native Americans, today's society is governed by a set of conventions which recognize the current holders of that land as having a rightful claim to it, and that's the end of the discussion. It's just the way things are done.

IV. By arguing that the government has some claim to its territory, I am presupposing that the government is a legitimate institution without offering a compelling reason for thinking this

It's here that Michael's main objection comes to the fore:
The way I see it, the "love it or leave it" argument is circular: if we're trying to prove the legitimacy of the State, we cannot simply assume it to be legitimate. In asserting that libertarians must leave if they don't like the government, statists are assuming that the State's claim to territory is legitimate; but this is exactly what they have to prove!

So why am I starting with the idea that governments are legitimate institutions? Precisely because most people think that they are. I ask my readers to keep in mind that I'm a libertarian, and certainly don't think that the way that most societies are run is appropriate. But a whole lot of people out there think that they live in a perfectly healthy society, and that their existing institutions are just fine. Why, then, would we want to fundamentally disturb their lives by forcing them to swallow our particular brand of freedom? Ultimately, the sense in which someone is free is at least partly impacted by what he is free to do. And for a lot of people, the best use of their freedom would be to get on with their lives and not have to deal with the radical social change that would be precipitated by the dissolution of the state. To the extent that people are generally happy with the way things are, the status quo is an acceptable way to run things.

It's when people insist that everyone live the way that they want to live that I start to object. But that goes both ways! Libertarians who insist that loyal citizens must disband their governments are in a lot of ways just as bad as the statists to whom they're responding. Statists should feel no need to control the way that libertarians want to live their lives, and so if libertarians want to go establish a community somewhere according to their own ideals, that should be totally fine -- we shouldn't have to move to Somalia to do it. But libertarians also shouldn't want to control the way that statists live their lives. If the statists want to have centrally organized communities, where rents are collected in order to sponsor public programs, they should be able to do that.

So hopefully this extremely lengthy response has been helpful and thought-provoking. If not, sorry for putting you through it. I look forward to any further comments anyone may have!

On the Plight of Polar Bears

For a moment, I'd like to take as a premise that some Taylor-esque "attitude of respect for nature" on steroids is actually the correct approach to environmental ethics, and that we therefore have an enforceable obligation to treat all teleological centers of life (including non-conscious organisms) with respect for their intrinsic value as living things, not to be interfered with or harmed without amply justificatory reasons for doing so. I don't actually believe this to be true, but I do think that if we want to discuss environmental ethics in a way that doesn't get a whole class of people up in arms right from the start, my interpretation of Taylor's system is a great departure point for two reasons. First, it deals with moral significance in a way that's immediately accessible to me -- that is, it insists that we take certain things into account, but allows that certain reasons would justify our sacrificing those things without implying that we were failing to properly take them into consideration. And second, it would satisfy a wide range of different classes of people with concern for the environment (though I will leave out the notion that ecosystems and other spontaneous orders are the proper objects of moral concern, as I see them as being morally equivalent to human economies). So for the sake of this discussion, we'll simply grant that this system is correct and move on.

In this post, I want to begin to explore an issue that I feel to be central to the issue of climate change. Much of the concern surrounding climate change is focused on the probability that a rapidly changing climate system would create conditions in which ecosystems, as they exist today, might be thrown irreparably out of balance. This is quite reasonably expected to result in a large number of species' having a harder time with life than they would if climate change had never occurred.

One clear example of this theme in public discourse today is the concern being expressed about the future of polar bears. I feel that this is noteworthy because a) No one is actually going out and killing any polar bears, and b) Each of the polar bears that are dying are living lives which not particularly unusual in the scheme of polar bear existence, though no doubt they are on the worse end of the range of typical polar bear lives. This seems especially true in light of the solitary nature of a normal polar bear's lifestyle; it's not as if close-knit polar bear communities are being torn apart or anything like that. Polar bears are living their daily lives in the way that they would under any other conditions, except they are increasingly finding themselves in environments that are not particularly well equipped to support polar bears. To be clear, this happens all the time to animals -- most notably those living on the dynamic edge of their species' natural range. It's just that in this environment, there are more polar bears living this sort of life, and in many places, no new polar bears are successfully making it into the species' active population.

So the question I want to pose here is, ought we to be concerned about this sort of thing from a moral standpoint? There are two reasons that we could answer in the affirmative, given the moral framework we've adopted. First, because these sorts of problems will make people worse off, and we care about people. As John Broome writes:
As the ice retreated at the end of the latest ice age, forests migrated northwards at perhaps 1 km per year. This appears to be about the maximum they are capable of in uncultivated country, and they will certainly not be able to manage the much faster movements required by the present global warming. Furthermore, many ecosystems have become isolated by human activities, so they will only be able to migrate much more slowly, if at all. The natural world is therefore likely to be very much impoverished. And this will impoverish humanity. One might hope that the progress of technology has made agriculture more independent of the natural world: agriculture can migrate faster than nature ecosystems, and new crops can be matched to new conditions. But it seems overoptimistic to believe that agriculture can be restructured on this scale throughout the world without major costs. And in any case, we all need the natural world around us to make our lives rich and worthwhile. Life will not be so good in a more barren world.

Though extremely important, I want to set that kind of concern aside for now in order to focus on the second reason that we might object to the impacts of global climate change: that we would be disrespecting non-human nature by allowing things like the polar bears' plight to transpire.

Now, remember that no one is doing anything to the polar bears. What is happening is that the bears are being put in a context where they will likely and predictably fail to flourish on account of the actions of people. And although the plight of the polar bears can surely be foreseen by the people causing it, it's important to acknowledge that no one is acting maliciously; the contributors to climate change are simply living their normal lives. If these people respected the polar bears, some might argue, they should not only avoid actively harming the polar bears, but also modify their lifestyles to avoid the destruction of the bears' environment.

But is this right? Does it disrespect the polar bears to bring about the destruction of their environment by pursuing our own ends? It seems to me that a decent place to start would be to think about a similar example in human affairs, to determine what we would say if the polar bears were people, and then ask whether the example really captures the situation in which the bears find themselves. In another post, I asked whether individuals like farmers and fishermen could have rights to environmental conditions. I wrote:
Many individuals, notably farmers and fishermen, may be adversely affected by the effects of shifts in their regional climates for the organisms on which they rely. So far as these individuals have a right not to be interfered with in pursuing their livelihoods and wellbeing with the aid of resources which are naturally available to them, it would seem to constitute an infringement of their rights to push their climate systems out of their previous states, bringing about environmental conditions which are injurious to their interests and livelihoods.

It may be objected that the preceding discussion assumes that individuals have a right to certain environmental conditions, where no such right exists. I believe, however, that such an argument would fail to take into account our earlier discussion of rights. Conceivably, an objector would point to the inherent instability and variability in the climate system, and argue that clearly we are not entitled to complain about such changes. But as we noted before, to have the right to something means only that we are entitled to certain things from other moral agents.

For example, no rights violation would occur if a naturally occurring shift in your regional climate were to produce temperatures too high for you to continue to grow wheat on your land. But if your neighbor installed an enormous heater on the edge of his property and blew warm air onto your property, killing your wheat crop, we might find good reason to object. And it seems that the reason that we would object would be that you have the right to certain environmental conditions, of which you were being deprived by your neighbor’s actions. I think that this objection does reflect something which we have an entitlement against being deprived of in the absence of morally significant reasons, and so far as climate change does inspire this objection, it constitutes an infringement of rights of this kind.

So if we think that the polar bears are in the same kind of situation as farmers and fishermen whose environmental conditions are being destroyed, I think we might have some reason to think that we would be disrespecting the bears to continue to destroy their habitats. But are polar bears really like farmers and fishermen? At first glance, the comparison seems sound: both groups rely on the natural environment to provide them with the things they need to survive, and both are being put in a situation where their environmental "life support systems" are being compromised because of others' actions.

One issue arises here which is pretty much endemic to any problem dealing with justice and animals: Do polar bears really have the same kind of relationship with their life support systems as humans do? Do polar bears really think of their environment as producing their livelihood? And when conditions deteriorate, do they notice that this has happened? The relevance is this: Do we mistreat polar bears when they are never aware that anything has gone awry? I think the answer may well be yes. If I push a rock down a mountain onto your house, I am not absolved of guilt if you think that the rock fell naturally.

So, then, are we committed to the position that if we accept the truth of Taylor's attitude of respect for nature, it would be wrong to cause global climate change because of what would happen to polar bears? I'm not sure. Taylor is quick to point out that there are other considerations that come into play when taking non-human animals into account which can justify sacrificing them or their interests to ours. Taylor's own account is sort of sketchy, but the point is more or less that if the reason you're doing what you're doing is sufficiently significant, then it can be permissible to sacrifice an animal's interests to your own. But would the actions which contribute to climate change satisfy this criterion? Would they justify infringing on the farmers' and fishermen's rights? I'm not entirely sure. But what I think I have done is to establish that if we adopt the attitude of respect for nature, there's at least some reason to believe that contributing to climate change is disrespectful to the polar bears, and that's sort of what I was hoping to find out.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

If You Don't Like It, Should You Git Out?: A Reply to Fedako

Update: Please see the bottom of this post for further discussion

In his article, "Ethics and the Holidays," Jim Fedako makes a point that should be familiar to any libertarian worth her salt:
...when I advocate for the state to force my neighbor to pay for my desires, I am advocating for nothing less than theft. While I am not toting the gun, my well-armed partner, the state, is.

We've all heard it before, and we'll undoubtedly hear it again. But there's something about the whole "Taxation is theft!" thing that makes me uneasy. I mean, don't get me wrong: I think there's something very fishy about the way that societies around the world are presently organized, and I think that if we really sat down and asked ourselves how we really wanted to live with each other, we'd come up with an answer that would look a lot different than what we currently have. But there's something about simple "proofs" of our current order's evil nature that makes me uncomfortable. So in this post, I want to explore the idea that maybe things aren't as simple as the "Taxation is theft!" crowd seems to believe. I've touched on this issue before in this post and this post, but I wanted to give it a little more thorough a treatment here so I can either be done thinking about it or give myself reason to believe that I don't know what I'm talking about.

First, why might somebody think that taxation is theft? The answer is pretty simple. It's pretty safe bet that at no point in the past did any government official ever do anything productive with your land property on behalf of the government. It's also pretty certain that when your land property was incorporated into the United States government's territory, no one came over to the then-owner and said, "Hey there; would you like to sign your land over to the new State?" (That is, assuming that anyone even owned that land at the time.) The same thing is probably true of the land on which your workplace is located, and the land on which your firm's customers are located, and the land on which your suppliers are located, and so on and so forth. Aside from its declaration of sovereignty over all of that land, some might note that there is basically nothing that the government has done to generate any sort of claim to ownership of any of it.

And yet, when you get your pay check from work, you and your employer are expected to set aside a portion of your earnings to be sent to your overlords. The same thing happens when you buy something from someone else, when someone gives something to you, when you sell an ownership stake in a company, etc. If you refuse to do these things, you'll hear about it -- politely at first, and then a little more firmly, and so on until the next thing you know, you're sitting in jail for tax evasion and your relatives are ashamed that you would dare to be such a corrupt and unsavory fellow. On what grounds? Because the government claims the role of sovereign, and you'd better pay up. That sounds a lot like theft.

But we libertarians have grown accustomed to a pretty standard response: If you don't like it, then you should giiiit out! There are a number of replies to this assertion, but I want to look a little more closely at the intuition behind it, and ask, if I don't like it, should I really git out?

The first thing to notice about the "If you don't like it, you should git out!" line of thinking is that it seems to imply that you are voluntarily "in" some sort of group, and you are free to leave if you want. Usually, when we are told to git out for not liking something, it's because we're part of some organization or collection of people who are comfortable with the terms of their association, and don't want that status quo to be upset by some dissenter in the minority. Basically, the idea is, "Well we like things just the way they are, so if you want to do something different, go do it with someone else." This is the same line of thinking that leads people to confront anarcho-capitalists with the view that "If the State is so horrible, why don't you go move to Somalia?" Thieving or not, a number of people seem quite happy with their governments, and don't want their lives fundamentally altered by some overzealous social reformer trying to ram a particular conception of freedom down their throats.

In stark contrast, the "Taxation is theft!" line of thinking is predicated on the idea that your being "in" your current set of circumstances is very much not a product of your free choice. Government, it is supposed, has been forced upon you -- you are the victim of a hostile takeover! -- and in demanding to be rid of taxes, you are simply asking to be given back what was yours in the first place.

But is this really a fair appraisal of the way things actually happened? It seems to me that there is some serious room for doubt. Most of us do not live on land that was owned by our families since the establishment of the United States (or whatever country we live in). Somewhere along the line, we or someone who came before us purchased a piece of property which had been incorporated into the State, knowing full well that in doing so, we were entering into a set of arrangements with our local, state, and federal government. Between the original settlement of the land hundreds of years ago and the time we bought it (or our parents or benefactors did), there was almost certainly some expropriation, but it typically did not happen to us (or, typically, anyone we can point a finger at). In an important sense, then, we "came to the harm."

The proponent of the "Taxation is theft!" mindset may note, however, that even if everyone "came to" their relationship with the government, it nevertheless does not have a legitimate existence; its territorial claims are almost universally rooted in tacit submission at gunpoint, and so we ought to throw off the shackles of State servitude and build our future on the basis of voluntary associations. Not only is the State an illegitimate entity, they could argue, but it is the institutionalization of the violence of the many against the few. An enlightened and reasonable society would recognize that the State is evil -- a stationary bandit -- and cut it off at the roots.

But then we remember that life isn't necessarily about living in a theoretically ideal society. Jim Fedako opens his article with a perfect illustration:
It had to be the time of year. How else can I explain it? Regardless, there I sat in an inner-city recreation center, enjoying a children's holiday program when this thought disturbed the performance: I do not mind my tax dollars paying for this.

The reality is that for most Americans, this sentiment is not a strange exception. People are proud of their local public schools, professional sports teams, and state universities, though they pay out the nose for them whether or not they ever make use of their services; they laud the highway system and electricity infrastructure that is built and maintained for them with subpar quality and at exorbitant expense; they celebrate their homeless shelters and low-income housing, even if they sometimes actually perpetuate or exacerbate the very problems they were meant to solve; they take comfort in their state-run prisons, in spite of the astronomical recidivism rate, unconscionable inmate conditions, and incredible expenses; they feel safe because they know that they are protected by their police force and military, even though the majority of people targeted by both groups are innocent of harming anyone. They don't want to live in a grand social experiment; they want to live the way that they're used to living. A case could be made for their being sheep-like in some ways, but the fact remains that if you take a sheep out of its pasture, it's still a sheep.

What's more, if asked how they would want to associate with each other if granted their freedom from the government, most would probably describe a set of social institutions very much like the ones they already know. So here's a question to consider: if most people would probably voluntarily form the kinds of communities they already live in if given the choice, are we so doctrinaire as to force them to go through the hassle of actually doing that? Can't we just let them keep the institutions they already have? If we don't like it, might it not actually be best to git out?

I think the answer would be a little more clear if gitting out were easier. As it stands, gitting out doesn't simply mean going off and finding an empty space in which to set up shop, out of the way of other groups. Let's say I moved into the forest somewhere with a few like-minded people and started up a community where we could live the way that we chose to. Presumably, that would be "gitting out" in the relevant sense. But if they wanted to, government officials could show up at the gates of my new community and demand to know when we were planning on paying taxes for all the transactions going on in our town. And heaven forbid we should start trading with the outside world!

If gitting out meant that I had to find an unoccupied space where I could live without bothering anyone, I think it's fair to say that if I live in a town where most people like their existing system of governance, then if I don't like it, I should git out. But if it meant that I would have to buy a plane ticket to Somalia, then I think it's pretty fair to cry foul. Why, the ardent libertarian asks, is it fair for the State to follow my into the forest and demand that I pay it taxes, even if I want no part in it?

And it's here that the crux of the issue comes back into focus: the "statist" would respond that it's because I live "in the State's territory." In our story, I just went out into the uninhabited forest and built a new life for myself where I was not materially impacting anyone. As a Lockean might say, I enclosed unowned land out of the commons by incorporating it into my plans and goals, where no one was using it in any appreciable sense before. So on what grounds does the State have a legitimate claim to the land I just settled?

Now, I'm generally hesitant to invoke Locke because I think that the vocabulary of the Lockean homesteading framework is often too clumsy to capture the nuances of plausible conceptions of property. But this seems like it's a paradigm case of Lockean engrossment -- that is, of someone staking a claim to a part of the commons that they cannot use for any productive end. In this case, we are implicitly saying that the State has claimed an ownership title to all of the land within a particular area, even though the agents and members of the State association have not so much as seen large swaths of that land (especially if we limit ourselves to living people associated with the State), never mind put them to productive use. As John Simmons writes in his essay "On the Territorial Rights of States":
...the spirit of Locke's theory of property is, I think, consistent with allowing that modest common holdings of land can be legitimated by the exclusive use of the commons by society's members for gathering, recreation, or shared activities, independent of any "common consent" to this that other societies may have given. What the spirit of Locke's account condemns--rightly, I think--is the familiar practice of states' declaring as the common property of their members (perhaps on the grounds of their "manifest destiny") vast and unused spaces, simply to facilitate defense or future settlement and expansion.

Of course, I don't expect any arguments to be won by appeal to something Locke or Simmons said. But I do think that it's important to consider whether it's really appropriate for those who consider themselves part of, say, the United States to want to follow dissenters into the forest and demand that they pay "their share" of taxes, or else ship off to Somalia. If a group of people didn't like the way that their society was organized, and sought to independently make a new life for themselves more in line with their own ideals, wouldn't it be sort of unbecoming to insist on having an active say in the way they did things, or to demand that they continue to contribute to the causes that we believed were important but that perhaps they rejected? Wouldn't it be sort of fair to compare something like that to the United States trying to tell Canada what to do, or demanding that its citizens pay taxes to the American government? I think the reasonable and civil thing to do would be to agree to part ways peacefully, and to seek interactions on mutually beneficial terms while keeping our hands to ourselves.

So in closing, it will be useful to wrap up what's been said so far. First, I pointed out that the "Taxation is theft!" case is kind of weak when we acknowledge that people voluntarily bought the land on which they live, and knew that it had been incorporated into the State before they bought it. I further suggested that because most people living in centrally ordered communities are perfectly happy with their social arrangements, and because destroying those arrangements would likely disrupt their lives in really undesirable ways, it might be best for dissenters to try to find their own way without demanding that everyone else change on their behalf. But finally, I argued that if people want to do that, then they should be allowed to without having the other members of the State following them and demanding that they still participate in State affairs and be subject to the State's rulings. In making these points, I hope that I have shown why the extremely simple way in which the issue of taxation was addressed in Fedako's article was inadequate, and that a more reflective stance would both acknowledge the importance and legitimacy of the centrally-funded children's program he was enjoying, and insist that while those who don't like it should git out, it's important that really we let them do that if they choose to.


Please see Brainpolice's response to this post on the Polycentric Order blog, and my reply here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

When It Comes to the Environment, Why Discount?: A Reply to Carden

I apologize in advance for the quote-bombing in this post, but a) I find that footnotes don't mix well with blog posts; b) I wanted to make sure that the references were preserved so that people can go back later and check out some of the sources that helped guide my reasoning here; and c) I didn't feel like putting in the effort necessary to polish this into a finished piece -- it's late. Maybe I'll revise it later. But without further ado:


In his article, "Should We Be Recycling Paper or Building Battlestar Galactica?," Art Carden asks:
If environmental stewardship obligates us to be mindful of future generations in making our day-to-day decisions, what should we do? Should we be recycling paper and preventing people from building parking lots to save trees? Or should we acknowledge that the planet will be destroyed sooner or later and try to find ways to build something like the Battlestar Galactica so the species will be preserved?

To answer this question, Carden turns to the issue of how future conditions should be compared to conditions today -- that is, how the future should be discounted against the present. He explains that "Questions about 'the world we are leaving for our children' and complaints about the alleged short-sightedness of present generations are ultimately claims that we are discounting the future inappropriately," and so the appropriate social discount rate becomes the focus of his analysis.

Carden is correct to point out that different approaches to discounting the future can have very significant consequences on the way we evaluate different sets of outcomes. In their essay, "Uncertain Discount Rates in Climate Policy Analysis," Richard Newell and William Pizer discuss a range of plausible discount rates which could be applied in forming climate change policy. They note that "Looking 400 years into the future, the plausible 2-7% range of discount rates has a corresponding difference in discounted values of 200 million-to-1. And there is little justification for narrowing our range..." Stephen Gardiner builds on this idea in his essay, "Ethics and Global Climate Change," pointing out that when the rate used to discount future events is positive, "all but the most catastrophic costs disappear after a number of decades, and even these become minimal over very long time periods." Carden himself is aware of this difficulty, acknowledging that on the other hand, using too low of a discount rate will force us to recognize that "at some point, the sun will die out and the planet we are so concerned about protecting will someday be no more, all else equal."

Further complicating this issue is the fact of radical uncertainty surrounding predictions about the future, especially when discussing people's values. In order to properly discount future events, we would need to know what those future events would be. But in their essay, "Carbon Dioxide and Intergenerational Choice," Ralph d'Arge, William Schulze, and David Brookshire suggest that even if we forget about the difficulties faced in predicting the physical outcomes of our actions:
...given changing lifestyles, substantial future shifts in technologies, and probabilities of drastic world political-social events, any quantitative measures of benefits or costs in 100 years are not subject to better than 2-4 orders of magnitude accuracy, and may even switch sign...

Thomas Schelling drives this point home in his essay, "Climate Change: The Uncertainties, the Certainties, and What They Imply About Action":
...what will the world be like in 50, 75, or 100 years when climate change may become acute? Think back seventy-five years: what was the world like, compared with now? Will the world be as different from now in seventy-five years as it is now from seventy-five years ago? How would we, seventy-five years ago, have predicted the consequences of climate change in today's world, and who are the "we" who might have predicted those consequences?

Accordingly, John Broome writes in his book, Counting the Cost of Global Warming, "Cost-benefit analysis, when faced with uncertainties as big as these, would simply be self-deception." So at this point, you might be ready to throw your hands up in frustration and demand to know why we should even bother thinking about this at all, since anything we come up with will likely be ad hoc and speculative. And that would be a good question: why should we be thinking about this in the first place?

Let's return to the point that got us started on this whole subject: Carden wrote, "Questions about 'the world we are leaving for our children' and complaints about the alleged short-sightedness of present generations are ultimately claims that we are discounting the future inappropriately." But is it true that questions about the world we leave behind ultimately reduce to questions about the appropriate way to discount the future?

Some people don't think so. In his essay, "Environmental Risk, Uncertainty and Intergenerational Ethics," Kristian Ekeli argues that "To discount the future implies that current interests and preferences count for more than those of future generations." Accordingly, Newell and Pizer note that "Many economists...have argued that it is ethically indefensible to discount the utility (i.e., well-being) of future generations--although this does not imply a zero discount rate for their consumption..." So by asking how exactly we should discount, we seem to ignore the important idea that it might not be appropriate to even approach this question in terms of discounting. If we really care about the condition of our descendents, it seems unclear why we would think of their well-being as being inherently less important than ours. But if we do not discount the future, then are we committed, as Carden seems to suggest, to the view that we should begin preparing to save our species from the end of the world?

I say, not so fast. It will be immediately apparent upon reflection that Carden's approach to this issue is blatantly utilitarian. The idea seems to be that the appropriate task of the social critic is to evaluate a society's decisions against the benchmark of aggregate well-being in order to determine whether or not people are doing what's best for everyone. But as David Schmidtz points out in his book, Elements of Justice, sometimes we get better outcomes when we don't actively aim to engineer a utilitarian ideal. Schmidtz writes:
A reflective consequentialist morality is not about one versus five. It is not even about costs versus benefits. It is about how we need to live in order to be glad we are neighbors. It's about getting on with our lives in way [sic] that complements rather than hinders our neighbors' efforts to get on with their own.

So even if we adopt a utilitarian mindset, it is not clear that the appropriate way to approach the issue of environmental destruction is to try to calculate the costs and benefits of alternative social policies. As we noted above, we are faced with serious uncertainty at every turn -- it could even turn out that by acting to promote wellbeing by being more focused on the well-being of future people, we would actually make them worse off. For example, imagine if in the industrial revolution, people were prohibited from burning coal to avoid causing mercury pollution. Our fish would be safer to eat, our natural environment would be healthier, and many of our children would avoid being harmed by toxic exposure to the metal, but I imagine that few would argue that on the whole, the policy would have been for the best.

Perhaps, then, the best way to provide for the future would be to focus on the world we live in today. There are plenty of things that we can do to make the world a better place: search for a cure for AIDS, learn to live in peace with one another, and yes, even develop an appreciation and respect for the natural world. As Aldo Leopold wrote in his book, A Sand County Almanac:
Only those able to see the pageant of evolution can be expected to value its theater, the wilderness, or its outstanding achievement, the grizzly. But if education really educates, there will, in time, be more and more citizens who understand that relics of the old West add meaning and value to the new. Youth yet unborn will pole up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark, or climb the Sierras with James Capen Adams, and each generation in turn will ask: Where is the big white bear? It will be a sorry answer to say he went under while conservationists weren't looking.

If we turn our focus to making our world a better place for today, the society we pass on to future generations will make for a much better place to live for our posterity as well. And I think that's something we can all agree to promote.

That being said, I have left an important issue unaddressed: Is environmental destruction unjust? An important objection to the utilitarian approach to looking at the world which we have used thus far is that it fails to take proper account of the seperateness of persons. If by acting in a particular way with respect to the non-human environment, we treat others (whether today or in the future) in a manner contrary to an attitude of appropriate respect for their value as individuals, then we must think long and hard about our actions. As Robert Nozick writes in his book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, "...there is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives."

I cannot give the question of whether environmental destruction or degradation is unjust the attention that it deserves here, largely because I have not entirely settled the issue in my own mind. But I think that it will suffice for now to suggest that if we are to discuss environmental destruction and degradation from an ethical point of view, it will not do to approach the issue from the standpoint of utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. We must acknowledge that we do not always have the power to consciously shape the future in accordance with our desires, and that sometimes, the greatest successes in living together come from letting people get on with their own lives. If we are to find reason for conscious and organized action in response to environmental damage, it seems to me that an attribution of injustice would be the appropriate way forward. And so I think that while Carden's attempt to grapple with this issue was admirable, I have to conclude that he sort of missed the boat.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Limits of Austrian Analysis

I posted this on the LvMI forum, and figured it might be relevant to some of y'all, so I'm reposting it here. This is in response to a fellow going by nazgulnarsil suggesting that critiques of Austrian methodology stem from disputes about the purposefulness of human action. It also ties in to a conversation that I had with Peter Leeson over the summer and meant to develop on this blog, so I'm glad I'm finally getting to say something about it. Without further ado:


The way I see it, it's sort of like this: It's not that action isn't purposeful; if we define an "action" as involving deliberation, choice, and execution, then it's true that action is purposeful. This is true because of the way we've defined "action;" it's an analytical truth. But some people (myself included) would point out that not everything we do involves deliberation, choice, and execution. The most obvious examples are reflexive or conditioned behaviours: when you strike my knee, my leg shoots up; when I sneeze, my hand automatically darts to cover my mouth; when someone asks me how I am, I rarely think before responding, "I'm doing alright." If I don't deliberatively choose to do these things, then the Austrian logic falls apart; it's no longer true a priori that I purposefully did them, or that I believed that doing what I did was for the best. One may be able to argue that I didn't actively restrain myself from doing those things, but the Austrian claims don't apply to unintentional ommissions, they apply to actions.

The same sort of problem presents itself in other areas: Austrian analyses are correct, but they sometimes don't apply. For another example, if a business actively chooses to not hire an additional employee, it can be presumed that they didn't believe that doing so would be profitable; in their eyes, the marginal cost of the employee would be larger than her marginal product. But if the business never considers hiring a new employee, we can't say anything.

Austrians could argue (and often have to me) that economics can't be concerned with anything besides actions; we simply can't say anything useful about non-purposeful behavior. And that may be true. But it does limit our ability to look at the real world and arrive at any conclusions: concepts like "demonstrated preference," for example, can be seen to be troublesome when we don't understand exactly what was deliberately chosen (or what people thought they were deliberately choosing), and the all-too-typical Austrian tendency to look at market processes with satisfaction can be seen to be wanting for the kind of entrepreneurial perspective that the Austrians themselves pioneered. To be clear, I don't mean to suggest that Austrians don't possess the tools to think properly about these things; they clearly do. Mises, Hayek, and Kirzner were the ones who introduced me to these problems, and the more perceptive Austrians are well aware of them. But as I noted in a previous blog post, these factors inherently limit the capacity of Austrian theories to be applied to real-world events. We often simply cannot know that the phenomena we observe warrant the descriptive terms used by Austrian analyses, and if we can't correctly apply those descriptors, the cogent a priori analysis flatly does not follow.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Moderate Holism and Methodological Individualism: Towards a Reconciliation

As someone with some contact with the Austrian economics community, I've often been involved in discussions about methodological individualism (often taking a "Me vs. Everyone Else" format). This issue came up again for me in glancing over Walter Block's essay, "On Robert Nozick's 'On Austrian Methodology,'" and I figured it might be worth trying to write up a post to spell out my take on this issue.

Basically, my issue with methodological individualism has been that if it's presented in a way that makes it plausible, it ends up sounding a whole lot like moderate holism. Here's what I mean:

Moderate holism, as I understand it, is the view that there are group phenomena, but that those group phenomena are the consequences of the activities of their components. So for example, when hockey players work together as a team, one cannot readily interpret their actions without making reference to the group phenomenon of the hockey game. The left defenseman holds the puck behind the net, waiting for a line change, then makes a crisp first pass up the ice to the center streaking across the red line. Confronted by the opposing team's "back-checking forwards as he crosses the blue line, he makes a drop pass to a pinching right defenseman, who fires the puck towards the net. The opposing goalie makes a sloppy kick save, sending the rebound into the slot, where the left wing is waiting -- an easy tap in goal. The red light goes on, the crowd cheers, and the goal horn blasts...it's all completely familiar (to us hockey fans, that is -- the rest of you can take a hike). But what we see in a hockey game is only comprehensible by understanding the social context in which the actions take place.

One might imagine someone who had never been exposed to sports before asking, "But why does everyone cheer when that black disk goes into that mesh enclosure?" or "Why did that man just skate into that other man and knock him over?" The answer would essentially be, "Because they're playing hockey." But when we explain hockey to someone, we don't talk about the individual players' biographies or the reasons why a bunch of people like to pay money to watch other people skate around wearing special clothes in a big building with a frozen lake inside. We make reference to a set of conventions that, in an important sense, are separate from the individuals who act out those conventions at any particular time. We say, "Hockey is a game where people form two teams and try to score points by putting a black disk in the other team's net. Many people who watch hockey a lot choose a team to root for from a group of teams called the National Hockey League, and care very much about the performance of their team relative to other teams in the league."

In order to attack this point of view, the methodological individualist might argue that actually, hockey can and should be understood as simply the sum of all individual events that embody the conventions of the game of hockey, as understood through reference to the points of view of each individual actor involved in the social situation. In other words, that when we make reference to the social convention of hockey, we're really just using lazy verbal shorthand for the collection of individual instances of events understood by participants to be "hockey games." Such a response, though, would need to answer to the fact that we understand what it means to be "playing hockey incorrectly." And we don't mean by this that someone else's way of playing hockey does not match our own. It embodies a belief in hockey as an "objective" set of conventions which is not open to the kind of pluralism that an individualistic theory would seem to have to accommodate. I'm not sure what could be said about this. Maybe there's a good response, though; if so, I'd love to hear it.

Another problem arises from the fact that it is comprehensible to talk about "the good of the team," as apart from the good of each individual player. For example, it could be that there's a badly performing hockey team that isn't going to make the playoffs. At the end of the season, the players all might very strongly desire to save their sense of dignity by playing as hard as they can, winning a few extra games before they start their summer break. But perhaps by doing so, they raise their team's position in the standings, meaning that the team doesn't get as good of a draft pick. Everyone on the team could be made better off by this, but the team might suffer anyway. Again, I don't know how one would respond to this problem.

The other way that the methodological individualist could respond would be to insist that actually, the existence of inherently social phenomena like hockey is perfectly compatible with methodological individualism. This seems to be the approach implicit in Block's discussion (though it's not clear to me that this is the case); he seems to found methodological individualism on the idea that only individuals act, and there is no "group mind" which controls group phenomena. Given that there's nothing that happens in hockey besides the things that are brought about by the individuals who are involved, someone like Block might point out that "See? There's no group-anything going on; there are just people in there!"

But as I understand the position, moderate holists don't need to suppose the existence of a "group mind" at all, and many of them (if not most or all) don't do anything of the sort. I mean, even Marx was content with the notion that "...circumstances are changed by men..." and presumably the methodological individualist would not want to claim Marx as part of her team (I don't say that because I have a problem with Marx; it's just that if Marx is a methodological individualist, then methodological individualism is a blatant misnomer). So as I see it, the plausible methodological individualist is actually holding a position which is pretty much identical to moderate holism. And because moderate holism explicitly accommodates social phenomena, and because methodological individualism is widely held to refer to a position which is incompatible with moderate holism, I don't see any reason for people to identify themselves that way.

So why do they do it? My theory is that it comes from being influenced by people like Mises, who were reacting to radical holists who did believe in the existence of a "group mind" (like Hegel). But since Mises wrote, philosophy has progressed, and I think it's become pretty clear that methodological individualism wasn't quite an appropriate way to look at the world (though not really because people like Mises were wrong; radical holism is still ridiculous, and for the reasons that the early methodological individualists understood). I think that if pressed, someone like Mises would have agreed that a completely reductionist way of understanding social phenomena is not appropriate. So I hope that the descendents of the methodological individualists can do the same.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Some Stillborn Ruminations on Procedural Justice in a Pluralistic Society

Anyone who pays attention to this blog (that is to say, probably none of you) will be aware that I've been having some trouble thinking about the legitimacy of enforcing justice in light of reasonable pluralism. The problem is basically this: Even if we ignore existing disagreement about the precisely correct principles of justice (which could conceivably be the product of such principles' nonexistence), I take it that there is no objectively legitimate procedure for enforcing justice such that no one could reasonably disagree with the legitimacy of having those procedures imposed upon them. (Rothbard disagreed on page 208 of Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, but since he didn't actually offer an argument...whatever.)

In his essay, "Liberal Neutrality: A Compelling and Radical Principle," Gerald Gaus suggests that legitimizing coercion requires impartial justificatory reasons -- reasons that it would be unreasonable not to accept as justifying the act in question. I agree. But if there is reasonable pluralism about procedural justice, then it's conceivable that the mere descriptive features of a set of procedures would fail to serve as impartial justification for the imposition of those procedures on someone. That is, if I hadn't personally agreed to abide by a certain set of procedures, and I didn't accept the legitimacy of those procedures (and I were being reasonable about my disagreement), then how could others justify imposing those procedures on me? In the absence of reasonable pluralism, this problem could be avoided by designing a procedure with the "correct" features, which would impartially justify imposing the procedure on people. But if people can reasonably disagree about what would be procedurally legitimate, then it might be impossible to design a system that could be impartially imposed on people.

This leads to an obvious problem. In order to have a functioning society, it seems important that there be a way to legitimately enforce justice by imposing impartial procedures on people who do things like commit crimes or destroy other people's property. As even anarcho-capitalist thinkers allow, purely voluntary settlement of disputes will not always be up to the task of ensuring that justice is served. For example, in For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, Murray Rothbard writes:
Even if purely voluntary arbitration is sufficient for commercial disputes...what of frankly criminal activities: the mugger, the rapist, the bank robber? In these cases, it must be admitted that ostracism would probably not be sufficient--even though it would also include, we must remember, refusal of private street owners to allow such criminals in their areas. For the criminal cases, then, courts and legal enforcement become necessary.

Rothbard's understanding of libertarian ethics is not one that I share, but the points at which I depart from Rothbard in practice are typically places where Rothbard is dogmatically opposed to using force, even when I don't think it would be disrespectful of the user of force to do so (in theory, we disagree more fundamentally, but often arrive at the same conclusions). Accordingly, if Rothbard can find a plausible solution to this problem within his more rigid ethical paradigm, it will likely satisfy my requirements as well. So what does he say?

Rothbard envisions that in a society without a centrally imposed set of procedures, individuals would ostensibly maintain a membership with a court organization to help them to settle their disputes. In the event that criminal charges were brought against an individual, the court of the plaintiff party could hold a trial, and if the defendant were found guilty, she would have the opportunity to go to her own court and ask for a second opinion. If her own voluntarily selected procedure resulted in a proclamation of innocence, the two court services could seek a third opinion from an "appeals" court. Rothbard immediately acknowledges the infinite regression he's building, and points out:
But suppose Brown [the defendant] insists on another appeals judge, and yet another? Couldn't he escape judgment by appealing ad infinitum? Obviously, in any society legal proceedings cannot continue indefinitely; there must be some cutoff point.

So basically, Rothbard's answer is, "Well yea, but don't be ridiculous." And to a point, I accept that reply, but it doesn't actually address the question we're posing here. However, even though Rothbard doesn't really solve the problem with which we're grappling, he does provide an important insight: someone who's being accused of a crime needs to have in mind some procedure for establishing his innocence; to simply refuse to participate in the justice system would be unreasonable. That Rothbard takes this for granted is telling.

But to be honest, I was going to make a point about this that I'm no longer comfortable with. So I guess I'll just leave this as it is for now, and maybe come back to the issue later once I've had time to think about it some more.
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