Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Follow This Blog!

Hello loyal readers and not-really-loyal-stumblers-upon-this-blog! I figured out how to add a funky follower thing to the right-hand panel of this blog. I'm not sure what it does, but if you do, then you should totally add yourself!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Redistribution and Organizations

[Update: I rewrote the piece so that it would actually be readable by financial people, and have replaced the earlier version of this post with the even more overly-simplistic (and not even necessarily historically accurate) version that appears below.]

Today my boss came in to work with a smile on his face, telling me he had a project for me. This is the result of that project. It draws a lot on this previous post, and admittedly oversimplifies some of the issues at hand. I didn't mean it to be a thorough examination of the issue, but I figure it might be somewhat interesting to some of you folks. So here it is:



[My boss] asks, “Is it consistent to think that wealth should be redistributed from rich individuals to poor individuals, but not from rich organizations to poor organizations?” To answer this question, I will explore the reasons that one might advocate redistribution from wealthy individuals to poor individuals, and then ask whether those reasons apply to organizations as well. In doing so, I will not address important objections to wealth redistribution policies, and so this discussion should not be seen as a defense of implementing them. The goal here will only be to establish whether someone who accepts the legitimacy of redistributions from wealthy individuals to poor individuals would be committed to being in favor of those arrangements between organizations as well.

Why Do We Care About the Distribution of Wealth?

Typically, redistribution of wealth is justified on the basis of empowering the poor. This seems simple enough. But if we are to try to apply this thinking to other areas, it will be important to understand how the argument for redistribution is supposed to work, and what moral problem the redistributive policy is supposed to fix. I will therefore offer a brief overview of where the argument for redistribution comes from, and how it responds to some of the ideas that have underpinned our society from its birth.

Our society is built on the foundations of classical liberal philosophy, which is itself built on the idea that we should treat freedom as a value in itself. It is second nature to think of the ideal America as a “free country” dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These are values that are taken directly from the classical liberal movement, and which still form the backbone of our worldview today. But why should we (and why did the classical liberals) care about freedom? Today’s political discourse has turned liberty into a buzzword, and has masked the connection between exaltation of liberty and the ideas that motivate redistributive policies. So in order to understand why redistribution is not just a matter of expedience or charity to its intellectual defenders, but is rather a matter of principle in their eyes, I will start out by setting the record straight on this issue.

Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson and the other liberal thinkers of their time observed that human societies are elaborate and dynamic systems, and that no individual (or group of individuals) could effectively design and operate a complex society according to a rational plan. The problem of society was, according to these thinkers, too complex for any mind to solve. Accordingly, the liberals postulated that successful societies would need to rely on mechanisms like the market system to produce “spontaneous” order – that is, to allow individuals to live together peacefully and productively without a comprehensive plan of action. A spontaneous system of producing social order would allow societies to function without all-knowing, benevolent rulers who would produce order and prosperity in accordance with their divine insights. And this was particularly important to the liberal thinkers, as it was painfully apparent to them that such rulers were generally not forthcoming, and attempts to produce a rational order in their absence were universal failures. The market system, then, could substitute for the benevolent and all-knowing ruler, producing prosperity and order as if by an invisible hand.

But the classical liberal defense of freedom extended beyond the simple idea that freedom tends to produce desirable social systems. The liberals argued not only that freedom promotes prosperity, but also that freedom is an essential component of human well-being. People, according to the liberals, can only realize themselves as individuals in an environment in which they are free to design their own lives, make their own choices, and live according to their own plans. And we still generally believe this today, which is why we care to live not only in a wealthy country or an advanced country, but also in a free country.

It was through the desire for mechanisms for spontaneous ordering and the belief in the importance of self-determination that the classical liberals came to be advocates for institutions of private property. By securing our possessions, property rights enable us to plan our separate lives without having to fear the arbitrary authority and incursions of other citizens or government agents. The classical liberals recognized that our lives are built in the outside world, and not just within ourselves, and that we therefore need security in our property in order to live full, meaningful lives. Property rights also set rules that allow us to interact in peaceful and productive ways without the need for social planning and all-knowing, benevolent rulers.

But a number of different groups of thinkers saw a flaw in the classical liberal argument defending individuals’ rights to their property. If property rights are a core element of liberty, and individuals need liberty in order to live good lives, then what about the people who do not have any property? Critics of the classical liberal position pointed out that the property-less, talent-less individual may have liberty in the sense of being free from the incursions of others, but she sure didn’t have much leeway to live her life according to her own desires or to be the master of her own fate. The impoverished man faces a choice between submitting to labor for someone else on one hand, or death by starvation or exposure on the other. Only in a technical, abstract sense could someone in such a situation be called “free.” And this, the critics held, was unfair.

The argument for redistribution, then, is that by redistributing wealth to those without access to it, we ensure liberty for all members of society, and not just those who can empower themselves through luck, talent, or the generosity of their benefactors. Such a policy, it is held, takes full consideration of everyone’s interests and needs in order to foster the conditions under which all individuals can pursue their own happiness, free (to some extent) from the concerns which might lead us to object to the circumstances faced by the property-less proletarian.

Empowerment and Organizations

When [my boss] asks about the potential for extending this line of thinking to organizations, it should be more or less clear at this point what he has in mind. Like individuals, organizations can have or lack the resources necessary to pursue their own goals. As is the case with individuals, a wealthy organization has more than enough resources available to it to meet its basic needs, and accordingly has more of a say in its fate than an organization which struggles simply to remain in operation. As we have seen, it is out of a desire to provide for the effective freedom of all individuals that the advocates of redistribution seek to transfer resources to those who lack property of their own. But does arguing this way commit them to the position that “needy” organizations should also be empowered in order to promote their abilities to plan their own “lives”?

In order to answer this question, it will help to ask why it is that liberty is morally important in the first place. The classical liberals thought that freedom was valuable because it could produce spontaneous social order and because it was a component of human wellbeing. But why should we attribute moral significance to order and wellbeing?

According to one very simplistic view, moral concern is built on the idea of promoting the interests of entities that have “goods of their own.” Each of us clearly has a good of his own, and our interests are promoted by living in orderly, peaceful, and prosperous societies in which we can pursue our own happiness. And similarly, our interests are promoted by having access to resources that enable us to make freer choices. But organizations can have “goods of their own” too. A University does well when it is able to sustain a thriving academic community, play an important role in its community, and operate with a strong budget. A corporation does well when it is able to generate income for its stakeholders, or when it successfully expands its operations into a new market. And in order for organizations to pursue their interests, they need access to resources just like individuals do. So if it is for the good of individuals that we enact empowering redistributive policies, then it seems like a similar line of thinking could lead us to advocate empowering organizations.

But one might object that moral concern should not attach simply to anything with a good of its own. We might notice that where we actually experience our own goods, organizations (that is, conceived of separately from the people who make up the organizations) do not. Whether or not a person’s interests are promoted actually makes a difference to that person. But except in a metaphorical sense, an organization is not the sort of thing to which something can make a difference. And this seems like a very important distinction.

To be sure, the individuals who compose the organization and who are impacted by its success have an active interest in its wellbeing. However, it is critical to notice that the interests of the individuals who make up an organization are not the same as the interests of the organization itself. If we are going to empower an organization because of the organization’s interests, then we need to separate the organization’s interests from the interests of the individuals from the organization. And if we deny that an organization’s separate interests can be morally significant because organizations cannot experience their own goods, then it appears that we would want to reject the analogy between the moral significance of an individual’s need for empowerment and an organization’s need for the same.

One might still want to argue that empowerment of poor organizations should be justified not on the basis of the organization’s own need for liberty, but rather on some need possessed by the individuals constituting the organization or by those with a stake in the organization’s performance. That is, by empowering organizations, we can indirectly empower individuals. And because we care about individual empowerment, we might be able to achieve our goals through the empowerment of organizations. But notice that this would not be an extension of the ethical argument in favor of empowering individuals to cover organizations. Rather, it would simply be an alternative way to carry out the redistribution called for by the original argument.

Ultimately, I am not convinced that we can coherently extend the moral concern which motivates redistribution to empower individuals to cover needy organizations. This can perhaps be supported best by comparing the way that we think about the death of an organization for lack of resources to the way that we would think of an individual’s death due to the same causes. When organizations fail or struggle, it seems like our proper concern should be focused on the individuals whose lives are worsened or constrained by those processes, and not on the organizations themselves which fail to live up to some constructed conception of their good. Accordingly, where redistribution is to be justified in order to empower those in need, I think it should be individuals to whom resources are allocated, and not organizations.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Tentative Plan for an Overly Ambitious Climate Change Project

Anyone who's been following my work will know that a main focus of my research is global climate change, viewed from an ethical and political perspective. In this post, I want to sketch out where I'd like to go with that research and how I'd like to compose a complete product. These will only be sketches, and only working sketches at that; I imagine things will change rather dramatically as I move forward. But hopefully they'll help me to organize my thoughts. And if anyone out there is interested in helping me work on some of this stuff, I'd really love to know. It would be amazing to be able to finish this project for a dissertation, but I don't know if that will be possible if I have to do this all alone... Anyway, here it is (as usual, the mainstream scientific standpoint is taken as a premise for the first parts):

1. Collective Action Problems and Coercion

Climate change is a problem that, on its surface, seems to fit right into the model of a public goods problem. People acting on their own independent interests are collectively producing something that appears to be bad. If we were to desire to prevent this bad thing from coming about, we would either need to alter the set of incentives facing the relevant agents (in this case, basically everyone) so that they would adjust their behavior, or perhaps we would need to take steps to mitigate the effects of their actions.

When we talk about an appropriate response to climate change, however, we don't have in mind a sort of Buchananite consensus-building endeavor in which we try to get everyone to agree to a system that would uncontroversially represent an improvement over the current one. Rather, we intend to coerce people -- that is, to influence them to follow plans besides their own by force if necessary -- in order to bring about the desired outcomes.

But we can't just go around coercing people whenever we think we could bring about "better" social outcomes by doing so -- we need some justification for infringing upon individuals' rights to self-determination. Accordingly, this section would attempt to sketch the kinds of reasons that one might offer in defense of an infringement of someone's right to self-determination, all focusing on duties held by the individual whose rights are being infringed.

I will discuss self-defense briefly, acknowledging Roderick Long's contributions in thinking about dealing with climate change from this paradigm, but ultimately conclude that it doesn't make much sense to approach the issue of climate change in this way. I will therefore sketch out two alternative sources of duties which might help us to justify coercion: the duty to show appropriate respect for others' rights and the duty to attempt to mitigate tragic or catastrophic consequences. The next two sections will be elaborations of these issues.

2. Climate Change as an Infringement Upon Rights

This section will draw heavily on my paper, "Justice and Climate Change: Towards a Libertarian Analysis," which will be coming out in The Independent Review in the Fall. It will outline the foundations of a duty to respect others' rights, and explore the ways in which we might think of climate change as infringing upon rights. I will build upon my earlier paper to address some of the issues that were left undiscussed there.

One way in which I will go beyond that paper in this section will be to discuss the question of whether these infringements upon rights would constitute rights-violations. I will predicate this discussion on the premise (which I will challenge in Section 4) that individuals who contribute to global climate change are responsible for the rights-infringements, and search for ways that those individuals might try to defend their actions. The purpose of this discussion will not be to reach any definitive conclusions, but rather to give us a starting point for thinking about these questions in Section 4 when we try to pin down exactly what individuals are responsible for, and how we should think of their duties in light of such an analysis.

3. When Are Consequences Correlative?

This section draws its inspiration from the concept of correlations between duties and rights, observing that some intuitively plausible kinds of duties don't seem to correlate with rights. Some of these duties which are non-correlative with rights seem to make reference to things that we owe to ourselves or to ideals to which we are committed. But others seem to have to do with our duty to promote "the good," or at least refrain from promoting "the bad" or destroying "the good."

In this section, I will attempt to approach the impacts of climate change from this sort of consequentialist perspective, trying to decide when consequences correlate with duties to act in certain ways. I will initially focus on impacts on groups of humans and on cultures, but I will attempt to expand my discussion to incorporate a consequentialist theory of environmental ethics. Much like in the previous section, my discussion in this section will be structured so as to rely on a set of carefully chosen suppositions about individuals' responsibility for bringing about these consequences that will be challenged in Section 4, but not in a way that makes the discussion here useless. Again, the purpose of the discussion here will be to create a starting point for the analysis in Section 4.

4. Collective Responsibility and Individual Duties

This section will bring into focus the emergent nature of the climate change problem, and attempt to engage the literature on collective responsibility in order to understand how we should approach this problem. I will focus particularly on Virginia Held's discussion of the responsibility of "random collections" to organize themselves to address faults corresponding to non-distributive predicates like "caused global climate change." I will draw attention to Held's reservations about the choice of a proper decision-making procedure and search for a resolution to this problem in the literature relating to the selection among sets of alternatives that are impartially reasonable to prefer to inaction.

I will also use this section to directly engage the idea of the social provision of public goods, wondering whether we can think of the ideas presented in this section as justifying or demanding this practice, or if we should rather treat the discussion here as suggesting serious limitations on the extent to which we should be looking to social decision-making mechanisms to fulfill this capacity. I will attempt to show that in certain situations, the line of thinking introduced here can be used to support social measures aimed at providing public goods without relying on perfectionist ideas. But I will also show how these arguments do not establish the sort of paradigm that perfectionists would want, and that my view cannot therefore be seen as a reconciliation between liberalism and perfectionism.

5. Justifying the Enforcement of Duties

In this section I will discuss the jump from the idea that individuals have certain duties (as discussed in the previous sections) to the idea that we could be justified in coercing these individuals to act in the manner prescribed by their duty. I will need to explore the sorts of considerations which justify the enforcement of duties and use them to try to distinguish cases where intervention is justified from those where it is not. Here I will flesh out the questions introduced in Section 4 relating to reasonable pluralism and impartiality, expanding my discussion to cover all duties. I will also explore a dialectical approach to thinking about the justice of coercive enforcement of duties. This section will set the stage for Section 6 and Section 7 by arguing that certain kinds of answers to the questions posed in those questions would make coercion unacceptable.

6. Centralized Policy-Making in a World of Reasonable Pluralism

This section will explore the foundations of political authority outside of voluntary associations. I'm really not sure how I want to approach this section, but a coherent place to start seems to be with the philosophy of Joseph Raz. I'm very much over my head in even trying to imagine what sorts of things I'll want to discuss in this section, but it does seem like I'll have to address this issue. I guess this is what grad school will be for! Hopefully by the time it's ready to actually start writing this, I'll have done a whole bunch of work on the issues raised by this section and will have something worthwhile to say.

7. Finding an Appropriate Role for Uncertainty

Everything that will have been said to this point in the project will have been predicated on the idea that global climate change is undeniably happening in the way forecasted by the IPCC. This section will question this premise and introduce some of the uncertainties involved in the mainstream scientific analysis. It will also introduce the concept of storyline uncertainty and discuss the degree to which we can be comfortable with our predictions about the future.

I will then try to think about how uncertainty should play into our thinking about this issue. I will discuss the precautionary principle and the principles of procedural justice which are enshrined in our current legal system, as well as concerns about the burden placed on victims by standards of proof. I'm not entirely sure where I'll want to go with this, but I think I'm attracted to the idea of some kind of middle ground. I'm not sure, though, so don't hold me to it!

8. Pulling It All Together

In this final section I will attempt to put together all of the pieces discussed in the previous sections in order to compose a coherent answer to the question of how we should think about the justification for a coercive and centralized policy aimed at addressing global climate change. I will highlight areas where I think that reasonable people might find room for disagreement, and where I think my discussion here could be expanded or improved. I will also voice any doubts I have about my conclusions and attempt to identify some avenues for rejecting them. Finally, to the extent that I can do so coherently, I will offer some closing thoughts about the ways that my arguments might be engaged by the policymaking community and the general public.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Left-Libertarianism Is Not Communism: A Reply to Joel Davis

It appears that over at Reddit.com, a fellow going by sblinn decided to share one of my previous posts on resource-egalitarian left-libertarianism with the rest of the Reddit community.  So a big thank you goes out to sblinn for checking out my work and posting it over there!  I received some criticism, though, in the comments section of the listing by someone named Joel Davis, who appears to be a communist [edit: later in the comments thread, Joel claims not to be one, so I'm not entirely sure what to make of the fact that he defends points he calls communist throughout his reply...].  Joel clearly put a lot of time and effort into his comments, and so I wanted to try to think about some of his points here.

First, Joel wonders:
Isn't "property" itself a system? Can't we solve this "problem" by just choosing not to enforce property, thus securing egalitarian conditions through a net decrease in coercive authority?

I do agree that property -- or more specifically, any society's set of conventions for recognizing claims to possessions and adjudicating disputes arising over those claims -- is a system of social organization, and that such a system could be dispensed with if a society so chose.   And I can see why Joel would conceive of such a move as involving a net decrease in coercive authority.  After all, by abandoning a set of social conventions for dealing with property claims, we would seem to dissolve the mechanisms by which those conventions were enforced, and also the mechanisms by which those kinds of conventions were formed in the first place.  And that seems like a curtailment of a certain kind of authority.

But it's less clear to me why Joel thinks that such a move would bring us closer to egalitarian ideals.  It seems like in the absence of a property system, there would either arise a set of social relationships that were substantially similar to a sort of property system, except without any unifying set of conventions (since that would seem to be a property system itself), or else there would be a system in which claims over possessions were not widely recognized and protected.  

In the former case, we seem to wind up right where we started.  I don't see why having a pluralistic system of property rights would militate against inequality any more than a more universal system of property rights would.  To defend this, one would only need to point out that whatever possession-respecting manner in which some members of a pluralistic society related to each other with egalitarian results could simply be practiced on a society-wide scale.  And by doing so, we could coherently claim to have instituted a sort of property system, though it would likely need to be different than the sort of property system we generally see in practice today.

In the latter case, where there is no generally accepted set of cultural institutions regarding possessions, and where individuals have not created a similar -- though pluralistic -- system to put in the place of one, it would seem like the only remaining alternative would be to not recognize claims to property at all (since doing so would seem to involve one of the two possibilities already discussed).  But such a system would be anarchy in the pejorative sense of the word.  People would simply do whatever they wanted with other people's property -- remember, if they restrained themselves from this, we would be dealing of an example of the sort discussed in the previous paragraph.  If this would bring about egalitarian consequences, it would only be in the sense of mutual destruction.  But more likely, egalitarians would be angered to find that the strongest could exercise their power over the weakest, generating a different sort of inequality, but inequality nonetheless.

So I really can't see why Joel would think that the abandonment of property altogether would tend towards egalitarian goals.  It must be noted here that I have spoken of property in a broad sense, and many people have historically talked about the elimination of capitalistic standards of property as if they were talking about dispensing with property altogether.  But presumably, there would still be a desire to kick trespassers out of one's house in the communist utopia, and to have the trespasser seen as the morally faulty party in such a scenario.  And one simply can't make sense of this besides through an appeal to something like a right relating to one's own house, which would be a sort of property right.  A property right of a different kind, to be sure, than the one which enables the capitalist to bequeath access and title to the means of production to his children, but a property right nonetheless.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the latter sort of system would not be something that left-libertarians would want to endorse, at least as far as I can discern.  Most left-libertarians seem to be in favor of property rights of some kind, though they might be open to the second sort of set-up in which there is no property system as such, but rather a kind of pluralistic, decentralized approach to dealing with these rights.  And the reason it makes sense that left-libertarians favor these rights is that left-libertarians believe in self-ownership partly because they want people to have the freedom to "do what they want with their own."  Hence Peter Vallentyne began his entry on Libertarianism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy with the claim that "Libertarianism holds that agents initially fully own themselves and have moral powers to acquire property rights in external things under certain conditions." So in summary, I agree that one can abandon a property system if one wants, but I don't see why this would tend to encourage equality, and unless the alternative to a property system were substantially like a property system, I don't think a left-libertarian would want to endorse it (remember, my post was about left-libertarians, and so might not respond to other sorts of views).

Joel's next substantive point is this:
It (obviously) doesn't follow that just because there will be some inequality that we need to endorse a system of property as it exists today.

And this is undoubtedly true. I certainly didn't mean to suggest in anything that I said that the only alternative to the left-libertarian views I challenged in my other post involved a wholesale endorsement of today's property norms.  Even the most right-wing libertarian views don't entail that.  So to the extent to which my previous post suggested anything like this, I apologize for the confusion.

The point I had been trying to make starts with the claim that with an egalitarian initial allocation of resources, differences in luck, effort, and ability would eventually bring it about that some individuals would end up with more than others.  This would not be the case because of any defect in the initial distribution's fulfillment of egalitarian ideals, but rather because it would simply be impossible to engineer an egalitarian distribution such that the tendencies towards movements away from equality would be preempted indefinitely.  This is not a point that I introduced, and is accepted by both right-libertarians like Nozick and egalitarians like Cohen.  I didn't think it particularly necessary to defend it in depth because...well...very few people disagree with it.  But I again apologize if I didn't articulate the point as clearly as I might have.

This is important in the context of our discussion of left-libertarianism because the reason that the left-libertarian wants the egalitarian distribution of resources in the first place is because she wants there to be equality without the kinds of coercive redistributions that I and others have claimed would be necessary to preserve equality, even with an egalitarian initial distribution.  That the left-libertarians in question want this can be easily evidenced by Michael Otsuka's somewhat recent choice to name his excellent book Libertarianism Without Inequality, and I think you'd be rather hard pressed to find one of these people who would disagree with that characterization.  Accordingly, my argument is that if it isn't true that an egalitarian initial distribution would ensure equality over the long term, then the left-libertarian argument would essentially just be an objection to the mere fact that there was not an egalitarian intial distribution -- that is, that a society did not have the right kind of history.

Joel's next point is:
...if [by "self-ownership"] you mean control of your body, then most communists would agree with that as a human right. If you mean it (as is often the cause) already-bundled with private property, then they would disagree, but only for the propertarian aspects. If "property" isn't legitimate in the first place, then denial of it can't be an infringement on self-ownership. Just like a person who dies can't claim that the still living "stole time" from him. The time wasn't his, he has no natural or moral claim to it, and he's just being an obstinate spook.

The problem here is that what communists think is entirely beside the point.  A left-libertarian is not a communist, and vice-versa.  So it may be true that one can save self-ownership by making it purely formal, as Joel suggests, but this option is not open to the left-libertarian, and so this point is a non-sequitar.

This applies to a number of Joel's next points, which I will not address here.  The problem appears to be that Joel thinks that I was trying to engage with communists, when I simply was not.  The article was about a very particular approach to political philosophy, and I think I made that very clear.

A point that I will address, however, stemmed from my claim that there would not be any objectively acceptable way to implement the left-libertarians' principles even if we accepted them at face value.  Joel responded that all moral codes suffer from the same problem of non-objectivity.  But I think that Joel misunderstood my point.  I didn't mean that the left-libertarians' moral principles were not objectively true, and that this was a problem for them.  If I had argued this, then Joel's criticism would be a good one.  

But my argument was that even if we grant the left-libertarians their point, and accept that what one needs to do is perform an egalitarian distribution of resources that ensures that everyone gets their fair share, the left-libertarian would have no way to carry out such a plan.  It simply doesn't make sense.  Accordingly, they'd need to construct a somewhat ad hoc system to approximate their ideal.  And this would be fine except for the fact that their approach to political philosophy is a rationalist one, and not an instrumentalist one.  This, I think, creates a tension for their view, since on one hand they seem to want to set the conditions that would allow for an impartially legitimate society, but on the other hand it wouldn't be strictly possible to determine how to set those conditions.  That seems like it's a problem to me.

I guess having gone through this, all I can say is that I don't really know what Joel was trying to accomplish here.  He very rightly showed that my critique of left-libertarianism is not a very critique of communism, and basically tried to show that my points of contention with the former view can be avoided by taking a position incompatible with that view.  And in some cases, I haven't disagreed.  But I don't really 
[Hmm...I'm not sure what happened here, but it looks like the end of this post got chopped off. Oops!]

Friday, March 13, 2009

Quibbles and Minutiae: Some Thoughts for Brainpolice

Over at the Polycentric Order blog, Alex "Brainpolice" Strekal posted the beginning of a project he has undertaken to hopefully bring some order to the haphazard jumble of ideas currently living under the broad umbrella of "libertarianism." In this post, I just wanted to write up a few comments on the early goings of Brainpolice's work in hopes that they may be of some use for him.

Brainpolice has some interesting stuff to say about the history and genealogy of libertarian ideas. Since I'm not the most qualified person to give my opinion on those matters, I'll ignore many of them in these comments. But I will note that the account would benefit substantially from the inclusion of citations and references to other discussions which have come before his (i.e., Doherty's Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, Boaz's Libertarianism: A Primer, Murray's What It Means to Be a Libertarian, and Hamowy's The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism). I'm sure Brainpolice doesn't intend to write his whole book about the history of other people's attempts to talk about the history of the movement. But when trying to argue that a lot of people have gotten it wrong, it would be nice if he showed us a little more, instead of just told us. One particular instance where the conversation could seemingly benefit a lot from bringing in outside sources is the discussion of the early history of the liberal movement, where a connection to Hayek's discussions in "Individualism: True and False" and The Constitution of Liberty would make sense to me.

The first substantive issue I can take with Brainpolice's account is in his claim that liberalism and libertarianism are somehow built around the idea of "maximizing" liberty. This claim stands in opposition to the now foundational conception of liberalism and libertarianism as having at least something to do with rights which act as boundaries, rather than as goals to be maximized. I don't mean to suggest that I know that Brainpolice is incorrect about the origin of the term "liberalism" or "libertarianism," but it seems like it needs to be demonstrated that these terms have to do with maximizing liberty. And unfortunately, there is no such demonstration (yet!).

Moving on, an issue that strikes me as somewhat worthy of an expanded handling is Brainpolice's discussion of the roots of socialism. As I understood the history, Marx's thought was a direct outgrowth of the classical economists. And it seems clear to me that Marxism is more different from recognizably "liberal" or "libertarian" perspectives in its conclusions than in its foundations. As Cohen points out in Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality, Marxism is built upon something very much like the notion of self-ownership, and as I've discussed elsewhere on this blog, some of the core components of the Marxian system can be seen as the outgrowths not of a rejection of liberal ideas but rather Marx's acceptance of the labor theory of value.

Another issue arises from Brainpolice's claim that "...it is true that anarchism of some sort is the radical conclusion of libertarianism." Without agreeing or disagreeing with this statement, I just think it's obvious that justifying this claim would require a much more significant argument than the mere assertion offered here. That seems especially important in order to avoid making the paragraph sound like it's saying, "Some libertarians think anarchism is the real libertarianism, and others think that minarchism is the real libertarianism. Anarchists, though, can't reasonably kick out the minarchists due to popular usage of the terminology, even though anarchism is clearly the real libertarianism and minarchism is stupid."

Finally, I'm not sure if I'm the biggest fan of the structure of the chapter/essay/whatever it is. I think it initially comes off as being the very introduction that it claims not to be at the end, and might do better by moving some of the concluding material to the beginning, or moving some of the beginning material to later parts of the book where the lineages of specific ideas are discussed more in depth. If the purpose of putting some of the historical anecdotes in this portion is to illustrate how now-clashing ideas have been related to each other in the past, I would suggest that perhaps using more modern examples and ideas would better accomplish this goal (i.e., Murray Rothbard vs. F.A. Hayek or Ayn Rand, David Friedman's consequentialism, or Roderick Long vs. Walter Block), as people might be less hesitant in such cases to say, "Well sure Marxism is based on many of the same 18th century ideas as libertarianism, but that doesn't mean they're connected now," than they would be to say, "Well sure Block's thin libertarianism is based on many of the same 20th century ideas as Long's thick libertarianism, but that doesn't mean they're connected now."

But all in all, I think this was a good start, and I'm definitely excited to read more. I also want to commend Alex for starting this project; this is quite the undertaking, and I think it's fantastic that someone is trying to do something like this. Hopefully these comments will be of some help!

Wait, Since When? (Update: Oh. Since Never.)

Update: I take it all back. See the bottom of this post.

In my current line of work (energy industry research), I come across quite a few government research reports, and generally I need to suspend my Austrian-ness and libertarian-ness as I read them in order to avoid getting frustrated. It's not that they're poorly written; in fact, they tend to be really well researched and thought out, and it's incredibly valuable to have access to them. But as one might gather from this post, there are sometimes little tidbits in them that make me want to pull my hair out. Moreover, they almost never make it a point to mention things like government failure, and are very often ignorantly perfectionist and guilty of the nirvana fallacy.

So I was very surprised to stumble across a report from the Congressional Budget Office, The Economics of Climate Change: A Primer, which described the problem facing policymakers like this:
The Earth’s atmosphere is a global, open-access resource that no one owns, that everyone depends on, and that absorbs emissions from an enormous variety of natural and human activities. As such, it is vulnerable to overuse, and the climate is vulnerable to degradation—a problem known as the tragedy of the commons. The atmosphere’s global nature makes it very difficult for communities and
nations to agree on and enforce individual rights to and responsibilities for its use.

With rights and responsibilities difficult to delineate and agreements a challenge to reach, markets may not develop to allocate atmospheric resources effectively. It may therefore fall to governments to develop alternative policies for addressing the risks from climate change. And because the causes and consequences of such change are global, effective policies will probably require extensive cooperation among countries with very different circumstances and interests.

However, governments may also fail to allocate resources effectively, and international cooperation will be extremely hard to achieve as well. Developed countries, which are responsible for the overwhelming bulk of emissions, will be reluctant to take on increasingly expensive unilateral commitments while there are inexpensive opportunities to constrain emissions in developing countries. But developing nations, which are expected to be the chief source of emissions growth in the future, will also be reluctant to adopt policies that constrain emissions and thereby limit their potential for economic growth -- particularly when they have contributed so little to the historical rise in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and may suffer disproportionately more of the negative effects if nothing is done.

The bolding in the above is mine. I honestly don't think I can think of another example of a central government publication being so good about acknowledging the power of spontaneous order and the need to avoid the Nirvana fallacy. So kudos goes to Robert Shackleton of the CBO's Macroeconomic Analysis Division, who wrote the study, for not sounding like someone who's ignorant of economic theory! I'm just starting to read through this report, but I'm already looking forward to hearing what he will have to say.

Those who have followed my work will be aware that I am generally hesitant to endorse the approach to the issue of climate change which treats the problem as a question about the most efficient allocation of social resources. It seems to me that efficiency considerations can only justify coercive and centrally organized social engineering in rather extreme situations, and I am not fully convinced that the specter of climate change qualifies (or that if it did, the currently popular policy approaches would be the appropriate way to handle the problem). And looking through the table of contents in Shackleton's report, it doesn't appear that he considers these issues. But this is typical in the mainstream discourse, and I am not entirely surprised -- I can't hold it against him.

However, I can hold it in favor of former CBO Director Peter Orszag, who mentioned my point of view in a presentation at Wellesley College in October. On the 13th slide of his presentation, Orszag wrote:
  • Alternative view: Valuation of future benefits should be viewed primarily as a decision about equity rather than as a traditional investment decision.

  • But viewed as an equity issue, inconsistencies arise relative to how other intergenerational trade-offs are analyzed

  • Of course, I don't think Orszag is right to brush aside my approach in such a cavalier manner. And I certainly think that if "inconsistencies arise" when policies are considered from the standpoint of equity, then that seems like a problem for the views which are made inconsistent, and not the idea that policies should be based on equity. But the greater point is that at least Orszag is aware enough of what's going on to bring up this issue.

    And this concludes my statist love-fest. You can all go back to your various degrees of distrust, dissent, and anarchist tendencies now.


    Ugh. I take back all my love for Shackleton. Way to break my heart, man! Enjoy:
    The atmosphere and climate are part of the stock of natural resources available to people to satisfy their needs and wants over time. From an economic point of view, climate policy involves measuring and comparing the values that people place on resources, across alternative uses and at different points in time, and applying the results to choose a course of action. An effective policy would balance the benefits and costs of using the atmosphere and distribute those benefits and costs among people in an acceptable way.

    And by "Enjoy," I mean, "Try not to break something. It'll be okay."

    An Aside: Someone Needs to Write a B.I.V. Song

    ...and it needs to include the following eloquent and poetic verse (which I thought of this morning in the car on the way to work):

    Nozick was right and I wish it were real
    But you’re in control, so you know how I feel
    Please don’t unplug me, I’m doing just fine
    It’s not lonely alone in my mind

    How about it, philosopher-musicians of the world? If you need a guitarist for the final product, I'm so down.

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009

    Another Great Moment in the History of Unintentionally Hilarious Comments

    My critique of Stefan Molyneux's theory of Universally Preferable Behaviour has been cited on the message board operated by the Sense of Life Objectivists (SOLO), a group dedicated to providing an alternative to the "cultism, censorship, heresy-hunts, emotional repression and robotic "Randroidism"" which founder Lindsay Perigo sees as characteristic of other Objectivist groups. As someone who was introduced to philosophy through the work of Ayn Rand, and who has since moved away from Objectivism due in part to the refusal of members of that camp to critically evaluate their own views, I very much appreciate what Mr. Perigo is trying to do, and encourage anyone interested in the philosophy of Ayn Rand to check out his site. I can't vouch for the content, as I haven't read much of anything from the site, but the site's "Credo" sounds like it's at least a lot closer to being on the right track than most of the other Objectivist writings I've come across. (Of course, I would be remiss not to also mention a fascinating counterpoint in Dr. Nathaniel Branden's The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand: A Personal Statement, which every Objectivist simply must read.)

    But that's all beside the point here.

    My critique was cited by a fellow going by Gregster on the SOLO forum, who simply said in reference to Molyneux:
    One person's critique of his "ideas" on morality.

    What followed, care of a poster named Sharon, was one of the greatest marginalizations I have ever come across in my life:
    LOL. You are too much, Gregster. Did you even bother to read his book on ethics—or this critique for that matter? Probably not, and yet you have "scare" quotes here. You know, Rand has her share of critics as well. So what?

    If you don't see why that's a genius thing to say, then it probably wouldn't help if I explained. Suffice it to say that I'm very pleased with this statement, and wanted to share. Rock on, Sharon.

    A Little Bit of Blasphemy: A Reply to Onorati

    Over at the FreedomWorks blog, my good friend Joseph Onorati wrote a post in condemnation of protectionism and in favor of free trade. As you can guess, I am in general agreement with Joseph on this one. But because I am a wicked troll, I had no choice but to post a scathing counterargument on the blog. I figured it might be of interest to some of you, and I'd love to help draw attention to Joseph's work and the FreedomWorks site. So check it out!

    I also wanted to offer a few counterarguments to the counterargument I presented on the FreedomWorks blog in case anyone suddenly feels uncomfortable about free trade in light of something I said there (I wouldn't want to actually make someone advocate protectionism, of course; I was just poking fun at Joseph!). So here are, as I see them, the three points which together make liberalizing trade a coherent position to advocate for in national policy debates:

    1) The particular values which we might seek to promote through protectionist policies are not universally shared across the country. In fact, it's not even close. A respectful society would not impose coercive policies which are inescapably designed in a way that impoverishes the general populous in order to promote goals which are not necessarily supported by those who will be affected.

    2) As Joe correctly noted, the free market -- with its power to spontaneously coordinate the pursuit of constantly changing and often competing ends without the direction of a conscious designer -- is the most powerful mechanism we know of for creating wealth and prosperity. Nothing else even comes close. So by allowing the market to function, we can be relatively confident that people will be generally better off than they will be under more consciously coordinated regimes which aim to mold society to a particular static vision.

    3) Centralized decision-makers are ill-suited to making effective protectionist policies. They are subject to lobbying pressure and a set of incentives which often lead them to make decisions for reasons other than their beliefs about what would be in the best interests of the people, and even when they are acting on good intentions, they often lack the knowledge and understanding that would be necessary to carry out their plans with any degree of precision and effectiveness.

    For those three reasons (and not only one of them by itself), I think it's reasonable to support free markets in national-level policy discussions. To be clear, I don't always think that's the right call for more localized and tightly unified policy-making groups. But where policies are going to be imposed in broad strokes on a country of over 300 million people, I can't bring myself to support putting any power of that sort in the hands of any bureaucrat or politician, no matter how much they want the best for the country.

    Saturday, March 7, 2009

    Some Hayekian Bathroom Reading: A Reply to Farrell

    Yesterday over at the Crooked Timber blog, Henry Farrell wrote a post about an idea introduced by an airline executive which would have forced passengers to pay for their use of airplane toilets. He uses this example as a dig against we zany libertarians:
    I’ve always thought that the social expectations associated with Ryanair flights are a microcosm for a certain kind of gung-ho libertarian ideal of market society, in which every possible social interaction is conducted through the cash nexus (if Michael O’Leary thought he could get away with charging you for the attendants’ smiles, he would). There are some quite clear efficiency benefits to this – externalities are internalized, and if you are determined just to travel (and to carefully work around their ways of squeezing you for extra cash) their flights are very cheap indeed. But you can also expect that they will charge you for everything that they possibly can, and take full advantage of every bargaining asymmetry going.

    I agree that this sort of thing is unattractive, which is why I wouldn't expect that many airlines would get away with it for very long (though in the mean time it would be a source of irritation, and I would think it reasonable if they were required to disclose their policy very explicitly to potential customers in order to avoid legal ambiguity). Charge toilets might be a more efficient policy if allocating toilet use were at issue, but when your business depends on customer satisfaction, it seems dubious to me that the few dollars you would make per flight by charging for bathroom access would justify alienating and frustrating an enormous majority of your customers.

    In any case, though, what we gung ho libertarians favor is letting people have the choice to try new things. As Farrell rightly points out, maybe there are some people out there who want to travel at the lowest possible expense, and are willing to put themselves in situations where they may be forced to pay out the nose for any amenities they wish to consume. We certainly wouldn't want to ban anyone from serving these odd folks. The issue gets complicated when access to the airline industry and to flight routes are restricted by another set of government policies, thereby reducing the opportunity for competition and making it so airlines have a privileged position in negotiating with their customers. But it still seems like no one is forcing you to fly with Ryanair, and what people should do is to choose the airline with policies they support (or are willing to accommodate for some other convenience or benefit).

    The upshot of organizing society that way is that you never know what may come from toll toilets. Maybe people learn to accept paying for toilets, and that makes it possible for some entrepreneurial airlines to offer separate premium bathroom services (much like how when airlines started charging extra for food, the food got way better). The current incentive structure encourages airlines to go for the bare minimum. Maybe the best policy would be to charge for the nice bathrooms and have free ones that are poorly maintained. Maybe the best policy would be to only have nice bathrooms, charge for them, and brag about how your charge toilets are better than the other guy's charge toilets. I don't know.

    And obviously, this isn't just about airplane toilets. The (good) libertarian argument was never that whatever happens in the market is desirable, or that we should never lament the elimination of services that we all enjoy. I would personally rather have free airline toilets, and I would gravitate flying on an airline that didn't fleece me at every available opportunity (perhaps even if I ended up paying more in the end!). But by legally prohibiting people from trying alternative policies, we entrench current tastes and prejudices and prohibit people from trying new things which may open up possibilities we haven't thought of before.

    So while I join Farrell in finding the Ryanair suggestion to be unattractive and ridiculous, I don't think I would support the prohibition of such a policy which he seems to favor. If anything, that's because I would want to see competitors advertising with "Fly British Air. We don't make you pay to use the bathroom like those tits at Ryanair. Seriously, who makes their customers pay to use the bathroom on the airplane? What is this, France?"

    Sunday, March 1, 2009

    You Say This Has Been In Print For How Long?

    From The Constitution of Liberty:
    Just as a group may owe its rise to the morals which its members obey, and their values in consequence be ultimately imitated by the whole nation which the successful group has come to lead, so may a group or nation destroy itself by the moral beliefs to which it adheres. Only the eventual results can show whether the ideals which guide a group are beneficial or destructive. The fact that a society has come to regard the teaching of certain men as the embodiment of goodness is no proof that it might not be the society's undoing if their precepts were generally followed. It may well be that a nation may destroy itself by following the teaching of what it regards as its best men, perhaps saintly figures unquestionably guided by the most unselfish ideals. There would be little danger of this in a society whose members were still free to choose their way of practical life, because in such a society such tendencies would be self-corrective: only the groups guided by the "impractical" ideals would decline, and others, less moral by current standards, would take their place. But this will happen only in a free society in which such ideals are not enforced on all. Where all are made to serve the same ideals and where dissenters are not allowed to follow different ones, the rules can be proved inexpedient only by the decline of the whole nation guided by them.

    You'd think that 49 years might be long enough for people to absorb things like this. But...nope.
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    "Rational philosophy is on the march. It will f--- up all of your sh-- and leave you without any teeth."