Sunday, January 30, 2011

The ethics of revolution

Archvillain ask some perspicacious questions about the ethics of revolution:
The Barefoot Bum is one of the blogs I read regularly. Despite the fact that he and I agree on very little, I enjoy reading the output of intelligent minds such as his.

One particular point on which we disagree is communism. He is an avowed communist, and I am more of a rational anarchist (to steal a term from Heinlein). I am not particularly wedded to capitalism, but I tend to believe a capitalist system of some sort allows greater freedom for individuals than communism. Under communism, the individual is subservient to the society as a whole. I don’t like the idea of being a servant to anyone.

Recent articles have dealt with the need to overthrow the capitalist system in order for a communist system to be put in place. Since people are unlikely to spontaneously evolve a culture which would allow the peaceful transition from one to the other, Barefoot Bum postulates a revolution to make it happen. To his credit, he makes some very cogent observations about the necessity for the actual revolutionaries to avoid being part of the new ruling party, and points out the very real hazards of any revolution. Even more to his credit, he acknowledges that any such revolution would be made by a small fraction of the population, and may therefore merely repeat the cycle of ruling elites being overthrown by small groups which become the new ruling elites. This sort of intellectual honesty is hard to come by- especially on the internet.

For those wondering, I have no particular love for the government as currently operated. That said, I am willing to work with the established guidelines to modify and improve the way our country is run. Going back to Ed Howdershelt’s Four Boxes (There are four boxes to be used in defense of liberty: soap, ballot, jury, and ammo. Please use in that order), in the event we, the People, have to open that Fourth Box, I will not be joining in any putative communist revolution.

Let me correct a few misconceptions. I most definitely do not construe communism to entail that "the individual is subservient to the society as a whole." I do not believe that such a construction is even coherent, much less desirable; the assertion contains the fallacy of reification. "Society" is an abstract entity; the word labels statistical and emergent properties of the collection of individual properties. An individual cannot actually be subservient to an abstraction, and individuals cannot be subservient to an abstraction that is defined (indirectly) by their own properties.

I prefer to define collectivism in general in terms of Prisoner's Dilemma kinds of mutual benefits that are in tension with individual benefit. Collectivism is the position that we need social structures and institutions that are in some sense coercive to achieve mutual cooperation instead of mutual defection. Since there are a lot of situations where the Prisoner's Dilemma does not apply, collectivism in this sense is not strictly incompatible with individualism. In this sense most individuals are not subservient to anything; the social structures exist for their own benefit, and rational people have a reason to prefer a social structure that promotes their own benefit through mutual cooperation over one that can be expected to fall into mutual defection to their own detriment.

I would contrast collectivism with "radical" individualism: Where the Prisoner's Dilemma does exist, mutual defection is preferable to any coercive social structures that promote mutual cooperation; if individuals want to achieve mutual cooperation, they need to find a non-coercive way of doing so.

The concept that "since people are unlikely to spontaneously evolve a culture which would allow the peaceful transition from one to the other, Barefoot Bum postulates a revolution to make it happen," does not reflect my views with perfect accuracy. I think the culture will "evolve" (by the looser, internally teleological standards of cultural and social evolution) to make communism desirable or at least unobjectionable to most people. The capitalist ruling class will not, however, voluntarily surrender its own power and privilege; they will, like every ruling class before them, use increasingly violent and oppressive means to maintain their own power. When the people themselves strongly desire change in the fundamentals of our system of government, we will have to fight a revolution to overcome the violent resistance of the capitalist ruling class.

The above being said, some of Archvillain's critical questions remain valid. What constitutes "sufficient" popular will to justify a revolution? It seems relatively clear that at the extremes the question is obvious that there is some such thing as "sufficient popular desire". If only the King and dozen armed guards wish to preserve the monarchy, and millions of people want some sort of democratic republic, there seems to obviously exist sufficient popular will to overthrow the King despite the violent resistance of his guards. Similarly, if millions of people adore and respect the King, and are happy under his rule, the dissatisfaction of a dozen revolutionaries seems to obviously fail to justify a revolution. The question becomes: how does the justification work in the "middle"?

There isn't a simple answer to this question, and the justification does not depend in a linear way on the quantity and quality of satisfaction or dissatisfaction in the population. Still, it's one thing to try to influence the popular will in nonviolent ways, but not just I myself but every self-professed communist revolutionary I know believes that only the existence of popular will in some sense directly justifies actually picking up weapons and shooting back at people. Popular will is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to justify revolution in a philosophical sense. The popular will could exist for a revolution we might consider "bad" in some abstract sense, but even if the dozen outlying revolutionaries were correct in some abstract sense, the lack of popular will would fail to justify revolutionary action. A revolution is very different from a coup d'etat.

To no small extent, radical changes in society are accompanied by a degree of irrational hysteria, which is in direct proportion to the immediacy and severity of the existing regime's violent oppression. The British government was unwilling and unable to employ Romanesque oppression to maintain control of the American colonies, so the American revolution proceeded with relatively less hysteria than other revolutions. Even so, there was still a degree of hysteria and irrationality. Revolutions under conditions of more immediate and disciplined oppression — e.g. the French, Russian, and Chinese — exhibited relatively more hysteria.

Revolutionary agitation and propaganda cannot by itself create this hysteria. People become hysterical when they are profoundly dissatisfied and see no rational resolution of their dissatisfaction. And people do not become hysterical or dissatisfied with the conditions of their society and its institutions just because they read a pamphlet or listen to a guy on a bullhorn. Revolutionary propaganda can succeed only in giving form and focus to dissatisfaction that is already there. Revolutionary propaganda can succeed only in transforming resignation and fatalism to hysteria. There is little good that can be said for hysteria; the sensible, humanistic revolutionary such as myself claims only that hysteria in the service of revolution is better than resignation in the service of slavery and oppression.

I concur in a sense with Howdershelt's exhortation, but I consider it rather as a truth. People will in fact do what they can to reform their society; when adequate reform is impossible, sooner or later sufficient hysteria will take hold of its own accord, and the people will find the use of the fourth box acceptable. I would love to be proven wrong, but I am a revolutionary only because I do in fact believe that meaningful, adequate reform is not possible. I see the development of hysteria and desperation against a violent, oppressive regime as inevitable; I see as my task to influence that hysteria and its aftermath in positive ways beneficial to the people of the society that will emerge and humanity in general.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (pot/kettle edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheism: A Belief in Unbelief
The challenge of endeavouring to debate atheists, secularists or other non-Christians is the deceptive machinations they adopt. They will name-call, misattribute comments or positions to their opponent, and drop out of the discussion when their assertions are called into question. Others will cherry-pick scripture or comments taken out of context, or shoehorn favoured talking points into unrelated issues. Most condescendingly marginalize the Christian by suggesting their faith makes them too irrational to debate with; and they carefully craft a premise that automatically discounts the Christian worldview, accusing their adversary of being hateful or not grounded in reality.

I do respect the atheist who at least makes attempts to join the dialogue. It’s just that I find it tiresome to be respectful enough to engage in a debate only to be met with ad hominem attacks rather than genuine debate.
Sigh. There goes another irony meter. Happily, I buy them in bulk.

Maxine Udall dies

Dr. Alison Snow Jones, aka Maxine Udall, Girl Economist, passed away suddenly on Monday, January 17, 2011. Although she was a capitalist economist through and through, she brought a clear and distinct moral vision to economics, and asked many of the same uncomfortable questions that led me to communism.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (sorry excuse edition)

the stupid! it burns! Is P. Z. Myers a sorry excuse for an atheist?
I have said many times before that the New Atheists are a pale imitation of the old atheists of late 19th and early 20th centuries who were not simply cultural barbarians, but men widely learned beyond science, most of whom actually understood much of what they criticized. The Thomas Huxleys and H. L. Menckens have, alas, been replaced by the likes of Myers and Richard Dawkins. ...

Where are the atheists now who can come with lines like Huxley's, "extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science like snakes around the cradle of Hercules"? Or Mencken's "Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing"?

They were wrong, of course, but they were magnificently, gloriously wrong--unlike Myers and his ilk, who, when they go wrong (which is not infrequent), do it with an unfortunate lack of rhetorical sophistication. If you're going to be wrong, you should at least provide your audience with something to marvel at.

You have to hand it to the religious: By the standards of the last sentence quoted above, they have performed magnificently.

The Predator State

Mark Thoma quotes a review of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, by James K. Galbraith in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Economic Issues:
While conservatives toyed with laissez-faire, they quickly abandoned it in all important areas of policy-making. For them, it now serves as nothing more than an enabling myth, used to hide the true nature of our world. Ironically, only the progressive still takes the call for “market solutions” seriously, and this is the major barrier to formulating sensible policy. ...

In truth, all economies are always and everywhere planned—for the simple reason that planning is the use of today’s resources to meet tomorrow’s needs, something that all societies must do if they are going to survive—so the only question is who is going to do the planning, and to whom are the benefits going to flow? There are still a few true believers (principled conservatives that Jamie compares to noble savages in the political wilderness), but most conservatives realized that there is no conflict between “big government” and “the market” as they abandoned the myth but usurped the “free market” label. All we are left with is the liberal who embraces the myth out of fear of being exposed as a heretic, a socialist, or a fool. Thus, the liberal pines to “make the market work better”, never challenging the view (abandoned by all but the most foolish conservatives) that government is the problem. ...

Wherever one finds a sector that still operates reasonably well, one finds remnants of New Deal institutions that support, guarantee, regulate, and leverage private activities, in spheres as diverse as higher education, housing, pensions, healthcare, the military-industrial complex (and the prison-industrial complex).

Fictional bank capital

Why our Fundamental Approach to Banking Regulation is Inherently Unsound
Our current approach to banking regulation exposes us to recurrent, intensifying financial crises. The good news is that because we reached an all time low in Basel II, Basel III almost has to be an improvement. The bad news is that Basel III has not reexamined the fundamental assumptions underlying the Basel process. As a result, Basel III will be a variant on the common ineffective theme of banking regulation designed by economists and the industry. ...

The fundamental disconnect with making capital requirements the pillar of banking regulation is that “capital”, “net worth”, and “equity” are accounting concepts. They have no meaning outside of accounting. Worse, they are all residual accounting concepts. Accountants do not, and cannot, count a modern bank’s “capital.” They determine assets and subtract liabilities to determine capital. The implication of that is that the accuracy of reported “capital” depends on the accuracy of the valuation of every asset and liability. That means that capital is not only an accounting concept, but the accounting concept most subject to error. For a large bank, there are literally tens of thousands of ways to use accounting to distort reported capital by enormous amounts. Beyond the obvious – understate liabilities and overstate asset values – banks are the perfect vehicles to self-fund “capital.”

Shell game

Shell game: Zero-interest policies as hidden subsidies to bank
The shell game is a roadside con as old as civilisation. This column argues that the same swindle is being performed on a massive scale at the expense of the unsuspecting taxpayer. It says that, with their near zero interest rates, central banks are effectively subsidising the banking sector – with barely a pea passed on to the public.

(via Mark Thoma)

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (top 10 edition)

the stupid! it burns! A Top 10 List: What Atheists must Believe
  1. God is imaginary. ...
  2. The universe created itself. ...
  3. Once there was something, dead matter evolved into living and self-aware creative beings. ...
  4. The Bible writers were liars. ...
  5. There’s no such thing as morality. ...
  6. There’s no such thing as love. ...
  7. The universe has no design. ...
  8. Life has no purpose or meaning. ...
  9. Human life is not sacred. ...
  10. Jesus was crazy or dishonest. ...

Evolution and economics

Allen Small compares evolution and economics. (Allen at least denies Creationism and Intelligent Design; congratulations, Allen: that's two fewer stupid ideas, a 100% increase.) But Allen makes the same mistake that Christian deniers of evolution make. Evolution is not a normative judgment; it is a scientific theory. In other words, evolution is neither good nor bad; it is true. Whether you like it or not — and I really don't like evolution — evolution has happened, is happening now, and will continue to happen. So saying that Austrian economics is good because it somehow promotes evolution is nonsensical.

Governments, police and all the apparatus of "states" have themselves evolved. We have let evolution take its course — what choice do we have? — the modern world is what has resulted. The federal government of the United States, the Federal Reserve Bank, the European Union, are are products of social, political and economic evolution. It's nonsensical for Allen to object to our current system by endorsing the basis of its actual origin.

I really dislike evolution. The whole process is wasteful, inefficient, entails massive suffering. Evolution is morally abhorrent. I don't believe evolution happens because I like it; quite the contrary: I believe it in spite of my preferences. I believe evolution happens because the scientific evidence is crystal-clear. If I could wave my magic wand and make biological evolution just go away, even without a good alternative, I would do so. (Greg Egan makes a strong moral case against evolution in his story, Crystal Nights, available online.) Saying that some process is good because it mimics evolution is in my eyes saying that some process is good because it mimics cancer or the plague (both of which have, of course, evolved).

The only reason I can accept evolution calmly is that it's a feature of an unthinking, uncaring universe. But humans in society are not unthinking, we are not — with the possible exception of Allen and those like him — uncaring. We must accept evolution because its true, and we must take into account when making decisions that we have and will evolve, but just that it is true doesn't make it good. We cannot decide that the unfit will survive, but we can — through medical science, for example — change what "unfit" actually means.

Political economy, like medical ethics and environmental science, lives at the intersection of normativity and truth, and we have to be very careful at that intersection. People are tempted to let their preferences about what is good influence their beliefs about what is true. And any serious, scientifically minded student of economics sees those on both the left and right routinely succumbing to that temptation. Allen is no exception. He has a vision of what he wants, and he lets his notions about what he wants influence what he believes is true. He wants a dog-eat-dog, every man for himself society, so he cons himself into believing that such a society will — despite all the evidence to the contrary — deliver social benefits it cannot possibly deliver.

There are ineluctable truths of economics, truths that we must take into account when making our decisions. But those truths are true no matter what decisions we make; we cannot decide to make them more or less true. One of those truths is that political economies will evolve (by mechanisms similar in spirit but very different in detail from biological evolution), no matter what decisions we make. We cannot decide to not let our political economies evolve. So again, saying that Austrian economics is somehow "better" because its more "evolutionary" is nonsensical. Allen might as well be saying that we should remove guard rails on balconies because letting people fall to their deaths is more in line with the law of gravity. Putting up or taking down guard rails does not affect the law of gravity in any sense.

The normative component of political economy is a matter of what we want. I call myself a communist — and I have explained at length the kind communist I call myself — because that's what I want. Libertarians are no different, except that they talk about what they want in the language of truth. But it's about what they want. Allen can't coherently want more evolution; we have evolution whether we want it or not. Allen is probably deluding himself (he's not a particularly intelligent guy), but given social evolution as a truth, if he were coherent he would want to make specific kinds of decisions in the world.

And what decisions would he make? No collective action, except to protect his own personal privilege, or the privilege he imagines he would have were he freed from social obligations to his fellow human beings. (One really ironic feature of Libertarianism is that some of its most vocal adherents, the lower levels of the professional-managerial middle class, would be second in line to get really fucked over by the people whose power and privilege a Libertarian system would really protect. But religions have been preying on the stupid and credulous for centuries, and gaining vocal support from those they oppress.) I reject that desire: I want us to act collectively for our mutual well-being. If Allen and those like him get all butthurt that they have to pay some taxes to live in a moderately prosperous, safe and smoothly-functioning society — a society that evolved — well, I can live with that.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


The Plutonomy Symposium — Rising Tides Lifting Yachts
Over the last 20 years or so, in certain countries, the rich have been getting substantially richer. As Figure 1 shows, the share of the top 1% of the population of income has grown substantially in countries such as the US, UK and Canada. The countries, which apparently tolerate income inequality, are what we call plutonomy countries – economies powered by a relatively small number of rich people. ...

We should worry less about what the average consumer – say the 50 percentile – is going to do, when that consumer is (we think) less relevant to the aggregate data than how the wealthy feel and what they are doing. This is simply a case of mathematics, not morality. ...

But how do we make money out of this? Well for starters, by worrying less about “the consumer” and spending more time segmenting the data. Secondly, we can worry less about the apparent profligacy of the so-called US consumer, or their cousins in the other plutonomy countries like the UK or Canada. Finally, we can identify stocks than benefit from the concept of the rich getting richer.

Fascinating stuff.

(via Michael Perelman)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (POW edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheist Alert: Do NOT Read This Book! “Unbroken”
[Laura Hildebrand's novel, Unbroken] would be a fantastic book for atheists to read, because it would challenge some of their cherished assumptions about Christianity. ...

Atheists offer many reasons why they think belief in God is not plausible, but one of their favorites is the old how could God let some tragedy happen. For some reason they think that makes the incomprehensible more comprehensible. Of course it does no such thing, but they prefer tragedy without God. For Louis his response to seeing and experiencing unmitigated evil every day for over two years [as a prisoner of the Japanese during WWII] was to plead to God for deliverance; seeing his comrades dying all around him, all the suffering and destruction of post Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan didn’t make him doubt God’s existence. ...

Isn’t it interesting how evil can lead some people to God and others away. At least Christianity offers us an explanation of why it exists and an ultimate solution for how it will eventually be banished. Atheism, not so much.

Ultimate solution? <facepalm>

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The initiation of violence

Commenter Rod tries to define "voluntary cooperation":
A society of voluntary cooperation means that there is no legal initiation of violence. There is however legal violence when a criminal initiates violence against someone's person or property, and by doing so forfeits his own right not to be violated.

Voluntary cooperation does not mean that violations of person and property will be absent or should go unpunished by a legal system. When a criminal initiates violence, the victim has the right to use violence for restitution and punishment.
I would definitely agree with Rod in that there are uses of violence I consider in some sense "legitimate", and others I consider in some sense "illegitimate". The problem with Rod's definition is it that includes property, and the interesting controversy is not about the initiation of violence, but rather about precisely what constitutes property.

Furthermore, if we take the literal meaning of the "initiation of violence" as "the first use or threat of physical force against a person" (few would constitute the use of physical force against a nonsentient object as a violation of that objects own rights; the use of force against "property" is a violation of the sentient owner's rights) then the acquisition of property entails the initiation of violence: I must be the first to use physical force against a person who attempts to expropriate or infringe on the use of my nonsentient property. To escape the conundrum, the Libertarian must define the "initiation of violence" as something other than the plain meaning of the phrase: It must mean the use of force in ways the Libertarian considers illegitimate. But that's the fundamental definition of every form of government: a type of government is defined by its distinction between the uses of violence considered legitimate and illegitimate. We have to wonder why Rod is trying to bullshit us by using an English phrase with an unambiguous and uncontroversial literal meaning to represent the abstract, non-defining case.

("Radical" Libertarianism, which does not include property, is coherent and has, as Eric Frank Russell describes, considerable appeal. It might or might not be viable or evolutionarily stable.)

There are only four definitions of "property". The first is the recognition of ownership by mutual consent. If, for example, I find your wallet on the street, I'm going to give it back to you because I do in fact agree that the wallet is your property. But if property is established by mutual consent, theft is logically impossible. If I actually do agree that some object is yours, why would I take it? Contrawise, if I take some object, by definition I do not agree that it is in fact yours. So on this definition there can be no "violence" against property rights; where violence exists, there is by definition no mutual agreement to establish property.

The second definition is "the objects a person can physically protect," i.e. those objects a person can successfully initiate actual violence to maintain possession or ownership of. This "might makes right" definition seems so obviously contradictory to Rod's formulation that we cannot attribute it to Libertarians, at least not the garden-variety sort.

The third definition is "the objects over which a person has ownership by virtue of a social process." This definition overcomes the problems of property by mutual consent and avoids the "might makes right" implications of the second definition. But the problem is that almost all modern societies, including our own, implement this definition of "property". (All societies everywhere throughout history implement this definition of property, if you include passive compliance with a king or other authoritarian regime as a "social process".) And if ownership can be granted by virtue of a social process, it can equally be taken away by that process. When the government taxes you, it is taking away ownership by the same means it granted it to you in the first place; it is inconsistent on this definition to assent to one and object to the other.

The fourth definition is "the objects over which a person has ownership by virtue of some natural right." This seems like the definition that most Libertarians would prefer to use. The problem with this definition is that any conception of "natural" rights are at least as complicated as any body of legislation. More importantly, there is no objective means to settle disputes over natural rights in the same sense that there is an objective means to settle scientific disputes. Trying to establish some basis for natural rights just moves the problem around: Why choose a basis that establishes a "natural" right to some object for one person over another that establishes a "natural" right for another person?

I'm in favor of the third option: property is ownership established by a social process. The question then becomes not about property per se or the initiation of violence, but what sort of social process we want, and what we want it to do or not do. If any Libertarian agrees with the third definition and would like to describe a social process that grants a "Libertarian" definition of ownership, I'm all ears, and I'll evaluate that candidate social process on the basis of whether it is in my own interests. If any Libertarian agrees with the fourth definition, and can give a coherent account of "natural" property rights that is at least as rigorously provable as scientific claims about natural law, I'm equally receptive.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (default edition)

the stupid! it burns! Default Positions, Atheism, and Fulfillment
Atheists claim that atheism is the default position that people take. Many atheists use this to bolster their philosophy of methodological naturalism in the sciences. ... I tend to agree with the atheist, but only to a point. ...

However, the atheist is claiming that naturalism is the true worldview. The default position in naturalism, though, is not atheism, as they believe. The default worldview of a person is relative to the culture in which the individual grows up. ... Atheists claim that it is wrong for someone to not investigate their worldview (I agree). They also claim that it is bad for us to abandon our "default" position (what they think is atheism).

I see a few issues...

Yeah, like you've completely mangled the concept of "default" position, and its use in scientific epistemology. <facepalm>

Friday, January 14, 2011

Geoff on SuperScholar and Sam

Geoff notes that SuperScholar’s list of the 25 most influential living atheists includes only four women, the top at #15. Geoff doesn't think that'll make Ophelia Benson happy; it certainly doesn't fill me with glee.

But he's more concerned about Sam Harris, "commanding a $50K honorarium and traveling with an entourage that includes a security detail (for his criticism of Islam), Harris is the “rock star” of contemporary atheists."

Geoff snarks, "Not bad for a mushy-minded, one-dimensional, tendentious, Wilber-admiring Trojan Horse for the New Age eh?"

Don't be shy, Geoff: Tell us what you really think.

(I'm not a huge Sam Harris fan either.)

Simple, statistical and emergent properties

Consider John Conway's Game of Life. This game is important because it gives us a conceptual handle on simple, statistical and emergent properties.

Briefly, we have a grid of cells, and each cell in the grid has a state: It can be "alive" or "dead" (or on/off, 1/0, etc.) The state of a cell is a simple property.

There are also statistical properties of a grid, such as the number of alive cells, the mean or median number of alive cells in some set of distinct arbitrarily-defined subgroups of cells (e.g. the mean or median number of alive cells in distinct squares of nine or sixteen cells, or the mean number of consecutive alive cells, etc.) We can define these sorts of statistical properties in terms of computability: A property is statistical if it can be computed for a finite grid by a polynomial of the size of the grid.

The Game of Life also specifies transformation rules: Given a grid G0 of finite size, with some specific set of alive and dead cells, there is exactly one grid G1 of the same size as G0 that results from the transformation rules applied to grid G0. It might or might not happen to be the case that G0 and G0 are identical. If G1 is not identical to G0, then we can apply the transformation rules to G0 to determine grid G2.

If we preserve the grid size during transformations, then we know that for every grid G, there is either a final grid Gn such that Gn is identical to Gn-1, or there is a final period of grids Gn,m (with count m - n) such that Gm+1 is identical to Gn. (A final grid is the same as a final period of grids of count 1). The maximum final period must be less than 2s where s is the size of the grid. (It has to be strictly less because we know that some grids are part of are part of periods smaller than 2s.) It should be clear that the final period of grids is determined exclusively by the initial grid G: For every grid G, there is exactly one final period of grids Gy,z. Thus the final period is ontologically reducible to the initial grid. (Note that a final grid is not necessarily epistemically reducible to the initial grid: There are many initial grids that produce the same final period of grids.)

However, we cannot generally compute the final period of grid G in polynomial time. For size-preserving transformation rules, we can generally compute the final period in only exponential time, i.e. 2c, where c is less than the grid size s. We'll classify these properties as emergent.

Things get even more interesting when we do not preserve grid size. Conceptually, we can compute Gn+1 by first adding an extra margin of dead cells around Gn, applying the transformation rules, and then trim the result to the grid containing all the live cells. Alternatively, we can start with an enumeration of a finite number of alive cells, each with a position of finite size, and apply the transformation rules, which will result in another finite number of alive cells (which may be more or less than the original number) each with a position of finite size. Again, it seems clear that the result (whatever it happens to be) is strictly ontologically reducible to the initial state: one initial state will produce exactly one result.

The result can be strict periodicity such as a block or boat with count 2, or a blinker with count 2; or abstract periodicity such as a block plus a glider. But since the grid size is not constant, we are not assured even that there is always any periodicity, strict or abstract. So not only can we not generally calculate the computational complexity at all to determine the final period, we can't even generally tell in finite time if some finite initial state even has any final period. And yet we have not at all removed the conditions of strict ontological reducibility.

The Game of Life, and the notions of simple, statistical and emergent properties is not just interesting in and of itself, it has some interesting philosophical implications for both atheism and economics.

The value neutrality of reason

Erstwhile TSIB recipient Ayaz appears to have reformed and has moved on to more sensible positions. I withdraw the charge. Bygones.

In response to my query, Ayaz makes an interesting assertion:
There definitely are huge areas of human life over which reason can have no say. Reason is value-neutral and necessarily hypothetical. Reason essentially boils down to definitions. It can say if x is true, then not x must be false. But it can never provide reasons in themselves.

Reason might tell you that if you don't want to hurt others then don't do x,y and z and that's how secular ethics largely function. But as to why we shouldn't hurt others. Well we basically just assume that on trust/faith/instinct/basic principle.

It doesn't seem a huge problem as most of us agree on those basic tenants, but it's unsettling nonetheless that when the odd psychopath comes along we can't actually use reason to demonstrate why he's wrong, all we can do is disapprove.

I disagree here on a couple of points. First of all, I think we have to disambiguate logic from reason. I think what Ayaz defines as "reason", i.e. hypothetical and concerned with definitions, would be better characterized as logic. Reason, on the other hand, consists of a certain set of logical operations and modes of inquiry based in some sense* on perceptual facts. (If you prefer a different disambiguating term, e.g. science, that's fine. I'm not too hung up on terminology.) Logic is very broad, and includes kinds of operations that do not appear immediately relevant (e.g. the Banach-Tarski "paradox") to the real, physical world and the world of perception. Reason consists of particular kinds of logic and its application to draw conclusions about the real world using perceptions as — in some sense — a "foundation."

*I say "in some sense" because one particular sense, naive empiricism, which holds perceptual facts as specifically logical axioms from which we can draw formal deductions, does not appear viable.

This view of "reason" entails a deep sense in which reason is not just value-neutral but also fact-neutral. Reason doesn't tell us what we "ought" to perceive; we just use reason to draw conclusions about what the world has to be like based on what we actually perceive. Reason would work equally well, at least at the most fundamental level, even with an entirely different body of facts. (Based on earlier exercises of reason on perceptual facts, we tend to incorporate a lot of older conclusions (causality, for example) directly into our methodology (sometimes to our detriment). But there's a big difference between a fundamental metaphysical principle and merely taking something for granted because it's so well-established.)

We can say the same thing about the "value-neutrality" of reason. We can take values as (at some level) brute facts, just as our perceptual experiences are brute facts. They are simply properties of how individual human beings actually are. (Again, I say "at some level" because the supposed "brute facts" of subjective values are probably reducible to more fundamental brute facts of neurological operation. But presumably there are still some brute facts somewhere.)

We just are what we happen to be, that there's no fundamental "reason" why we "ought to be" some particular way. There's a causal story — we have a long biological evolutionary history, and a somewhat shorter social evolutionary history — but no teleological story. We are who we are because we happened to evolve this way; we have tried a minuscule fraction of the stupendous number of ways of living, and what we have today is what wasn't selected against of the ways we've tried. We could have by accident and happenstance turned out very differently. But we have had the accidents we've had and not others; physical law has exerted its selective forces; so here we are.

I've never felt at all unsettled or disturbed by this story. It doesn't bother me in the least that I don't have a teleological reason why the "psychopath" is wrong; I'm perfectly happy basing my response directly on my own and others' disapproval. To be honest, I don't really understand, at least not internally, why any atheist would feel such discomfort; I have to take them at their word. My only response is that feeling uncomfortable without a teleological ethical narrative is no more probative than feeling uncomfortable that the physical world might not be the product of a deity's intentional design. Reason is reason, and the conclusion that our values are just complicated properties of our complicated, evolved brains seems inescapable. Simply wishing the world were more in line with our emotional prejudices doesn't change the world. And I think Ayaz wants to look outside reason for a moral narrative precisely because he doesn't like the moral narrative that reason does give us. There isn't any way the world — and human society is part of the world — "ought to be"; there is only the world as it is, and what we as physical, finite, limited, evolved creatures make of it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Democratic Power Class

Matt Stoller: Understanding the Strategy of the Democratic Power Class:
It isn’t that [Obama is] not fighting, he fights like hell for what he wants. He whipped incredibly aggressively for TARP, he has passed emergency war funding (breaking a campaign promise) several times, and nearly broke the arms of feckless liberals in the process. I mean, when Bernie Sanders did the filiBernie, Obama flirted with Bernie’s potential 2012 GOP challenger. ...

The lack of willingness to fight on behalf of the public isn’t the same of an unwillingness to fight. It’s just their unwillingness to fight anyone but you.

The subtleties of political and economic philosophy

The fundamental mistake I think that Libertarians make (besides being obtuse) is that the question is not whether or not we should have "liberty", but rather what kind of liberty do we want, and what kinds do we not want. There is, I think, something fundamentally intellectually dishonest about casting the kind of liberties you like as "liberties" and casting the kind of liberties you don't like as "coercion" or "oppression" or "hierarchical authority". This kind of discourse conflates an objective evaluation with a normative evaluation. I'm all for both objectivity and normativity, but they are fundamentally different kinds of discourse, fundamentally different kinds of arguments to establish fundamentally different kinds of positions.

There are of course still real "authoritarians", but the core authoritarian principle — that submission to authority is itself a good — is not really that popular, and those who state it explicitly are marginalized. Instead, a softer kind of authoritarianism generally cloaks itself in the language of small-ell libertarianism: some elite deserves privilege because only that elite — the owners of capital, the spokesmodels for God, the ideologically pure party — can establish and maintain the kind of liberties we want.

Objectively, liberty is doing what you want, with no social consequences for actually doing it. It's just not that hard. There are some liberties we know we want: I want, for example, the liberty to be an atheist, free of social consequences even though the majority of the population finds atheism objectionable. There are some liberties we know we don't want: I don't want — and I definitely don't want other people to have — the liberty to hit people on the head if you don't like them. Once we've made these normative judgments, we can start to describe them in objective terms, but we have to make the objective distinctions post hoc: It may be objectively true that in general we tend to actually dislike liberties that directly cause material harm, but it is not in any sense objectively true that we ought to dislike liberties that directly cause material harm.

So when I'm hearing about your political philosophy, I really don't care about the direct moral quality of your fundamental principles. Just saying you're for "liberty" and against "coercion" tells me little other than that — like everyone else — you're for everything good and against everything bad. I want to know what you consider good and bad; I want to know how those principles work out in the real world: What kinds of actual behavior among actual human beings as they exist today would those principles socially permit or constrain?

For example, I just don't want Bill Gates to have tens of billions of dollars, to use as he sees fit. I'm more-or-less pleased that he doesn't use his billions to be as gigantic an asshole as, say, the Koch brothers, but I don't want to depend on his good will to exercise so much economic power. I don't think there's really any reasonable sense in which we can say Gates "earned" his money (except in the tautological sense similar to "it's at the end of his arm, it must be a hand*," i.e. he has it, therefore he must have earned it.) But fundamentally I really don't care whether or not he "earned" it; he has way more economic power than I'm comfortable with any individual person having. In much the same sense, I don't want individuals to have private armies or police forces, no matter how or why they were able to assemble them.

*Two thousand internets if you can name the reference.

There are two options: either show me how your political system really does prevent the collection of such a large fortune, or show me how the collection of such a large fortune is in my interest, or in the interest of the vast majority of people (and why I should not care about those whose interests are not served.)

It's not really helpful to me to say you're against "coercion" or "hierarchical authority". Neither term has a particularly relevant objective definition. Coercion is the use of force or violence for ends you don't like; hierarchical authority is authority used in ways you don't like. What I really want to know is: What kind of a day-to-day behavior do you want? How does your system make that behavior happen? How do we keep the system from making a society I don't like? Broad outlines are acceptable to some extent, but I really want to make sure you're not just ignoring some of the considerable practical and philosophical complexities of politics and economics.

Let's look at a common Libertarian cliché: People should keep what they earn. Sounds good, but what does that principle really mean? Did Bill Gates actually earn tens of billions of dollars? How do we know, other than that we know he actually has that much money and he's never been convicted of putting a gun to someone's head. The principle that people should be able to keep whatever they get their hands on without using obvious violence or outright fraud sounds a lot less appealing, at least to me. Additionally, even a superficial study of economics reveals that "earn" is an extremely vague, ambiguous term. Do you mean an exchange of equal cost, or an exchange of equal use-value? Who decides the use-value of something? If it's an exchange of cost, should it be an exchange of individual unit cost, average cost, marginal cost, median cost, maximal cost or some other statistical property of cost? Most political and economic concepts have a lot of these kinds subtle implications; I want to see someone who advocates some political system to explore these subtleties.

I'm more than happy to discuss the subtleties of my own political-economic positions at considerable length, so long as I'm not being blatantly hectored or abused. Angrily denounce me a Stalinist and I'll dismiss you as an idiot; ask me how I would avoid Stalin's fucked-upedness and I'd be happy to discuss it.

9 Famous Movie Villains Who Were Right All Along

9 Famous Movie Villains Who Were Right All Along

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (moral law giver edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheists & Morality (Again)
I affirm that atheists teach morality; I deny that atheists are nessesarily immoral. [Damn White of you, Smith] ... The moral argument says that atheists are moral,, but they have no grounds for their morality outside of a moral law giver.

The defining literature of Evolution

Xunk: Evolution is obviously false!

Snikwad: What are you talking about? Evolution is an extremely well-supported scientific theory.

X: What is evolution?

S: Without going into the considerable complexity of the theory, it's natural selection working on heritable variation.

X: How is this "heritable variation" supposed to work?

S: By genes. You know, DNA, C-A-G-T.

X: Nonsense! There's nothing at all about "genes" or "DNA" in the defining literature of evolution. Search as you might, you'll find nothing about "genes" in Darwin, Wallace, or Huxley.

S: Well, we discovered genes after those pioneers died.

X: Whatever. If it's not in Darwin, it's not evolution.

S: Fine. Whatever. We'll call it something different. Would you prefer "genetic evolution"?

X: It's still got "evolution" in it.

S: How about the "New Synthesis"?

X: New Synthesis of what?

S: Well, of evolution.

X: There's that "evolution" nonsense again.

S: Good grief. OK, if it'll make you happy, we'll make up a new word: Call it "Qwghlm theory".

X: Does this "Qwghlm theory" talk about heritable variation and natural selection?

S: Well, yes, of course.

X: So it's evolution.

S: Well, yes, but...

X: What, do you think you can fool me by calling a failed theory by a different name?

S: Seriously? Are you even sane?*

*With apologies to Justin Jason

There's a point to this exercise: a commenter recently challenged me to find "in any of the defining literacy [sic*] of communism (Marx, Lenin's, Trotsky's books, your choice) any defense of democracy, individual liberties, free speech etc." Despite being completely false (there are lots of defenses of democracy, individual liberty, etc. in communist literature), the demand itself is completely absurd. It would be completely irrelevant even if there weren't any defense at all of these items in the past.

*English is not Knux's native language; his meaning is nonetheless clear.

If I talk about the social ownership of the means of production, no matter what else I say, I'm talking about communism. If I call it something else — "democratic communism", "socialism", "communitarianism", "Qwghlm theory", whatever — I would be accused — with some justice — of obfuscating what I was talking about... i.e. communism. So I call myself a communist, and I myself — not Marx, not Lenin, not Mao, and certainly not what some idiot on the internet — get to decide what I mean by "communist".

I hold the opinions I hold, and I say what I say. If you want to criticize what I actually say, then fine. Everything I have to say is freely available here on the blog. If you want to criticize what Marx said, or what Lenin, Trotsky or Mao said, or what anyone else said, find out what they actually said — most of it is freely available on the Internet — and criticize that. Accusing me of holding opinions I do not hold on the basis of what some guys said decades ago — or what you imagine they might have said — is not just ridiculous but dishonest.

It's really interesting: When they're not just lying outright, creationists focus a lot on errors and flaws (real and supposed) of scientists decades ago (Haekel's embryos, Darwin's eye, Piltdown man, etc.) If a scientist sneezed a hundred years ago, evolution is responsible for the common cold. They almost never talk about science that's happening today (except to mangle it almost beyond recognition). Similarly, every idiot critic of communism wants to talk about everything but the social ownership of capital.

There's no such thing as the defining literature of communism. The "defining literature" of communism, at least the kind of communism I'm talking about, is not found in Marx or Lenin or Mao or anyone else. The "defining literature" of communism is reality.

Voluntary cooperation

One of the biggest problems of both left- and right-anarchism is that the notion of "voluntary cooperation" is extremely philosophically problematic.

Now, I definitely want to act cooperatively, i.e. I don't want to steal from people. I don't want to hurt or kill other people. I don't want to endanger other people. I don't want to have non-consensual sex with other people. I don't want to exploit or take advantage of other people. I don't want to enslave or otherwise subordinate other people. That's just how I roll. But what does it mean to say I want to refrain from these activities, i.e. that I don't want to do these things?

Let's take a more scientific approach and consider an operational definition of "wanting". If I were given an externally unconstrained choice between two societies, one of which (for whatever reason) theft, assault, murder, rape, exploitation, and slavery were rare, and another where these activities were common, I would choose the former, the society where they were rare. But that definition doesn't tell you anything about my wants or desires, it just tells you that I'm rational: By any reasonable metric, I will be materially and physically better off in a society where theft, etc. were rare... even if subjectively I were to have no particular desire to act cooperatively. So framing "want" in this sense doesn't help much.

Let's try a slightly different frame, again a choice between two different societies, both of which are about equally cooperative. In the first, people act cooperatively (i.e. they don't steal, etc.), but there are no physical or violent constraints: that's just how the individuals in that society happen to roll. On the rare occasion where someone does steal stuff, or assault someone, etc., they just shake their heads and say, "How regrettable." In the second, people act cooperatively, but there are physical and/or violent constraints on uncooperative behavior. (I'm of course excluding the middle of a society with nonviolent constrained to cooperate; more on this in a minute.) Superficially, I would prefer to join the former society and act cooperatively; they sound like genuinely nice people. Because of the violent constraints on cooperation, I really don't know anything about the character of individuals in the second society. The problem, though, is that there are a lot of assholes who would see the first society as ripe for exploitation: They would join the first society just so they could steal, assault, murder, rape, and enslave its members... including me. (What if there were no assholes? Again, more on this.)

But there's a substantial problems with the second society too: I really can't be sure the physical, violent constraints on cooperative behavior won't be employed "uncooperatively"; I don't know that the government (the institutions that physically enforce cooperation) won't turn into a "state" (according to Lenin's definition) to implement the oppression of one class by another.

What we have here is the Prisoner's Dilemma. It's "obvious" that everyone is better off if everyone cooperates than if no one cooperates. But it's equally "obvious" that if everyone else cooperates, an individual (with no external constraints on his behavior) is even better of if he himself does not cooperate: He gains the benefits of everyone else cooperating, but avoids the costs of his own cooperation. It's a perplexing conundrum; the problem itself is obvious but the answers are most definitely not obvious.

Let's look at some of the possibilities I glossed over earlier.

What if there were only "nonviolent" constraints on cooperation? Suppose, for example, that a person who stole, assaulted people, etc. were somehow shunned, ostracized, or something like that. The society would have to be absolutely nonviolent; if you can allow someone to starve or freeze to death for any reason, you might as well just shoot them. And even "minimally" violent constraints do not escape the philosophical problem: Omelas and The Country of the Kind both employ violence to preserve social cooperation. I'm all for efficiency, but using as little violence as possible is a horse of a very different color from refusing on principle to use any violence at all.

But if there are really only nonviolent constraints on cooperation (assuming there are those who must be constrained, see the next paragraph on "no assholes"), then what's to prevent the people "nonviolently" constrained from banding together to act as an exploiting class, to gain from each other the benefits denied by the rest of society? That's been the behavior of every ruling class in history: They really don't care that the hoi polloi hold them in contempt or refuse to socialize with them, so long as they obey. And they have always found soldiers and police willing to do the dirty work of maintaining obedience.

What if there were no assholes (or few enough that they could not band together to form an alternative society)? That's the most promising possibility; assholes are definitely not logically necessary, and I can imagine circumstances where assholes were as physically impossible as a human being born with working tentacles instead of arms and legs. Indeed, if such a society were to exist, I would join it... if they would let me in. The problem is that I have absolutely no idea how to arrange circumstances such that assholes really were physically impossible, except by the painfully slow evolutionary process of violently selecting out the most egregious assholes. We might get there in a thousand years, or ten thousand, or maybe even a million. (Why not? We have at least a few billion years to play with.) And when we do, good for us.

But as desirable as conditions might be that made assholes physically impossible, I don't see any practical way of arranging such conditions today or tomorrow. However technically correct one might be, I don't see much point complaining that we have a violent society, a lot of assholes, and (correctly) denouncing any attempt to contain them as perpetuating the violence of modern society. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and a project of a thousand generations begins with the work of a single lifetime. I may not be able to achieve anything within shouting distance of perfection within my lifetime, but I would like to at least get a step closer.

Side Effects

Side Effects
by J. Brad Hicks, The Infamous Brad
Jan. 10th, 2011

I read a fascinating book, a while back, called When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store by Elaine Abelson. Here's the story it tells, and what (I think) it may have to do with the Tea Partiers' refusal to back down on their rhetoric even after the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords.

At the dawn of the industrial age, factories started churning out products for the home that had been previously hand-made by wives and their servants, in the home, and the problem arose of how to persuade wives to come in and see that the factory-made products were better than the ones they were making at home, more uniform in quality than the ones they were making at home, and actually cheaper than the materials cost, alone, of the products they were making at home. And what they developed was the Department Store: a brilliantly lit, fantastically delightful gigantic building, made as pleasant to visit and to hang out in as it could be made to be, where women could come and see the newest factory goods, try them out, and be persuaded to buy them. Then they had to staff them with enough people to handle the customers, including both salespeople and what we now euphemistically call "loss-prevention specialists."

It worked at getting the merchandise into the womens' hands, but it had a glaring drawback: operating the stores themselves was insanely expensive. And as long as women could comparison shop, they could force the department stores to bid against each other in a destructive race to the bottom, until the goods were selling for less than was necessary to pay the upkeep and the payroll for the store. So the stores eventually invented "impulsing selling:" make the store as hypnotic as possible, make it a total sensory overload environment, advertise "loss leaders" to bring women in, sell the loss leaders at the back of the store, and on the way back to the door, hard-sell products at a high enough mark-up to cover the store's expenses.

This worked at making the stores profitable, but it also had a glaring drawback: store detectives found that fewer and fewer of their shoplifters were the semi-professional criminals who had made up the shoplifting class before. Now, the vast majority of their shoplifters were respectable middle-class women, upper-middle-class women, even wealthy women. These women had regular accounts at the stores they were stealing from. They bought things from those stores all the time. They had frequently just bought three items, on the same visit, for every item that they stole. They almost all had more than enough money on them to buy the items they'd just stolen. So they put the best detectives and the best psychologists they could hire on the job of finding out what the heck the women were thinking when they risked their position in society and risked their husbands' reputations over trifles, and finally had to conclude that the women weren't lying when they said: they hadn't consciously stolen those goods. They weren't thinking of anything when they did it; they weren't thinking, period, not at all. They were in a trance when they did it.

The stores tried toning down the level of trance-inducing sensory overload ... and found that the impulse purchases dried up. Finally they cranked the sensory overload back up, and adopted a "harm reduction" type strategy: when particular upper-class and middle-class women could be confirmed to have stolen certain items, simply mail a bill for the items to the womens' houses; the vast majority of them could be easily embarrassed into paying. (Although even then, it occasionally fell to the people in charge of those departments to persuade the women to search their own pockets -- no, you really did take this, yes, it really is in your pocket. They were in that much of a trance when they did it.) What the Victorian department stores had learned, to their chagrin, was that any sales technique that left customers with enough intact free will to prevent rampant theft left them with enough intact free will to resist high pressure sales.

Fascinating, no? Now, here's what I think this has to do with the Tea Party.

When Holy Saint Ronald Wilson Reagan the Infallible and Great, Savior of the Free World and Conqueror of the Communists, Blessed Patron Saint of the God's Own Almighty American Dollar, was sworn into office in January of 1981, it was his holy and sacred promise that cutting taxes on the wealthy and deregulating business would eliminate all of the problems in America: newly freed businesses and investors would hire us all to make products for each other, and we would all be happy, healthy, safe, and free. But in the wake of a whole series of back-to-back gigantic nation-wide Ponzi schemes, suddenly Saint Ronald doesn't look so infallible. People were starting to wake up to the fact that when freed from all taxation and regulation, the nation's wealthy have exactly zero inclination to hire us all to make goods for each other. What they do with that freedom is to trick us, over and over again, into piling all of the nation's wealth into a dozen or so piles, and then play a rigged game of musical chairs: at the end of each game, a dozen or so people, at least half of them the previously wealthy, own everything and the rest of us lose our entire life's savings.

Saint Ronald's ideas were so popular in the 1980s and 1990s that they became the ruling ideology of not just the Republican Party, but of the post-Clinton Democratic Party as well ... and now they have been discredited. Which leaves the people who were enjoying those global Ponzi schemes, who enjoyed that hypomanic game of musical chairs, with a problem: how do they get people to keep voting for an ideology that has been entirely and thoroughly discredited? And their first attempts were pretty pathetic, and failed utterly in 2006 and in 2008. But now they've got one technique that works: fear. Deploy a multi-billion dollar campaign, funded by the dozen or so wealthy guys who won the last couple of rounds of musical chairs over all the world's wealth, in the world's greatest propaganda campaign, to persuade as many people as possible that the Death Panels are coming.

Sure, Republican ideals have failed; they poll horribly and only a tiny handful of the most clueless and elderly Republican and right-wing Democratic elected officials are still talking about them, still trying to make the case for that failed ideology. What all of the prominent spokespeople are saying, instead, is, never mind our failures, never mind our laughable ideology, just remember this: if you don't put us back in power, the Death Panels will kill your babies, the Death Panels will kill your parents and grandparents, and the first time you get old or get sick, the Death Panels will kill you, too.

It's not actually possible to persuade sane Americans that this is literally true. But it turns out to be possible to persuade a working majority of Americans to be uncomfortable with the idea that it might be true, to doubt their own confidence that it isn't true, to vote Republican just in case the Republicans are right that the Death Panels are coming. However, this solution comes with a drawback: there are people out there who are so crazy, so suggestible, or so already inclined to fear Government Death Panels for their own reasons, that it is possible to persuade them that the Government Death Panels really are coming, no really, no doubt about it. And those people, as soon as the Death Panels nonsense started, behaved the way you, frankly, would behave if you really believed that the Death Panels were coming for your mother, for your baby: you would form a resistance movement and start assassinating the pro-Death-Panel government officials.

The Tea Party spokespeople and candidates have painted themselves into this corner: they have discovered that no line of rhetoric they can devise is powerful enough to persuade enough people to keep voting for Reaganomics, unless it's also powerful enough to persuade dozens of lone crazies to run around assassinating Democrats. This leaves the rest of us in the awkward position of having to persuade them to voluntarily give up their only chance of winning, for conscience's sake. You may quite accurately guess, I suspect, how likely I think it is that they will volunteer to lose in order to save however many dozens (or more) of the lives of people they disagree with.

[This article is the work of J. Brad Hicks, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution, NonCommercial, ShareAlike 2.5 License.]

Does communism work?

Allen Small demands that I "show [him] an example where [communism] has worked or even partially worked now or in the past." It's pretty much a stupid demand; at the very least it condemns any sort of novelty or progress. But it got me thinking.

Of course, we have to be a little more explicit about what we mean by "communism", "working" and "partially".

There are three good definitions of communism. First, the "minimal" definition that I use: the social ownership of the means of production. The second is the "Marxian" definition: socialization of capital, participatory democratic government of enfranchised workers (a la the Paris Commune), and central planning of the consumer economy. The third is the "Soviet/Chinese" definition, oligarchical rule of the Communist Party to own and administer the means of production and implement central planning. I personally endorse only minimal communism, but both Marxian and Soviet/Chinese communism include minimal communism.

It's a little more difficult to define "working". Allen has, of course, set me a task that I suspect he considers impossible. He condemns all of Western civilization as "statist" and appears to consider them the moral equivalent of communism and fascism; presumably does not believe that any civilization, society or government actually works or has worked. But of course Allen is that curious rarity, a complete idiot; most sensible people I think will have somewhat less dogmatic and more pragmatic standards of what works and what doesn't work.

I think we can take Fascism — defined as the political-economic and social systems actually in place in Italy, Japan and Germany from the early 20th century until the end of the Second Imperialist War — as near-ideal exemplars of "not working": they ended in the economic ruin, military defeat and unconditional surrender of their respective countries and criminal prosecution and near-complete discredit of Fascist politics and politicians. (Political parties and movements in the West may include elements of Fascism, a worrying phenomenon, but they also fail to include some essential features. And the more features of Fascism present-day political movements include, the more marginal they appear to be.)

I think we can take "Western capitalism" — loosely defined as the international system pioneered in England in the 17th and 18th centuries and finding common expression in most European, North American, (to some extent) Central and South American countries as well as Southeast Asia and (to some extent) the Indian subcontinent — as an exemplar of "working". Which is not to say that I endorse Western capitalism, but it has certainly done the opposite of the catastrophic failures of Fascism.

Taking these as our examples, it is important to note that the presence or absence of horrific atrocity doesn't really distinguish between "working" and "not working". The litany of horrific atrocity in Western capitalism is depressingly long: chattel slavery, genocide, wars of aggression, millions killed in the First and Second Imperialist wars, epidemics and famines caused or exacerbated by societal incompetence and indifference, etc. ad nauseam. Again, to say that horrific atrocity is not a component of "working" or "not working" is not to say that I endorse or even excuse atrocity; I'm saying only that it is not a particularly useful criteria for historical comparison. (Indeed I share to no small extent Allen's disdain for all human civilization. And, like Allen, I think our near-universal history of really stupendous atrocity calls for truly radical societal change. Allen and I disagree only on what kind of radical change to implement.)

If we adopt the minimal criteria necessary to call Western capitalism as working, it straightforwardly follows that communism has at least partially worked in a couple of ways.

First, the Soviet Union and Communist China lasted a lot longer than the Fascist countries. Although communism fell — definitely in the Soviet Union and arguably in China — these countries did not fail in the spectacularly catastrophic fashion as did the Fascist countries. Furthermore, both the Soviet Union and China transformed backwards, illiterate, agrarian countries that were manifestly subservient to Western imperialism into industrialized, nuclear-armed world powers. And they did so in considerably less time than did the Western nations. This is not a stunning success — neither the Soviet Union nor China achieved their greater goal of exporting communism to the world, and they achieved what they did at a staggering cost in human suffering — but I think we are justified in considering them at least partially working, by the minimal standards we must adopt to label Western capitalism as "working".

Second, and perhaps more importantly, all Western democracies have partially implemented components of minimal communism. Almost all features of "welfare capitalism" are direct consequences of communist and communist-inspired political activism in the early and middle 20th century. These features include a dramatic de facto and de jure increase in the political franchise, substantial regulation of the capitalist ruling class, workers' political and economic empowerment through unions, heavily progressive taxation, and one or two orders of magnitude increase in direct government economic participation. And the historical record is crystal clear: The more Western capitalism has adopted communist elements, the better it has performed by every metric — economic, social and political — except the privilege and absolute power of the capitalist ruling; the more Western capitalism has abandoned communist elements, the worse it has done.

If we are going to condemn all human civilization — an exercise I have a lot of sympathy for — historical comparison is irrelevant: We must rely on purely theoretical comparison. If, however, we are going to employ historical comparison, communism seems to come out at least as well as — and on some accounts considerably better than &mdash its antinomy of laissez faire capitalism.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The death of Facebook?

Facebook hype will fade:
Mark Zuckerberg is Time's Man of the Year, the movie about him seems likely to be an Oscar winner, and now Goldman Sachs is raising $1.5 billion from its favorite investors on behalf of the social networking company. ... As I read the situation, we are witnessing the beginning of the end of Facebook. These aren't the symptoms of a company that is winning, but one that is cashing out.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Presuppositional apologetics

Presupposational Apologetics, Morality, and The Intellectual Legacy Of Greg Bahnsen:
Peter: Hi, Justin.

Jason: Hi, Peter. Just so that we are clear my name is Jason.

Peter: Are you trying to commit a logical fallacy by correcting me?

Jason: WTF are you talking about?

Peter: No bother, I apologize for the misunderstanding. Let’s talk about that dog over there. Would you say that that dog is gray?

Jason: That is an elephant, Peter. It’s ten feet tall and has a big fucking trunk. It is a fucking Elephant.

Peter: I didn’t ask you if it was an elephant, Jason. I asked you if that dog is gray. Just answer the question. But be careful, you will have to accept the consequences of your answer.

Jason: Seriously. It’s a goddamn fucking elephant. If your question is “Is that quadruped gray?”, then yes, yes it is.

Peter: I told you to be careful how you answer the question. You should have listened to me. Can I passive-aggressively offer you a coffee to drink while you mull it over? You see Jason, if you answer yes, you are saying that that animal is a dog, and you are committing the fallacy of mutual contradiction. An elephant can’t be a dog, you see. If you answer no, then you are saying that it is not gray, and by their nature all elephants are gray. So again, you are wrong.

Jason: First off, that is the most retarded thing anyone has ever said to me. Second, what about albino elephants? Are they not white, or at least cream colored?

Peter: See, you lost the argument when you answered the question. I am not obliged now to answer any of your arguments because you are wrong no matter how you answer. I claim victory. You admitted that you are incapable of simple color recognition or of species identification, so in your world any animal can be any color, or any species. That makes no logical sense.

Jason: Seriously? Are you even sane?

Peter: I cannot argue with someone who cannot grasp simple logic. Good day to you, sir.

(aside) Wow, I sure showed him. I got him to admit that an elephant was a dog. What an ass.
Funniest (and truest) fucking thing I've read in a month.

[Egregious Intelligence tag for Jason and George; Egregious Stupidity tag for Peter]

The Stupid! It Burns! (reading comprehension edition)

the stupid! it burns! I don't often cite commenters for burning stupidity, but this comment from chucky-texas deserves special mention:
Your example of Boeing is humorously ironic; it's a private entity which started and grew without government planning. Central planning of "economic concentration" isn't a requirement for developing complex products or entire industries. These things evolve on their own and are fully manageable within private enterprises.

"The company's first government contract was not for airplanes at all -- but for 161 sets of pontoons for observation planes in service with the U.S. Navy."
The relevant quotation from the original post:
It's ambiguous whether an anti-statist using this definition objects to concentrating political power in general, or concentrating political power in some specific way. ... The first sense [i.e. objecting to the concentration of political-economic power in general] [poses the] problem ... that our modern technological civilization requires a considerable degree of economic concentration.

It's helpful if you actually read the post before you comment.

The Stupid! It Burns! (what is god? edition)

the stupid! it burns! Stream of thoughts: Atheism and God
Atheism is also a religion. Nothing of what you say can change atheists’ faith. Because atheism isn’t really a proof of one’s high intelligence but a form of close-mindedness. Atheists can only understand their language – a language that doesn’t use the words “God”, “Miracle”, “Prayer”. They cannot translate the language of theists into their language and vice versa even though what the both are saying is just the same. In this sense, atheists and people with blind faith to their religions are very alike.
So what precisely are we atheists close-minded about?
What is God?

Someone who directly grants your wish? I don’t believe in that God either.

Someone who is up there on the clouds, monitoring each of us? I don’t believe in that God either.

Someone who looks like a human but powerful? I don’t believe in that God either.

Someone who can literally multiply the number of breads? I don’t believe in that God either.

Someone who will punish or reward you after your life here on Earth is done? I don’t believe in that God either.

The word God is so cliché we almost don’t think about its meaning anymore but automatically believe in the meaning given by what majority of the society think it means.

Ask yourself. What is God?
So... as an atheist, I'm close-minded about a concept the author cannot explain!?



Allen Small defines Statism as
the theory or practice of concentrating economic and political power in the state, usually resulting in a weak position for the individual or community with respect to government
It is too much to expect Allen himself to have more than a superficial, dogmatic attachment to this definition, but this definition is susceptible to substantive analysis.

One problem is that it's ambiguous whether an anti-statist using this definition objects to concentrating political power in general, or concentrating political power in some specific way, i.e. in the state. I don't know which horn of the dilemma Allen wants to get stuck on, so I'll address them both.

The second sense is trivially stupid. A state is a concentration of political and economic power (and the distinction between political and economic is itself only the most superficial distinction; they are two sides of the same coin); when you concentrate power, what you get by definition is a state: a collection of individuals who act to maintain and perpetuate — by force and propaganda — the power that they have concentrated. The only coherent reading of the second sense of anti-statism is that power should not be concentrated democratically; it should be concentrated, rather, in that class of people (i.e. the owners of capital property) who somehow deserve concentrated political-economic power.

(It is instructive to note that Libertarians typically disclaim loyalty to the Republican party, but they denounce Republicans only when they appear to act democratically instead of protecting de facto capitalist privilege. I know many Libertarians who "hold their nose" and vote Republican; I don't know a single one who would vote Democratic even if a Republican government were to start two wars of aggression, bail out the finance monopolists, increase the size of the government and deficit, nakedly interfere with the private individual rights of women over their own bodies, and generally act in the most egregiously "statist" manner possible. But I don't know that many Libertarians, I don't really like any of the ones I know, and I have a smidgen of grudging respect for exactly one.)

The first sense of statism is at least not trivially stupid; indeed I myself tend to prefer more distributed rather than more concentrated political-economic power. But there are two problems with this sense.

The first problem is that our modern technological civilization requires a considerable degree of economic concentration. A Boeing 747 costs about $318 million (about 13 million person-hours at the average wage, or about 127 person-lifetimes). And that's just for one aircraft: the production facilities are a couple of orders of magnitude larger: Boeing's present market capitalization is about $51 billion dollars, or about 20,000 person-lifetimes (and that doesn't count direct external, public costs, such as Boeing's share of academic and scientific research that has been conducted at public expense). That's not a trivial amount of concentration. If one is against concentration per se, must we therefore sacrifice air travel?

The second problem is how to distribute or prevent the concentration of political-economic power. We've been concentrating political-economic power since the dawn of civilization, and we have seen a succession of states that have achieved preeminence by more effectively concentrating political-economic power. This concentration hasn't been imposed by space-aliens landing in their flying saucers and enslaving humanity; this concentration has been always the work of human beings. If, as left anarchists and (some) Libertarians assert, it is somehow "natural" for human beings to cooperate on a large scale without the concentration of political-economic power, then why has it not happened, ever, anywhere on the globe, over at least five millennia? This kind of large-scale voluntary cooperation might be desirable (I myself find the idea appealing) but I really cannot see how it can be called natural in any reasonable sense of the word. Allen demands that I "show [him] an example where [communism] has worked or even partially worked now or in the past." I can ask the same of him: Show me an example where Libertarianism has worked, or even partially worked, now or in the past. Presumably he cannot hold as examples
communists, fascists, NAZI's, socialists (called New Democrats in Canada), Liberals (in Canada), Conservatives (everywhere), Democrats, Republicans, Greens and on and on. They are ALL statists according to that definition and my usage, and they differ only in degree of application.
(Of course the demand itself is nonsensical; on these grounds one would have to denounce human civilization itself.)

When we study economics, political science, sociology, psychology, game theory, anthropology, literature, humanities or any other intellectual field having to do with the behavior of human beings on any scale from the individual to the world, we see that "individualism" and "collectivism" (enforced cooperation) are in an extremely complicated dialectical relationship. Our progress as a world civilization (such as it is) has been not a movement from one to the other, but rather an elaboration of the dialectical relationship between the two. We have been working out precisely what should be in the domain of individualism and what should be in the domain of collectivism. And we cannot work out this trade-off analytically; we have to work it out dialectically, evolutionarily, by trying things and seeing what works and what doesn't work.

I am certainly willing to admit that Lenin, Stalin and Mao's attempts at communism didn't work in the long run. I want to know precisely why they didn't work, and what we can do differently. I have some theories — I think explicitly democratic political institutions are absolutely necessary; neither dictatorial, oligarchal nor republican solutions will work — but simply dismissing anything that has anything in common with these experiments — or, more precisely, anything in common that threatens one's own political, economic and social privilege — as "statism" is uncritically and unskeptically ridiculous.

Communism and Stalin

You cannot determine either the truth or falsity of communism from the behavior of Stalin or the U.S.S.R. In the same sense you cannot decide the truth or falsity of the divinity of Christ from the behavior of Pope Ratzo or the Catholic Church, as evil, predatory, oppressive and blatantly evil the Catholic Church might be. Give me a list of the Church's crimes ten thousand pages long (and I'm not at all certain I'm being hyperbolic), and this list by itself would be not constitute a shred of evidence against the divinity of Christ. The atheist argument against the Catholic Church goes the other way. We know separately from the Church's behavior that Jesus Christ is not divine (and might not even be an historical person), therefore the Church's self-described belief in that divinity is no defense against its evils.

In much the same sense, that Stalin called himself a communist is no defense against his own crimes. (I suspect Stalin's crimes have been greatly exaggerated by a hostile and openly biased Western press and intelligentsia, but the general assholiness of world leaders of every ideology throughout history is pretty well-established, so I'm willing to accept on general principles that Stalin was one asshole among many.) And, similarly, give me a list of Stalin's crimes ten thousand pages long and that list by itself would not constitute a shred of evidence against communism.

You have to make an independent definitional argument, or you have to make a causal argument. "Stalin was a communist; Stalin was evil; therefore communism is evil" is trivially fallacious (hint: the structure of the fallacy is identical if you substitute "was an atheist" or "wore a bushy mustache" for "was a communist"). Communism is most definitely not defined as "whatever Stalin did". In all my years of studying politics and economics, even before I was a communist, I've never seen a good historical argument making either the definitional or causal argument. Before I became a communist, my belief that communism was evil was simply received wisdom, unskeptically and uncritically accepted. (I dismissed the more obvious anti-communist bullshit propaganda, but I believed that this was just actual critical thought repackaged for the credulous masses; imagine my surprise when I found out that the "scholarly" critique against communism was equally bullshit.)

So, show me how either definitionally or causally the socialization of capital entails rounding up tens of millions of people (on some accounts literally a third of the population of the Soviet Union) and killing them. Until then, I'm just going to treat your magic invocation of "Stalin" as just that: credulous, unskeptical thinking.

See also:

Communism 101
What is communism?
What is socialization?
What is ownership?
What is capital?

(Or, if you're curious, type "socialize capital" in the search box at the top of the sidebar.)

Us and them

Allen Small fires off a salvo in our ongoing contretemps. Let me first deal with the substance of Allen's remarks.

Hmmm... Let me read it again...

Whaddayaknow... nothing of substance. Quelle surprise.

My issue with Allen has little to with communism or Libertarianism; it has everything to do with atheism. The only reason I pay Allen even the smallest attention is because he appears on Planet Atheism, an online "community", such as it is, of atheists. There are a lot of Libertarian bloggers on the internet, but I typically don't engage with them: As I mentioned in my earlier post, there's a lot of stupidity in the world, and I'm only one blogger.

Whether there should be an "us" and a "them" is beyond the scope of this post. I can note only that by creating a space called "Planet Atheism", Pedro Timóteo has created an "us"; by participating, the members of Planet Atheism, myself included, have consented to the division. The question becomes: who precisely is "us"?

I maintain that we are more than just people who happen to not believe in the existence of any deity, for any old reason. What makes us atheists, I think, is that we believe no deities exist because we are skeptics, because we value rationality, critical thought, and honesty. I don't think that atheists should all agree on some complex and detailed "line", but I do think we have and should maintain core values that go beyond simple disbelief. And I do not believe that Allen holds those core values.

I haven't brought up this aspect of the discussion before. People of good will and honest can disagree, sometimes sharply, on matters of substance. The post that started the contretemps discussed — at some length — the the substantive failings of Rev. William John Henry Boetcker Ten "Cannots", a particularly sloppy form of political-economic ignorance. It it skepticism 101 that criticism is not censorship: Everyone has the "right" to be wrong, and everyone has the right to criticize the wrongness without affecting the original author's standing to publish. Allen has every right to present and defend his political philosophy, and I have every right to criticize it, and criticize it without discussing his standing to publish it in the first place. But now I do want to discuss his standing to publish it in — and with the legitimacy of — our little community of atheist bloggers.

It is important to note that in a comment and two posts, Allen has yet to address the substance of the original list or the substance of my criticism of it. His sole "substantive" response has been to chant Stalin Stalin Stalin Stalin Stalin Stalin STALIN Kim Jong-il STALIN!!!!11!!1eleventy-one!!11!!. Indeed, as far as I can tell, Allen has never offered anything of substance about anything (but as noted before, I don't follow Allen's blog rigorously, so I could well have missed something); not only does he fail to offer anything of substance in response to his critics, he fails to offer a substantive defense of Libertarianism.

Allen doesn't ever write about atheism or any topic of special interest to atheists. He doesn't offer any kind of critical, skeptical examination of any topic. His posts consists of nothing but links, strident declarations of Libertarian dogma, blatant trolling (evidenced by his apparent relish at "rattling my cage"), and the occasional cartoon bear (apparently his exclusive source of economic "education"). Even on a broad definition of "us", Allen is just not one of us.

That being said, I am explicitly not asking, much less demanding, that Pedro Timóteo expel Allen from Planet Atheism. Quite the contrary: I want nothing but that Allen leave only of his own volition. (If, of course, Allen were to break the prosaic rules of PA, such as posting spam or pr0n, Pedro must act as he sees fit.) All I will do is keep the "heat" on Allen as a private individual with no authority over the content of PA. I will point out his dogmatism, trollishness, superficiality, lack of substance, and abhorrence of critical, skeptical thought.