Monday, October 29, 2012

Physical property

In the science fiction story, "And Then There Were None," Eric Frank Russell depicts a coherent anarchist society. Two key features of the "Gands" (from Gandhi), the inhabitants of Russell's anarchist planet, are first, their absolute resistance to any form of coercion, and second, their lack of any absentee ownership. Several scenes and expositions illustrate these concepts. Anyone may take over abandoned property; the original owner, Russell says, will have left it for something equally free. In the story of Idle Jack (a parable of how the Gands deal with free riders), when Jack is driven to steal because his neighbors no longer will give him social credit, he faces no after-the-fact punishment for his theft; people are simply more vigilant about protecting the physical property in their possession. (When he has finally exhausted all social credit, Idle Jack finally kills himself.) The Gands take the prohibition against the initiation of coercion seriously: it is always illegitimate there to be the first person to use physical force; there are no socially constructed exceptions whatsoever.

The Gands do not use money; indeed, they have contempt for the concept. Instead, they have a system of "obs" (short for obligations), a form a social credit. If you do something for me, then you plant an ob on me; to kill the ob, I must do something for you, or do something for someone else you've planted an ob on. One could, I suppose, write down obs, but because obs are not coercively enforced by the community, there's no legal reason to do so; obs, therefore, are usually simply remembered. Communities are, therefore, limited to a size where the community can keep track of everyone's obs. Russell seems to anticipate, by a number of decades, the modern understanding that intra-community trade was historically founded on social credit.

The Gands fundamentally do not ever legitimatize coercion. Even direct self-defense against immediate physical attempt at coercion, while legitimate (as in the para, is still somewhat disreputable. Instead, the Gands prefer passive resistance. When the Terrans, who have visited the world of the Gands after centuries of neglect, attempt to coerce the Gands, the Gands do not fight back; they simply refuse to be coerced. When the Terrans, for example, attempt to abduct some of the passengers from a passing bus, The Terrans find the passengers have chained themselves to the bus. When one of the Terran characters attempt to coerce a Gand at gunpoint, the Gand sensibly points out that if he were dead, he would be of no use to the Terrans. As Heinlein says, you can never enslave free persons; you can only kill them.

There are some problems and limitations to this notion of anarchism, but on the whole it is coherent, and it is difficult to frame a moral objection to the society. But without this absolutist attitude towards the initiation of coercion, and the concomitant impossibility of legitimatizing absentee ownership, Libertarianism is just a thinly-veiled rationalization for the worst sort of tyrannical oligarchy. The contempt that many on the left have for Libertarians is not a desire to dominate others, but a reaction to hypocrisy.

"Government" is a just label given to that social institution that has a monopoly on the legitimate physical initiation of coercion. It does not matter what organization calls itself the government; the real government consists of the institution, i.e. not only the organizations but also the social and cultural constructs, that legitimatizes the initiation of coercion. When we have abstract property and absentee ownership, physical possession no longer defines ownership. Ownership, rather, becomes a matter of social agreement, and we must, therefore, socially construct what it means to make an agreement. We must construct what agreements actually mean (and even today, resolving disputes about what agreements actually mean occupies the time and effort of a million lawyers), when an agreement is legitimate or illegitimate, and what the consequences are when the agreement is breached.

Libertarianism entails government, a social institution that legitimatizes the initiation of coercion. Libertarianism is just disingenuous about labeling: what they label as "government" is just one part, the police, of the institutional structure. However, the owners of property, because they are privileged to define the terms of tenancy, play the major role in legitimatizing the initiation of coercion; therefore, they are the government. Furthermore, by absolutely privileging absentee ownership, Libertarianism would create a government more tyrannical than most. It is a government of the owners of property, by the owners of property, and for the owners of property; tenants have no rights whatsoever of their own.

If you want to argue for an anarchy, argue for an anarchy: Argue that the initiation of coercion in the strict physical sense is always illegitimate, and no institution can legitimatize it. Or, if you want to argue for an oligarchy, then argue for an oligarchy. Argue that those who are able to accumulate abstract property and absentee ownership deserve to rule or perhaps deserve mastery, and those who are not able to accumulate abstract property deserve slavery. But please do not call the the initiation of coercion always illegitimate on one hand and then legitimatize it on the other. It is an offense against both tyranny and liberty to try to cover an oligarchy in the cloth of freedom.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Physical and absentee property

Up to a point, Libertarian reasoning about property works. The goal of each human is to live a "good life." While people disagree on precisely what a good life consists of, most, I think, are in agreement that a certain amount of physical property is a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition to living a good life. Additionally, there's broad agreement (even Marx concurs) that a degree of individual autonomy is also a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition to living a good life: there are a lot of areas about which each person must make his or her own decisions without social interference. We can put these two ideas together and say that there is broad agreement (with only some head-in-the-clouds Utopian Socialists dissenting) that a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition to living a good life is to have some amount of private physical property, physical property with strictly limited social prescriptions for its use.

The proscription against the initiation of coercion is coherent and sensible regarding physical property. To take property that an individual is actively using entails bodily coercing the individual: to take property I physically possess means physically prying it out of my hands. There are some difficulties: There is property, such as our homes, that we only intermittently possess physically, and there are issues with physical hoarding and destruction of persistent property, but none of these issues seem to pose any deep conceptual problems. No matter what compromises or adjustments we make, there are strict physical limitations on how much property an individual can physically possess and use.

The above reasoning works for physical property, but everything breaks down when we include ownership of property that the owner does not physically possess and use, i.e. abstract, absentee ownership. There are no physical limitations on how much absentee property an individual can own. Also, because, ceteris paribus, one person who owns more property has more power than another who owns less, absentee property tends to concentrate in a small number of people, and in principle all property could be owned by a single person. Since all human beings need to use physical property to survive, those who did not abstractly own property would be de facto slaves of what would be a only tyranny: an oligarchy or monarchy explicitly committed to its own, narrow self-interest. It's hard to see how any philosophy can both extol freedom but lead so obviously into slavery.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The initiation of coercion

Yesterday, Anthony and I debated Libertarians Jon and Will Adams of the Young Americans for Freedom. We recorded the first hour or so of the debate, and if all goes well, it will soon appear on YouTube; when it does, I'll post the link. After a little reflection, I want to discuss some of my thoughts about Libertarianism. My reactions are to the brand of Libertarianism described by Jon and Will; if you have a different view of Libertarianism, I'll be happy to discuss that too.

As I understand their position, Libertarianism fundamentally consists of the objective moral value that the initiation of coercion is absolutely wrong, and that interference with one's property, broadly defined, always consists of the initiation of coercion. This foundation is deeply problematic on a number of levels.

The initiation of coercion with regard to property is much less problematic if ownership were defined exclusively by physical possession and use. When coupled with absentee, abstract ownership (property that one person owns, in some sense, even though someone else occupies or uses it), however, the initiation of coercion seems to become self-defeating.

Whether or not we accept objectively true moral values, to be coherent, moral objectivism must entail that moral judgments should attach consistently to objectively determinable physical circumstances. In other words, if two events are objectively identical in morally relevant ways, we should have the same moral judgment regarding both circumstances. But the plain English meaning of "initiation of coercion", i.e. the first use of physical force, does not distinguish between two events that have the same objective physical circumstances. Specifically, consider the case of two people, Alice and Bob, both peacefully occupying their houses. Neither has given any offense to their neighbors; there is no relevant physical difference between their respective occupancies. One day, a group of armed people come to both of their houses, and, at gunpoint, evict them. Objectively, since the armed people are the first to use physical force, they are initiating coercion. Physically, objectively (in the sense of disregarding any individuals' subjective states), the situations are completely identical. Alice's eviction is illegitimate because she "owns" her house; Bob's eviction, however, is legitimate because someone else, Carl, "owns" his house, and Carl wishes to reclaim his property. There is no objective difference between the two situations; the only morally relevant difference is subjective: socially constructed ownership. Therefore, we cannot claim that the initiation of coercion is an objective moral standard, since purely subjective states are morally relevant.

The point is not to say that only objective physical states in some sense ought to be morally relevant; the point, rather, is that the claim of objectivity is flatly contradicted if subjective states are relevant to forming our moral judgment.

There are two ways to try to get out of this dilemma, but both fail. The first is to simply say that because we believe Bob's eviction is legitimate, it is not the initiation of coercion. But that would be a useless tautology: to be useful, the objective determination of initiation of coercion needs to be independent of our naive or intuitive evaluations of legitimacy; we must be able to appeal to the objective facts to argue against another's intuition. Another way is to argue that Bob's eviction is not the initiation of coercion, because he had already agreed to vacate at Carl's arbitrary whim. But this argument fails because an agreement is not an objective fact; it is a subjective fact, a fact about the minds of Bob and Carl (and perhaps their community). Again, there is nothing wrong per se with attaching legitimacy to subjective facts, but subjective facts are not objective facts.

I have more thoughts on the subject. I'm going to talk about Libertarianism and oligarchy, as well as Libertarianism without absentee, abstract ownership.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (mawwaige edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheists Have No Business Suing over Marriage (or Anything)
An atheist organization has sued the Indiana state government over its marriage statute. The atheists are arguing that the law forbids them from having their own non-religious official perform a marriage ceremony.

This is where I start asking a few questions. Here’s the first one: Where in the atheistic evolutionary worldview is marriage necessary or even an ethical norm? Marriage is a creation ordinance ordained by God. If it’s an invention of man, then it is a convention that shouldn’t have any legal or cultural standing. . . .

Let's just repeat that last line: "If [marriage is] an invention of man, then it is a convention that shouldn’t have any legal or cultural standing."

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Thoughts on Libertarianism

As I mentioned, I'm going to be debating/speaking with a Libertarian on campus next week. I have some questions about Libertarianism I'm hoping he will answer.

The most obvious questions is, what precisely is Libertarianism? Is it just a laundry list of political positions? There's nothing wrong with that — both the Democratic and Republican parties take this approach; it's called a "platform" — but it would be nice to know if there really is a cohesive, non-trivial philosophy underneath.

Without putting words in anyone's mouth, the most concise description of Libertarianism I've heard is that state power should prohibit the initiation of coercion, and only the initiation of coercion. But this description doesn't seem coherent; specifically, the initiation of coercion seems to equivocate with the use of force the speaker does not like or that goes against his or her personal or class interests. Again, there's nothing wrong with a specialized, subjectivist, interests-based political philosophy, but it doesn't seem helpful to label a subjectivist philosophy as objective, and it's dishonest to justify a specialized interpretation with our moral intuitions about the general, literal interpretation.

Is Libertarianism better because it's more moral, or is it more moral because it's better? In other words, is Libertarianism justified on moral grounds or pragmatic grounds?

Are there objective reasons to consider the use of economic power non-coercive? Or is it just that Libertarians approve of economic power and disapprove of physical, directly violent power? Again, it's unproblematic to approve of one kind of power and disapprove of another, but does Libertarianism make the distinction explicit, and does it refrain from equivocation to leverage moral intuition?

Thoughts on the "planned economy"

I'm going to be debating/speaking with a Libertarian on campus next week; we've tentatively set the date for Oct. 25. I want to get a few of my thoughts on the planned economy down.

We have to be very careful about what precisely we mean by a planned economy. Both planning and economics are complex topics, so a planned economy is not simply a binary. The question is not just whether to have a planned economy, but what parts of an economy should be planned; we have not only the extrema of "nothing" and "everything," but also "these parts but not those parts." Therefore, saying that some part of the economy should or shouldn't be planned doesn't entail that we should plan everything or nothing.

Furthermore, that some communist economies have planned some part of the economy to bad effect means only that there's some evidence that planning that specific part of the economy might be a bad idea. The evidence, though, would not be conclusive; cultural, political, sociological, and historical elements in a society affect economic policy as much as or more than pure scientific economics.

It's also worth noting that economic planning is the status quo. First, most companies, and almost all large corporations, are organized along lines most people naively ascribe to communist governments. A cadre of self-appointing* bureaucrats, the executive management, makes most decisions about how to deploy internal resources within the corporation. This cadre has near-absolute power over not only junior members of the cadre, but all the employees. Employees are not only expected to obey, but expected to obey enthusiastically, and they must not overtly contradict the executive cadre. Yes, employees are at least technically free to leave, but the point here is that the fundamental organizational structure is itself viable.

Second, macroeconomic capital allocation is already made by a very small group of people: those who control not only their own personal capital, some of it very large, but also the executive cadres that control corporately-owned capital. Again, the point is not how the capitalist class (owners + executives) is organized (which is, of course, very different from how any group managing investment in a communist system), but that the status quo already is that a small group of people controls actual investment.

*i.e. the existing bureaucracy appoints its own new members.

Therefore, I see communism as endorsing not total economic planning, but more (and different) planning than a state capitalist would endorse, and probably a lot more (and a lot different) than a Libertarian would endorse.

Specifically, communism entails that the allocation of capital, i.e. investment, is heavily planned by "the government."

It's very important to understand that what we mean by "the government" varies according to what regime we're actually talking about.

Under a republican capitalist paradigm, such as the one we presently have in the US, "the government" comprises whichever faction of the capitalist class has greater popular support. Our current paradigm can thus be called a democratically modulated plutocracy.

Under "Communism of the Parties," the paradigm operative in China and the Soviet Union, "the government" consisted of one or another faction of the national Communist Party, itself a self-appointing oligarchy (that considered itself an aristocracy). I'm told there are some reasonable historical and social reasons why China and the Soviet Union ended up with an oligarchy, notably that the societies at the time of the communist revolutions had very little democratic popular culture. Furthermore both, but especially the Soviet Union, faced immediate, severe threats to their continued existence (e.g. Hitler), and could not afford to leisurely develop a democratic culture.

Even so, I don't much like the "Communism of the Parties" paradigm; I'm pretty much opposed to any oligarchy. And we do have something of a democratic culture in the US, and we don't have any severe existential threat. (Islamic "terrorism" does not in any way threaten the continued existence of the United States.)

"Democratic" socialism, a supposedly worker-friendly state that operates under the institutions and practices of republican capitalism, is problematic. The institutions of a capitalist republic evolved to support, well, capitalism; so long as private ownership of capital gives disproportionate economic power to the capitalists, they have both the motive, opportunity, and means to co-opt socialist trustee representatives. Sebastian Haffner documents an especially appalling instance in Failure of a Revolution, where the leaders of the Social Democratic Party turned against the workers they were supposedly representing to maintain their own prestige and privilege borrowed from both the capitalists and the hereditary aristocracy, unleashing and cooperating with the forces that would lead directly to Hitler and the Nazis.

I advocate something different: democratic communism. "The government" under democratic capitalism is a direct democracy, the people themselves, not their easily co-optable trustee representatives.

There are two obvious difficulties with direct democracy. The first is the scaling problem. It's very difficult to put every political and macroeconomic decision to a vote of more than 300,000,000 people, and even if we could, it would seem hard to ever get an affirmative decision. (Why should I care about building a new microchip factory in Indiana?) The second is the problem of expertise: what does it take, for example, to start a farm? There are a lot of issues there? What's the optimal size for a farm? What sort of equipment does it need? What sort of people? These are questions that only a trained agricultural economist can answer. We can't expect the people as a whole to be experts in anything.

I don't have the answers to these questions. We do have some clues, however. The Paris Commune used delegated representation instead of trustee representation. The representatives were arbitrarily recallable; unlike trustee representatives, individual delegated representatives did not have the power of office. Second, delegated representatives could not gain personal economic power. So perhaps we can use a system of delegated representation to solve part of the scaling problem.

The expertise problem is a little easier to solve because we already know how to separate expertise from interests. My physician, for example, is an expert in how my body works, but her expertise does not give her the power to control my interests. She can tell me that working too much is bad for my health, and do what she can to mitigate the effects of overwork, but she can't make me work less. It is up to me to use her expert knowledge to balance my own interests in good health and long hours.

That's essentially the same relationship that any political government has—or should have—with its bureaucracy. The bureaucrats are the experts in how to actually implement policy, and inform the political government of the objective consequences and limitations of policy choices, but it is up to the political government to actually make policy choices. The political government might choose unwisely, but lack of wisdom seems to be an inescapable part of the human condition. We've tried nearly every form of government imaginable, and every form has made astoundingly unwise decisions. The question is not whether we make mistakes, but what kind of mistakes we make. I'd rather we made the people's mistakes, not some aristocracy's.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Freethought Blogs

Since as far as I can tell, all of the Freethought Blogs link only to other Freethought Blogs on their sidebars, I'm not going to link to any of them myself on my own sidebar.

Update Oct. 14: Ed Brayton links outside FtB, so he'll go on my sidebar.

Monday, October 08, 2012

An interesting juxtaposition

On the one hand, we have Allen Small, Minarchy vs. Anarchy and the State:
The libertarian view of anarchy coincides with the concept of spontaneous order. That concept describes how the unhindered the free market operates by imposing its own rules on itself, such that there is a "spontaneous emergence of order out of seeming chaos." . . . My background teaching biology made it very easy for me to accept spontaneous order in economics and society. Anyone that has ever studied biology will know that organisms, be they plant, animal or protist, live within "self ordered" ecosystems.

Just a little bit earlier, we have Chris Clarke, an actual scientist: The Balance of Nature [link fixed]:
One of the things that bugs me most about some of my fellow environmentalists, aside from the patchouli, is the near-religious adherence — even among those enviros who eschew religion — to the notion that natural ecological systems have an innate and emergent self-repairing property. It’s a dangerous idea that breeds complacency, and it’s really widespread. . . .

Here’s the thing: people really, really want to believe that ecosystems are self-repairing, because that way we can excuse the fact that our very existence these days seems to rend that hopefully self-healing fabric.

I don't think Small, however, will let the facts or truth get in the way of his self-serving opinions.

The economics of student life

Might as Well:
The predominant complaint about college students today (and probably of yesteryear as well) is that they put so little emphasis on academics. . . . [But] over time I am getting more sympathetic rather than less. I don't condone this attitude – not even a little – but I certainly understand it. In the past decade the cost of higher education has exploded, the benefits of holding a Bachelor's have plummeted, and life after graduation has become a grim prospect involving the phrase "back with my parents" for the majority of students. The job prospects for recent graduates are appalling and unlikely to improve anytime soon. Under the circumstances, it's not hard to understand why fun, albeit very expensive fun, is such a priority; they're not likely to be having much more of it throughout their twenties.