Friday, May 27, 2016

mind open or closed?

I wish to criticize Freemarketeers vs. Wealth by Tjaart Blignaut 
using the method described by Daniel Dennett (that he attributes to Anatole Rappoport). In the first step I should summarize the piece charitably, to demonstrate to what degree I understand the intended message.
The piece makes a case for the idea that economic arrangements result from social choice, that they exist at the pleasure of society and society may change them and should change them if given good reasons, especially moral reasons. Markets serve as means to distribute wealth, but other arrangements could replace them. Such arrangements determine who has wealth and who does not on the basis of moral principles and our subjective evaluations, as distinct from any objective facts regarding persons. The author compares feudalism to capitalism, showing that they share this basis of moral approval but claims that feudalism was abandoned when it lost its moral legitimacy. Social arrangements should work to reduce harm and suffering among persons. Free markets (at least, their most rigid supporters) press their luck by allowing some to acquire great wealth without necessarily earning it fairly. Those who have done well under this system by playing fair have to concern themselves that everyone be treated fairly, or risk social unrest and perhaps abrupt and disorienting change. Supporters of free markets increase this risk if they favor ideology over reality and reframe failure as punishment for laziness rather than the result of bad luck or exploitation. When markets fail we must consider alternatives, but some refuse. They are surprised to hear Elizabeth Warren tell them "You didn't build that!" Certainly they can lose it, if their minds remain closed.

So ends my paraphrase. Now I should recount what I have learned from the text. I hope it doesn't sound too conceited to say I don't think I learned much from it. In my defense, I don't think the author felt he was providing a profound new insight. Rather he felt inspired to remind us of what he sees as a simple, clear truth that too many ignore.

Now, following Dennett and Rappoport's formula, I should reveal any area of agreement, while trying to avoid damning myself by praising faintly. The author shows a degree of familiarity with the concept of subjective economic value. He willingly considers the possibility that our society may need to change on moral grounds, in order to avoid unnecessary suffering. He denounces closed minds and narrow thoughts. I agree that the market supporters sometimes take a rigid approach that is harmful to their own purpose. He shows concern for others and for the stability of society. That sounds good to me.

Now, having performed the proper ritual of empathy, I get to quibble.
"Any wealth you receive has already been distributed at least once based on the decided structure and nature of wealth distribution in your society."
The phrase "decided structure" is awkward, but becomes clearer as he goes on.

"So people who are wealthy are not wealthy because they create some sort of objective value in society, they are wealthy because society decides that they are the ones who morally deserve to be wealthy. The concept of wealth is intersubjective, and so is the decision about who gets to be."
This personifies society, making it the subject that decides. The author does not describe the process by which society makes such a decision, what form its consciousness takes or the nature of its reflection. Is this just a metaphor or should we take it literally? His text contains a tension between subjectivity and intersubjectivity, between conscious and unconscious.
Language is my favorite example of a phenomenon that is determined intersubjectively. The meanings of words  and the ways we put them together are arbitrary, based on historical accident and subject to arbitrary change. Yet there are rules of syntax and we manage (often enough) to understand what we say to each other. This process makes use of the mind of every user of language, yet we have no conscious control over it. Things change, but should we think of them as decisions? Only if we wish to personify this process. Does his approach make his meaning more clear or less? 
Is it the concept of wealth that is intersubjective, or just what may represent wealth at one point of history or another? Wealth is no more intersubjective than any other abstract concept, rooted in language and our common experience. So what is the author's point? Perhaps this distraction misses the point, which might be, what wealth is and who has wealth is something that can change suddenly and surprisingly.

"Free markets are a method to distribute wealth."
Here we see several unfortunate rhetorical choices. "Free markets" do not exist.  Various bureaucracies attempt to control white markets through regulation; and police attempt to eliminate black markets. Calling ordinary markets "free" markets invites us to ignore all the differences among markets and the numerous non-market interventions into each. 
Referring to markets as a "method to distribute wealth" personifies society, as if society as a whole (or perhaps a group of legislators?) acted consciously and deliberately in each case, and the market is their method for achieving their end. Rather, markets provide a context in which all persons can produce and exchange goods among themselves, each serving a particular end of their own. Distribution of wealth occurs as a side-effect of this process.
We can restrict our view of markets until we see only distribution, but only by hiding other important aspects. The market is not a conduit between some cornucopia that spills out wealth for the market to distribute fairly or unfairly. Markets do not merely distribute wealth, but rather allow us to create and exchange wealth, they do not just divide the pie but help us to make the pie bigger and bake it. 

"There can be other methods too."
I am curious what the author has in mind. He mentions feudalism, which does have some proponents on the Internet, but I don't think anyone takes them particularly seriously. Other more explicitly non-market societies have existed, so I must agree markets are not inescapable. 

"The feudal system existed because it was recognized as morally legitimate and for no other reason."
At first I wanted to disagree, but can I? To the extent it is true, it is a tautology; the social arrangements and the conception of morality move together, but which is the cause and which the effect? Or were they both effects of a separate cause?

"if a free market fails us in an ethical way, it is our moral duty to violate it as a society."
Can we say this about any other social institution or custom? Or do markets alone bear this mark?

"This means that in a moral society, excess wealth may be allowed,  but not at the expense of others suffering."
What is the difference between excess wealth and non-excess? Since wealth could in any case be used to attempt to reduce suffering, this statement means that no excess wealth may be allowed so long as suffering exists. According to the Buddha, existence is suffering; does this mean no excess wealth? I'd like to help him, but I genuinely do not know what he intends to say here. Suffering is bad, certainly, but where do we draw the line?

"Indeed this is one of the reasons feudalism fell. We could no longer morally justify the harm of placing wealth into the hands of the few."
This was the reason for the highland clearances, the British enclosure acts and the building of the "satanic mills?" I'm not much of an historian, but I don't think this is right. I am surprised to learn that the author was personally involved in the fall of feudalism.

"[T]he free market [...] promotes the distribution of wealth to those who can exploit its underlying subjective nature."
Is this flaw a transcendent attribute of markets, or a result of the legislation that creates the rules markets work within, or the quality of the enforcement of these rules? 

"An inferior product could very well make someone rich if they play the market the right way."
Personally, I usually prefer inferior products, since I am a cheapskate. Presumably the author intends us to think of products that disappoint the customer by not living up to the sales pitch.

"There is no natural or transcendent entitlement attached to that."
If "that" is fraud, I agree.

"If everyone ceased to recognize the value of someone's wealth, they would be destitute."
This confuses me. Take Bill Gates as an example. Are we recognizing the value of his wealth right now? Perhaps the author means that if we all decided we hate Bill Gates, he would be ostracized and all his money would do him no good? Or does he mean that ordinary shares of Microsoft stock would sell at the ordinary price, but not shares sold by Bill Gates? Or perhaps, if no one recognized his property rights, then Bill Gates would no longer be able to possess any wealth? That last one makes a bit more sense. But why use the strange phrase "recognize the value"? I must be missing something.

"We, as a society, are the masters of who gets what."
Okay, why don't we, as a society, do something different? Despite his talk of intersubjectivity, the author is personifying society again. Society does not choose as a single entity. This is a major challenge of social science, to attempt to understand the interactions between the level of the individual thought and action and the level of social outcome.

"It's vital to understand that wealth distribution is completely arbitrary"
Except that it is not. It is arbitrary but not completely arbitrary. We may not choose any distribution we wish, and any possible distribution has profound implications for other aspects of society. The distribution of wealth is as much (or more) an effect of those phenomena as their cause. Yet we ignore them here. Why? The author does not wish to defend his assumptions. He focuses on his target.

"and decided by us,"
I suppose what he really means is, things can change if enough people get annoyed. 

"and that no single person or even a group can claim that there is only one way, or even one right way."
Emphatic agreement! If only the author truly embraced this insight. The subtext of his entire article shouts the opposite, though perhaps for the best possible reasons. The author's point of non-negotiation is human suffering. But obviously we may disregard anyone advocating for more suffering. So, the author has discovered a transcendent truth after all! 

"Among the best ways however, every single one of them must be justified by moral considerations."
My translation: utilitarianism beats deontology. 

"If we are not a moral society who hold each others' interests at heart, we are setting ourselves up for failure,"
At that level of abstraction, I must agree. I doubt that we have the same thing in mind, though.

"just like the privileged strata did before their social system imploded."
Are we discussing feudalism again? To whom does the "privileged strata" refer?

"[ free markets have ] gained overzealous fundamentalist followers, who incorrectly conflate morality with free markets."
IOW, they disagree with the author. Since we do not know the specifics, we can't be sure which side the fundamentalists take, or whether they take both sides.

"if the free market fails and people suffer, that is ethically preferable to violating the tenets of free markets."
At this level of abstraction, who can disagree? But who knows what he is talking about? The author implies that the tenets of free markets have no moral content, that violating them will harm no one. (Or actually, that the harm to some would be overcompensated by the benefit to others.) Which tenets does he mean?

"They rely on a central premise, that a free market, and absolute claims to property, are morally above any other consideration."
I doubt any of them, if asked to state their central premise, would give an answer resembling this. What is an absolute claim to property? Does this imply that there is a relative claim to property? I know what property is and I know what a claim is, but add these adjectives and I no longer know what the author means.

"It's not that they think the free market is moral, it is that they think the free market is morality itself."
Would even a Randian claim that? I call straw man. That seems to say that they believe there are no moral issues beyond the moral issues involved with the market. Rand and Hoppe come closest to this caricature in my mind, but they still aren't that close. Perhaps the author conflates morality and legality? He could make a good case that some think that the free market is legality itself. Morality is larger than either markets or legalities. 

"society decided that they are entitled to the wealth they have, "
Personification again. What literal meaning can we give this, other than social customs and laws exist that define who owns what, together with agencies that enforce the laws, resulting in outcomes that ordinary persons either tolerate or do not?

"explain this fundamental error in freemarketeer ideology."
I am frustrated that he has discovered a fundamental error, but has not revealed it to us. Perhaps we shall see it soon.

"[Thought that] claims to wealth are absolute and inherent in nature or transcendent somehow. They aren't."
Even transcendent claims can be violated, can't they? I need to go polish up my Kant.

"If everyone believes that free markets are the only right way to distribute wealth, the decision to recognise it as such was still taken collectively, and it is still grounded in humanity."
Society does not necessarily obey even the powerful. Is that the point?

My attempt to make an optimistic, charitable and creative reading of the author's text leads me to think his message gives a warning to persons whose minds are closed. He does not seek to condemn markets, but inflexibility and resistance to reform, improvement and innovation. But his take on humanity seems a bit unsophisticated. How does he think rationality works? What are the psychological factors underneath the phenomena he regrets? Why don't people heed reason and evidence? When faced with "unreasonable" opposition, people often give in to the temptation to see their opponents as evil, lazy or stupid. This makes good preparation for war, but not for dispassionate inquiry. Recent developments in psychology are beginning to outline a more reasonable explanation, rooted in cognitive biases with origins in our evolutionary environment. So we may hope that things will improve, because we now know more than we did and may be able to apply this knowledge. But brain enhancement challenges our creativity and resources, so don't expect nirvana too soon.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Dynamic jurisdictions

Laws usually are observed and enforced within a specific static geographical territory. For example, in the US, jurisdiction is usually determined by city limits, county lines, state borders and national borders.

Polycentric law allows different legal institutions to operate within the same territory. Within a particular territory, persons may change from one legal institution to another.

A dynamic jurisdiction would allow participants to adjust their status dynamically. Instead of operating as rivals within a single territory, the various competing legal regimes would each have territory that is determined dynamically by the decisions of land owners. So a particular bit of land could switch from one jurisdiction to another, create a new jurisdiction, or opt out completely.

This could restrain the abuse of certain sorts of government power, since the "losers" from a discriminatory policy could withdraw their participation and tax revenues from the offending organization.

This is more complicated than static jurisdiction and probably incompatible with some applications. For example, it would be difficult (perhaps pointless) for a city water delivery system to use a dynamic jurisdiction, since people living in the middle of the city probably would not have access to an alternative. 
Will this cause a "race to the bottom?"


Much  government violence would stop if they adopted a principle of proportionality. What limits would proportionality impose and how do we justify ignoring those limits?

What is the proportionate response to someone harming themselves? Nothing (at least, in terms of punishment, which currently is the only arrow in goverment's quiver). Why make matters worse by punishing? Errors cost enough, why add the extra harm of punishment? I may wish to persuade or teach someone a better way, a way to accomplish one's goals without causing self-harm. But they have no obligation to listen to me.

What proportionate response can we provide when someone harms another? If the harm results from voluntary interaction, such as a boxing match, again the answer is "nothing." When the harm results from an accident, we seek restitution. Intentional physical harm merits a proportionate physical response. Responses might include prevention, intervention, investigation, apprehension, trial and consequence (punishment or restitution). [When is prevention justified, and what sorts?]

What about intentional mental harm? Shunning and ostracism qualify as proportionate responses. In some cases, an offender may prefer restitution or physical punishment. [The proportionate remedy for bad speech is good speech.]

Do we prefer responding to violations or proactively preparing to prevent attack? [This could provide a topic for a blog post on its own, but I wish someone else would write it.]

Crimes with no victim at all merit no response at all. Voluntary interaction does not merit punishment. Civilized persons interact on the basis of consent only. I embrace this core idea.

Deception and manipulation can change the status of an interaction from voluntary to involuntary. Where do we draw the line between deception and misunderstanding? [Pretend there is a long section here discussing that question.]

One alternative to proportionality is incentive. Instead of letting the response fit the crime, make the punishment disincentivise the crime.  Perhaps people will behave better if they fear disproportionate punishment. A proportionate response may not discourage cheaters, especially when cheaters are hard to catch.

How can we justify disproportionate responses? Perhaps they work better. Use consequentialism to justify it. We can wave our hands at proportionality by thinking of a violation as consisting of the injury to another plus the disobedience of the rule. Note that this contradicts what I said about victimless crime above.

This raises issues regarding the appropriateness of punishment, restitution, rehabilitation and retribution. All provide ways to control persons. [Pretend there is a long section here discussing this.]

So, we can do what is fair to the participants (proportionality) or we can seek some social optimum (what best reduces violations). The fair (individual justice) and the practical (social justice?) seem to conflict with each other. Can we make an agreement that moves us voluntarily from the individual optimum to the social optimum? Would we agree to accept disproportionate responses in return for the mutual agreement of others? How do we establish this agreement? Assurance contracts? [Wouldn't it be nice if I had an answer?] Dynamic jurisdictions? 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A half-hearted defense of the idea of a minimal state

If you want to defend the minimal state, you must argue in favor of its strengths. What are they?
An ideal sort of minimalism would incorporate a learning mechanism similar to market competition, allowing people to learn the characteristics of different ways of holding rule enforcers accountable. It would govern by consent. Defenders of democracy pretend that the status quo should satisfy us in these regards. Feedback and consent take the form of voting, volunteering, donating, lobbying, public opinion, etc. Caplan claims this more or less works as a feedback mechanism, that new unpopular policies will fail to pass, and old policies will lose support and face repeal as they lose popularity. For him, common cognitive biases take the blame for government flaws. All this depends on centralized mechanisms for collective choice, rather than decentralized and bottom up.
Sophists often frame our alternatives as an unpleasant dichotomy between the status quo and imagined chaos. This approach harvests at least a grain of truth, in that no one has created a serious test case yet. Innovators face a catch-22, in that people hesitate to embrace untested ideas. No one dares to test something new because it is untested.
Rothbard, Huemer, Rose, and more challenge the justification of the state's right to command and the people's obligation to obey. But Hayek points out that our lives depend on practices and beliefs that we cannot justify with rigorous philosophy. Philosophy does not provide only good ideas, or we'd all be Marxists. The problem with the status quo is that even if innovators and early adopters were willing to try something new, because of the collectivized aspects of politics, others will try to prevent their experiments and explorations. How can we overcome this obstacle?
Good arguments can take us only so far. We need well tested, well understood alternatives that people can choose for themselves directly.
Molyneux says we have tried minarchism and it failed. We tried several variants of it, and they all failed to some degree, but not all in the same way. Minarchism with consent, what would that look like?

Individual nullification: I can challenge, nullify, or contract around any law that applies to me. Only other individuals can be my counterparties, the state is arbitrator and enforcer only, not litigant. So crimes have a victim. (No malum prohibitum.)
Dynamic jurisdiction: Consent is insured by allowing the governed to vote with their feet and take their land with them.
Subsidiarity: Issues are handled at the lowest feasible level.
Strict Federalism: Different jurisdictions can do things differently.
Taxes: Can they survive? Will the voluntary minimal state be financed with an indiegogo campaign?

I can imagine a minimal state or competing defense agencies, but where is the strict line of separation? Minimal state supporters speak of monopoly, but the state is not strictly a monopoly even now, and it is hardly minimal. Minimalists should recognize this, as separation of powers and federalism are their big things.

Politics/Economics versus Coercion/Cooperation

Equating economics with free exchange and politics with compulsion is not quite accurate, though it comes close. Economics is the business of the household or individual. Politics is the business of the city (polis) or the collective. Economic activity can include coercion, deception and unfair manipulation unless some mechanism constrains it. 
Perhaps we could create such constraints without entering the area of politics. Would politics cease to exist? If we eliminate all collectively owned property, what remains for politics to accomplish? Well, office politics will remain, politics within organizations. And perhaps we inevitably must own certain resources (the ocean, perhaps?) in common. Coordination problems, like driving on the right, qualify as political problems, though they may not need coercion. Large scale assurance contracts provide another example of non-coercive politics.
So I disagree with the implication that seeking economic power always creates a benefit and seeking political power always create harm (though perhaps this is a good short-hand). Legitimate power, whether economic or political, rests on the voluntary interaction among the participants within effective constraints that prohibit clear harm.
This is my reply to . 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

9 brief criticisms of UPB

Molyneux quotes are in italics.
1) Self-defense also cannot be required behaviour, since required behaviour (“don’t rape”) can be enforced through violence, which would mean that anyone failing to violently defend himself could be legitimately aggressed against. However, someone failing to defend himself is already being aggressed against, and so we end up in a circular situation where everyone can legitimately act violently against a person who is not defending himself, which is not only illogical, but morally abhorrent. (Page 87) But self-defense is violent, unavoidable from the standpoint of the aggressor being defended against. Therefore it falls in the category of ethics, and is either prohibited or required, according to the argument Molyneux gives in UPB. So if it is not required, it is prohibited. Or is it special somehow, related to enforcement? In effect, the entire UPB book is a justification of self-defense and rule enforcement. Molyneux should have made it clear how this works.

Enforcement requires justification, because it takes a different form in ordinary life than it does in debate. In debate, rules are enforced by pointing to infractions. Violations of the rules weaken a debater's case, sometimes demolish it. We don't put people in jail for making a mistake, we just don't believe them. People don't enforce debate rules by means of physical punishment. Debate is an ideal world of nonviolence. How does Molyneux base enforcement on the ideal of debate? He ignores the question.

2) Preference gives a ranking. Given a set of choices, a preference determines which alternative is chosen. UPB needs a set of prohibitions. Molyneux says almost nothing about what you ought to do, discussing instead what you should be punished for. Using the word "preference" as jargon introduces confusion and equivocation. UPB is really universally prohibited behaviour, maybe universally enforced behaviour.

3) Do I believe the coma test? Why shouldn't a man in a coma be treated as if he had reverted to infancy, or as an animal or rock would be treated, on a temporary basis? How can we draw conclusions about ordinary persons this way? An infant needs a guardian, and so does a man in a coma. If either an infant or a man in a coma were somehow able to injure another, the guardian would be responsible, not the infant, and not the man in the coma. Does Molyneux excuse the infant only, or both, or neither?

4) Any Positive obligation must be constantly being fulfilled at all times? I am able to cobble up an elaborate explanation of this idea of Molyneux's, but I am still tempted to count it as a reductio ad absurdum. That is, if I can reason to that conclusion, some of my assumptions must be wrong. The fact that the argument is so elaborate is a danger sign. At the very least, Molyneux needs to explain this better, because it is a very surprising result. He treats it almost as obvious. He bases the idea on universality. Why not think of a positive obligation in analogy to a gas tank, you have to fill it up before it gets empty?

5) Do I care about the 2 guys in a room? Molyneux's critics love to try to twist that scene, for instance, trying to show that it is not logically impossible for the 2 to be mutually obligated to kill each other. If we accept the success of the move against moral obligations based on the coma test, why is the 2 guys test even useful? There is nothing that I can consciously be doing at all times, because I have to sleep. So why would it matter if there were additional absurdities or logical impossibilities if there were two of us? If we have already established that there are no positive obligations, what does this test accomplish?

6) Can we derive a moral truth using UPB? It makes sense to reject a moral proposition that contains logical contradictions or physical impossibilities, and call that "false." But if a moral proposition passes the tests, does that prove it is true? Are we sure we have eliminated all the sources of falseness? He does not so much derive or prove rules as eliminate some. Actually, this would be a respectable accomplishment in itself (if successful), but he pushes it further than he can justify.

7) Molyneux talks about the hypothetical imperative as "if you want X you must do Y or use Y." But the way he uses it, the Y is always a negative, "not steal," "not murder," "not rape." He is clear about what you must not do, vague about what you must do. In fact, he denies that you must do anything. Stef's version of the hypothetical imperative should be, "if you want X, you should not do Y."

8) Molyneux begs the question with most of his example tests. Murder is defined as wrongful killing. There is no difficulty proving that wrongful killing is wrong. The difficulty arrives when we try to draw a clear line between wrongful killing and other sorts, such as legitimate self-defense, accident, etc. Molyneux does not draw this line.

9) Words based on the idea of validity (valid, validate, validity, etc.) are used almost 200 times in the text. Sometimes it can be interpreted as logical validity, others as validity according to the UPB system. In some other contexts it is used in a confusing way, to signify correctness in general or accuracy or something like that. How can a concept or idea be valid or invalid, without reference to a standard of validity? For example: If this “null zone” is valid, then no logical proposition can ever hold. (Page 14). If he means "true," why not say it? 

As you may have noticed, none of these criticisms is deadly to UPB. The fact that Molyneux has made mistakes doesn't disprove his idea. It just means Molyneux has failed to give us good reasons to think he is right.

Religion without god 2

I do not think that god exists. Assuming I am correct, what do I lose by not participating in religion?

Nowadays we separate religion from philosophy, science and practical skills. At some point religion became formalized, with static dogma frozen in holy texts that could not be expanded or corrected, full of received knowledge, separate from our human ability to learn. Science and philosophy took on the task of correcting and expanding knowledge about our world.But they also became more specialized, separate from the experience of ordinary persons. People still need to apply these insights in their lives to interpret their experiences. Religions help people integrate ideas into their lives, such as:

  • Spiritual experience (awe).
  • Morality.
  • Passion? Motivation.
  • DIY psychology. 
  • Dissemination of practical knowledge.
  • Community.
  • Charity.

This is a personal experience that we cannot delegate to someone else.

The church used to provide a counterbalance for the state. Fugitives and refugees could take sanctuary in the church. The military exempt conscientious objectors from service.
How is this different from government?
  • Government uses coercion. Religion (nowadays) must rely on persuasion.
  • Government tends to let the winners impose their solution on the losers. Religious dissidents may give their own answers and make their own mistakes.
How is this different from a union? How is this different from a club or charitable organization? These organizations tend to focus on a specific mission.