Monday, March 26, 2012

Beyond Statism vs. minarchism vs. Anarchy

DRAFT: This is not the final version of this article, but I decided to publish now and regret at leisure.

Throughout his published works, Friedrich Hayek challenged the socialists of his day, accusing them of "constructivist rationalism". I believe that this criticism applies to both sides of the anarchist - minarchist debate. Although this debate never seems to die down, when analysed carefully the differences do not amount to much. Neither side has a slam-dunk program for achieving their goals or an effective program for action starting now.

Libertarians waste a great deal of time on debating minarchism vs. anarchism. Both sides of the debate want social institutions and customs that maximize liberty and protect persons from tyranny. Anarcho-capitalists propose to achieve these ends by using some form of market competition between organizations providing protection services. The minarchists prefer to limit the growth and scope of government to the "night watchman state". Neither can point to actually existing societies as exemplars of their approach, though they will point to various historical phenomena as plausible evidence that their ends may be achieved. Both must explore new intellectual and historical territory to find their Utopia.

What are the real differences between minarchism and anarchism? If examined abstractly, the differences are surprisingly small. Both think that activities and services now monopolized by the government should be decentralized, devolved, privatized, strictly limited, abolished, or whatever is needed to limit the state's ability to violate rights of citizens. Each accuses the other of inadequate protections against the re-emergence of tyranny. Both think that their magic wand will prevent the violation of persons' rights and the ascent of tyrants. But for minarchists, the mechanism is a minimal state, for the anarchists, it's competitive market forces.

These different words carry mostly the same meanings. How so? The current U.S. constitution attempts to separate powers among different branches of the federal government and between the federal government, the states, and the people. Presumably, if a minarchist ever had a chance to amend the constitution, replace it, or start anew in some other place, they would extend this approach, opening up as much government activity to competition as possible, and institutionalizing rivalry where it is not yet seen. The only way I can make sense of minarchism is to suppose that its supporters hope to find mechanisms that enable each part of the minimal state to be restrained by the people or by some other part of the minimal state, in a way that makes collusion difficult. The minarchists will tolerate monopoly production in certain limited areas, but would put safeguards in place, such as high standards of transparency.  Separation of powers and rivalry sound a lot like competition to me. Think of the articles of confederation as anarchy with territorial DROs.

Tactical differences exist between and within the two rival groups, with slightly different attitudes toward voting, the nonaggression principle, taxes, etc. Minarchists seem to want something like the status quo but with lower taxes and smaller government. Anarchists are more likely to want/expect serious change in other institutions and ways of life beyond the mass devolution of government power. They are more likely to fall into the trap of radicals who think of all soldiers as war criminals, all policemen as corrupt brutes.
What do they have in common? They both want reasonable foreign policy, an end to the war on drugs, end the Fed, etc. And neither program can proceed until these goals have become broadly popular. The objective must be viewed as doable, as right, as worth doing. That is the big challenge facing both.

The typical minarchist objection to anarchy questions the stability or instability of a society without government. But how would such a society arise in the first place? This is mostly ignored by both sides. It's quite possible to believe that an anarchist society is possible and could be stable, yet still find no practical path from the status quo to this utopia. But similarly, minarchism might be possible but practically unobtainable. The U.S. constitution attempted to split the powers of government, to have rivalry (competition) within the organization itself, and some at least of the founders intended the states to have nullification power, for the states to protect people from the federal government, and for the federal government and voting by foot to protect people from the states. Yet these restrictions failed to prevent the various branches and levels of government from colluding to achieve the growth of the state.

Do anarchists and minarchists share a utopian vision vulnerable to the criticism of constructivist rationalism? Hayek's critique of constructivist rationalism argued that society is too complex for any individual or group to comprehend well enough to start over "from scratch" and build utopia in one wrenching frenzy. He thought that prices, customs, and legal traditions (especially common law) allowed society to solve problems that no one really undertands. Looking at the Soviet Union through the lens of this idea, the main problem was not the incentives or intensions of the people in the system, but the static nature of the system, the impossibility of knowing whether a new idea was an improvement or not, or whether changes in tastes, needs or other circumstances indicate that production of some good should change. Looking at the anarchist-minarchist debate similarly, we see that both sides employ some hand-waving in regard to the specifics. Some of them have convinced themselves that they know how society ought to be organized, but Hayek would not believe them.

Instead of arguing about abstractions, I am more interested in trying to think of concrete action I can engage in that will move society forward. I am not opposed to the experiments of others, so long as they allow my experiments to proceed, and in fact I expect each to benefit from the experience of the others. From that perspective, the minarchist-anarchist debate just wastes my time.

Marshall Fritz liked to point out, in slightly different words, that if either of these camps thought of a good solid step in the right direction, the other camp would almost certainly go along. We would have to take many steps toward freedom before facing a fork in the road where minarchists and anarchists must part ways. The real problem is finding that first step, we have no need to prepare for a decision we may never face. If we faced the task of building a society from scratch (neither to be expected nor truly to be desired), perhaps the an-min debate could shed some light on our path. Fortunately for us, we face a different challenge.

[need sections here on how to make incremental progress, limits of ordinary win-lose politics, how victory consists of changing popular attitudes about what is tolerable, what is worth experimenting with before dismissing]
This approach has some problems. There are large, politically well protected aspects of the state that can't be ignored yet do not seem vulnerable to an incrementalist approach - foreign policy, income taxes, debt, the fed, the war on drugs.

I think the homework assignment for minarchists is, come up with specific ideas for amending or rebooting the constitution that might actually limit the size of government. Similarly, the A-Cs need to get a proto-DRO happening. Even better would be for all of us to think of some way to run multiple experiments and let the system evolve.

What would Hayek have them do? He advocated incremental changes and mechanisms like common law. In his vision of common law, judges set precedent based on specific cases, which formed the default for following cases. If judges decide badly, those who are actually involved usually have an option to make contracts to get around the bad decision, or a legislature could correct the mistake. Hayek himself could be accused of rational constructivism, in his authorship of his book "The Constitution of Liberty" in which he took a first stab at solving the minarchists' problem, attempting to synthesize a design for a constitution that would preserve rights by examining the failures of previous constitutions. Perhaps the idea to take away is that whatever path we take we will make mistakes, so we need to prepare for failure as well as success, and force our new institutions to compete in some way with the old ones.

My spell checker wants to change all minarchists to monarchists. One little letter!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

reading "You are not so smart"

Actually I am listening to the audio book. It has lots of good stuff about biases. I am not sure how convincing it would be to an Objectivist, or a postmodernist, anyone with a strong prior attitude about how rational people are and what that means. This makes me want to blog about alternative hypotheses about human rationality.
A bias is a tendency, not a certainty. The author discusses a bias (forgot the name, can't flip back, darn audiobooks) where if you give evidence against someone's position they actually "double down" and become even more convinced of their own position.
But of course, this does not happen in every case, does it? Or else we change our minds in a different way, not by encountering evidence in an argument. If all these biases ruled every case, no one would ever change their minds. And we would probably all be prisoners of the same meme.
That is a specific instance of a more general criticism of such psychology experiments. Statistical significance is not the same as practical relevance. If showing me a picture of a pretty girl drinking a coke makes me 5% more likely to choose a free coke over a free pepsi afterwards, do I really care? On the other hand, it seems very likely to me that some biases, like confirmation bias, exert a strong influence on our lives, and we may be able to benefit greatly from learning how to recognize them and push back against them.

Posts and comments on this blog are licensed under the creative commons attribution-sharealike license. This is my first draft, I may come back and change stuff, including the license. Is that fair? No, probably not.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Truth and Action

What do I want to do? Which of my beliefs can I depend on with sufficient confidence to base my plans on them? Action needs truth. But sometimes the only way to find truth is trial and error.

I am pretty average, and I am vulnerable to the same biases, influences, and mental traps that send many into error. So if I know something general about people, it should apply to me too. And I must apply my skepticism to everything, including skepticism itself.
Where do our beliefs come from? Why do we sometimes change our minds suddenly, other times gradually, others not at all? We may respond to reason and evidence, but psychology throws some doubt on that. It is possible that our emotions influence our beliefs, or that unconscious brain processes may be at work, honed by evolutionary forces during our hunter-gatherer past to keep us viable as a part of a tribe, but ill suited to our lives as global infovores.
Even the wise, the good, and the powerful can be influenced or flim-flammed, so I'd better not get overconfident. Everyone can probably think of smart people or saintly types who agree with them on some controversial issue. We may find it more difficult to admit that the other side of some serious controversy also has a few brains and saints. I do not believe that anyone can truthfully say "Everyone who disagrees with me must be stupid or evil." Bias and influence lay traps for everyone, and even if I succeed in avoiding one trap, I need to watch out for the next. And if no one is exempt from these dangers, some of society's most central beliefs may be wrong.
Philosophy and psychology each describe some of the belief traps we trigger. Religion, politics, and economics sprout controversial beliefs for us to test. This is not a polite dinner party.
Join my cult. My cult has no charismatic leader. It does not demand that you donate your worldly fortune or labor or deny your family. My cult believes that we can challenge our beliefs, can train ourselves to resist dishonest influence, communicate fairly and honestly, and make space for those who disagree with us.
Action requires confidence. Wisdom requires doubt. Life requires us to balance them.

Posts and comments on this blog are licensed under the creative commons attribution-sharealike license. This is my first draft, I may come back and change stuff, including the license. Is that fair? No, probably not.

This blog - commenting and licensing

I intend for all the content I create and put here to be licensed with a creative commons license.
I think what this means is, anyone can quote it or use it in whatever fashion they like, so long as the derivative creation is also licensed as creative commons. I am not a lawyer or even particularly well informed, so I may have some details wrong.
I think the specific license is their attribution-share alike license. I'd like for anyone to be able to use the text in any way, even commercially, so long as they disclose that I was the author of whatever I wrote.
The share alike aspect is a bit more confusing to me. I certainly intend to share my ideas as widely as possible. I'm not sure I want to demand sharing for derivative works. It seems possible that I might change my mind about share alike.
If I can write a book or publish an article based on what I scribble here, I'd like to be able to do that. If someone comments on the blog and writes something interesting, I'd like to be able to include that. I intend to acknowledge the authorship of the comments, the degree that is possible. If someone published comments using a pseudonym, I'll give credit to the pseudonym. If I manage to get paid for the book or article, commenters will not get paid. Let them write their own-use my text if you like, just give me credit.
Of course, it is most likely that no such book or article will ever come into being, commercial or otherwise. But I want to make my expectations clear.