Monday, January 4, 2021

Libertarian puzzles #1: private property can simulate collective property

Libertarians like private property and dislike other kinds. For example, Hans-Herman Hoppe wrote an article titled “The ultimate justification of private property.” A charitable reader might interpret his thesis to claim only that private property is justified. I find it very tempting to go beyond that, and interpret it to mean that private property is justified and other sorts of non-private property are not. If Hoppe is innocent of this charge, I’m sure I could find others who are not.
The problem with that condemnation is that private property is very general and flexible. It can be used, along with contracts, to create other sorts of property. For instance, old-style Stalinist collective property would result if all property owners voluntarily donated their property to the state and also signed a contract agreeing to act as agents of the state, so that if they acquired anything that was not already owned, they agreed to homestead it on behalf of the state. So if we want to condemn Stalinist collective property, we have to look very carefully for something about it that distinguishes it from private property. Oddly, it seems as if the most significant difference might be the historical circumstances by which the property was collectivized. That has nothing to do with property norms, but instead depends only on persons succeeding or failing to interact voluntarily and make binding agreements.
Nozick pointed out that we can’t judge the justice of a situation by the pattern created alone. The historical events that led to the outcome can act to condemn or justify it. If a “good” outcome results from some participants dominating others, that does not succeed in justifying it. If a “bad” outcome results from everyone voluntarily obeying the established rules and customs, then perhaps we should condemn the rules, but we can’t condemn the outcome as such. So libertarian can’t automatically condemn esoteric property norms without first investigating whether those norms were adopted and are maintained voluntarily. All that is left is self-ownership.
This takes a bit of pressure off the so-called “left-libertarians,” who advocate alternatives to private property such as Georgism. But it also might contradict any basis they have for preventing dissidents from experimenting with disfavored property norms, including the possibility of returning to private property. How could they prevent this? They could treat their property norms as a permanent binding agreement, one which can never be terminated or modified. This seems to require overconfidence, to a degree that conflicts with the ideal of freedom they espouse.
So if I am correct in guessing that private property and contract can recreate any sort of serious property norm, then it follows that property norms do not determine whether the participants in a particular social arrangement should count as possessing liberty. What matters is whether they have chosen their arrangements and norms in some important sense, or had them imposed upon them without any significant option for replacing those they wish to abandon or reviving those they may regret having lost. If an arrangement has resulted from purely voluntary interaction, liberty remains intact.
That does not say that an outcome that arose through voluntary interaction could never be improved, just that such improvement can occur voluntarily.
Issues raised but not discussed:
  • What does “voluntary” mean when basic norms are being established or modified?
  • How “binding” can binding agreements be before they contradict liberty?
  • Can other kinds of property norms create private property?
  • What are the minimum criteria for liberty?
  • Can self-owners cause their self-ownership to end?

Friday, May 22, 2020

Consent determines ethics

I want to sketch out an idea that hasn’t yet formed fully. Various approaches to ethics take different things as fundamental. I want to consider consent. Most (all?) other candidates for fundamental concepts depend on consent. This raises questions about the range of choices we face with regard to consent.

Jonathan Haidt suggests that there are 6 moral foundations, care/harm, fairness/cheating, authority/subversion, loyalty/betrayal, liberty/oppression, a and sanctity/degradation. Gert lists ten prohibitions and a method for judging exceptions. MacIntyre advocates virtue ethics. And many people, perhaps beginning with Bentham, advocate consequentialism.

Care/harm doesn’t outrank voluntary/involuntary. Consent determines what counts as care or harm. The same doctor can make the same incision, but in one case it counts as care and in another it counts as harm, depending on whether the patient consents. Care and harm are never objective in the sense that we can draw lines between them that disregard the attitudes of the participants. (This excludes the case of minor children, who need a guardian to consent for them.) The ability of third parties to overrule the consent of a competent adult on the basis of care/harm qualifies as paternalism, where some subgroup of society chooses for the rest. When dealing with competent adults, we can’t use “it’s for your own good” as an excuse, even if it applies.

Haidt's other moral foundations also depend on consent. Those who possess authority can give consent to have their authority ignored or violated. Those to whom loyalty is owed can consent to waive the obligation. Those who are entitled to liberty can consent to be imprisoned. Those who are entitled to fairness can consent to being treated unfairly.
Sanctity is a difficult case, since god rarely shows up and so can’t give consent. But if god did appear, a violation of the sacred could be sanctified by its consent. In every case, Haidt's foundations evaluate a situation differently depending on the consent of the participants.

Flourishing works no better. What am I justified in doing to you for your own good or flourishing in spite of your refusal to consent? My intention may be good, but if I force unwanted help on you that can’t be moral unless you are a child. This is just care/harm wearing different clothing, it is either voluntary or paternalistic.

What about Gert's ten prohibitions? Same story, plus a procedure for making exceptions. The difference between murder and euthanasia is consent. Pain can be caused when the victim consents. Etc. I have reservations about some of Gert's prohibitions, but even if I stipulate Gert's prohibitions, all of them lose their strength when the supposed victim consents. Death, pain, disabling, deprivation of freedom or pleasure, violating promises, and neglecting duty very clearly depend on the consent of the person receiving the action. Deception, cheating and obeying the law complicate matters. I think I could consent to be deceived, but I can’t think of a realistic example. A magic show is too mild a deception. Cheating isn’t cheating if it is done with consent. It is even more dependent on attitudes of participants than the others. Disobeying the law doesn’t count as disobeying the law, if the law maker, enforcers, and victims all consent.

I need to think more about virtue ethics. I am less familiar with that topic. Some of it focuses on purely internal factors, only incidentally affecting others who might consent or not. My initial thinking is that virtue ethics does not give us grounds to overrule other competent adults' choices.

I need to think more about consequentialism, too. Many sorts of social change could provide a net benefit to people in general (though currently this is impossible to measure), but only rarely could do so without counting as a loss to some persons, at least in the short run. What possibilities can we consider?
  1. The subgroup that benefits decides for all, but compensates the losers.
  2. The subgroup that benefits decides for all, and imposes the change for “the public good” without compensating losers.
  3. Members of the subgroup that benefits change their behavior to conform to the new norms, leaving “losers” to decide for themselves how to proceed.
Did I leave any possibilities out? 1 is rarely used, while 2 and 3 are used frequently. 1 and 3 respect the consent of all participants. So although it isn’t impossible to reconcile consent and consequences, people sometimes feel justified in violating consent for the purpose of achieving some consequence. Apparently, if the winners gain enough, or if the losses of the losers are small or temporary, people feel justified in overruling the losers without compensating them. This might even be a superior outcome, if the “losers” are not really affected by the change, but just spoilers or free riders hoping for compensation.
That raises a question about how we ought to determine who can consent to what. But that will need to appear in another blog post.

This is a rough draft and may change. Comments invited.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Libertarian alternatives to regulation

Critics of libertarianism sometimes argue as if the libertarian position against centralized government regulation bases itself on the idea that only consumers’ willingness to pay for a product should restrain producers via boycott (e.g. Scott Alexander). Libertarians have the boycott tool in their toolbox, but that’s not all. I ignored this tendency toward error for a long time, then suddenly it turned around and looked at me. Are they such rank sophists, or do they actually know a lot less about libertarianism than I give them credit for? So what are they misunderstanding?
Libertarians are tediously predictable. Every solution offered by libertarians involves voluntary interaction based on private property and avoids unilateral decrees by an authority. So there is at least a bit of plausibility attached to this idea that laissez faire means no one does anything ever. But if libertarians are such absolutists when it comes to non-interference, how do they maintain their precious property rights? How do they even prohibit murder? If libertarians have no way to deal with producer externalities, do they have a way of dealing with anything at all? Should murderers be punished with a boycott?
Libertarians often get accused of oversimplifying reality, and in this instance the libertarian position is indeed quite simple. When someone violates your property rights, you sue them. A murder was committed? The victim owned that body, and the heirs can sue. Any serious dispute should be resolved by arbitration.
How would this work for cases of externalities or other targets of regulation? If the externality affects my property, e.g. pollution falls on my house and gets in my lungs, I have grounds to sue. At that point, the mechanism for resolving the conflict is the same as if a murder or theft had been committed. Libertarians may be overly optimistic with regard to the effectiveness of this approach, but that is not the same as suggesting that nothing be done.
Clearly, there are potential problems. Perhaps the process will be too slow. The persons arbitrating the case can take bribes or help out their friends. It may be difficult to find evidence of the tort. A little guy may not have the resources to take on a giant. One side of the dispute may try to intimidate the other. The arbitrators may honestly overvalue or undervalue the significance of the externality. More possibilities may occur to you. (E.g. David Friedman has pointed out that this approach can lead to absurd conclusions if taken as an absolute. If any use of your body whatever creates a tort or assault, I can’t point a flashlight at you.  But this theoretical problem solves itself in practice, as the expense of suing for photon assault wold be much higher than the appropriate restitution, unless we’re talking about a high wattage laser that does actual damage.)
None of this disappears when we wave the magic wand of regulation. Perhaps you feel skeptical about the idea that private arbitration can accomplish all this. Similarly, libertarians feel skeptical that government regulation accomplishes this effectively. The most salient difference lies in the different attitudes toward experimentation and innovation. Classic regulation takes a hostile view of experimentation, while tort liability remains indifferent ultimately to everything but results.
If tort liability is so great, why has it failed to deliver paradise in the past, and required the legislature to create regulatory bureaucracies and frameworks? Inadequacy of tort liability as a remedy is one possible explanation of what happened. I can think of two related alternatives. Perhaps tort liability was working fine and special interests lobbied to cripple it to bring about a more favorable outcome for themselves. Or perhaps our society made a different evaluation at that time, and chose higher production and higher employment over a clean environment. These two are not mutually exclusive. Then when people began to get tired of rivers that catch fire, government agents were happy to create a new bureaucracy to make sure rivers don’t catch fire.
Why would they do that, if all they needed to do was overturn some precedents or pass legislation clarifying liability? The cynic would answer that ambitious persons in government always want to create a bureaucracy to solve anything, as it expands their power, prestige, influence and budget. A more charitable historian might suggest that people had mostly forgotten how things got that way in the first place, and cultural attitudes favored a centralized top-down approach.
Reasonable persons can believe that tort liability can’t do as good a job of resolving externalities as centralized government regulation. This is an empirical question, though not easy to answer. Critics of libertarianism can either criticize this position or engage in sophistry by pretending it doesn’t exist. I wish to hear more from serious critics and less from sophists.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Three categories of interaction

We can interact voluntarily or involuntarily. Often we can choose between the two. And if we choose involuntary interaction, we can choose to give a reason for our choice or not. This creates three categories of interaction.
If we interact involuntarily without giving reasons, and I give you a command and threaten to retaliate if you disobey, can I object consistently when other people treat me the same way, or even worse? Someone who chooses to interact involuntarily without giving reasons silently presupposes that we don’t need to explain involuntary actions, at least not the sort they’re carrying out. So if one person doesn’t need to give reasons, no one needs to give reasons. 
Suppose that is wrong. Suppose I say that I need no reasons but you do. That sounds like special pleading. But more interestingly, I seem to imply I have a reason for my actions. There must be some reason that explains why I am free to do as I wish while you are not. Such a difference in status requires an explanation; otherwise you have no reason to restrain yourself and I have no grounds to object to your lack of restraint. But if that reason exists, I am not doing as I wish without having a reason, I am just refusing to provide my reason. My action presupposes not that I don’t need a reason and you do, but that I have a reason and you don’t. This contradicts my assumption that I need not give reasons for my involuntary actions. So if I say I need no reason to interact involuntarily with others, no one needs a reason when interacting involuntarily with me. I can hold the position that I need no reason while you do need one, but I contradict myself. If I say I have a reason but I won’t provide it, I am probably bluffing. If I act as if I need no reasons, then my actions presuppose that no one needs a reason. This provides a negative principle of reciprocity. (This resembles Kinsella's concept of libertarian estoppel.) It doesn’t say no one should turn the other cheek, it says that they have no logical requirement to do so. 

We could also frame this as, unjustified involuntary interaction implies reciprocity and justifies self-defense.

Is the principle of negative reciprocity normative or positive? It doesn’t label anything normal or abnormal, good or bad, permitted or forbidden. It just says I can’t remain logically consistent while objecting to other people acting the same way I do. If I want to be able to object consistently to things other people do, I need a reason when I interact involuntarily, one that could convince an impartial arbiter of my special status. This is a weak principle of society. If I don’t care what other people do and have no desire to object to anything, I can say no one needs a reason for anything; but then no one needs a reason for anything they do to me. Or I can say everyone needs a reason for interacting involuntarily, and I have one. It’s a choice.  
I think most people prefer reciprocity - don’t hurt me and I won’t hurt you. That goes a long way.
To summarize, we have three mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories of interaction we can sometimes choose among:
  • We can interact voluntarily, without need for justification.
  • We can interact involuntarily with a good reason.
  • We can abandon justification or reciprocity, but not both.
That leads to the next question: what sorts of reasons can justify involuntary interaction?

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Disqus Continued

“, would it be harmful for people to investigate living without taxation?"
> I'm sure you could guess what my response to this would be from my other post. 

Having me guess your position is risky. I am not immune to the Internet plague that has people projecting their various attitudes or caricatures of their intellectual opponents onto others. 

>I see taxation as retroactive adjustments in property holdings. Do I think we should live in a world in which each person decides, individually, whether to contribute towards public goals and projects like roads, police, courts, and a welfare minimum? No.

But that is not the question. At the most basic level, the question is why would you object to other persons investigating alternatives. Does this put persons who do not participate in danger? Or are you just being stodgy?

On a different level, the question is not whether we should fund shared benefits, but which benefits should we fund and how should we fund them. Unless the status quo is immune to all criticisms, we could at least consider the possibility of improving things. Most of the public services you mention are recent innovations, should we stop innovating? 

You may not want to live in such a world, but no one is forcing you to. Why do you wish to prevent others from trying it out? If an artificial anarchist island appeared in the middle of the ocean, would that destabilize the rest of the world? 

> I think we should decide together, collectively, the terms under which people have exclusive control over things, and how the burden of contributing towards public goals should be distributed.

We should or we do?

 And we could not do that without taxation? 

Do the differences between the various jurisdictions in the world disturb you? Or does the nation state have something special about it that gives it immunity to this principle limiting diversity?

> I think collective action and free rider problems would prevent public projects from being funded, and holdouts would hold large public projects hostage.

Assuming you see that as a bad thing, why do you think people would find it attractive? Or are you just hoping to prevent my imagined volunteers from making a mistake they would regret? 

>I just think periodic retroactive adjustments to property holdings is both necessary and a good thing.

Is this a moral principle; a scientific principle; or is it your subjective evaluation? Something else?

 Necessary for what, and good by what standard?

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Owning bitcoin

I just finished listening  to a podcast featuring Stephan Kinsella.  He basically reiterated his argument concluding that bitcoin is information, and therefore it cannot be owned. The following thought experiment occurred to me: 

Say I use a telescope to watch you type your password into your bitcoin wallet. I then use that password to transfer the entire balance from your wallet to someone else. You later come into possession of a video showing me doing this, and network logs corroborating that I am the one who transferred your bitcoin to someone else. When you confront me, I admit that I am the one who executed this transaction. If you take this dispute to a fair arbitrator, and none of the facts are in dispute, will the arbitrator decide that I have taken nothing from you and owe you no restitution?

Are bitcoins scarce/rivalrous? I can’t double spend the same bitcoin. If I have one bitcoin associated with a specific private key, I can’t use the same private key to transfer one bitcoin to each of several different new “owners”/controllers/private keys.  If I attempt this, and the bitcoin mining network behaves as designed, only one of these transactions will be completed.  I can make as many copies of my key, of my wallet or of the ledger as I like, but the use of the key and the ledger to transfer that amount can only happen once. The architecture of the software and the network (we hope) prevents double spending. It creates artificial scarcity. 

So is it scarcity that enables ownership, or physicality? Something else? 

Because of the way the bitcoin network is designed to protect identity,  it does not include a way to prove or establish title except to demonstrate that one has knowledge of the private key associated with a ledger entry.  But that is no different from demonstrating possession. There is no separate means to demonstrate justified possession, that is not a concept implemented by this system. Bottom line is, it would be very unusual and difficult to find convincing evidence regarding who actually carried out a transaction with a particular private key. It could’ve been the “rightful owner“, the person the owner is accusing of theft, or anyone else, the bitcoin network doesn’t know or care. Ordinarily, the person who received stolen goods could provide evidence regarding the identity of the source, but not in the case of a bitcoin transaction. 

Ownership is a social layer built on top of possession that distinguishes between justified and unjustified possession. While bitcoin eliminates much of the paper trail that helps establish ownership for ordinary items, its status as artificially scarce makes it capable of being owned. In this odd case, however, most potential owners of bitcoin prefer simply to possess it anonymously. While we could probably create a variant of bitcoin that allowed possessors to establish title to their bitcoin, or perhaps could use some separate mechanism to allow owners to establish and transfer title to their bitcoin,  that would defeat the purpose. The transparency required would undermine  the anonymity that gives bitcoin much of its appeal. 

 So, perhaps  we could own bitcoin, but we don’t want to. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Nothing depends on free will

We can't draw any practical conclusions or implications from the truth or falsity of the idea of free will.

Some critics of the idea of free will seem to think that this issue has important implications for the penal system and for how we treat criminals. If they could not have done otherwise, what good do we do by saying to them, "You should have done otherwise"? They seem to think that I might as well scold my Roomba for missing that spot in the corner and punish it by putting it in a box.

Let's assume they are right, that persons are just unusually complicated robots.

Whether we have free will or not, we can't change the past. "You should not have done that" never means "go back, erase what happened and do it differently". What we say to each other about the past, and what we do to each other in reaction to the past all orient on the future. 
If we are all robots, we are complicated robots that change their behavior depending on the complicated inputs we receive. "You should not have done that" might or might not cause a particular robot to change its behavior in the future. This is an empirical question depending on the programming of the robot and the other inputs, not on the truth or appropriateness of any moral judgement expressed. It is a counterfactual and an input to our processing. It has the (perhaps?) unusual property that it might work if the robot believes it, whether or not it is literally true. (Many social norms have a similar characteristic, that if everyone expects things to work in a certain way, and acts accordingly, things will work that way.)

This case presents a perplexing (perhaps rare) philosophical situation, where a statement about reality seems to make a strong distinction between how things are and how they are not, but persons who believe one variant have no reason to act differently from their philosophical opponents.

We can imprison people because we think they have free will and "deserve" it, hoping that they will "repay their debt to society" and perhaps learn from it, gaining some rehabilitation; or we can imprison people because we think they are robots and being imprisoned alters their programming in a positive way while keeping them away from innocent persons they might hurt. We can scold people because we think they have free will and scolding might change their attitudes, or we can scold them because we think they are robots and scolding might alter their programs. The truth of free will does not enter into the equation. People learn from experience and change their behavior in either case. If we can discover technical or environmental supports that help people act more responsibly toward each other, we can use them whether or not people have free will. Free will is not empirically observable, responses to interventions are.

Maybe "You have free will" is a lie. But maybe it is the sort of programming that helps hairy robots grow and develop. Or maybe it is harmful or irrelevant. These are empirical questions, but the empirical result does not reveal the truth value of the statement "I have free will".