Why I don't like to call myself an anarchist Thursday, September 28, 2006My political philosophy is essentially the same, at least in its conclusions, as that of anarchists such as Lysander Spooner, Murray Rothbard, David Friedman and Roderick Long. That being said, I hesitate to call myself an anarchist.
Why? Because I think the term obscures what it is that I'm actually objecting to.
Whenever I object to the actions being committed by persons acting on behalf of a state, I'm objecting to those actions themselves, without any special concern for whether or not those actions are being committed by persons acting on behalf of a state. For example, I would oppose anyone printing money and using it to manipulate the bond market. I would oppose anyone presuming the authority to reassign property rights just by calling a meeting, writing down a claim to property which before that meeting was not theirs and which the prior owner has not agreed to surrender, and then using the threat of violence to expropriate the prior owner. And so it goes with the wide range of activities that states so commonly engage in.
Specifically, I'm objecting to the acts, not to the fact that whoever commits those acts happens to be acting as an agent for a government. Whether the party engaging in those activities is acting on behalf of government doesn't make the least bit of difference to my normative evaluation. My objection is not to governments doing those things. What I have a problem with is governments doing those things.
Syndication issues Tuesday, September 26, 2006So you've not been able to get any recent posts through your newsreader, eh? It seems that this is a consequence of my switching to blogger beta. Here's the new feed. Apologies for the inconvenience.
Leftism and statism Sunday, September 24, 2006Chris Dillow, guest posting at Philosophy, etc. has an interesting post, "Against the statist left." I think he makes a lot of fine points that I wish more leftists would pay attention to.
That said, I can't help but think that there is an elephant in the left-libertarian living room. Consider the prescription Chris offers at the end:
What sort of policies would all this lead to? I suggest the left should support simple redistribution - a citizens' income - over complex interventions such as tax credits and minimum wages ...Suppose that someone would rather not provide funds to be redistributed. One way to deal with this is to respect that person's wishes, and leaving that person alone, but I don't see this option catching on with too many leftists. They'd rather have a state with the power to use violence in order to compel people to provide funds for a program of redistribution.
Well: once a state has that power, the power to fund its activities through involuntary contributions, the persons in the state can use that power in all kinds of ways that no left-libertarian would ever approve of. And the persons outside of the state will attempt to manipulate the persons in the state to turn the state into an instrument by which to plunder their fellow citizens. I'm not saying that any state with the power to tax will immediately become thoroughly corrupt; there may be institutional means to reduce the risk of such stuff or slow down the process, but all the institutions in the world can't reduce the risk to zero.
I'm also not claiming that this risk must be zero for Chris' prescriptions to make sense, at least given the left wing goals of a left wing libertarian. But it does have to be a good risk, one where the expected benefits outweigh the expected costs. Given the centuries long history of taxation, and the accompanying centuries long history of corruption and abuse, this risk doesn't seem like it could ever be a good one unless the benefits of redistribution are orders of magnitude greater than the harm done by bad governments. By my regular libertarian lights they are not, but even for someone who agrees with the goals of left wing libertarianism, this seems to be a long shot.
Here's a quick thought experiment for a left-libertarian:
Let's say we toss an unfair coin and if it lands with heads facing up, you get to live under a government that uses the power to tax in exactly the ways that you want and none of the ways that you don't want. If it lands with tails facing up, you get to live under some government selected at random from the last hundred years.
What would be the minimum P(heads) at which you would want to take this deal? Call that number X. Now to estimate the likelihood of a real government with the power to tax using that power as you hope, we can take a quick sample: What fraction of governments have historically used the power to tax in ways that you favor and only in the ways that you favor? Call that frequency Y. If Y < X, as I suspect, why do you think letting a government have the power to fund its spending through involuntary contributions is a good risk?
UPDATE: The post linked was by Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling, not by Richard Chappell, as I had earlier claimed.
Good sense from LvMI on immigration Saturday, September 23, 2006I've not been a huge fan of the position that the Luwig von Mises Institute has typically taken on immigration, which by my lights has amounted to "Prior interventions have created a set of circumstances in which immigration has the potential to cause problems. Therefore, the government should impose further interventions." The non sequitur there should be obvious, and apparently it is becoming more obvious to Jeff Tucker who notes that
"People who favor having federal goons arrest undocumented workers and send them home imagine that this is a great thing for American culture and society. But of course no government program quite turns out that way you expect it to."Well, of course! Well intended government programs have bad unintended cosequences all the time. Did anyone ever think a government program to control immigration would be exceptional?
Does Studying Mainstream Economics Make You A Bad Person? Friday, September 22, 2006Robert Vienneau recently asked the question in the title of this post. By his lights, the answer is yes. And the evidence: empirical research on the relative unwillingness of economics students to engage in cooperation. This is interesting, because it highlights (at least) one of the basic themes of modern leftism, which is the tendency to treat cooperation as ipso facto morally good. There are at least two ways in which this view is plainly wrong.
First, cooperation in and of itself is value-neutral. Cooperative behaviors can be good or bad, depending on what it is that people are cooperating to do. So empirical evidence about the tendency to cooperate can hardly be interpreted as an indication that people are good or bad. In this world, however, we can observe that while people might cooperate to do all sorts of things, in most cases where we see cooperation, it takes the form of some people cooperating against others. Unwillingness to engage in cooperation, and especially in this sort of cooperation hardly strikes me as an indication that someone is a bad person.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, those who hold the view that being cooperative is equivalent to being good (I would venture that this includes the authors of the papers Vienneau cites.) seem to be interested in only a small subset of the many types of cooperation. For example, getting a job, owning stocks and mutual funds, starting a business, establishing and honoring contracts, refraining from writing bad checks, etc., are also forms of cooperation. Whether or not people with formal economics training are more likely to engage in such forms of cooperation is an empirical question that I won't offer an answer to here. But it's disingenuous to claim that formal training in economics makes people less cooperative based only on an empirical investigation of the willingess of economics students to engage in a cherry-picked subset of the wide variety of ways that people can actually cooperate.
One form of cooperation where there is some strong empirical evidence to indicate that trained economists are more willing to cooperate involves the real world prisoner's dilemma inherent in representative politics. Alice can support negative sum policies that benefit her at Bob's expense, and Bob can support negative sum policies that benefit him at Alice's expense. Both would be better off if they cooperated to refrain from supporting any such policies (They are negative sum, after all.) but no matter what each party does, the other would benefit by defecting and supporting such policies. As the survey indicates, economists tend to be much less likely than the general public to support such policies.
All of that aside, what I find most troubling about such studies is the ease with which someone might derive a very Lysenkoist interpretation. Suppose that the study of mainstream economics increased the probability that a person would become a sociopath. Well: so what? Is that supposed to be a reason to teach or study some alternative version of economics?
 Yes, I do feel silly actually writing this out.
 Actually, this example shows one of the limits of any analysis concerned with whether or not people are cooperating. If Bob refuses for reasons of self-interest to contribute to some agitation group that wants to impose policies harmful to Alice, does this count as cooperation with Alice or non-cooperation with the agitation group?
A common mistake Sunday, September 17, 2006One argument that I often hear for redistributive policies is the Durkheim-eqsue notion that the wealthy owe some of their wealth to the persons they do business with or to "society as a whole." See the comments here for a recent sighting of this argument. A commenter writes
Every day to an extent people live off your labour and you live off theirs. For example if you make and sell Pizza, you live off the labour of all sorts of people from farmers to truck drivers and similarly they live off you, Maybe a market forms and some negotiation goes on and it determines how much each of you 'deserve' or maybe it doesn't..To be sure, yes, the wealthy benefit from living in society and from their exchanges with others. But it's a mistake to reason from the fact that the wealthy have benefitted to the conclusion that the belongings of the wealthy should be redistributed.
In addition the state provides some services - police to stop people stealing your pizza and roads for the truck drivers to travel on - again a market might form and you might negotiate these, or not.
Society as a whole provides important resources like "rules of the game" which define what is profitable and what is non profitable this serves the purpose of not forcing you to negotiate everything - because if you had to do that you wouldn't get anything done..
The idea that the wealthy owe something to the persons who they do business with is based on the neglect of the fact that those who do business with the wealthy, by agreeing to sell whatever it is that they sell, their labor or their goods, relinquish any claim to whatever the later proceeds of said labor and goods may be.
Suppose that I'm a greedy capitalist with a business of my own. I need various factors of production, including labor and raw materials, to make any money at what I'm doing. But once I pay for the factors, their sellers no longer have any additional claim to the proceeds from the sale of the final product. When I pay for some factor of production, I ask the seller how much she wants to relinquish her claim to that factor. When I pay her and she relinquishes that claim, there is no reason for her to claim that I'm "living off her labor." I've already compensated her for what I purchased, be it her labor, her goods, her knowledge or her time, and I've compensated her on the terms that she set and agreed to. It is no longer hers by the terms of the arrangement we made.
The idea that the wealthy owe something to "society as a whole" is flawed in the same way, but more importantly, even if this notion were correct it wouldn't justify any of the sort of transfers that people clamor for.
Suppose that the wealthy really do obtain their wealth from "society as a whole." In fact, just to be daring, assume that the wealthy obtain their wealth at the expense of "society as a whole." Well: So what? No one has ever proposed a way of transferring wealth from the wealthy back to "society as a whole." Every proposed transfer that I've ever encountered has been a proposal to do what would amount, in effect, to transferring wealth from some individuals to other individuals. To justify this, you have to show what claim the others have on the holdings of the some. Invoking that shibboleth of "society as a whole" amounts to a red herring.
 This seems too mmuch like a resurrection of the Marxist notion that if some party appears to be better off after an exchange, this party must have become better off at the expense of his trading partners and therefore owes his trading partners some compensation.
 I certainly don't believe this, but I'd be interested to know how anyone who rejects methodological individualism would determine what the wealth of "society as a whole" consisted of other than the sum of the holdings of all individuals.
Wings and Oysters Saturday, September 16, 2006
The praxeologically correct mode of preparation requires the use of a metal dish drainer to hold the oysters as the heat of the grill steams them. Gabriel Mihalache takes textbook author Guoqiang Tian to task over the fact that in a microeconomics text by that author, the sections congerning public goods have "no practical mechanism is given for a government to identify the optimum quantity of public goods and services, or for the actual rate of a Pigovian tax when there are many polluters or pollutes and so on."
I suppose that this shortcoming of the text is a actually a sort of perverse evidence in favor of the theory of public goods. Any such mechanism would be a public good in and of itself. According to the theory of public goods, we ought not to expect that such a mechanism will be provided.
This is the soft white underbelly of the public goods argument for state intervention into the economy: Ensuring that the state actually provides public goods is yet another public good. (That this goes unmentioned in nearly every textbook chapter on public goods is somewhat disturbing, as it would indicate either the author's unawareness of this important public goods problem, or the author's unwillingness to mention it.)
We can't just assume that the state will provide the efficient amount of this public good, because
1. This would amount to presupposing the effectiveness of the state as a provider of public goods. (It may be, but you can't just assume it.)
2. There is too much empirical evidence to the contrary. Real governments devote precious little effort to providing this public good.
At the same time, we can't assume that private actors will provide the efficient amount of this public good, because this would contradict the theory of public goods.
But a still more serious public goods problem remains besides ensuring that the state provides public goods: ensuring that the state isn't providing public bads. Governments enjoy the power to do what even the most successful criminal operations can only dream of. Ensuring that the agents of the state don't use such powers for their own benefit and also ensuring that aspiring criminals don't enter the government and use it as an instrument to their own ends is also public good. If this public good is underproduced, then society may well be worse off than if the state had never assumed such authority in the first place. If so, then the whole public goods argument for interventionist policy is undercut entirely. Unfortunately for those who would claim that the public goods problem justifies a big interventionist state, this underproduction is exactly what the theory of public goods implies.
Seeking Co-Blogger(s) Friday, September 15, 2006I'd like to expand Degrees of Freedom beyond a one person operation.
What I Get:
The ideal co-blogger would be exactly like me, and think exactly like me and write exactly like me. Well, not really. I'm looking for someone who shares the general outlook expressed here (libertarian, at least sympathetic to Austrian economics and absolute property rights, etc.) and who is willing to post at least on a weekly basis.
What You Get:
A soapbox. And (in case the thought occurred to you) a share of ad revenue, if any should ever trickle in. Don't count on this too much.
Leave a comment on this post with an email address that I can use to contact you.
Liberty is prima facie good. Coercion isn't. Tuesday, September 12, 2006The September 2006 Edition of Econjournalwatch is now available. It's all well worth reading, but Robert Frank's "Taking Libertarian Concerns Seriously: Reply to Kashdan and Klein" stands out, and not in a very good way. Here's one particularly notable passage.
But no matter how strong their preference for personal autonomy, libertarians with even a modest capacity for reason are forced to retreat from the most extreme versions of libertarianism. Some versions, for example, insist that all taxation is theft. But because of the free-rider problem, a nation in which tax payments were purely voluntary would be unable to field an army. It would eventually be invaded by some other country’s army, and its citizens would then be forced to pay taxes to the government of that country. So even people with the most extreme libertarian sensibilities generally concede the necessity of empowering government to collect taxes by force of law. They don’t like taxes but recognize that the alternative is clearly worse.I'm no stranger to this argument (every first year econ student encounters it) and I'd love to accept its conclusion. Seriously. Unfortunately, the conclusion doesn't follow so readily. Yes, there is a free rider problem in that free actors will likely try to free ride on everyone else rather than supply the necessary resources to prevent abusive behavior by an invading government. No argument there. But Frank's solution, to have some existing government with the authority to collect taxes that might be spent on defense, replaces one free rider problem with another.
If free actors will likely free ride rather than supply resources to prevent some invading government from abusing them, it stands to reason that free actors will also fail to supply the necessary resources to prevent abusive behavior by the government that Frank proposes. If Frank wants to make this sort of argument, he ought to show that the free rider problem inherent in his proposed solution is less bad than the free rider problem that his proposed solution is supposed to avoid. I mean, how can Frank just pass over one of the main libertarian responses to the argument he makes? His neglect doesn't appear to stem from unawareness of the issue, as he writes only a few pages later,
Merely discovering that an unregulated market allocation is inefficient, I tell [Frank's students], provides no assurance that a regulatory solution will be better.So how does Frank pass over an argument that he even makes to his students? Here's how:
Yet there remain a small number of extreme libertarians who reject all compromise. They denounce all taxation as theft and reject any attempt by the state to restrict their behavior as an infringement on their individual rights to do as they please. These libertarians are really just crybabies. [emphasis mine] Having long since forfeited any claim to be taken seriously in debate, they wield no power in defense of liberty.In other words, resort to name calling.
To be fair, Frank's subject was the degree to which taxes on positional goods are compatible with libertarianism, and not the degree to which the need for physical security justifies taxes. If his treatment of that subject was less than perfect, well, that's hardly an unforgivable offense. On the other hand, he commits the very same sort of errors in defending taxes on positional goods.
Sure, spending on positional goods may result in a sort of prisoner's dilemma. But allowing some people to forcibly take some of the belongings of those who buy positional goods results in yet another prisoner's dilemma: everyone is better off if the people who do the taking are constrained in how much they can take and what they may do with what they take. And yet no matter how much effort everyone else makes to constrain the takers, for each individual actor, the wiser choice is to defect and do nothing to constrain the takers rather than cooperate with everyone else in constraining the takers. It might be wiser still to expend whatever resources are necessary to become one of the people doing the taking. Would the prisoner's dilemma inherent in Frank's proposal be less bad than the prisoner's dilemma he seeks to replace? I don't know and Frank gives no reason to believe that it would be.
This illustrates what seems to be at the core of all consequentialist arguments against hard core libertarianism. We can think of a range of certainty where at one end, we are totally certain that freedom would be better than coercion. At the other end, we are totally certain that coercion would be better than freedom. Near the ends, there are spaces where we can be reasonably sure that freedom would be better than coercion or reasonably sure that coercion would be better than freedom. Between those spaces, there is a region where we are just not reasonably sure if coercion would be better or worse than freedom. For any issue in that region in between, most libertarians would argue that it's better to err on the side of freedom. Yes, we'll be wrong some of the time, but at least this way we can distribute our errors to do the minimum amount of harm. That seems to me to be a sufficient justification for such an approach.
For those who favor interventionist policies, especially those who favor interventionist policies and still want to think of themselves as libertarians, this is sure to be inconvenient. It leaves the greater burden with the side calling for intervention. Unfair as that may seem, I really see no other option that is defensible on consequentialist grounds. The only other option is to assign the burden of proof to whomever calls for nonintervention. For example,
This argument is an example of what my former colleague Richard Thaler has called “sufficiency bias.” When economists afflicted with this bias confronts an argument they do not like, they rebut it by offering an argument that demonstrates the logical possibility of [interventionist policies having a bad] result. And having done so, they seem to consider the issue settled.No. We consider the issue not sufficiently settled to justify coercion. When in doubt, we assume prima facie that liberty is the better option until the issue is settled to the contrary.
An analytical vice? Friday, September 08, 2006Some time back, Tyler Cowen claimed to have diagnosed the libertarian vice: assuming the quality of government to be fixed. I've never actually known a libertarian who assumed this, but Cowen knows more libertarians than I do, so I'll assume he's right.
There is another analytical vice that I do see lots of libertarians engaging in fairly often: responding to non sequitur arguments for statism by looking for a way to deny the antecendent instead of just pointing out the non sequitur. The general form goes like this:
Statist: The world is imperfect, therefore some people should be allowed to make allocative decisions with other people's belongings, even without gaining their prior consent.See, here's how it should go:
Vicious Libertarian: Ahh, but look carefully at the evidence you used to conclude that the world is imperfect. Did you consider the possibility that (insert possible objection)?
Statist: Yeah. We covered all the bases. We used Greek letters too.
Vicious Libertarian: Oh. (Libertarian continues to look for ways to undermine the evidence used to claim that the world is imperfect.)
Statist: The world is imperfect, therefore some people should be allowed to make allocative decisions with other people's belongings, even without gaining their prior consent.
Virtuous Libertarian: That doesn't quite follow.
Statist: But we're reality-based. And we used Greek letters.
Virtuous Libertarian: It doesn't follow in reality either. Or in Greek.
Just what we needed! Tuesday, September 05, 2006Apparently the wise central planners in the Pentagon have taken note of the widespread concerns about Iraq and the War on Terror and they have now reached a new course of action: Change the name!
According to Army Col. Gary Cheek, the Pentagon's chief of strategic planning, "If we can change the name ... and find the right sequence of events that allows us to do that, that changes the dynamic of the conflict."
You can't get to there from here! Monday, September 04, 2006Lately, my reading list has included the fairly recent Contemporary Debates in Epistemology. It's a good book, and the debate format is interesting.
In one chapter, Michael Devitt has a very curiously titled essay essay, "There Is No a Priori." I say curiously titled, because this seems to be a conclusion that Devitt could not possibly come to know from within the framework that he endorses. This seems to be a recurring problem with arguments for any sort of hard core empiricism: they tend to be self undermining. Recall that knowledge consists of justified true belief. Devitt's claim here is either untrue or, if true, it is unjustified. Ultimately, this claim is self undermining.
See, there are certain types of claims that can be known empirically. Claims taking forms such as (1) "There exists some x such that x is an instance of A," and (2) "There exists some x such that x is not an instance of A," are both fair game for the empiricist as are claims taking more complex forms such as (3) "There exists some x such that x is an instance of A and x is an instance of B."
To be formal, we might write these sorts of claims as
3. (∃x)(Ax · Bx)
At the same time there are also some types claims which cannot be known empirically. For example, (4) "There exists no x such that x is an instance of A," and (5) "For all x, x is an instance of A."
More formally we might write
Devitt, in fact, provides a fine example of this limit to empirical knowledge when he mentions the discovery of black swans in Australia. We can have empirical knowledge of the first and second types of claims listed above. That is, our senses are adequate to tell us that there exist some swans which are white and there exist some swans which are not white. (gray swans, for example) But no amount of experience is sufficient to give us knowledge the fourth and fifth types of claims. Our senses can never be adequate to tell us that there exist no black swans or that all swans are white or gray.
And here's the trouble. The claim that Devitt wants to argue for is that (6) "there exists no x such that x is a way of knowing and x does not depend solely on the senses," or to be formal about it,
6. ¬(∃x)(Kx · ¬Sx)
where Kx denotes "x is a way of knowing" and Sx denotes "x depends solely on the senses."
However sophisticated Devitt's arguments for this claim may be, this claim is, like (4), of a sort that could never be known empirically. It is either unjustified or false. If this claim is true, then it cannot be known empirically because knowledge consists of justified true belief. If this claim is false, then it cannot be known empirically because knowledge consists of justified true belief. If this claim is known at all, then it is certainly not known empirically, in which case a contradiction is reached.
 For example, consider the logical positivist claim that all statements are either synthetic or analytic. To which category does this claim belong?
 I'm supposing here, for the sake of argument that these sorts of claims can be known be appeal to experience alone. If this assumption is wrong, then so is Devitt. If this assumption is correct, and my argument is otherwise without fault, then again Devitt is wrong.
Case study in the ticking of leftists: Matt Yglesias Saturday, September 02, 2006To continue on the matter of what makes leftists tick, here's a little case study.
Matt Yglesias writes
... I've learned a lot from my various libertarian friends, from my seminar with Robert Nozick, from libertarian blogs, etc. and I think public choice economics is a very important perspective. The upshot of this is that, as a general matter, I'm considerably less enthusiastic about regulatory solutions to policy problems than are most liberals.So we're back to the same stumper as before: The tendency of leftists to react as they do to such arguments must be based on something. What is that thing and what would be sufficient to convince a leftist to abandon it?
Sadly, though, the upshot of my libertarian-infused cynicism has mostly been to push me left of where I used to be on domestic policy issues."
Or as I asked in the comments there,
"Is there any change in your level of cynicism toward government that that would push you away from leftism? I mean, it seems to me that you can either become less cynical or more cynical about government. You tell us that an increase in your cynicism has pushed you left. Would a decrease in your cynicism toward government push you in a more e.g. libertarian direction, or would both of these push you to the left?"