Particularistic thinking about the state doesn't have to be normative Thursday, August 28, 2008It's not at all uncommon to encounter views which treat governments as some sort of an exception to normal reasoning about normative claims, e.g. "Taxation isn't theft because the government is the party doing the taking," and "War isn't mass murder because the government is the party organizing the killing," and so on.
But such errors in reasoning are not limited to normative issues. There is a fairly common argument aimed at the justification of the state which treats claims about the state as exceptions to normal causal reasoning:
If a market (perhaps with some well chosen set of characteristics) hasn't existed in the absence of a government before, then (it is claimed) such a market can't exist in the absence of government.No doubt, one can choose a set of characteristics such that no market has ever existed with those characteristics in the absense of government.
The person making such an argument takes a logical relationship for a causal one. Suppose that to this day, no market had been observed to exist apart from thieves. This observation could be generalized to the claim that if a market exists somewhere, thieves exist there too. If this generalization were true, one would be correct to say that the existence of thieves is a logically necessary condition for the existence of a market and the existence of a market is a logically sufficient condition for the existence of thieves.
Would it be correct to say that the existence of thieves is a causally necessary condition for the existence of a market? Of course not.
As I've worded it here, the fallacy is plain. It's no less a fallacy concerning government than concerning thieves.
 I don't understand why those who make this argument trouble themselves so much over precisely what characteristics such as growth rates, differentiation of goods, and so on a stateless market must have in order to show that markets don't need government. If this argument held water, an empirical generalization with a handful of exceptions would be convincing enough.
 Nearly any theory of causal relationships concerning markets and thieves could accomodate the fact that where markets are observed to exist, thieves are also observed to exist. A Marxist would posit a common cause: greed. An apologist for thieives would claim that markets need thieves to drive away other thieves. A supporter of markets and property rights would claim that the wealth generated by markets attracts thieves.
Logical Positivism Mk. II, meet Logical Positivism Mk. I. Monday, August 04, 2008Eliezer has responded to my previous post concerning the uncanny resemblance between the logical positivism of the last century and the philosophy he seems to be building.
While I presume Eliezer means to distinguish his philosophy from positivism Mk. I, he only demonstrates his lack of familiarity with it. He writes:
Logical positivists were best known for their verificationism: the idea that a belief is defined in terms of the experimental predictions that it makes. Not just tested, not just confirmed, not just justified by experiment, but actually defined as a set of allowable experimental results. An idea unconfirmable by experiment is not just probably wrong, but necessarily meaningless.This shows that Eliezer is probably unfamiliar with Logical Positivism, Mk. I, not that his own ideas are different from it.
I would disagree, and exhibit logical positivism as another case in point of "mistaking the surface of rationality for its substance".
Consider the hypothesis:On August 1st 2008 at midnight Greenwich time, a one-foot sphere of chocolate cake spontaneously formed in the center of the Sun; and then, in the natural course of events, this Boltzmann Cake almost instantly dissolved.I would say that this hypothesis is meaningful and almost certainly false. Not that it is "meaningless". Even though I cannot think of any possible experimental test that would discriminate between its being true, and its being false.
The first bunch of positivists didn't believe actual verification had to take place, or that it had to be physically doable, for a claim to be meaningful. The most commonly referenced illustration of this point, from Ayer's Language, Truth & Logic is the positivist treatment of the claim that mountains exist on the far side of the moon. At the time of Ayer's writing, no human was able to verify this claim in practice, but that was no problem because the claim was verifiable "in principle" i.e. the claim specified something about a physical state of the world. The only difference between the old and new positivism in this regard is more colorful language. Positivists of the Mk. I variety spoke of claims being verifiable in principle rather than in metaphors about rent.