The latest wave of communicational cleverness has made face-to-face meetings to spread good ideas both easier to organise, and more necessary to organise. Easier, obviously. More necessary because it now takes much clever thinking and cooperative enterprise to get good ideas heard and acted upon in this new media hubbub, just as it used to when the media were dominated by a few megaliths.
There was, I now realise, a joyous interlude when good ideas had the run of the blogosphere and those who might have been using the blogosphere to spread bad ideas instead mostly just waited for the good ideas to go away. But now the bad ideas are back with a vengeance, never having gone away – just having been temporarily heckled a bit, and now different skills and energies are needed to get the good stuff said and done, and in much the same considerable quantities as two decades ago.
There are now so many meetings, just in London, of the kind I am inclined to be attending, that I myself have taken to sending out reminders when my own last-Friday-of-the-month meetings are imminent, and I greatly appreciate it when others do the same. Nobody has yet complained to me about my reminders. Several have said thanks. (My speaker this month, by the way, will be Samizdata’s own Rob Fisher, who will talk about the impact that open source software is having on the world.)
So it was that I was very glad to receive this, this morning:
Liberty League Freedom Forum 2013 is this weekend!
The conference is just a day away, and we have well over 200 people signed up. LLFF will be the largest gathering of classical liberal and libertarian students and young people in the UK, and the second largest this side of the Atlantic!
If you haven’t seen it already, make sure to check out the Full Conference Pack, with timetable, maps, session descriptions, travel directions and more, here.
More here, and what I earlier said about this event here: here.
Another meeting I will soon be attending is this evening, organised by Libertarian Home at the Rose and Crown in Southwark, and addressed by our own Adriana Lukas. Details here. Get there
at between 7pm and 8pm (which is when the talk starts).
Reminding people about your meeting involves the same kind of humility that is involved in repeating good ideas. People don’t necessarily hear things the first time you say them, and if they do they often forget them, especially when they now have so many other things to be attending to. And even when they have told you that they will definitely be attending your meeting, your meeting is not likely to be the biggest thing in their lives, and they are entirely liable to forget all about it until several days later. Unless they get a reminder.
Last night being the last Friday of March, there was a meeting at my place, as already flagged up here. But it was also Good Friday, so I did a bit of extra hustling and emailing around beforehand to ensure some kind of turnout. It worked. Great talk, and there were nine libertarian-inclined Londoners present in the form of: two Americans, a German, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, a New Zealander and three Englishmen.
I neglected photography at the January meeting, which I already regret, and did hardly any better at the end of February. This time I tried harder, this being one is my favourite snaps from last night:
Those are two of the three Englishmen who were present, the other being me. On the right there is speaker for the evening Richard Carey, and on the left Simon Gibbs, both of Libertarian Home fame. Gibbs was not rudely ignoring the conversation and catching up on his emails; he was looking up names and titles that were being mentioned in the conversation. I particularly like the potato crisp in Carey’s left hand at the very bottom of the picture.
The talk was everything that I personally was hoping for. There was lots of biographical detail of who the key early Austrians were (Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Wieser) and what kind of intellectual context they were operating in and what they said. And then the same for the later figures of note (von Mises, Rothbard). Other twentieth century figures were mentioned. Given how admiringly Carey spoke about him, I was particularly intrigued by Frank Fetter, only a name to me until now.
Carey made no attempt to disguise the fact that he is a recent arrival to the task of getting his head round Austrian Economics, which for me was a feature rather than a bug, just as I thought it would be. And he made no attempt to suggest that he understood more than he actually did about the subject. His talk entirely lacked that sub-agenda that you so often sense with some speakers, that half the point of telling the story is to tell the story, but the other half of the point is to prove how very clever and well informed the speaker is, more so than he actually is. That Carey had no time for such nonsense only made me admire his intellect all the more.
I had been expecting that the abstract theorising about what it all meant, what the intellectual guts of it all consisted of, would come at the end. The economic way of getting stuff versus the political way, trade versus stealing, individualism versus collectivism, the subjectivity of value, and so forth. Actually that bit came, at some length, at the beginning, so much so that I at first feared that all that biographical detail that I had been so looking forward to would be somewhat skated over. But all ended well, and I learned a great deal.
I did not record this talk in any way. However, Simon Gibbs, the man on the left in the picture above, has already invited Richard Carey to do a repeat performance of this talk for Libertarian Home, and a video camera will presumably then be running. Meanwhile, I am very happy for Carey to have given this talk a first outing in friendly surroundings, and for him to get some early feedback on it. I find that I am making a point of getting speakers to speak about things they’ve not spoken about before, but will undoubtedly be speaking about again, for just these sorts of reasons.
Two books were mentioned in the course of the discussion afterwards that I intend to investigate further.
Christian Michel mentioned this collection of lectures by Michel Foucault, in one of which he apparently said something embarrassingly (given the kind of people who were listening) nice about the free market as the only place where freedom actually happens, or some such surprising thing. I’ve already emailed Christian asking for chapter and verse of the quote in question.
And second, Aiden Gregg (who is an academic psychologist and who has already been fixed to speak at a later one of these meetings) mentioned the writings of somebody called Larken Rose, a new name to me, and in particular this book, which appears to cover similar ground, albeit in a somewhat different style, to that discussed in Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority, which has been written about here recently.
Evenings like this don’t have any immediate world-changing impact, but every little helps.
“I want a “leave me alone” society — one where Christian schools can turn people away for rejecting their doctrine, just as gay rights groups can reject those who don’t share their beliefs. I don’t want us all to get along — not because I’m misanthropic (well, not just because I’m misanthropic), but because I know that “consensus” is usually a fancy word for muting minority viewpoints. I want us all to be free to be annoyed with each other from our separate corners. Is that too much to ask?”
- Troy Senik
He’s writing about Michael Bloomberg, who is up there with Hugh Grant and George Galloway in my current “rogues’ gallery”. Competition for membership of the gallery is proving quite competitive at the moment.
The speaker at my next Last Friday of the Month meeting will be Richard Carey of Libertarian Home, and the title of his talk is: Austrian Economics: What It Is and How It Relates To Libertarianism.
And yes, Friday March 29th is not any old Friday. It is Good Friday, which may thin out the ranks of attenders somewhat. Not too much, I hope.
About what he will be saying, Richard Carey says this:
What I intend to look at is as follows: the Austrian School: what it is; what it was; its relationship to libertarianism and its relevance to today. I’d like to look at how it fits into the development of economic thought, its distinguishing features, the main protagonists, some of the most important works. If the task of answering such questions is beyond me, I should at least be able to provide a guide to where such answers can be found.
Here is some video of Richard Carey talking on another subject, about doing libertarian politics. And here is the list of his recent bloggings for Libertarian Home.
I have a very selfish motive in getting Richard Carey to talk about Austrian Economics, which is that I personally find it rather hard to get to grips with this subject, and with subjects like this. What I mean by “subjects like this” is subjects which consist of a lot of logically interconnecting concepts, each of which you have to understand, and the interconnections between which you likewise have to understand, in order to make sense of it all.
What makes me want to make sense of Austrian Economics is that I have become entirely convinced, as have millions of others in recent years and decades (years especially), that Austrian Economics doesn’t just supply the best explanation of what has been going on in the financial world lately (and for that matter for the last several decades and even several centuries); it supplies the only explanation. All else in the way of economics is statistically disguised, fumbling, blundering nonsense, enlivened with many amusing details and incidental truths, but nevertheless, underneath it all, when it comes to the most important questions of all, just plain wrong. I already feel about Austrianism (as I like to abbreviate it) in the way many self-declared Marxists felt about Marxism when the Great Crash and then the Great Depression were unfolding. They didn’t really understand Marxism, but they had heard enough to be utterly convinced that This Is It, as in: This is the place to keep looking to work out what the hell is happening, and what the hell to do about it. The difference being that whereas the Marxists were all deluded and stuck up an intellectual and political blind alley, the Austrianists, and I, are not.
My problem is that I find the great Austrian School writings very hard to actually read, and I typically find your average spoken exposition of Austrianism, by someone long steeped in the subject, very hard to follow.
Part of this is that I am a slow and easily distracted reader, slow partly because so easily distracted, but also just slow. And when listening to a talk, I likewise get easily distracted (for example with trying to get my head around the previous interconnected concept but one, even as the latest one is being expounded), and if the talk is the kind of talk with a logical thread to it (as it so often is when the subject is Austrian Economics), any distraction guarantees that I lose that thread.
But I have another problem, which is that a great deal of Austrian School writing consists of belabouring the obvious.
→ Continue reading: Why I am looking forward to Richard Carey’s talk this Friday about Austrian Economics
I have to confess, as an ignorant inhabitant of North America, that I don’t really understand the current press scandal in the U.K., and I was hoping that perhaps someone could enlighten me.
As I understand it, a number of members of the press committed crimes in the course of gathering material for stories — that is, they committed acts that were already illegal, and which already carried substantial penalties.
It would therefore seem that preventing such acts in the future would require nothing more than diligently enforcing existing law.
I’m therefore curious as to what purpose is articulated for ending freedom of expression in the U.K.
Is it claimed that the laws were not being enforced before on the powerful? Then surely the new restrictions on freedom will be selectively enforced as well, with only the weak being stifled. (That is, of course, universal — the powerful never need permission to do anything. Freedom is a protection for the weak, the strong need no protection.)
Is it claimed that performing criminal acts was somehow insufficiently illegal? Is it claimed that the existing laws against criminal conspiracies are not already broad, vague and all-encompassing?
All too frequently, when it is discovered that merely making acts illegal is insufficient to prevent them from happening, rather than trying to see to it that existing law is enforced, the craven panderers to the outraged (by which I mean our supposedly elected masters) simply propose to make a crime doubly illegal, triply illegal, or quadruply illegal, as though multiplying the number of ways in which some act is forbidden is a magically all-potent and riskless remedy.
Anyway, to return to my original question: as someone who (for once) lives in a sane country, that is to say a place where there is a near-absolute protection for freedom of speech and the press which is beyond being destroyed for the political expediency of the moment, and who is not immersed in the discussion of the bout of temporary insanity now gripping your island in the Atlantic, might I ask what the point claimed here is? What is the putative purpose of making things that were illegal before even more illegal? Is there one, or is this just an exercise in appeasing a bunch of outspoken members of the professionally offended classes?
From Michael Huemer’s brief summary (right near the end of “Analytical Contents” – p. xxv) of Chapter 13 (“From Democracy to Anarchy”) Part 4 (“The Influence of Ideas”), of his newly published book The Problem of Political Authority:
The eventual arrival of anarchy is plausible due to the long-run tendency of human knowledge to progress and to the influence of ideas on the structure of society.
I originally had that up as a Samizdata quote of the day, but there already is one. Apologies for the muddle. However, I didn’t want either to scrub this posting or just leave it hanging about, so instead I am elaborating a little.
I think the word “plausible” in the above quote is apt. We can’t assume this kind of thing. But that doesn’t mean there is no reason to hope for such a thing. Why else would we be bothering?
I now have my copy of this book, and a brief glance through it suggests that there is plenty more SQotD material in it. Indeed, it seems to be the kind of book where you could pretty much pick an SQotD out with a pin.
Why don’t I try that? Let me open the book at random, and pick a paragraph at random, and see if it works as a disembodied quote. There are 365 pages in the entire book. Here is a paragraph from page 234:
But war is, putting it mildly, expensive. If a pair of agencies go to war with one another, both agencies, including the one that ultimately emerges the victor, will most likely suffer enormous damage to their property and their employees. It is highly improbable that a dispute between two clients would be worth this kind of expense. If at the same time there are other agencies in the region that have not been involved in any wars, the latter agencies will have a powerful economic advantage. In a competitive marketplace, agencies that find peaceful methods of resolving disputes will outperform those that fight unnecessary battles. Because this is easily predictable, each agency should be willing to resolve any dispute peacefully, provided that the other party is likewise willing.
Not original, but not bad. And again, plausible.
I share Michael Huemer’s optimism about the influence of (good) ideas on society. If I did not, I would occupy far less than I actually do occupy of my life arriving at and stating my own ideas, and publicising the ideas of others, such as Michael Huemer.
Buried in among the comments on this SQOTD is a disagreement between Jaded Voluntaryist and Rob Fisher.
There are certain positions that it is unwise to try and debate rationally – specifically because they are not rationally held positions. … nothing you say is really likely to change the minds of such people.
But have the debate anyway. Those who overhear it might then be prevented from joining the wrong cause.
I agree with Rob Fisher entirely. Jaded Voluntaryist says, and then repeats, that the people (“such people”) you argue with are beyond argument, which may be so. (Alternatively, they may just not want to argue with someone who keeps telling them they are being irrational.) But JV seems to me to ignore the point about those onlookers. Onlookers, particularly the silent ones, are what propaganda is all about.
Closely related to the point about arguing with those whom it is impossible to argue with, so to speak, is the virtue of repetition. Keep on having the arguments.
Repetition is actually humility. Repetition is recognising that what you say won’t reach the whole world, the very first time you say it. If others won’t repeat it for you (which is actually what reaching the world consists of), then if you think it deserves to reach at least a bit more of the world than it did first time around, you will have to repeat it yourself.
In the comments on this excellent posting at Counting Cats (a posting which restates some ancient truths about incentives but puts them in an academic rather than an “economic” context – highly recommended), you will observe commenters, many of their names being familiar from here, repeating to one another (as is entirely appropriate) many of the above truths about the need to keep on arguing. Are they talking only to themselves, echoing in their own echo chamber? No. One hitherto silent reader joins in, to say:
Keep it up guys, well done. … Every little anecdote helps.
I and many others have said all this many times before, which is because it deserves to be said again and again.
Michael Huemer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, recently released a book called “The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey” that has made quite a splash in some libertarian circles.
As just one example, Bryan Caplan recently implied in a blog posting that he believes it to be the best book of libertarian political philosophy ever written.
I have not quite completed reading it, but I have already come to the conclusion that Bryan is absolutely correct. The book is a gem, destined to become a classic, and any serious libertarian should have it on their shelf near their copies of the works of Hayek, Rand, the Friedmans, and the rest of the pantheon. They should even, dare I say, read it.
(And with that understated endorsement, on to my review.)
One of the divides within the libertarian community is the debate between minarchists and anarchists — that is, between those that believe a night watchman state is a good idea, and those who are skeptical of the notion of any state at all. Outside of libertarian circles, of course, the question gets scarcely any attention at all, and it is generally assumed that the state is both a practical necessity and morally justified.
The topic that Humer’s astonishing tour de force concerns itself with is the moral and ethical underpinnings of state power, an area known in political philosophy as the problem of political authority.
In considering the justification for the state, a nagging question naturally arises. Most people would claim it is morally impermissible for your neighbor to force you to give money to a charity of his choice at gunpoint. However, in stark contrast, most people would claim it is permissible for the state to do essentially the same thing, that is, to extort taxes from you using the threat of force in order to spend those funds on projects other than your own.
Most people appear to claim there is an important difference between these cases — otherwise, they would not believe in the legitimacy of the state.
The eponymous problem of political authority is the question of what the distinction between these cases might be — on what basis, if any, might we justify this difference in treatment between the behavior we consider ethically justified from individual actors versus the power we accord to the state.
Huemer systematically addresses the justifications that have been articulated for political authority over the centuries, from hypothetical social contract theory to consequentialism and everything in between. I will give away the punchline by noting that his arguments would appear to fatally damage all of them.
Political philosophers generally start by attempting to construct a complete moral framework within which they justify their positions. Huemer takes an entirely different approach. He does not assume that we all agree on a single universal moral framework. He only assumes that most of us generally share similar moral intuitions about certain sorts of situations in the average case. (The strongest sort of assumption he demands is that his reader agree that beating people up without provocation is usually bad.)
Because he demands that the reader agree with him on so few things and so weakly, Huemer’s argument gains enormous strength, since there is no need to accept an all-encompassing ethical theory to believe the rest of his arguments.
On the basis of very pedestrian ethical assumptions, Huemer manages to build a case against any moral justification for political authority whatsoever. He engages, attacks and destroys arguments of all sorts with panache. Even John Rawls famous “A Theory of Justice” (perhaps the most cited work written in philosophy in the last century) is mercilessly examined under bright lights and staked through the heart.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is the simplicity and lucidity of his prose. Unlike many of his academic peers, Huemer’s writing is crystal clear and (nearly) jargon free. A bright ten year old would have no difficulty with the language. He does not seek to conceal weakness beneath an avalanche of polysyllabic words and mile long sentences. Instead, he makes his arguments so straightforward to understand that there is little or no room to disagree with him.
I am uncertain as to whether Huemer will persuade many people. As Swift once observed, “it is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” Most people hold their political positions not as a result of rational contemplation but because they were exposed to a set of ideas at an early age and have an emotional attachment to them that is not easily altered. The fact that Huemer is arguing for unfamiliar idea that goes against most conventional wisdom is probably more important to the average reader than the razor sharp edge to which he has honed his arguments.
Never the less, in a hypothetical world in which all chose their views on the basis of rational consideration, Huemer would be changing hearts and minds by the trainload.
“I had spent most of my life in a world where the Soviet Union had been destroyed. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, we felt that we had finally defeated global Marxism. Ronald Reagan and the United States had taken down the single largest depository of communism on the planet, and we’d done it without firing a direct shot. The whole world could see that communism didn’t work – its failure was on display for the entire globe to look at and say, So much for that. At least that was what we thought.”
- Andrew Breitbart, Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save The World, page 105.
Even by the standards of the authortarian depravity of people who work in the West’s places of higher education, this caught my eye:
“Against Autonomy is a defence of paternalistic laws; that is, laws that make you do things, or prevent you from doing things, for your own good. I argue that autonomy, or the freedom to act in accordance with your own decisions, is overrated — that the common high evaluation of the importance of autonomy is based on a belief that we are much more rational than we actually are. We now have lots of evidence from psychology and behavioural economics that we are often very bad at choosing effective means to our ends. In such cases, we need the help of others — and in particular, of government regulation — to keep us from going wrong.”
Via the website of Stephen Hicks.
Read the whole thing. And look at the sort of coercive measures she favours, such as over the number of children that people have. Here is the book.
The other day, we had a debate on this site about free will and determinism. It is a debate that goes back centuries. For what it is worth, I am on the side of those who believe that human beings, by their very nature, have volition – it is hard to see how humans can form concepts, judge and reason without a volitional capacity. Here is a great discussion of the issues over at Diana Hsieh’s Philosophy in Action blog.
Now, some people argue, this is all very academic. But as the example above shows, once supposedly “academic” and “scientific” people put about the idea that we are nothing more than puppets in a deterministic universe, certain consequences follow. It can – although it needn’t – lead to fatalism and nihilism. It can also mean that certain intellectuals and the like, rather as the Marxists of old, consider themselves able to rise above the herd, diagnose the ills of we meat-puppets, and lead us “for our own good”. Just as a Marxist would shout “bourgeois illusion!” if a person ever contested such ideas as historical inevitability, so today’s modern determinists, such the Sam Harrises, do the same in suggesting that our free will/volition is also an illusion.
And Harris’ recent forays into the world of political philosophy give us a good idea of how collectivist such people frequently are. Here, by the way, is an excellent short book by Tim Mawson, a philosopher, on the free will issue – it has a huge bibliography at the back which is also very useful.
Some things change and some things stay the same. And it seems that one constant debate is that between those who think that Man is, to an extent anyway, the master or author of his own story, and those who would rather Man just did what he was told, for his own good, of course. Well, I know which side I’m on.
Update, via the Art and Letters Daily website, I came across this rather soft-ball review of the book by a certain Cass Sunstein, one of those unashamed paternalists whom, it pains me to say, seem to be popular with the current political class. (But even he has reservations about this book.)
Over at the blog Gene Expression – a site focusing on issues such as inheritability of certain conditions and traits – I left a short comment in response to an article, entitled, Human Nature and Libertarianism:
“I guess a short answer is that anyone who argues that our inherited traits outweigh things such as our volition and capacity for free will (not necessarily using those words in the old religious sense) will find it to be an unreliable guide to their politics. Some Darwinians seem to be socialists, some on the right, some libertarian. The truth of the insights of Hayek, or Milton Friedman, or Ludwig von Mises, say, are not in my mind remotely affected one way or the other by whatever might be the latest insights from evolutionary psychology. I am concerned if issues of political philosophy (the proper role of the state, individual rights, whatever) are placed at the mercy of the laboratory.”
I suppose I should add that there are useful insights, of course, that can be drawn from scientific studies that try to get at how and why people hold the views they do, although I think these things need to be treated with a great deal of care.
I conclude, then, that it is not good long-term libertarian propaganda to argue for various alternative systems of politics, or incremental political changes, on the basis that they are somewhat better than what we have now and they are more easily achievable than radical libertarianism. For such a strategy can only waste endless time in endless compromise, while failing to explain properly the libertarian alternative and thereby making converts. It is far better to argue immediately and always for the radical libertarian option.
- Jan C Lester puts the case for libertarianism and against compromise in a talk, entitled “Democracies, Republics and other unnecessary evils”, which he gave to Libertarian Home at the Rose and Crown in August of last year.
I first heard Lester speak these words while watching this video of the event, but I was later able to copy and paste them to here from this full text of the talk, also made available by Libertarian Home.