Creating more value in an economy would do more than wealth redistribution to combat the harmful effects of inequality.
– Tyler Cowen, in a review about a much-discussed book by Tom Piketty on the subject of inequality. Piketty favours a lot of heavy state activity to control and reduce said inequality. Now, it is easy to just default to the standard libertarian line and say that fretting about such inequalities is just an excuse for a statist power grab. The fact is that the sheer gap in wealth we can see today is a reason why, however mistakenly, idealistic, smart people are fearful of, and hostile towards, laissez-faire capitalism. So it is worthwhile to keep making the economic, philosophic, and political case for why coercive measures to reduce inequality is bad and dangerous.
I could not resist adding in this paragraph from Cowen:
The simple fact is that large wealth taxes do not mesh well with the norms and practices required by a successful and prosperous capitalist democracy. It is hard to find well-functioning societies based on anything other than strong legal, political, and institutional respect and support for their most successful citizens. Therein lies the most fundamental problem with Piketty’s policy proposals: the best parts of his book argue that, left unchecked, capital and capitalists inevitably accrue too much power — and yet Piketty seems to believe that governments and politicians are somehow exempt from the same dynamic.
Astute observations from the EconLog blog:
Now, lots of people find the rich tasteless–and perhaps with good reason. This happens very frequently to intellectuals, who (they think) have better taste than most people. To be fair, intellectuals find the great unwashed pretty tasteless too. In the Anticapitalist Mentality, Ludwig von Mises argued that they very often misinterpret capitalism for being responsible for the low taste of the masses, and thus become inveterate critics of the market system: “Capitalism could render the masses so prosperous that they buy books and magazines. But it could not imbue them with the discernment of Maecenas or Can Grande della Scala. It is not the fault of capitalism that the common man does not appreciate uncommon books.”
Those who criticize the low taste of the poor do not maintain that the poor do not deserve the money they make: but they criticize capitalism for brainwashing them to spend it on culturally worthless items (as “the poor” tend to prefer the collected works of Stan Lee to Marcel Proust). Those who criticize the low tastes of the rich do instead maintain they do not deserve the money they had, and they criticize capitalism for rewarding culturally worthless people.
I’d say this is an argument that has very little to do with “redistribution and inequality”, unless you believe redistribution should work from the tasteless to the tasteful. I am sure that Tamara Ecclestone’s wedding cake didn’t bake itself, that her new luxury Range Rover SUV did not assemble itself, and that “her large house in Kensington Palace Garden” did not refit itself either. The profligate spending by Tamara is a great opportunity for many to make their living. Her largess in using her freedom to choose, helps others in making use of their “freedom to be chosen”–i.e., it enables them to provide services, make money, grow their kids, buy a little nice summer house, and choose between spending a night at the opera or watching “A Night at the Opera”.
Personally, I’d go for watching the latter’s brilliant movie comedy the Marx brothers. That’s my low-brow side coming out.
My only caveat is about the final paragraph where the author defends the rich their spending by saying that this creates employment. I can see how a socialist/other might say that if we grab this money and redistribute it, this might also create jobs, etc. By all means point out how money circulates, but remember that utilitarian/consequentialist arguments for capitalism can get unstuck at times. In the end, if Lady Vulgar wants to spend her gazillions on flash cars, houses or whatnot, that is her business. End of story.
George Lakoff says, ‘Liberals do everything wrong’
“Progressives want to follow the polls … Conservatives don’t follow the polls; they want to change them. Political ground is gained not when you successfully inhabit the middle ground, but when you successfully impose your framing as the ‘common-sense’ position.”
If all political belief originates from one of two wellsprings, if the last thing you should do to propagate your belief is to water it down, if backing it up with facts just weakens it, what would a debate look like, in a world of perfectly understood frames?
It is, plainly, the longstanding failure to protect nature that powers Lakoff’s exasperation with liberals. “They don’t understand their own moral system or the other guy’s, they don’t know what’s at stake, they don’t know about framing, they don’t know about metaphors, they don’t understand the extent to which emotion is rational, they don’t understand how vital emotion is, they try to hide their emotion.
Unlike Professor Lakoff, I think that liberals (in the US sense of the word) propagate their ideas quite successfully, but his advice on framing seems well worth following.
When I were a youngling, fanfic was a despised genre. The internet has made it less despised, more common and apparently more nearly legal in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” sort of way. To quote the link from TV Tropes above:
No statement on the legality of fanfic has ever been given in American formal law or in its courts. Some argue that it’s a form of copyright infringement; however, see “Legal Fictions: Copyright, Fan Fiction, and a New Common Law”, and note the above precedents.
Authors often have conflicted reactions to fan fiction set in “their” universe, which sometimes leads to a Fanwork Ban. J. K. Rowling has largely embraced Harry Potter fan fic, albeit with certain limitations, for example, and Tamora Pierce advises aspiring writers that fan fiction can be a good way to hone one’s writing skills. By contrast, Sir Terry Pratchett acknowledges it exists and is cool about it, pointing out that everything works so long as people are sensible about it. He adds two caveats: anyone doing Discworld fanfic shouldn’t even think of doing it for money, and authors should take care not to put it where he might see it. George R. R. Martin, author of the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, expressed his disdain for the practice, saying that “creating your own characters is a part of writing.” He’s even gone so far as to threaten legal action should he become aware of any fan fiction set in the Westeros universe. In contrast, writer/journalist James Bow makes a rather firm case for supporting fan fic, pointing out that it forms a stepping stone towards creating your own characters and setting. As far as media businesses are concerned, reactions have ranged from Archie Comics demanding immediate removal to Paramount Pictures taking some of the better Star Trek fanfics and having them published in print books.
My impression is that fanfic has become like music downloads, a tide that washes past all breakwaters of law or justice. What do you think? What do you recommend? Come on, out with it! – what have you written?
Recent comments by Boris Johnson about IQ and wealth inequalities have set alight debate.
There’s a double standard that has always confused me. Society is contemptuous of people who make their money using their looks – the celebrities and glamour models and reality TV show winners and so on – but impressed by people who make money using their brains. And yet the people who make money with their brains – whether they’re CEOs or scientists – are just as much winners of the genetic lottery as is any bosomy Page 3 girl or chisel-jawed Calvin Klein model. Why do we admire one, but mock the other?
Asks Tom Chivers.
My response is that there isn’t much difference; what I think is going on here is that people think looks are superficial, but brainpower isn’t, and that it is “deeper” in some way and therefore more deserving of respect. The question is a fair one: both our genetic inheritance in terms of brains and beauty are results of a biological and social lottery with some getting a lot and some getting little at all. The way to think about this in broader terms is that just as none of us in any sense “deserve” our looks, brains or muscles, so none of us do not “deserve” them, either. Also, if a person is born with great intelligence and this enables him to create wealth, he might not “deserve” it, but neither do those lucky enough to be born in a world containing this person, so they do not deserve the fruits of that wealth, nor do they have the right to seize it on some spurious redistributionist, Rawlsian grounds. (As in John Rawls, the egalitarian thinker who used the dodgy argument that lack of desert for inherited traits gave the State the right to seize the fruits of said, without pausing to think that the rest of humanity did not deserve that which had been seized, either.)
There can be no coherent notion of desert without the existence of a being who has the power to give out all these different qualities and abilities, and who has some sort of decision-making power that says A will get ravishing beauty, B will be ugly as sin but very clever, and Johnathan Pearce will be both fiendishly bright, good looking, and athletic (might as well get that out of the way). The premise, in other words, is wrong: “desert” has no meaning without such a belief. Existence, including what we got born with, just exists. (In other words, I think notions of desert in this sense are a hangover from belief in an all-powerful God or gods).
To put it another way, the whole edifice on which we choose to moan about the “unfairness” of different qualities of birth is built on sand. Far better, in fact, to focus on the notion that we all must have the freedom to rise as high as our abilities can take us, and to cultivate the moral and practical qualities to that end, and ensure governments get as far out of the way of this process as possible. And to remember that character, quite as much as how much brainpower you have, is important.
Two days after my post about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s posts about voting, another Less Wrong user, Chris Hallquist, posted some counterarguments. He discusses median voter theorem and Duverger’s law. I found it difficult to follow at times, but a commenter helped:
There’s the classic economic textbook example of two hot-dog vendors on a beach that need to choose their location – assuming an even distribution of customers, and that customers always choose the closest vendor; the equilibrium location is them standing right next to each other in the middle; while the “optimal” (from customer view, minimizing distance) locations would be at 25% and 75% marks.
This matches the median voter principle – the optimal behavior of candidates is to be as close as possible to the median but on the “right side” to capture “their half” of the voters; even if most voters in a specific party would prefer their candidate to cater for, say, the median Republican/Democrat instead, it’s against the candidates interests to do so.
This explains why politicians all look the same without putting them in a class and calling it class warfare. I am not sure whether to be worried that there is at least one voter as far from David Cameron as I am but in the opposite direction, or relieved that David Cameron is Prime Minister and not that person.
In any case, one solution is to move the median, which I suppose is what Samizdata is all about.
Eliezer Yudkowsky wants us all to think more rationally, and is involved with various attempts to train people to do so, including the fascinating web site Less Wrong. A pet hypothesis of mine is that rational thinking leads inevitably to a desire for a smaller state. Evidence so far includes the Micklethwaitian observation that if you look around the world you find that people are better off when they are more free: an honest rationalist cannot fail to notice this. Additional evidence is Eliezer Yudkowsky, a man who spends his life trying to be as rational as possible and who apparently wants a smaller state.
Suppose that you happen to be socially liberal, fiscally conservative. Who would you vote for?
Or simplify it further: Suppose that you’re a voter who prefers a smaller, less expensive government – should you vote Republican or Democratic?
That is from his essay The Two-Party Swindle. It starts by noticing how, for probably evolutionary reasons, people like to divide themselves into us and them, which leads to sports team fandom. It goes on to point out that the fans of either team have far more in common with each other than with the players.
Why are professional football players better paid than truck drivers? Because the truck driver divides the world into Favorite-Team and Rival-Team. That’s what motivates him to buy the tickets and wear the T-Shirts. The whole money-making system would fall apart if people started seeing the world in terms of Professional Football Players versus Spectators.
And I’m not even objecting to professional football. Group identification is pretty much the service provided by football players, and since that service can be provided to many people simultaneously, salaries are naturally competitive. Fans pay for tickets voluntarily, and everyone knows the score.
It would be a very different matter if your beloved professional football players held over you the power of taxation and war, prison and death.
Indeed, I LOLed too. Politicians want you to support your favourite team in order that you see the other team, rather than the politicians, as the enemy. In the next essay, The American System and Misleading Labels, Yudkowsky strips away the abstraction of the American political system to identify where the power is, and show that it is very much not with the voters.
When I blur my eyes and look at the American system of democracy, I see that the three branches of government are the executive, the legislative, the judicial, the bureaucracy, the party structure, and the media. In the next tier down are second-ranked powers, such as “the rich” so often demonized by the foolish – the upper-upper class can exert influence, but they have little in the way of direct political control. Similarly with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, think tanks, traditional special interest groups, “big corporations”, lobbyists, the voters, foreign powers with a carrot or stick to offer the US, and so on.
Since voters have such a small share of the influence pie, Yudkowsky argues that the main benefit of living in a democracy is that in theory, if you got them angry enough, the voters could vote for a third party. It is fear of this hypothetical situation that keeps the politicians “too scared to act like historical kings and slaughter you on a whim”. I do think, though, that those in real power have worked around this somewhat by making changes in unpleasant directions small enough that the voters do not notice, or at least do not get angry enough.
All this is brought together in Stop Voting For Nicompoops, which argues (quoting Douglas Adams on voting for lizards along the way) that you should forget about the rhetoric of wasted votes and just vote for who you like.
Remember that this is not the ancestral environment, and that you won’t die if you aren’t on the winning side. Remember that the threat that voters as a class hold against politicians as a class is more important to democracy than your fights with other voters. Forget all the “game theory” that doesn’t take future incentives into account; real game theory is further-sighted, and besides, if you’re going to look at it that way, you might as well stay home. When you try to be clever, you usually end up playing the Politicians’ game.
Clear your mind of distractions…
And stop voting for nincompoops.
Read the whole thing. And then read everything about politics. And then read everything about everything.
Update: There is a follow-up to this post.
We are the ones, we militants without a strategy of emancipation, who are (and who have been for some time now) the real aphasics! And it is not the sympathetic and unavoidable language of movementist democracy that will save us.
- Professor Alain Badiou, in an article arguing that “We need to rediscover the language of Communism.”
When I was a boy of about sixteen or so, I had a conversation with my godmother, a Canadian lady of great warmth and generosity. She was a Christian and she asked me, having not met me face to face for a year or two, whether I was also. I said: No. She said: Why not? I said: Because it isn’t true. There is no God, Jesus was not his son, there was no virgin birth, and so on. Her answer to my atheistical declarations stuck in my mind, because it seemed then to be and seems still to have been such a very odd one. She said that I might want to consider being a Christian on the grounds that Christianity was, potentially, very comforting. In adversity, it is nice to believe that there is a God who is looking out for you and who is on your side.
The oddness of this comfortingness argument for Christianity is that it suggests that you can decide what you believe, or to put it another way, that you can be comforted by deciding to believe something that you did not believe until that moment. But belief – surely – doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t mean that. What you believe is what you believe. If you do not know what you believe but are curious (perhaps because someone else has asked you), then you face a task of discovery, not a decision. You need to study the claims being made about the alleged truth in question by others. If you already know about these claims, to the point where you are able to identify what you believe about them, then you need to look inside your own head to see what is there. But you don’t decide what is in your head. And you certainly do not decide what you “believe” to be true merely by thinking about what you would be comforted by if you thought it was true, but which you have no other reason to think is true. Truth is one thing. What would be comforting if true is something entirely different.
On a closely related matter, it would be very comforting if the world always rewarded virtue, but most, me included, agree that it does not. So, say some Christians, Christians not unlike that godmother of mine, wouldn’t it be nice to believe that if the world does not reward virtue, God does? Well, it might be, if you really do believe this. But, I don’t, and my reasons for not believing that God rewards virtue are likewise nothing to do with how nice it might be if he did. What a very bleak world you live in, say the Christians. Maybe, say I, but you live in it also. You just don’t realise it.
My central point here does not concern the truth or falsehood of my atheist beliefs, or of Christian beliefs. I believe what I believe and you all believe what you all believe, and no amount of commenting here or anywhere is going to change any of that. Rather, I am making a point about the nature of belief, and it is surely a point that many Christians would agree with me about, because they too often speak of their beliefs having been discovered by them rather than merely decided. I didn’t decide that Jesus is my savour, they say. I realised that he is, and he is. (When people really do believe something, they often omit the bit where they might say “I believe”, because they are dealing with truth itself, their own belief in the truth being a somewhat secondary issue.) I didn’t choose my atheism as if choosing a bag of sweets in a shop, and Christians mostly don’t choose Christianity in that kind of way either.
It would seem, however, that some people at least really can and really do decide what they believe. (I recall a conversation with a religious believer who described having chosen his religion in exactly this sort of way, as if choosing a house.) Others believe what they believe about such things as politics in a similarly decisive way. They really do seem to possess the power of wishful belief, as it were. They really can decide what they believe. To me, this is very odd.
The above – somewhat strange – ruminations began life as an attempted start to a rather different Samizdata piece to this one, about the kinds of things I believe that got me writing for Samizdata in the first place, and about some of the other things I also believe, all of which things I also believe because I believe them, rather than because the truth of them is any great source of comfort to me.
Recently, I’ve seen much hubbub to the effect that the US Republican Party must adopt libertarian views to retain its popularity. For example, see this article which, in spite of its title, mostly discusses why the Republicans will fail if they don’t abandon “conservatism” for libertarianism.
As other examples, NPR had an extended segment on the news with a very similar topic about a day ago, and I’ve seen friends posting on similar themes.
I should like to take a radically orthogonal view.
I honestly don’t care what will or will not “save” either the Republican Party, or any other party for that matter. Political parties generally disgust me, being organized for much the same purpose as a gang of looters or a crime syndicate, and if only they could all go out of business and their members be sent to prison where they belong I would be pleased beyond measure.
What I do know is this, though: just as the Democrats keep talking about things like “civil liberties” while running Guantanamo and a surveillance state, and talk about “peace” while growing the military and intervening around the world, your odds will be excellent if you bet that a GOP that adopts “libertarianism” so it can win elections will give the ideas lip service while implementing entirely non-libertarian policies to serve their real goals: power and money for themselves and their cronies.
Many people will not understand this distinction between rhetoric and action. After all, few seem to notice it right now. If the rebranding is successful and the Republicans start winning elections, I fear that the public will start blaming “libertarianism” for increased government spending, foreign intervention, business regulation, torture, and whatever else they implement under the pretense of spending cuts, non-intervention, deregulation, civil liberties, and the like.
I suppose that is not really something I can help, though. The underlying problem is that people do not yet widely understand that the higher the political office, the more likely it is that the electoral contest is between two sociopathic con men.
Indeed, the US Presidential election is a sort of quadrennial Olympics for con men. The odds of of a randomly selected untrained amateur winning the Olympic 500m race are poor when hundreds or thousands of professionals train for years for the event. The probability of a decent human being winning the White House when competing against hordes of amoral grifters whose skills are honed to a razors edge by years of competition are even lower.
Worse, people do not understand that even if a decent human being by some astounding accident wins high political office, they are almost inevitably both thwarted and corrupted. The system is built to derail reform, not to enable it, and it holds temptations that few normal people can resist. One is faced with (to name but a few things) the powerful financial interests of the Military-Industrial Complex, blackmail by the intelligence community, lobbyists more numerous than locusts, fellow politicians who do not want their sustenance to end, a press almost as interested in preserving the status quo as the pigs at the trough, Sir Humphrey Appleby‘s spiritual kin, constant luxuries from banquets to private jets to soften one’s moral resistance, and an endless series of instances where one might bend the rules just this once, for the common good.
I would not even trust myself with the power of the Presidency — it should be no surprise that I trust no one else with it either.
I have been asked by some, “then what do you propose we should do, if electoral politics will not work? Surely you must work within the system you have, not the one you wish you had.” This viewpoint reminds me of a political cartoon featuring a pair of Aztec priests removing the heart from a victim. One says to the other, “it isn’t the best possible system, but it’s the one we’ve got.”
I think that until one thinks beyond the current system and its failures, one cannot get away from those failures. You cannot become celibate by increasing your frequency of sexual intercourse, shoot your way to nonviolence, gorge your way to weight loss, or vote your way to a system that respects inalienable rights not subject to the whims of the electorate.
The US’s founding fathers conducted an interesting experiment in whether a strong constitution could restrain the worst defects of democracy. (That was literally their intent, as the Federalist Papers reveal.) We would be fools to ignore the result of that experiment. To be sure, it was a partial success for a time, but it did not last. The rot began almost immediately.
(I have acquaintances who are attorneys who believe in a “living constitution.” They laugh at me when I say things like “but the plain intent of the words `Congress shall make no law[…] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’ is that Congress isn’t allowed to make laws on that topic.” Apparently a belief that words can have plain meanings is the height of naïveté and shows exactly how stupid I am.)
The only rational way forward I see is to try to build the world I want directly, and to leave the political mechanism, which I wish to see eliminated anyway, behind.
My message, and sadly the best path I have to offer (for it is not an easy one) is this: work on ways to achieve the world you want that do not involve politics, and work on letting others know that this is the only long term path to make the world a better place.
In other words, if you want to see people fed, work on ways to feed them — one Norman Borlaug beats a million “food security activists” begging for stolen money. If you want to see people better able to communicate in privacy or avoid censorship when they wish to speak in public, build computer protocols and software to help them do that regardless of the desires of bureaucrats. (The people who built Tor, PGP and the like did not wait to be given “permission” to do so, they simply built what they felt the world needed. You can, too.) If you want to help people live longer and healthier lives, do medical research or open a clinic.
So, if you want to be free, live as freely as you can right now, and help others to be free as well. Build the institutions and technologies you wish existed to support freedom today, not someday after “they” have given you permission to be free. “They” will never grant their permission, so you will be waiting forever. Besides, waiting for “them” to throw you crumbs of freedom is servile. Not only will the things you build improve your own life here and now, those things will also undermine the power of those who would enslave you. (“They” would prefer that you believe yourself to be powerless and dependent on what “they” choose to do. Ignore “them”.)
Most of all, do not believe the con men, do not join them, and do not aid them. (Try to help other people understand that they should not believe or aid them either.) The con men are not your friends. The last several millennia of experience with elections are not a fluke to be dismissed as mere experimental error. The next politician and the next election will not be different than all their predecessors. The next politician will not usher in “change”, or “hope”. The next politician will, if experience is any guide, care mostly about self-maximization. It doesn’t matter how hard they pander to your prejudices, they don’t care about what you want, they’re in it for what they want. If you want a better world to live in, build it yourself instead.
According to this Reuters exclusive entitled “U.S. directs agents to cover up program used to investigate Americans”, the US Drug Enforcement Administration has been running a secret program to cover up the fact that it has been receiving information from the National Security Agency that it has subsequently used in court.
Under this covert program, agents are instructed to fabricate plausible explanations of how the agency uncovered evidence through means that did not involve NSA intercept capabilities in order to hide the true source of the information.
Now, normally, under US common law, such coverups are considered a very, very bad violation of the rights of a defendant, who is entitled to learn the source of information used against them at trial so that they can rebut the evidence presented by the prosecution. Furthermore, under the laws of almost every civilized country, lying in court is considered a crime, to wit, perjury.
I suspect, however, that we will not see any investigations, let alone prosecutions, of government officials for what is clearly a crime. Indeed, I suspect that we are all so conditioned to the idea that government officials are now above the law that no one reading this would even expect such a prosecution.
There’s something rather sad about this state of affairs, isn’t there?
This morning the New York Times, NPR and the BBC have all been discussing details of communications between senior Al Qaeda leaders which form the basis for closing numerous US, UK and other embassies worldwide. A New York Times article on the subject is typical:
The Obama administration’s decision last week to close nearly two dozen diplomatic missions and issue a worldwide travel alert came after the United States intercepted electronic communications in which the head of Al Qaeda ordered the leader of the group’s affiliate in Yemen to carry out an attack as early as this past Sunday, according to American officials.
Additional detail is given later in that article and in dozens of others from numerous news organizations. They know these details only because they were leaked said details by sources inside the Obama administration.
These details are clearly useful to Al Qaeda. They inform the leadership of that organization in no uncertain terms of US intercept capabilities, alerting them to the need to change their communications methods.
Had an Edward Snowden or a Bradley Manning revealed such information, it would be called “treason” by many commentators. Charges would be pressed in court of “aiding the enemy”.
When the leak is official and far more damaging, no one mentions treason. Instead, this is simply business as usual.
News headlines do not focus on questions about the identity of the suspected leaker. The leaker or leakers will not have to flee to foreign countries to evade prosecution, even though the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. That is because the leak is clearly authorized at the highest levels, never mind that it may have just “burned” a vital intelligence source in the process.
One may wonder why the Obama administration has chosen to leak such information to the press. That is an open secret. The New York Times first article on the subject some days ago has, buried within it, the following paragraph, a paragraph that should by all rights be the lead:
Some analysts and Congressional officials suggested Friday that emphasizing a terrorist threat now was a good way to divert attention from the uproar over the N.S.A.’s data-collection programs, and that if it showed the intercepts had uncovered a possible plot, even better.
In other words, aiding the enemy is fine provided it is in the service of fighting the actual joint enemy of Al Qaeda and the Obama administration, to wit, the general public.