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A slightly more temperate post about unwanted contact

Before being overwhelmed by phone-induced homicidal rage the other day, I had intended to discuss a subject that has been interesting me lately, namely how difficult it is to specify in advance rules for social interaction. More specifically, I was pondering how hard it is to lay down rules for dealing with unwanted contact. Cold calling is one form of that; what are traditionally described as “unwanted advances” are another.

The problem is that word “unwanted”. To say, as the organisational psychologist quoted in this article does, that “An unwanted advance is a form of injustice”, strikes me as unfair. We are not telepaths. Quite often the only way one can find out that unwanted contact is unwanted is to ask, that is, to initiate unwanted contact. On the other hand while we may not have telepathy, we most of us do have empathy to help us guess in advance when advances might be unwelcome. Phone sales companies know to the fifth decimal place exactly how likely their calls are to be welcome. They know that the first four of those decimal places are filled by zeros, scumbags that they are. Few men asking a woman out have quite such a large database of prior results upon which to draw. I’m glad I’m not a guy! That last breath before you open your mouth to begin the sentence that might get you rejected cruelly or rejected kindly must be painful.

So I pondered, and while pondering hopped from link to link, as one does, and I came across a really interesting article in Gawker from July 7th which encapsulated several relevant issues. It describes a bitter row in the community of atheist activists. Given that I was out of sympathy with both the parties to the row when it came to politics (both of them are left wing progressives, one I already knew to advocate coercion reaching quite deeply into private lives and the other is a radical feminist) and religion, I was better able to think about the issues rather than the individuals.

Then a nagging feeling that I had read about something very similar a couple of years ago led me to finally notice that the post was not from July 7th 2013 but from July 7th 2011.

Then I slapped myself round the side of the head and said, “what does the fact that these events happened two years and a few days ago rather than a few days ago matter?”

You are now commanded to read the article that I linked to above by the then-editor of Gawker, Remy Stern, on pain of not understanding what on earth I am on about. It puts the case for “Skepchick” (real name Rebecca Watson) in her “Elevatorgate” dispute against Richard Dawkins well if a little one-sidedly.

You are also commanded (on pain of only getting one side of the story) to read post by Alison Smith called “Take back the elevator” which was the most persuasive argument against Skepchick’s position that I read, particularly where she talks about “Leap of Logic Number Two”.

The reason why many people, particularly women, immediately sympathised with Skepchick in the incident is described by commenter “Ivriniel” to Remy Stern’s Gawker article:

To anyone who doesn’t understand why Rebecca Watson was uncomfortable, let’s put it another way.

It’s late at night, and you get into an elevator alone, oh, let’s say in a parking garage. A stranger gets on with you. As soon as the door closes, the stranger asks you for money. You’re now in a confided space with a stranger who wants something from you. You do not know how they will respond if you turn them down. It’s different than being asked for money on the street, because at least on the street there are other people around, and you have the choice to walk away, or even run away if things become threatening. You’ve had that option taken away from you.

Yes, there are buttons in the elevator you can press for help, however, if things get violent, the stranger will do everything they can to keep you away from the buttons.
Yes, the guy who approached Watson in the elevator was harmless. But she had no way of knowning that. Not everyone has the luxury of going through life assuming that everyone’s intentions are benign.

On the other hand, the lift wasn’t in a parking garage, it was in an atheist convention in a hotel in Dublin. I have never been to an atheist convention, but I have been to many science fiction conventions full of the same sort of clever but dorky guys. Indeed, while taking the lift to bed in the wee small hours at one SF convention I recall being invited round to someone’s hotel room for talk and coffee. That memory is why this story caught my eye. In my case the invitation came from two guys, one of them moderately famous, and I did not doubt that coffee meant coffee. (I politely declined because it was late and I was exhausted.) In the context of an event whose main purpose is talk the probability that a request for a talk means what it says is higher than in other situations. And even if it was a coded request for sex, that is neither a crime nor a threat, and the overtone of menace because it happened at 4 a.m. is much reduced since conventions tend to be nocturnal anyway. Having said that, the elevator man would still have shown more tact to have approached Ms Watson somewhere else and some other time. I won’t go on layering “buts” and “on the other hands” because there are a lot of layers there. You see what I mean about the difficulty of specifying rules that cover all situations?

Below is another comment to that thread, this time forcefully supporting Dawkins, from Joel Rubin. My eye was struck by the line ” Just because you’re a “feminist” doesn’t mean people have to let you have the elevator to themselves, doesn’t mean you have the right to completely avoid human interaction on a personal level.” Some commenters to my earlier post, Rob Fisher, Joebob and Ben, made a similar point that having a front door or a phone, or in this case going to a convention in a public place, is to some extent giving permission for others to peacefully initiate contact, so long as it is not pursued if demonstrably unwelcome. Mr Rubin wrote:

Okay, Dawkins went overboard with the hyperbole, yes, but everyone else did too.

Here’s where the flaw lies: Rebecca Watson. Yes, you. Don’t go online an publicly disparage a person who respectfully and politely asked you for coffee. I don’t care that you were in an elevator, I don’t care that you were alone, I don’t care that you just finished up a feminist speech—none of that matters.

What matters is this: The man asked you for coffee, and you declined. That was it. He did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG. But you decided to use a public forum to act like an asshole about it, and someone else called you out.

I don’t give a fuck if you “felt offended” by basic human interaction—that just makes you hypersensitive. Nothing in what you told us he said “sexualized” you in any way. And then responding to Dawkins with this nugget: “[To] have my concerns—and more so the concerns of other women who have survived rape and sexual assault—dismissed…” was absolute bullshit.

He wasn’t talking about rape, or sexual assault, he was talking about the fact that you overreacted and belittled a person who, by all accounts, was respectful and direct in asking you to coffee. YOU BLEW IT UP to something it shouldn’t have been.

Just because you’re a “feminist” doesn’t mean people have to let you have the elevator to themselves, doesn’t mean you have the right to completely avoid human interaction on a personal level. Just because he asked you for coffee and conversation doesn’t mean you were hit on, propositioned, or had to “survive rape and sexual assault”—it means you were asked for coffee.
You, dear, give humans in general, and feminists in particular, a bad name. Because you know what? It was insensitive for Dawkins to use the oppression of some women in the way he did—it was trollish and overboard. But HE MAKES A SOLID POINT, one that I probably would have made myself—you are flailing for attention and belittling a person for no reason.

The problem began not when a person talked to you in an elevator, or when another person used excessive hyperbole to prove a point—the problem began when you sensationalized and mocked a person who didn’t deserve it in a popular forum. It was arrogant, and rude.

I take issue with the part where Mr Rubin says, ” I don’t care that you just finished up a feminist speech—none of that matters.” The speech to which he refers was not just generally feminist. In it Ms Watson specifically said she did not like having passes made at her at these conventions. The man who asked her for coffee in the elevator was in the audience for that speech. That does matter, actually. He should have listened. Even if he did not intend to make a pass, it should have been obvious that his approach was likely to be read as one. She had just asked people not to do that.

In the end I incline to Skepchick’s side of this particular argument about this particular incident, by a degree or two. Remember that her initial video did not denounce the lift guy, it just advised men in general “don’t do this”. I would second that advice. But the scales are almost even. I am not convinced of Ms Watson’s general reasonableness, which is relevant. Judging from her internet profile, either she has had the remarkable ill fortune to be repeatedly taken in by apparent friends and allies who in the end turned out to be misogynists, or she has a hair trigger.

Screeching sound! Skid marks! Smell of burnt rubber! I am letting myself get pulled away from the point, which is not how nice anyone in the story is but how very difficult it is to specify whether it is right for one human being to ask another human being for something when the request itself might be offensive.

Discussion point: the ethical issues surrounding unsolicited sales phone calls

Is it better to just hang them or should we draw and quarter first?

Fundraiser for a public space telescope

Planetary Resources is raising some of the money for a small space telescope via a Kickstarter and are close to their minimum goal of $1M. That such sums of money can be raised for worthy projects and in such short timescales strikes me as interesting in another way: might we be in the early days of a new way to deal with ‘the commons’? Could technology be delivering us a way to replace much of coercive government funding with true voluntarism?

And by the way, support these guys. I know several of them, and it is a way to push New Space forward in the public perception.

On the evils of identity politics

One of the most shocking things about the brutal attack in Woolwich yesterday was the arrogance with which one of the bloodied knifemen claimed to be acting on behalf of all Muslims. In what sounded like a South London accent, this British-seeming, casually dressed young man bizarrely spoke as if he were a representative of the ummah. He talked about “our lands and what “our people” have to go through every day.  He presumably meant Iraqis and Afghanis, or perhaps the broader global “Muslim family”.

How can a couple of men so thoroughly convince themselves that they speak for all Muslims, to the extent that they seriously believe their savage and psychotic attack on a man in the street is some kind of glorious act of Islamic resistance? Perhaps because they live in a country in which claiming to speak “on behalf of” a community, even if you’ve never been elected by or even seriously talked to that community, is taken seriously. A country where one’s identity, one’s racial or religious or cultural make-up, now counts for everything, certainly for more than what one does or what one believes. A country in which the politics of identity, the narrow and deeply divisive communal politics of shared cultural traits, has been privileged over all other kinds of politics.

- Brendan O’Neill

 

He was writing in the aftermath of the murder of a young soldier in London this week.

There are many reasons how this state of affairs came about, and I am sure commenters have their views on this. I would point to what has happened in our own education system and the climate of ideas in the West for the past few decades. While Western society is, by some measures, more “individualistic” than it used to be – and that is a good thing – in some ways tribal mentalities remain strong. Maybe part of that has to do with post-modernism and the whole challenge to the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth, and that there are universal, shared qualities that all humans have, most importantly, the capacity for long-term, rational action, coupled with notions of taking responsibility for one’s actions, linked as that is to the idea that humans have free will.

As those notions have been challenged, or even mocked – consider how it is fashionable these days to say we are all driven by “unseen” motives and urges that come from Darwinian evolution – then people are more susceptible to collectivism, to group-think, with its consequent view of people as either “belonging” to this or that group. Throw in the features of Islam as it is today as described by the likes of Bernard Lewis, and this fusion of religious fundamentalism, craven Western self-abasement, victimology, and post-modernist moral relativism, then it is not hard to see why these thugs can claim to speak for a whole chunk of humanity.

Technology is not “destroying our humanity”

“If, as I believe, the distinctive distance from our organic nature, we should rejoice in the expression of changing human possibility in ever-advancing technology. After all, the organic world is one in which life is nasty, brutish and short and dominated by experiences that are inhumanly unpleasant. Human technology is less alien to us than nature (compare bitter cold with central heating; being lost without GPS and being found with it; dying of parasitic infestation versus vermicides or spraying with pesticides) and the material of that part of nature that we are: our inhuman, or at least impersonal bodies. Anyone who considers the new technologies as inhuman, or a threat to our humanity, should consider this. Better still, they should spend five uninterrupted minutes imagining the impact of a major stroke, severe Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease on their ability to express their humanity…..Self transformation is the essence of humanity and our humanity is defined by our ever-widening distance from the material and organic world of which we are a part and from which we are apart.”

- Raymond Tallis. In Defence of Wonder, page 200.

Thinking aloud on a mountainside

Imagine you are mountain climbing or hill walking with a friend. Disaster strikes, and your friend is badly injured. Weather conditions are such that if you leave him overnight, he will certainly die. With great difficulty you are able to half carry, half drag him most of the way down the mountain. At last you see the road in the distance. Making your friend comfortable as best you can, you leave him, stagger to the road, and wait a long time for a car to pass this lonely spot. Eventually one does – you stop it by practically throwing yourself in front of it – and tell the driver that there is a seriously injured man some way up the hill who badly needs help.

“I’m not getting blood all over the seats of my car,” says the driver and speeds off.

By the time another car comes it is too late.

Something a little like this happened to a man called Charles Handley climbing in Scotland in the 1950s or 60s. In 1985 the BBC made a gripping dramatised reconstruction starring Gareth Thomas (Blake from Blake’s 7) called Duel with An Teallach. In fact Handley’s experience was even worse: despite his incredible efforts at rescue, An Teallach claimed two of his friends that day. I could watch the play again online and clarify my nearly thirty year-old memories of it, but I won’t because it was one of the grimmest things I have ever seen.

Have you guessed where this post is going? Tweak the story a little. Now Charles Handley has a gun. You have a gun. You can damn well make that driver help you get your friend to safety. And if that means he has to carry your friend on his back to the car so that you can keep the gun trained on him, too bad.

Do you do it?

Stealing his car, even without the intention “permanently to deprive” him of it, as the Theft Act puts it, is a violation of his property rights. Temporarily enslaving him to help you carry your friend down to the car is even worse. I think I would do it, even so. Afterwards I would admit the crime, pay compensation and submit to punishment.

As anyone who has read Perry de Havilland’s post from yesterday will have guessed by now, what I have tried to do above is make a similar thought experiment to the one about being forced to rescue a drowning baby used by Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute, the one pretty much everybody but me had no sympathy for. I tried to present a scenario that would appeal rather more to the Samizdata audience than Bowman’s somewhat contrived one. I have tried to inveigle you into sympathising with the bad guy – the government – in Jaded Voluntaryist’s excellent re-casting of Bowman’s analogy:

As an aside, this is not even close to describing welfarism. The people holding the gun aren’t disabled. And the baby isn’t drowning. And it isn’t a baby. And you’re not able bodied (at least not compared to the gun wielder). In fact, in his metaphor he has the relative power relationship completely backwards.
The able bodied arsehole is waving the gun at a disabled man, ordering him to carry some random stranger on his back. A stranger who may be disabled, or may be stupid, or may be lazy, or may just be unlucky. The stranger’s complicity aside, none of that is the disabled victim’s fault. And yet carry him he must because he’s not the one with the gun.

Will I be joining the vast majority of citizens in the countries of the developed world in supporting the welfare state, then? No. There is one crucial element of Bowman’s analogy that I have kept in my scenario, but which, as Jaded Voluntaryist implied when he said the baby was not drowning, does not apply to welfarism. That element is that my story depicted desperate circumstances, which is another way of saying it was a one-off. Welfarism is a system of indefinitely repeated thefts and partial enslavements. They say that it is a continuous crisis, that as there are always babies drowning somewhere you must always be rescuing them, but the insincerity of this claim is demonstrated by the fact that “somewhere” only includes the territory of your nation, state or other tax-gathering unit. Babies outside that arbitrary circle – glug, glug, goodbye. And how can it be justified for you to be forced to spend, say, 55% of your time baby-rescuing but not 56%, or every waking hour?

Overlapping this, welfarism is legitimized repeated thefts and partial enslavements. The man with the gun does not acknowledge or make reparation for his crime. It is he who decides what constitutes crime.

Furthermore there are all the factors that Jaded Voluntaryist implied in his re-casting of Bowman’s analogy. It is not just babies you have to keep rescuing, but adults, and once your presence is a predictable part of the system, those adults start acting like babies on the assumption that you will always be there. That is not likely to end well for you or them.

I will refrain from re-stating further objections to the system of welfare. I am sure most of you have thought of them already, but all these thoughts did lead me to another topic upon which the opinions of Samizdata readers and writers are much harder to predict.

Having to carry a stranger because otherwise the stranger will die is approximately the position of a pregnant woman expecting an unwanted child.

A key part of the pro-abortion argument is opposition to forcing a woman to give up part of her body and her time to carry the child. Foetus. Whatever. For instance, this comment from yesterday’s Guardian by commenter ZappBrannigan says,

Don’t let them win the battle of symbols. Don’t use their terminology. They are not “pro-life”. I propose “mandatory-gestation” instead.

Or here is commenter Thaizinred from the same comment thread:

No already born person has a right to directly use another person’s body to stay alive. People aren’t forced to donate their bodies, or body parts, even if someone else will die without them, even if the person who will die is their child.

The latter’s argument overstates the case. The pregant woman does not have to permanently give up her body or her body parts, but the general point is starkly made, and in a way that will resonate with many libertarians.

I am anti-abortion with reservations and get-out clauses. So I mock the Guardian readers and other “liberals” (in the degraded modern sense) who one minute angrily make the arguments above; who denounce anyone who opposes welfare or jibs at high taxes as a callous, selfish sociopath; who would abort themselves with a rusty coathanger rather than admit that Ayn Rand ever said a good word – and who next minute channel Rand , becoming the purest of pure no-forced-assistance libertarians when the topic is abortion. Such people end up saying that you must give half your time to helping strangers in no particular danger but have no obligation to bear temporary inconvenience to save the life of a being you caused to exist.

So much for them. What about you? To some, I would guess, it is very simple. You are not inconsistent. You are pure libertarians, perhaps indeed Objectivists and proud of it, and you make your stand on the property right of the woman to permanent, uninterrupted, unconstrained use of her own body. You might, perhaps, also think that the foetus is not human until birth but your argument does not rest on that, as Thaizinred’s comment did not.

To use another analogy, your view is that if the captain of a ship at sea sees survivors of a shipwreck clinging to wreckage, the captain can and, for some of you, ought to rescue them, but he does not have to and must not be compelled to.

A minority of libertarians – including me – have views more like these guys: that the foetus becomes human before birth (I shall leave aside the question of exactly when, or if “when” can be exact) and his, her, or its parents (I am trying not to beg the question of whether the foetus is human by choice of pronouns) owe him, her or it protection whatever the inconvenience just as they owe protection to their one day old or one year old child.

And suddenly I’ve run out of steam. This always happens when I talk about abortion and the related question of obligations to small children. There are so many sides to the question. What about rape? What about unintended conception? What about the difference between actively killing and merely withdrawing sustenance? Can I come up with a reason to forbid the Spartans to expose their babies on the mountainside that does not open the door to welfarism and all its ruinous consequences? What about this, that and t’other?

Abortion is a sharp issue. Not many of us have carried out a life or death rescue, with or without force being used. Quite a lot of people have had abortions or been closely affected by them. I hope discussion won’t be too acrimonious, but I think almost anything is better discussed than not.

Common sense – not always obvious or common

Sometimes, when trying to win an argument, a person might invoke the old “but it is surely just common sense that X is X or Y is Y”. And let’s face it, we all do it a lot of the time. Trouble is, this can lead us astray on difficult moral issues, for example, or in science, where “common sense” once led people of high intelligence to scoff at the notion of gravity, or that the earth was a sphere, etc.  For all I know, people once thought it was “common sense” to have absolute rulers, burn witches, keep slaves and shun those of other races.

I thought about this issue when I read this item by Bryan Caplan, in discussing the Michael Huemer book that Perry Metzger recently wrote about here.

This comment in the EconLog thread, by RPLong, caught my eye:

Common sense is one of those fuzzy concepts that people invoke to buttress their arguments without providing additional facts or reasoning. I consider appeals to common sense to be a lot like saying “very, very, very…” That is, appealing to common sense provides more verbiage without providing any additional substance. It’s a waste of time. Unless we can actually show with facts and reasoning that our position is the more sensible, there is no use discussing that which appears most “commonly” to be sensible. If you have the more convincing position, then you can certainly demonstrate how much more convincing it is.

That’s surely the crux of the matter. It is one thing to say that “My opinion about the wrongness or rightness about abortion or the proper teaching of kids is just,  you know, common sense.” But as soon as you start to break down the issues, look a premises, unacknowledged philosophical/other assumptions, it gets much more complicated. In some cases, an appeal to “common sense” is just an argument from authority.

 

 

Plus ça change: Tito and Chávez

Bernard Levin wrote this about a deceased leader much-lauded by progressives when certain domestic grievances became public after the icon’s death:

Tito’s widow has been claiming (unsuccessfully) her inheritance; he had got rid of her a few years before his death, no doubt to instal something more agreeable and up-to-date in her place, and they clearly parted very non-speaks indeed – so much so that she seems to have lived under conditions not far removed from house arrest ever since.

The marital relations of Tito do not concern me; what caused me to twitch an eyebrow when I read of the dispute over his property was the list of said property. It included cars, motorboats, horses, yachts, jewellery, paintings, a score of villas, orchards, a safari park and vineyards; and the value amounted to millions of pounds.

You see the point immediately, no doubt. What was this noble, selfless, upright, honourable, caring, moral, austere, heroic, truly socialist figure – the Stafford Cripps of the Balkans, the Keir Hardie of the non-aligned, the Nye Bevan of small nations – what was he doing with millions of pounds’ worth of luxury goods, disappointed widow or now disappointed widow?

[...]

Nor … is the corruption of power limited to one end of the political spectrum. It is true that supporters of left-wing regimes, and of left-wing insurgents against right-wing regimes, invariably claim that the defeated or beleaguered forces of the right are financially corrupt, and those making the claims proudly contrast their own side’s scrupulous purity in money matters, to such an extent that it sometimes seems as though Marxism is not an ideology but an antibiotic, with the miraculous property of cleansing the patient’s blood of avarice, dishonesty and a taste for grands crus and caviar.

But apart from the fact that it almost always turns out, even if only after some years, that the Marxist power-brokers were not in the least averse to sleeping off feather beds, dining off gold plate and exercising every variety of droit de seigneur, there is no evidence at all that a belief in communism, even if it is genuine rather than cynically professed, is in any way a guarantee of financial probity and moral uprightness.

[...]

As it happens, I knew that Tito was a crook as long ago as 1977, when on a state visit to France, he stopped at Michel Guérard’s place at Eugénie-les-Bains (to judge by that waistline, I bet he didn’t go for the cuisine minceur) and skedaddled without paying the bill.

[...]

I remember thinking at the time that Tito had been so accustomed to bilking restaurateurs and shopkeepers in his his own country without being challenged (because none, back home, would dare to challenge him) that he had altogether forgotten that elsewhere a bit of give is expected to accompany the take.

– Bernard Levin, from an article originally published in the Times on January 24th, 1986, and reprinted in his collection In These Times.

I have never heard that the late Commandante Hugo Chávez went so far as to put his troublesome ex under house arrest, but he has certainly had wife trouble. Marisabel Rodriguez, his second wife, claims that he made use of his official position to bully her. Not just wife trouble, woman trouble generally. Like Tito, Chávez was something of a Don Juan. His longest lasting paramour, Herma Marksman, told the Sunday Times in 2006 (subscription required to see full article) that he was a romantic lover but was “imposing a fascist dictatorship”. The similarities between Tito and the now presumably re-reincarnated reincarnation of Bolivar do not end there. Chavez seems to have done well for himself. I would prefer to have more than one source before endorsing the oft-quoted estimate of his personal fortune at a billion dollars made by Criminal Justice International Associates (CJIA), but An Argentinian journalist, Olga Wornat, can be heard here being interviewed by ABC News in 2007 and she does provide sources to suggest he liked the high life. Wornat wrote a book about several Latin American leaders called “Accursed Chronicles”, for which she interviewed Chávez himself and many of those close to him including cabinet members, his two ex-wives, his long time lover Herma Marksman mentioned above, his tailor and his psychiatrist. She says that he had collections of luxury watches and Italian suits, spent $65 million on a private Airbus (with a $500,000 bill to repaint the flag on the jet so it would look the way it did when he used to draw it in school) and that his family, despite the turbulent relations between him and them, were the “richest in Venezuela” and were the “royal family” of their home state. His daughter Rosines flashing wads of dollars on Instagram caused widespread irritation among less well-connected Venezuelans, who face severe restrictions when trying to obtain dollars.

Comnandante Chavez had the waistline to match Marshall Tito’s. Did he feel obliged to pay his restaurant bills? I did not find any specific claim that he did not, but it would be a brave restaurant owner who presented El Presidente with a bill when said Presidente had displayed such a penchant for expropriations, often done openly on his personal whim and in revenge for trivial thwarting of his desires; who, for example, seized the Hilton resort on Margarita Island in with the words,

“To hold the conference we had to ask for permission… and the owners tried to impose conditions on the revolutionary government. No way,” AFP quotes Chávez as saying. “So I said, ‘Let’s expropriate it.’ And now it’s been expropriated.”

Chávez is one up on Tito; Josip stole the meal, Hugo stole the whole building. In response, let it be noted, to the rightful owners having had the gall to expect that their permission was required before the revolutionary government could use their building.

So, when’s the reading of the will?

Huemer’s “The Problem of Political Authority”

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.

Samizdata quote of the day

“But just because my choices are limited doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I don’t have absolute freedom doesn’t mean I have no freedom at all. Saying that free will doesn’t exist because it isn’t absolutely free is like saying truth doesn’t exist because we can’t achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.”

- John Horgan, giving Sam Harris a bit of a kicking.

Read the whole piece. Food for thought.

 

Samizdata quote of the day

“In the past few decades there has been a movement sometimes described as the “postmodern movement.” There’s no single word that’s really adequate to describe it, but that’s one that the people [involved] typically accept. In many respects, they see themselves as challenging the Enlightenment vision that there is an independently existing reality, that we can have a language that refers in some clear and intelligible way to elements of that reality, and that we can obtain objective truth about that reality. They advance the view that what we think of as reality is largely a social construct, or that it’s a device designed to oppress the marginalized peoples of the world–the colonial peoples, women, racial minorities. They see the attempt to attain rationality and truth and knowledge as some kind of power play, and what they want instead is what they take to be more liberating–a rejection of the rationalist view.”

- John Searle.

A philosopher who believes in reality, that humans have volition and can reason about things. Obviously some sort of dangerous maniac who is a menace to society.

What is easy and what is right

Yesterday, the Rhode Island State House of Representatives voted to legalize same sex marriage. There is some question as to whether the State Senate will also approve the bill, but there is clearly a trend building towards state by state approval of such unions here in the United States.

I’m strongly in favor of allowing gays to marry, and I’m very happy that the marriage equality movement is starting to win, but I’d like to point out a sad side note.

Although the growing victories of the same sex marriage movement are indeed a wonderful thing, they seem to be happening for entirely the wrong reasons. That is to say, this does not seem to be a triumph for the idea of human freedom. The reason the movement for gay marriage is winning in the US is primarily because more and more people think gays are decent people, and not because they’re willing to live and let live regardless.

The true test of whether you are in favor of freedom is this: if someone else is doing something you hate, but which does no violence to others, are you willing to leave them alone on principle?

If you are willing to leave others alone even if you dislike their behavior provided that behavior doesn’t physically harm third parties, then you support human freedom for its own sake. If you are only willing to leave others alone if you actively approve of their behavior, you are simply reinforcing your own tastes.

So, if you believe the reason we should permit gay people to marry is because you think gay people are decent, normal people, I can’t give you credit for supporting freedom in general (although I am glad that you’re with me on this one cause and will in no way refuse your help). If, however, you think that group marriages or Baal worship or something else you find creepy should be allowed simply because everyone involved is a consenting adult and it isn’t any of your business, then you are truly my ally.

Frequently, one hears anti-marriage equality spokespeople say things of the form “if you’ll let gays marry, why shouldn’t you allow group marriages”. (The exact other thing they pick for comparison varies but is not important.) When this happens, many of my friends say “oh, that’s a false equivalence, that politician is such an idiot for comparing those things”, but I think that is untrue, and they’re picking the wrong answer entirely.

The right answer is “if an adult woman and two adult men or any other combination want to get married, that isn’t my business either, whether I think it is a good idea or not”. As it happens, I’m not an advocate for polygamy – it doesn’t seem like a terrific idea to me – but if it is among actually consenting adults, it isn’t my business at all, regardless of whether I like it or not. The right answer is “if a group of people want to gather weekly to pray to the ancient Aztec gods, that isn’t something I should have any say about, no matter how stupid I think it might be, since it does not involve me.” As it happens, I’m an atheist and think all religions are a foolish waste of time (if not actively harmful to the participants), but it isn’t my business if people wish to engage in any peaceful activity, and prayer neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

The politician making the comparison between gay marriage and polygamy is demonstrating that he doesn’t really believe in freedom – but so are the people who support gay marriage only because they happen to like gay people.

I’m willing to let neo-Nazis post antisemitic screeds not because I like neo-Nazis but because I believe freedom is more important than my distaste. If I only allow people to speak if I like what they have to say, I would be in favor of speech I like, not in favor of freedom of speech.

Similarly, it is not my place to tell a businessman who he should hire or fire, or where he should open his shop, or what days of the week he should keep it open, or from what countries he should buy his goods, or what he should make or sell. It does not matter if he is only selling copies of “Mein Kampf” typeset in comic sans and that he only will employ racist blond white men. I might not like what he is selling or who he employs, but it isn’t my business. If he wants to pay the racist white men he hires $2 an hour and they’re okay with that, it isn’t my business. If he legitimately buys a store 500 feet from a school, it isn’t my business if that’s where he sells his copies of Mein Kampf.

It is easy to be in favor of the right of others to do things you like them doing, of course. It is, in fact, a challenge to find anyone who wants to make activities they favor illegal. The real question is whether one accepts the right of others to do things that one does not like, on the principle that freedom is in itself a value worth supporting.