From one of my daily reads, the excellent Tim Sandefur. He ‘s knocking down a piece of nonsense on land rights from the hopeless Matthew Yglesias:
It’s typical of the left to argue that all property rights are somehow tainted by past injustices and therefore that government can redistribute to whatever groups wield sufficient political power to demand a share of the spoils. Of course, that is a non sequitur; past injustices do not justify new ones, against people who did not commit the original wrong. It’s true that, as Twain said, there’s not a foot of land that has not been stolen and restolen countless times. But isn’t this good reason to stop stealing what belongs to people? Instead of institutionalizing as social policy into the indefinite future a system that deprives people of their earnings, their belongings, and their substance, to serve priorities that others consider more important? The American Indian suffered terrible abuses, and stands today as an object lesson in what happens when government is given too much power to seize and redistribute property. Yet Yglesias praises that state of affairs and urges its repetition! That really is outrageous.
Absolutely. When debating collectivists over issues such as property ownership, I sometimes come up against the “but the original owners of land stole it” line, except that even if true, it seems absurd to suggest that every subsequent transaction, however free of coercion, is somehow tainted in some way. So a caveman beat up his neighbour and took a patch of territory – that hardly means I am not the legitimate owner of my small apartment in Pimlico.
Update: Related thoughts from Bryan Caplan. It includes an example of Murray Rothbard at his very best.
What if we have reached a point where the scale and scope of government have become absurdly large? What you would observe is a growing gap between the theories used to justify government expansion and its practical impact. You would observe the cost of education and health care rising, without commensurate benefits. You would observe stimulus programs that increase employment according to computer models but not in reality. You would observe crony capitalism. You would observe budgets distorted by public-sector unions. You would observe fraudulent accounting that shifts costs for pensions onto future generations.
- Arnold Kling
In the Telegraph, Tom Chivers asks: what would it take to change your mind? It’s a good question; I’m forever using it in imagined arguments with socialists. It’s good because it helps distinguish beliefs that are rational from those that are religious. If you can answer it without being facetious or coming up with an impossible and improbable test then your beliefs are rational. If not, they’re religious. It’s a question I ask myself from time to time, as in: what would convince me that freedom is wrong?
Chivers here is specifically referring to global warming – he is a warmist. I’m not: I think it is a pack of lies. But if I’m claiming to be rational I should at least have a go at answering it.
Before I do I should point out that it doesn’t matter that much. Global warming is only part of a much larger issue: CAGWIT (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming Inspired Tyranny). Warmists have to prove all of that. They can start by proving that tyranny works or even that a watered-down version of it works. I’m not holding my breath. Next they can prove that AGW is C. Haven’t heard too much on that front either.
But that still doesn’t quite answer the question. What would change my mind? On the AGW bit, that is.
In trying to answer it right from the start I hit a huge snag: I can’t rely on the authorities. You need only ask yourself what would happen if they turned around and said: “Terribly sorry, we’ve got it wrong, there’s nothing to worry about.” You can almost hear the sound of research grants drying up. Scientists are people too. They have families and cars and mortgages and titles and positions and they don’t want to give those things up. If they tell the world there’s a crisis the money keeps coming. If they don’t it doesn’t. They’re compromised.
However, I am still going to have to refer to some sort of authority. I do not have the ability to determine whether the planet is warming up or even if CO2 concentration is increasing. Or even if one begets the other and which way round. But if I am not prepared to believe the state-sponsored scientists who am I prepared to believe? The non-state sponsored ones? Or to remove the (mythical?) ones who are funded by big oil (just as dubious) – the non-sponsored ones. If Macintyre, Bishop Hill or Watts et al changed their minds I would be all ears. But having said that I am not entirely happy with relying on such a small number of people. And I’m getting very close to coming up with an unrealistic test. Has anyone out there got any better ideas?
One last point. I have to take issue with Chivers’s idea that taking advice from climate scientists is analogous to taking advice from a doctor (assuming, that is that anyone ever does take advice from their doctor). The reason I take issue is that the medical profession has a track record of both diagnosis and treatment. Climate science has to confine itself to diagnosis – treatment (should it prove necessary) is for economists. The problem is that even when it comes to diagnosis it has no track record – its theories are as contentious now as they were 40 years ago.
What law of physics obligates the existence of a moral code? Why don’t rocks and trees and lions and zebras have moral codes? What is it that makes human decisions a special case that is different from all other things and creatures? Philosophers have struggled over the concept of right and wrong since before fire was captured for domestic use. In the time since then there have probably been as many moral codes as there have been philosophers to think of them. Most of them have one thing in common; they are claiming a lever to compel the behavior of others. Do lions and zebras have moral codes? Of course not. Lions attack and zebras defend. Zebras are (I’ve heard) a principal non-human killer of lions. They break the lion’s jaw with well placed kicks while attempting to escape. Unable to eat, the lion starves to death. Is a lion committing a moral wrong when it attacks a zebra? Is a zebra committing a moral wrong when it kicks a lion? Of course not, lions are lions and zebras are zebras. There is no moral code for lions and zebras beyond continuing their gene pool. With only that for guidance, all of their interactions tend towards extreme violence. Carrying on one’s gene pool is an internal imperative to each individual. There is no external imperative in the laws of physics that a particular gene pool must be continued. If one line ends, (other) life goes on. There is no external imperative for a lion or zebras’ moral code. Nor for a human’s. → Continue reading: On originalism
“Thus you see, he is a Composition of Whim, Affectation, Wickedness, Vanity, and Inquietude, with a very small, if any Ingredient of Madness. … The ruling Qualities abovementioned, together with Ingratitude, Ferocity, and Lying, I need not mention, Eloquence and Invention, form the whole of the Composition.”
- David Hume, in a letter to his friend and fellow Scot, Adam Smith. (H/T, Stephen Hicks).
Hume was writing about JJ Rousseau, whom Hicks has mentioned as one of the most destructive and evil thinkers in recorded history. His other choice for that slot is Martin Heidegger.
Last night I learned a new word: “Rawlsekian”. Apparently Rawlsekian is a thing that you can now be.
I don’t know exactly what others mean by this word, although this morning I made a start by reading this, by Will Wilkinson. But, I have long believed in at least one notion that could well be described as Rawlsekian, that is to say, combining a John Rawls idea which I consider to be good with all the good ideas of persons such as Friedrich Hayek.
The Rawls idea that strikes me as good is the veil of ignorance idea. This (commenters will please correct me if I have it wrong) says that a very good way to judge the relative merit of two contrasting societies is to say to oneself: Which would I rather be a citizen of, if I have to take my chances as to whereabouts I land up in each society? Choosing either society is a lottery. You could be a duke or a dustman, a government apparatchnik or a concentration camp inmate, a plutocrat or a pauper, or anything in between. The question is: Which society offers you your best chance of a good life? The “ignorance” bit being that whereas you do know quite a lot about the contending societies, you do not know where you might land in whichever one you decide to pick.
I think that this is a very good way to judge the relative merits of different societies. It is not the only way, by any means, but it is a very good way.
So far so Rawlsian. What puts the -ekian on the end of Rawls, when it comes to describing me and my opinions, is that if my understanding of Rawls’s many other and far worse ideas is even approximately right, I believe that Hayek World scores much better, by the Rawls veil of ignorance test, than does Rawls World. Rawls is not just wrong by the standards of other and wiser persons. He is wrong by his own standard, at any rate by this particular standard.
Follow that veil of ignorance link (that’s it again) and you will find that Rawls talked about “justice” rather than the more general idea of a good life. But it is my further understanding that Rawls did not mean by justice what I mean by justice. For me justice is a particular aspect of a society. A society can be hideously unpleasant, but quite just, or quite pleasant but hideously unjust. For Rawls “justice” was the entire deal, including such things as the government imposing a high degree of equality of economic outcome. So what he calls “justice” is what I prefer to call, in a deliberately rather vague way, “a good life”.
(I consider equality of economic outcome to be, among many other wrong things, very unjust.)
“I’ve never been a fan of John Stuart Mill. Yes, he had a massive IQ and a dreadful Tiger Dad. But his thinking is shockingly muddled.”
Hmm. I haven’t read Mill for many years. Back when I was a student in the mid-80s, I read On Liberty, and like some people I was not entirely happy with the “harm principle” that Mill used in his formulation of a liberal order. And he was a bit flaky on economics, or at least there was enough ambiguity in there to presage the transformation into the “New Liberalism” of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries (ie, greater state involvement).
The Bleeding Heart Libertarians group blog think that Caplan is being unfair on Mill:
Mill’s view is clear: utility is the ultimate determinant of whether an act is (ethically) right or wrong. Given certain empirical assumptions, utility will be maximized overall by restricting the exercise of force over “human beings in the maturity of their faculties” to that which is required to prevent harm to others. Acting paternalistically towards children and incompetent adults is justified, for Mill, for to accord them the same range of liberty as competent adults would not (again, given certain empirical assumptions) maximize utility. To be sure, Mill’s views here are ripe for criticism, especially his (frankly appalling) claim that “barbarians” require a despotic government for their own good. (We might ask, for example, whether any acts can be completely self-regarding, and so harmless to others, and whether Mill’s empirical assumptions are correct.) But this isn’t “awful” philosophy by any means—and it doesn’t require any appeal to “fine and subtle distinctions” to be defended against this charge.
But what if we were to try to defend Mill by making such distinctions? Caplan charges that Mill “piles confusion on confusion” when he attempts this. Quoting Mill’s “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” Caplan writes “But a man’s “own good, either physical or moral” surely includes his “utility in the largest sense.” And Mill says that’s ‘not a sufficient warrant’ for violating his liberty.”
But the error here is Caplan’s, not Mill’s. Caplan fails to recognize the difference between the interests of “a man”, and “man as a progressive being”—the former refers to an individual man, the latter to mankind as a whole. A man’s own good thus doesn’t include “utility in the largest sense”, and to think that it does is to commit a simple category mistake.
Interesting stuff. Regardless of such disputes, one thing I am certain of is that Mill was one of the greatest defenders of free speech.
I get emails occasionally from readers. This one interested me:
“I am a student at the University of Southern California’s M.A. program in occupational therapy. In 2010 our national organization, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), included Social Justice in our code of ethics. About 12 states incorporate by reference AOTA’s code of ethics as part of their licensing requirements, meaning that getting an occupational therapy license and keeping it requires adherence to social justice, which is a set of political values and a political agenda that is today associated with those who are termed left, liberal, or progressive. For example, the code of ethics states that we are to advocate for social justice, which requires an equitable distribution of resources to all individuals and groups. Professors also use the requirement as an excuse to teach “social justice activities” in class.”
Interesting. The email continues:
“This is actually a trend in all the health sciences today. My hope is that this trend can be stopped as it normalizes setting political litmus tests to practice a profession. In 2015 AOTA votes again on the contents of its code of ethics and I will be submitting a motion to remove the social justice requirement. I am working now to educate members on this issue before the 2015 vote.”
“One of the things that makes this a hard road to travel is that if I tell a health science student that social justice is a highly political concept used today to promote a left/liberal/progressive agenda, they easily shrug it off because of the way in which the material is presented to them. They are simply told things like, “social justice is about fairness in receiving society’s resources” or something equally bland and nice-sounding.”
The correspondent, by the name of Alex Duran, asked me to sign a statement with others opposing this. As a Brit, I am not sure whether any signature of support from me would be valid but I am happy to lend my voice to this issue. As the late FA Hayek famously pointed out, “social justice” is one of those question-begging terms that takes as given such ideas as the presumption in favour of equal distribution of wealth by some sort of “distributor”. It is not a neutral term – ideas of socialism and state ownership are baked into it. And while “justice” is a word that might mean something, “social justice” is very different.
I wish this gentleman success. You can visit his website here.. And he has a related item with a large number of comments here.
Robert Nozick, the Harvard philosophy professor who helped to put libertarian ideas into the academic realm – much to the horror of his peers – has been dead for just over 10 years. (He died in January, 2002). His book, Anarchy, State and Utopia is one of those works, like Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, that I dip into regularly, for its sometimes mind-bending intellectual puzzles and thought experiments. And he made people angry. Very angry, in fact. I remember reading a rather shabby item about him by someone called Barbara Fried, who took particular exception to Nozick’s famous “Wilt Chamberlain” thought experiment. This is the one where people all start off with the same amount of wealth in an egalitarian community. Along comes Wilt (basketball star); people are willing to pay to see him play, and as a result, Mr C. ends up very wealthy, from free, uncoerced exchange. To keep an egalitarian pattern, Nozick points out, a state would have to use its coercive tax power to keep taking from someone like Chamberlain. In other words, as he put it, a socialist state would have to ban capitalist acts between consenting adults. It is one of the best one-liners in political philosophy.
And Fried’s reply is to suggest that because the Wilt Chamberlains of this world do not “deserve” their physical or mental endowments, then therefore – voila! – the “community” or suchlike is entitled to seize this “undeserved” portion of the earnings that people have paid to say, a tall, agile basketball player. (Of course, it is impossible to work out, on this sort of argument, what portion of a person’s earnings/wealth is deserved or not).
I can immediately see what is objectionable about this argument. First of all, if I do not “deserve”, say, my physical talents, or benefit from other, external factors such as the existence of popular team sports, large stadiums, and the like, I can also say that fans of basketball do not, by the same sort of logic, “deserve” the existence of brilliant sportsmen and women who spend hours practising their sports. In any event, when we come into this world with our DNA and our background environment from our parents and others, this is not something that we “deserve” or “undeserve”. It is just is. We start off with certain things and attributes; it is what we choose to do with those things that matters. Or put it another way: when we talk about people “deserving” something, very often we look at our fellows as if there is some God who sits in judgement on us, deciding who is singled out to get X or Y, and whether we make the “most” of whatever has been “given” to us by some sort of Creator. In truth, an enormous amount of what is meant by this sort of “deservingness” ethics borrows from the religious idea that our talents, skills and wealth are in some sense given to us by a creator of some kind.
Anyway, Nozick has a doughty defender, in the form of Mark Friedman, who has recently published an excellent book about Nozick. I should add that the book is effing expensive so I’ll wait to read it in a library or for when the paperback comes out. He deals with Fried (yup, that is how her named is spelled), here on his own website. . . As an example of intellectual demolition and controlled anger, Friedman’s essay is excellent.
Update: here is another strong critique, via the Reason Papers, of how Barbara Fried tries to argue that a person, like the Wilt Chamberlain of the Nozick example, benefits from some sort of unjust “surplus value” (rather akin to the Marxian use of that term). Those who use the term seem to be making the elemental mistake of assuming that there is some “intrinsic” measure of what something, or some piece of human labour (like playing basketball) is worth. This is rather like the old idea of Medieval scholastics who imagined there was a “just” price for things and labour. (It is sobering to realise how long such old ideas can endure). But this is a nonsense. Surely, the marginalist school of economics has taught us that the price of a thing or service is what people are willing to pay or sell it for, nothing more or less. And remember, if a Wilt Chamberlain does, as a result of his allegedly “undeserved” talents, become very rich, then the people paying him the money to see him play are happy to do so. It is, as such, a positive sum game. They were not forced to see him play; and in a competitive marketplace, if people really became disgusted at the high earnings of talented people, they could spend their money differently.
As mentioned in the comment thread to this article, if we start to insist people get paid for what their labour and services are “intrinsically worth”, it is a dead end. This is mysticism: there is no such thing. Of course, we all sometimes gasp in horror when we see an item worth so much money that we say, “God, there is no way that hunk of rubbish is worth that!”, and I fully understand that reaction. But unlike Barbara Fried or other redistributionists, I don’t consider it right to confiscate in this case. It simply does not follow at all.
I came across the Fried argument, originally, when reading this book, Justifying Intellectual Property, by Robert Merges. It is quite a good book, but it has several flaws, not least a fairly uncritical appreciation of the egalitarianism of John Rawls, and it also approvingly cites the Fried attack on Nozick, while also approvingly writing of the idea that it is possible to measure if someone “deserves” to get a certain share for his/her work. It is, nevertheless, an engagingly written attempted defence of IP. I don’t think it is going to persuade the hard-core anti-IP crowd, though, but it is one of the more interesting attempts at defending IP out there.
“When egalitarian redistributors make an effort to justify the assumption that the state has the legitimate right to rearrange entitlements to achieve equality, it’s usually in the form of an invocation of the theory that all production is inextricably joint, that is, that all that you have (at least above the barest and meanest possible kind of brute existence) would be impossible without the farmers in the fields growing the crops that nourish you, the cop on the beat protecting you from thieves, and so on, and that none of the inputs into that process could be added or withdrawn. It’s the cop on the beat, i.e., the state, however, that gets the attention, since it’s assumed that the enforcement of claims to wealth and income is what accounts for the fact of your having wealth and income at all, and thus the state, as the sine qua non of that wealth and income, is entitled to dispose of all of it.”
- Tom Palmer
After you have convinced people that you fervently believe your cause to be more important than telling the truth, you’ve lost the power to convince them of anything else.
- Megan McArdle
Via Bryan Caplan at EconLog:
“It’s only human,” you cry in defense of any depravity, reaching the stage of self-abasement where you seek to make the concept “human” mean the weakling, the fool, the rotter, the liar, the failure, the coward, the fraud, and to exile from the human race the hero, the thinker, the producer, the inventor, the strong, the purposeful, the pure–as if “to feel” were human, but to think were not, as if to fail were human, but to succeed were not, as if corruption were human, but virtue were not–as if the premise of death were proper to man, but the premise of life were not.”
He’s quoting the John Galt speech out of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I agree with Caplan that that is a great quote. And she was right: if we say “it’s only human” when we refer to someone being an asshole, or forgetful, or inconsiderate, or loses their temper, or some such, shouldn’t we also say “it’s only human” when a person is thoughtful, considerate, productive, courageous and adventurous”?
On a slightly different tack, though, I think people often use the “I am only human” when, as the use of the word “only” implies, we are talking about the limits, and inevitable fallibility of we creatures. But then again, it is precisely because of our limits and partial knowledge, that it is all the more admirable, and worthy of note, when we imperfect creatures do the right thing, do things well, and show excellent character.