We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Doubly-illegal acts

I have to confess, as an ignorant inhabitant of North America, that I don’t really understand the current press scandal in the U.K., and I was hoping that perhaps someone could enlighten me.

As I understand it, a number of members of the press committed crimes in the course of gathering material for stories — that is, they committed acts that were already illegal, and which already carried substantial penalties.

It would therefore seem that preventing such acts in the future would require nothing more than diligently enforcing existing law.

I’m therefore curious as to what purpose is articulated for ending freedom of expression in the U.K.

Is it claimed that the laws were not being enforced before on the powerful? Then surely the new restrictions on freedom will be selectively enforced as well, with only the weak being stifled. (That is, of course, universal — the powerful never need permission to do anything. Freedom is a protection for the weak, the strong need no protection.)

Is it claimed that performing criminal acts was somehow insufficiently illegal? Is it claimed that the existing laws against criminal conspiracies are not already broad, vague and all-encompassing?

All too frequently, when it is discovered that merely making acts illegal is insufficient to prevent them from happening, rather than trying to see to it that existing law is enforced, the craven panderers to the outraged (by which I mean our supposedly elected masters) simply propose to make a crime doubly illegal, triply illegal, or quadruply illegal, as though multiplying the number of ways in which some act is forbidden is a magically all-potent and riskless remedy.

Anyway, to return to my original question: as someone who (for once) lives in a sane country, that is to say a place where there is a near-absolute protection for freedom of speech and the press which is beyond being destroyed for the political expediency of the moment, and who is not immersed in the discussion of the bout of temporary insanity now gripping your island in the Atlantic, might I ask what the point claimed here is? What is the putative purpose of making things that were illegal before even more illegal? Is there one, or is this just an exercise in appeasing a bunch of outspoken members of the professionally offended classes?

Fire burn and housing bubble

In other news, it would appear that the “Conservative” party believes that the housing market in the U.K. is insufficiently distorted and in danger of reverting to market principles. To prevent that, the new budget contains provisions to assure that there will be malinvestment, bank bailouts, and direct state losses from mortgage defaults for years to come.

I confess to being impressed. It is normal for politicians to fail to learn from history, but here they’ve managed to forget even 2008. Well done, gentlemen, well done!

Chancellor extends home-buying schemes

Putting the Gini back in the bottle.

“The Gini coefficient in my office is close to 1.0. How I yearn for the assembly line.” — An anonymous finance professional of arid wit.

I often see postings by friends on social media sites trumpeting the fact that the “gap between rich and poor” (whatever that might mean) is terrible in the United States and we must do something about it.

When confronted with such statements, I usually note that the Gini coefficient (which seems to be what they are referring to) is far lower in India, and yet most poor people in the United States would strongly resist trading places with someone in India at the same decile of income, while strangely most poor people in India probably would trade places with their counterpart in the United States.

The reply I generally get in return is either silence, or sometimes a pointer to some sort of document or video purporting to explain how damaging to society a big “gap between rich and poor” is. (Such materials are generally rather unconvincing, at least to me.)

I continue to hold that it is better to be eating well but to know that others are doing even better than you than it is to know that even though you are starving most other people are too. The former will keep you fed, while the latter should reasonably appeal only to those so encumbered by jealousy that they prefer universal misery to the success of others.

I suppose, however, that it is a question of personal values. To me, envy is not a rational basis for public policy, but others appear to feel it is the only one that counts.

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.

The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il

For fans of Juche (and who reading this blog wouldn’t be a fan of Juche), Michael Malice‎, a libertarian who is a professional ghostwriter, has a new kickstarter project: “Kim Jong Il: The Unauthorized Autobiography”, as taken almost entirely from North Korean propaganda pamphlets.

“Kim Jong Il: The Unauthorized Autobiography” Kickstarter Page

A triple stimulus

Many developed nations are currently in the midst of the worst recession they have experienced in decades. I would like to call for an economic stimulus to aid in their recovery.

I am referring not to the useless Keynesian orgy of wealth destruction that is often meant by this word, but an obvious strategy for improving economic growth that (mysteriously) most politicians rarely consider.

My proposed means of stimulus is the mass firing of government employees.

Every government employee fired aids the economy in three distinct ways.

First, there is the direct cost of the salary, benefits and retirement of those employees, which must be sucked out of the rest of the economy through coercive taxation, weakening it. Each dollar we leave in the hands of ordinary people is a dollar they can then proceed to spend on things they really want, which is always better for the economy than a coerced expenditure. (To be technical, the Pareto optimality of free exchanges and non-optimality of coerced ones lead us to the conclusion that a dollar spent freely is always of more value than a dollar extracted by force.)

Second, there is the cost to the economy of the negative work most government employees do. Although a small fraction of government employees are engaged in jobs that would exist even in a free society, such as designing bridges and the like, most employees in a modern government spend their time interfering in the productivity of others, reducing their output. Every time we dismiss someone whose job is to produce new rules governing the licensing of hair stylists or who spends their time investigating the conduct of pedicab drivers, we increase the productivity of those who will no longer be harmed by the efforts of those government employees. (Indeed, some individual government employees doubtless reduce the productivity of hundreds or thousands of private workers.)

Third, there is the cost to the economy of having someone essentially idle. Most government employees do nothing of actual use, and there is an opportunity cost to that. Such people could instead be doing something of value with their labor — from making chairs to writing computer software to running private enterprises. Every additional chair that gets produced (provided there is market demand for it) increases the wealth of the world. Instead of being a net drain on society, each government employee, once dismissed from their job and allowed to find useful work instead, could be a net gain to society. (Even those government employees engaged in work that might exist even in a free society, such as delivering packages or teaching children, could do so more efficiently if employed in organizations that were disciplined by market mechanisms.)

I would go so far as to say that this triple effect of every government employee dismissal implies a multiplier effect. (The uninformed might naively consider only the direct cost savings and not the other added benefits.)

I will also argue that the more we fire, the greater the stimulus, without any obvious limit short of running out of people to dismiss. There isn’t even any need to wait for a recession to enjoy the salutary effects of such a stimulus — a nation experiencing high growth can still increase it by this mechanism. Unlike other forms of stimulus, it is also possible for even the most impoverished of nations to undertake such a program without the least fiscal risk.

I therefore implore elected officials to adopt such programs as soon as practical. Every day of delay costs.

David Mamet rants magnificently

I would appear to be the last to know that the playwright David Mamet is, if not a member of my political family, then perhaps a cousin. The rant I link to below, which is exquisitely well written, is not going to persuade a single person who doesn’t already agree with the content, but it is an amazingly well designed firehose of hydrofluoric acid. Critics may (with some reason) say that it is vicious and panders to my affiliation group, but if so, it is literate vicious pandering.

The topic is ostensibly gun control, but in fact, it is mostly about collectivism in general. It begins with…

Karl Marx summed up Communism as “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” This is a good, pithy saying, which, in practice, has succeeded in bringing, upon those under its sway, misery, poverty, rape, torture, slavery, and death.

…and builds spectacularly from there.

“Gun Laws and the Fools of Chelm” by David Mamet

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.