Sam Harris Redux

Two weeks have gone by since Sam Harris challenged economists to show his errors, with a promise of discussing them on his blog if the arguments were “significant.” Surprisingly, he hasn’t discussed any yet. I guess that means no economist is able to make a significant critique of Harris’s economic assumptions. After all, what else could it mean?

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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50 Responses to Sam Harris Redux

  1. It could mean that Sam Harris is sloppy, forgetful, or never finishes what he starts.

  2. Matty says:

    How many evolutionary biologists would take time to answer a creationist challenge on a blog, within 2 weeks? OK PZ Myers but apart from him?

  3. AMW says:

    He replied here. Not much of a response, but it was something.

  4. James Hanley says:

    AMW, I saw that. I’m not quite sure it amounted to something.

  5. Rob Monkey says:

    To be honest, it seemed like you concentrated on a lot of minor quibbles with things he said without addressing a few of the broader points. For example, you go on a good sarcastic bit about how he acknowledges that markets aren’t perfectly efficient, yet you never addressed the real point of his paragraph mentioning market inefficiency, namely that there are a lot of wealthy people that really don’t create value (the example he cites is the number of people/corporations that got rich from crashing the economy). How do those financial entities fit into what you think about the wealthy creating value? You said that the wealthy are either going to invest their money or spend it, which would create value for the economy, but I don’t understand how the whole packaging garbage and calling it a sound investment thing fits in there. Is this just an example of large-scale fraud and therefore not a valid example of actually doing something with money?

    I thought you made a good point about his “lump of labor fallacy” (first time I’d heard of that, it was interesting), and he does seem to back away from the idea in the addendum, adopting more of a “let’s try to make sure this doesn’t happen” stance. Still, your point about technology expanding our wants more than it satisfies them was well said, and it’s the kind of idea that kind of bounces around in your head awhile as you realize its implications.

    As far as the last paragraph of his that you quote, it almost seems like quote-mining to not include more of his caveats in the following two paragraphs. Especially since you bring back his comment from the beginning about billionaires hoarding money (the second time you mention it), even though it was obviously an offhanded comment from his introduction that was merely accentuating that Buffett spoke up about the issue. It seems like he’s pretty willing to acknowledge that he doesn’t think they are doing nothing useful with the money, but that funding an infrastructure bank would be more beneficial to the country and economy as a whole. Point taken that a huge one-time tax is a bad idea though, it’s a bad precedent to set (and I’d rather have a semi-permanent change that will last over time anyway). However, his central point of that part of his post seemed to be that we need to increase employment, improve our infrastructure, and become more energy-independent as a country. Is this a good idea? If the funding of it could be done in a more measured way than the one-time tax, is it time for us to do something like this to create more available work in the U.S.?

    I checked out Sandefur’s post, but honestly it seemed like not much but a rant against individual words and phrases in Harris’ post without much actual discussion. I mean really, he gets upset that Harris says that conservatives view taxes as theft – he calls that a caricature in fact – and then finishes his paragraph by saying that Harris didn’t prove taxes WEREN’T theft? I don’t even know where to start with that.

    Sorry for the long post, waiting for results from my science-machines and have time to read. Love the blog, it challenges a lot of ideas I have (I know, some people read things they don’t agree with. Fucking weird).

  6. James Hanley says:

    there are a lot of wealthy people that really don’t create value (the example he cites is the number of people/corporations that got rich from crashing the economy)

    He said those things without providing an iota of real evidence. In fact I did address his claim that the rich aren’t creating value when I said that they don’t put their money in vaults like Scrooge McDuck. It’s not enough to say it was an off-hand comment–it reveals that he doesn’t really understand money flows in the economy; and that he thinks rich people somehow can benefit themselves by not using their money in productive ways.

    Most of the wealthy weren’t packaging garbage and selling it as good stuff, and much of what they were packaging was what not-wealthy people were making available to them. I.e., the residential mortgage backed securities. People who normally weren’t able to afford home loans were getting adjustable rate mortgages, and lots of lower income people really did benefit from them. (And nobody forced them into them, and the government was pushing banks to make them available.) Those got packaged and people bought and sold them without being able to see the real net value of that bundle of mortgages–but they weren’t garbage until the housing market collapsed. There was no actual fraud there, just investors who were being too human, getting caught up in the excitement, and not being as skeptical as they should have been about opaque assets (ones that weren’t transparent enough to really assess their value–you’ve done the same thing if you’ve ever bought a used car without getting it checked by a mechanic; you’re just a small enough player you won’t hurt anyone but yourself if you’re wrong). Easy to just blame the wealthy for “crashing” the economy, but not really that much in line with the facts.

    Sure, we need to increase employment, but how? Like many, he seems to think government has a magic wand for that, but it doesn’t. And if government just goes out and pays to put people to work, is it necessarily creating real value that will promote a real economic recovery, or is it just shifting money around in the economy, and destroying some jobs to create others? One of the problems here is that it’s very easy to point to jobs government creates, but the jobs that never appear that otherwise would have if gov’t hadn’t shifted money around aren’t seen and can’t be counted–but that doesn’t mean they’re not a real cost of the government action.

    Energy independence is way overblown. Access to energy is what we need–the only reason to worry about non-independence is if it might cause us to suddenly have our access limited. But most energy independence advocates are unknowingly arguing for limiting our access to energy. It’s like the food security argument. People argue we’ll have more food security if we buy locally. I say that’s dead wrong, because we might have a serious local drought, and where’s our security? Having access to food from lots of different areas means we can offset a shortfall in one area very quickly with food from another area. Energy independence people usually are fixating on the romantic concept of independence without thinking that total independence means you’ll all on your own, for good and bad.

    But also, the details do matter. All his details being wrong reveals that his fundamental understanding is wrong.

    As to taxes = theft, I agree Sandefur didn’t write that part well. But there’s still truth in it. Not all conservatives think taxes are theft, and Harris didn’t really demonstrate that they weren’t. Keep in mind that all taxes are coerced. Somehow this particular coercion has to be justified. Some people try to justify it by pointing to the benefits you receive, but that doesn’t really work–if I took $20 from your wallet without your consent, then handed you a pizza pie, you’re not likely to be satisfied by my pointing out the benefit you received. Odds are you don’t like exactly what you got for the price and would much have preferred to choose your own benefits. So the justification has to be that somehow it’s different and therefore justified when it’s government doing it, and every such justification involves a fair bit of hand-waving. “Because you’re a citizen of the society?” Oh, so being a citizen means someone can legitimately use force on me? Perhaps I don’t want to be a citizen? “Because it’s for the good of society.” So society benefits from the use of force; doesn’t that bring into question the morality of society? Ultimately I think the simple “taxation is theft” argument is probably overlooking some important distinctions, but just as much I think those who make the simple “no, it isn’t” argument are overlooking the important similarities.

    I do hope your science-machines (you make that sound very futuristic and scary) give you satisfying results.

  7. Dr X says:

    Hi James,

    What I’m not clear on is the idea that that the wealthy are going to invest or spend their money creating value for the economy.

    Here’s my understanding of where we’re at; correct me where I’m wrong.

    Let’s first look at businesses that are holding enormous sums of cash in short term certificates of deposit and money markets paying little to nothing. They are flush with cash. They are not investing in increasing production.

    The banks holding these deposits have been hoarding this cash at the Federal Reserve, holding a great deal more of this cash then they are lending out–more than double what was handed out under TARP to boost their reserves to deal with the crisis. The banks earn a small amount of interest paid by the Fed on these reserves. The businesses earn less in turn. How is this money on the books with businesses, in turn held in bank reserves at the Fed creating value? The businesses sit on the cash because they don’t see the demand for increased productivity. The banks are apparently more comfortable keeping these enormous reserve balances that earn interest than they are in loaning all that money out.

    People have in fact referred to this situation as stuffing money in mattresses.

    http://www.forbes.com/2009/02/03/banking-federal-reserve-business-wall-street-0203_loans.html

    The same applies to individuals who are holding cash for time being.

    I’m no economist, James, so I’d like to hear your thoughts on what I’ve laid out so far.

    There’s another piece I’ll come back to, related to money in mattresses, but not related to banks and reserves. Got to go for now.

  8. James Hanley says:

    Dr. X,

    In this case it is like money in mattresses, but we need to emphasize that it is a) a rare phenomenon, and b) a short-term phenomenon. Businesses don’t normally do this, but right now they are having a hard time finding good investment opportunities–they’re not Silas Marners who hoard as a regular practice, and they would prefer not to hoard. So as things recover they will find new investment opportunities, and therefore taxing a huge chunk of that wealth right now because the wealth is unproductive right at present is shortsighted.

    How will the economy recover if they don’t find investment opportunities? Well, there’s the debate. While taxing half that money is nonsensical, government borrowing it temporarily (as Krugman, DeLong, etc., advocate) is not so obviously nonsensical. The rebuttal to that, which also is not obviously nonsensical is that real economic recovery requires readjustment in the economy so that money finds its most valued uses, and while government spending can put that money to use immediately it may not be able to find the most highly valued uses. (That’s why the CBO estimated stimulus would help economic growth in the next couple of years but hinder it in the few years following). Which is better to do–fix the short term or suffer now for the benefit of the long-term? That depends on one’s discount rate, which is individual, subjective, whereas to make an actual policy decision requires that we assume a non-existent collective discount rate. In other words, it ain’t an easy answer, although some people like to pretend it is.

    All of that in a nutshell is, we have to distinguish between short-term and long-term and don’t make the mistake of looking at a snapshot of the economy and assuming it represents a long-term trend.

    Beyond that, I’m kind of curious to see what a psychiatrist says about money in mattresses–I’m hoping there’s some deliciously Freudian connotations.

  9. Dr X says:

    Wrote a long comment and it got blown off by my wacky finger action.

    In short, then, I think we’re in the same place in our understanding, including the recognition of the question of whether it would be better for government to spend now or let this work itself out as consumers reduce debt and start to spend and investors find opportunities better than holding cash.

    I appreciate your thoughtful answer.

  10. James Hanley says:

    blown off by my wacky finger action

    TMI?

  11. Dr X says:

    More like TBI.

  12. ppnl says:

    As to taxes = theft…

    I really really think this kind of statement should be avoided. By the same logic I could claim that WWII was won with slave labor. There are times when collective action is called for and times where it is not. The fact that we don’t all agree on where to draw the line does not justify a well poisoning statement like this.

    As much as I think we overspend on military I do see the need for a standing army. Beyond that I believe maintaining a military scientific and industrial complex is necessary.

    Without NASA, NOAA, EPA and other groups we would have never noticed that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer or that birds were extremely vulnerable to DDT for example. There would be no way to police environmental pollutions or even to know what things needed policing the most.

  13. James Hanley says:

    By the same logic I could claim that WWII was won with slave labor
    And why is that logic necessarily wrong? Amendment 13 prohibits involuntary servitude, yet somehow we pretend that conscription isn’t that. What is the principled distinction between them?

    I do see the need for a standing army
    But that doesn’t require conscription, or at least it historically has not.

    As to NASA, NOAA, etc., the fact that something may be exceptionally valuable does not in itself mean the means of funding them are not theft. What’s required is to either demonstrate that somehow in that case coercive taking of people’s money somehow does not logically constitute theft–which is a hard argument to make, I think–or to argue that the ends justify the means.

    . There are times when collective action is called for and times where it is not.
    Quibble. “Collective action” does not necessarily mean coerced action. Collective action is very often called for, and very often accomplished without coercion.

  14. Rob Monkey says:

    Sorry, meant to get back to this last night, but there were a couple of good bands at Bell’s Brewery last night, delicious beer and music in a beer garden are joys not to be missed. I guess the reason I think his comment was an off-hand remark is that the real focus of his argument was that they don’t seem to be using their money in a fashion that actually creates jobs, while at the same time pushing for lower taxes and government austerity, i.e., cutting funding for governmental jobs. I guess what maybe he (or at least I) don’t understand is what I perceive to be a denial that government can create jobs, since it lacks the apparent magical powers necessary. Somewhat recently the U.S. infrastructure was rated by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and they gave it an overall grade of D. We’ve put some money into this, but what exactly would be wrong with trying to do something beyond patching holes and rebuilding a few crumbling bridges? Construction work seems to be down still, why not hire even more out of work builders/architects/whatevers to get our infrastructure back up to snuff? Our internet infrastructure is pathetic, we invented the goddamn technology and we’re lagging like crazy at getting rural areas covered and putting up wireless in cities. And hell, would it be that bad to borrow money to put people to work doing some of the things that just need doing in our country? So what if all we get in the end is some improved national parks and a few more people online? Isn’t it worth it to just give people some work and some income until the private economy gets going again? This is where I seem to be really confused. I get that the government can’t just create jobs out of thin air, but we have things that need doing, and a shitload of people without work. Isn’t there some bad economic impact to wasting available workers?

    As far as your assessment of the banking crash, I don’t understand the idea that they weren’t packaging garbage. They were selling loans to people with no job and no income, then packaging that up with a bunch of other mortgages and selling it to people who assumed it was a safe bet. They assumed that because the idea that a fund based on mortgages would all of a sudden crash because the multiple decades long foreclosure rate would jump an order of magnitude or greater was an extremely low risk. Meanwhile the bankers were selling the most reliable chunks of those securities to their friends and giving pensions, city governments, etc. the shitpiles. Sorry, but as much as government “pushed” (encouraged) banks to give loans to people with lower incomes, I don’t think you can draw a direct line to selling loans that were pretty much guaranteed to ruin someone’s financial future without going into fraud territory. Not to mention these same bankers were investing heavily in credit default swaps on these loans, knowing that the chance of a crash was getting higher and higher the more garbage they sold. You can call it insurance on their debt, but they were buying insurance on loans they didn’t own anymore while trying to crash the same loans. They took out insurance on other people’s houses then burned them down (metaphorically).

    I also don’t understand the “energy independence is overblown” idea. You seem to be saying that getting more of our energy from a local source is a bad thing as it will limit our access to foreign sources? How so? If we invest in more solar and wind energy or fund more programs for energy efficiency, we are creating a local market for energy that is renewable, or saving our consumption (reducing the amount we need to buy). I don’t get how that is limiting what we can buy so much as making a large investment that pays off very well over time, which is the exact kind of thing I want government to do. Just as an example, the Great Lakes have the highest rating you can get for sustained strong winds. Currently a lot of my energy comes from coal, which has environmental and social costs that are largely externalized by mining companies. If the government invests in wind energy in Lake Michigan, yeah I guess the mining companies profits drop off a little, but we get a lot of good jobs that are safer than mining, and energy that at this very moment is being wasted could be used, without a drop of mercury in the soil, without a mountaintop blowing up, and without practically any chance of a dangerous incident. How can this be bad for our economy or for our access to energy?

    As far as the taxes thing, I think this is where I completely fall off the libertarian wagon. Society benefits from the use of force, so society is immoral? This seems to be the kind of argument that exists in some magical world where if society stop using force, someone else wouldn’t step up to the task. Honestly, I just don’t get the idea that requiring people to pay a cost for roads and other things is some sort of evil. I’m able to have a job because I can drive on safe roads to get there. My work is able to exist because we have clean water, a reliable power supply, and the ability to send and receive goods on a safe and reliable transportation infrastructure. The low individual cost of this is provided by taxation, and it allows for innovation, new jobs, and the creation of new technologies. Don’t worry, our new technologies are pretty non-evil, mostly involving a way to make plastics without using oil fractions. I’m sorry, but if any liberal said we should tax the rich 100%, I would tell them they are an idiot and have bad ideas. If a libertarian says all taxation is theft, I would probably do the same, or at least tell him to go find an abandoned oil rig to live on if he doesn’t like what society has to offer for a pretty minimal cost.

  15. Rob Monkey says:

    And before you ask, no I am not Michael Heath under a pseudonym, comment post length notwithstanding :)

  16. Matty says:

    You seem to be saying that getting more of our energy from a local source is a bad thing as it will limit our access to foreign sources?

    I thought it was nearly the reverse of that, that trying to limit the use of foreign sources on the grounds that you want to use local ones is risky.

    I’m pretty much with you on taxes, though I’m not sure listing the benefits answers the philosophical question of whether it is OK to give people a benefit and then charge for it when they didn’t ask you to.

  17. ppnl says:

    By the same logic I could claim that WWII was won with slave labor
    And why is that logic necessarily wrong?

    It isn’t logic at all. It is simply a provocative use of language.

    But that doesn’t require conscription, or at least it historically has not.

    But I was talking about the tax needed to support the military infrastructure.

    As to NASA, NOAA, etc., the fact that something may be exceptionally valuable does not in itself mean the means of funding them are not theft.

    You are playing with words. Theft is a word with a definition. The legal definition does not include taxes. The colloquial usage can mean taxes if you are trying to make a provocative political point.

    There are times when collective action is called for and times where it is not.
    Quibble. “Collective action” does not necessarily mean coerced action. Collective action is very often called for, and very often accomplished without coercion.

    Show me an alternative way to fund a standing military. Until then you really are just quibbling over word usage and irrelevancies. I mean I would love it if there were an alternative. There just isn’t.

  18. James Hanley says:

    You are playing with words. Theft is a word with a definition. The legal definition does not include taxes.

    Oh, come on now. You’re going to get all hung up on the legal definition (set by, ahem, the government whose actions are in question here) of theft, when the real issue is the action, the taking by force, and then you’re going to accuse me of playing with words? You’re just dodging the real concern of the “taxes are theft” crowd, rather than actually rebutting it. You think there’s something about government that makes taking by force justifiable, which means that somehow government is exempt from some of the moral rules applicable to individuals. Really? What is the magic that makes government different, so that immoral actions are sanctified as moral?

    That’ the essential libertarian question, and you’re waving it away, not analyzing it away.

  19. ppnl says:

    You are playing with words. Theft is a word with a definition. The legal definition does not include taxes.

    Oh, come on now. You’re going to get all hung up on the legal definition

    No I’m not and what I said was intended to avoid just that. As I myself pointed out the word “theft” can be used to describe taxes. It may also be used to describe forced collection of child support that I don’t believe that I owe. But when used this way it is a moralistic polemic device.

    You’re just dodging the real concern of the “taxes are theft” crowd, rather than actually rebutting it.

    I have no interest of rebutting most of these concerns. Taxes are dangerous in that it is very easy for politicians to attempt to buy reelection by spending other peoples money. This is a very real concern.

    What I object to is the moralistic polemics that poisons the well. If you were to say some program was theft like subsidizing mail to rural regions then there is room to discuss and I could even come to agree. But to declare all taxes theft absolute then you are declaring war on any coercive tax by government.

    Unless you can come up with an alternative it is an empty moralistic polemic. It is the kind of thing that will get your own side cheering but is unlikely to convince anyone on the other side.

  20. James Hanley says:

    But to declare all taxes theft absolute then you are declaring war on any coercive tax by government.

    Well, yes, and that’s the point, and it’s not merely moralistic–it’s an attack on coercion, and you’re still failing to step up to the plate and explain why my coercion of you is always unjustified (unless it’s purely defensive) whereas government’s coercion of you is sometimes justified. You’re still treating government as having some magical legitimating quality, and I use the word “magical” advisedly–there may be a good legitimating justification, but by failing to demonstrate it and relying on the unspecified assumption it rests at the position of mere magic. And that is just as likely as anything said by anyone to fail “to convince anyone on the other side.” You seem to not even think that you need to provide an argument to try to convince the other side. It’s their task to convince you, and their task only; not yours to convince them? You haven’t said that, but that seems to be the implication here.

  21. ppnl says:

    Well, yes, and that’s the point, and it’s not merely moralistic–it’s an attack on coercion, and you’re still failing to step up to the plate and explain why my coercion of you is always unjustified (unless it’s purely defensive) whereas government’s coercion of you is sometimes justified.

    The whole point of government is that it controls aggression. The conditions under which you can use coercion is decided and formalized publicly. Often (almost always in the modern world) the government is the instrument of that coercion. This is the origin of government in controlling interpersonal conflicts. Whatever system you use to control interpersonal conflicts will be called government. If you have no system then you have no civilization.

    Now you can argue against a given use of coercion like maybe black people should not be slaves and maybe women should not be required to wear tents and be treated like furniture. You will need the power of coercion to enforce this against a population that often rebels against the idea. You may even decide that coercion should be minimized but even this will need coercive power to enforce. Some people will insist that they do have the power and right to require you to worship their magic sky daddy.

    You’re still treating government as having some magical legitimating quality, and I use the word “magical” advisedly–there may be a good legitimating justification, but by failing to demonstrate it and relying on the unspecified assumption it rests at the position of mere magic.

    Nothing magic about it. It is just the only game in town. We could not have survived WWII without the coercive taking of taxes. That is the only justification that the coercive taking of taxes ever can or ever will have.

    I don’t look for moral justification the same way you do. I don’t like slavery but I don’t claim it is wrong in some Platonist sense of a right and wrong existing out there somewhere. I only note that it seems a poor design feature with a long history of causing major problems for governments that allow it.

    I don’t like taxes but I don’t obsess over a moral justification that I don’t believe can exist for or against anything. Not even slavery. I only note its apparent necessity and try to minimize it and control its worst effects.

    Again, show me an alternative. Until you can do that all you have is empty moralizing against an unfair universe.

  22. James Hanley says:

    The whole point of government is that it controls aggression.
    That’s either a hypothesis or an assumption, but it’s not a demonstrated fact or truth-claim. One of the greatest competencies of government is organizing men and material for the purpose of aggression. You argue that we wouldn’t have survived WWII without government, but fail to note that we wouldn’t have had WWII without government.* We are told, via the Hobbesian argument, that without government aggression would increase, but with governments killing around 200 million people in the 20th century, it’s not at all certain that aggression could possibly have been greater in their absence.

    Ultimately I do think you’re assuming a moral justification–you think coercion is bad so you want to minimize it. But even if I’m wrong about that and you’re not claiming coercion is morally wrong, just problematic, you still have the problem is that your mechanism for minimizing it is phenomenally more capable of maximizing it than any other form of human organization has ever been. The casualness of your criticism of the critics of government seems to be based on a refusal to consider its costs.

    ____________________________________________________
    *And golly gee-whillikers am I ever glad we have the coercive power of government protecting me from the coercion that Iraq might have exerted against me! That is so definitely worthwhile that I’ll never question the legitimacy of government’s power of force again.

  23. ppnl says:

    The whole point of government is that it controls aggression.

    That’s either a hypothesis or an assumption, but it’s not a demonstrated fact or truth-claim.

    That’s a definition. As a social species we cooperate. The only way to cooperate is to control and direct aggression. An ant colony does it. A wolf pack does it. As a verbal technological species we do it with government.

    One of the greatest competencies of government is organizing men and material for the purpose of aggression. You argue that we wouldn’t have survived WWII without government, but fail to note that we wouldn’t have had WWII without government.

    Well yes but they did have government. Having government is like the atom bomb. If they have it then you need it now. If they don’t have it then you need to get it first. The only certainty is someone will get it.

    We are told, via the Hobbesian argument, that without government aggression would increase, but with governments killing around 200 million people in the 20th century, it’s not at all certain that aggression could possibly have been greater in their absence.

    Without government aggression would vastly decrease because there would be vastly fewer of us. This country could not support 300 million hunter gatherers. Wait, even hunter gatherers need to control aggression in order to have even that level of cooperation.

    Ultimately I do think you’re assuming a moral justification–you think coercion is bad so you want to minimize it.

    I don’t think it is sensible to talk about humans without government anymore than it is sensible to talk about ants without colonies. When and where and how to use coercion is a design choice. I don’t like slavery for example but beyond my emotional response I think you can make the case that allowing slavery makes your government unstable. If we were a different kind of creature then maybe we could make slavery work. We aren’t but that’s a biological fact not a moral fact.

    But even if I’m wrong about that and you’re not claiming coercion is morally wrong, just problematic, you still have the problem is that your mechanism for minimizing it is phenomenally more capable of maximizing it than any other form of human organization has ever been.

    I’m also for nuclear power which also is a mechanism for maximizing the application of force. And yes it is problematic. It makes the proliferation of nuclear weapons easier. The potential for large scale pollution is large. The idea that we could have nuclear power without government regulation is insane.

    The casualness of your criticism of the critics of government seems to be based on a refusal to consider its costs.

    I’m all for the critics of the design of government. But until you offer an alternative to government I don’t see the point in criticizing government in principle. That is not casual. That is the total inability to imagine what you think the alternatives are.

  24. James Hanley says:

    The whole point of government is that it controls aggression. (ppnl)

    That’s either a hypothesis or an assumption, but it’s not a demonstrated fact or truth-claim. (JH)

    That’s a definition.(ppnl)

    *cough* *cough* Government originated in, is based on, and excels at aggression, and you define it as “controlling” aggression? Color me less than unimpressed. You have to back up that definition with something, and so far I see nothing.

    The only way to cooperate is to control and direct aggression.
    False. If aggression was that strong we wouldn’t be a social species. The idea that underlying all cooperation is barely controlled aggression contradicts vast experiences of humans. It ignores the basic concepts of coordination and collective action problems. It’s a misanthrope’s theory, based in an ideological disdain for our species rather than in empirical observation.

    Having government is like the atom bomb. If they have it then you need it now. If they don’t have it then you need to get it first. The only certainty is someone will get it.
    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. How many times do I have to say that I think government is inevitable? I agree with this. But as a matter of logic, inevitability != justification. Even if we can say that “our” creation of government is justified as a response to “their” creation of government, the whole system rests on their not-necessarily-justified creation of government, so government itself may remain something that’s unjustified.

    until you offer an alternative to government I don’t see the point in criticizing government in principle.
    Oh, come on, really? Not seeing an alternative means you can’t criticize something in principle? This is among the worst kinds of argumentation. Your frustration seems to be that I insist on criticizing something that is inevitable, instead of just accepting it in principle. But the inevitability of something does not mean we have to accept it in principle. So what do we do when we don’t accept the principle of something that is, unfortunately, inevitable? We vigorously criticize the principle in an effort to at least minimize its application.

    But to say that “it’s inevitable, so we should accept it as in principle justified” is hardly an argument that you can expect a serious libertarian to take seriously. What other kinds of nasty inevitables besides government force would you apply that line of thought to?

  25. ppnl says:

    *cough* *cough* Government originated in, is based on, and excels at aggression, and you define it as “controlling” aggression? Color me less than unimpressed. You have to back up that definition with something, and so far I see nothing.

    Perhaps you are reading the wrong sense of “control” here. Yes governments excel at aggression and that is the point. By control I do not mean make smaller. I mean able to generate at will and focus as needed. That’s why I compared it to nuclear power. Yes it is dangerous.

    False. If aggression was that strong we wouldn’t be a social species.

    Social species evolve exactly as a method of controlling the worst aspects of aggression.

    Wolves are an aggressive species and yet they are social. Wolves need to be able to cooperate in order to obtain larger prey. Yet sexual competition drives them to fight. The pack instinct, usually in an extended family group, is a mechanism to control that sexual aggression. Look at a pack and you will see constant growling, pushing and biting. Sometimes it goes bad and someone gets killed.

    The pack allowed them to focus larger amounts of aggression on prey while limiting its application to each other.

    As far as I know all large mammal social species evolved it to control sexual aggression. Ants otoh are a haploid/diploid species which put the males at a disadvantage in the battle of the sexes.

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. How many times do I have to say that I think government is inevitable?

    Erm, I don’t remember you saying it.

    But as a matter of logic, inevitability != justification.

    What in the name of His Noodly Appendage can you mean by “justify”?!?

    I can justify a mathematical proposition with logic. I can justify a physical theory with empirical evidence. A moral stance otoh is only justified by sentiment. It needs neither logic nor reason. Logic and reason can only be used to understand the consequences of a given moral choice. Do you find the consequences of not having a coercive government morally acceptable? Not that it matters.

    But the inevitability of something does not mean we have to accept it in principle.

    This is perhaps the strangest thing you have ever said.

    So what do we do when we don’t accept the principle of something that is, unfortunately, inevitable? We vigorously criticize the principle in an effort to at least minimize its application.

    How about criticizing the actual application and explaining why it is a bad idea? You may even offer a more palatable alternative if the mood strikes you. Criticizing the principle is at best a waste of time that removes you from the dialog and at worst will just convince people you have blue skin or something.

    But to say that “it’s inevitable, so we should accept it as in principle justified”…

    You really need to drop that word “justified”. I don’t like government but then I don’t like broccoli either. Neither requires justification. Neither is evil they just are. An earthquake just killed 13,000 people in Japan. How do you justify that? You don’t, it just is. It makes no sense to argue against the earthquake principle. All you can do is try to understand your choices in order to minimize the damage.

  26. Lance says:

    Wolves, ants, earthquakes? I appreciate an insightful analogy as much as the next guy but I think a little focus might be in order here.

    Coercion is the issue. Government may be inevitable but certainly it can be accomplished with a minimal amount of coercion. Even socialist paradigms can be envisioned that require the consent of the governed. I don’t think one can be practically applied however, based on human behavior.

    When I discuss governance I try to avoid moralism. A person that favors communism is not necessarily immoral any more than one who advocates anarchy. They are just approaching the issue with different priorities.

    If you are designing a government that requires the resources and direct participation of all participants you are going to have to use a great deal of coercion because people are going to disagree on the use of their time and assets.

    If your main principle is limiting the amount of government coercion you are going to have to limit the scope of government action. Ideally such a system would just deny the benefits that the citizen wasn’t willing to provide time or assets to acquire. There would of course have to be courts and police and a military to ensure that some people didn’t use deception or coercion to acquire assets or services for which they were not contributing.

    Now one can quibble over details and hypothetical problems with any particular system but certainly an entire spectrum of models exist and if limiting coercion is high on your priority list then you probably are a libertarian of some sort even if you don’t like the word libertarian.

    A separate question is which type of system maximizes economic prosperity and ensures “fairness”. Of course those concepts are a bit slippery and prone to a wide array of interpretations and it’s a bit more difficult to keep morality out of those discussions.

  27. James Hanley says:

    ppnl,

    Perhaps you are reading the wrong sense of “control” here. Yes governments excel at aggression and that is the point. By control I do not mean make smaller. I mean able to generate at will and focus as needed.
    That’s even worse, since it now appears that what you’re praising is government’s ability to generate and focus its own aggression, which is precisely what libertarians object to. Honestly, at this point I’m quite confused about what your point is. If your point is that libertarians are foolish for not admiring government’s ability to excel at, generate, and focus aggression, well, then we’re coming from such radically different assumptions that real understanding may be impossible. If that’s not what your point is, then I’ve totally lost track of what it is.

    A moral stance otoh is only justified by sentiment. It needs neither logic nor reason
    I suggest you walk across campus and have a chat with someone in the philosophy department.

    But the inevitability of something does not mean we have to accept it in principle.[JH]
    This is perhaps the strangest thing you have ever said. [ppnl]

    How could it be strange? The inevitability of something is an empirical claim. Justification (“accepting it in principle”) is a normative claim. Empirical claims do not logically determine normative claims. You can’t get an ought from an is. The naturalistic fallacy. That’s all a very well-established doctrine of logic, and going along with it can’t reasonably be said to be strange at all.

    How about criticizing the actual application and explaining why it is a bad idea?…Criticizing the principle is at best a waste of time that removes you from the dialog and at worst will just convince people you have blue skin or something.
    Keep in mind I’m playing devil’s advocate here, arguing the position of the “taxes are theft” folks, not necessarily my own stance. But I find this absolutely astonishing. To say that we can’t argue against something in principle is truly an argument I have never come across before. In fact the libertarians you despise do–endlessly, repetitively, perhaps monotonously–criticize the actual application of force and explain why they think it is a bad idea. But for god’s sake their starting point is the claim that coercion in and of itself is inherently illegitimate, and you’re trying to tell them that they can’t make that argument? Are you really not aware there is an entire corpus of literature based on that concept; that Robert Nozick made his name in political philosophy by arguing that concept? And yet you think making that argument will “remove” the arguer from the dialogue? Nozick was the dialogue in the ’70! (Well, Nozick v. Rawls, anyway.) I’m afraid that all you’ve managed to do here is demonstrate how thoroughly removed you yourself are from the actual dialogue. Yes, it’s philosophical, and you seem not to care for that, but tough luck; you can’t just wish it away when it already exists and has been going on for quite some time just fine without your input.

    Erm, I don’t remember you saying [government is inevitable].
    Here, for example, both in the original post and then repeatedly to Density Duck. I understand it would have been easy to overlook those, so let me just clarify here for the record. I believe government is inevitable. I think it’s fair to say (as an analogy) that nature abhors a political vacuum, and that in any human society some will try to exert control over decision-making and distribution of resources. There may be (if James Scott is correct) exceptions to this rule, but only in cases where special, non-generalizable, conditions are present. But that inevitability does not–logically
    cannot–provide a normative justification for government. Those are two entirely separate things. I cannot agree that an entity that is based on its superior capacity for force can easily be normatively justified.* But I can agree that this entity is inevitable and argue for limiting it as much as is possible, focusing first on its most obviously non-justifiable uses of force (war, oppression, etc.), then its uses of force that are less obviously non-justifiable but not clearly and indisputably justifiable (transfers of wealth, for example), and at last perhaps we can whittle it down to those uses of force that are most plausibly justifiable (response to other illegitimate uses of force, e.g., police/courts).**

    __________________________________________________________________
    * I allow that possibly it can, but not easily, not simply.

    ** Even that does not indisputably justify taxation, by the way. Nozick argues that fee-for-service protective organizations could, theoretically, take care of this, rather than an authority with the power to coerce payment via taxation. * I’m not a big fan of Nozick myself, but he has made that argument and has been influential, so it’s simply empirically descriptive to say that even police and courts do not indisputably justify taxation.)

  28. ppnl says:

    Lance,

    Coercion is the issue. Government may be inevitable but certainly it can be accomplished with a minimal amount of coercion. Even socialist paradigms can be envisioned that require the consent of the governed. I don’t think one can be practically applied however, based on human behavior.

    Now this looks more like language that could spark a discussion of actual issues.

    A person that favors communism is not necessarily immoral any more than one who advocates anarchy.

    There is an important point here. Communism failed so horribly exactly because it was so moralistic. Their moral outrage allowed them to “justify” just about anything until they reached a point where it was all about the power they had amassed. They became the thing that they despised most. That’s the down side of anger.

  29. ppnl says:

    That’s even worse, since it now appears that what you’re praising is government’s ability to generate and focus its own aggression, which is precisely what libertarians object to.

    I did not praise it. I only said that it is necessary. I also said that it was dangerous and I compared it to nuclear weapons. A gun is also a mechanism for concentrating and directing force at will. Is a gun also evil? Is owning a gun “not justified”? The whole problem with the gun control debate is the attempt to reduce it to moral absolutes.

    But the inevitability of something does not mean we have to accept it in principle.[JH]

    This is perhaps the strangest thing you have ever said. [ppnl]

    How could it be strange? The inevitability of something is an empirical claim. Justification (“accepting it in principle”) is a normative claim. Empirical claims do not logically determine normative claims. You can’t get an ought from an is. The naturalistic fallacy. That’s all a very well-established doctrine of logic, and going along with it can’t reasonably be said to be strange at all.[JH]

    There is an activity that people engage in that causes lots of problems. It degrades the environment, causes the mistreatment of animals and imposes a massive financial burden on individuals. Eating is clearly not justified. It is true that if you don’t eat you will die. But you can’t get an ought from an is right?

    The problem with moral normative claims is that they aren’t very useful. The problem with “oughts” is that not only can you not get them from an “is” you can’t get it from logic at all. As someone once said “It may be bad to be bad but it is not illogical to be bad.”

    You continue to miss the point that I’m not saying that government is good. I’m saying that moral normative claims about it are pointless and normative claims in general aren’t very useful.

    In fact the libertarians you despise…

    Er, What? Dude I like libertarians. They are much more open to discussion and criticism than either republicans or democrats. Republicans just about shut down all internal criticism and democrats are to poorly organized for it to matter.

    A moral stance otoh is only justified by sentiment. It needs neither logic nor reason[ppnl]

    I suggest you walk across campus and have a chat with someone in the philosophy department.[jh]

    I am aware that this question has a long history. But logic can only illuminate the consequences of your moral stances. Logic cannot tell us which consequence to prefer. You cannot get an ought from an is right? Again it may be bad to be bad but it is not illogical to be bad.

    Robert Nozick made his name in political philosophy by arguing that concept?

    Actually as I understand it he claimed that coercive government was justified. He was against the coercive redistribution of wealth. But for example he seemed to suggest the coercive protection of animal rights was justified.

  30. James Hanley says:

    ppnl,

    You’ve lost me. I really have no idea just what in the world your argument is. You criticize normative arguments, but then you make normative arguments. You say government is necessary, but not good (that one’s really got me stumped). You say coercion is bad, but that the value of government is that it excels at coercion. I really think your thoughts on this subject are very confused and ultimately not adding up to any coherent set of arguments. The confusion is evident in such claims as the following:

    The problem with “oughts” is that not only can you not get them from an “is” you can’t get it from logic at all,

    As philosophers have been using logic to deduce “oughts” since before Plato’s time, the burden of evidence is on you here, yet all you’ve done is make a bald assertion, devoid of any logical argumentation to support such a counter-historical claim. And if you review your own arguments, I think you’ll find that you’ve logically deduced a few oughts yourself–you just haven’t noticed that you’re doing so, and so ultimately your approach is internally incoherent. You’re trying to deny to others the same method you’re unconsciously using.

    It is true that if you don’t eat you will die. But you can’t get an ought from an is right?”

    Exactly–the empirical fact that you will die if you don’t eat does not imply that you ought to eat, because the fact that you will die does not imply that you ought to live. Only with the assumption that you ought to live can we get to the claim that you ought to eat, so the ought actually follows from another ought, and is only informed by–not caused by–the is. Here you’re not realizing how you’re sneaking in an unstated assumption, and so you think you’ve scored a telling blow against the “is/ought” problem, when in reality you’ve done no such thing. And if that’s not what you were trying to do with that paragraph, well, then it’s so entirely incoherent I have no idea what the point of it was.

    Let’s try going back to the beginning, which was your objection to the statement that “taxation is theft.” Perhaps if we go back to that we can try to clarify what in the world we are actually arguing about. The “taxation is theft” claim is actually an implied syllogism.

    Major Premise: Coercion is illegitimate;
    Minor Premise: Taxation is coercion;
    Conclusion: Taxation is illegitimate.

    OK, you objected to the claim, and I can see two ways to attack it. One way is to rebut one of the premises (and my criticism of your definitional argument about the meaning of “theft” is that it evaded the minor premise rather than rebutting it). The other way is to accept that it the syllogism is both valid and true but argue that its truth value is outweighed by other considerations, so that we ought to discount it (however if you take that route you are making a normative argument; weighing values; and since you’ve already claimed that you can’t get oughts from logic, I’m not sure how you’ll get there without contradicting yourself).

  31. ppnl says:

    You’ve lost me. I really have no idea just what in the world your argument is. You criticize normative arguments, but then you make normative arguments. You say government is necessary, but not good (that one’s really got me stumped).

    You will have to quote me as I don’t remember saying any such thing. I have said government is neither good nor bad, it just exists. I have said that government is dangerous. I compared it to a gun that is neither good nor bad but is dangerous. I compared it to nuclear weapons. I might say some application of government is not good or bad but while this may have some logical component it is in the end a statement of sentiment.

    You say coercion is bad..

    Again you will have to quote me as I don’t believe I said any such thing. I have said coercion is necessary and dangerous. But some uses of coercion are not only necessary but make me happy. Like coercing a murderer into prison.

    –the empirical fact that you will die if you don’t eat does not imply that you ought to eat, because the fact that you will die does not imply that you ought to live. Only with the assumption that you ought to live can we get to the claim that you ought to eat, so the ought actually follows from another ought, and is only informed by–not caused by–the is.

    Ok, the empirical fact that we cannot have a technological civilization if we do not have government does not imply that we ought to have government, because the fact that our civilization will die does not imply that we ought to have a technological civilization. Only with the assumption that we ought to have a technological civilization can we get to the claim that we ought to have government, so the ought actually follows from another ought, and is only informed by-not caused by-the is.

    I could not agree more. But a few points…

    1)Is this the “justification” of government you were looking for? In the end this is the only kind of justification you will ever have and at the bottom it rests on a choice that owes nothing to logic. It is just a choice driven by sentiment.

    2)Notice that the oughts – to live and to have a technological civilization – cannot be logically derived. As I have said many times logic can inform you of the consequences of your moral choices but they cannot tell you which to prefer. “A moral stance otoh is only justified by sentiment. It needs neither logic nor reason.” Remember? My desire to live is not a desire dictated by reason. Reason is only a tool for achieving my goal of living. Logic cannot set the goal. Only sentiment ultimately based in biology can do that.

    3)This disconnect between the descriptive logical and the prescriptive moral is known as Hume’s Guillotine. This is the origin of the naturalistic fallacy. Many philosophers have tried to get past the is/ought problem but in the end it may be bad to be bad but it is not illogicall to be bad.

    Major Premise: Coercion is illegitimate;

    Nonsense. I dislike the language and even if I agreed it would only be a statement of sentiment. I dislike being coerced and in general would prefer that coercion was minimized while accepting that some limits must be placed on individual behavior. These are also statements of sentiment. I think you can make a logical argument that a government that minimizes coercion is better in some abstract way. But how I define “better” is a choice based on sentiment. If we agree on what “better” means then the logic is valid. If we do not agree on “better” then logic is irrelevant.

    And please note that I’m not saying that coercion is legitimate. I’m saying that the whole question is an example of the pointless verbal knots that philosophers tie themselves into.

  32. James Hanley says:

    ppnl,

    Re the necessity of government: In your prior comment, first paragraph, you say it is necessary.

    Re Coercion: So you think coercion is neither good nor bad in itself? Then why are you interested in coercing a murderer into prison? What was wrong with his coercion? Keep in mind that the “taxes are theft” person does think coercion is fundamentally bad. Responsive coercion–punishment of a murderer–is the only time it is legitimate, but even that use is constrained because even as pure responsiveness coercion is still an evil; just a necessary one. They absolutely will not strip it of moral meaning as you appear to want to do, so if you have any desire to demonstrate to such a person the error of their ways you’re going to have to take that into account. A simple, “you’re wrong, there’s no moral connotation to coercion, that’s just sentimental” is a conversation-stopper. If the goal is to feel smugly intellectually superior to them, it will work great for you, but that’s about all.

    Re: Your paragraph about technological civilization. That is correct on the ought/is issue. As to follow up point 1:
    a) “We ought to have technologically advanced civilization” is, at last, an actual justificatory argument for government. But it’s not a sufficient formulation in itself. It’s just a statement of one value, and it has to be compared to other values, so the “taxes are theft” crowd responds with, “what cost in coercion are you willing to pay for a technological society?” I’m sure you’ve got some limit here–would you accept totalitarianism for a technological society? If not, then you’re actually on the same continuum as the “taxes are theft crowd;” you’ve got a price limit, so do they, and you’re just quibbling over what price is worth paying.

    b) The “only” type of justification we will ever have? Do you mean in general or just from you? Only the latter would be meaningful, because the former–if that’s what you meant–is clearly false.

    c) Just a choice driven by sentiment? Actually it sounds rather utilitarian to me.

    Re point 2: Given you positional assumptions your oughts may not be derivable from logic. But you should hesitate to make universal statements about that until you’re able to demonstrate it. You have now repeatedly asserted it, but saying it enough times does not equal demonstrating its truth.

    Re point 3: This is the second time you’ve said it’s not illogical to be bad. You’re preaching to the choir here–I’m a rational choice theorist. But I don’t know what you think the significance of this statement is. I think you’re playing with words, using the multiple applications of the word “logic” to elide the gap between your different uses. That’s why the word “rational” would be better, clearer, in your specific claim here. “It can be rational to be bad.” But that’s individual rationality, and it has no real bearing on the power of logic to help derive oughts.

    Then, finally, we get to something where you get to a direct clear reaction to the “theft is taxes” crowd. You reject the premise that “coercion is illegitimate.” And so you have a clear principled position on which to reject the “taxes is theft” claim. But you do realize that at that point you’re pretty much talking past them, right? Saying it’s “only a sentiment” can’t possibly persuade them to listen to you.

    And I have to wonder how much serious consideration you have put into your rejection of the claim that “coercion is illegitimate”? Let me ask you this. Setting aside your personal sentiments about how you would feel if I smashed you on the head with a lead pipe, or raped you, or stole your identity, would my actions be inherently illegitimate? Or is your objection to that based on nothing more than sentiment for your own self? If I go on a rampage and shoot 10 people at random, is there anything inherently illegitimate about that? Was there anything illegitimate about terrorists killing 3,000 people on 9/11? Or is our concern there only driven by sentiment?

    What if our sentiment doesn’t encompass certain groups? Say as Americans we have no positive sentiment for Mexicans. Would there be anything illegitimate in you and I sitting on the banks of the Rio Grande shooting them for sport?

    If I roll my eyes and sneer at a Barack Obama speech and the secret police come in and truncheon me, their actions are not illegitimate? Or we only say they are because of sentiment? If our sentiments about political dissenters change, then in fact it’s not illegitimate for the Syrian government to shoot down unarmed protestors?

    I think your position, while not necessarily untenable, is not nearly as logically simple and trouble-free as you might think. And if you imagine it’s going to be more persuasive to people than “taxes are theft,” I’d be willing to make a wager and conduct a survey.

    Finally, if you’re correct that all “oughts” come only from sentiments, then you’ve reached a rock-bottom impasse with the “taxes are theft” crowd. You have no way to demonstrate that your sentiments are better than their sentiments without further appeal to your own sentiment. At that point, the argument devolves to “is so,” “is not.”

  33. James Hanley says:

    And please note that I’m not saying that coercion is legitimate. I’m saying that the whole question is an example of the pointless verbal knots that philosophers tie themselves into.

    And I think this statement is nonsense, even though I’m no real fan or devotee of philosophy. Coercion is an act of agency, and must be analyzed as one. It is the overriding of one person’s will by another person (rather than a changing of their will, via persuasion), and must be analyzed that way.

    So your analogy to guns doesn’t work because a gun of itself is not an action, and is in itself not an overriding of one person’s will by another. The same is true of earthquakes. They are non-meaningful analogies that muddled your analysis.

    For the anti-government person, the essential question can be phrased this way: X and Y meet in a state of nature. X coerces Y. Was that action legitimate, illegitimate, or neither? The anti-government person says illegitimate. The vulgar Nietzschean says legitimate. You seem to say illegitimate. I would argue that yours is the least intuitively persuasive response, and I say that even though I think that as humans are little to nothing more than curiously evolved bits of space dust there’s a plausible argument to be made that X coercing Y has no meaningful normative distinction from a bird eating a bug or even a tree falling and crushing a nesting bird.

  34. ppnl says:

    Major Premise: Coercion is illegitimate;[jh]

    Nonsense.[ppnl]

    For the anti-government person, the essential question can be phrased this way: X and Y meet in a state of nature. X coerces Y. Was that action legitimate, illegitimate, or neither? The anti-government person says illegitimate. The vulgar Nietzschean says legitimate. You seem to say illegitimate.

    Is this a typo?

    Say a lion meets a springbok in a state of nature. The lion kills and eats the springbok. Was that action legitimate, illegitimate or neither?

    I would argue that yours is the least intuitively persuasive response, and I say that even though I think that as humans are little to nothing more than curiously evolved bits of space dust there’s a plausible argument to be made that X coercing Y has no meaningful normative distinction from a bird eating a bug or even a tree falling and crushing a nesting bird.

    Exactly so. Normative statements are only statements of sentiment or closely derived from statements of sentiment. The lion will see its actions as legitimate while the springbok will think it is totally bogus. There is no empirical fact or logical point at issue here.

    a) “We ought to have technologically advanced civilization” is, at last, an actual justificatory argument for government.

    It isn’t an argument at all. It is a statement of sentiment. You can logically derive the consequences of that sentiment but unless the person shares your sentiment logic is useless. The lion and the springbok for example are unlikely to ever reach agreement.

    “what cost in coercion are you willing to pay for a technological society?”

    That is the conversation that we should be having. The problem is that “taxes=theft” will be seen as a statement that there is no price in government coercion that you are willing to pay. Thats why you get liberals wandering in calling libertarians evil selfish bastards. They feel like the springbok facing the lion with no possibility of common ground. Logic and reason are no longer even relevant.

    The libertarian argument for negative liberty is a very important one. The problem is that libertarians very often suck at it.

    Re the necessity of government: In your prior comment, first paragraph, you say it is necessary.

    It is necessary if you want any kind of ordered society. The desire for an ordered society is a sentiment. Bears for example have very little in the way of social interaction and they seem to prefer it that way.

    c) Just a choice driven by sentiment? Actually it sounds rather utilitarian to me.

    Hitler preferred that Jews die. That was his sentiment. He was very utilitarian about how he achieved his hearts desire. Thats the thing about utilitarianism. It cannot tell you what to be utilitarian about.

    Let me ask you this. Setting aside your personal sentiments about how you would feel if I smashed you on the head with a lead pipe, or raped you, or stole your identity, would my actions be inherently illegitimate?

    Springbok and lion dude. I would feel moral outrage. Most people who heard about it also feel a fire in their gut. Politicians would get elected preaching about the evil gangs of college professors making the streets unsafe. The cop that beats a confession out of you will feel self-righteous joy. These reactions are almost biological in nature and owe little to logic or reason. They define us as a social species.

    inherently illegitimate? I reject the words. They are a thin veneer of moralism and philosophy to cover an essentially biological response.

  35. Matty says:

    inherently illegitimate? I reject the words. They are a thin veneer of moralism and philosophy to cover an essentially biological response.

    I’d broadly agree but with a couple of caveats.

    1. The biological responses involved in not wanting to be smashed on the head or see it done to others differ from those involved in not wanting asparagus for lunch. They are more common among our species and tend to have a much higher priority when we rank our motivations. Humans simply don’t act as if all preferences are equal.

    2. In response to this greater importance the majority of us place on certain biological/emotional responses human society has spent a long time developing the idea of morality as a way of talking about those things that makes it clear how important they are to us. If you take away that language of morality but keep talking about the same things you will probably confuse more that you persuade.

    An interesting question is what we do when faced with something like ‘taxes are theft’ which resembles the smashed on the head response in its intensity but not in being near universal. Should we use moral language or the language of ‘ordinary’ preferences?

  36. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    …I think that as humans are little to nothing more than curiously evolved bits of space dust there’s a plausible argument to be made that X coercing Y has no meaningful normative distinction from a bird eating a bug or even a tree falling and crushing a nesting bird.

    So I guess you’re going with the “vulgar Nietzschean” interpretation?

  37. ppnl says:

    1. The biological responses involved in not wanting to be smashed on the head or see it done to others differ from those involved in not wanting asparagus for lunch.

    That’s what marks us as social animals. Even the Nazi soldiers used in firing squads to kill thousands of Jews suffered massive moral problems.

    2. In response to this greater importance the majority of us place on certain biological/emotional responses human society has spent a long time developing the idea of morality as a way of talking about those things that makes it clear how important they are to us. If you take away that language of morality but keep talking about the same things you will probably confuse more that you persuade.

    As an atheist I’m resigned to confounding people who can’t see why I don’t go around raping and murdering anyway. For others moral realism is a hidden unacknowledged assumption that they need to think about.

    An interesting question is what we do when faced with something like ‘taxes are theft’ which resembles the smashed on the head response in its intensity but not in being near universal. Should we use moral language or the language of ‘ordinary’ preferences?

    Once you acknowledge that you can’t have government without tax and you want some kind of government then “taxes are theft” becomes an entirely superfluous and counterproductive bonk on the head. One way or another you are condemned to violate your own moral code.

    You can talk about flat tax vs progressive tax or defense spending vs social welfare spending. You can be as passionate as you want in these discussions. But “Taxes=theft” will simply shut down these discussions. You can even say “this use of tax is theft” and while it is moralistic at least it does not condemn you to violate your own moral code.

  38. Lance says:

    ppnl,

    Once you acknowledge that you can’t have government without tax and you want some kind of government then “taxes are theft” becomes an entirely superfluous and counterproductive bonk on the head. One way or another you are condemned to violate your own moral code.

    Let’s not be so unimaginative that we can’t envision a system of governance that doesn’t rely on taxation. A “pay to play” system could be put in place and you would only pay for those services to which you agree.

    Worried that your house or business might burn down? Join a volunteer fire department or pay a monthly fee to a community or even private for profit fire department. Want police protection? Same idea. National defense would be a bit more complicated but a private or participatory system could certainly be imagined.

    We pay for these services already by means of compulsory taxes and provide them with sometimes inefficient and often corrupt or unresponsive public organizations so certainly a system using noncoercive means of funding could be instituted.

    Now if you want to argue that these privately funded or participatory organizations would be less effective than ones paid for by forced taxation that’s fine but to deny that they are possible is unimaginative or disingenuous.

  39. James Hanley says:

    ppnl,

    You’re ducking the “taxes are theft” argument by essentially saying it’s too inconvenient for the argument you want to make. Even if taxes are theft (e.g., coercion), you’re trying to argue that coercion can be legitimated. So bite the bullet, argue that taxes can be legitimated even if they are theft. But it just seems like you’re trying to win a definitional argument by appealing to the consequences of the other side’s definition. That just ain’t gonna work.

    And, by the way, there have been ordered societies without formal government. Arguing that it can’t happen is resting your claims on disprovable premises.

  40. ppnl says:

    James,

    I’m not ducking the taxes are theft argument because it isn’t even an argument. It places no new fact or conclusion in view. I don’t even know what you mean by “inconvenient”.

    And yes taxes can be “justified” but so what? Since Everything rests on sentiment then this is neither surprising or even interesting. Absolutely anything can be “justified”. All I’m saying is that “taxes are theft” is a strategic mistake that will alienated those you wish to convince and be abused by those you don’t want to have anything to do with.

    And, by the way, there have been ordered societies without formal government. Arguing that it can’t happen is resting your claims on disprovable premises.

    Anything beyond a advanced stone age culture? Anything with a population in the hundreds of thousands let alone millions or hundreds of millions? Unless you are either arguing that the stone age is good enough for you or that you would trust a society with no formal government to design, build and operate a nuclear power plant then I don’t know what your point is. Anyway the lack of a formal government does not mean there is no coercion. It may mean that coercion is far more arbitrary and unpredictable.

    Lance,

    Let’s not be so unimaginative that we can’t envision a system of governance that doesn’t rely on taxation. A “pay to play” system could be put in place and you would only pay for those services to which you agree.

    You may be able to go to a pure pay for services for many things. It may sometimes be a little hard with fire departments since in a big city it is in everyone’s interest if everyone is covered. Also there cannot be much competition since that would require duplicating the firefighting infrastructure. Also firefighting in such places require more formal training. But still in more rural settings a pay to play system or volunteer system can work well. For example in Texas I think like 80% of firefighters are volunteers. In my senior high school class many of the seniors wore radios in class and were always on call. It works far better than an attempt to have a massive state firefighting force.

    I think some things you could argue would be much better as private rather than public. Social security for example. But some things simply cannot be privately handled. The standing military and the military industrial complex that supports it for example.

    And I think the larger point is about coercion anyway. You cannot enforce even traffic laws without coercion. So I don’t think I’m being unimaginative.

  41. James Hanley says:

    I’m not ducking the taxes are theft argument because it isn’t even an argument. It places no new fact or conclusion in view. I don’t even know what you mean by “inconvenient”.

    Now we’re just going around in circles. You can pretend all you want that there is no argument inherent in the taxes are theft claim, but it is that pretense that I call ducking the issue. It’s inconvenient for you because it places the illegitimacy of force question front and center, and your whole approach is based on pretending that’s not a meaningful issue.

    But to that crowd it is not just “a” meaningful issue,; it’s the meaningful issue. Call it a mere sentiment if you like, but if all you’re doing is just matching your sentiment against theirs you haven’t demonstrated that their sentiment is any more meaningless than yours.

    The most true thing you’ve said is, Since Everything rests on sentiment then this is neither surprising or even interesting. Because you’ve admitted that your own argument rests on sentiment, that applies with equal force to the claims you’re making. But even more than that, the claim that everything ultimately rests on sentiment is itself “neither surprising nor even interesting.” It’s a sophomoric claim in the truest sense of that word. It sounds sophisticated, but it takes us nowhere except to a stalemate in the debate. At that point your justification reduces to liking your sentiment more than you like theirs.

    That and a big bribe will get you a “C” in introduction to philosophy.

  42. James Hanley says:

    there cannot be much competition [in urban fire fighting] since that would require duplicating the firefighting infrastructure.

    We hear this all the time, about cable TV, about long-distance telephone service, about water, about electricity. It’s a false argument. It presumes competing businesses can’t share infrastructure they’ve jointly produced, or that government can’t provide for the infrastructure and allow competing service providers to make use of it. It’s an argument from failure of imagination.

  43. Dr. X says:

    There could be a problem in urban environments if there isn’t a requirement to subscribe to fire fighting services. Attached, buildings and properties close together. Part of the urgency of containment in cities is that fire spreads from one property to the next. See great fires Boston, Chicago. This is always an issue around these parts.

    An interesting very short history of competition in firefighting services.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_firefighting#United_States

  44. James Hanley says:

    Sure, I’m not saying there wouldn’t be complexities, just that we shouldn’t assume they’re insurmountable by the market without close scrutiny.

    For example, in the case you suggest, I was immediately reminded of an apartment building fire I witnessed a couple of weeks ago, where there were firemen from an adjoining district assisting our city firefighters. Clearly multi-jurisdiction cooperation is possible, and it would not be hard to devise a system where company X calls company Y and says, “the fire is spreading to your building.” Or there could be an agreement between agencies to fight fires that begin in a building contracted to company X and spread to buildings contracted to company Y, and then bill each other for the cost.

    Would it be more efficient than public fire companies? I don’t have enough information to say either way. I only note that the complexities are resolvable.

    And, I am sad to say, the performance of our local city fire crew did not inspire me with confidence in the quality of service from public agencies. I’m no expert in firefighting, but when a firetruck pulls up to the scene, firemen mill around for a few minutes, then the truck backs up down the street and disappears, then returns a few minutes later, I have to think that there are some fairly easy gains in quality available. Not, of course, to say that a private fire crew could never do the same; just that keeping the service public is no guarantee of excellence. And, of course, if a private company did that it might cause some of their clients to switch to another fire service provider.

  45. ppnl says:

    Now we’re just going around in circles. You can pretend all you want that there is no argument inherent in the taxes are theft claim, but it is that pretense that I call ducking the issue.

    There is an argument in there. The problem is that you aren’t making it. If you attempt to argue the abortion issue with someone who claims “abortion=murder” you aren’t likely to get very far. Yet there is a real live issue here. Where exactly should we start giving the life of a fetus legal standing comparable to the mother. It is a hard question that I do not believe has any natural or necessary answer.

    All I’m saying is that “tax=theft” is not a position that will inspire the types of conversations libertarians need to be having anymore than “abortion=murder” is going to be very helpful in finding common grounds on the abortion issue. Well they at least are often moral realists that believe god will roast abortionists for eternity.

    The most true thing you’ve said is, Since Everything rests on sentiment then this is neither surprising or even interesting. Because you’ve admitted that your own argument rests on sentiment, that applies with equal force to the claims you’re making. But even more than that, the claim that everything ultimately rests on sentiment is itself “neither surprising nor even interesting.” It’s a sophomoric claim in the truest sense of that word. It sounds sophisticated, but it takes us nowhere except to a stalemate in the debate. At that point your justification reduces to liking your sentiment more than you like theirs.

    First, why do you think my sentiments are much different from yours? I’m challenging your moralistic expression not your general desires.

    Once you accept that it is a sentiment you can look for common grounds in your sentiment instead of throwing verbal stink bombs. If you can construct a path to no tax or at least limited tax on steps formed on that common ground then more power to you. If you cannot form such a path then your only option is to take over and enforce your position from the top down. Not a very libertarian idea.

    That and a big bribe will get you a “C” in introduction to philosophy.

    Never had a philosophy course and never intent to. But from Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiment”:

    How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

    We are social animals bound together by much common sentiment. We have a vast amount of common ground. Adam Smith clearly saw a “principle” in our nature but could not have seen its evolutionary origin as social species. It is in this book that he first used the invisible hand metaphor:

    “… In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose … be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.

    Liberals express their “principles in his nature” as a desire to help people with government. This is reinforced by their distrust of “selfishness and rapacity” and the whole thing is reduced to a question of absolute good and evil. They replace the invisible hand with the very visible hand of government. There is a horrible risk here of unleashing a monster that many of them do not appreciate.

    Dogma is our enemy and “tax=theft” is no less a statment of dogma than “abortion=murder”.

    Libertarians pay lip service to the invisible hand but they have their own monster in the closet. They fail to see how libertarian ideas can so easily be hijacked by power if you let it become religious dogma. I think David Brin has a long history of criticism of the libertarian movement despite having given the keynote libertarian speeches in 1998 and 2002. Here is one but you can easily find more with a search:

    http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2011/09/libertarians-and-conservatives-must.html

    They are worth reading.

  46. James Hanley says:

    There is an argument in there. The problem is that you aren’t making it.
    Wrong. Simply wrong.

    All I’m saying is that “tax=theft” is not a position that will inspire the types of conversations libertarians need to be having
    Right, and you’re putting the onus on them, even though “coercion is not illegitimate” is not a position that will inspire libertarians to listen to you, either (especially when you reject their position with the highly sophisticated descriptor “verbal stink bomb.” Somehow that ends up being bad on them, but not bad on you.

    Never had a philosophy course and never intent to
    Funny thing, it turns out that it actually does help if your intent is to argue about philosophy.

    Re: Sentiment and Adam Smith. At last, and I mean for the very first time in this whole lengthy discussion, you actually move beyond arguing at the same level as the people you are criticizing. That has been my main point all along–that you reject them for what you see as oversimplicity without actually providing anything remotely better. Now you have.

    It’s not enough in itself, because the mere fact of having common sentiment and concern for each other does not automatically go beyond simply an explanation of why people act charitably to a justification for coercing Mr. X into providing support for Mr. Y. In fact I’m not sure you can actually make that leap from empirical explanation to normative justification. But it’s a start, at last.

  47. Dr. X says:

    Like I said, spreading between adjacent properties is a constant problem in the city.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-4-buildings-on-fire-in-back-of-the-yards-neighborhood-20110916,0,6277699.story

    I’m trying to imagine how this works. What if one or two the building owners don’t subscribe to a fire service? You could get around with a fire protection mandate, but already we’re dropping a libertarian paradigm and how would enforcement work–would there be a process equivalent to a tax sale. Pretty drastic. Or we could say that fire fighters would be permitted to extinguish fire at unprotected buildings to protect their own subscribers, but then there is a free rider problem, which is ultimately paid for by existing customers or a legal process involving billing the owner who failed to subscribe to fire service. But they may not have the money to pay, so again, the existing customers foot the bill.

    There’s also the problem of rescuing residents, including children, from burning homes that don’t have fire service. Do we really find it acceptable to let children burn to death?

    One might assume that everyone would protect themselves with fire insurance, but of course that won’t happen. When finances get tight, people usually first eliminate spending that won’t immediately have profound effects. For example, pay the rent before you pay the dentist who did that crown work last month. Or by food and pay rent, before paying health insurance if you’re currently healthy.

    I’m sure I haven’t considered all the possibilities, but I’m curious to hear an example of a system that might take these issues into account without any use of government force somewhere in the process. I don’t think I lack imagination or confidence in market solutions. Especially in my Libertarian days I spent a lot of time explaining to people that markets solve problems that they believe require government intervention, usually even citing examples. But on this one, I’m stumped.

  48. Dr X says:

    And if you’re ever interested, I’d love to see a discussion of intellectual property–patent and copyright. This was always a tough one for me. I know there are some libertarians who reject the idea entirely, though elimination would take a constitutional amendment. Others support the concept of intellecgtual property.

    Way back when, before he was syndicated, Steven Chapman came to my college dorm for a talk in our lounge. Randy Barnett tagged along. Chapman had written a column maybe a year earlier in which he expressed the opinion that no one should be permitted to copy music or video for personal use. I remembered that because it was one of the few times I disagreed with him, so I brought it up. He and Barnett both laughed because they’d had some throw downs on that very subject (they’re close friends). Anyway, I think it’s an interesting subject. Not just copying, but length of copyright and patents, where to draw the lines on what constitutes an acceptable imitation (drug companies notoriously make tiny changes in the chemistry of patented drugs to produce their own versions that don’t violate an existing patent on a hot drug). Certainly, you couldn’t change the title of a book and a few words in it and then claim it isn’t a copyright violation.

    Lance’s opinion would also be interesting because he seems more radically libertarian in his perspective, which still doesn’t tell me where he stands, except I’d expect him to mount a strong case for his position. Libertarians always seem to think the details through more because they always have to explain positions that fall outside the conventional frames.

    I’m still fumbling around on the subject.

  49. James Hanley says:

    Dr. X,

    Tough points on the firefighting issue, and I have no good response.

    As to intellectual property rights, that’s long been an interest of mine. Unfortunately I’ve mostly been interested in it as a legal and economic matter, and haven’t closely followed the libertarian discussions about it. And I doubt–truly to my regret–that I’ll find time to read up on and think about that any time soon. It does seem to pose a tough issue for libertarians. They tend to be pro-property rights, but tend to be thinking in terms of ability to protect one’s property with a gun, even absent the existence of government–i.e., the conception is based on an assumption of physical property. IPR partakes of some of the same values as physical property, but requires a government for protection. It seems doubtful there could possibly be a simple solution to that puzzle, doesn’t it?

  50. Dr X says:

    I haven’t one that leaves me satisfied.

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