Saturday, October 17, 2009

People Need To Have Skin In The Game

The folks at Sadly, No! say:

Leaving aside the (obvious) fact that having 47 percent of households owe no federal income tax isn’t in and of itself a reason for those who do (pay said tax) to get angry (damn poor people and their no paying federal income tax)
True enough; that fact shouldn't make people angry. But it is legitimate cause for concern.

One reason is that an individual who pays no federal income tax has little vested interest in the economic efficiency of the federal government1. When this number exceeds 50% is becomes difficult to hold government responsible for expenditures via the ballot box. In a situation where people are not just relived of the burden of taxes, but actually receive income from the federal government in the form of transfers, there's an incentive to support policies which may fiscally imprudent in the long run. The worse case scenario, not that we've come near that in the United States, is that the federal government can buy support for its policies in such a fashion. You can see this to some degree in Latin America; for example, Hugo Chavez's political fortunes have tended to track the price of oil. When the money is rolling in he can buy support through redistribution, but when the price falls he's SOL.

Additionally, the fact that a significant fraction of citizens of the United States pay no federal taxes serves to undermine the civic republicanism which has typically been one of the high points of America's social structure. Citizenship is a two-way street; in the absence of compulsory service2 citizens typically discharge their obligations to the state through taxes. If someone pays no taxes and provides no service, what are they doing to uphold their end of the social compact?

1 And no, "economic efficiency" isn't code for "small government". Governments, be they "big" or "small", can be cost-effective or spendthrift. There's an argument to be made that its easier to run a smaller institution efficiently, but that's a separate topic for another day.
2 Not that I'm endorsing that particular idea.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Theory of Justice: Part 1 of N

I've started working my way through the first edition of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice; dude's all over the map. It's a tremendously ambitious work and I hardly know where to start engaging it.

Maybe the best place to begin is with his method. I have to applaud the way he's built his case so far (I'm on Chapter 25 or thereabouts); he's stating his principles clearly and deriving his results therefrom in a transparent manner. I certainly don't agree with the self-evidence of all of his premises, but at least it's easy to follow where he's going with them.

That said, I immediately see something which strikes me as a glaring flaw. He acknowledges that he pulls in various concepts freely, reasoning that its barely possible to formulate an argument without them, and on first glance this practice seems unobjectionable. In doing so, however, he runs the risk of importing all sorts of assumptions via the back door; this runs counter to his stated desire to build a theory based on a limited number of weak premises.

I'm a little concerned that I'm going to find the punchline somewhat disappointing. I still have the majority of the book ahead of me, but it seems to me that it's setting itself up to be an elaborate existence proof. For those of you who didn't do a lot of math in college an existence proof demonstrates that some particular creature must exist but doesn't necessarily tell you anything practical like what that creature might look like or how you go about finding one. They're the Snackwells of theorems, demonstrating a truth which is ultimately unsatisfying. A lot of the groundwork which Rawls is laying looks to be heading in that direction: "Here's how you'd construct a system of pure procedural justice, but I can't tell you what it'd actually look like in practice".

For example, the veil of ignorance serves as a useful tool1 in the context of constructing an ideal system of justice, but it seems to have tremendously limited utility in practice. Any attempt to perform the thought experiment and put ourselves behind such a veil for the purposes of examining a particular conception of justice is immediately tainted by our personal biases. In order for the veil to be useful there must first be some sort of minimum agreement akin to Rawls' two fundamental principles. But the disagreements among people often go all the way down to first principles; if we could settle on those the rest would be easy.

Rawls' two principles seem to suffer from the same problem; I'm reserving judgement, but right now it looks to me like they're going nowhere fast. Rawls goes out of his way to declare an absolute and inviolate ordering of these principles; Liberty always trumps Equality of Opportunity. However, under the "Democratic Equality" interpretation of the Principle of Equality of Opportunity it is

[N]ecessary to impose further basic structural conditions on the social system. Free market arrangements must be set within a framework of political and legal institutions which regulates the overall trends of economic events and preserves the social conditions necessary for fair equality of opportunity. (p.73)
This sort of a system seems destined to run afoul of the Principle of Liberty from the start; how can it be made compatible with "freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property" and "freedom arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law"2. It seems to me that efforts to preserve a particular set of social conditions must necessarily run afoul of basic liberties such as the ability to move or switch jobs3. Maybe Rawls will pull a rabbit out of the hat on this one, but this is yet another reason why I think he's heading towards a formal system which might not be realizeable.

One explanation for the above is that Rawls appears to have a somewhat idiosyncratic view on the subject of free will. He advocates a fairly strong form of social determinism, stating at one point

Perhaps some will think that the person with greater natural endowments deserves those assets and the superior character that made their development possible. Because he is more worthy in this sense, he deserves the greater advantages that he could achieve with them. This view, however, is surely incorrect. It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgements that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one's ionitial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. (Pp. 103 - 104).

That's just bullshit, pure and simple. One scion of a wealthy house might choose to be an upstanding member of society while another might be a wastrel; people have known that since day one4. Though it does explain a lot of Rawls' attitude towards property and the redistribution thereof. If a person's success is due primarily to extrinsic, historically contingent factors then their claims to the fruits of that success are much weaker. If no one really deserves (in the sense of having earned it) what they have in the first place then redistrbuting those fruits to maintain Equality of Opportunity causes fewer conflicts with the Principle of Liberty.

Though a belief in social determinism causes a lot of problems for moral theory in general. Morality implies choice, but if we're all automatons responding to our environment there's not much choice to be found. My character is a result of my upbringing; just as I'm not justified in enjoying whatever good fortune it might bring to me I'm equally blameless for any ill that I might do.

Anyhow, that's it for now. More to come, perhaps, as I work my way through the book.

1 As a side note I was exposed to the concept of the veil of ignorance in an entry-level college philsophy course and the professor made a bloody hash of it. Rawls ultimately describes it as a set of formal conditions constraining the initial agreement, which seems much more straightforward to me that some of his other characterizations. Had my professor just said that up front I would have been saved hours of pseudo-philosphical masturbation on the part of my classmates.
2 p. 61
3 Hayek has a good exposition of this position, see The Road To Serfdom, Pp. 110 - 111.
4 See, for example, the parable of the Prodigal Son. Note also that the son who wasn't a wastrel gets pretty pissed off, with some justification, about the whole "fatted calf" incident.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Awesomest Photoshop Evar

Finally some worthy wallpaper. See here for context (search for "satire").

A Minimum Libertarian Consensus

Update: Now available online here.

Reason this month has an excellent four-part discussion1 of the libertarian approach to cultural/non-state matters. Partly its just hugely entertaining to watch the writers go after one another; Todd Seavey's response to Kerry Howley's essay is titled Freedom's Just Another Word for Kerry Howley's Preferences. Ouch... I was glad to see that they gave Kerry a chance to respond to that. Apart from sheer entertainment value it also tackles an interesting subject, namely whether libertarians should care about the particular forms which cultures assume. Obviously that's a thorny issue for a philosophy who's fundamental precept is "leave me alone please".

Daniel McCarthy, in eir essay, characterizes the issue as follows:

Libertarianism does not demand that everyone subscribe to the same idea of the good life. By extension, libertarianism also should not demand that everyone subscribe to the same idea of liberty.
I don't think that the latter is a necessary extension of the former; if it has no inviolable base principles then libertarianism ultimately stands for nothing at all. Though the alternative is establishing a mandatory, baseline culture to which everyone has to subscribe. McCarthy recognizes this tension in the following passage:
The danger of the Federation of Liberty is that it permits violations of liberty, perhaps even outright slavery. The danger of the Union of Liberty, however, is much worse. The trouble is not only a universal state but a universal orethodoxy, a tyranny of the supermajority that threatens to destroy the individual personality.
So where do we stand then? The Federation of Liberty is bad, but the Union of Liberty is worse. Which is it to be, Daniel, the frying pan or the fire? Or should we just chuck it all and forget about liberty altogether?

It seems to me that the way out of this dilemma is to recognize that the Federation is actually worse than the Union. If we espouse the Federation we have no theoretical recourse when someone comes and beats us up; it's totally useless as a philosophical standpoint. Which leaves us with the Union, which needn't be as dire a threat to personal individuality as McCarthy makes it out to be. The trick is to minimize the formal rules of the Union; "leave people alone if they desire to be left alone" looks to me like it strikes exactly the right balance in terms of the protection of personal autonomy. A Union chartered with this rule (and perhaps a handful of corollaries like "leave people's property alone") leaves people free to pursue whatever forms of culture they see fit provided they don't trample on other people's autonomy in the process. As a practical matter such a Union would not be a tyranny of the supermajority and would comfortably accommodate a nearly unbounded array of social configurations.

Ultimately this seems to reduce more-or-less to the system of property rights which Seavey defends, though a couple of eir examples exposes a huge issue which needs to be addressed. I agree with Seavey that, to be logically consistent, libertarians must necessarily accept the right of people to be Amish or organize themselves into fundamentalist compounds. However, and here's where Howley can get some real purchase, the unstated assumption behind Seavey's argument is that that these arrangements exist as a matter of consent. I should be free to join whatever social arrangement I want, but what happens if I find myself in one of these arrangements without my consent? Specifically, what if I'm born into one of these societies?

For the sake of argument let's suppose that I'm born into some arrangement of culture where, by virtue of contracts entered into by my grandparents many times removed, I have no property of my own. Suppose further that, reaching a state/age where I'm capable of exercising my agency, I decide to leave this arrangement. Here the libertarian is in a bit of a bind; libertarian philosophy puts an emphasis on property rights because it recognizes that such rights are a necessary condition for the promotion of individual autonomy. But the rights themselves are merely a theoretical construct expressing the reality that property itself is necessary for an individual to be able to realize their conception of the good. Does it make sense (or, even, "Is it fair?") that in this example I would find myself cast out into the world without property by virtue of a contract to which I was not a party?

The above example suggests that no multi-generational society can be completely unconstrained. If there is some set of natural rights which all persons possess (such as... say... the right to property) then a legitimate society must recognize these rights for minors up to the point where they are capable of exercising their own agency. This is not a particularly new-fangled notion; in On Civil Government Locke argues that the power of parent over child is not unlimited and must be exercised consistent with the principles of liberty2. Such a constraint necessarily limits the forms that such societies can take; I expect that the many of the social configurations to which Howley objects would probably run afoul of this rule.

1 "Are Property Rights Enough"?, vol 41., no. 6. Sadly not available online as of yet AFAIK.
2 Chapter VI

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Book Review: The Road To Serfdom

My recent cruise afforded me the opportunity to work my way through Hayek's The Road To Serfdom; doing so was certainly a worthwhile excercise. It's an excellent example of both brevity and clarity, articulately tackling a host of related issued in a slim 219 pages. Written in 1944 in Britain it's totally untainted by the stupidity that the two-party system and its associated partisanship has brought to the bulk of contemporary political writing. Moreover, even though it was written 60+ years ago in an effort to convince the British to avoid a planned economy, its remarkable how much is highly relevant in the here and now. It seems that the players may change but the story essentially remains the same. Rather than try to summarize the work in its entirety (which has been done before much better than I ever could) I'll just comment on some selections which seemed particularly interesting to me.

"Freedom" and "Priviledge"

Fairly early on Hayek spends some time discussing the meaning of the terms "freedom"1 and "priviledge"2 and how their respective meanings had subtley drifted from the period of classical liberalism to the time in which he was writing. In classical liberalism "freedom" specifically indicated the state in which a person was at liberty to guide their own destiny free from undue coercion (by the state or private parties), but by Hayek's time it had also come to mean liberation from the "despotism of physical want". Similarly, "priviledge" was a violation of the rule of formal equality before the law (e.g. some people had more rights than others by virtue of birth or station), whereas the word had come to mean any sort of (usually material) advantage that one person might have over another.

It's instructive to see how these two words have fared between then and now. "Freedom" maintains both senses to some degree; we recognize it in the sense of personal liberty but also in the sense of "freedom from want". The second meaning of "priviledge", on the other hand, has universally come to dominate. Perhaps its a sign of how deeply entrenched democratic ideals have become in the fabric of US society that we've essentially forgotten the original meaning of the word. Formal equality of persons before the law is taken for granted, thus when we speak of priviledge we're almost always talking about socio-economic differences between persons that lack the force of law.

Hayek makes a good argument that the two senses of each word are mutually incompatible, and characterized this conflict as one of procedural vs. substantive justice/equality. The new sense of freedom was "only another name for the old demand for an equal distribution of wealth" and could only be achieved by means of a violation of its old sense. Similarly, to eliminate "priviledge" in its new sense one would have to treat different individuals differently, thus ushering in the return of priviledge in the classical sense.

Barack's Not A Socialist (Yet)

This being a book whose primary purpose is to argue strongly against collectivism, Hayek spends a good deal of time documenting the progression towards such behavior both in pre-war Germany and contemporary (for him) Britain. We're not even close; the people who've been yammering on and on and on recently about Barack Obama wanting to turn this into a socialist country are, to be charitable, premature and unduly alarmist. Bestowing favors and funds on various industries is not, in and of itself, socialism except in a very broad (to the point of being near meaningless) sense of the word. Hayek wrote Serfdom to counter people who were advocating for wholescale economic planning and publically questioning the value of liberty, freedom, etc. No one in the Obama administration, to the best of my knowledge, has even come close to that.

That said, its also fair to argue that certain initiatives which the Obama administration has undertaken share some traits with these historical socialists. The bailout of Detroit is a good example. Propping up the automotive industry rather than letting them fail is sketchy, but not socialism. Telling them that they've got to make "green" cars... that starts to look like centralized planning at that point. In particular, the contemporary US auto industry looks an awful lot like the capitalist/labor chimeras which Hayek discusses on pp. 200 - 206. This section contains a particularly salient quote to that effect:

The decisions which the managers of such an organised industry would constantly have to make are not decisions which any society will long leave to private individuals. A state which allows such enormous aggregations of power to grow up cannot afford to let this power rest entirely in private control.3

If the auto industry is too big to fail does it follow from there that it's too important to be left in the hands of a handful of managers?

Hayek on Killing Granny

It's gratifying to see Hayek raising the same complaints about the expansion of healthcare that I've noted elsewhere, if for no other reason than it lets me know that I'm not completely smoking crack:

When we have to choose between higher wages for nurses and doctors and more extensive services for the sick, more milk for children and better wages for agricultural workers, or between employment for the unemployed or better wages for those already employed, nothing short of a complete system of values in which every want of every person or group has a definite place is necessary to provide an answer.

There seems to be little or no recognition among progressive that, given finite resources, extending benefits to one person necessarily deprives another of their use. On a purely theoretical level you run into trouble since it's essentially impossible to come up with the system of values (or even a reasonable approximation thereof) to which Hayek refers.

Your Boss is a Fascist

Probably the most entertaining part of the book for me was this quote from Soviet Communism by S. and B. Webb:

Whilst the work is in progress, any public expression of doubt, or even fear that the plan will not be successful, is an act of disloyalty and even of treachery because of its possible effects on the will and on the efforts of the rest of the staff.5

God, this happens at work all the time. We recently had a VP chew someone out for expressing entirely reasonable doubts in public about a particular development effort. I, myself, have been remonstrated on more than one occassion for insufficient cheerleading in this regard. I'm tempted to find a copy of Soviet Communism and give it to the VP in question as a gift.

Some Unresolved Questions

Lastly I'd like to comment on a few points where I feel that Hayek's analysis was incomplete or self-contradictory. He seemed to take it as a given that, during wartime, centralized planning would be needed in order to efficiently combat whatever opponent a nation might find itself up against. At the same time, however, he makes the following statement:

We shall never prevent the abuse of power if we are not prepared to limit power in a way which occasionally may also prevent its use for desirable purposes.6

In light of the above what makes wartime unique enough that Hayek is willing to grant a dispensation for centralized planning? I suppose that he was operating from the proposition that Britain would have to be self-sufficient in its own defense and that the requisite resources were scarce enough that the country could ill afford to spend them on anything else. Even if we were to so stipulate it strikes me that there must be some rough heuristic which tells us whether the government has been ceeded too much/not enough authority for that purpose. Elsewise how are we to know when to grant the dispensation and when to take it back?

At several points in the book Hayek also makes reference to the government ensuring a certain minimum threshold of subsistence (see p. 124 for example). But it strikes me that the comment above regarding "higher wages for nurses and doctors" applies here as well. Is there a general consensus regarding what that minimum threshold entails? I would hazard that the answer to that question is "No", in which case we need the same "complete system of values" which he earlier writes off as a practical impossibility.

1 p. 25
2 p. 83
3 p. 200
4 p. 81
5 p. 164
6 p. 242

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Uses of Leisure, or, Reflections on a Cruise

I got back from my first cruise a little while ago. It wasn't a terribly thrilling experience, but as an incidental by-product it has helped me understand what I really want to accomplish during my free time. Unsurprisingly I've come to the conclusion that free time is best spent in activities which are relaxing and enjoyable as well as a corollary: Going on a cruise isn't necessarily either.

The crusing itself was done aboard Holland America Line's ms Zandam. We took along our daughter, now 10 months old, exposing ourselves to charges of undue optimism in the process. Cruising with a small child is, to put it charitably, a challenge. She didn't sleep well, we had to leave several formal meals early because she was freaking out, and so on. There was another couple on the cruise with twin toddlers; it was easy to tell when they were about because their huge stroller would be parked somewhere in the proximity. You have to wonder how, with two small children, they found any time for themselves. Even with my in-laws along to provide occasional babysitting we found our activities on board and in port significantly constrained by our child care needs. But even if that had not been the case it's not clear to me that I would have found the experience that much more entertaining.

The gestalt of the cruise experience was a lot like being in Las Vegas with the added bonus that the food is (mostly) already paid for. As such one of the big draws seems to be the ability to stuff your face more of less at will. This is accompanied by Broadway-style shows, live music, activities, shopping and, of course, a casino.

The main restaurant on board the Zandam (the "Rotterdam Dining Room") was decent and the fact that its already paid for means you can have what would be a fairly extravagant meal (appetizer, soup/salad, entree, dessert per person) and not feel tremendously guilty. The food was pretty good but showed a lot of the signs of mass preparation; when they're preparing 7000 meals a day they simply can't take the time to do those things which take a meal from "fine" to "excellent"1.

The buffet, on the other hand, was nothing to write home about. It was essentially what you'd expect from a mid-range establishment on The Strip, which means that you end up eating more that you intended but somehow end up leaving unsatisfied anyway.

One of the things that I found interesting was that, given the vast and obvious differences in the quality of food and level of service, there wasn't any obvious attempt to steer people away from the restaurant and towards the buffet. Access to both is included in the cruise price, though one would expect that its more profitable to Holland if people eat in the buffet. Though it occurs to me that perhaps the dining room dress code serves as a subtle steering mechanism. The dress code effectively raises the bar with respect to the level of effort needed to dine at the restaurant versus the buffet; I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if a number of people simply find it too much trouble to get dressed up.

Otherwise the dress code strikes me as fairly stupid, especially given that its spottily enforced at best. The ambiance of the restaurant on "smart casual" vs. "formal" night wasn't appreciably different; as a consequence there seems to be little practical value in maintaining a dress code. On one formal night I saw/heard the dining room staff doing the stupid clapping-and-singing for (presumably) someone's birthday, so there seems to be no concern for actual decorum. It may simply be that the dress code is a vestigial holdover from cruising's better days.

Apart from the food the rest of the cruise was something of a disappointment, though I get the feeling that's partly the result of this particular trip rather than an idictment of cruising in general. My wife had hoped to meet interesting people, but the crowd skewed old and wasn't particularly dynamic. That may be what we get for choosing a cheap cruise at the last minute, but it could just as easily be the case that on a more expensive cruise you meet dull retirees who have more money. And Alaska, in particular, was transparently lame. The scenery was beautiful and getting to seem some glaciers up close was quite fun, but the ports of call left a lot to be desired. We stopped in Juno, Sitka, and Ketchikan, but we could just have easily stopped in any of them thrice and acheived the same effect. In all three cases the area around the port amounted to a giant strip mall for cruisers; I expect that experience might be idiosyncratic to the small ports of call in Alaska.

Apart from some scenery the cruise didn't offer me anything that I couldn't get a home. What I enjoyed most were the brief periods where I could sit and listen to myself think; being able to do so on a balcony overlooking the open ocean with a glass of wine was definintely a plus, but not worth the price of the cruise. I spend so much time commuting and working that merely having some uninterrupted hours to myself without pressing chores is vacation enough. Had I stayed home and spent the same amount I suspect that it would have been a far more enjoyable experience.

1 To this end there's a smaller restaurant on board as well, the "Pinnacle Grill", access to which requires an additional fee on a per-meal basis. Though the execution to be found therein was no doubt better we didn't bother because the menu didn't look all that interesting.

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