Ends Are Irrelevant

This is a rehash of a post I made on my personal blog (which is down right now and I haven't had time to figure out what's wrong) a couple years ago.

It's pretty hard to distinguish between the "visions" of Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and even anarchists, communists, and fascists. We all generally want everyone to be as happy as they can be. The problem is that it really doesn't matter what your goals are, what your "vision" is unless the path you propose has some likelihood of reaching your goal.

Take Senator Edwards's vision of a "Working Society." It sounds great, but it seems to me that the government has shown time and time again that it is completely incapable of administering any sort of "safety net." Try getting food stamps sometime. Sure, there are people who "really want to help," but many of the people who handle administration of these programs are jaded, self-important individuals who think everyone is trying to get a handout for nothing. Or any sort of welfare. Democrats and Republicans alike are big on welfare, but when the problem of abuse or people having an incentive not to get a job comes up, the solution they give is to slap a time limit on it. There is never any suggestion that maybe people who are stuck on welfare have some sort of issue that's preventing them from getting a job.

Government is this huge, heavily centralized behemoth. The only governments I can imagine having any luck at all administering any kind of welfare or "safety net" program is local governments, because they're right there on the front line. The incentives are still out of whack, but at least they possess the most local knowledge of anybody in government. Witness the day labor programs of some cities in California: no questions asked, the people who want day laborers come and register and show ID, pick up laborers, and drop them off and pay them later, with it all verified. Many of these laborers are here illegally, but these city governments realize it's not their job to police immigration, and their job is to keep people safe and to facilitate commerce.

How in the world could the Federal Government handle a program like this? It seems to me that there's just not much the Federal Government can do about problems that are really local in nature. All they can do is stumble around blindly, sometimes solving problems, sometimes creating more, but usually doing slightly more harm than good. Sure, politicians running for Federal office will never admit this (if Edwards does maybe I'll go work on his campaign) because it's kind of boring to say "Well, I really think local governments and charities need to take care of this problem."

I am sure Edwards and Bush and Clinton and McCain really would like to see the world be a happier place. I'm not going to believe that one or the other of them is really more committed to world happiness, and even if one of them was, it doesn't matter unless they have programs that actually take incentives and knowledge into account, or allow the people who do have the right incentives and knowledge to take care of things. Mostly the incentives in government, particularly the Federal Government, is to be seen to be "doing something." There are no incentives whatsoever to be doing something that works. Bush could sacrifice a chicken, and if the economy got better for whatever reason, a Republican would probably get elected President. And that's pretty much what the legislature and the executive do: they practice voodoo and dance around for the god of the volcano, and hope the volcano doesn't erupt. And they have about as much impact on eruption chances as the volcano dancers.

Feel free to ignore the rest because from here on I'm just rambling.

I'm not really as much of an anarcho-capitalist as I make myself out to be. I think the world would be better off with a Democrat as President and a Republican in congress, because the FedGov seems to do the least damage that way. I think city and county ownership of power lines and telco infrastructure would be preferable to having government granted monopolies, because I think the likes of SBC and PG&E are just too disconnected from their customers in the current circumstances. They are more insulated from the consequences of their actions than the local politicians. Not that I imagine cities and counties would be any better at figuring out how to get their power and phone lines to work together than they are with public transportation or anything. But they probably would do a better job of protecting our privacy rights than AT&T does.

Ok, I've already rambled too much in this post. Hopefully it will help the Democratic bloggers who are going to be storming the blogosphere in the runup to 2008 to understand where I (and I think probably most of my fellow minarchist/anarcho-capitalist bloggers) are coming from, and why we're so cynical about the profound speeches of "their" politicians.

Hey, while we're on the subject, could one of Edwards's fans tell me how a lawyer who got rich on malpractice suits, thus driving up the cost of malpractice insurance, is going to help bring down the cost of health care? It seems to me that one of the things that's necessary for reducing health care costs is to limit damage awards to something reasonable. Human life *does* have a price, and it ain't 200 million. More like 20-40 million. Many people would gladly trade a 1% chance of dying for $200,000. In fact, crab fishermen in Alaska take a much bigger risk for less money.

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I would put it this way:

I would put it this way: Ends are relevant (there are bad ends, after all), but given the right set of ends, it's means that matter.

My end is to take over the

My end is to take over the world. But first I must crush all competing states by convincing everyone of the superiority of anarcho-capitalism.

Tom: I like it. Or how about

Tom: I like it. Or how about "Ends are irrelevant when they're all the same"

Very good points, Sean.

Very good points, Sean. Though this might be easy for libertarians to say, since our ends and means are identical - or at the very least have a heavy cross-section. We want liberty, and we try to expand liberty (by decreasing government) in order to get there.

But perhaps I'm simplifying "libertarian ends" too much. And there is always the objection that decreasing government might allow non-governmental entities to restrict our freedoms more. We just don't necessarily buy that (or we believe there is some way around it, or we define our terms in such a way that we would oppose those other entities equivalently, or whatever).

"I think city and county

"I think city and county ownership of power lines and telco infrastructure would be preferable to having government granted monopolies"
Just one example, but where I live property values fall quickly once the city annexes it. For some reason the granted monopoly which surrounds the city on all sides does a much better job of providing electricity. Inside city limits we are required to take city electricity which costs about 50% more in some months and manages to go off an hour or so every other week, or the voltage dips which are just long enough to reboot a non-UPS protected computer, not to mention the power spikes: the A/C units of an entire subdivision were burned up in one afternoon.

It is purely anecdotal evidence, but I'm moving away in a few weeks.

I think you started losing

I think you started losing it towards the end - but overall, a very nice post.

LoneSnark: The best power in

LoneSnark: The best power in Silicon Valley is provided by Silicon Valley Power, which is run by the city of Santa Clara. During California's rolling blackouts a couple of years ago, Silicon Valley Power's customers never lost power. The main difference is that the city of Santa Clara will actually allow Silicon Valley Power to build power plants. The city also doesn't require everyone to use their power, so many data centers actually use both SVP and PG&E for redundancy. Many businesses, especially data centers, locate in Santa Clara for precisely this reason. Google's first data center was in Santa Clara in a building that had both SVP and PG&E power.

doinkicarus: Thanks for the comment. I do have a tendency to let my mind wander when I'm writing. It's hard for me to form my thoughts into discrete posts, so sometimes you're gonna see that sort of thing from me. I'll try harder in the future to stay on point. What really sucks is when I mention something that's not really a central facet of my argument and then the commenters end up attacking something I didn't really feel strongly about and people think that my central argument has been torn down.

I've installed a more tag so people don't have to read my rambling :)

I think one's worldview

I think one's worldview matters most. That would determine both ends and means. If your worldview is not realistic it can lead to real problems on both accounts. A worldview that holds the afterlife as more important than this life will lead to both bad ends and means. For example, flying and airplane into a building in order to get your 72 virgins.

It’s pretty hard to

It’s pretty hard to distinguish between the “visions” of Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and even anarchists, communists, and fascists.

The book "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen does a remarkable job at this, and is an interesting read. His take is that both what are we optimizing for (ends), and how do we go about it (means) are important. In fact, a good portion of the book is spent bashing libertarians among others for concentrating too much on ends.

The title of his book is really the thesis, and is meant to be taken literally. He is looking at measuring the development of a nation as the actual freedom that its people enjoy, rather than procedural freedom (which the libertarians spend too much time on), equality (socialists) or happiness (utilitarians). It is worth the read.

Colin, That's funny, I

Colin, That's funny, I always thought libertarians were fixated on means concerns and not ends issues. More concerned that the means follow certain principles and to hell with the consequences, that is, the end results of following those principles. I'm curious how someone could argue otherwise.

But the fact is that having

But the fact is that having that right does exactly zero good if nobody is able to exercise it.

Where is nobody able to exercise it and how do you propose remedying the situation? Keep in mind that if there is freedom but no ability to exercise it then the entire society must be incredibly poor. And if it is incredibly poor, then even a government, financed by the incredibly poor society, can't magic a free press into existence. So what is your alternative? International help? Not from a private group of course, since that lets the libertarians off the hook. You need to recommend government action. But since the local government can't act (the society is too poor), then international governments must act. You must (I deduce) be recommending some form of intervention in a nation's affairs by foreign governments. Sort of like Bush in Iraq.

Brian - The argument is

Brian -

The argument is basically that libertarians are generally concerned with the procedural aspects of freedom rather than the actual freedom enjoyed by real people. Many libertarians argue that there is no difference, especially in the long run. I tend to disagree.

One good example is a free press. Everyone agrees that having a free press makes the population as a whole more free, and that is good. Libertarians are generally content with securing the right to have a free press. But the fact is that having that right does exactly zero good if nobody is able to exercise it. Libertarians say that in the long run a press will grow, but in the long run we are all dead.

The ideas of libertarianism to me represent a set of necessary conditions for freedom, but not a sufficient set.

Dr. Sen is much more impressive with words than I am, but I think I have gotten it across...

Whether you characterize

Whether you characterize libertarianism as being about means or ends depends on what ends you have in mind. Freedom from robbery, rape, and murder are ends.

Perhaps a better criticism does not distinguish between ends and means but points out that the libertarians have left some things out. Indeed they have. Libertarianism is about prohibition of certain actions, such as murder. It is not about what people do with their lives, whether people become reporters or cartoonists or farmers. Someone who worries about whether there will actually be a press to take advantage of the freedom of the press is worrying about what people do with their lives.

Well, that's a fine thing to worry about, I guess. But the real question is: what are you willing to do about it? If you are not willing to rob and murder to get people to become reporters, then libertarians have no beef with you. There is only a political issue contra the libertarians if you intend to rob and murder as a means to the end of forming a press. And since the difference is being taken as political, that is what people seem to be saying when they criticize libertarians.

Colin, Seems like you just

Colin, Seems like you just agreed with me. Libertarians are concerned with the means and if the ends are not attained then that's just too bad. The procedural aspects are the means, the actual result is the ends.

At this point I think you mistakely put the wrong word in your original comment. Shouldn't you have written

"In fact, a good portion of the book is spent bashing libertarians among others for concentrating too much on means.

Note that the answer to this complaint, and therefore a good portion of this book you are recommendiing, is that the ends do not justify the means. :)

Of course, this is all based on your say so. I haven't read the book.

Darn, posted that last

Darn, posted that last comment to the wrong article.

Cornelius, "That’s the


"That’s the nature of percentages, no progressivity needed."

You know math doesn't always model reality well. For instance, integer math doesn't work with a pile of apples beyond a certain point. A pile of two apples with an additional apple added certainly generates a pile of three apples. This however does not work when you get into very large numbers. Apples behave differently than numbers in large quantities. Eventually a pile of enough apples will generate a black hole due to gravitational collapse. At some point way before this the pile degenerates into an applesauce mush at the bottom.

It is perfectly possible that it costs more percentage-wise to defend large quantities of wealth. After all, I said "most things" not "most income".

I'm not saying that I have any empirical proof that this is the case, but I do have a gut feeling. There are various reasons why amassed wealth is a natural target. The same is true with valuable concentrations of natural resources.

Some inconclusive empirical evidence of this is that our native criminal class, the politician, is preferentially looting such accumulations of wealth via estate taxes.

I also think that because wars and defense are mainly fought with bodies that they disproportionally weigh upon the poor. I think that the rich tend not to pay the actual price of war by various mechanisms. They take advantage of political mechanisms to avoid paying their fair share. For instance, during war I think that certain prices would tend to go up, like military pay, insurance costs, etc. Our society is structured such that the poor are shortchanged more than the rich during such times of crisis. Seems to me that the rich are getting their protection fees covered at below market prices.

This is an argument I could go for if there were sufficient empirical evidence that it was true. I used to think protection fees would be purely proportional. I am not sure that is true any more. Note: It may cost proportionally more to protect small quantities of assets per person as well as very large quantities. I doubt it. Non-accumulated assets are difficult to harvest precisely because they are dispersed.

In fact, someone else having a large accumulation of assets can be a danger to you if you are in proximity to their stash. Witness conflict diamonds.

It’s pretty hard to

It’s pretty hard to distinguish between the “visions” of Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and even anarchists, communists, and fascists. We all generally want everyone to be as happy as they can be.

Actually, I prefer Nozick's view of rights as side constraints on the paths we take to our respective goals---politically, I don't much care what those goals are, could lead to happiness or misery for all I know.