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Perhaps this is not so shocking to readers of this blog, but people develop vastly different world-views depending on which news sources they frequent. For most, politics is determined by their environment, not any sober-minded weighing of issues.
Here's an example: recently a Venezuelan referendum removed term limits for left-wing President Hugo Chavez. What does this mean? Is this a good thing for the people of Venezuela? For the rest of the world? Let's see what one prominent national newspaper says:
CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez handily won a referendum on Sunday that will end presidential term limits, allowing him to run for re-election indefinitely and injecting fresh vibrancy into his socialist-inspired revolution.
The results, coming after voters had rejected a similar effort by Mr. Chávez just 15 months ago, pointed to his resilience after a decade in power, as well as to the fragmentation of his opposition, which as recently as November had won key mayoralties and governorships.
The vote opens the way not only for Mr. Chávez to run for a new six-year term when his current one expires in 2013, but could also bolster his ambitious agenda as an icon of the left and a counterweight to American policies in Latin America.
It also creates a new foreign policy challenge for the Obama administration, strengthening a leader who has made a career of taunting and deriding the United States, even though Mr. Chávez just this weekend seemed to open the door for a different relationship.
Suppose a high school student read this piece for a report on "current events" in his history or civics class. What would be imprinted on his impressionable mind?
- Chavez is a vibrant, popular, powerful, resilient, and revolutionary leader
- Socialism is popular
- Those who oppose socialism are fragmented, and by implication weak
- The Latin American left is powerful, strong enough to counter and challenge the United States
- Something was wrong about America before Obama was elected that antagonized Chavez (who sounds like a swell guy!), but recently that something changed
As you might have already guessed, this piece appeared in The New York Times. It is a travesty that the editorial board does not get a commission everytime a Che t-shirt is sold.
Now, for contrast, here is the AP's treatment of the same news item:
CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez says a referendum victory that removed limits on his re-election is a mandate to intensify his socialist agenda for decades to come. Opponents warn of an impending dictatorship.
Both sides had called the outcome of Sunday's vote key to the future of this South American country, split down the middle between those who worship the president for redistributing Venezuela's oil riches and those who see him as a power-hungry autocrat.
"Those who voted "yes" today voted for socialism, for revolution," Chavez thundered to thousands of ecstatic supporters jamming the streets around the presidential palace. Fireworks lit up the Caracas skyline, and one man walked though the crowd carrying a painting of Chavez that read: "Forever."
Josefa Dugarte stared at the crowd from the stoop of her apartment building with look of dismay.
"These people don't realize what they have done," she muttered.
The implications of this piece are strikingly different. We are told:
- Chavez thinks that the referendum is a mandate for socialism (The NYT stated this as a simple, objective fact)
- For the first time we hear the opposition's voice. They are worried that Chavez is accumulating dictatorial powers
- There was a crowd of people showing enthusiastic support for Chavez after the vote. One of their signs seemed to justify the opposition's worries of encroaching dictatorship
- The result of this referendum has created uncertainty and anxiety for many people
This example illustrates the importance of forming your own powers of analysis, and not relaxing your critical mind even when reading from supposedly objective news sources.
Hat tip: The Corner
Over at The Corner, Jonah Goldberg and others ask where the "liberaltarians" have gone since the financial crisis started. Check out the whole exchange: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4, and part 5.
A "liberaltarian", for those who don't follow internecine libertarian debate, is a hypothesized left-wing fellow traveler of the libertarian movement. Like the Higgs Boson, the liberaltarian is a phenomenon that hasn't yet been directly observed but that everybody hopes to find someday. Perhaps we will have better luck when the LHC is finally up and running.
I always thought the libertarian-leftist alliance was doomed by the fact that they sort of hate us. If you don't believe in "social justice" or environmentalism, many of them are apt to view you as evil. And it is hard to make headway with people that think you are evil.
Will Wilkinson responds here in opposition.
Goldberg has promised to rejoin the conversation in the morning.
Nate Silver produces the most interesting piece of armchair macroeconomics I have seen lately, predicting a long recession due to low economic volatility in modern times.
Predicting the macroeconomic future based on the past is never an exact science, but it is a good hypothesis nonetheless.
Artificial Intelligence is a disorienting subject. A few days ago, I realized for the first time the poverty of human language as a communication medium. It is incredibly imprecise; semantic ambiguity is ubiquitous. If it weren't for vast amounts of shared background knowledge between human speakers, many utterances would be unintelligible.
This accounts for the impossibility of creating computers that can understand the natural language used by human beings. As usual, nature has evolved a twisty, inelegant solution that works well enough. It is very hard to copy her ways.
Eliezer at Overcoming Bias has outdone himself, producing a fascinating serial novella that explores the limitations of moral thought.
Maybe it is my own nihilism talking, but to me it serves as a fine illustration of the inherent arbitrariness hidden in the foundation of all moral systems. Once you can imagine creatures with a moral system radically different from your own, it's hard not to retreat to an ad hoc, pragmatic view of morality.
Through part II, my sympathies are with the baby eaters. Is that unusual?
After pondering this story for awhile, I am less impressed with it. I may have missed the point that the author intended for me to get the first time around. It is still an entertaining yarn that will send a charge through your brain-crystals, but it could end up as a simple parable on the virtue of Yudkowsky's preferred morality.
Consider the evidence: Eliezer is known to consider suffering and death to be a great evil. He thinks that people who reject even a small chance of cheating death, such as by use of cryogenics, are attempting to rationalize a flawed world-view. To Yudkowsky, people who think death is a "natural" part of human existence are the babyeaters.
However, there is some art in the story, since Yudkowsky gives us his morality in two perspectives. He next introduces the alien race of the super happy ultra fun fun people (or something like that) who have done away with pain and live in an eternal state of supreme pleasure. They view suffering as a great evil, and view humanities' choice not to use technology to do away with it as something akin to the babyeaters' choice not to use technology to do away with the need for baby eating. At the conclusion of part 4, they are threatening to forcibly take over and remake the human race to eliminate death and pain.
I think Yudkowsky wants us to be convinced by the arguments of the super happy fun fun people and commit ourselves to do away with whatever pain we develop the technological capability to alleviate. I missed this point too the first time I read it. Instead, I thought the super happy fun fun people were sort of grotesque.
I am at peace with the fact that I have a human-centered worldview. My entire personality, identity, and consciousness is tied up with a particular piece of wetware with its own innate moral biases. Yudkowsky won't convince me to give it up that easily.
If I were a babyeater, I'd eat babies.
Alternatively, Eliezer might put some warts on the happy fun people and use them to illustrate some of his ideas on failed utopias. After all, most stories are a function of their authors.
I have a libertarian-minded friend who works on the street and would like to understand macroeconomic policy better. Does anyone have reading suggestions? I know of the classic primary sources (Keynes "General Theory", Friedman "Monetary History", Rothbard's "Great Depression", etc.), but I never got through any of them and they are a bit dense.
Your suggestions are much appreciated.
Due to the limited creativity of journalists, the temporal proximity of two events, and the melanin content of certain epidermises, we are bound to be treated to comparisons between Martin Luther King and Barack Obama over the next few days.
But to compare the two is to elevate symbolism to the level of substance. King and his generation did the heavy lifting to eliminate racism codified into law and deal a fatal blow to racism in the American mind. They risked their lives and livelihoods for their beliefs, and often spent time in jail for opposing unjust laws.
How does Obama's election compare? If he had lost to Clinton or McCain, would America be more racist?
Perhaps he may do good things once in office to leave a respected name and legacy. But his election itself means little. On the eve of a "historic" inauguration which will see millions of people flood DC for a glimpse at Dear Leader, I am having a hard time getting excited.
To the uninitiated all scotch tastes the same: like a mixture of coal, moss, and wood-shavings. However, the more experienced palate starts to notice subtle distinctions between vintages. The kind of wood used in the storage barrels, the weather in the area where the liquor is made, and its age all contribute to its flavor. Some scotches have overtones of heather and honey, some are smoky, some are earthy. Laphroaig makes a malt that tastes like bacon. With enough experience, a person can become a connoisseur and discover that he likes certain varieties of scotch, but not others.
Libertarianism is like scotch. When a new person is first exposed to the movement, he might think that everybody agrees on a set of principles and generally gets along. However, it is not long before he hears the word "Kochtopus" or gets laughed at for sporting a "What Would Ayn Rand Do?" armband. Our new activist begins to suspect the existence of the dark undercurrents and rivalries that color our people like a Jackson Pollock painting.
I have been around libertarians for almost a decade, and petty factional disputes are old news to me. If the mangled body of Ed Crane ever washes up in the Potomac River, I can give the police a short list of suspects. However, recently I began to notice something far more important and interesting: there are sharp philosophical differences and many incompatible ideas in the traditional libertarian cannon.
Libertarianism is like a piece of legacy software that has been patched over and over but never rewritten - a sprawling, contradictory, and sometimes surprising mess. This unsettles me. Becoming a libertarian in my formative years, it has since become part of my self-identity. But what does it mean when I call myself a “libertarian”? I am still not sure. And thus began my current odyssey in libertarian hair-splitting and navel gazing.
But this hair-splitting is important. One half of the hair is a completely different color from the other. Subtle differences in ideas can lead to large differences in how we think human society should be organized. And it is hard for me to see how people with vastly different visions of the ideal world can form part of the same movement.
My previous post on structural libertarianism versus policy libertarianism is the first part of this odyssey. I mentioned my preference for the structural vintage of libertarianism over the policy variety as the one with (barely) more practical potential. However, before anyone else jumps on the structuralist bandwagon, I should give fair warning about its faults.
The main problem with structural libertarianism is that we are heading away from the libertarian mainstream, and maybe away from libertarianism altogether. Consider the doctrine of universal rights. It states that every individual has the right to a certain degree of autonomy, at all places and at all times. It is hard to find a more central doctrine of libertarianism.
But now consider another popular libertarian idea – federalism. Federalism states that small, local communities should be able to set their own laws and policies. Advocates of federalism argue that this will create better-managed governments that more closely reflect the will of the people living under them.
But if we are to adopt federalism, then we must temper our support for universal rights. The tension between the two ideas is clear: under federalism, the laws of an area will only be as libertarian as the people living there. The libertarian's dream of a free-loving pothead utopia might be realized in Massachusetts, but I'm pretty sure that holding hands with a member of the same sex in Utah would carry a jail sentence if the federal government didn't prohibit it.
Most structural libertarian ideas involve some degree of political decentralization and suffer from the same drawback: they will create conservative theocracies. It's a profitable market niche - there are tens of millions of conservative Christians in the United States alone. If Utah were allowed to outlaw premarital sex, its property value would shoot up due to demand from evangelical fathers with pretty daughters.
So if you have something against theocracies, and most libertarians do, then maybe structural libertarianism isn't right for you. Maybe you should send your resume to the Ron Paul 2012 campaign after all.
Federalism and other structural libertarian ideas are not sold on the fact that they support universal rights, because they don't. Rather, they claim to produce governments with incentives to create better policies, or at least policies that people like. Instead of governments with incentive to produce as many wars and pork projects as possible, we might be able to create governments that try to produce the most appealing places for its customers, its residents, to live. On average, I think that rights will be better protected under most decentralized schemes, such as market anarchism. This is especially true for unpopular commercial rights like freedom of contract. But there will be theocracies, and probably racist states. And I wouldn't be surprised if there were states that only admit people with over a 1500 score on the SAT.
So as we begin to decentralize, we allow the creation of very non-libertarian states. However, we do increase variety. And we probably increase choice. We might have few tolerant libertarian paradises that let you make your own life decisions. But you will be able to choose which decisions are made for you.
There's something libertarian-sounding about a world that increases choice, even if it doesn't guarantee freedom everywhere for everybody. Some libertarians will find that distasteful. Some won't. But it's a controversy that we should probably hash out instead of ignoring.
In my previous post I attempted to differentiate between Policy Libertarianism and Structural Libertarianism and explain why my interest lies with the latter. Looking back, I realize that I railed on policy libertarianism quite a bit but I didn't explain why structural libertarianism is so interesting. In this post, I hope to correct that shortcoming by quoting some passages from the modern SLs that caught my attention. Then, hopefully before my classes resume, I will get around to discussing the drawbacks of structural libertarianism, and why we might want to reject libertarianism altogether in favor of a more utilitarian theory of politics.
I apologize for going back to the same sources over and over again, but as there are few structural libertarians in modern times and the old SLs didn't keep blogs that I can easily copy and paste from. I am lazy and they are serviceable, so that is what we get.
...[I]t is hard to avoid noticing two basic facts about the universe. One is that libertarianism is an extremely obvious idea. The other is that it has never been successfully implemented.
This does not prove anything. But what it suggests is that libertarianism is, as its detractors are always quick to claim, an essentially impractical ideology. I would love to live in a libertarian society. The question is: is there a path from here to there? And if we get there, will we stay there? If your answer to both questions is obviously "yes," perhaps your definition of "obvious" is not the same as mine.
The basic idea of formalism [the author's SL philosophy] is just that the main problem in human affairs is violence. The goal is to design a way for humans to interact, on a planet of remarkably limited size, without violence....
The key is to look at this not as a moral problem, but as an engineering problem. Any solution that solves the problem is acceptable. Any solution that does not solve the problem is not acceptable.
Is it possible to design a structure of government which will be stable and predictable? Hopefully, of course, stably and predictably benign? History affords no evidence of it. But history affords no evidence of semiconductors, either. There is always room for something new.
The key is that word should. When you say your government "should do X," or "should not do Y," you are speaking in the hieratic language of democracy. You are postulating some ethereal and benign higher sovereign, which can enforce promises made by the mere government to whose whims you would otherwise be subject. In reality, while your government can certainly promise to do X or not to do Y, there is no power that can hold it to this promise. Or if there is, it is that power which is your real government. Your whining should be addressed to it.
The neocameralist [another SL philosophy] structure of Patchwork realms, which are sovereign joint-stock companies, creates a different kind of should. This is the profitable should. We can say that a realm should do X rather than Y, because X is more profitable than Y. Since sovereign means sovereign, nothing can compel the realm to do X and not Y. But, with an anonymous capital structure, we can expect administrators to be generally responsible and not make obvious stupid mistakes.
Given the choice between financial responsibility and moral responsibility, I will take the latter every time. If it was possible to write a set of rules on paper and require one's children and one's children's children to comply with this bible, all sorts of eternal principles for good government and healthy living could be set out.
But we cannot construct a political structure that will enforce moral responsibility. We can construct a political structure that will enforce financial responsibility. Thus neocameralism. We might say that financial responsibility is the raw material of moral responsibility. The two are not by any means identical, but they are surprisingly similar, and the gap seems bridgeable.
When we use the profitable should, therefore, we are in the corporate strategy department. We ask: how should a Patchwork realm, or any financially responsible government, be designed to maximize the return on its capital?
Given how far all current governments stray from the libertarian vision, it is natural that some of us have considered designing or even founding a new nation. In doing so, we sometimes assume that the major failing of present nations is the mental attitudes of their residents. Thus to ensure that a political system works, we merely need to start with libertarians. This is incorrect, because much of what we don't like about current states stems from the behavior of systems - behavior which is to some degree independent of which humans are involved. As an example, the USA started with liberty-minded founders and degenerated anyway.
Continue reading the linked material for their positive visions of government. If you know of anyone else I should read, please let me know in the comments, or at first name dot last name at gmail dot com.
It strikes me that taxes are lower now than they are likely to be for some time. Between social welfare policies and the entitlement shortfall, average rates aren't heading down for at least the next two decades.
Merry Christmas, all. I wish you a prosperous and happy New Year.
Libertarian thinkers can be plotted on many axes. Presently, the axis I am most concerned with is Policy Libertarianism vs. Structural Libertarianism.
Policy Libertarians (PLs) include the vast majority of the most visible organizations and writers in the modern libertarian movement: the Reason Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Ron Paul campaign, the LP, the Constitution Party, most libertarian economists (e.g. Milton Friedman), and single-issue organizations like Students for a Sensible Drug Policy. PLs, as their name suggests, focus their energies on inventing and advocating a list of policies that governments should follow. For example, you can find policy libertarians opposing liberal eminent domain laws, fighting for lower taxes and deregulation, supporting cultural tolerance, opposing invasive police searches, and advocating the rest of the familiar libertarian manifesto.
Structural Libertarians (SLs) are much rarer in modern times than PLs, although the opposite used to be the case. Structural libertarians include Patri Friedman, Mencius Moldbug, David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, all libertarian Public Choice economists, Lysander Spooner, and the classical liberals that libertarians have adopted as intellectual ancestors. SLs often have the same moral and policy beliefs as PLs, but they focus their energies on the alternative ways to structure a government and the effect that government structure has on its incentive to adopt good policy. At their most extreme, SLs barely sound like libertarians. Under a market-based government system (a common SL proposal), the architects of Singapore would likely find plenty of customers for a burbclave that is incredibly prosperous and clean, but where communists are sent to jail and litterbugs are viciously beaten with sticks.
The decline of the structuralists and the rise of the policyists is a phenomenon that should interest us. It is a by-product of general political trends in the modern western world. Simply: democracy has won. Democracy is considered to be righteousness and goodness and freedom, all else is tyranny. Didn't the American colonists risk their lives and fortunes to institute democracy and overthrow monarchy? And wasn't America the shining example on a hill, leading the rest of the world into a democratic century?
Today all competing political ideas acknowledge this. Conservatism, libertarianism, liberalism, environmentalism, socialism, and nationalism are all strictly policy movements. Since our government structure is assumed to be sound, they focus on advancing their agendas through electoral politics.
But what if democracy is not the impartial "marketplace of ideas" that moderns assume? What if liberal democracy contains its own unwholesome incentives and biases? In other words, what if the game is rigged?
This is why policy libertarianism seems like a weak and incomplete philosophy to me. Presumably if libertarians believe that libertarian policies are just and beneficial, then they would want to live in a world where those policies are implemented. However, if the incentives of the political system are stacked against libertarianism, then their efforts advocating libertarian policies are futile. No amount of pamphleteering and blogging will make vast amounts of people act against their self-interest. Quoting Jefferson at housewives isn't going to sway them when Obama Claus is on the television offering free college educations and health insurance. Putting 51% of the country on welfare programs and then campaigning to enlarge the payments will remain a winning strategy no matter how many DVDs of "Freedom to Fascism" are printed.
Policy libertarianism is only valid in a particular time and place, and then only if you have certain beliefs about the political system at that juncture.PL is useless otherwise. If we kidnap Ron Paul and ship him back in time to live under the Bourbon Dynasty in France, what should he do? Presumably he still thinks that libertarianism is as just and wise in Bourbon France as it is in 21st century America. Should he write florid epistles to the king, trying to convince him of the value of universal human rights? Should he try to marry a princess?
Or suppose we send Ron Paul to live under a government run by evil robots that grow humans in vats and then suck out their life force to power their machines in some physics-defying green energy scheme. Likely Ron still thinks the evil machines should respect his property rights and freedom of speech. I don't see how Ron's beliefs matter very much. He is going to have to hire a damn good lobbyist to overcome the sway of the human-vat-maker union.
Under an incompatible government structure, policy libertarianism is an impotent philosophy. As soon as your faith in liberal democracy wavers, PL looks naive. It's as useless as a lawn ornament. It's gazelle trying diplomacy with lions.
My faith in democracy is at a low ebb, so I think structural libertarianism should be given more thought and policy libertarianism less. As one of the 200 million most influential people in America and one of the 20 most influential writers on this blog, I hope I can lead the libertarian discussion in that direction.
From Detroit Blog, hat tip Moldbug:
Whole neighorhood blocks cleared of houses by arson and bulldozers have reverted to urban prairies, visible in satellite photos as unusually large green patches in the middle of the inner city. Sidewalks vanish beneath creeping grasses, while aluminum fences between homes become entwined with the branches of dozens of saplings growing as high as the droopy utility wires.
Alleys in parts of the city start resembling hiking trails as growth from the yards on both sides narrows their width. All around town, even smaller empty lots become thick, grassy fields, because the City doesn’t often mow in easements and right-of-way areas, allowing weeds to grow 3 feet high.
Throughout Detroit, as half the population fled in the last half-century outward towards the suburbs and later towards more rural areas, the city itself has, ironically, become more rural, with wild animals and lush green plants coexisting with an industrial, modern metropolis. Nature, driven back by progress during the city’s 300 years, has aggressively reasserted itself in recent decades, reclaiming land from which man has turned away.
I am doing a personal research project on Singapore and I noticed an interesting bit of information: in 2007, the Singapore government came under criticism when it increased the salary of its Prime Minister to about $2 million. That is certainly very different from the American philosophy on politician compensation, which holds that it should be as small as possible. Our President is paid a salary of $400,000 and our congressmen all make less than $200,000.
On a possibly related note, international organizations regularly rank Singapore as one of the least corrupt countries in the world, while the US does a little worse (however, it is still pretty good). I wonder if paying our politicians so little contributes to corruption. After all, there must be some reason why presidential candidates were willing to spend $1 billion this year to get a position that pays only $400,000, or why Rod Blagojevich was offered $500,000 for Obama's senate seat which carries a salary of less than half that sum.
The optimistic take is that the warm fuzzy feeling of public service (or more realistically, prestige) is so powerful that people are willing to sacrifice to get it. The pessimist in me thinks that they do it for non-direct benefits of the job, including future lucrative positions with lobbyist firms and industry groups that they help out while in office.
Perhaps paying politicians more would reduce the incentive for them to deal under the table. When I see the salary of the Singapore Prime Minister, I am reminded of the salary of a CEO. When I see the pay package of our politicians, I am reminded of a college athlete: they are contractually bound to receive a low compensation, but your star center didn't buy those rims with his momma's money.
Our low compensation structure reduces the appearance of corruption (and Americans have something against people that make high salaries), but it increases the probability of actual corruption.
More formally, let's define an action by a government official to be objective when his purpose is to act for the good of society (whether or not he is correct). Then define an action by a government official to be corrupt when his purpose is to use his position for private gain. The principal of good governance would hold that we should try to increase the ratio of objective actions to corrupt actions by government officials.
In this framework, an official should be well-compensated to the point so the utility of corrupt act is small. This is especially true if the cost to society of a corrupt act is large compared to the personal gain of the official. It would be cheaper to just pay him what he would have made by dealing under the table, straight from the public treasury.
Perhaps high-level officials should even be guaranteed public jobs for life to reduce the incentive to lobby for corrupt acts from other officials after they leave office. An ex-official that siphons off $billions for a lobbying firm every year is surely more expensive than one that is put up in an office somewhere in the Washington catacombs, sipping a coffee and bossing around an intern. Perhaps this is the true purpose of Presidential Libraries.
Best of all would be to eliminate the difference between public benefit and private benefit for each official by paying them according to their performance. Many industries have this already, like football quarterbacks. They are paid extra if they throw a lot of touchdowns or if their team makes the playoffs. Unfortunately, I don't know how you would design an incentive scheme for, say, a legislator. Perhaps you could pay them based on net migration to the jurisdiction they legislate for.
It strikes me that in thinking up ways to make government better, I am actually just mimicking the thought process that the compensation committee in a private government-firm would go through in some sort of market anarchy.
The new blog Secular Right is a sensation in the conservative/libertarian blogosphere. If you like that irrepressible old codger John Derbyshire, and I love me some John Derbyshire, then you will love this blog since he is responsible for its genesis. Secular Right provides such fine fair as this post showcasing contributor Heather MacDonald as she challenges people who refuse to vote for atheist candidates:
Warren would apparently feel more secure if a president said: “After consulting God, I have decided to bomb Iran,” than if he said, “After consulting my advisors, all available intelligence, and our allies, I have decided to bomb Iran.” A Warren defender would likely say that the two statements boil down to the same thing. But if consulting God merely ratifies what a president learns from his human sources, then the consultation is a meaningless superfluity.
No, a properly religious President, in Warren’s view, is presumably prepared to change his merely human-derived knowledge based on what God whispers in his ear. If he is not prepared to revise his conclusions, then his decision-making is no different from that of an atheist.
So why would Warren be so confident that God has spoken to the president and that the president has properly interpreted the message?
If the president of Iran said: “After consulting God, I have decided to bomb the United States,” Warren (and most other Americans) would presumably be utterly certain that the Iranian president had not been taken into God’s confidence. But why? Perhaps Warren is naively ethnocentric. God, in this view, would either never answer a Muslim’s prayers, or would do so only in ways that protect America.
Count me among the people that feel uncomfortable when his political leaders place too much emphasis on consulting their invisible friends.