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There's an interesting debate going on in the comments section of econoholic's post on Polanski. I started writing a rather longish comment, before deciding just to post the whole thing here. The crux of the debate seems to boil down to those who think that only a crime victim's wishes count and those who think that society has some interest in preventing certain types of crime. But there is a great deal of confusion among those holding these views.
Curunir and econoholic defend (rightly IMO) the view that society has some interest in preventing certain types of crime. Here's econoholic:
On the other hand, if you accept that you personally lose something if other people are regularly murdered in your neighborhood and not just the direct victim, then there is a sense in which he has committed a crime against others as well, and he should be punished for it at the discretion of these others.
This, it seems to me, is another way of saying that certain types of crimes carry a negative externality. Where murder is rampant in a neighborhood, there is a (really high) cost to be paid by the direct victims of murder. But that cost doesn't full capture the total cost of the action. People fear for their lives, refuse to go out at night, purchase home security equipment, etc. Those are real costs, and while they are admittedly far less bad than the cost of, you know, dying, that doesn't entail that those aren't still costs.
If you take this notion seriously, then it's not absurd to suggest that, to the extent you think punishment is about restitution, criminal sanctions will have two components: the cost of making the victim whole plus the cost of the externality. Or, crudely, sanctions S = Restitution of Victim (RV) + Cost of Externality (CE).
Now several people point out that RV is more important than CE. And I don't deny that at all. In nearly every case RV > CE. Moreover, there are probably a lot of cases in which CE is close enough to zero as to be negligible. But it doesn't follow from either of those general observations that CE is always zero. And I don't think it's hard to make the case that, at least sometimes, CE is reasonably big.
In the Polanski case, we have a strange situation. For in this instance, we have a victim stating that RV = 0. It's hard to see how someone could argue with that. Who better than the victim knows what it takes to make her whole? Certainly not I.
But, and here's the rub, that doesn't automatically entail that CE is also zero. So when Micha asks "Does the people's interest outweigh the interest of the victim?" that's a sort of category mistake. The people's interest isn't something that one weighs against the victim's interest. RV and CE are on the same side of the equation. IOW, even where RV = 0, there may still be a good case for having some sort of sanctions.
I think that this case probably is one in which jail is merited, whatever the wishes of the victim. There is something to be said for living in a society in which being rich or talented or famous or a citizen of another country doesn't allow you to harm others and then prance away as if nothing happened. (And, no, I don't think that being forced to make all your movies in Paris counts as punishment.)
But whatever our arguments about the value of CE in this particular case, it's worth being clear on how the logic of punishment works. The cost of the externalities of crimes and the cost to the victim are additive. It's a mistake to think that because one outweighs the other, the smaller value just doesn't matter.
Jonathan has a nice post up laying out the current debate about charter cities. He cites Arnold Kling's discussion of freedom as exit, calling it "elegant and powerful." I agree with Jonathan that this is a really good defense of exit.
But I also think Will has a good point in his response, namely, that defining freedom as the absence of monopoly may be question-begging. After all, if I live in a world of Hobbesian thugs, it's hard to make the case that I have any meaningful freedom, even if such a world is free from monopoly. It's not, however, question-begging in the way that Will thinks it is.
This, as with many other intra-libertarian debates, really boils back down to the whole rationalist-pluralist distinction. Arnold and Jonathan fall pretty solidly in the pluralist camp. And if you're a pluralist then the freedom = no monopolies construction does sound about right.
But if you're a rationalist, then such a construction is in fact going to look illiberal. Or, at the very least, it's going to look like something that doesn't guarantee liberalism. For those three people here who haven't already read Levy's piece, here's his definition of rationalism:
On the other we see a rationalist liberalism, committed to intellectual progress, universalism, and equality before a unified law, opposed to arbitrary and irrational distinctions and inequalities, and determined to disrupt local tyrannies in religious and ethnic groups, the family, the plantation, feudal institutions, and the provincial countryside.
I think that this is probably what Will has in mind when he calls charter cities illiberal. They fail to do anything like the liberalism that a rationalist champions. Oh, they might do so. But they are hardly a guarantee. But, more importantly, charter cities (and seasteading and exit in general) remove the very possibility of achieving any sort of universal rationalist liberalism. At the end of the day, Exit effectively puts its stamp of approval on "local tyrannies in religious and ethnic groups, the family, the plantation, feudal institutions and the provincial countryside" telling those who don't like it (i.e., any potential reformers) just to leave.
My own sympathies are with Will, though I think that I'm probably less committed to a pure rationalism than he. Exit (arguably) provides more opportunities for experimentation, something that the utilitarian in me approves of. After all, how else are we to discover what really works and what doesn't? But those same utilitarian impulses make me worry about the children we doom to grow up in religious fundamentalist societies where the little girls are taught that they should obey the boys and given little education in anything other than, say, cooking and making babies. And I worry, too, about the little boys who grow up learning that the Jews killed Jesus and that God sanctioned slavery right there in the Old Testament (it comes right after the part about killing the gays).
In liberal democracies, people are welcome to have such views. But they are not welcome to isolate themselves away with others who hold such views. Or, more to the point, they aren't allowed to raise their children in in such isolate enclaves. They must, instead, put those views into the mix of other different competing views. Their ideas must win out in the marketplace of ideas before they can become established law.
Deliberative democracy forces local illiberalism out into the open, where it must compete with (and ultimately lose out to) liberalism. Exit essentially provides protected spaces for illiberalism to continue.
Yes, I know that the argument is that eventually, when liberal experiments succeed and illiberal experiments don't, people will switch. But that assumes that people are capable of recognizing failure and have the basic education and knowledge to switch successfully. Unfortunately, exit doesn't guarantee that those preconditions will obtain.
Anyway, at the end of the day, I think this quibbling is unnecessary. My own view is that something like liberal democracy is going to turn out to be the best way we have to organize a society. Patri's seasteads are all going to turn into smaller liberal democracies with open immigration policies. At the same time, current liberal democracies are going to get more liberal and, eventually, go with open immigration policies. IOW, I expect both approaches will reach the same endpoint. The only debate, really, is over which one will get there first. I see no harm in trying both.
At Hit & Run, Brian Doherty gives a nice shout out both to Patri and Jonathan's new Let a Thousand Nations Bloom blog and to Michael Strong's recent post. Brian quotes Strong's take on innovation before noting approvingly that "such innovations in governing styles won't necessarily lead to more libertarian outcomes, though."
I have to confess that I find Doherty's (and, for that matter, Strong's) claim to be a tad confused. Or, at the very least, I think that their observation conflates two very distinct ideas of "libertarian outcome."
Let me start by saying that I, like pretty much everyone else here, have a vision of libertopia. In my vision, people are free to do pretty much whatever they want in their own private lives, just so long as everyone involved is consenting. I may well personally disapprove of your heroin-injecting, meat-consuming, teenage sex-having, book-burning ways, and I might well try to talk you out of them. But neither I nor anyone else will turn the heavy hand of the state on you to force you to stop. But I will, in my same vision, turn that hand on you in order to keep you from dumping toxic sludge into the river from which we all draw our drinking water. And I'd use it to make you pay for some share of our common defense. In short, my libertopia contains a state that works to curb genuine collective action problems. And it'd probably also provide something of a safety net, perhaps in the form of a negative income tax.
Now I realize that my vision of libertopia is very different from the vision that most DR regulars have. And I've spent many hours defending various parts of it from commenters here. I think (obviously) that I have well-grounded reasons for my position and that those reasons follow from deeper beliefs about things like rule-utilitarianism, justice, fairness, rights and so on. In short, my conception of the ideal society is based upon "that which is equal, rational, planned, enlightened, and principled." I am, in short, very much in the rationalist camp.
The distinction I'm drawing, of course, comes from Jacob Levy's "Liberalism's Divide," an essay that FWIW, has probably had more of an impact on my thinking than anything else written post-Mill. There Levy argues that the welfare/laissez faire distinction is just one of two important distinctions that cut across liberalism. Levy sets the enlightened, principled rationalists against pluralists, who argue that freedom is instantiated in the "local, customary, unplanned, diverse, and decentralized." Levy actually puts most strains of libertarianism -- indeed, everyone from Narveson to Nozick to M. Friedman to Mises (and one can safely include Rand here, as well) -- into the rationalist camp.
But Patri, most DR-readers and Strong are far more in line with Hayek's pluralist approach to libertarianism. For Hayek, libertarianism is about creating space in which the local and the unplanned can thrive. It's about recognizing spontaneous order, and, perhaps more importantly, it's about recognizing that that order will take different forms in different places.
And that's really the point of the Thousand Nations thesis. It's about creating a world in which thousands of diverse, local societies can form. Some will organize in one way, and some in another. Many of those forms may well be an anathema to a Nozick or a Narveson or a Mises -- or, for that matter, to a Doherty or a Trillian or a third-generation Friedman. But that does not entail that the outcome is not libertarian.
Doherty is certainly right that Seasteading isn't a guarantee for creating what I've called a first-order libertarian outcome. That's just another way of saying that it's entirely possible that none of the Thousand Blooming Nations may turn out to be something that a rationalist libertarian would recognize as libertopia.
But it's simply inaccurate to suggest that a world with space for thousands of competing local systems of government would fail to be a libertarian outcome. It might fail to be a rationalist libertarian outcome. But it just is a pluralist (or, in my terms, a second-order) libertarian outcome.
Okay, so I realize that there is little to be gained here, but this is annoying me. I suspect that few folks here are really paying attention, but there's a bit of a kerfuffle going on between Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon and Andrew Sullivan. Like many others on the left, Amanda didn't take all that well to Peter Thiel's Cato Unbound essay on seasteading. In particular, she was (IMO rightly) offended by Thiel's clumsily-worded assertion that all hope for libertarianism went down the tubes after women were enfranchised. (I think Thiel's observation is a glaring post hoc fallacy; libertarianism went down the tubes not because women are especially hostile to libertarianism but because there was a giant fucking depression that turned pretty much everyone against the idea of a free market.)
Of course, it's not really all that much fun simply to explain why Thiel is wrong. That would involve, you know, actual civil discourse. And we can't really have that at Pandagon. So Amanda, displaying her usual flair for nuance, instead decided to say of Thiel:
And his essay really drives home how much libertarians shouldn’t own the word “liberty”, because they are actually modern day feudalists who object to any government functions that don’t involve taxing the middle class to create an army to ransack other nations and take their wealth.
Andrew singled this bit out (again, rightly IMO) for his Moore Award. Apparently Amanda has also been besieged by irritated libertarians, all eager to point out that, as a matter of fact, libertarians don't really so much endorse taxing the middle class, creating giant armies, or using said armies to create empires. Amanda and her commenters respond by accusing libertarians of committing the No True Scotsman fallacy.*
Now, I'm a big fan of Anthony Flew's Thinking About Thinking, so I'm pretty familiar with the No True Scotsman fallacy. For those of you who might not be, here's the passage in which Flew outlines the fallacy:
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again." Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing." The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, "No true Scotsman would do such a thing."
So, it's not particularly hard to see why this is a fallacy. In most instances, it's out of bounds to redefine your terms in such a way as to explicitly exclude counter-examples. It may have the effect of making your term true, but it will be true tautologically, which is to say that it's not particularly interesting anymore.
Now, it's certainly possible to commit something that looks like the No True Scotsman fallacy in responding to Amanda's rather ridiculous charge. One could well argue along the lines of, "Look, anyone who wants to create a big army to plunder other countries isn't a true libertarian." I'll confess that I'm tempted by this approach myself. Anyone who really holds such a position is, at best, probably deeply confused as to what liberty really requires.
But, I think, it's wrong to argue that anyone who holds a view like this isn't really a libertarian. I'm a pretty big tent sort of person. There are lots of people with whom I am in huge disagreement but who nevertheless share my political label. The same really is true of pretty much any sort of general label: there are lots of different kinds of liberals, lots of different types of conservatives, lots of different kinds of Protestants and so on. Those of us who view nuance as something more than a talking point recognize this. That's why we invent subcategories like "welfare capitalist," "social democrat," "neoliberal," and the like to describe people who fall under the modern label of "liberal." That means that, like it or not, the racist-conspiracy-theorist Ron Paulites are part of our political movement, much as the left has to accept the rock-throwing World Bank protesters and the right has to accept the God Hates Fags crowd.
That said, there is a perfectly non-fallacious way of rejecting Marcotte's argument. Her claim, essentially, is that all libertarians are middle class-taxing, militaristic imperialists. Here's the form of the argument, translated from syllogistic form into modern predicate calculus:
∀x[Lx ⊃ (Mx & Ax &Ix)]
where L = libertarian, M = supports taxing the middle class, A = supports creating a large army and I = supports imperialism. In English, then, that works out to "For all x, if x is a libertarian, then x supports taxing the middle class and supports creating a large army and supports imperialism.
Now, logically, any sort of conditional claim is shown to be false by showing that the antecedent of the conditional claim is true while the consequent is false. Here's the truth table, in case you're wondering:
P Q P ⊃ Q P & Q
T T T T
T F F F
F T T F
F F T F
So, let's suppose that you want to demonstrate that Amanda's claim is false. What do you have to do? Well, mostly show someone who is a libertarian but who either does not support taxing the middle class, does not support creating a big army or does not support imperialism. Really, given the structure of the argument, one need only find a single libertarian who doesn't support any one of the three things. Finding a libertarian who doesn't support any of the three would just be gravy.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...me! But if you're unhappy with that (I'm not, after all, the world's most orthodox libertarian), I give you: Cato's Benjamin Friedman, Cato's Chris Pebble, Cato's Malou Innocent, philosopher John Schwenkler, Will Wilkinson, most of the staff of Reason...I could go on here, but, frankly, I've spent about as much time on this as I want to now.
The point here is just that there is a perfectly good way to demonstrate that Amanda's claim is false, one that doesn't require wading into the weeds of what is or is not a libertarian.
To which Amanda's very gracious reply is: No True Scotsman fallacy!
I mean, look. Amanda is hardly known for her intellectual honesty (hence her willingness to dump all libertarians into a single category while huffing in righteous indignation when someone dumps all women into a single category). That's fair enough: people don't go to Pandagon for intellectual engagement; they go to watch Amanda pitch witty, entertaining, profanity-laced tirades. It's as reasonable a use of the Internet as any.
Still, this is a shockingly bad response, even by Amanda's standards. I mean, the only way that you can commit the No True Scotsman fallacy is by actually redefining a term. Pointing out counter-examples to universal claims is what we in the 21st century refer to as empiricism. It's the kind of stuff that makes science possible. In the Reality Based World (where some of us live, as opposed to others of us who use as a catch phrase to mock politicians), pointing out that the antecedent of a conditional is true and the consequent false is really just the way that logic actually works.
And, yes, I realize that this is all just shouting into the wind. Everyone here already knows that Amanda Marcotte is full of shit 9/10 of the time. And Amanda is totally unwilling to concede that she said something stupid even when it is beyond glaringly obvious to everyone else that she fucked up. It doesn't help that her echo-chamber is full of folks with precisely the same qualities.
Still, it's worth putting all this down here, I think, if for no other reason than as a warning. It's one that I give to my logic students, too. Cite fallacies cautiously. If you get them right, it makes you look smart and lets you win arguments. But if you cite them incorrectly, it just makes you look like an ass.
* Actually, accusing critics of committing the No True Scotsman fallacy is a favorite at Pandagon. Sometimes, they even use it correctly.
I don't really have much to add to Scott's excellent analysis of the problem of evil. I think he gets the explanation of the problem exactly right and does a very nice job of exploring the various bullets that a theist might choose to bite. I think, however, that Scott may be giving the much-vaunted free will defense more credit than it rightly deserves.
The heart of the problem of evil, as Scott nicely illustrates, is that it seems to involve a set of mutually inconsistent claims. But theists face a similar problem when it comes to the topic of free will. Consider the following:
- God is omniscient.
- God is omnipotent.
- God is infallible.
- God created the universe.
- Humans have free will.
You can see the problem, I'm sure. If God really does know everything, then God is already aware of all the things that I will do. And if God created the universe, then She created a world already knowing that I would do whatever it is that I'm going to do. So we have an obvious problem here: if God already knows what I'm going to do and if God cannot possibly be wrong, then it looks like maybe my will isn't as free as I'd initially thought. I pretty much have to do whatever it is that God knew I would do when She created the universe.
Of course, there are ways around this. The most obvious one would be to deny that "free will" really just means "could have done otherwise." Harry Frankfurt offers what seems to be a pretty good knock-down of the freedom-means-the-ability-to-have-done-otherwise thesis:
Allison is contemplating whether to walk her dog or not. Unbeknown to Allison, her father, Lloyd, wants to insure that that she does decide to walk the dog. He has therefore implanted a computer chip in her head such that if she is about to decide not to walk the dog, the chip will activate and coerce her into deciding to take the dog for a walk. Given the presence of the chip, Allison is unable not to decide to walk her dog, and she lacks the ability to do otherwise. However, Allison does decide to walk the dog on her own.
In other words, even though Allison absolutely must walk the dog, there is a very real sense in which we can say that Allison freely chose to walk the dog in this instance. We can look at the chip and see that it didn't activate. Even if she couldn't have done otherwise, she could have chosen otherwise. So maybe it's possible after all to have free will even in if we couldn't possibly do otherwise. And thus God and free will turn out to be compatible after all. Score one for the theists!
Except, maybe not so much.
See, if we're going to make any sense at all of the idea of free will, then it will have to be the case that, regardless of what I end up actually doing, I will have to have had the ability to have chosen otherwise. So, for instance, when I made a snotty remark to my spouse last night (not the worst form of evil, but still a bad thing, all else being equal), it must be the case that I could have freely chosen not to make that remark. That is to say, it is logically possible that I might have refrained from making the remark.
But that, you see, is something of a problem for our theist. See, God, being omniscient, can envision every single logically possible world. That means that, prior to creating the universe, God already knew about possible world A (this one) and possible world B (the one that is exactly like this one, only I freely chose not to make the snotty remark to my spouse). And God, being omnipotent, had to choose to actualize one of those two possible worlds. Yet God chose to actualize A -- the one in which I freely chose to make a snotty remark to my wife -- rather than B.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that the moment we make free will perfectly compatible with God both knowing what I will do and creating the world in which I do it, the free will defense stops being a defense against the problem of evil. God could just as easily have actualized the possible world in which I (and everyone else) freely chose good all the time. That's because God's knowing that I would choose X and creating the world in which I choose X is not, ex hypothesi, inconsistent with my still having the ability to freely choose X.
For that matter, there's an even simpler response to the free will defense. God could have let me freely choose all I want but still made it the case that my poor choices never ended up causing evil to anyone other than myself. That gets us free will, real responsibility and far less evil in the world. But we don't have that, which leads me to think that the free will defense won't allow the theist to consistently hang on to God's omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence.
So if you haven't yet read Patri's Cato Unbound essay, you should go do that now. And, if you didn't happen to catch it live, you should also check out the podcast of his Seasteading talk at Cato. Of course, regular DR readers are already familiar with Patri's basic thesis: governments are inefficient local monopolies that impose (a) high barriers to entry and (b) exceptionally strong customer lock-in. That's not an especially controversial claim. What is, perhaps, somewhat more controversial Patri's diagnosis: Policy Libertarianism is useless in the face of overwhelming institutional obstacles, so if we want a truly free society, we should instead focus on changing its fundamental structure.*
But it strikes me that a lot of PL types (and certainly a lot of the commenters at Cato) rather significantly misunderstand Patri's vision. Will Wilkinson offers the clearest -- though hardly the only -- such example:
That said, one of the merits of Friedman’s "dynamic geography" is that it is not really a "libertarian" project at all...I think there’s good reason to expect competing sea-top jurisdictions to settle on a scheme of governance more libertarian than what the world’s current nation states have to offer. But I also think there’s little reason to expect a seastead to embody the system of most libertarians’ dreams unless a lot of libertarians coordinate and settle there.
I don't want to get into any sort of I'm-more-libertarian-than-you shouting match here. Still, I think it's wrong to dismiss dynamic geography as not libertarian. I submit that it's best to understand Patri's project as what I'm going to call second-level libertarianism.** I'll try to explain what that means below.
Many (perhaps most) PLs are concerned with bringing about what we might call first-level libertarianism. That is, they want to live in a society with a minimal (or possibly even nonexistent) state, one with little-to-no taxation, an unfettered market, purely voluntary associations, and no restrictions on self-regarding or consensual behavior. Appropriately enough, PLs concentrate on ways of making our society more like that. And, as Patri allows in his talk, this can be a positive development. Lowering tax rates and increasing growth (even if only by a little) can have large positive-sum utility when aggregated over lots of people.
Moreover, the PLs have a point when they complain that Patri may be giving them too little credit for the work that they are doing. To the extent that seasteading is practical, it will be because enough people in the United States are willing to let seasteaders go their own way. To put the point another way, the best way to keep the U.S. Navy from parking a carrier group outside Floating Libertopia is to convince lots of Americans of the value of allowing small groups to pursue alternative political arrangements. Wilkinson and Reason's Brian Doherty are right to suggest that seasteading would be even less likely to succeed without Reason, Cato and the rest of the PL crowd. For that matter, it's not totally unreasonable to suggest that absent the work of Patri's grandfather, there's a real possibility that the Seasteading Institute's venture capital would have gone to cover Peter Thiel's 90% marginal tax rate.
But Patri's critique is fair in another way. See, where the SLs and the PLs part company, I think, is that Patri isn't really aiming at a first-level libertarian society. Will is right in that respect. But Patri is aiming at what I'm calling second-level libertarianism. The analogy I have in mind is similar to the distinction made between act- and rule-utilitarianism.***
Basically, the idea is that, like with utilitarianism, libertarianism can be applied in two different ways. It can be applied to particular governments -- that is, we can say that a particular state is more or less libertarian depending on the extent to which it conforms with whatever principles we take libertarianism to consist of. But both utilitarianism and libertarianism can also be used in a second-level fashion, as a way of generating the specific rules (in the case of utilitarianism) or the specific societies (in the case of libertarianism) that govern our ordinary, day-to-day lives.
What the particular rules are don't really matter here; the point is just that, on the second-level view, we don't necessarily appeal directly to utility at the level of action. We might, if it works out that direct appeals to utility are the best rule-of-thumb available. But if they aren't, then we might well end up being guided by rules that don't look particularly utilitarian.****
I think Patri is doing much the same thing. Indeed, he says as much during the talk, though it's a point that seems to have escaped most of the audience. Dynamic geography -- and by extension, the seasteading project -- isn't about creating a first-level libertarian society. It is, rather, aimed at creating a libertarian framework for creating new governments. If we take seriously Patri's argument that government is just another industry, then we should aim at a world in which the industry of government is a competitive market. We ought, in other words, to apply the principles of libertarianism to the generation of government itself.
To put the point another way, libertarianism -- much like utilitarianism -- can be applied at either of two levels. It can be used as a set of guidelines for a particular government. But it can also be used as a set of guidelines for generating the set of existent governments. PLs are aiming primarily at the former. SLs like Patri are aiming primarily at the latter. The idea, of course, is that a libertarian framework will -- as Will suggests -- be likely to generate particular libertarian societies. But even if it doesn't, I think that there is a good case to be made for the argument that a world in which governments are generated via a libertarian framework is, in some very real sense, a libertarian world even if none of the actual societies generated from that system looks like Libertopia.
* I'd like to point out how thoroughly -- and quickly -- Jacob's PL/SL distinction has become standard parlance; Cato's Doug Bandow, for example, uses the term throughout his response to Patri.
** For those philosophers out there, yes, I am borrowing the idea of two-level libertarianism from R.M. Hare. Obviously the analogy is far from perfect. That's why the actual post uses act- and rule-utilitarianism rather than Hare's critical and intuitive levels. I've stuck with stealing Hare's terms, though, because rule-libertarianism sounds like such a glaring oxymoron.
*** I am, by the way, particularly delighted by this analogy since (a) many of the Catallarchs are on board with Patri's vision of dynamic geography and (b) most of them also hate rule-utilitarianism. It's a nice analogy in another way, too: as with "utilitarianism" people use the word "libertarian" as if it has but one meaning, when in fact, it encompasses a huge array of possible meanings. Still, I think it's useful to talk about both in a general fashion, as long as we're aware that we are really talking about a set of theories with a strong family resemblance and not any particular concrete theory.
**** Again, for the philosophers out there, yes, I am arguing that second-level libertarianism might well turn out to be self-effacing.
On Monday, I wrote a post criticizing Benjamin Friedman’s take on realism as “flatly wrong.” Friedman, who was kind enough to exchange two rounds of e-mails with me, took exception to my criticism. In retrospect, I agree that my response was overstated. I still disagree with his interpretation, but his reading is not obviously incorrect, as I implied. Certainly there is room for reasonable people to disagree about of dense texts and I was wrong to suggest that there is some obvious Platonic ideal interpretation of realism.
Friedman’s take on the realists, as he explains in his e-mail (which he kindly allowed me to quote) is that:
Realists almost exclusively agree that there are moral limits on what states can do. I guess they, like most people, would say that you are permitted almost anything in the face of destruction, but that hardly ever occurs. Morality imposes limits, compels you to do certain things (ie laws of war) in almost all circumstances. As I said before, these restrictions do not come from realist thought itself, but most realists believe in them, and classical realists at least were very clear about saying so.
He goes on to distinguish two propositions about morality, arguing that classical realists (at least some of them) accept both:
- The preservation of power is ultimately conducive to morality because power is needed for other ends.
- There are moral restrictions on action drawn from outside realism.
The first of these points is fairly uncontroversial: prudence and morality often overlap, and a really prudent agent will recognize that there are good prudential reasons for behaving morally. But I'm skeptical that a realist can commit to (2), at least not consistently.
And that, I think, is at the heart of my disagreement with Friedman’s interpretation of realism. Certainly he is right to say that (many) classical realists hold that there are limits to what states can do. And those limits are the same limits that we would get from morality. Friedman argues that this entails that realists recognize that realism is bounded by morality, that moral concerns are not irrelevant to international politics.
I’m not convinced that is correct.
As Kant tells us, there are lots of reasons why a person might behave in a manner that is consistent with morality. It might be a matter of prudence; after all, defying morality tends to make people dislike us – often so much so that they wish to do things like deprive us of life, liberty and/or property. Or we can behave morally because we like the people in question and don’t want to see them hurt. Alternatively, we might act morally simply because it’s the right thing to do and we want to do what is right.
I think that realists can accomodate morality only in that first prudential sense. That is, actual historical realists might well endorse what look like moral limits on our actions – for instance, by setting up and obeying the laws of war – but they can accept such limits only because the limits in question are not at all inconsistent with prudence.
Consider, for instance, some of the accepted rules for defining lawful combatants:
- Must be commanded by someone who is responsible for his/her subordinates
- Must carry arms openly
- Must be identified by an insignia
- Must conduct themselves in accord with the laws of war
Now, at the risk of sounding like a bit of a cynic, I'd argue that it’s perfectly consistent with prudence for a Western theorist to sign on to such requirements. After all, Western armies – which are huge and well-funded by a solid base of taxpayers and which are composed of (by and large) professional soldiers – are well-suited to follow such rules. There are perfectly good moral arguments for establishing criteria for recognizing lawful combatants (if not necessarily for those particular requirements). But there are also a host of pragmatic reasons for recognizing such criteria: it makes it easier for our soldiers to figure out whom to shoot, helps to limit post-war damage, makes it more likely that we can pursue a successful peace, and so on.
In other words, realists accept what look like moral constraints on behavior, but that they do so is purely a pragmatic (and hence highly contingent) accident. That's not necessarily problematic. I don’t particularly care why people behave morally; I care only that they do so.
The issue, though, is what realism says to do in instances where prudence and morality conflict. When morality says that it’s wrong to stand by and watch millions being slaughtered but prudence says preventing that slaughter will be frightfully expensive both in terms of the lives of our soldiers and the pockets of our taxpayers. When morality tells us that it is wrong for Badistan to wage an aggressive war on Meekton but prudence tells us that Meekton has nothing we want and is far away. There is the point at which we must ask whether morality matters. For the realist, the answer is no. The morality of warring with Badistan takes a back seat to the pragmatics. If it is in our interest to war with Badistan, we will. Otherwise, we won’t. That’s not to say that realist thought reduces the issue to some simple question, for it is not a simple one to answer at all. But it also isn’t a moral question.
Friedman’s argument, as I understand it, is that for realists, morality is a consideration even if it’s not the consideration, and therefore it’s wrong to say that realists don’t care about morality. That’s fair enough, and he’s right to criticize Chait for claiming that realists are “blind to morality.” (In Chait’s defense, Chas Freeman’s Tiananmen Square post – which is the ostensible target of Chait’s op-ed – certainly makes Freeman sound like a caricature of a realist.)
But the problem is that realists' acceptance of morality is purely contingent. Because realists are operating from a tradition in which warfare can be limited without harming our interests, it’s okay to abide by those limits. But those limits are a product of their happening to live in a particular state at a particular time. Realism, in other words, will give us a set of moral constraints when the realist in question is a product of a developed Western nation. But there is little reason for a realist who is not part of that tradition to accept those limits. Indeed, Friedman himself acknowledges that the moral restrictions "do not come from realist thought itself." Rather, they come from particular applications of realism.*
The disagreement, as I see it, boils down to this: Friedman says that it’s wrong to characterize realists as “blind to morality” because a particular set of Western realists accept that a moral reason can count as a reason for acting. I say that it’s wrong to characterize realists as being concerned with morality since the logic of realism would indicate that, should the facts on the ground change enough, realists ought (on pain of inconsistency) to reject morality out of hand.
That doesn’t make Friedman's interpretation flatly false, and I was hasty to describe him in that way. It still, IMO, makes him wrong. But, of course, this stuff would be uninteresting if we all agreed.
*Note: There might be some temptation to claim that I'm begging the question against particularist theories of morality. While I freely admit to being something of a universalist, I don't think that my objection here is to the particularist nature of realism. That is, I'm not objecting to realism on the grounds that it fails to apply a universal answer to a specific moral principle. My objection is that realism can (and arguably must, if it is to be at all consistent) reject morality in general given the right set of circumstances.
Cato's Benjamin Friedman, that is. Friedman takes Jon Chait to task for what Friedman calls "a common mistake." Specifically, Friedman says that "Chait writes that Freeman is a realist and therefore doesn’t care about morality in U.S. foreign policy." Friedman then goes on to complain about Chait's use of the word "morality."
Modifying a noun with “moral” does not make it so. Realists argue that idealism – ignoring realities that encourage tradeoffs among competing goods – is foolish, and there is nothing moral about doing foolish things in the name of morality. Realists believe that our foreign policy should be governed by an ethic of responsibility, where you do things that actually lead to good consequences, starting at home. They see the promiscuous use of power as destructive of it and therefore of all the goods it serves, including the ideological sort.
This is all true enough. But Friedman then goes on to conclude that:
Those with even passing familiarity with leading realists like E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr know that their goal was to create a moral foreign policy in an anarchic world.
As someone who is passingly familiar with Carr, Morgenthau and Niebuhr,
I'm here to tell you that Friedman's description is just flatly false.*
The "common mistake" in this case is Friedman's. For his argument to go through, he has to assume something like:
- Action A is consistent with moral code C.
- Person P endorses A.
- Therefore P's actions are motivated by C.
Obviously there is no reason to think that the conclusion follows from either of those premises. Indeed, all that the argument shows is that P is acting consistently with C, not that P is in any way motivated by C. The distinction is crucial; indeed, it's the very heart of the question.
See, realism just is the view that prudential considerations are the only thing that is relevant to national security concerns; moral considerations are strictly irrelevant. Now certainly Friedman is correct in his description insofar as prudence is actually part of morality. So to that extent, a commitment to acting prudently is a commitment to acting morally. But, and here's the rub, morality and prudence don't always perfectly overlap.
Charity, for instance, is an imperfect duty (meaning, I've a moral obligation to be charitable at least some times, if not in any specific instance). And charity is required even if no one ever knows that I'm charitable and even if there is no probability that I'll ever need to receive charity from others.
Similarly, morality may well require that I place myself in some danger to assist others. If I see a mugging taking place, I have some duty to assist, even if it's nothing more than phoning the police. And that duty doesn't go away even if it does raise the chances (slightly) that the mugger will come after me.
The point here is that morality at least sometimes requires that we put the interests of others ahead of our own interests. Realists deny that nations should ever do this. Indeed, it's the central thesis of realism. I see a few alternatives to explain Friedman's post:
- Friedman thinks that morality and prudence always perfectly overlap.
- Friedman misunderstands the differences between morality and prudence.
- Friedman thinks that being committed to some things that are morally required is equivalent to being committed to morality generally.
- Friedman misunderstands what realists are arguing.
- Friedman is being disingenuous to take a swipe at neocons.
Of these, (3) is the fallacy of composition, and (2) and (4) assume that Friedman isn't capable of reading and understanding fairly basic texts in his field of expertise. And the principle of charity suggests that (5) should be a last option. That leaves (1), which is by far the most interesting position of the available options, though it's not one that he has defended in this post. Perhaps he will elaborate in a future post.
*UPDATE, March 4: I was too hasty in describing Friedman's position as "flatly false." Check out my updated (and, I hope, somewhat more thoughtful) post, "Friedman and Realism Reconsidered."
Tom Laskawy, over at Weaver's Way, takes on what he sees as Amtrak-hating Republicans. In the process, he appears to misunderstand what it means to call something a public good:
This drives me nuts. In an article by the AP on the House's omnibus budget bill comes a reference to: "the money-losing Amtrak passenger rail system"
Come on! How about the money-losing Interstate Highway System? Or the money-losing national parks? Or our money-losing VA Hospitals? Or the Mother of All Money-losers: the US Military?
At the Prospect, Ezra Klein falls for the same trap, complaining that
there's been a concerted effort over the past 30 or 40 years to paint Amtrak as uniquely wasteful because, like highways and parks and fighter jets, it loses money.
At first glance Tom and Ezra seem to have a point; we don't expect the military or our parks to literally pay for themselves. But I think that, on another level, the complaint totally misses the point of public goods.
The fact is that roads and the military actually increase our wealth. (Within reason; arguably a military that gets really damn big just becomes a sinkhole, but that's another issue.) Having a highway allows workers to get to my factory quickly and cheaply and it allows me to ship my goods cheaply and it allows you to get to the store and buy my goods more easily. Those things combine to make all of us wealthier. And, assuming that we've built our road in an area where all of these things happen on a regular basis, there's a pretty good chance that we have increased the total amount of wealth by more than the cost of the road.
Given that fact (and given the public goods problems involved in building the road in the first place), there's at least a decent libertarian case to be made for taxing people to construct the road. It's a collective investment that makes all of us better off. So in that very real sense, we do expect roads to
make roads pay for themselves. The same can be said for the military; having a taxpayer-funded military keeping me safe from invasion gives me the freedom to invest more of my resources in producing widgets more cheaply and less in buying tanks to protect my inefficient but cheaper factory.
So, no, we don't think that roads and fighter jets have to literally pay for themselves. But we do think that they ought to provide more value than they cost.
Whether Amtrak does this is an open question. I mean, as someone who lives in the NE corridor, I like Amtrak. But passenger trains are mostly substitution for other available means of transit. Given that we already have roads that will get people up and down the NE corridor, the public goods argument for passenger rail is fairly weak. So it's not unreasonable to expect that various substitution-goods should have to be self-sufficient -- that trains, like the airlines with which they compete, should have to pay for themselves.
Now there is a possible public goods argument for trains, depending on how seriously one takes environmental concerns. But it's not the case, contra Ezra and Tom, that passenger rail is an obvious candidate for public good status. They would be better served by actually making that argument, rather than simply dismissing those who don't buy it as "train-hating b@stards."
UPDATE: Edited to strike out extraneous words. Next time I'll remember to proofread.
Writing about the housing bailout, Arnold Kling proposes a definition of public goods:
My test is this: would an overwhelming majority of Americans be willing to donate a significant amount of their personal funds to the cause of bailing out troubled homebuyers? If the answer is "no," then it is not a public good. The answer probably would be "yes" for courts, police, national defense, or cleaner air. If so, then those are indeed public goods.
I must confess, I find this a bit puzzling. Public good has a pretty clear standard meaning, and this just isn't it. As Paul Samuelson initially describes them, public goods are those that, once provided, can be consumed by others at no additional marginal cost. In other words, a public good is one that people certainly value but also one that it is rational to free ride on. In other words, by the standard understanding of "public good," they are, by definition, things that no rational actor should be willing to pony up for.
So Kling's definition really makes no sense at all. If enough people actually pony up to make a service happen, then that providing that service wasn't a public goods problem in the first place. Certainly lots of the ancaps here at DR will like that view. But I don't think that's really Kling's position.
Indeed, even from a practical point of view, Kling's definition is, well, slightly crazy. He's more-or-less giving the government carte blanche to spend on anything, just so long as it's popular. His definition makes Social Security (which is tremendously popular) into a public good. In fact, properly framed (i.e., "Would you be willing to donate to keep entire neighborhoods from collapsing?" or maybe "Would you be willing to donate to keep the economy from worsening?") even the housing bailout might pass the test. There is, after all, nothing in the test about a proposal actually being true. The test is just whether people would donate to a cause.
My post on liberaltarianism sparked some discussion of the distinction between liberals and leftists. In several of my comments, I attempted to lay out the difference, as I see it. I'm not sure that I ever do so all that rigorously or systematically. Fortunately, a piece by Sheri Berman in the latest issue of Dissent sheds light on the distinction.
In outlining her take on the history of the left, Berman writes:
Crudely stated, Marxism had three core points: that capitalism was a great transforming force in history, destroying the old feudal order and generating untold wealth and productivity; that it was based on terrible inequality, exploitation, and conflict; and that it would ultimately and naturally be transcended by the arrival of communism...Everyone on the left agreed with Marx on the first two points. By the late nineteenth century, however, some of its sharpest minds began to disagree on the third.
I think it's that second point that distinguishes liberals (of the sort Will and Jonathan and I are interested in bringing into an alliance) and the leftists who are favorite targets of many libertarians (and rightly so, IMO). See, I think leftists really do hold that capitalism is based on "terrible inequality, exploitation, and conflict." Welfare liberals, on the other hand, don't think that at all.
To put the point another way, leftists (at least the intellectually honest ones) are quite willing to admit that capitalism has produced some unalloyed good in the world. But a leftist thinks that such progress is the result of a system that, at least on some level, is fundamentally wrong. A free market might well create a lot of wealth, but it does so at the cost of harming some members of society. And so for a leftist, the market is at best something to be tolerated.
Welfare liberals, I think, see the market differently. A liberal disputes the notion that the market is inherently exploitative or that the inequality it produces is a terrible thing. Rawls, for instance, is perfectly willing to countenance inequality in the just society, just so long as the promise of the rising tide lifting all boats is more than a nice-sounding metaphor. And even the stridently partisan Paul Krugman defends child labor in foreign sweatshops as reasonable, given the available alternatives.
It's possible to think that the market is a fundamentally good thing while also seeing those who inevitably fall through the cracks as a public goods problem. One can defend some sort of safety net without thinking that markets are built on the backs of the exploited. That's the type of person I'd call a liberal.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat's three-way discussion of the virtue (or lack thereof) of shame in promoting "traditional" family structure has sparked rather a lot of interesting commentary, including this, from The American Prospect's Adam Serwer:
Conservatives regularly overestimate the beneficial effects of shame. Shame provokes response in the form of impulse, not long term planning. A person who is ashamed isn't going to think, "I'd better get a degree" or "I'd better get married," they're going to think in the short term about what they can do to rectify their sense of self-worth. How do you see people--men in particular--act when they're ashamed? You rarely see them do something like get married or get a fantastic job; usually they're going to hurt or exploit someone, make them feel as low as they do.
This strikes me as pretty seriously overstated. Indeed, I think that liberals and conservatives alike probably understate the beneficial effects of shame. (Though to be fair to Serwer, it does seem to be true that conservatives regularly overestimate the extent to which shame can be used to keep teenagers from boinking one another.)
So what makes me think that Serwer's claim is overstated? I give you, as exhibit A, the relative effectiveness of deliberative democracy.
Political Theory 101. Picture humans in the state of nature. On one version, we're purely rational beings, concerned only with maximizing our own well-being. You and I come upon an apple tree with lots of lovely apples -- all of which are too high for either of us to reach. Should we cooperate to get the apples? Sure. As long as you are the one to go up in the tree and toss them down. After which, I'll leave you in the tree and run off with all the apples. Of course, you know this, and so won't want to go into the tree -- not without, say, a plan to hit me in the head with the first apple you pick. But I, knowing this, will defend myself...and you can see where this is going. We end up with a Hobbesian state of nature, one in which an all-powerful Leviathan armed with absolute powers of life and death steps in to change our incentives and make cooperation look more attractive.
But that's not the only possible vision of life in the state of nature. There's also the version where you and I, bound by some basic understanding of the demands of morality, actually cooperate for the most part. We might still need some sort of third-party to help resolve disputes; after all, we're still mainly self-interested, and not everyone behaves according to the requirements of morality. But in Locke's vision, the state is there mainly to resolve disputes and to protect us from those who don't do what they ought. That's a very different role from the one Hobbes describes, where the state is necessary to protect us from our perfectly rational behavior.
Looking around at the world, it seems pretty obvious that Locke is right. We humans survive perfectly well without a Leviathan. So what is it that Hobbes leaves out?
I'd argue that it's shame.
The simple fact is, most of us follow the dictates of morality most of the time. And it's not fear of getting punished that keeps us on the straight and narrow. Indeed, if the only thing that is keeping you from murdering me is fear of jail, then you're not the sort of person I really want to associate with. So what does keep us behaving morally? John Stuart Mill gives us a pretty good account:
We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow-creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience.
Mill tells us that Hobbes got things wrong. Humans aren't motivated only by formal sanctions issuing from the Leviathan. We're also motivated by the opinion of our fellow-creatures. We're worried, in other words, that if we do something that other people don't like, they will think less of us. As children, we start to internalize those worries, such that when we fail to live up to those values that we have internalized, we feel bad about it. That feeling is what we generally call guilt. And, for most of us, guilt and shame can't really be disconnected.
We can certainly disagree about whether or not a particular action ought to be stigmatized. Personally, I side with Coates and Serwer on the specific issue. If a "traditional" family works for you, great. That's your choice to make, and I'm happy to let you make it. But if you prefer to marry a person with plumbing like yours (or half a dozen people or the ghost of your dead lover whom only you can see) and raise a dozen identical clones created from the genes of Brad Pitt and Mother Teresa, then as long as all the participants are on board and you can afford to raise and educate your clone-lets, I wish you well. And I don't think that you should be ashamed of your personal preferences.
But I think we should be careful about the sorts of things to which we attach shame precisely because shame is a socially useful (and hugely effective) too. Discounting the general usefulness of shame because you disagree with its application in a particular case is both wrong and counterproductive.
Like many libertarians, Jacob expresses considerable skepticism about Will Wilkinson's liberaltarian project (though I much prefer Will's "Rawlsekianism"):
I always thought the libertarian-leftist alliance was doomed by the fact that they sort of hate us.
I, too, think a libertarian-leftist alliance is pretty unlikely. But that's really okay, since no one is actually talking about allying with leftists. Libertarians have a very long tradition of bashing those on the left. To me, this is a bit puzzling. My formative years mostly happened after the Cold War was over. So what I've seen since I became a legal adult is a pair of Republican presidents explode deficits, massively expand entitlement programs, and launch two disastrous wars in Asia and another in Africa. In between, I watched a Democratic president champion welfare reform and a free trade act, balance a budget, and help bring relative stability to the Balkans.
Many of those acts were pretty unpopular with a broad segment of the left. We can call that the Barbara Ehrenreich wing of the left -- the neo-Marxist, anti-capitalist, isolationist, identity-politics wing. To belong to this faction, I think, is to be a leftist, in the sense that Jacob understands.
But that's not liberalism. Leftism, indeed, is pretty fundamentally illiberal. As someone commented already (though I can't remember who offhand), it's actually somewhat strange that Ehrenreich and someone like Brad DeLong find themselves in the same coalition. Say what you like about DeLong (and I've criticized him myself), he's pretty reasonable on things like free trade and immigration. There's a lot of common ground to be found there.
I think Will has this one right. Liberals (of the boradly Rawlsian sort) and libertarians (of the non-Rothbardian sort, anyway) have a fair amount of common ground. We agree on a number of first principles (respect for autonomy and state neutrality being the biggies). Our disagreements mostly arise over how best to implement those principles. But these are (mostly) pragmatic disagreements. Those can often be overcome more easily than philosophical disagreements.
That's not to say that this will be easy. One might in fact point out that at least some of the hating goes both ways. Liberals will have to get over their reflexive support of government regulation. Meanwhile we libertarians may have to get over our reflexive dislike of government regulation. If there is any merit at all in Rawlsekianism, it's going entail that there are places where Rawls is actually right (gasp!)
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.
This observation, while admittedly clever, is, I think, flatly wrong. I'd argue that several of the DR bloggers fall into the liberaltarian category. Indeed, I believe it was Matt McIntosh who once described himself as "a liberal who actually wants to help people." Wilkinson probably also falls into this category. I'd argue that Megan McArdle, Matt Yglesias and a good chunk of the staff at reason could fairly be described this way, too.
Here's Matt Yglesias, making the argument that I've been trying to cash out for the past week:
Now we’ve entered “paradox of thrift” territory. People are saving more. And the increased saving isn’t being cycled back into the economy as new investment. In part, that’s because of problems in the financial system. But in part, it’s because with short-term demand slumping so much, there’s not a lot of worthwhile investing to be doing. The economy needs someone to decide to borrow some money and start a new firm that employs these newly unemployed people. But with the volume of consumption going down so rapidly, nobody’s really in the mood to start a new business. And existing businesses are busy scaling back production, not interested in borrowing money to ramp it up. The result of this is an overall fall in the average level of income. And that means that even with the share of income being saved going up, the actual level of savings can be going down and we can truly end up in the toilet.
Tyler Cowen thinks Matt's explanation is mostly right, although he says that it's wrong to think of Americans saving more, since they weren't really saving all that much to start with. According to Cowen, it's more accurate to say that the paradox could result instead in rising levels of debt to GDP. Specifically, if people begin to "save" by paying back credit card debts, then that's okay if they're paying those debts to relatively healthy banks that can turn around and lend the money back. But if those payments are mostly going to zombie banks, then the bank might well just hold on to the cash. And that can create problems.
I'm inclined to think that this is pretty much the argument I've been making. Though, obviously, if I could make it as well as Matt and/or Tyler, then I'd be either a famous blogger or an econ professor at George Mason.
Those of you who haven't been following Bryan Caplan and Will Wilkinson's exchange on Rothbard and the role of fraud in libertarian theory really ought to do yourselves a favor and go have a look. Here's Bryan's initial post, Will's response and Bryan's rejoinder.
I can't do the entire exchange justice here, but the gist of the disagreement is Will's objection that:
Even when I was a believer in Rand/Rothbard-style libertarianism, I found the ‘or’ in the “no force or fraud” formulation of the non-coercion principle a bit vexing and suspect. It seems too frank an admission that fraud isn’t force or agression [sic] at all. It’s another morally questionable way to get someone to do something they might not otherwise choose to do. But there are yet still other morally questionable ways to get people to do things. Why not add more ‘or’s?
Bryan finds Will's objection puzzling:
Frankly, I don't see the problem. If you accept the initial libertarian equation of "coercion" with non-consensual use of others' property, then the impermissibility of fraud follows. If you offer me a Mitsubishi 5500 projector in exchange for $2000, and hand me a box of straw instead, you are using my $2000 without my consent (which was contingent, of course, on you giving me the projector).
I'm with Will on this one. Indeed, I'm quite puzzled by Bryan's reply, as it looks like it pretty blatantly begs the question. Is it me, or doesn't this exchange really boil down to something like:
Will: It's strange to cash out "coercion" as meaning "no force or fraud."
Bryan: It's not strange at all, as long as you accept that coercion really just means force or fraud.
I mean, the question of whether to include "or fraud" as part of the definition of coercion is exactly the question at issue here. To then just define coercion as "non-consensual use of others' property" just is another way of saying "force or fraud." This isn't to say that Bryan's definition is wrong. But it's not a particularly good argument. Indeed, it's not really an argument at all. It's more an eloquent "Is too!"
As for the underlying question...I think that Will is right there, too. It's not clear to me that fraud is really coercion. But that requires a longer post. And maybe a bit more thought and reading first.