Tuesday, December 30, 2008

State Religion

It’s not uncommon for anarchist/statist debates between atheists to devolve into one side calling the other’s beliefs “religion” in a classic poisoning of the well type fallacy. One such conversation recently boiled up on a sceptic forum I read, this time led off by the anarchist.

I usually try to avoid such tactics unless the statist “starts it” because I didn’t really think that anarchism or statism rise to the level of religion. But the more I’ve thought about it recently the more I’ve realised that I’m wrong, that statism does share one very important trait with religion. I’m not talking about such things as the effects of religion or the adherent’s devotion, those things are really external. I’m talking about the core component of religion, the belief in an entity that has supernatural powers.

I claim that statism does have such an entity and I will attempt to prove it logically.

First, almost everyone believes that there are certain things that people should never do. For example, very few people would claim that they have the right to imprison their neighbours for non-violent behaviour. This extends to threatening to imprison them. I’m sure plenty of people have fantasised about locking away that bozo who took the parking spot they were waiting for, but they wouldn’t claim to have the right.

So, if you’re still with me you know you can’t just take your neighbour Bob and lock him in your basement for a few days. This applies to contracts as well. I can’t contract with my other neighbour, Tim, to grab Bob and lock him up. The contract doesn’t grant any rights to Tim that neither he nor I have outside of the contract. And if Tim did imprison Bob, it couldn’t be blamed on the contract. The contract isn’t capable of locking up Bob, it is nothing more than an acknowledged agreement between me and Tim. Even if we wrote the contract down, it still doesn’t exist as anything more than a mutual understanding.

Even if Tim and I got together and called our contract a government, it still wouldn’t grant either of us the right to imprison Tim. If we did form this “government” and started imprisoning people it wouldn’t be an act of our government, since it doesn’t exist, it would be the act of two individual people. This holds true whether is 3 people or a billion that form the government. The acts of the individuals are their acts alone. The government exists only as a mutual understanding of the parties, and it doesn’t have any rights or power of its own to confer on any individuals.

You response to this will fall into one of the following categories.

  1. You agree wholeheartedly, and you think that government is just a gang of people throwing their weight around. You’re some form of anarchist.

  2. You agree with the part about individuals not having the right to hurt others, but you think that government does have the right. If so then you believe that the government has some form of existence which is separate from individuals. This government is not only a separate entity, but it has rights above and beyond the individuals, i.e. supernatural. You believe in the church.

  3. You agree about individual rights, but you think that government is “more than the sum of its parts” and people in government get extra rights because of this. This is just a rationalisation of #2.

  4. You disagree about individuals having the right to imprison people, but just think that people need to be forced to allow only a small set of them exercise this power. You aren’t in the church of the state, but you are a believer in “might makes right” and probably insult others for holding this same belief.

  5. You believe that individuals don’t have the right to hurt each other, but when working together collectively, they do. Also a rationalisation of #2.

  6. You think that as a practical matter people in government need this extra power in order to keep society working. This is just a specific case of #4.

  7. You think you do have the right to imprison people. You’re a sociopath.

  8. Other. Your specific reaction is either a special case of #2 and #4.

The conclusion from all of this is that you belong to one of the following belief systems:

  • The state doesn’t exist and is invalid.

  • Might makes right, and that’s reality, love it or leave it.

  • Government is supernatural. It’s like the “soul” in that it is an energy or force above and beyond the body. With it a group of people have more rights and powers than they would have without it. You give deference to this entity. Unlike the god in the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, it’s not perfect. It’s more like a god from Greek mythology in that you acknowledge its flaws but don’t deny its power.

  • You’re insane.

Most people, I believe, would read this and say that they do accept government but don’t believe in might makes right and are insulted by the idea of government being a supernatural entity. The only trouble is that they cannot contradict this with logic, only denial.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Stimulus Stimulants

An economy, like the human body, needs a balance to run properly. If something gets out of balance, then the body will work toward getting back to equilibrium.

With wakefulness and sleep the body needs a good balance. The only way to know where the balance lies is to listen to the body as it tells you. The same is true with an economy, there must be a proper balance of spending and savings. The economy will likewise tell you where that balance is by adjusting prices, employment, inflation, and other factors. When the public is concerned about spending and decide to save more, the economy is signalling its fatigue and letting you know it’s time to “sleep” or start saving.

Unfortunately, current thinking in government circles (and thus most of the population) is that the only thing important in the economy is spending. Thus we see these ridiculous stimulus packages like Australia is giving out in December with the explicit instructions to go out and spend. This is like avoiding sleep by taking meth. It may appear to work for a while, but that sleep debt isn’t going away and the body is going to get back into balance, painfully if necessary.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Crime and Punishment

One thing to keep in mind when discussing government is that all crimes have the exact same punishment: Imprisonment. All crimes, no matter how small. Some crimes have the option of paying a bribe to stay out of jail, but that doesn’t change the fact that prison is the only punishment meted out by government. It doesn’t matter what the crime is and if anyone was hurt, you break any law you go to jail.

It puts the lie to the idea that the punishment should fit the crime.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Cold Calculus

Utilitarianism and voluntaryism are quite often seen as being in opposition with each other. I don't think that it is necessarily so, which is a topic for another day, but the common view is that they are.

A thought experiment comes up quite often when discussing utilitarianism and I'd like to look more closely at it. This is the experiment: Suppose that a train is bearing down on a group of four people stuck on the tracks. It is certain that they will die if the train hits them, however it is possible to obstruct the train by pushing someone in front of it. Is it right to sacrifice the one person in order to save the four?

The utilitarian answer would typically be yes, since saving the lives of four is serving the greater good. My voluntaryist answer is no, and hopefully I can explain why. First, let's assume away all of the problems with the experiment such as why it's not an option for me to push myself in the train's path and a lack of perfect knowledge (can we really be certain the train will be stopped? Are the four people there by choice? Is the one life a potential Ghandi and the four potential Hitlers? etc.) Even without all of those flaws, I can't see myself ever choosing the kill the one.

My reasoning is both simple and complex. The reason I couldn't make that choice is because it wasn't my decision to put the four on a collision course with the train, but it would be my decision to sacrifice the one. I cannot through my own actions bring an innocent to harm, even if it means ending the harm to other innocents. Let's face it, the whole situation is tragic and that can't be corrected, and I can't possibly weigh the good done to the four against the evil done to the one, I don't think the scales are even compatible let alone measurable. The calculus is far to cold for me to make.

Also, once one is able to rationalize this decision, it becomes much easier to rationalize decisions that are much more grey. This sounds like a slippery slope argument, and I've never been fond of them, but it's more nuanced than that. Everyone has to draw a line in the sand somewhere, and to me this line is much more clear and easy to avoid crossing than pretty much anywhere else it could be drawn. It is unambiguous and not arbitrary. Once you start basing your line on the relative value of people and situations, it gets messy really quick and too easy to draw that line in the wrong place.

The thought experiment aside, the real world isn't going to present such clear cut scenarios. There will always be a great deal of uncertainty as a part of every decision. The utilitarian line in the sand requires a level of knowledge which is just not attainable, and it also requires a person free from biasing emotions. I am both without perfect knowledge and affected by my emotions, and that makes the clear line in the sand all that much more important.

If the person on the plaform chooses to sacrifice himself for the four, then I would be willing to assist him in stopping the train, but I won't be forcing him to do it. I always know on which side of the line I'm standing, and that's better than guessing that I've got it right.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Closing the Gap

Russ Roberts’ latest EconTalk (the best podcast on the webs) is an interview with Richard Epstein about happiness, inequality, and envy. It’s a great listen, and it gave me some insight. I had read some of the research on happiness and have seen that happiness is correlated more with relative wealth (how much more your less you have than others around you) than it does with how much wealth you have at all. Epstein brought up something that I hadn’t considered before, even though it’s very obvious. Happiness correlates with inequality in everything, not just wealth. Physical appearance, athletic ability, intelligence, power, whatever.

This leads naturally to happiness actually being a function of status. I’m sure that there’s an evolutionary basis in there somewhere worth studying, but right now I’m interested in the effects. Since people are less happy with bigger status gaps between themselves and others, they will be interested in closing that gap. There are two ways to close the gap: Either get some more of what you’re “missing” or remove some of what “they” have. If your neighbour has a nice car, you can either spend the effort to earn the money to buy one yourself or you can key his. It’s pretty obvious which one of these is the more moral option, but it’s also obvious which one is easier.

It’s preferable to have a society which encourages the first and discourages the second, otherwise we end up in Harrison Bergeron’s world. I’m afraid, though, that democracy tends to encourage the latter. Not strongly, not obviously, and not personally, but the process of voting on things that will effect your neighbour makes an easy process seem easier. Taxation, for example, isn’t just about getting money to help lift the poor, but it’s also about holding down the rich. In that regard the equivalent of keying your neighbour’s car because it’s nicer than yours.

Since there will always be more people with lower status than higher, democracy will tend to create a society which tries to pull down the rich rather than pull up the poor. Not all at once, but slowly and by degrees. Happiness and envy are very powerful motivations, and democracy makes it too easy to give in to envy to increase happiness.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Is Property Theft?

There is a common theme among many on the left of the political spectrum, the idea that property is theft. It can be used as a justification for almost any government intervention into people’s lives, therefore whether it’s true is a pretty important question. So let’s look into it as rationally as we can.

First, we need to define some terms. The two terms we need to worry about are property and theft (I think we can leave “is” out for the time being).

Let’s start with the first, what is property?

There are a couple of different concepts for which the term “property” is used somewhat interchangeably. One is an object, such as a car, and the other is the control over that object, which can be said to be the property “right” or “ownership.” I think we can safely discard the first concept, since an object itself cannot be considered theft.

What constitutes a property “ownership”? Ownership of an object is control over that object. I own a car if I can make decisions about the use and disposal of that car. I can temporarily, and conditionally, assign some of that ownership to another person which is “loaning” the car to them. During the time that they have borrowed the car, they make all of the decisions for it, with the understanding that at some point they are going to return control of it to me. That brings an interesting point: If someone takes that car without my permission then they are quite literally in control, do they then own it? Yes and no. They own it in the sense that are making all of the decisions regarding its use and disposal. But there is another layer of ownership on top, which is a legal framework dealing with title. While they would own it for all practical purposes, I still own it in the theoretical sense. So this complicates things further, as there are practical and conceptual types of ownership.

I’m not sure which type of ownership is being referred to in the “property is theft” claim, so let’s look at both.

The practical type of ownership can only exist for either zero or one person at a time, things can never be simultaneously owned by more than one person. Certain constructs can make it appear that something is owned my multiple people, but these are just simulations. These simulations are achieved either through dividing an object into several parts (each with distinct ownership) or by switching ownership between people or a combination of both. A pizza, for example, can appear to be owned by all of the frat boys who paid for it, however, each piece can only be eaten by a single person, so it’s really just subdivided into smaller units. Likewise, an elevator in a condominium complex isn’t simultaneously owned by all residents, but is owned individually by each one as it is in use (or each half is owned if two residents use it at the same time).

So, is practical property ownership theft? First, though, we need to define theft. Theft is defined as taking property from another person without their permission. It’s critical to understand property in order to understand this definition. Using our practical definition of property, it can only theft if someone already controls (owns) the object. However, since the practical definition of property includes the caveat that something can be owned by no one, then the first owner cannot be taking it from anyone. Therefore, since the first practical owner of an object has taken that ownership from no one, it cannot be theft in that case. This means that practical ownership is not in itself theft even though it can be a part of theft. This leaves us with conceptual (or legal) property ownership. Is this theft?

Conceptual property can be thought of as “property rights,” these are human-made concepts of ownership. These rights are independent of, but quite often coincident with, practical ownership. They are also not intrinsic within the object in question, but are only a part of the human actors and their interaction with each other. Conceptual ownership is not objective, but is subjective to the people involved, and it can be defined in many (potentially infinite) ways. How can we possibly determine if conceptual property ownership is theft, if it has no one objective definition? Well, it’s a question of where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Going back to our definition of theft, something is only “theft” if it takes property from someone else. If two concepts of property conflict in theory, but never in practice, then neither one is theft since neither has taken anything from anyone. You and I can both claim to own the Brooklyn bridge, but as long as neither of us attempt to take physical control of it, then the conflict is moot and no theft has taken place. In other words, conceptual property ownership is only relevant when it affects practical property ownership. This leads us to the same result as before. Conceptual ownership cannot be theft in the situation where it leads to the first practical ownership of an object. Even if other’s had claimed to own something conceptually, they can continue to claim conceptual ownership and there is nothing taken from them.

In conclusion, we can see that property cannot in and of itself be theft, for the simple reason that the first owner of something cannot have taken it from anyone. Even if your personal concept of property is that someone did in fact own it before they did, that concept is still perfectly valid after they have taken ownership, for all of its practical consequences. This idea dovetails nicely with the homesteading principle, in that nothing can be owned until it has been used.

One caveat to all of this is that indeed much of the property today was in fact stolen from someone at some point. But while it’s true that theft has played a role in most property ownership today, it’s a mistake (if understandably easy) to take the logical leap to all property being theft. Unfortunately, it’s intractably complex to unravel all of the property theft and re-theft and re-re-theft in the past to return things to their proper owners, and any attempt to do so becomes just one more layer of theft on top of an already large pile. Even if you can identify the previous owner of property, can you be certain that they didn’t steal it and therefore have no more right to ownership than the current owner? Probably not, so it’s just adding on the the cycle of theft. Let’s stop it all now and get on with our lives.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Wire

I read an interesting post on one of my favourite blogs, Overcoming Bias. It talks about The Wire (a show I’ve never seen but heard good things about) and the political and economic views of its producer David Simon. Apparently the producer’s views are in conflict with some people’s perception of the show itself. This comment by the producer from a symposium really struck a nerve with me:

Baltimore has had the benefit of your free market for the last twenty five years. You can't tell me you've constructed a viable economic model that has nothing to do with government when one out of every two adult black males is without work in my city. ... The government has been utterly laissez faire, they've let the jobs go to the pacific rim, they are gone, and we've eviscerated the manufacturing class. ... We've had the trickle down, it didn't trickle down, sorry. ... There are ... an awful lot of moneyed people that are arrayed in such a manner as to avoid addressing these problems, because there's no profit involved in addressing these problems.

My knee-jerk reaction is to say that that is straight up baloney, but that’s an unsatisfying reactionary response. Instead, I realised, he’s actually right, but not quite in the way he thinks.

The government of Baltimore may indeed be laissez faire, but it’s not equally laissez faire. The laws there, as with most governments, are designed to help the rich and powerful stay rich and powerful and to keep the poor, poor. So the government is definitely laissez faire if you’re a rich but decidedly not so if you aren’t.

It’s unfortunate, but it’s how democracy works. Well-meaning people come along to create laws to help even out society, but once those laws are passed, the well meaning people think “job well done” and move on to other issues. Those who are left to deal with the law are those who have an incentive to twist them for their benefit, which they do quite well because they have the money and influence for it. For every law that holds down a big business, there are ten which hold down their competition (small businesses), so while big business may not be technically laissez faire, for all intents and purposes it is. Consider some examples:

  • A person without a job decides to open a coffee shop in their house, which is in a high foot-traffic area. Zoning laws make this illegal.

  • A disabled man would like to help out on a nearby construction site cleaning up, because it’s close enough to walk to, but his disability means he can’t work as much as other applicants. He suggests that he work cheaper than the others to gain experience and references. Minimum wage laws prevent him being hired.

  • A woman wants to make and sell pastries but the costs of building a second kitchen, as required by health codes, makes it impossible to start.

  • A poor man on welfare would like to take a part time job doing yard work, but in doing so he would lose his welfare benefits, so it’s not economical to do so.

  • An elderly lady wants to rent out some rooms to migrant workers, but is shut down by a crack down on illegal immigrants.

  • A young lady would like to start doing manicures in her house, but she doesn’t have the required schooling to get a license, and already works two jobs so she can’t get the schooling.

  • A midwife is forced out of business by new licensing pushed by the medical union.

  • And then, to add insult to injury, crack and meth flood the streets. Two drugs that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the drug war.

In decrying the laissez faire policies of the government, Mr. Simon is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The problem isn’t the laissez faire policies themselves, it’s the fact that they only apply to a segment of the population. If they were evenly applied, then they wouldn’t e a source of problems, but a source of solutions.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cry Havoc

What if they held a war and no one came? As interesting as that question is, what’s more interesting is: What if they held a war and only one side came?

Well, that’s exactly what’s been happening under our noses for the last couple of hundred years. Only one side decided to show up to this war, and the sneaky bastards have been doing an excellent job of keeping the rest of us distracted with other things. The wars on Communism, Immorality, Drugs, Terrorism, Poverty, &c all served their purpose of misdirection. Like a good magician, they kept the ball moving under the cups and we were none the wiser.

This war has been for control of government, because government is the closest thing to absolute power that exists. Whoever controls government, controls the world. The side in this war that was smart enough to send in troops is Big Business. Which makes sense, they’ve spent a lot of time and energy building those businesses and heaven fore fend that something as silly as competition might tear that all down. Nope, best get Big Government in with the power to prop them up.

This isn’t to say that Big Business is one big organism working together for a common goal. No, Big Businesses hate each other almost as much as they hate us. That’s probably been the only thing keeping them from taking over completely; the fact that they’re constantly fighting with each other. But that doesn’t mean that we have any real power within the system, just that there seems to be enough space in the cracks to occasionally catch crumbs falling from the tables (I prefer my metaphors shaken, not stirred).

It’s time to admit the sad truth: We lost. It’s over. They won.

What to do about it? That’s a good question, and by “good question” I mean it has no easy answers. The “patriots” among us would say that we need to vote and be involved and run for office and all that other crap. Why is that crap? Because it’s not going to do a thing. We’re an occupied people, and the occupiers aren’t going to allow a system that could lead to their ouster. Far from it, the system is designed to give the appearance of “power to the people” while actually providing none. Voting is the new opiate of the masses. It’s easy to deny that the war is lost, or indeed that there even was a war. It’s easy because it’s less painful. Well, as painful as it is, we need to get past it, grieve, and start working on solutions.

Now, before I talk solutions, let me first say that I know this is all hyperbolical, but I’m illustrating a point. There really isn’t a secret cabal of people in smoky back rooms pulling everyone’s strings. There are cabals, and there are smoky back rooms, and there are strings to be pulled, but these are all over the place in different hands and they’re mostly metaphorical. It’s easy to claim that there’s a small “them” opposed to a big “us,” but that’s oversimplified. The fact is that “them” is the system itself, and not individuals. It’s sloppy, messy, fractured, and incoherent. You could kill a secret back room cabal with a single well placed bomb. The “system” though has no such weaknesses, it’s not a single entity. The “system” is all of us. We’ve seen our enemy, and the enemy is us.

But the truth is that “the people” really don’t have any power in government. At the local level, the people do have some power, but it diminishes as the government gets larger. The reason for this is quite simple: Power breeds power. The more influence an organisation has, the more power they can get, which leads to more power to gain power, ad infinitum. The organisations which have both the motive and resources to start this snowball going is the large corporations. Government has been moulded and twisted in order to serve their interests, and it has been done very stealthily. You should need no more proof than the recent bail-out from the US Congress. There hasn’t been a much more ideal situation for the government to listen to the people. A vast majority opposing the bill, a looming election with several seats at risk, and still government chose to use our money to pay off business people who took stupid risks.

So, what’s the solution? The first step in recovery is to admit, as I said before, that the war is over and we lost. Democracy is a failed experiment. It failed the Romans, it failed the Athenians, and it has now failed us. The second step is to recognise that there is an alternative. This is probably the most difficult step, because we’ve been indoctrinated from an early age that democracy is the pinnacle of human society, and all we need to do is tweak it. Just elect the “right” people and everything will work out well (since there’s a lot of people lining up to go through the meat-grinder of politics in order to help you, yup, that list is massive). Democracy is not an end in itself, it’s only a step in our evolution. Innovation builds on prior advances, and the same is true here. Democracy will lead to something better. One of the best places to start understanding this alternative is a book called “Healing Our World: The Other Piece of the Puzzle” by Dr. Mary Ruwart (available for free online). It lays out the alternative much better than I ever could. We need to learn that not only is the alternative better, but it’s actually possible.

The third step is the scariest, because it contains no guarantees. It’s to simply align our lives with the alternative and if we live free eventually our institutions will follow. As Ghandi famously said, “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.” We are the means, so let’s take care of that. Really, that’s all we can do.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

I Don't Think That Word Mean What You Think It Means

Harold Meyerson makes some ridiculous gaffs in his Washington Post op-ed this week. This sentence from the summary really blows me away:

It's not just investment banks that have fallen by the wayside in the recent carnage; it's the ideology of unregulated capitalism

Unregulated? I don’t think he uses the proper definition for that word. In his world “unregulated” must mean that there are still at least one activity that is not regulated by big brother. I wonder what he would call the situation where there was truly no regulation? Super-duper-bad-because-I-can’t-force-you-to-do-my-bidding-unregulated, probably.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Why I Don't Vote

I was reading and posting comments to a blog yesterday about voting. There seems to be a large number of people who were quite upset that some people choose to not vote, calling us lazy and saying that not voting means we don’t have the right to complain. I want to address some of these issues.

First, the old canard about not having the right to complain if you don’t vote. That’s straight up ridiculous, and here’s why. First, it’s not really a “right” they’re talking about, they’re talking about “moral authority.” But even then, it’s still wrong. Consider this question: If I go to the polling place and write “Winnie the Pooh” in for all candidates does that then give me the right to complain? If you say yes, then I contend there’s no difference between that and not voting. If you say, no, then it’s not really voting that gives me the right, it’s something else on top of voting. I’m not sure what that is, but it’s definitely not voting. Besides, is it necessary for Wal-Mart haters to shop there before they have the right to complain?

Here’s the bottom line on why I don’t vote: It’s not my government.

I don’t recognise the government, its leaders, or its laws. Why would I vote for it? I don’t vote for the leaders of the Masons or the Shriners or the Screen Actors Guild. That’s not to say that there isn’t a circumstance that could bring me to vote. I’m a practical man, after all. If there was something on the ballot that I felt would have a real impact on my liberty and had a chance of winning, I’d consider it. But those types of things are rarely on the ballot. Generally, the candidates are all so far removed from my values that I can’t distinguish them in any meaningful way, so I really don’t care who wins.

I’ve heard it said before, and I agree, “If voting could really change anything, it would have been outlawed a long time ago.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Definition of Force

Force, as a concept, comes up constantly in discussions of voluntaryism. But, like many words, it’s exact meaning is a bit of a slippery eel.

I’ve been thinking about this recently and think I have it nailed down. Therefore, I proffer this definition:

Force is any unwanted activity that changes the state of another’s person or property.

I think that the two key words here are “unwanted” and “changes.” In other words, anything you do that introduces unwanted changes in another person’s property (including, of course, the person themselves) is force. Let’s hold this definition up to some commonly considered scenarios and see how it performs.

It’s easy to see how this would apply in the case of a mugger demanding that you give them your money or he will shoot you. That’s certainly a threat of force, as you being shot is certainly unwanted, and the actual shooting causes a very noticeable change in your body. But what about when the change is very small?

If your neighbour shines a powerful spotlight into your window at night, that’s certainly an act of force. The light isn’t wanted, and it has changed your property quite a bit. But what about a candle in their window? Certainly, if you can see the candle then there some photons crossing your property line and entering your house. Is your neighbour using force on you? I would say that, in this case the “change” requirement has been met (however small) but what about “unwanted?” It is conceivable that the distant light of the candle could be unwanted, though it’d be a tough case to make in any practical circumstances. The candle is technically force, but is so insignificant that for all practical purposes it isn’t. The same is true with a lot of the small things we do. Simply siting in a room forces others to breathe my air, though again it’s to significant to care about (unless I’m carrying a horrible disease, of course, in that case it’s very forceful to have you breathe my air).

What about a starving beggar or a drowning child? If you don’t help them, are you using force? Well, in these cases I would say that the “unwanted” requirement is undoubtedly met. That person definitely doesn’t want you to not help them. But what about “change?” Many would say that yes, there is a change: If you don’t help them, they will die. That’s certainly a change, but it is a change from inactivity rather than activity, and that makes all the difference in the world. There’s a simple test, you ask “What would be the circumstances if I didn’t exist?” If the circumstances are the same as whatever your choose to do (or not do) then the change isn’t coming from you. Ergo, no force. If you didn’t exist, the beggar and the child would die anyway, therefore choosing to not help them isn’t a use of force. Keep in mind that this isn’t to say that not helping is probably a reprehensible act, it’s only a question of whether or not isn’t an act of force.

Now, consider a person who is being threatened with firing from their job. Are they being forced? Well, apply the simple test. If their employer didn’t exist, then they wouldn’t have a job to go to so from that perspective, no, they’re not being forced. But also, if their boss didn’t exist then presumably they would have gotten a job elsewhere, so in fact the person has been changed in that respect. So what’s the answer? The answer lies in the fact that acts of force must be considered in isolation. Determining an act of force cannot be made with consideration to past acts, otherwise anything the employer or employee did from that time on could be considered an act of force. It might make more sense if we change the wording of the simple test to “What would be the circumstances if I ceased to exist?” That makes it a bit more clear. In that case, the employee being fired isn’t force. And likewise, the reverse is true, the employee quitting can’t be considered force. This isn’t to say that there can’t be force involved somewhere, I’m speaking of simply terminating employment.

One last example: The classic ethical paradox of pushing someone out of the way of a bus. The argument goes that in order to save the person from the bus, you would need to initiate force on them in the form of pushing them out of the way. How can you save them without using force? What we have here is not actually a paradox, though it does looks like one on the surface. When you push someone out of the way of a bus, you aren’t initiating force on them if they want to be pushed out of the way. The problem is that at the time you push them, you’re not certain that they want to be pushed, and neither are they since they don’t see the bus. You’re actually taking a gamble that they do. The truth is, though, that you’re taking this gamble all the time. Going back to the candle example above, when you light a candle in your window, you don’t go and ask all of your neighbours if it’s okay, you gamble that the change won’t be significant or unwanted.

To sum up, the voluntaryist ideal is a world without the use of force. Unfortunately, this is impossible to achieve in a world with more than one person, so the voluntaryist instead strives to point their life in that direction. It’d be nice if the rest of the world did, too, but in in the absence of that the voluntaryist encourages (through non-forceful means) everyone else to become less forceful.

Whew, that was quite a bit more heavy and detailed than I thought it would be when I started, but I had to get it off my chest. Thanks for your patience.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Democracy the Pyramid Scheme

I’ve always really liked this quote:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years.

Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.

As wonderful as this quote is, I think it’s missing something. The problem is not that people vote themselves largesse from the public treasury, but that they vote themselves largesse from the future’s public treasury, who must then vote themselves even more largesse from a further future public treasury, and on and on.

This sounds suspiciously like a pyramid scheme, or a Ponzi scheme, or the typical MLM. They all have one feature in common, they are destined to fail. They are completely unsustainable for one simple reason: The ability to keep pushing off responsibility onto someone else. Eventually you will run out of “someone else” and the music stops and no one has a chair.

Take a look at MLMs, for example. What is the single biggest difference between those that survive and those that fail? Those that survive have an actual product to sell, those that fail only sell the business itself (though they typically will have a token product which is overpriced and low quality). The problem with only selling the business is that it doesn’t actually generate any value, it can only transfer value from the late comers to the founders. No value (in the form of a quality product) goes the other way, so that the late comers need to extract value from later comers, and the cycle repeats. Eventually the supply of late-late-late comers is exhausted and there’s no value left to transfer up the chain and the whole thing collapses. Sound familiar?

Democracy is the greatest MLM of them all. It provides no real value, it only transfers it from later generations to now. Examples of the Social Security and Medicare crises in America, the pension problem here in Australia, Vajello California, and the weak balance sheets of most European nations are testament to that fact. People are outraged because the promises they voted to themselves aren’t being kept by the people who weren’t even alive when the promises were made. The solution, obviously, is for the current electorate to vote promises out of the as yet unborn. Yes, that’s sure to work, it always has in the past.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Big Ripoff

While reading a recent newspaper article I was struck by how economically naive a large part of the population is. The article was in reference to recent high gas prices. After rising to record high prices, oil finally started to drop. It was a great relief to drivers, but there was a week or so delay between the drop in oil prices and drops at the pump. Apparently, according to the article, there were some petrol stations which lowered their prices slower than others.

So far so good; sounds like different areas of Sydney have slightly different factors of competition and availability which makes such large swings in prices noticeably uneven. Pretty simple supply/demand type stuff. What bothered me about the article is the way it referred to these higher prices with sentences such as “motorists being ripped off by major petrol companies,” “many motorists were still being ripped off,” and “motorists would continue to be ripped off.” This phraseology betrays a complete misunderstanding of the operation of the market.

It’s one thing to state that the high prices are a “rip off” if there are lower prices elsewhere. This colloquial use of the term simply indicates that a smart shopper should look elsewhere. But that’s not the way it was used; it was used in the sense that denotes a fraud or a swindle. I’m assuming that these “ripped off” motorists were fully aware of the price when they entered the stations, the price that was posted on signs and pumps was the price that they paid, and no one threatened to harm them if they didn’t purchase. So wherein lies the rip off?

Nowhere, that’s where. Those higher prices were not ripping off consumers any more than the higher prices of designer handbags rip off fashion consumers. People paid higher prices because they were not willing to find or patronise stations with lower prices, plain and simple. The owners offered a good a certain price and people chose to buy of their own free will.

Now, there’s a whole other argument buried in there about free competition and government intervention in the petrol market, but we’ll leave that for another day (I’m sure you can guess where I stand on that issue). But the end result of this is that I’m now slightly more saddened about the state of the world. When simple economic concepts are complete voodoo to supposedly educated people like professional journalists it doesn’t bode well for the future of the nation, or the world.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Third Wave

I’ve been thinking recently about Alvin Toffler’s seminal book The Third Wave, which I read several years ago. The basic idea of the book is that we are now entering the third wave of societies. The first wave was agrarian, the second industrial, and the third informational. The question I’ve been wrestling with is where does a voluntary society sit in this continuum?

I often hear the argument that voluntary societies can’t exist because they haven’t existed. This is obviously a very weak argument if you take it at face value. But I think that the argument is actually quite a bit deeper and more nuanced than that. What they’re really saying is society always forms into some form of coercive government because that is the only thing that can work. In other words, voluntary societies have been discarded by societal evolution. A society of one person (let’s assume that “society” is the right word here) is obviously voluntary. A society of two is likewise voluntary unless one of them uses force on the other. A society of three the same, and so on. Eventually someone uses force and a government is formed in response, and since this has always happened at some point in all societies, it must mean that the voluntary society cannot work.

I’m of the school that this is partially true. Voluntary societies couldn’t have existed in the past. A truly voluntary society must be built on a framework to support it. Much like computers couldn’t have existing 200 years ago because it took time to develop all the necessary pre-requisites; voluntary society requires that some groundwork be laid. This brings us back to The Third Wave. It’s instructive to consider the political structures that existed, primarily, within each of the waves.

Agrarian societies had very tall and rigid hierarchies. Birthright was paramount and the sovereign was usually ordained by God. Classes were very strictly enforced and mobility between them was rarely achieved.

Industrial societies changed that by flattening things out. Contrary to what socialist apologists would have you believe, the industrial revolution was more to the benefit of the working poor than the capitalised rich. Mass production was the order of the day, and that included mass production of political power. Democracies sprang up as fast as shareholder-owned corporations. To be certain, there was still a hierarchy, but it was shorter and wider. Mobility between classes became a reality, if a relatively uncommon reality. Classes themselves became less distinct, and based more on achievement than birth.

What about informational societies? That question has yet to be answered. I believe we are still only at the very earliest beginnings of the informational shift. It seems that most post-industrial societies are moving toward socialism, that is certainly true in the United States and Europe. But I contend that this move isn’t a furtherance of drive toward informational society, but is instead a reaction of that drive. It’s the outgrowth of the conflicting pull between the two types of societies. The real trend will be to continue the flattening of hierarchies and even more massification of production. But massification in a different way. Industrial societies were about increasing the amount of production. Informational societies are about increasing the amount of producers.

Another great read on the topic is The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson. The world is moving to a mass of producers, as evidenced primarily by the entertainment industry. No longer is television dominated by a handful of national networks. Now there’s cable, on demand, Internet video, DVDs, video games, and a host of other options available to consumers. This new trend of massification applies to everything, even, the seats of power. Exactly how this will play out is yet to be seen, but I believe that eventually the great monolithic government will go the way of the birthright ordained monarch. In its place will be a society based on individual choice, and a total decentralisation of power. But it won’t be without a fight, and we can expect those who have attained power will try their damnedest to maintain it.

Sadly for them, like the Luddites of days gone past, progress will march on regardless of how they try to stop it.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Does Might Make Right?

Quite often when discussing voluntaryism with people, I get this question: “So, are you saying that might makes right?” I get this question because these conversations typically boil down to conflict resolution. When two parties are in conflict over something, such as property rights, which cannot be resolved through any amount of arbitration (neither side needs to recognise an arbitrator’s decision, after all) the “winner” will be the one which can garner the most outside support. One party may have an insurance or security company who will drop them because they refuse to follow the arbitrator. Or one party’s security company may be so much larger than the other as to make enforcement against it too risky.

In essence, when an intractable conflict occurs, might will always be the final arbiter.

This frightens people, and understandably so. Most people have been taught that might doesn’t make right, that the little guy can still win against great odds, that society protects the interests of the weak. Unfortunately, none of this is actually true. In reality we’ve been indoctrinated with blinders to not see that the above scenario is exactly how it works today. Might is still the final arbiter. What makes it hard to see is that the “might” is all held by one company, the government.

There’s no more reason for a person to accept the ruling of a government court than there is for the person to accept the ruling of a private arbitrator. That is, except for the might wielded by the court’s enforcement arm, the police. In a voluntary society, just like in a government one, I protect my property exactly the same way: with the might of those who agree that my property should be protected. The market will do an excellent job of finding the balance between these conflicting centres of “might” because people will be able to move freely between them as their needs or circumstances change. Unlike the single centre of might we have today, which is controlled by a small group of people.

So, when asked this question I usually respond, “Not any more than you do.” As a further illustration I ask them to consider why it is that the current government is in charge. In the US, for example, why is it that the United States government runs the country and not the British? Or a Mexican or Spanish or Japanese or German, or especially Native American government? What allowed it to rise to dominance? The answer is simple, the United States government used its might to defeat all existing and potential competition for governing the country. Might has made right, for all intents and purposes.

Let me also add, that I don’t like the phrase “might makes right.” I prefer the phrase “might makes moot.” Not only is it a nice alliteration, but it also is more accurate. Might in no way makes someone right, but it does make it irrelevant who is. You may be right in crossing at a marked crosswalk, but the 10-tonne truck bearing down on you makes your “rightness” completely moot. The loser of a government court case may still be right, but it doesn’t much matter when the police come to take their property.

For better or worse, might will always be the final decision maker in conflicts. Acknowledging that fact is one of the first steps to accepting a voluntary mindset. Being afraid of it doesn’t make much sense when we live with the fact every day, no matter how well hidden by our training.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Myth of the Common Good

I keep hearing about the Common Good™ as though it is an obvious and useful way to measure public policy. It’s found neatly in the middle of the utilitarian creed: “The most good for the most people.” I have a problem with this idea of the common good. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with the utilitarian ideal as a personal goal; I think anyone who lives their lives that way has their heart in the right place. I have a problem with the idea as a method of driving policy. My main problem with the Common Good is that it cannot be measured.

Of course it can be measured, you may say to yourself, it’s possible to measure whether something is good or not. Of course good can be measured in isolation. A policy to feed homeless people can be measured to determine if any homeless people are dying of starvation. What can’t be measured, however, is the opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is essentially what is lost when resources are allocated. Since money, time, and effort don’t spring forth from nowhere, they must all be taken from another use. Using money to feed homeless people means that the money isn’t doing something else.

Consider a drug trial. Testing drugs is not simply about how well a drug does in curing a patient, but also how little harm a drug causes. A drug that cures headaches 90% of the time isn’t a success if it causes heart attacks 95% of the time. If a trial for a drug didn’t take into consideration the negative side effects of the drug then it’s not possible to determine if the drug actually worked. The same is true with policy intended to help the common good. If you can’t measure the opportunity costs then you can’t be sure if the policy is working. You’d have to take it on faith.

This isn’t to say that all opportunity costs can’t be measured. Of course some of them can. The opportunity costs you can measure are those which you take yourself. When you decide to use some of your own resources, you are the only one who can decide if the opportunity costs are worth it. Only you can decide if it’s worth the time to watch a movie, eat dinner, volunteer at a homeless shelter, etc. When you decide to take those resources from someone else, though, you can’t possibly know what they would have done with them.

The socialist minded person would probably think that taking money from rich people is okay because they weren’t going to use it to help the common good, but that betrays a naiveté about both human nature and economics. Perhaps the rich person would have left the money in the bank and done nothing with it. But money in the bank isn’t static, that’s the money which is used to finance home loans and business expansion. Perhaps the money would have been used to support some charity had it not been taken. Or it may have been used to buy gold faucets and larger stereos. But someone had to make those faucets and stereos. Those businesses employ people and there are more businesses which support those. About the only truly worthless use of money is to put it in a mattress and sleep on it, and I’m betting that’s a pretty rare occurrence.

It seem easy for some people to convince themselves that they know better how to use other people’s money; that *their* particular use of the money alone serves the common good. They may be right, perhaps their plan does increase the common good. But there is no way to prove it. They are, in essence, asking the rest of us to take it on faith that their plan is better because the are unable to show that the alternate use of the money is worse. There are some things that I’m not willing to take on faith, and this is one of them. I’m not willing to cross the line of taking money by force because one group of people “believes” (not knows) that by so doing the common good is served. The common good is best served by letting us each find our own way to serve it.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Trouble with Voting

I recently heard an interview with the author of the book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter” and it got me thinking. What is it about voting that slowly brings about bad government? Why does the electorate seem to give up a tiny piece of their essential rights every election (or follow a one step forward, two steps back cycle)? I’ve got the book on my reading list, so one day I’ll be able to match my theory up with what the book says. For now, though, I’ll just have to speculate.

I thought back to the book, “The Wisdom of Crowds” which talks about group decision making to find part of my answer. You should read it, if you haven’t already. The book contained many examples of groups making decisions, making very good decisions, even though few of the members of the group were experts in the area. What’s the difference between these group decisions and voting?

One difference is cost. The good decisions that groups were able to make always entailed some form of expense to the decision makers if they got it wrong, or a reward if they got it right. Whether it was trying to guess the weight of a bull at a county fair to win a prize (the example the book opens with) or betting against Morton Thiokol in the Challenger shuttle disaster on the stock market; the quality of the individual decisions had a direct link to a reward or expense. Isn’t this also true with voting?

No, it isn’t. Because while in voting the decisions are made by the individual, the costs and rewards are spread over the group. That is, if you vote and get it “right” it won’t affect you at all unless you’re on the winning side. Likewise, if you vote and get it “wrong” it won’t you personally, but everyone. This causes a slight shift in the definition of “right” and “wrong” in the election process.

The meaning of right and wrong change from “selecting the best choice” to “selecting the winning choice.” It’s a subtle change, because quite often those are the same. Consider an election on whether to commit national suicide via drinking poison Kool-Aid. In this case (I hope) the winning choice is also the right choice. But it isn’t always so.

There will be times, however infrequent, that the best choice doesn’t appear to be the most popular one. In that case, when enough voters shift sides because they want to be on the “winning” side of an election, the wrong choice is made. Since this doesn’t happen every time, it explains why voting is a slow slide into fascism and socialism. Even more perverse is the idea that the winning side may not actually have been the most popular, but was portrayed as such by the media; becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can see this shift in action every time someone tells you that you’re “wasting your vote” by selecting candidate X because they can’t win. The only way such a vote is wasted is if the goal of voting is to predict the winner, not to vote for the most capable person.

Voting has the inherent flaw that it does not scale well. There are times when it is an effective way to judge the interest of a group (where should we have lunch today?) but quickly breaks down as the size of the group grows. If you feel like your vote has no impact on the outcome, but you’re going to be subject to its decision, what’s the point in trying to vote well?

Voting is a topic I will visit again, as I think an understanding of its flaws is critical to breaking the official myth that Democracy = Freedom.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Modular Units

I was driving home from a dentist appointment the other day when I heard a piece on the radio about a proposal in the federal Parliament. The proposal is to require grocery stores to post unit pricing for every product in addition to the total price already published. As the MP who was talking put it, “This is a no-brainer.” Is it really? I’m not so sure about that.

To be sure, this isn’t the biggest, most earth-shattering law government can devise, and it does have a good ring to it: Giving the Australian family a little bit more information in the constant battle with their grocery bills. But, like all laws, there is a dark side. And it’s an excellent example of why good intentions aren’t enough.

First, like all regulation, this is one more expense which will be passed on to consumers. So, while it may help some customers to pay less, we’ll all pay a little bit more which will mitigate it some. Not to mention the extra cost for the government, which will be seen in our tax bills. What’s worse, in my opinion, is that this regulation will make it even more difficult for a small company to enter the market, keeping the large companies that much further from competition. Regulation’s deep dark secret is the power it gives to large companies to abuse their market positions. It’s not much, I know, but it’s one more cut added to the other 999.

Second, what will happen if this actually works and consumers start buying the cheaper items? Since the overall demand for certain products won’t actually be changing, just shifting from one to another, it’s going to cause the lower priced items to increase in price. I’m already smart enough to bring a calculator with me to the store, so I know unit prices. It will mean a price increase for those of us who already shop smart. That doesn’t exactly tickle me. But it will probably be mitigated by the third item:

It’s probably not going to affect many shoppers. The unit price is already available for anyone who knows how to divide two numbers. Many stores already display this information (Aldi, for example, does this). Are consumers presented with this information more inclined to use it? Some, perhaps. But the barrier to getting this information is already very small, so eliminating that already tiny barrier isn’t going to cause a flood of people to change the way they shop.

In the end, this law is just one more (albeit small) example of government wasting its time in a place it doesn’t belong. Why is this even on the radar of government anyway? Is it really the intention of the government to round off all of the corners in the world to create utopia? I can’t see good things coming from this constant accretion of micro-management layers.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Lust for Power

I recently read the following in an e-mail exchange with a left-leaning friend of mine:

Free market theorists seem to say that the only true incentive is money. I disagree with that.  There also exists incentive for the common good. And whereas that may not be as strong an incentive to many, that virtue is mitigated in a free market system by the idea of profit, which is itself the built-in inefficiency of the free market.  This is one place where a government system has a completely non-theoretical advantage over a free market system.  Also in a public system, there is less incentive to bilk, manipulate, monopolize, defraud, or otherwise make choices that antagonize the common good.

I get the feeling that the above is a common way of thinking for many (if not most) of those on the left of the political spectrum. The idea that a profit motive is very corrupting and should therefore be avoided if possible. Implicit in this is the idea that any organisation which claims to not be motivated by profit will not be subject to the corruption that the profit motive brings, and is therefore preferable. I have a problem with this way of thinking.

First, no one is really motivated by making money. Money is a means to an end; people are motivated by what money brings them. It would be better to say that people are motivated by power. Power over their own lives, the lives of others, the environment, etc. That’s really what money brings a person so the people who run these potentially corrupt companies are really seeking for some form of power. Indeed, I would say that everyone is motivated by power, to some degree or another. Even someone who espouses something as noble as feeding the poor is looking for power over hunger. Power is what drives us all.

Money is not the only way to achieve power, there are many other ways including politics and religion. Taken in this context it really highlights the problem with this way of thinking. The idea that the public sector doesn’t have a “power motive” and that gives it an advantage should make even the most jaded of us smile at its absurdity. Of course the public sector has a power motive, and that power is no less corrupting there than it is in the free-market. It doesn’t really matter why you seek power (for the common good or for your own) it’s the power itself that is potentially corrupting.

I would think it safe to say that political leaders are just as corrupted by their lust for power as business leaders, if not more so. A profit motive is nothing to be feared, it’s something to be understood. We all have a profit motive (we just all have different definitions for “profit”) and that’s not going to change, because it’s a part of human nature.