Archives for category: Social Theory

For libertarian economics, what do property rights include?

as answered on Quora:

I hate to pick at nits, but I do not think there is such a thing as “libertarian economics.” But I assume that the questioner really means “economic policy,” and is right to think that libertarians have a distinct policy. But any such policy is also a matter of law (libertarians, even of a hard-core private law variety hold to a rule of law) so the question becomes, What property rights are included under libertarian legal and economic policy?

Well, this turns out to be a big subject.

There are some differences of opinion, in part because the libertarian camp is a bit broader than usually let on by its most insistent advocates. But what defines libertarians is the way they themselves define liberty: as the freedom that all can share by being seen in the negative: a freedom from initiated coercion, or force. (Freedoms-to, in Isaiah Berlin’s formulation, are not the focus of libertarian principles.)

And for libertarians, liberty starts with the individual. Though it can be defined politically, as selfgovernment, it is often, perhaps usually (following Locke and the Levellers) defined in property terms. Liberty entails selfownership. To own one’s self means to own one’s own body. And like all property this entails excludability. In other words, self-defense.

So, already, at this most fundamental level, chattel slavery is prohibited. One cannot own others against their will, unless that other has committed some crime and his enslavement is repayment. Slavery is commonly thought to be not an acceptable kind of ownership, and slaves not legitimate property. Though Libertarians argue about the legitimacy of selling themselves into slavery.

Certainly, the chattel slavery that was the basis of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century American economy is not legitimate property according to libertarianism. Libertarians were almost all abolitionists, in the mid-19th century, before the Civil War.

The basic conception of justice that libertarians hold has been called the entitlement, or proprietary theory of justice. As formulated by Robert Nozick, a property holding is just if it was justly acquired and justly transferred. To be justly acquired, it cannot be wrested from another. Hence the idea of self-ownership, and the idea of a first-come/finders-keepers ethic of property acquisition. This is the fairly logical outcome of the attempt to find a basic rule that would minimize conflict. Only scarce resources can be owned. So free goods (in the economic sense, as defined by economist Carl Menger and other early marginalists) are not subject to ownership.

This leads to problems of some common resources, such as air (non-economic on the surface of the planet, outside our nose and lungs) and oceans (lots of water there). Libertarians tend to evade or disagree or remain puzzled by these resources, and how property rights could possibly be applied in these resource pools. (Nevertheless, much work has been done, and should be looked up.)

But not to problems of land. I know of few libertarians who go the Georgist route, thinking that land may not be owned — but there used to be many of these, including the young Herbert Spencer and the individualist Joseph Hiam Levy, an able fin-de siècle economist (see his debates with Auberon Herbert and Benjamin R. Tucker.)

Intellectual property rights attorney Stephan Kinsella argues that intellectual property is a misnomer. He extends the analysis of Murray Rothbard, who thought that laws against “libel and slander” were unsupportable because one cannot own one’s reputation. Kinsella makes the point that patent and copyright law are both monopolistic “protections” (intrusions, interventions) of the State, and could not possibly arise in a society that takes the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP — really just a formalization of the principle of universalizble negative freedom) seriously, consistently.

So:

a. property in one’s own person, by which we mean “body”;

b. property in land and other scarce resources that no one else has owned, and which you have appropriated by some widespread or locally apt convention; and

c. property in scarce resources that one has purchased, by contract and without duress.

Libertarians these days almost univocally reject the Lockean idea that possible-to-own resources that have not been appropriated are “owned in common.” This notion is at best a fiction. At worst an imposition. Non-privatized property is seen as UN-OWNED. And property rights theorists are beginning to understand the importance of “ceasing-to-own” as a category. That is, not only must property rights require justice in acquisition and transferance, but also in maintenance. Just as one may lose property, in a physical sense, one can abandon it, in a normative sense. This puts the property into the category of un-owned. If you leave your car on the side of the road, and never return, it is abandoned. The road owner usually appropriates it, but since, today, all automobile titles are tightly regulated by the states, and most roads are State-owned, the states tend to assume ownership. This would not be the case in a libertarian society. Law and custom would look very different. And would have to include rules about disowned property, inadvertent or deliberate, and regard it as un-owned, allowing for a new appropriation.

Other cases of property abandonment? Littering, pollution, and (in the realm of self-ownership) body abandonment upon inadvertent death as well as intended death (suicide). (Would a consequence of this perspective be that suicide is often a form of littering, and, unless measures were made in advance by the would-be suicide, many acts of suicide would be rightly preventable, by coercion, as defense of the property the corpse is intentionally being abandoned upon?)

According to Murray Rothbard, there can be no “public property.” All property must be private. F. A. Hayek demurred from this, arguing that what we are really talking about is “several property,” which would include ownership by groups, in some corporate or even informal capacity. (Randy Barnett explains the seemingly archaic term in this way: “The term ‘several property’ makes it clearer that jurisdiction to use resources is dispersed among the ‘several’ — meaning ‘diverse, many numerous, distinct, particular or separate’ persons and associations that comprise a society, rather than being rooted in a monolithic centralized institution.”) The rule of law defends several property, which would allow for any forms of property now considered “public.”

Philosopher Roderick Long has discussed a public property element in a free society as configured around by the NAP. This subject is still under debate among libertarians.

All property comes down to the right to exclude and the right to control. Several property is private chiefly in the sense of de-priving others of its use. Where you cannot forcibly exclude others (understood as self defense), there is no property. Where you cannot control the thing ostensibly owned (without initiating force), it is not property. I believe Kinsella’s arguments against intellectual property flow directly from these considerations.

No wonder, then, that one proposed alternative to the term “libertarianism” is “propertarianism” — no other school of thought takes property rights as seriously libertarians do, or see them as so fundamental.

Note: There is a whole school of economics devoted to property rights discussion. Many of these economists are libertarians or near-libertarians. Richard Stroup, for example, has proffered a basic rubric for property rights: “For markets to work . . . rights to each important resource must be clearly defined, easily defended against invasion, and divestible (transferable) by owners on terms agreeable to buyer and seller. Well-functioning markets, in short, require ‘3-D’ property rights.” Again, the 3-D property rights require

  1. Definability — clarity in boundaries;
  2. Defense — ability to be maintained;
  3. Divestibility — capacity for ownership cessation by the property holder.

This latter includes divestment by gift, divestment by exchange (giving on condition of receiving something), and inadvertent abandonment (loss by inattention) and purposive abandonment (essentially, gift to the unowned state, gift to “whoever will appropriate from an unowned state” or assault upon others, if the property abandoned is specifically disutile or inutile to all).

Libertarian economic policy rests on conceptions of property rights, centered on individual self-ownership and extending outwards to natural resources and produced goods. Many kinds of several property are allowed, but the society would not be de facto libertarian if there were extensive black markets in stolen goods of whatever kind, or if the state (or similar institutions) appropriated by decree all sorts of un-owned and dis-owned property, or engaged in mass expropriation (taxes) or piecemeal expropriation outside the court system, or in contravention of the NAP.

Herbert Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy, my set.

Is it possible to reduce the world population by 50%? Isn’t world over-population the cause of all the problems in the world?

…as answered on Quora:

Two questions, eh?

  1. Is it possible to reduce the world population by 50 percent?
  2. Isn’t world overpopulation the cause of all the problems in the world?

The answers are simple:

  1. Yes.
  2. No.

But there are complications:

  1. Many of the ways to decrease populations quickly, especially by half, are of the Thanos-or-worse variety. We do not want to decrease populations quickly. Gradually could be another story.
  2. As economist Theodore W. Schultz explained — and as Julian Simon demonstrated in a more daring and popular form — population is not the huge problem that neo-Malthusian alarmists say it is. Human beings, if they do not rely upon predation and parasitism, and have plenty of opportunities for market coöperation (trade), are what Simon calls “the ultimate resource.”

When we rely upon trade, we must be of service to one another. We engage in trade only when we expect to gain, that is, when both parties to an exchange expect to gain from it. I help you out if you help me. And the more trades occur, the more that competition for each others’ business hones our productivity. The more productive, the more advances in technique and technology we bring to the stock of civilization. This is progress.

Thomas Robert Malthus’s worry in his Principles of Population (1798) was that (a) the rate of agricultural advance would be outstripped by (b) the natural rate of human population growth. He was stumbling towards a modern conception of external economies, of the “market failure” focused on in neoclassical economics. That is where options seen by the individuals as in their best interest yields widespread effects not in the interest of people generally. (Malthus was arguing against the anarchist rationalist William Godwin and his belief that moral progress would lead to an ethical utopia of excellence everywhere.) Basically, the Malthusian fear is that people would be incentivized to reproduce at a socially dangerous rate. Reason would fail — in effect be upended by circumstance.

But Malthus had an interesting analytic mind, and he handled the problem with something more than a glib pessimism. He noted that these two diverging trendlines (agriculture expanding at an “arithmetic rate” versus population expanding at a “geometric rate”) were offset by other forces, at least on the reproduction trend line.

There were, he wrote, natural checks on reproduction rates, including famine and pestilence and infant death by malnutrition; and there were artificial checks, including sexual abstinence in several forms, most of which he regarded as moral, and some gruesome means, such as infanticide and abortion and eugenics. His worry was that populations would grow to bring misery, and also a rise in immorality out of perceived prudence. He rightly saw that crude measures of packing people in close together, as happened in cities, often breed plague and sexually transmitted diseases. And it is in his spirit — and often inspired by reading his treatise — that many modern prophets of doom have developed the popular anti-population mania. And theirs is indeed a harrowing philosophy, turning otherwise nice and smart folks into anti-humanist immoralists, praising horrific measures of (aack) mass death or (ugh) government repression. This sort of thing inspired the modern environmental movement, where you will find some folks advocating reducing humanity to “a size twice the population of bears.”

But all this misses the “miracle” of modernity: progress.

Malthus failed to see what Herbert Spencer saw in the early 1850s: coöperative humanity can indeed fight against the Malthusian trap, flipping the trend lines so that agriculture can grow exponentially more productive than the rate of population reproduction . . . and in turn spurring increased populations to be increasingly productive. The only thing we would have to give up? The militant, regimented means of social organization, instead embracing “industry.” Which in this case was the predecessor to the industrial recolution, the agricultural revolution. Spencer saw trends on Malthus’s agriculture forecast that would raise the line several orders of magnitude.

Interestingly, Spencer almost came up with the theory of natural selection in this work. But he only applied his notion of a ratcheting up of living standards by means of competitively coördinated coöperation to the social world, not to the long-term cycles of plant and animal descent. “Missed it by that much,” as Agent Smart said in Get Smart. It is for this reason that sociologist Jonathan Turner inverted the infamous “Social Darwinist” charge against Spencer: Darwin, really, was a “biological Spencerian.” Spencer spiffed up his approach a decade later, for the final section of his Principles of Biology. And in the process he gave us the turn of phrase “survival of the fittest.” Though it has been trendy (for a full century, actually) to look upon Spencer’s viewpoint as a ghastly exercise in cruel theoretics, Spencer was actually emphasizing peaceful coöperation and presenting humanity with a remarkably positive vision. J.D.Y. Peel, in his study of Spencer, said that the British philosopher-sociologist “out-Godwinned Godwin”! But Spencer did this not by hoping for a triumph of Reason, but by merely noticing the flourishing that is possible with distributed patterns of collaboration sans an over-arching plan.

The amazing thing? He was basically right.

Spencer was actually presaging what today’s more realistic economists and demographers understand perfectly well. And, what is more — less: today’s best researchers notice that as human societies get wealthier, the rate of reproduction goes down.

In Schultz’s terminology, parents swap “quantity of children” for “quality of children.” In mere agricultural societies, children can be productive in farm life and in resource extraction; in industrial societies, for people to be productive they have to decelop their skillsets more markedly, so parents opt to expend resources to “invest” in their children’s “human capital.” So, that old black magic of having scads of children ceases to increase the chances of family success, but, instead, tends to reduce it.

That is one big reason why people, today, tend naturally to produce fewer children than in the past.

One might think that this would be completely scuttled by the lowering of childhood death rates, but for a number of reasons, this does not appear to be the case.

And, yes, populations are indeed declining in the First World — and as the rest of the world catches up (and in my lifetime the poverty rate has declined markedly with the expansion of the extent of the market), the general reproduction rate will level off. In Europe, the white population is veering to the opposite-of-“Malthusian” trend: demographic collapse. In the United States, were it not for immigration and recent immigrants’ higher reproductive rates, America, too, would see population decline.*

Demographic collapse is actually probably going to be a bigger problem in the future than the “population explosion.” It is the implosion that would more likely destroy civilization.

But here we have another offsetting trend: technological progress.

The great heterodox genius Samuel Butler, not long after publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) argued that the next form of evolution will be machine evolution. This was played for science-fictional interest in his dystopian romance (or is that utopian comedy?) Erewhon (1872), but now we are really seeing this kick into high gear, as we approach something like a social Singularity (see Ray Kurzweil).

About the time of Malthus, there arose the legendary “Ned Ludd,” who saw only devastation in the destructive creation of technological advance. And since then there have been worriers who see mainly the death of labor in “labor-saving devices.” And like Malthusianism, Luddism, if true, would have meant the death of free labor and our whole civilization a century ago. The opposite is the case: technological advance increases worker productivity, leading to a general increase in wealth and welfare. The “trouble” is, people have to adapt to the machines.

Perhaps the challenge of population decline will not be so bad, as machine evolution makes our lives better and better. Maybe, in Richard Brautigan’s poetic lines, we shall be “watched over by machines of loving grace.

The real challenge will be political.


* The downward trend line is exacerbated by welfare state interventions, and the high rate of abortions, too. But for this analysis I need not get into to it.



Additional thoughts:

I wonder if there is not a third major danger playing here besides Malthusian and Luddite, but the belief in scientific management of the human livestock, which inevitably buys into Malthusian and Luddite predictions, then uses untold cruelty to violently whip the human population towards a better condition. Our OP demonstrates it.

Timo, do you agree that there is this third strain and from whom do you think it originates?

Dennis Pratt, replying to my answer, May 30, 2018.

Yes. These are the intellectuals I call Social Galtonians, after Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton. There is a great irony embedded in this social engineering movement. Inspired by Darwin’s tough-minded biological theories, these scientists and activists invented eugenics. But it wasn’t natural selection they advocated, or even sexual selection (the two key concepts Darwin marshaled to help understand speciation), but, instead, the everyday concept that Darwin used to explain natural selection, by analogy: “artificial selection,” or breeding.

Basically, these people see the apex of advance in an elite that would engineer society for further advance. It is profoundly anti-Darwinian, really. They wanted to “take charge of evolution.” But Darwin was trying to explain spontaneous order, advance without Plan. The Social Galtonians wanted to Plan, in all-caps: PLAN.

And here we can see the contrast with the thinker usually called the major “Social Darwinist,” Herbert Spencer. His view was that in the course of super-organic evolution various interpenetraing and almost-indistinguishable institutions (like religion and The State) would diversify and integrate simutaneously. The state would get smaller to accommodate countervailing, offsetting institutions like religions and industrial organizations and markets and the like. That is not what happened, but he thought that was what needed to happen for the kind of progress that would work best for the greatest diversity of people.

And what was important and “Darwinian” about this was not the scope for “natural selection” (a factor in explaining man and society at every level) but the primacy of individual selection selection. Voluntary breeding.

The social engineers and eugenicists wanted to clamp down on this decentralized, distributed reproduction technique and replace it with top-down breeding. Artificial selection as a super-elitist activity justified by a mis-reading of evolutionary science.

So, Spencer was more Darwinian and less crude in his preference for sexual selection over anything like social engineering. The State should be peeled back to a limited role, not expanded to mimic the reductionist and naive view of organisms as top-down, total-conscious mechanisms.

The social engineers, of course, are hubristic. They make a huge error in their basic world view. But it “feels” scientific, to themjust as the maroons who wax enthusiastic over “the scientific consensus” get all the good feels from their mania.

It is scientism.

But it is not our current problem. Not really. For sentiment transformed eugenic-minded progressivism after the Hitler debacle into an incoherent welfare state-cum-churning state. And what dominates now, in combination with the feminist cult and cultural Marxism, is dysgenic. Policies leading to the cultivation of vast hordes of near-criminals and parasites.

That is hardly a Social Galtonian view, or Social Darwinist. It is its own satire.

The Hegelian dialectic as it spins society through the rinse-repeat cycle is something of an ironist.



The primary political reaction to the Darwinian challenge, then, comes down to this: how we conceive of responsibility in the management of human reproduction. Should folks be regarded as their own people, responsible for their own couplings and reproduction strategies (per sexual selection) or should they be treated as breeding stock (per artificial selection)?

The Progressive Era, with the rise of socialism and fascism, chose artificial selection, which led to the sterilization of “the unfit” and unwanted — and those perceived as dangerous. I have called this Societal Galtonianism. The old liberal idea was simply the Smithian “natural liberty” and Spencerian “Law of Equal Freedom” approach, where people were let alone to choose for themselves. Call this alternative Independent Adaptation.

So, which will be “the ultimate recourse”? Freedom and the division of responsibility, or force and social engineering?

But note that Independent Adaptation, which I obviously prefer, is now developing to a new level of sophistication, where the sexual selection of partners can be boutique and even commoditized. Instead of letting the ablest swimming sperm capture the egg immediately after an act of coition, now we enter a world where

  • fertilized eggs can be chosen for viability according to various criteria
  • eggs can be pre-selected
  • sperm can be pre-selected
  • DNA can be altered in pre-nates

which certainly will all have huge social consequences, making the “problem of children” all the more interesting.

The modern fear of the breeding stock approach led to a few famous dystopias, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and many not-so-famous ones, such as the late J. Neil Schulman’s The Rainbow Cadenza. And in the world of open-source science fiction — that is, in ufology — the fear of humanity being reduced to breeding-stock status becomes a major cultural meme.

None of this expresses the core truth of our time, though.

In reaction against eugenic breeding programs of the Progressive Era, modern “liberals” and (post-modern) progressives have embraced the dysgenics of the unstable pairing of free sexual selection with tax-funded subsidy. This is our current paradigm, in which freedom and responsibility are kept separate. This is part of the dominance of left versus right politics, where the two flavors de-link freedom and responsibility issue by issue, and the compete in the political marketplace to set policy in an ad hoc way. It is quite messy, and we live under the chaos of freedom-without-responsibility and responsibility-without-freedom as the two option against which society constantly lurches in drunken sailor fashion.

Trouble is, the pure social engineering, totalitarian approach, which might be more culturally stable than our current kludgy dysgenic approach, strikes most people, including me, as horror-show repugnant. While the libertarian/responsibilitarian approach strikes most people, excluding me, as freaky unsettling.

So we will probably be stuck in the intelligentsia-approved compromise system until our civilization crumbles.

twv

Cultural diversity means conflict when the individuals and groups see themselves as competing for scarce resources in the Commons, and the access is a zero sum activity.

The meaning of said conflict is clear in the El Paso anti-immigrant shooting, in the group-righteous racism of intersectionalist hectoring, and . . . well, one could read about it in the pages of this book, Politics in Plural Societies, by Alvin Rabushka and Kenneth A. Shepsle, who begin their treatise listing ethnic conflict around the world.

“Outright killing frequently takes place,” is a typical topic sentence in the first chapter.

The key concept is that of “the plural society,” coined by J. S. Furnivall, who defined the concept as a mixed-group society “comprising two or more elements or social orders which live side by side, yet without mingling, in one political unit.”

Because of his training as an economist, Furnivall naturally focused on the economic aspects of the Dutch colony. Observing that each community possessed a distinct set of values incompatible with those of other cultural groups, he characterized the plural society as one lacking consensus or, in his terms, one without “common social demand.” To illustrate his point, Furnivall constructed the following example. The buying of cathedrals involves an expenditure of resources much like the purchase of groceries. In a homogeneous society, the purchase of a cathedral provides an indivisible “public good,” i.e., every citizen may benefit from its construction. In the plural society, however, the erection of a Chinese temple constitutes a “public bad” for Muslims; in a similar manner, Muslim mosques provide few or no benefits for Chinese. Therefore, in the plural society social demands often result in public expenditures with benefits for one community and opportunity costs for the others. The plural society thus isolates the demands of its separate communities, and fails to aggregate, in Furnivall’s terms, common social demand.
Furnivall points to the presence of separate ethnic demands as a basis for differentiating a plural society from its homogeneous counterpart.

Rabushka and Shepsle develop what is basically a familiar theory, a Classical Liberal Theory of Competing Interest Groups, the basic idea being that if you want diversity, you must have limited government — and if you want big government, you must possess or (more ominously, create) a monoculture.

And if you fail to create a monoculture, you will get violence.

There is a reason today’s “multiculturalists” are such hectoring, moralistic ideologues: they are trying, rather desperately, to create a monoculture, an ideological one. And that is why they tend to look upon their political opponents as “deplorables” — because they resist the multiculturalists’ creation of a utopian society based on left-moralism.

Drolly, “right-wing” nationalism and its relentless pushing of flag worship and patriotic rite amounts to much the same thing, if on a much more limited scale — after all, nation-building is what nationalists do, and its element of doctrinal monoculture (in America, anyway) is the major competitor to multiculturalism.

Furnivall’s major contribution lies in his observation that plural societies are qualitatively distinct from homogeneous ones, and that the different communities of the plural society can meet only in the marketplace. His insistence that outside force is required to maintain order implies that plural societies are inherently prone to violent conflict.

This should be familiar to anyone who has immersed themselves in the sociology of Spencer and Sumner, or of the less ideological conflict theorists. That it is not familiar to most folks today is largely the result of bad education all around.

twv

To members of a proud in-group, those in the out-group tend to look like Yahoos. Not Houyhnhnms.

The Quoran who asked the question, below, might not have been driving at what I took it to mean. The intention may actually have had something to do with economic systems, with “capitalism” as it has developed in “the West.” It never crossed my mind, as I wrote my answer, that it was not about the social science. But I should have guessed, for people often use “economics” as a description of some system.

Ayn Rand wrote of “the separation economics and State” while James Branch Cabell referred to “The Economics of Coth” (and others) when drolly recounting one of his better character’s decisions and rationales.

Cabell’s usage strikes me as more than merely forgivable, Rand’s does not. For one thing, when Cabell wrote, “economics” was still a fairly new term in an educated person’s lexicon. “Political economy” had served for over a century, and many economists wrote tomes in Cabell’s time calling the science “Social Economy.” For another, there is only one way to take Cabell’s construction, while Rand’s “economics” could mean either the science (it should not be subsidized) or “markets and the private property order.”

I write a lot comparing varying social systems of production, distribution and consumption on Quora. But here I stick to considerations of basic explanatory theory.

Why is western economics based on self-interest?

…adapted from an answer on Quora…

It isn’t.

Self-interest is a moral concept, and economists are supposed to be Wertfrei (value-free) social scientists — if on track of value.

You might say, “but economics is all about the results of people choosing according to their own values, thus all about choices dependent upon a kind of perceived or self-constructed interest.” And I reply, “well, OK, if you must — but it is just as much a science exploring other-interest, for these selves doing their choosing also value others, and their interests in others figure into their demand and supply curves just as much as does their self-regard.”

The truth is this: the logic of choice at the heart of subjective value and marginal utility and marginal rates of substitution and satisficing and all that is not egoistic . . . according to economists. And when they say that it is — as they sometimes do, in large part because they are not always good philosophers — they err.

The brilliant Jevonsian economist P. H. Wicksteed tried to make this clear when he argued that economists are not pushing a rationale of egoism when they develop their notion of a demand schedule or draw up indifference curves, nor negating altruism, either. What they apply, he argued, is a concept of non-tuism.

This is a coinage he offered to help explain what he regarded as the basic nature of trade: when a person economizes in his purchases and asks for the highest prices possible in his sales, he may do so for egoistic or altruistic reasons, but still works to maximize the interest of the transaction, either egoistic or altruistic, when he makes those trades. (Or when she makes her trades, for one of Wicksteed’s better examples was of a housewife deciding the basic economy of the household under her charge.) Non-tuistic interest is a worthwhile concept to try to understand: see Israel M. Kirzner’s The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought (1960), for a good treatment.

But even Wicksteed did not get it exactly right, for we do sometimes trade for others’ benefit, accepting a higher price for pencils from the blind man at the corner than at the Five and Dime.*

It helps to focus not on “interest” — which, as I assert above, has too moral a component — and not on “utility” — which is unduly abstract, and gets students confused. Concentrate, instead, on the specific uses to which a good may be put. Under the theory of Grenznutzen (border use) of the Austrian School economists (from which English-language economists got their term of art marginal utility), the various uses to which a fungible good may be put, and against which value is to be understood (as dependent upon the importance of the specific use the last unit of a good decided upon has to the economic actor), can be almost any mix of self-regarding and other-regarding purposes.

In my personal economy, my first gallon of clear water goes to drink, the second and third to food preparation, the fourth to cleaning myself, the fifth to my neighbor, the sixth to my dog, the seventh to washing the dog, the eighth to washing the house, the ninth to letting the neighbor’s cow to drink, and so forth.* All of these uses satisfy me, but several also satisfy others. Do you see how useless quibbling about whose interests are being served?

The economist does not usually inquire deeply about the egoism and altruism of the goals, or uses, that are the foci of the border use (Grenznutzen) that goes into explaining the formation of prices and the rates of exchange. Because such concerns are irrelevant to what economists are usually trying to explain.

Similarly, economists rarely fret about how a person forms the value scales which place the various uses to which goods are put into order. Not because they cannot be analyzed, but because they are mostly irrelevant to what economists do.

Who is concerned? Moralists, whose traditional and self-appointed job it is to get people to change their values.

But when moralists get worked up over whether choices on the market are “too egoistic” or “not altruistic enough,” they go too far if they also castigate all economic choice as selfish. And usually they descend into a very deep error.

The error was identified clearly by Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong in his Ethische Bausteine (see Marie-Luise Schubert Kalsi, Alexius Meinong’s Elements of Ethics, 1996), where he explores the difference between subject and object, ego and alter. Of egoism and altruism, Meinong argued that, before any deep inquiry, one might think that “a value is egoistic if the subject is egoistic, altruistic if the alter is the subject. However, that this is not so can be seen in the fact that I myself have altruistic desires and valuations besides egoistic desires and valuations. Thus, no objection should be raised that there are altruistic and egoistic values for me. Then, the ego is subject of even altruistic values. But the altruistic nature of these values must be grounded on something other than the valu[ing] subject.”

The notion that economics is “based on self-interest” is actually a misguided philosophical complaint, and though I recommend Wicksteed and Kirzner and other economists to clear this up, it really is a philosophical error, and should be dealt with philosophically.


 * Yes, I am old. I like throwing around seemingly ancient examples.

N.B. In addition to the texts explicitly cited, above, one should consult


Reconsiderations

I have to confess to writing my Quora answers fairly hurriedly. It is obvious that some are better than others. This one was not great, rather poorly organized, with some sloppiness. The Meinong section should have been placed up a few paragraphs, and my problem with Wicksteed’s non-tuism is not adequately identified.

The issue lurking (as if Yog-Sothothery) behind the scenes, is this: in discussing market prices in terms of marginal utility we generally assume that the goods being traded are discrete and serve a specific set of needs, or wants. But sometimes we do trade “just to trade,” even though Adam Smith protested that he was unaware of much good being done in that vein. Human interaction is more complex than simple models can map, and, yes, the Austrian praxeological method of catallactic explanation is modeling, too. There is no way around models. There are just different sorts.

This complexity becomes clearer, amusingly enough, when you move away from mass markets and into murkier realms of barter markets, gift economies, plunder procedures, and straightforward cooperation in domestic and tribal contexts.

Much work must have been done in the manner I indicate, here, but I have not seen that work, especially amongst the Austrians.

Austrians, whose basic approach I apply to social science, are like today’s leftists in one sense, at least: just as leftists endlessly and obsessively and yammer about racism for the obvious reason that the fight against racism is the only good thing they have ever accomplished, Austrian economists grind their brand of marginal utility theory because it was, indeed, the best thing they ever accomplished. Expanding it into other domains is harder work. So that work is generally not done.

That being said, Austrians are least apt among market-oriented economists to get caught up in puerile charges of “egoism.” The self-interest notion, too, is rarely botched by Austrians in a crude way, though I do not see many in the tradition to take a deep interest in the processes by which individual actors construct and revise their own understandings of their interests.

Finally, it is indeed unfortunate that we have to deal with two quite distinct concepts of “interest”: the moral concept, in which one aims to provide an objective standard for one’s subjective (personal) value scale, and the catallactic concept, which is associated with (if not defined as) the price of loaned funds.

twv

“I’m not going to call them ‘conspiracy theories,’” said podcaster Michael Knowles about the growing reports and rumors surrounding Jeffrey Epstein, “because I guess they could be true.”

Well, that was embarrassing.

Look, I recently said something witless like this, too. But can we admit it? Conspiracy theories — conjectures as to secret schemes, plans, intentions, operations — can be true.

We are so programmed to think “ooh, conspiracy theory BAD!” that we cannot even speak logically in public.

Maybe we should all grow up.

The main trouble with conjectures regarding possible conspiracies is that they are hard to falsify. The nature of the beast. And this puts us in a sort of flapdoodlish epistemic situation. In the end, it matters most how you react to such a theory, and whether the theory is correct. Not that it counts as an “x theory.” Ah, that dreaded x!

There are a number of reasons we tend to like conspiracy theories, of course. One is that we know people to be purposeful actors as well as liars. So, realism. But only a few people can keep a secret. So, fabulism. More important, though, is that we like a good story. I think it was Iris Murdoch who wrote that “characters who plot make for well-plotted novels.”

twv

Not a few UFO theorists have noticed something very odd about their admittedly peculiar subject, the one we now think of as pertaining to “the paranormal” and “alien encounters”: the accounts vary, over time, in specifics, sure — but not much in generalities. While the look of the Others changes, they remain other in a few characteristic ways. And, especially, reported human interactions with them seem surprisingly consistent over the epochs: there is often “missing time”; experiences of “floating”; reports of telepathy and “mind control.” These are common across cultures and times and bodies of lore.

In the course of the last two centuries, the style of our interpretations of the alleged fantastic phenomena have gone from mythological/religious to Jules Verne-extramundane to stefnal-extraterrestrial. Encounters with Faërie and the Djinni, for example (not uncommon in the premodern past), and “alien abduction” scenarios (not uncommon now) are often startlingly similar to each other.

Further, encounters with beings in the sky in ancient and medieval times are often explicitly connected to the cultural expectations of the experiencers: religious at least up through the Fátima events; simple technological in the mid- and late-19th centuries; more obviously “alien” and seemingly extraterrestrial as the 20th century progressed.

Erich von Däniken has made much of this oddity, arguing that the beings whom humanity has been encountering are, well — to use the colloquial — “fucking with us.” The Trickster figure did not come from nothing.

Joseph P. Farrell suggests that the evidence here points to a psy-op, a sort of Grand Psy-Op masking the evidence of xenoterrestrials — not necessarily extraterrestrials — in a “breakaway civilization.”

Now, I noticed this cross-time commonality years ago. I had no direct experience with anything paranormal; I missed a “miracle” once by a matter of a few feet. Yet I have read quite a bit, over the years, and from my readings I noticed the common strain from folklore about wee folk and worse, to modern urban legends surrounding the UFO/alien abduction subject. But then I forgot about this connection (one has so many ideas going in and out of one’s head), and when I encountered it again recently, it sure seemed familiar.

Mere cryptomnesia, a common enough occurrence of faulty memory.

In my youth, I chalked up these the eerie echoes of high strangeness across the centuries to the night mind of our race, a susceptibility to confabulate and perhaps even hallucinate in ways that suggest Jung’s “collective unconscious.” But I also theorized that the strangely related experiences could very much be evolutionarily driven — that is, biological and life-history in origin — as in the common fear of snakes.

But I have changed my mind, recently. The rise in the number of — and even increasing government transparency about — Unidentified Flying Objects (along with Unidentified Submersible Objects, there are those, too) adds a huge ancillary data set that subtracts from the credence of the more comfortable “psychological” theories about strange encounters.

So I go back to the square one, and you may even now find me reading the Book of Enoch . . . and even stranger fare.

Note that it was my exposure to unexpectedly large amounts of credible-if-challenging testimony that got me out of my dogmatic skepticism, my almost-automated response of dismissal to each anomalous datum. What I used to regard as not requiring serious explanation, as fit only for “debunking,” now I try to regard as new information, though what to make of that information is hard to figure.

But just because one cannot explain a datum does not mean that it is worth ignoring. Indeed, one trouble with debunkers today is their readiness to cook up an explanation, however wildly improbable, that satisfies the debunkers but also throws out of court a whole host of anomalies.

Meanwhile, in between readings and viewings of documentary videos, I mull over possibilities. And the possibilities are not exactly narrow.

Yet, the most obvious conclusion is the one respectable people seem most afraid of. I have noticed how readily journalists do what Tim Poole did, last week, when they cover the current series of UFO disclosures: insist that they ARE NOT TALKING ABOUT ALIENS! 

“During the Cold War, a psy-op is infinitely more likely than we found nine alien ships. . . .”

What is interesting about this “lots of ways to explain this other than aliens” rap is that it has little to do with actual likelihood. You cannot talk reasonably about probability without some measurable data sets, and to speak of an “infinite” likelihood of non-alien explanation (as Mr. Poole did) is more out-of-your-ass talk than scientific, though it may sound science-y and reasonable.

To me it sounds like how Deists talked during the Great Awakening — very carefully.

What we are dealing with is “subjective probability,” a pure matter of personal cognitive comfort.

Now, some UFO sightings are undoubtedly natural phenomena — and by that we must include natural events beyond just swamp gas. The Hessdalen sightings sure seem less like technology and more like electromagnetic “ball lightning” (or similar), anyway.

But the accounts that really puzzle are not so easily explainable within the confines of normal science. Most of the UFOs we are interested in are said to exhibit material surfaces — that is, to appear as solid, in ways that the Hessdalen lights do not appear to exhibit.

What interests me is Tim Poole’s reassuring tones one minute — talking how it is “infinitely more likely” that what we are witnessing in the Bob Lazar case is a psy-op rather than “alien” craft — and then providing a familiar “cognitive bias” explanations the next . . . all the while claiming not to question Bob Lazar’s honesty. This seems bizarre to me. I have watched the recent documentary on Lazar, and the subsequent Joe Rogan interview . . .

. . . and it seems to me that Lazar is either lying, and therefore part of a psy-op; programmed into a carefully constructed delusion, and therefore part of a more ominous psy-op; or telling something close to the truth, and we are in Terra Incognita. Mr. Poole, breezing right over this, seems to want both to reassure us of Nothing To See Here and still be nice to a testifying whistleblower whose claims have become increasingly credible, over the years, in macro contexts as well as in micro*.

But this question of reassurance: is that the key to understanding how people are handling the current info-seep?

I suspect it is. Most of us do not want to be publicly humiliated as a UFO nut.

But it is wrong-headed. Given the reports that come to us, aliens may be the least of our worries, that is, if mass panic is what we are really concerned about.

For what is the real likelihood, here?

If it is just governments screwing with us in a Deep State Psy-Op of the first water, this suggests a malignity in our governments that should deeply unsettle any democrat or republican (an anarchist might more likely merely raise an eyebrow). It would mean that the Deep State is perpetrating the greatest fraud in history, instigating abductions, fly-bys, druggings, and worse along with sending mixed signals, publicly, to foul up everything and therefore create an astounding elite/rub class division, all to . . . fake out the Russians?

If it is aliens, on the other hand . . .

…a popular and quite comic meme…

. . . then the Deep State has been hiding information from most of the rest of government, from the American citizenry, and from the world, and for a long time. Why? Well, likely to protect us.

But what of the alleged aliens themselves?

Well, they are undoubtedly not to be trusted . . .

Claims to have first-hand knowledge of “aliens.”

. . . but they appear to have been at the margins of our civilization for a very long time, and could be doing worse . . . but apparently aren’t. Whatever it is that they are doing.

If — and I realize for most this seems like a big IF — what we are dealing with here cannot be ascribed solely to natural phenomena, and also not to our government messing with our heads . . . and it is not aliens . . . exactly . . . think of what else it could be:

  • Clandestine xenoterrestrial civilization, of recent origin;
  • Clandestine xenoterrestrial civilization of ancient, even deeply prehistoric origin;
  • Time travelers;
  • The real players in our Simulation.

I submit that at least three of these four scenarios** are each more disturbing than The Government Is Hiding Aliens.

  • A recent breakaway civilization, whether Prussian, Nazi, South American, or North American, suggests a disturbing threat level.
  • An ancient, non-mammalian race hiding under the oceans, or in Antarctica, or even on the Moon? Freaky.
  • And, well, extra-dimensionals playing a game in which we are likely mere NPC’s? Maybe Hindus would grok it, but Christians and Jews wouldn’t, would they?

Given the unsettling nature of these even more “out-there” possibilities, mightn’t we non-experts recognize this in our reaction? A word to the wise; a word to Mr. Poole.

That being said, I should admit that not all of Tim Poole’s UFO speculations are valueless, for he was surely right to remind people who profess to yearn for the bizarre that an alien civilization would be truly . . . alien.

Most ufologists I encounter online seem impatient or annoyed with the current disclosure talk; almost no one in the UFO community believes that the Government — some people in government, anyway — do not know what is going on regarding UFOs. The disclosure project at present is obviously a way to let normal well-educated (snooty) Americans (like me), who have at best treated the subject as fit only for sf lit, to adjust themselves to a greater and somewhat disturbing reality. Slowly. And the project (run, for better or worse, by the To the Stars Academy folks) appears also to be a way to allow government bureaus and military personnel to get over their fears of shame and backlash, and thus allow the biggest disclosures to take place.

As for me, well, I am willing to be convinced of anything, provided there is some evidence, and provided alternative, less outré hypotheses cannot better explain all the data.

Even, yes, the Players at the Simulation story. . . .

And remember, neither my preferences or yours are irrelevant to the truth.

twv


* Lazar’s story keeps on checking out. A number of the unknown things Lazar spoke about, initially, to George Knapp, have eventually checked out. And, in the course of investigation, it was shown that the government had almost successfully erased Lazar’s educational and work record. Erased.

** I do have one other conjecture that makes surface sense, but it suffers for being on the other side of Occam’s razor.

Perhaps we should define the difference between the political-cultural left and right in terms of the differing grounds upon which they become unhinged:

  • Rightists go crazy in defense of insider hierarchy, and of self and tribe.
  • Leftists run round the bend in defense of outsiders as well as in opposition to insider hierarchies.

It is fun to watch them, as if a sort of madhouse carnival. It is especially entertaining because leftists and rightists flip orientation — often erratically — depending on propinquity to power.

This allows left-wingers to say things like “Stalin was actually a right-winger” and right-wingers to call Nixon “a leftist.” And with plausibility.

One of the comedies of politics.

twv

Seeing through the political realm since 1977.

Do efforts to eliminate class in society usually just result in the creation of new classes and, if so, why?

as answered by TWV on Quora:

It is not clear what concept of class can stand the tests of analysis and debate. See Joseph Schumpeter’s essay on class for a decent and politically unbiased discussion. (I wrote a foreword to one ebook reprint of it. I am not sure it is still available.)

But let us pretend, for sake of this question, that common sense class notions are robust enough to work with. And that the reader will follow along with me as I present the following simple argument.

Attempts to eliminate classes, so far, have been political, governmental. That is, they involve the State.

Which means: force.

Sociologist Max Weber, in “Politics as a Vocation” (1919), wrote that “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” — that is, “a compulsory association which organizes domination [and] has been successful in seeking to monopolize the legitimate use of physical force as a means of domination within a territory.” Barack Obama scandalized America by repeating this basic definition in 2008. (Dumb America, of course.)

So, why is this important?

Attempts by the State to break apart classes and create one mass of humanity must fail, because those using the ostensibly legitimate force are quite distinct from those being forced. Indeed, the use of force is the separator that distinguishes so clearly that even dullards recognize that a class demarcator is in operation. It is “sticky” in all imaginations.

I bring force into the discussion because physical force is the micro-social, transactional factor that creates the most basic class distinction. It is not merely the case that one group of people, in the State, seek and work to destroy all other class distinction, leaving none left but what remains, the State/non-state. Force-relations draw the strongest line with which to separate people, at least when the directions of force go mainly one direction, between groups. The groups demarcated by force-relations constitute a new class. Force, aggression — this is the most salient social factor, stronger even than matters of family and clan (so important to Schumpeter’s theory), race, language, or generation.

Now, States usually try to provide a meta-class structure, setting terms with all perceived classes in society. This not only strengthens the State, in one sense, it does so by limiting itself, since people will still align themselves and act within the context of many state classes. These other classes provide countervailing power against the State, which often serves to limit the use of force by State actors.

But once the State seeks to destroy all other classes, the number of alternate social systems to oppose the State vanishes, and society goes into a feedback loop. We then witness a maximizing of aggression and interference by the State, turning people into stooges of the State, finking on each other in fear of being finked on first.

And worse.

Human beings naturally form groups. They must, to work and achieve, sure, but also merely to feel human. But in a society with a State program to eliminate classes, this natural, human sociality turns sour, and we almost create a new man. The human being in a one-class mass society is post-moral, fear-ridden, hubristic, anti-social. An ironic twist on the New Socialist Man prophecy? Well, it was predicted in the negative form, by socialism’s enemies in the 19th century. It came true in the Soviet Union and other failed Communist “experiments.”

And the horrifying upshot has, I am told, been exquisitely depicted on the TV show Chernobyl.

The political/bureaucratic/military attempt to create a classless society creates a class system much worse than the classes we see in our freer societies.


…a few further considerations:

Though I rely heavily on force as a basic distinguisher of class, in the answer above, I do not wish to convey the idea that it is the only distinguisher.

Indeed, in most societies at present, the State works mightily to try to muddy up and even extinguish that class indicator.

One way it does this is by the circulation of personnel along with the circulation of elite positions. Indeed, America’s founders were much concerned about this, and so pushed “rotation in office” as a way to prevent the formation of a permanent governmental class.

Another way that the early American federal republic resisted the formation of a hard state/society class split was with “the Spoils System,” in which the winners of an election would fill many government posts as rewards to supporters. This meant there was no permanent class. But the open greed and clamor for position was ugly. And corrupt. So a permanent civil service was formed. And with it, a new class.

Of course, the class structure in America and most of the West is based largely on cognitive skills, with what I call the Moderate Brights forming the main pool of people to get placed into government. And the tendency of classes to congeal around family and clan success (as Schumpeter argued) is offset somewhat by the public school system, higher education and its grants economy, and a general credentialist selection system, which technocratic progressives pushed to replace market productivity as the means for social mobility — and which they use to calcify class structure in a society under a dirigiste State.

Another method to counteract the separation of classes along what could be called the Aggression Line is ideology, which includes morality and religion. By sharing norms and myths and rites, a sharp distinction between State workers on the one hand and citizens on the other can be fuzzed up, allowing the wheels of commerce and community to flow like water around the rocks of the State.

Indeed, ideology is of paramount importance, for it is ideology that turns the water of power into the wine of authority — it is ideology that paints on the halo of legitimacy.

Further, one should always remember that human beings are naturally hierarchical animals. And though the purveyors of Equality über alles might seem to be seeking to upend all accommodations to in-group/out-group and top/bottom distinctions, their eagerness to embrace the harsh hierarchies and class distinctions of Actually Existing Anti-Class Classism belies their explicit approaches.

It is hard not to judge them as mere insurrectionists, seeking to place themselves in some advantageous class position, with their preferred in-group well-ensconced, and their place in its hierarchy secured.

Is that too reductionist? Harsh?

twv

Everyone’s got troubles. But what separates personal and family difficulties from “social problems”?

Social problems, as a genre of concern and topic of discussion, form in at least two ways.

One is when a specific variety of troubles experienced by individuals and sub-groups in society appear salient because of their sheer number, called to our attention by their similarities. When extreme problems are of the same type and shared by many people, then we regard them as “social” even if non-similar and widely varied personal problems far outnumber the similar ones.

Another is when government, spurred by activists or politicians or both, try to solve these problems with policy, by heeding politicians’ hortatory to “come together” and present a united front, etc. And use the threat and application of force to redistribute wealth, set up bureaucracies, and regiment people’s behavior.

The second usually only happens after the first. 

An example of this trend can be seen in suicide. My neighbor’s suicide may very well be a family and community tragedy, a cause for sorrow and anguish. But only when seven or seven hundred unrelated people in the community kill themselves do we have a social problem that politicians and activists exploit with some plausibility.

Another example would be drugs. If I overdose on an obscure prescription drug, that is a personal and family matter. But if I overdose on a common prescription or recreational drug that other users also abuse to the point of tragedy, then it sure seems social.

That is how we get “mental health” crusades and the War on Drugs.

But in both cases other troubles suffered by individuals far outnumber these troubles. The disparity of reaction should be clear, however, We only publicly focus on what we can easily identify. That makes the difference. Indeed, we must find a pattern to see a problem worth solving; similarities provide the most obvious pattern.

Thus, what we have here is a focusing problem. Because we tend not to even see the most common pains and sufferings of most people most of the time, we do not regard them as social problems worth collective action: they are too disparate, not fit to be organized against with a blanket “solution.”

This blindness to the bulk of would-be “social problems” is probably a blessing. 

Most people solve most problems personally, locally. And considering the common failures of most public programs — as in Prohibition and the War on Drugs — it may very well be that the real tragedy is the diversion of our attention away from personal and local problem-solving to public policy and politics and government. 

So, social problems are identified by means of cognitive short-cuts that do not appear soberly rational. And, considering the usual policy outcomes, we should ask the next question: isn’t governments’ overstepping their zones of competence the real social problem?

twv

Remember President Barack Obama’s annoying “You didn’t build that”?

Today I watched President Donald Trump “explain” how awful trade deficits are. In that explanation he basically said to China, “You didn’t build that.”

The line should still be familiar. Obama had purloined it from the lips of Senator Elizabeth Warren. With this argumentative gambit, these two politicians revealed themselves for what they are, demagogues out to fan the flames of resentment and entitlement. In trying to give to government the credit for the entrepreneurial accomplishments of businessfolk, they were honing an agenda: de-legitimize the achievements of the successful the better to take their wealth away.

But while Obama gave to government the credit for business successes, Trump gave America the credit for China’s.

His logic?

Trump said previous presidents had allowed China to get away with trade policies that disfavored the U.S. to such an extent that no future deal could be 50/50; then, that a deal had been made, but China changed it, so he put up the wall of high tariffs.

Next, Trump boasted of the huge increase in government revenues from his taxes, er, tariffs.

And then the kicker: “We rebuilt China because they got so much money” under freer trade.

That is how Trump had America take the credit for Chinese growth.

And he was more than implying that there is something wrong with Americans helping Chinese grow in this manner.

Trump seems not to understand that when people trade (it is not, really, countries trading) both sides gain. The farmers who support Trump can imagine selling more agricultural product had President Xi’s own protectionist measures been lower, and it is on the basis of those lost opportunities that Trump makes his pitch to American farmers. But it is Chinese consumers who have the greater cause to complain for past Chinese protectionism, for had Xi allowed more trade, China would have grown even faster. Because of all the exchanges. 

Like in all trade, neither side to a trade is irrelevant. China could with just as much justification take credit for American progress in all that past trade.

Every instance of which was an advance for both sides.

The Chinese built what they built, with American help. And could’ve built more had their government gotten out of the way.

And right now, with Trump’s high tariffs in place, American consumers will have to pay more for what we buy from China.

And elsewhere.

Trump is apparently trying to get Xi to take down his protectionist barriers by putting up American barriers. And if Trump succeeds, we do indeed all win. If he fails, we all lose. Meanwhile, we are hurting as much as the Chinese.

And what Trump is saying encourages resentment and economic superstition. So, even if he wins, what we may end up with is more resentment and a greater reservoir of protectionist sentiment in the American electorate.

And that almost guarantees disaster.

twv