Mr. JTK Goes To Washington!

Well not Washington really, but I went to county sponsored community meeting which is almost as bad.

JTK at county sponsered community meeting.

Lynette and I recently attended a community meeting where the County Manager and his shill (I believe they call them “consultants”) were explaining a new proposed “fee” for property owners.

(Yeah, yeah, I know what some of you are shouting now. Shut up and let me type…)

Of course as many at the meeting recognized a government fee is really a tax. And there is a law in place saying that our property taxes can only be increased so much each year, and of course the public officials want to spend more so they look for ways to get around the law.

Our neighbors pointed out that this was obviously a new tax and our taxes are supposed to be capped.

The two “gentleman” making the presentation patiently explained that the courts had decided that this kind of bill legally qualified as a fee, not a tax, and was not subject to the same legal requirements as a tax.

“That doesn’t make it right,” Lynette told them.

They stopped short and their eyes went wide. I’m not kidding – they looked at her as if she was from another planet. I guess the shorthand is to say their jaws dropped, I believe their mouths visibly relaxed.

County Manager and his shill react ot Lynette's keen observation.

What could it possibly mean to say that having a measure blessed by a court didn’t make it right?

This was the first time I’d been to such a meeting in many years and I decided that my neighbors might not be ready to fully digest an allusion to Dred Scott at this precise moment…

Instead I offered a few short and simple (and very polite) arguments why the “gentlemen” were obviously full of shit.

Will Wilkinson – It’s not a prison if you never want to leave. (part 3)

Consider three characters in The Shawshank Redemption: Andy Dufresne, the innocent inmate; Ellis ‘Red’ Redding, the convicted murderer; Brooks Halten, the longest-serving inmate.

Andy is innocent and wants to be free.  During his long escape, he suffers a lot of brutality, but he submits to it in the service of his long-term goal (as well as trying to preserve his own sense of humanity).

Red is guilty and has served a long while, but he would like to be paroled and go free again.  He very dutifully recites his confession of remorse at each parole hearing and is always rejected, except for the last one.

Brooks is guilty of something, but it was a long time ago, and at this point, he has known the inside of the prison far more than anything outside the prison.  He does not want to be paroled.  He would much rather live in the prison for the rest of his life.  When he is paroled, he commits suicide rather than face a life on the outside.

Now, this may be a strange question to ask, but bear with me.  Is Brooks actually in prison at all in the film?  I don’t mean, is he physically inside of a prison building.  Obviously, he is.  But if a prison is a coercive institution, one that exerts control over people and prevents them from leaving, then Brooks is not in a prison.  He would never try to leave.  No one would ever be called upon to forcefully keep him there.  It’s a completely irrelevant consideration.  So, if that’s what prison is, he’s not in one.

On the other hand, maybe prison shouldn’t be understood in terms of coercion.  Maybe we’ve been suckered into thinking of it that way because of the clever propaganda of libertarians over the years who point out all the bars and guards and fences and razor wire, and so on.  But really, all that is secondary.  A prison, like society in general, does not rely on coercion.  Prisoners are not routinely trying to escape.  Guards are not routinely gunning them down or tackling them as they try to scale the fences.  It happens, but it’s very rare and can’t be the underlying cause of what makes a prison function.  What really makes a prison function is authority.  Prisoners respect authority.  They have buy-in.  They see that their lives function better when they don’t cause disruptions.  When they cooperate, they don’t even have to worry about being stuck in solitary.

So on that account, Brooks is actually in prison, and that makes a whole lot more sense, doesn’t it?  And similarly, we can say that Andy and Red are in prison, too, because they largely cooperate and voluntarily submit to authority.  There were a couple misunderstandings that occurred here and there, but those were clearly the exceptions, not the rule.

Do you find any of that remotely convincing?  Well, you shouldn’t because clearly prisons are coercive institutions by design.  And anyone who says otherwise is making an elaborate joke or they’ve gone down a very weird philosophical path.

And there’s nothing different conceptually about how society at large operates than a prison.  It may be a very low-security prison, one with a tremendous amount of freedom compared to Guantanamo.  But if political authority is at the base of each, then it means the only difference between the two is the likelihood of coming to the attention of those coercive authorities.

The reasons for people giving their consent to such institutions, whether it’s a literal prison facility or a fairly liberal country with an unreviewable presidential kill list, is a combination of what Orwell and Huxley taught.  People are conditioned in ways that make certain concepts literally inconceivable and to face the threat of punishment if they disobey (the stick), and they’re also conditioned to gain pleasure from feeling part of a larger project and feeling that they can pursue their own meaningful goals if they stay mentally dulled in the process.  Both aspects are a part of the social conditioning that makes hundreds of millions of people here and billions around the world ‘buy-in’ to the idea that submitting to others is in their own best interest.

 

Will Wilkinson – It’s not a prison if you never want to leave. (part 2)

The question of how society functions in relation to authority is not a new one, of course.  Wilkinson’s conclusion is that coercion does not really explain why society holds together most of the time.  And I think he’s actually right, but for a different reason than he thinks.

Étienne de La Boétie, a 16th-century jurist and writer, considered the question of how authority can be so effective when it’s so weak.  In “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Against-One,” he asks how it comes to be that tyrants, who are only men, not much stronger than any other man, can hold sway over entire populations, even populations that don’t especially like being ruled by a tyrant.

“FOR THE PRESENT I should to understand how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him. Surely a striking situation! Yet it is so common that one must grieve the more and wonder the less at the spectacle of a million men serving in wretchedness, their necks under the yoke, not constrained by a greater multitude than they, but simply, it would seem, delighted and charmed by the name of one man alone whose power they need not fear, for he is evidently the one person whose qualities they cannot admire because of his inhumanity and brutality toward them. A weakness characteristic of human kind is that we often have to obey force; we have to make concessions; we ourselves cannot always be the stronger.”

Now, Wilkinson has a ready answer for this, I think.  Clearly, the oppressed multitudes have a lot of “buy-in” to tyrannical rule.  They recognize the tremendous benefits that authority provides in coordinating complex social activities.  Of course, being thrown into a dungeon is inconvenient, but they should look at the big picture and not get fixated on such coercion as the explanation.

And indeed, Boetie would agree on that point.  Most tyrants of the 16th century were not riding around in futuristic power armor.  They didn’t have magical swords that granted them protection from rebellion.  They didn’t have the ability to command dragons.  They were simply human beings like anyone else.  And even if you took into account the various people that carried out their orders, coercion itself would not explain the situation.  The whole of government was always outnumbered by orders of magnitude, and yet, people voluntarily complied with even terrible regimes.

I think that this agreement from Boetie actually shows how little Wilkinson can explain, though.  Because he’s right that our current society doesn’t function because the government sends thugs to your house to intimidate you into complying.  (People pay their taxes without a lot of grumbling, and many would feel guilty if they seriously considered cheating on them.  Only a few truly do it out of fear of the consequences.)  It functions because people voluntarily comply with it and believe at some level that it makes sense to do so.  But if that’s the same explanation for the rule of brutally coercive regimes as well, and I think Boetie’s clearly right on that, then Wilkinson doesn’t really have much argument against brutal regimes.  If people have ‘buy-in,’ then clearly coercion is not a key explanation for the success of brutal regimes, and it would be silly to sit there and criticize their coercion as if it had much of anything to do with how society actually functions.

If, instead, he can recognize that coercion requires more than the buy-in of those receiving it to be justified, then he could also understand why fairly liberal countries like the United States and France and Japan are as unjustified in the use of coercion as North Korea is.

Will Wilkinson – It’s not a prison if you never want to leave.

In “Authority! How the #@%$! Does It Work?”  Will Wilkinson deploys the following argument to convince people that the state’s authority is legitimate:

 

  1. People want to engage in complex social projects of many kinds.
  2. Complex social projects require a certain amount of coordination in order to succeed.
  3. Authority of some kind is required for the right kind of coordination to occur.
  4. Because people recognize (1), (2), and (3), they voluntarily submit to the relevant authority. Coercion is never required in ordinary cases. (Prime examples provided: parades; musical performances involving more than one musician; basketball teams have coaches.)
  5. Political authority is just a variety of authority in general.
  6. Since authority in general isn’t fundamentally coercive, political authority must not be fundamentally coercive.

 

[Note: Wilkinson is using ‘authority’ in the most general sense, and so I’m not going to spend time dissecting all the various ways we might account for it.  I accept his general characterization for the purposes of this analysis.]

 

But Wilkinson goes a step further and addresses cases where coercion *does* come into play.  Here, he seems to essentially be arguing that people are committed to accept coercion against them because of their buy-in to whatever complex social project they’re already engaged in.  So, for example, if you become part of a basketball team, you have committed to promoting the success of the team (i.e., winning games) and all that is required to achieve that goal, but primarily what you’ve committed to is to submit to the authority of the coach, or whoever else is properly authorized to coordinate your actions and the actions of your teammates to achieve this shared goal.

 

So then, Wilkinson’s move is to move from those projects that people voluntarily and actively commit to and suggest that being a part of society is pretty much exactly the same thing.  Therefore, you’ve already submitted to whatever the appropriate authority is for society as a whole by virtue of being a part of society.  It’s essentially social contract theory by the backdoor.  When the authorities use coercion on you, they’re really just saying, “This is what you’ve already agreed is for the best.  We’re just doing what you’ve asked us to do in order to achieve the complex social goals that you’re committed to.  You’re welcome.”

 

But I think there’s an easy way to test if Wilkinson is actually serious about this argument.  No doubt, he has participated in many complex social projects with various colleagues and/or friends over the years.  Let’s say that it’s contributing essays to a volume for publication.  It’s not the most complex project ever, but if it involves more than half a dozen people, it can definitely fall apart without some serious coordination and, yes, authority of some kind.  So, how about if one of the members of this team suggested the following.

 

We’re all committed to this project here, and we all agree that we need some kind of authority in place.  And any authority we have will need some way to actually enforce its judgments.  Otherwise, we might simply ignore it and attempt to proceed with the project however we each individually see fit.  Of course, we’re all committed to the success of this project, so I’m not suggesting that anyone would deliberately sabotage it.  But it seems best that we agree ahead of time that the authority we designate have the power to use whatever amount of force, up to and including lethal force, to compel us to coordinate our efforts in the most effective way.  How does that sound to everyone?

 

I’m sure that Wilkinson would have no interest in agreeing to such a thing.  It seems perfectly reasonable that he would much prefer to simply exit the project if it got to the point where he seriously disagreed with how it was turning out.  (Of course, there might be contractual obligations that would result, but that’s a far cry from being coerced into remaining and working on the project against one’s will.)  It’s hard to imagine that he would think that lethal coercion would actually *improve* the chances of the project’s success.  And it has nothing to do with the buy-in of each person involved.

 

Political authority is a different animal altogether because it disallows exit options that would be a natural part of every other kind of authority relationship.  If basketball coaches had the authority to lock up players who disagreed with them, or steal money from them, or even execute them, no one would seriously claim that this was good for basketball or that it was no big deal because players already had buy-in.  The truth is, no one would play on such a team (except possibly in North Korea).

 

The fact that Wilkinson doesn’t seek out coercive arrangements in his own voluntarily entered complex social projects indicates to me that he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying.

Law and Order, Part 5

Here we are at the end of what essentially amounts to an apologetics guide to dealing with a particular type of heretic.  That is, as devout libertarians, we have a burning zeal to reach the heathen masses.  And some of the heathen are more heathen than others.  The law-and-order cult is a particularly virulent form, and it not only has a long history to it, but it also has some of the most vocal advocates in today’s political culture, especially at a grassroots level.

So, let me take a break from the dispassionate analysis for a moment and suggest that, to some degree, resorting to insults and ridicule may be one of the stronger strategies.  Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that anyone engage in ad hominem attacks as ordinarily understood.  Something like, “You support the cops only because you’re such a pathetic coward,” is not going to be effective, even if the person in question happens to be a pathetic coward.  One can be a pathetic coward and justifiably fear and detest the police, too.

But shaming and ridicule serve a useful function when they’re focused on identifying both how poorly the position is defended and how disgusting many of its conclusions are.  For example, people often reference Godwin’s Law as some kind of prohibition on comparing anyone’s ideas to those of the Nazis.  But obviously, if someone were to explicitly say, “Hey, let’s round up Jews and gypsies and homosexuals, brand them, and then ship them off to detention centers,” then clearly they should be compared to the Nazis and rejected and shamed for the same reasons.

What libertarians recognize better than anyone is that outright slavery, a la antebellum South, and today’s world, where people can spend decades in prison for possessing a plant (or selling a book; RIP Irwin Schiff), is on a continuum, not a distinctly different type of existence.  So, when you hear people advocate forcibly tattooing undocumented immigrants when they are arrested by the border patrol or ICE, it’s appropriate to call out the fascist nature of that act, even if you know the person saying it won’t support gas chambers and so on.

But that kind of comparison takes the right kind of person, the right kind of target, and the right set of circumstances to be really effective and not make one sound like an unhinged extremist (more so than usual).  More likely to hit home is to key in on aspects of the traditions that the law-and-order crowd are happy to associate with and then point out how they’re constantly on the wrong side of that history.  For example, the rhetoric of the British officials prior to the War of Independence is pretty standard law-and-order stuff, and it almost perfectly mirrors how modern-day conservatives talk about respect for the police, respect for the law, respect for authority in general, and so on.  Probably those who are more adept at marketing will come up with better means, but I’ll just suggest referring to such arguments as Redcoat logic.  Work within the system, don’t resist authority, submit to all orders immediately and without question, and generally just make sure that you know your place.

Of course, this is exactly what was said to the colonists even as they were doing the exact opposite.  Point this out relentlessly.  Force them to disavow their heritage if they want to hold on to this mentality.  Make it clear how much they have betrayed their own country’s history and turned the nation’s founders into traitors and scofflaws.  They’ll resist this, but unfortunately for them, the history is pretty clear here.

Another way of getting at this is to take their own rhetoric about the 2nd amendment and get them to see where it leads.  For conservatives of the Tea Party variety, the 2nd amendment is a bulwark against a corrupt government.  Its intent is to empower ordinary people to physically resist and threaten the power of the (federal) government if necessary.  And if the 2nd amendment were ever in jeopardy of being overturned (which it’s clearly not, nor will it be anytime soon, but they continually believe that it is, so this is perfectly legitimate speculation and nowhere near unrealistic from their perspective), ask them what would justify resisting gun confiscation at that point.  Most of them will ‘Like’ comments that imply (or outright state) that anyone coming to get their guns will pay the ultimate price for doing so.  Ask them how that fits with the rest of what they supposedly believe about the law and about their duty to comply with it at all times, no matter what.  This is very likely the one time they will have to admit to an exception.  That admission is a key to undermining the rest of what they think on this question.

The line of thought here is that Authority generates Order, and Order allows for the protection of important attributes of society (Sanctity) while also allowing for Liberty, provided that Liberty doesn’t conflict with any of the other three.  So, Liberty ends up dead last and always subordinate in relation to other commitments.  The real problem here is the causal understanding of how these elements relate.  Liberty ends up as an afterthought, something that you perhaps hope to get but that really has to wait for everyone else to get theirs first.  That’s nowhere near how LnO advocates would normally present themselves.  Get them to realize that they’ve placed Liberty as a consequence, rather than a foundation, of a healthy society.

Finally, you will occasionally run into people who openly recognize that what they’re advocating is a form of ‘might makes right.’  Not so much that they actually believe that might makes right, but that they realize that that is how things work, practically, and so, they have adjusted themselves to that world and are willing to figure out how things work best without getting deluded by some idealized view of the world.  These people are actually some of the easiest to deal with, even if you can’t convince them to change their mind.  They’re honest enough to recognize that the legal system and law enforcement in general amounts to bullying, and they don’t attempt to apply any shiny moral veneer to it.  It stinks, but it stinks less than all the alternatives.

These people are at least potentially open to being shown an alternative.  They don’t have an emotional investment in how things are.  They aren’t going to go through any life-shattering crisis if it turns out that the apparatus of arbitrary forces we live with doesn’t actually hold society back from the abyss.  Encourage them, don’t insult them, don’t try to shame them.  Praise them for their honesty.  And then give it time for them to open their eyes a bit.

Please feel free to share any success stories or any lessons on what not to do as you try to apply these ideas in the wild.

Thanks for reading.

Zwolinski’s Soft Head/Soft Heart Argument For A Basic Income Guarantee

Matt Zwolinski has a recent  article in the Washington Post wherein he asserts that it’s insulting to even suggest that poverty is often the result of personal failings. He starts by noting that many Americans have a problem with the idea of the government taking money form them to hand to others with no strings attached:

Too often in the United States, welfare comes with strings attached. Yes, Americans are willing to help the poor; but they aren’t quite willing to trust them. After all, a lot of Americans still believe that people fall into poverty because there’s something wrong with them. Poverty is the material reflection of an internal moral failure.

And so, many of us believe that whatever aid we give to the poor should not be a “handout.” It must be conditioned on the poor correcting the personal failings that got them into poverty in the first place. We’ll help you take care of your children, but only if you get a job. We’ll help you buy food, but only with food stamps that we know you can’t spend on alcohol or tobacco.

So now one would naturally expect that Zwolinski will explain why this thinking is wrong, why it’s simply not the case that moral failings contribute to poverty, and thus no justification for thinking aid should be rendered conditionally. No such argument is made in the article.

Is there any reason to think that moral failings contribute substantially to poverty? Bryan Caplan makes a persuasive case that they do.

When someone asks for your support, it’s natural to wonder, “Why do you need my support in the first place?”  Some answers are better than others.  If your friend asks you to pay for his lunch, “I was just mugged” is a better reason than “I already spent my whole paycheck on beer.”  If your girlfriend misses your birthday, “My car and phone both broke down” is a better reason than “I forgot.”  If a co-worker goes home early and asks you to cover for him, “I have the flu” is a better reason than “I want to play Skyrim.”

The key difference: If there are reasonable steps the person could take – or could have taken – to avoid his problem.  Your friend didn’t have to spend all his money on beer.  Your girlfriend could have put your birthday on her calendar.  Your co-worker could wait to play Skyrim.  These steps may not be appealing, but they are reasonable. There are grey areas, but you can usually tell which is which.

I propose to use the same standard to identify the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.  Thedeserving poor are those who can’t take – and couldn’t have taken – reasonable steps to avoid poverty. The undeserving poor are those who can take – or could have taken – reasonable steps to avoid poverty.  Reasonable steps like: Work full-time, even if the best job you can get isn’t fun; spend your money on food and shelter before you get cigarettes or cable t.v.; use contraception if you can’t afford a child.  A simple test of “reasonableness”: If you wouldn’t accept an excuse from a friend, you shouldn’t accept it from anyone.

If I sound harsh, notice: by my standards, many of the poor are clearly deserving: low-skilled workers in the Third World, children of poor or irresponsible parents, the severely handicapped. Still, on reflection, many people we think of as “poor” turn out to be undeserving.

Let’s start with healthy adults in the First World.  Even the least-skilled full-time jobs pay more than enough for adults to comfortably support themselves.  In the U.S., the average income for janitors is about $25,000/year; the average for maids is about $21,000.  A household with one janitor and one maid averages $46,000, enough to put them at the 96th percentile of the world income distribution – and well above the U.S. poverty line.  Even Americans below the poverty line typically possess a long list of luxuries that the Kings of France would have envied: 80% have air conditioning, nearly three-quarters own a car, two-thirds have cable or satellite t.v., one-third have a plasma or LCD t.v.  My point isn’t that all healthy adults in the First World do enjoy such living standards, but that there are reasonable steps they can take – or could have taken – to do so.

Caplan further points out that even if you have a more expansive view of the proper role of government, than libertarians do, “…you should still see a big difference between forcing taxpayers to help starving kids, and forcing taxpayers to help irresponsible adults.”

Zwolinski has debated these points with Caplan on the web, offering:

[T]he mere fact that there is a valid moral distinction to be made does not entail that we want our public policies to make it.  It is, after all, difficult to discern between the deserving and the undeserving – maybe especially for governments, but for private charities too.

But Caplan points out it’s really not all that difficult to make such distinctions.

But on reflection, distinguishing the deserving from the undeserving poor is no harder than a thousand other moral distinctions we routinely make.  Here are three plausible approaches:

1. Asking “Who is poor through no fault of their own?”  The leading answers, of course, are (a) children whose parents can’t or won’t take care of them, and (b) severely handicapped adults.  The common thread is that both groups have such low productivity that they even if they work hard, they won’t be able to support themselves.  It’s tempting to add people who are too old to work, but we should resist temptation.  They could have provided for their own retirement if they’d saved responsibly and prudently bought insurance.

2. Asking “Who is poor by their own fault?”  The leading candidates are (a) unemployed adults who could at least find a low-paid, unpleasant job, (b) people who lose their jobs for tardiness, absenteeism, or insubordination, and (c) people who abuse alcohol and drugs.  If the poor want subsidized health care rather than income, we should add smoking, obesity, and unsafe sex to the list of behaviors that make them undeserving.

3. Asking, “Who is poor because their rights have been violated?”  Crime victims, slaves and former slaves, people punished for breaking unjust laws, and would-be immigrants are all good candidates.  Two caveats: (a) In most of these cases, the victimizer should certainly be first in line to help, and (b) We should exclude cases where victimization could have been avoided or heavily mitigated by prudent behavior or buying insurance.

And Caplan explains why this matters:

…if you think reasonable people could disagree here, it’s an argument against forced charity.  There’s always a presumption against initiating the use of force against a peaceful person.  “Any morally reasonable person would agree that I’m forcing you to help the deserving poor” at least arguably overcomes this presumption.  “Who knows whether the people I’m forcing you to help are deserving?” does not.

Zwolinski wants your money to be handed to other individuals. Are they deserving or your help? He simply characterizes the very question as insulting:

Paternalism isn’t just ineffective; it’s insulting. It presumes that the poor are incapable of managing their own lives. And it requires a great deal of invasive and degrading snooping on the government’s part to ensure that the poor are living up to the demands we’ve placed on them. Cash transfers, in contrast, give recipients the resources and responsibility to take charge of their own lives.

Here he seems to be saying that handing individuals unearned cash makes them behave more responsibly, but I see little reason to assume this is so. Or perhaps he means that they’ll have to take responsibility for their own lives because there will be noting more forthcoming from the public trough? Well 1) then simply removing the trough would make them take responsibility, and 2) it’s hard to credit the idea that proponents wouldn’t push for ever more benefits when poverty persisted in many families due to poor decisions. Suppose a family of five is given a BIG of $30,000 per year, which would put them just above the poverty level. To minimize paternalism they are handed a check for the full $30K on January 1st. Further suppose that by the 4th of July some significant number of families have little or none of their BIG cash remaining, due to decisions that didn’t work out well, and so face 6 months well below the poverty line. So, now what? I don’t believe that the BIG proponents aren’t coming back for another bite at the apple. I don’t believe the offer to simply *replace* the current welfare system is credible.

Reaching the end of Zwolinski’s article we find, oddly enough, that he isn’t really promoting a BIG any more because even he sees that it probably isn’t viable. Instead he says the government should just move toward such a system by turning existing welfare benefits into cash grants. Now would be an awkward time to mention that such steps fail to produce the supposed crucial benefit of a BIG – eliminating the perverse disincentive to work that the existing welfare programs create – and thus converting such programs to cash benefits really shouldn’t count as moving toward a BIG. In any case, he doesn’t mention that.

So the whole thrust of his argument in this article is just that all inconveniences currently entailed in receiving public assistance should be removed because it’s simply insulting to hold that existing poverty in the US could be significantly due to poor choices.

It seems clear to me that Caplan is correct, that most American adults can avoid poverty by simply making reasonable choices, and that those who fail to do so should be at the bottom of the list for even private charity. I oppose state welfare, but even if you believe it’s necessary you should still see how criminally wasteful (where public funds are concerned) it is to fail to discriminate between who is likely to use such money wisely and who is not.

Caplan summarizes his argument:

1. Claims about desert and poverty are meaningful. Asking, “Does he deserve to be poor?” can be rude, but that doesn’t mean the answer is “No.”

2. A person deserves his problem if there are reasonable steps the he could have taken to avoid the problem. Poverty is a problem, so a person deserves his poverty if there are reasonable steps he could have taken to avoid his poverty.

3. Common sense can usually resolve whether reasonable steps to avoid poverty were available to a particular person. A good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t accept an excuse from a friend, you shouldn’t accept it from anyone.

4. The fact that a person deserves his poverty does not imply that it is morally wrong to help him.

5. However, the fact that a person deserves his poverty is (a) a strong moral reason to give him low priority when weighing how to allocate help, and (b) a strong moral reason not to force a stranger to help him.

6. The fact that a person does not deserve his poverty does not imply that it is morally wrong not to help him.

7. However, the fact that a person does not deserve his poverty is (a) a strong moral reason to give him high priority when weighing how to allocate help, (b) an extra moral reason for individuals morally responsible for his poverty to cease and remedy their wrongful behavior, (c) a moral reason to force these morally responsible individuals to cease and remedy their wrongful behavior, and (d) a plausible though not totally convincing moral reason to force strangers to help the deserving person if the benefits heavily outweigh the costs.

And further, I’d say the fact that welfare recipients have to jump through some inconvenient and unpleasant hoops to receive money that has been coercively extracted from others is generally a feature, not a bug. It’s an incentive to make better decisions.

Zwolinski’s argument here is a soft head/soft heart argument here because it’s a fundamentally emotional appeal for bad policy. Such arguments don’t deserve to succede.

Is Hoppean “Forced Integration” Even Happening?

One of Hoppe’s fundamental claims on immigration is that Americans are currently subject to substantial forced integration, as defined in Hoppe’s  article On Free Immigration and Forced Integration (which Lew Rockwell cites as “the original, revolutionary Hoppe article on immigration”):

“…if the government admits a person while there is not even one domestic resident who wants to have this person on his property, the result is forced integration…”

I gather there are roughly twelve million illegal immigrants in the US. My first observation is that they seem to overwhelmingly reside on private property with the apparent consent of the property owners. Hoppe is claiming that many of them would not be welcomed by a single domestic property owner but are only here because the government prevents property owners from excluding them.

I don’t claim to be an expert in relevant law, but Nolo.com says it is legal to discriminate in housing on the basis of legal eligibility to work (which would allow the exclusion of illegal immigrants), except in California and New York City.

I’m also not an expert in the demographics of immigration, but this chart indicates that perhaps roughly 25% of the 12 million illegal immigrants live in California and NYC. Those are certainly significant populations but note that 75% of illegal immigrants live where property owners have the legal right to exclude them, thus indicating the consent of the owners for these immigrants to reside on their property.  In this light there appears to be no forced immigration of illegal immigrants outside of CA and NYC.

Is there forced integration of illegal immigrants in CA and NYC? In a narrow but important sense there almost certainly is. In the absence of discrimination law which prevents property owners in CA and NYC from asking about employment eligibility it seems highly likely that some property owners would exclude illegal immigrants, and thus those property owners are subject to forced integration on their property.

Such forced integration is unjust and should be abolished, but notice that this is a far more narrow sense of forced integration than Hoppe actually posits, by his definition forced immigration exists when there are no property owners willing to voluntarily house a give immigrant.

So does Hoppean forced immigration exist in America? I see no strong evidence that it does. Surely some property owners in CA and NYC would exclude some illegal immigrants if they were legally allowed to do so, but that hardly means such immigrants would not be able to find a single property owner in the US willing to take them. Surely the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants in CA and NYC are residing there withe the voluntary consent of the owners as in the rest of the country, and there’s little reason to think the rest couldn’t find other owners willing to voluntarily house them.

In this article Hoppe fails to make any persuasive case that forced integration, as he defines it, is actually happening in America.

Law and Order, Part 4

Even though we’ve shown that LnO advocates are really ethical subjectivists of some sort, it’s clear that they have a very different self-perception.  They are the most vocal critics of both moral and cultural relativism.  (Libertarians are generally opposed to both kinds of relativism as well, but it’s easy for non-libertarians to miss this because there is such a wide gap between what libertarians consider immoral and what they think should be unlawful.  So, libertarians can look like moral relativists to those who see little or no gap between those two categories.)  They have no problem criticizing other cultures and expressing grave concern that their own national culture will become contaminated or perverted by excessive tolerance for differing views and values.

But a funny thing happens when asked about their own national history.  Suddenly, things don’t sound so convincing.  Is slavery bad today?  Sure, obviously.  Was it bad that George Washington not only owned slaves but actively sent out bounty hunters to catch and retrieve runaway slaves?  Well, that was a different time, and you need to realize the context, and he did a lot of great things, and you really show your ignorance when you… blah, blah, blah.  Suddenly, the conservative sounds exactly like the stereotype of the typical relativist liberal, making excuses for the practices of a different culture or refusing to pass judgment on anyone except those interested in passing judgment.

But is it simply a bias regarding the past?  Not really.  To see this, compare the assessment of the Holocaust and of the Japanese internment camps in the US during World War II.  In general, you will find very few Holocaust apologists in the LnO crowd.  (And those who are will probably identify as explicit racists or race-realists or something similar, so it has little to do with the LnO mindset itself.)  Nor would they defend the idea of simply locking people up because they’re Jewish, homosexual, atheist, or some other similar trait.  But when they examine the Japanese internment, we get a very similar tale as in the slavery case.  “You have to understand the context of those times.  They were acting based on the information that they had.  It was credible that there was a threat, and this was a reasonable and humane way of dealing with it.  Even if it turned out later to be incorrect, we weren’t there.  It’s too easy to pass judgment on people when you know more than they did.”  And so on.

So, it seems that there’s something else going on besides some irrational bias in favor of the past.  It also seems to align with geography and national identity.  (For example, abortion is almost always wrong and inexcusable, but killing the unborn is unproblematic if they happened to be living in Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Tokyo at certain specific dates in history.)  Is there some logic to this?  Not strictly, but it’s not entirely random, either.  What it reflects is mostly unspoken commitments that most LnO advocates either take for granted or don’t even consciously acknowledge as the basis for their beliefs.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has proposed a 6-base model for moral decisions that he believes provides the best explanation for the disconnect between conservatives and liberals when they discuss political matters.

Briefly, the 6 bases are: 1) Care/Harm; 2) Liberty/Oppression; 3) Fairness/Cheating; 4) Loyalty/Betrayal; 5) Authority/Subversion; 6) Sanctity/Degradation

Haidt believes that liberals value (1) and (2) primarily, with relatively little regard for the others, while conservatives value all of them more equally.  (And he sees libertarians as valuing only (2), with almost no regard for the other five.)  I think that Haidt’s interpretation is somewhat inaccurate, but I won’t spend a lot of time on that here.  The main point is that LnO advocates tend to be persuaded by the conservative biases, and this helps to explain their apparent inconsistency in evaluating the morality of various policies across time and geography.

For example, the conservative concern for Care/Harm is informed by their commitment to Loyalty, a sense of the value of the in-group as opposed to the out-group (with conservatives typically viewing the in-group in terms of national heritage and patriotism), and also by their commitment to the value of Authority, which we’ve clearly seen in earlier parts of this series leads them to view authority figures as semi-divine.  Thus, their understanding of what counts as a harm is almost always weighted by these other value commitments.  And so, they can be appalled if a foreign national beats one of their countrymen, but be not at all disturbed if a domestic authority figure beats a belligerent citizen to death.  The Harm assessed in each case is very dependent on the perception of who is part of the in-group and who has legitimate authority.  If you make the foreign national a police officer, then they end up having to decide which moral consideration trumps the other, but this just shows how flexible their understanding of Harm can be.

Another interesting example is how they view Liberty/Oppression.  In general, their commitment to Liberty is in tension with their commitment to Authority, and it is also biased by Loyalty, similarly to how they view Harm.  So, they give a lot of lip service to Liberty, especially as a reflection of how they perceive America as a land of freedom and overthrowing Oppression, but it’s very easy for Authority concerns to trump any particular expression of Liberty.  The biggest struggle should be in their attempts to justify the founding of the United States.  The colonists engaged in extremely disruptive acts that directly challenged Authority and made it nearly impossible to establish order, as conservatives would typically define it.  Smugglers were considered heroic, and public officials were terrorized, or even killed, by the irate colonists.  Yet, we typically hear the most praise for early Americans from conservatives because their commitment to national Loyalty is so strong, it is impossible for them to mount any serious critique of that history.

Finally, their strong commitment to Sanctity tends to make it difficult for conservatives to recognize the tremendous differences between current social institutions and those of the past.  For example, the myth that marriage as a social institution existed pretty much unchanging for thousands of years, right up until about a decade ago when suddenly, out of nowhere, same-sex marriage became a serious proposal.  The reality of how dramatically different current marriages are from even a century ago seems inconceivable to them.  The idea that a stable social arrangement, one that has some presumed blessing from God even, is actually rather malleable and changeable over time is a shocking claim.  Yet, we’ve already shown that they have no such qualms about embracing laws as they change repeatedly over time.  So, here we see that other commitments can actually trump their views on Authority, in the right context.

(I should note here that liberals actually have strong commitments to the various bases, and Haidt seems to not recognize this as clearly as I think he should.  For example, liberals are actually quite strongly focused on Sanctity.  It just takes a different form, usually related to the environment and nature or to certain social concepts like Equality.  They also have their own conception of the In-Group, but it tends to be more intellectual or class-based, rather than restricted by geography.  And they tend to invest Authority in experts, particularly scientists and doctors, rather than law enforcement, though they do view entities like the UN and the ICC as particularly important, too.)

So, what’s the upshot of all this?  We understand the LnO mentality a bit better by seeing that it’s driven by a lot of complex commitments, many of which are not explicitly acknowledged or recognized by those who have this view.  And we can see that there is going to be a lot of inconsistency, both in terms of application to specific events and in terms of consistency across individuals holding this view, as each person has to make those judgments about what commitment trumps what or what commitment reinforces/weakens another one.

I think that most LnO advocates would ideally view themselves as moral realists.  They would resist any suggestion that they engage in “situational ethics,” which is one of the worst things they can accuse someone else of doing.  So, here is where I want to show that they don’t have to give up their basic moral commitments in order to embrace moral realism.  Or, to put it another way, since they probably already believe they’re embracing it, here’s a better way of understanding the relationship between your commitments so that you don’t end up looking like the relativists you constantly accuse others of being.

There are really three commitments in (potential) conflict here: Liberty, Authority, and Loyalty.  As a libertarian, it’s not going to be any great surprise when I suggest that Liberty take priority.  But I don’t think this is that hard a case to make.  The founding of the United States was really a story of placing Liberty above both of the other two: the colonists actively defied British authority (in the name of a Higher Authority, whether you want to cash that out as God or as inalienable human rights or something else), and they rejected claims by British officials that they remain ‘loyal’ to King George and to the commonwealth that they were citizens of, instead choosing loyalty to their respective colonies or other relevant groups.

So, this is not some strange idea.  It’s just one that gets conveniently set aside as a historical exception or extreme circumstance rather than any kind of guide to future action.  There are indications that these ideas have sticking power, though, as the TEA Party explicitly references an act of anti-corporate-state violence, something that was clearly not lawful and not promoting “Order” or “Authority” or “Loyalty” as it was understood at the time.  The key may be tapping into that sentiment and asking people to view that rebellious attitude as more than a temporary excess or a kind of ‘lifeboat’/emergency response, but rather a mindset that should inform how they view government authority vs individual authority.

There is a natural appeal in a consistent moral framework, so it’s not difficult to convince people that consistency is good.  It’s difficult when they feel that they must have some kind of balancing mechanism to decide between multiple valid, but inconsistent, commitments.  They would be happy to find some consistency between them.  But failing that, they aren’t necessarily ready to jettison any of them.  The key is presenting a way to accommodate those concerns, not to tell them that those concerns are invalid.

I will go into more detail in the next and final portion of this series, where I’ll talk about what kinds of strategies might be most effective at convincing LnO advocates to re-assess their position and find a more consistent way of understanding (and embracing) Liberty as a primary value rather than a derivative one.

 

Who Would Jesus Jail For Peaceful Dissent?

As an ex-catholic it seems to me the teachings of Jesus are on their face flatly incompatible with advocacy of any coercive government policy.

I’d really love to hear the Pope, Cardinals, and Bishops explain Christ’s position on the jailing of peaceful dissenters (and the killing of them if they sufficiently resist), something fully implicit in nearly every economic prescription they put forward.

Irwin Schiff may well die in prison for peaceful dissent on taxes. I cannot reconcile approval of such policies with the teachings of Jesus as the Roman Catholic church taught me. Yet such enforcement is necessary for the economic policies these men prescribe.

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