Consequentalism vs. Utilitarianism

RKN writes in my recent terrorism/economy thread:

Besides, there’s already an ethical/political framework for “net utility impact on all the people…” — it’s called Utilitarianism. Seems pointless to me to coin yet another -ism.

But Cism is substantially different from Uism, so why shouldn’t I use a different word? A Uian wants “the greatest good for the greatest number”. This is quite different than Cism. I want my happiness – that’s my goal. And when I’m just doing actions on my own, I don’t worry about net societal utility (since I’m not a Utilitarian), just about my own happiness.

But when it comes to cooperative activities with others, I can’t just do that. Strangely enough, other people don’t seem to want to make me happy, they want to make themselves happy instead. I want them to agree to plans / policies / actions /institutions that benefit me. But they won’t agree unless these things benefit them. Hence in my selfish desire to be happy, I must search for things which benefit all of us.

Things which benefit society on net[1] are likely, on average, to benefit me. Furthermore everyone else is likely to feel the same way, and so agree to them. Hence such things are selfishly good *and* practical.

A Uian (claims to[2]) constantly search for net utility maximization because its a moral imperative. I consider net utility as a factor in discussing group policies as a form of practical selfishness. Big difference.

[1] Yes, yes, I know this makes some of you reach for your guns.
[2] But we know its bullshit because humans are wired to be selfish.

Its the economy, stupid

In the Washington Post, David Rothkopf points out the importance of economic policy over terrorism prevention:

Let’s start with the biggest domestic economic problems. Almost any one of them is a greater threat to the economy than virtually any imaginable form of terrorism. There is the record-breaking budget deficit that is likely to amount to $5 trillion over the next decade. Then there’s the burgeoning trade deficit. And the $72 trillion in unfunded future retirement and health care obligations to our own citizens. And a record low savings rate, which suggests that we will need even more help with retirement funding. And the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs and the cost of fixing our dysfunctional health care and energy systems. Every one of these is a gigantic problem on its own. Taken together, they represent a series of bombs placed at the foundations of our society, and they are capable of exploding in ways that would touch more Americans than anything even the most sophisticated terrorists could devise.

(thanks to Cafe Hayek for the link)
Fixing Social Security, dropping trade barriers, reducing the deficit by trimming pork, ending stupid subsidies – any of these things would be far simpler than preventing terrorism, and have drastically more positive impact on the country. Which is not to say that these things are politically easy – they all piss of an entrenched power structure (old people, domestic producer of good produced cheaper elsewhere, pork recipients, subisdy recipients). Its not clear that leaving these problems will destroy us, we are resilient. But the sad thing is that they are technically trivial to fix, and would have a big impact on the average citizen. Whereas “stopping terrorism” is difficult if not impossible, and terrorism has little negative impact on us.

But it’ll never happen, because government action is all about political pandering and ass-kissing, not making citizens lives better.

My first visit from the IRS

I had an interesting experience today – my first visit from an IRS agent. I haven’t filed my 2002 or 2003 taxes yet, for several reasons, most notably that I had no net income in 2002 (I carefully sold stocks to add up to no capital gains), and little if any in 2003. Hence I don’t owe anything, and there are no direct financial penalties for not filing. (I expect there are indirect penalties in terms of increased audit likelihood or something). Add this to my chronic procrastination, which is especially bad about things I don’t want to do, and the fact that I hate the IRS and the FedGov and paying taxes, and you have today’s visit.

In order to scare me into complying, they had an inflated “estimate” of my income and what taxes I owed. The estimate was based on adding together my W-2G gambling winnings, my W-2 consulting wages, and the total value of all my stock sales and dividends. Of course, this assumes no gambling losses, no consulting expenses, and most importantly, it assumes that the cost of all stocks sold was zero! Hence the absurd estimate for a year in which my taxable income is going to be zero. Using this estimate, she told me that if I didn’t file by next week, they’d assume I owed them tens of thousands of dollars in taxes, and gave me some forms about how they’d Collect it.

She also presented the (false) information that I’d payed $43K in mortgage interest over the year. I guess this was meant as a “you must have income”, although it seems rather a double-edged sword since that is a totally deductible expense! But its wrong, because I’m only a 1/3 owner. Both the bank loan and the title are in the names of all the owners, as I informed them.

So now I’ll spend the next few days pushing papers for the feds instead of getting useful work done. Not much fun, but hell, its still better than a Siberian labor camp. Instead of an early and unpleasant death, afterwards I can get back to work on sneaky ways to escape the behemoth. While I yearn to escape, I must also admit that as behemoths go, its far from the worst.

Iraq: getting more or less free?

When I argue with pro-war people, they all seem to assume that Iraq will be freer and better off as a democracy than under Saddam. They seem to be missing a very important point, which is that Saddam was a secular dictator, who was (for the Middle East) relatively pro-education, this article about the change in tolerance for alcohol. Alcohol was widely accepted during the Saddam era, and now in “Free Iraq” liquor stores are being blown up by fundamentalists. This could just be due to temporary civil disorder which will end when the police get the upper hand. Or perhaps it will be the police who enforce prohibition.

Don’t assume that Dictatorship -> Democracy increases all freedoms.

Interview with founder of Loompanics about censorship

Read it here. He has some good criticisms of Libertarians which JTK should appreciate. (Although he speaks a bit melodramatically for my taste, and tends to exaggerate his points).

But the fact of the matter is that no one has ever done more to discredit an ideology by espousing it than the “Libertarians.” They foghorn away about the necessity of the profit motive, but every “Libertarian” propaganda outfit is a non-profit corporation or foundation. Every one. Being themselves so incompetent that they cannot run an enterprise at a profit, they beseech the government to adopt policies forcing everybody but them to live by trade. And since their products (books, magazines, treatises, etc.) are so worthless that they cannot support themselves by selling them, they ask the government to grant them “tax-free” status, and then ask corporations to give them “donations.”

In other words: found businesses, don’t start think tanks. Personally I see a definite place for think tanks in the world, but its still a good point. Also interesting:

Reason magazine for years forbade Loompanics to place any ad whatsoever – this from a publisher who claims to be devoted to “Free Minds and Free Markets” (as long as they are not too free, I guess). I remember once, shortly after they had refused one of our book ads, receiving a fund-raising letter from Reason soliciting “donations” on the grounds that they were such big-balled, two-fisted freedom fighters that they had difficulty selling ads in their magazine, and you were therefore supposed to give them something for nothing. These hypocrites refused to engage in a straight-forward honest business deal (selling us ads), instead asking for handouts (and lying about why they were doing it) – this from an outfit which opposes food stamps for poor people on the grounds that giving them something they did not earn would destroy their “incentive” to earn a living.

Just like everyone else, Libs get conservative when they start big ventures. In their defense, if accepting Loompanics ads would cost them more in donations or ad money from third parties than it got them from Loompanics, refusing such ads is a rational profit-maximizing move. Still seems kinda pussy. Fortunately, blogs quite thoroughly eliminate the problem of how to fund publishing.

A few more thoughts on NZ vs. USA

Discussing the potential for US reform on my LiveJournal, someone suggested that change might start in the US military. This seems unlikely to me, but I think there is a more promising angle. (Though still not very promising!).

That is the potential reappearance of federalism. Part of the problem with fixing the US FedGov is that its size gives it enormous power and inertia. NZ has a population of 4 million – around the size of an average US state, where it is much easier to enact reform. While the US Feds have pretty much emasculated the states, there have been some indications of fighting back. The two I’ve noticed are medical marijuana, and the Patriot Act. Both are cases where states have passed laws in opposition to federal law, and in the case of marijuana, stood up in court for their right to do so.

The Free State Project will test how far this can be pushed, they seem to have some pretty serious plans in that direction. If they can successfully reject federal funds and assert their state rights, other states may follow.

I’m not saying this will happen, it just seems to me to be the most likely route via which reform could happen.

The other possibility is massive fiscal problems (federal bankruptcy, essentially) due to SS Ponzi scheme collapsing and related factors, causing a backlash of reform. I think there is a decent chance the fiscal problems will happen in a few decades (my analysis), but I am pessimistic that massive, rational reform will be the response.

NZ Govt. Overhaul

As free-market advocatesl, we believe there is tons of evidence that our system works. Others feel our ideas are “pie in the sky”. Here is some evidence from New Zealand, which underwent sweeping privatization in the past two decades. The results were, of course, incredible.

On the other hand, this article barely discusses what is to my mind the most interesting issue. Not “what kind of reforms make the country work better?” (we already know that), but “how do you make reform happen?”. Why did the govt of NZ work to eliminate most of itself when most govt’s do the opposite? Was there a change in public opinion? Political incentives?


My angle on how to break the state

As some of you know, my main libertarian political focus is on nation-founding: exploring the very difficult problem of how to create a stable libertarian country. I care about this because I want to live freedom, not just talk about it, and I want to do so openly in a society where it is accepted, not by hiding (ie cryptoanarchy). (Note that these are personal preferences, so I try not to judge those libs who feel differently). I am skeptical that this will happen through inertia, ie David Friedman’s “My ideal path to anarcho-capitalism would be one in which private institutions gradually replaced government institutions, so that when the state finally vanished nobody noticed.”

My research has led me to believe that the oceans are the best place for such a country. Not only are they the least state-controlled part of the earth, but they have a special characteristic which I believe will lead to increased freedom and reduced government. So I am not committing the follies of thinking that if a bunch of libs go form a country, it will be magically immune from creeping statism, or that things will automatically be better just by starting over. I think there are fundamental economic reasons why ocean (and space) based societies will be much more libertarian.

You can read my theory on why oceans are conducive to freedom here. Slides, notes, and an audio recording from my talk at FreedomFest are online, as is the draft of my book about how and why to settle the oceans. I’ll be giving more talks in the next few months, to the San Diego Futurists on 8/6 and at Santa Clara U’s Civil Society Institute on 10/27.

You can’t keep the market away from teenage panties

This article about regulation of the used panty trade in Tokyo is a nice example of the perils of government regulation. The chance to make money makes everyone think like a capitalist, and these schoolgirls are no exception. Some might find their ingenuity depraved, but I think its charming to see such cleverness at using ones current comparative advantage.

Note some typical elements: Hyperbole from officials about the problem, numerous ways around the regulation, and the trade being pushed more underground.

Computer Student on Trial for Aid to Muslim Web Sites

(NYTimes article from Reason’s Hit and Run blog)

As a Web master to several Islamic organizations, Mr. Hussayen helped to maintain Internet sites with links to groups that praised suicide bombings in Chechnya and in Israel. But he himself does not hold those views, his lawyers said. His role was like that of a technical editor, they said, arguing that he could not be held criminally liable for what others wrote.

The government feels differently:

they have argued that Mr. Hussayen’s technical assistance, even if he did not share the beliefs of the groups he helped, were like providing a gun to an armed robber.

NYTimes article here.

Somehow I’m just not comfortable with the idea that speech is a weapon that should be banned to make the world safer. Even if its speech about why to kill people. I guess this goes back to laws against treason and sedition, but it still seems kinda sad that free speech does not include the right to advocate terrorism. Or even the right to give others a forum to do so. A question for readers: do you believe that free speech includes the right to advocate violence against others? Are threats criminal?

It makes me wonder why the book Unintended Consequences has not received such attention. UC, while written as fiction, essentially advocates assassinating politicians and government agents until they agree to reduce restrictions on gun ownership. I think its awesome that a book like that was published in this country without harassment, but aren’t its publishers just as potentially liable as Mr. Hussayan? Is Amazon aiding terrorism by carrying it? Is it illegal to give it a positive review, thus spreading the word about this argument for terrorism?