A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 26 December 2013

A discussion of tacit consent to the state

Suppose you live in a moderately large community - perhaps around 10,000 people - with a smoothly functioning market economy but few trade links with the outside world. A rich person then pays every doctor in that community a large subsidy to treat every other patient in that community, on condition that they refuse to treat you.

It is in the interests of every individual doctor to accept the subsidy, since the extra income from the subsidy significantly exceeds the revenue they would get from having you on their books. The result is that it becomes uneconomic to treat you, since this would require a whole new doctor to be trained, and the subsidy is only available to people who will not treat you.

In this case, you would not necessarily end up going completely without treatment - there would probably be some level of medical training which it would be economic for someone to obtain this and then treat you. (That is, providing there is no occupational licensing). Still, it is obvious that this rich person's actions have made you worse off, and probably quite significantly. Yet from a natural rights perspective, it is hard to see how you could have any kind of a claim against them.

Aside from being a potential weak point of natural-rights based ethics, this has potential real-world significance. Peter Steinberger, amongst others, has argued that actively accepting benefits from the state implies consenting to it, and provides numerous examples of activities he sees as fulfilling this condition. In many cases this seems intuitive, but there is an obvious counterargument for the philosophical anarchist: that the state has actively prevented citizens from obtaining these benefits except through the state, and therefore when it provides them with there benefits it is merely compensating them, rather than actually making an implicit offer of contract. This is actually a surprisingly wide-ranging objection. The state will not allow me to go about enforcing vigilante justice, and will not allow anyone else to do it on my behalf, so when I call the police to bring to justice a man who has stolen from me, I am merely calling upon the state to do what it is obliged to do - I am in no way consenting to anything. The state does not ban private healthcare, but it regulates it to such an extent that it can hardly be seen to be respecting my rights or those of my prospective doctor, and so when I go to the NHS for medical advice I am merely exacting recompense rather than seeking benefits. Even if I claim unemployment benefits, it is unclear that I accept any duties since state measures like the minimum wage, national insurance, and income tax all violate my natural rights and make it harder for me to obtain work.

But what if the state did not restrict me from obtaining these services other than through itself? I can't think of any indisputable examples of this offhand, but a strong example is education, where there are essentially three options - state schooling, private education (which is similar to the situation described in the opening paragraphs of this post) and homeschooling. Does the fact that, by providing free schools and so making it uneconomic to run affordable private schools, the state obstructs my obtaining of private education, make using state education for one's children invalid as an expression of tacit consent? My suspicion is that it doesn't: in the classic example of invalid tacit consent ("I propose that we move next week's meeting to Tuesday. Anyone who objects to this, chop off your arm. Oh good, everyone agrees!") the objection is not that chopping off one's arm is costly or difficult (that said, how many businessmen do carry around knives ready to chop off their arms at a moment's notice?) but that one has a right to keep one's arms. If the statement had been "Any employee who objects, raise your arm. Also, if you do then you must move into a different, smaller office," then objecting would have been costly but would not have entailed unjust loss, and so the tacit consent would have been valid. So sending one's children to a state school (obviously, since they were a minor at the time, the question of whether an individual himself/herself went to a state school is irrelevant) could reasonably be described as consent to the state. Except for two problems which are a problem for basically any theory of tacit consent to the state.

The first could be overcome if there were greater awareness of political philosophy among the general public, but is currently an obstacle to, I believe, every existing state: for consent to be valid, at least one of these two conditions must be met:
  1. There is intent to be bound to that consent.
  2. All consenting parties may reasonably be expected to realise that their action entails consent.
Suppose you own a historic mansion, and are in the habit of giving guided tours around it. My joining such a tour does not of itself imply that I agree to pay you for it; however, if you have a notice by the door indicating that there will be a charge, then I may reasonably be expected to pay even if I would rather not.

If someone intends to be bound to obeying the state, then sending their kids to a state school is probably unnecessary to achieve this. Hence, it is the second condition which is more likely to be useful for demonstrating that people consent to the state. But I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of people do not realise that sending kids to school can entail consent, and given that it is not clearly stated anywhere that "sending your child to a school owned by Her Majesty's Government implies that you agree to obey the laws set down by Her Majesty's Government" this is rather a problem for the validity of tacit consent.

That problem is tough but not impossible to overcome. The real problem with tacit consent is very similar to the problem with benefit theory: the idea that the state can obtain consent by providing benefits presupposes that the state had a right to provide those benefits. This in turn presupposes that the state had a right to the resources with which it provided those benefits, which presupposes that the taxes with which it gained the resources had been consented to by the people of the nation. Thus there is an infinite regress unless you have a situation in which either the state legitimately held assets without acquiring them from an outside source, or the taxed population consented in advance of receiving benefits. But no-one seriously believes the state began as anything other than a local warlord, which rules out the first option, and no-one seriously believes in an explicit contract with explicit consent, either present or historical, as the second option requires. Therefore tacit consent cannot provide a basis for political obligation in any existing state.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

A taxation policy proposal

The higher your income, the more the state taxes - not just in absolute terms, but as a proportion of your income. This is generally agreed to be because richer people have a lower marginal utility of wealth: an extra £1000 a year is worth less to you if you're already earning £50,000 per annum than an extra £100 a year if you're earning £5,000 per annum.

But income isn't the only thing which affects the utility you gain or lose from changes in your income. For example, if you are on the political left then you are likely to view your tax payments as an excellent chance to help those worse off than yourself; if you are a libertarian, you are more likely to regard them as tantamount to theft. All else being equal, a libertarian will lose more utility from being taxed than a leftie taxed the same amount. It follows that libertarians (and perhaps to a lesser extent right-wingers) ought to receive tax breaks.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Against the minimum wage

The basic economic argument relating to the minimum wage is that a minimum wage is fundamentally no different to any other price control, and so just as the economic policies of the current Venezuelan government have caused a shortage of toilet paper, a minimum wage will lead to a shortage of jobs (or an excess supply of labour, the two being the same thing), i.e. unemployment. In the labour market situation represented by the graph below, P0 and Q0 are the wage level and employment level in equilibrium, with OQ0 being both the number of people seeking work at the prevailing wage and the number of jobs that businesses can profitably provide at the prevailing wage. Hence the only unemployment in this situation is "frictional unemployment" - people who are between jobs, but will find employment. The imposition of a minimum wage at the level marked leads to OQ2 people offering their services, but only OQ1 jobs being offered, with resulting unemployment of Q1Q2.

In practice this may be difficult to measure. Employers will generally be more likely to cut back on employing new people than to get rid of existing employees, and if a minimum wage impedes the starting-up of new businesses which would initially be unable to pay the minimum wage then this will not show up in a straightforward analysis of hiring patterns of businesses. Nevertheless, one can find empirical evidence for it: for example, in the absence of a minimum wage there is no particular reason why young people should find it harder to gain employment than older, more experienced people - they can simply demand a lower wage to account for their lower productivity. A minimum wage denies them this ability and so we should expect to see abnormally high youth unemployment in places with higher minimum wages - as indeed we do.

There is, however, a theoretical model with quite contrary implications. It rests upon an assumption of an uncompetitive labour market, with an essentially monopsonistic (monopolist = one supplier, monopsonist = one buyer) employer. (Another assumption running through all of these models is that all workers are equally productive; that said, the models would work just as well if we were to allow for different productivity between workers and simply assume that the most efficient workers are employed first. However, the model would become a bit more complicated and I'm trying to keep things simple).

The Marginal Revenue Product is the productivity, in terms of revenue created, of the most recently employed individual; the Average Revenue Product is the average productivity, in terms of revenue created, of all individuals. One of the fundamental theorems of microeconomics is that the profit-maximising firm will employ up to the point where the profit from the last worker (i.e. Marginal Revenue Product) is equal to the
cost of employing that worker (i.e. the wage level). In this model, in equilibrium the firm will employ OQ1 workers and derive OP2 in revenue from each, but due to its monopsony of labour will be able to get away with paying only OP1 in wages, thus extracting an abnormal profit of P1P2 from each worker. However, if a minimum wage is imposed at the level marked, the idea is that the company will, rather than cutting employment back to OQ3, instead accept the reduction to its abnormal profits. Furthermore, in the initial situation the limiting factor on employment was that few people were willing to work for the wage being offered, whereas now that the wage is higher, they will seek jobs. The company will still be able to profitably employ these, and so employment will actually increase.

Personally I find this model unconvincing. Firstly, as bad as the labour market is, it is nothing like a monopsony. Secondly, I fail to see why the firm wouldn't just cut employment back to OQ3.

The more common argument in favour of a minimum wage is that "Yeah, the standard argument applies, but unemployment wouldn't increase much, and would be outweighed by the gains to those who keep their jobs." To this, I would first point to the fact that we measure unemployment separately from normal unemployment, and secondly to these posts by Bryan Caplan. Advocates of this view tend to cite a paper by David Card and Alan Kreuger from 1994 which found a moderate increase in employment. In contrast with many other opponents of the minimum wage, Caplan believes the paper to be very high quality, but due to the sheer weight of counter-evidence it fails to provide enough evidence for him to change his beliefs.

Or course, all of this leaves aside various other arguments against the minimum wage. In particular, I'd recommend this Steve Landsburg piece as a moral argument.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Grieg is Lovely

My very favourite piece of music for the piano is Wedding-Day at Troldhaugen (if I am ever engaged to a woman who refuses to have that piece played at some point in the wedding or reception, I'm calling the wedding off), and Grieg is most famous for the Peer Gynt suite (perhaps more cynically, specifically for Morning Mood and In the Hall of the Mountain King), but there's so much more out there. At this very moment I am listening to Twelve Songs, Opus 33. Varen (Last Spring), but really you could listen to almost anything from his lyric pieces or Norwegian Peasant Dances and just feel content with life.

Worthy of special mention: Arietta, the Holberg suite, Haugelat (Tune from the Fairy Hill), Du Fatter ei Bolvergenes evige Gang (The Poet's Heart), and probably a whole load more which I have yet to discover.

Unfortunately my book of Grieg pieces is currently at home in Birmingham - my brother is actually learning pieces from it - but I've asked for a new copy for Christmas. I'm now actually slightly hoping not to receive a copy, just so that I have an excuse to buy myself an even bigger book of Grieg pieces.

Perspective on Anarcho-Capitalism

One way I often like think about the goal of anarcho-capitalists is not so much that we wish to abolish government, as to create a free and competitive market in governance. Many functions of the modern state - defence, legal service, healthcare, disaster insurance, education - will continue to exist in the absence of the state providing civilisation remains. I personally think that it is unlikely that these goods really need to be provided by the same organisation, or even that it is efficient for this to be the case, but hey! It's possible!

Besides which, if someone wants to live in a socialist society then why shouldn't they, so long as they don't force anyone else to be part of that society? I don't personally want any government above me, but if people truly do want governments then why, in a state of nature, should they be prevented from banding together and forming one above themselves?

Even if you don't have a government, then I think it is pretty much inevitable that one will be subject to rules. Rules are not inherently necessary for a stable society, but I think it is fair to say that:

  • A stable society requires people to have the ability to plan ahead.
  • For people to be able to plan ahead, it is necessary for behaviour to be predictable within certain bounds.
  • These bounds must either be determined ahead of time in some way - essentially becoming rules - or must be the same over time.
  • While rules are not metaphysically necessary for behavioural norms to persist, they are an obvious and usually successful way of achieving this.
Sets of rules and enforcement procedures - governances, one might say - would in an anarcho-capitalist society be the products of governance firms, or governments. We already have these governments, but unfortunately the market for them is neither free nor competitive. There are massive costs to switching between providers, the link between payment by consumers and performance by firms is virtually non-existent, and there is little to no possibility for a firm to fail and go under, freeing up resources for a competitor.

This, along with some generally accepted empirical premises, should lead us to a few conclusions.

Firstly, since free and competitive markets are possible, it is likely that a stable anarcho-capitalist society is possible. There may be some difference between the current products of government and other products currently produced by functioning markets which makes this particular competitive market impossible, but then the onus is on the statist to demonstrate this. I may at some point write a debunking of various potential arguments of this type, but I'm rather too tired and alcohol-laden to do it properly right now.

Second, since the vast majority of new products in competitive markets - somewhere in the region of 90% - fail, we should expect most prospective governances in a anarcho-capitalist system also to fail. If a firm offers a bundle of goods (we'll say personal protection, protection of property and prosecution of any trespassers against the individual) for £2500 per annum and another offers the same or better services for £2000 per annum, then that first firm will fail as surely as we are enriched by international trade.

Given this explicit admission that I expect 90% of rights-protection agencies (or DROs) to fold within a few years of starting up, do I regard anarcho-capitalism as a terrible system? No. You see, there is rather a difference between failure for a governance and failure for an existing state. For a governance, failure simply means that it fails to provide the same value for money as its competitors - it is perfectly possible that purchasing a firm's services would make a consumer massively better off (in terms of consumer surplus) and yet the firm is still not efficient enough to survive. However, a state possesses a monopoly on violence and, more to the point, people are forced to pay for its services whether or not they consume these services. Hence, failure for a state means not only that it is failing to provide value for money, but it is producing so little value for the money which it extracts that people are willing to take on severe personal risk and cost  in order to overthrow this state.

I believe that, subject to the market test of anarcho-capitalism, almost every state currently in existence would fail. Hence, I believe that anarcho-capitalism provides a reasonable prospect for a better society. That said, if a small group of people were to form a single anarcho-capitalist society tomorrow, I would be sceptical of its chance of success. What I would wish to see would be numerous groups, each trying to create their utopian vision of the perfect state and society, with those which succeed to a greater extent attracting immigrants and imitators. That, I believe, is the way in which the truly good society is to be achieved.

Monday, 18 November 2013

External World Realism!

My view on perception of the external world for some time was "The fact that we see the world in a certain way is evidence for it being that way. However, there is no way to actually know we are not being deceived in some way. That said, there's no particular reason to believe that the external world would be some particular way which does not correspond to our perception of it, so it is most rational to act according beliefs based upon what we actually see." To an extent I still believe that, but this morning I was re-listening to Map and Territory when it suddenly occurred to me:

Any theory of how the external world is, must not only explain how the world is, but also why we explain it precisely as we do.

That means that any complete description of the external world must contain within it a complete description of what we perceive to be the external world. Hence, by Occam's Razor based on Solomonoff Induction, a "naive" view of the external world, that it is as we perceive it to be, must be the favoured explanation of how it actually is.

Apologies if this seems either obvious or arcane, but it means a significant amount for my confidence in my ability to know the world.

Romantic Things, Like Music and Art

On Friday, I finally (after more than a year of intending to do so) visited the Lowry Gallery in Salford. It was a fairly long walk, but it was definitely worth it. Salford Quays is a remarkably pleasant place in the sunshine. I got there around noon, had half of my lunch while checking on the current position in the World Chess Championship, and then started wandering around. The gallery itself is - well, not really small per se, but underwhelming as compared to the size of the building housing it. The artworks are an odd bunch - a mixture of urban landscapes, sketches of people, and a handful of miscellaneous other paintings and drawings. On the whole I enjoyed them. Oh, and I'm still a complete sucker for seascapes.

After that, I had a brief look round the Imperial War Museum North. Perhaps other people would find it interesting, but the museum only covers the 20th-21st Centuries and I studied quite enough of that in my History GCSE and A-level. Following this, I meandered around the Quays for a while, failed to find a bus that I was confident would take me to the city centre, caught a tram to Piccadilly Gardens instead, and got the bus back from there.

On Saturday evening, I went to a concert played by a string orchestra and a brass band at the university. It was an interesting assortment of pieces, none of which would have seen the light of day before 1900. Two of the pieces were premiers of pieces written by students of composition at the Uni, one of whom is a friend of mine - hence how I heard about the concert. I believe a recording of the piece should be appearing online at some point, most likely on YouTube, but it isn't there yet. It was a very intense piece entitled Starmaker Ceremonial and was inspired by the passage in Job when God speaks to Job:

31 “Can you bind the chains[b] of the Pleiades?
    Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons[c]
    or lead out the Bear[d] with its cubs?
33 Do you know the laws of the heavens?
    Can you set up God’s[e] dominion over the earth?
34 “Can you raise your voice to the clouds
    and cover yourself with a flood of water?
35 Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?
    Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?

The strange electronic sound, if memory serves, had something to do with a recording of the sound made by a star. I enjoyed it rather a lot, but it's not the kind of music I'd want to have on in the background. It's very much concert music which demands your attention, as opposed to easy listening or jazz which can easily be listened to while concentrating on something else.

UPDATE: a recording of the piece is now available here. Also, I originally forgot to give this post a title, so it now has one.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

6 Points of Basic Economics and Simple Logic

While browsing a far-left website I came across an article entitled "6 Things Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism". The article was so stupid and so easy to refute that I thought I'd do so quickly here.

#1: The Population Can't Stop Growing under Capitalism
Sure it can. If the relative cost of raising children rises - which one would expect to happen if wages are rising - then the number of babies being born will fall. They even disprove their own point: "And, as a shrinking population ages -as it did in Japan – there is a severe shortage of workers to maintain basic services for the aging population. In the case of Japan, they had to import large amount of workers, but this is clearly not a globally viable strategy."  So the fact that, once migrants are ignored, population falls in certain capitalist countries is supposed to be evidence that population can't stop growing under population?

It is of course possible that I'm misinterpreting them and they mean not that it physically can't, merely that it would be very bad - that the population can't be allowed to stop growing. This is at least supported by what they write, quoting from two other people that "Negative or zero population growth can pose serious problems for a capitalist society always in search of new markets for its goods and requiring a continual expansion of the labor force and of the relative surplus population of the unemployed in order to meet the needs of production and profits." It's still nonsense, though. If people are getting richer, then they can spend more upon goods without requiring a larger population. Furthermore, have they never heard of Creative Destruction? In the free market loads of firms go out of business, and this is a good thing because it frees up resources for the firms which are acting efficiently. That's where new human resources come from.

#2: The Economy Can't Stop Growing under Capitalism
You say that like it's a bad thing! Perhaps they mean that growth implies consuming resources and that resources are limited. However, this is also factually wrong. There are two ways of achieving economic growth, which are a) to use more resources and b) to use the same volume of resources more efficiently. While we have spare resources, as is the case at the moment, we will use both methods of growth. If a resource is being depleted, then supply will fall and therefore the price will rise, which firstly stops growth through greater resource consumption and secondly greatly increases the returns to attempting to grow by increasing efficiency and by finding alternative resources.

As an example: consider the whale. In the 19th Century whales were caught and killed for their oil. They were almost driven to extinction. Thus, they became harder to catch and whaling became less profitable. People were on the lookout for other sources of oil, so when it was discovered in the ground there was a very quick move across to this new oil, and the practice of whaling ended pretty much completely.

#3: Capitalism Can't Plan Ahead
As David Friedman recently pointed out, this is pretty much diametrically wrong. If I have an asset then I will wish to protect it for the long term in order to sell it in the future. This rests on my being assured that I will keep possession of the the asset until the time I sell it, and thus on a secure system of property rights.

They talk of "natural limits" to the size of particular markets and assert that these are ignored. The most obvious limit is simply consumer demand, and that just isn't something which can be planned years in advance, especially for an individual market. Not by businesses, not by the state, not by any mortal who has ever lived or will live. This is something where you want a short-termist, responsive supplier of goods. Like, for example, free market firms whose profitability depends upon their responding correctly. If they mean things like global warming, then this is nothing to do with planning, simply a matter of externalities. Go read some beginner economics.

#4: It's Not in Human Nature
So what? Plenty of things aren't in human nature, this doesn't mean that they're bad (e.g. carpentry, computer programming, understanding and applying Bayes' Theorem). Plenty of things are in human nature, this doesn't mean they're good (e.g. desire for political power, nepotism, promiscuity).

#5: Environmental Degradation Disproportionately Hurts the Poor
What does this have to do with capitalism? This is a (dubious) claim about Environmental Degradation (which I suspect would worst affect major landowners, most of whom are pretty rich), which is a completely separate thing from capitalism. Perhaps you believe there is a link between the two, but you could at least say that then.

#6: The Jevons Paradox: Sustainability isn't Sustainable
The claim here is that increasing efficiency of use of resources actually leads to greater consumption of resources, because the lower cost of consumption induces people to consume more.

This is a matter of basic microeconomics.

This is a basic graph plotting the Price of a good (Y-axis) against the Quantity bought and sold (x-axis) with normal demand (that is, the higher the price, the less people buy of it) and supply (the higher the price, the more of it people are willing to produce and sell) marked by the lines D and S1. Price and quantity are in equilibrium at Q1P1, so that an equal amount of the good is being bought and sold. An increase in efficiency is an decrease in cost of production and hence an increase in supply, from S1 to S2. This leads to a new equilibrium at Q2P2. More of the good is being consumed at a lower price.

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the entire cost of the good is in non-renewable resources. (This is a very reasonable assumption for our purposes, since you can always assume that the scale of the P-axis is non-linear and that the labour costs etc are below the line). Then the decrease in resources consumed due to higher efficiency is the area coloured purple, and the increase in resources consumed due to the lower cost is the area marked green. They are claiming that the green area will be larger, apparently in all cases. If they do indeed believe that it is always the case, then this claim is clearly wrong, as this graphs with different equations for supply and demand shows.
The efficiency gains massively outweigh the increased consumption. Alternatively, one can imagine a case where the increased consumption would massively outweigh the increased efficiency. Ultimately this all comes down to what economists call the Price Elasticity of Demand, which measures the relationship between a change in the price of a good and the change in the quantity demanded of that good.

PED = (% change in quantity demanded) / (% change in price)

Thus, a higher PED implies a greater tendency for consumers to increase or reduce consumption of a good in response to a change in price. If PED=-1, then total consumer expenditure on a good will remain constant following a price change; if PED>-1, then a price cut will decrease consumer expenditure, and demand is said to be inelastic; conversely if PED<-1, then a price cut will increase consumer expenditure, and demand is said to be elastic. Hence we can see that the cases where greater efficiency leads to greater consumption of non-renewables will be those where demand is elastic. So their claim that greater efficiency will lead to greater consumption relies on the empirical claim that, in most situations, the PED for goods creating pollution is high.

The problem with this is that there are plenty of polluting goods with low PEDs. For example, fuel to heat houses (when prices of essentials rise, people tend to just grin and bear it rather than freeze) and to power cars (the car itself is a very large part of the cost of driving, and road taxes are at least noticeable. Both are (almost) fixed costs, which remain constant regardless of how much driving you're doing; hence, by the time people decide that driving isn't worth the costs for the benefit it brings, the benefits are probably fairly small). Indeed, most transport has fairly large fixed costs - aircraft, ships, etc - so a rising cost of fuel is unlikely to massively affect the use of transport.

What about their empirical example? Well, this was in the middle of the industrial revolution, so it's hardly surprising that coal usage was increasing. Really, an intelligent lower-sixth economics student could have worked out all of this.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

By faith and not by sight?

There's a song called By Faith which we frequently sing at Church. It's a great fun song, with an upbeat tune and a very catchy chorus. You can see the original version here, although I'm personally more keen on the live version at church. The chorus goes:

We will stand as children of the promise,
We will fix our eyes on you our souls' reward,
'Til the race is finished and the work is done
We'll walk be faith and not by sight.

Not by sight? We're going to believe without evidence? That's ridiculous. Evidence is precisely what makes it reasonable to hold a belief. There is no virtue to be gained by holding specific beliefs unless they are true, and if they are true then there should be plenty of evidence for them. I highly recommend C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, and in particular this chapter to any Christian who thinks that "faith" is enough for a belief in our God.

What about the song? I've taken to singing "by faith, not just by sight." which is good enough for myself but I don't think it's good enough in general. People are going to be influenced by what they are singing with the Church's fervent endorsement, and if they're learning anti-epistemological habits from it then in the long run that's not good for either truth or for the church. The less Christians feel the need to justify our beliefs, the less effort we will put into investigating our beliefs. If we conclude that Christianity is probably false, then we should shrug, say "Any belief which can be destroyed by truth, should be." and move on. If we conclude that it is probably true, then hallelujah! Let's go out and convert everyone, surer and better-equipped than ever we were before!

Response to Huemer on Free Will

Michael Huemer has an interesting article claiming to prove the existence of free will. His argument runs roughly as follows:

  1. We should refrain from believing falsehoods. (Premise)
  2. Whatever should be done, can be done. (Premise)
  3. If hard determinism is true, then whatever can be done, is done. (Premise)
  4. I believe that Free Will exists. (Premise)
  5. We can refrain from believing falsehoods. (From 1,2)
  6. If hard determinism is true, then we refrain from believing falsehoods. (From 3,5)
  7. If hard determinism is true, then Free Will exists. (From 4,6)
  8. Free Will exists. (7 implies that hard determinism is false)
Premise 1 shall examine in a moment.
Premise 2 is the "should implies can" principle, the idea that one cannot be expected to do anything which they are incapable of doing.
Premise 3 is, like 2, undeniably true. Determinism is the idea that things could only have gone as they have gone, and can only go in one way.
Premise 4 is something we'll have to take his word for. However, as it so happens I (on balance, it's far from something I'm certain of) also believe in free will, so we'll take it as given.
The remaining steps follow through naturally.

Premise 1, however, I believe, contains an assumption of free will. Why? Because if free will does not exist, then we have severe reason to doubt the existence of moral responsibility for our actions. If so, it is hard to see how we "should" do things. The claim that we "should" refrain from believing falsehoods therefore seems to contain the implicit assumption that we have free will. Huemer's argument therefore relies upon circular logic.

However, this does not make the argument useless. It provides a very strong case against the compatibility of determinism and moral responsibility.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Where I stand on ethics


There are two ways in which we use the words "should" and "ought":

"You want to write a 50,000 word novel in one month? You should use Scrivenor."

"You found a wallet lying in the street? You should find its owner and give it back to them."

In the first case, "should" indicates "it would be instrumentally rational for you to do this". In the second case, "should" indicates "it would be moral for you to do this". I feel that this distinction, which I shall term the instrumental-moral distinction, is something we overlook far more often than we should (in the instrumental sense).


It feels intuitive to me that good morality ought to have generally good consequences (in the moral sense). However, this does not feel to me like what morality actually is. It should be the morality causing the consequences, as opposed to (the fact of the consequences being good causing the original behaviour to be good).

It feels intuitive to me that, if we wish to form accurate moral judgement, then the intention behind an act ought (instrumental sense) to affect our moral assessment of the situation. Consider a situation in which some terrorists have cunningly disguised a grenade as a tennis ball. It is lying next to a park full of kids, where a man notices it and throws it in, causing it to explode with unpleasant consequences. In case (i) the man had no knowledge of what his throwing the ball would do, in case (ii) he was in league with the terrorists. Cases (i) and (ii) are clearly morally different, and there are two ways I see in which we can recognise this.

A consequentialist view is to say that, while the morality of throwing the ball was identical between the cases, in case (i) the man lacks moral responsibility.

A non-consequentialist view is to say that in case (i) it was not immoral for the man to throw what he reasonably believed to be a tennis ball, but his reasonable action had unfortunate consequences; in case (ii), what he did was clearly immoral.


Many actions may be regarded as good because they promote good consequences, even when the link is not obvious. Moreover, they may in themselves have bad consequences, but promote a social atmosphere which has good consequences. For example, suppose a hungry child steals some sweets from Tesco. Tesco won't notice the loss, the child will notice the sweets. And yet this would generally be regarded as wrong, even by those who do not hold to Natural Rights based moralities. What's more, we hold the child morally responsible for the theft, even if they have done a utility calculation and honestly concluded that they will get more from it than the supermarket.

This seems inconsistent with the consequentialist judgement of the grenade thrower in (i). Both the man and the child mistakenly believed they were doing good, but were wrong in ways which they could not have foreseen.

What about the intentions? On first glance one could suggest they both meant well, so this fails to explain the difference. But I think that in the case of the child there is good reason to question their motives, even if they have done a utility calculation. Note that the result is very beneficial to themselves; had the child been stealing bread and giving it to the homeless, I suspect we would be a lot more sympathetic to them.

Hence I lean towards the second, non-consequentialist account of morality given in II: that intentions have a real part to play in determining the morality of an action. Obviously they are not the whole story: someone who imposes a minimum wage in a misguided attempt to help the poor does wrong just as surely as one who does it to drive competing businesses out of the market; however, I shall argue, the moral wrong is different.


Providing I exist, I am happy to assert that I possess a deontological right of self-ownership. I am just as happy to assert the same rights for other people, and consider it somewhere between "unlikely but plausible" and "very likely" that the same rights exist for animals and for unborn babies in the womb. (Hence I oppose abortion, and have recently taken up vegetarianism). In short, I believe in the Lockean system of natural rights. I have misgivings about his homesteading principle, but I've looked at the alternatives and it seems to be the theory most likely to be correct.

The real problem with natural rights is that it really doesn't get you very far. I happen to believe that those who are well-off ought to help those in need (note that this is NOT a justification for a third party to force the well-off to provide this help) but there is nothing in the theory of natural rights to suggest that this is the case.

Essentially, natural rights works fine as a system for determining what is morally permissible and obligatory, but we need a second system in order to work out what it would be morally good to do.


My problem with virtue ethics is that I fail to see how one determines what is virtuous. Talk of promoting "human flourishing" sounds rather like we're back to consequentialism. Appeals to divine authority lead us to ask a) how does God declaring something to be good make it good, and b) does the phrase "God is good" then really mean anything more than "God says he is good" or perhaps "God is not a hypocrite"?

Ultimately, though, virtue ethics does such a good job of explaining my intuitions about morality that I overlook this issue. Obviously I search for a justificatory metaethic or a better theory, but the idea that morality is less about what you do than about who you are resolves one of my fundamental worries about morality and free will, and what's more it suggests a solution to my feeling that good morality should have good consequences, with the causal link running that way. Why? Because two of the key characteristics I consider to be virtuous are benevolence and instrumental rationality. Put these together, and the moral agent

  • [morally] should want good consequences for others, and therefore
  • [instrumentally] should pursue actions which lead to those consequences
Hence we "should" take actions which have good consequences, but it is not a moral "should". Which means that the example I gave at the beginning, that you [morally] should return the lost wallet to its rightful owner, was wrong. More precisely, you [morally] should want to be the kind of person who returns lost wallets to their rightful owners, and so therefore you [instrumentally] should return the wallet to its rightful owner.

Returning to our legislator who imposes a minimum wage, causing unemployment among the worst off people under her influence: if she meant well, then this stems from a failure of instrumental rationality and indicates a lack of that particular virtue. If she imposed it in order to drive competitors out of the market, then this is due to a lack of benevolence.

Friday, 25 October 2013

A brief note on left, right, and libertarianism

I do not see libertarianism as inherently left-wing or right-wing.

It seems to me that the most common way for someone to become a libertarian is through a combination of left-wing instincts and a pro-markets view of economics. This matches my own experience, and while I don't know many other libertarians in person it does not seem to be an uncommon experience.

I believe that it is generally easier to change people's factual beliefs than their instinctive moral beliefs. Given this, I think that the best prospect for recruiting people to the libertarian cause is to bring people over from the left. This is difficult, in that, if I am honest, I do see our position as being closer to that of the right.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Problems with Rawls

The last two weeks of our "Freedom and Equality: Contemporary Debates in Political Philosophy" course have focused upon John Rawls' theory of Justice as Fairness. I have found it unconvincing on numerous accounts, and undoubtedly some of these will be due to not understanding his theory well enough. However, I think it is a good idea to write out all of my objections here, so that I have a clear idea of what my objections are; then it will perhaps a) be easier to find responses to my objections, b) clarify my own ideas, and c) help convince people that Rawls was wrong, as I believe he was.

It is difficult to provide a brief summary of a theory as complex as Rawls'; very roughly speaking, he believes that justice should be determined behind a "veil of ignorance" in which we are deprived of knowledge about certain contingent facts of our existence, most importantly where in society we find ourselves. He argues that in this situation, reasonable and rational people would adopt three rules, in decreasing order of importance:

  1. A set of basic liberties, as extensive as is possible without infringing upon the liberties of others.
  2. Fair Equality of Opportunity
  3. A "minimax" principle, in which we seek above all to maximise the welfare of the worst off in society.

The Scope of Rawls' Argument

Objection One: the definition of "Society"
Rawls sees society or social cooperation as a project for the common good, and his theory concerns the distribution of the benefits resulting from this. But if Alex has regular trade with Bob, and Caleb lives in the same area but has no trade with either of them, then it does not seem that he is part of society in a way that it is meaningfully related to the trade. Hence I see no reason why he should be entitled to any share of the benefits from the trade. Generalising this, our economy as a whole is a set of trades between individuals and/or firms. Hence, it seems to me that what we have is less a single society, whose benefits are to be distributed between all people, but rather a large number of interlinking societies.

Alternatively, one could argue that Caleb, while not directly involved in the trade, is indirectly involved in that he takes part in the social institutions which make the trade possible. (Rawls takes the word "institutions" to refer to rules or to behavioural norms). But this seems highly counter-intuitive:  an American lives and does business under a fairly similar set of rules to myself, especially as compared to the full space of possible sets of rules rather than merely those which have been realised in actual human societies. Yet he is surely of a different society to me, or else it is difficult to avoid extending the definition of "my society" to almost the entire world.

Objection Two: starting-points and end-points
In the introduction to A Theory of Justice, Rawls describes justice as having two components: just behaviour, for which he cites the Aristotelian idea of "not taking that to which you are not entitled", and a just starting-point. His theory deals with the latter; we are not at the starting-point, so it is difficult to see how his theory justifies redistribution. Even if there was an unjust starting point, we are so far removed from it and the world is so much richer that it was at the starting-point, that this injustice - if it is indeed an injustice (see below) - is surely a trifling issue. Note also the potentially vast difference between a just starting-point and a just end-point, following on from Nozick in How Liberty upsets Patterns.

Rawlsian "Justice"

Objection Three: Rational choice does not equal justice
Compare two potential societies, A and B. Both are perfectly equal, but Society A is slightly richer - each person there receives 200 utils per month, compared to 190 utils per month in Society B. Given a choice between the two societies, one would obviously choose A; however, actually ending up with Society A does not seem like "justice" in any way.

Objection Four: Distributive vs. Procedural justice
I advocate a purely procedural view of justice - that is, I see justice as lying in the absence of certain moral rules being broken, rather than in a particular outcome. If Aeris works hard all year, then Bob the slob comes along and steals the fruits of Aeris' labour, becoming richer than Aeris in the process, then the injustice lies not in the fact of Bob being better off than Aeris - had Bob earned his income there would be no injustice - but in the way he obtained his wealth. The very fact that an idea such as "justice be done, though the heavens fall!" is even conceivable indicates that justice is to a large extent detached from its consequences.

The Veil of Ignorance

Objection Five: Rawls fails to demonstrate that the minimax principle is superior to (for example) the Principle of Utility
So far as I am aware, Rawls offers three arguments that minimax is better than the principle of maximising the sum of happiness experienced. He asserts that, behind the veil of ignorance, we do not know our risk aversion or the probability of various outcomes. Both of these seem highly suspicious (see below) but let's allow those assumptions for now.

The first is that, due to the risk involved, maximising utility is irrational. The risk of a bad outcome is too high to accept it. This seems to me to simply be a misapplication of decision theory. For example, our lecturer attempted to motivate this with a thought experiment in which you are offered a choice between two gambles, each of which we may assume to rely on a fifty-fifty chance. The first gamble will pay off either £1 or £2, the second will pay off either £0.10 or £1,000,000. Under normal circumstances, expected utility maximisation obviously implies taking the latter gamble. But under a situation of desperation, such as if you are stranded in the middle of nowhere with no other money, your child in need of urgent medical care to avoid a painful death, and a nearby telephone box requiring £1 to call for an air ambulance, it clearly makes sense to take the first gamble, in which you are guaranteed £1, instead of taking the chance of your child dying. This was supposed to be an example of expected utility maximisation giving the wrong answer, but that is OBVIOUSLY nonsense. The marginal utility of £1 in that situation is very large, and the marginal utility of £1,000,000 is nowhere near 1,000,000 times as large. I took this up with the lecturer during a break, and he didn't even try to defend it, instead immediately moving on to the next argument.

Secondly, Rawls argues that there can be "strains of commitment" - that it is necessary that people who would endorse a system behind the veil will continue to endorse it after the veil has been lifted, regardless of where in society they find themselves. Rawls had in mind the poorest in society, arguing that maximising utility could require an underclass who could not stand the conditions they were in, even for all the good it did everyone else. We'll ignore any doubts about the likelihood or plausibility of this situation and consider - why should this apply only to the poor? Suppose a hard-working and talented person (call him Harry) produces a great value of goods and services, and then, due to the prevailing social institutions, has to give them away at great personal loss and very little corresponding gain to the worst off. Would it not be perfectly possible for Harry to be annoyed at the system, and demand that he be allowed to keep his wealth, even at the expense of the poorest? The lecturer argued that the fact that Harry is better-off rather than worse-off is pure luck, and that this is an unjust complaint for him to have of the worse off, to which I reply: Fine. I have no problem with your claim that it is pure luck that he turned out to be hard-working and intelligent. But let's not pretend that this is in any way compatible will free will or moral responsibility. Then your argument for "justice" is self-defeating.

Finally, Rawls argues that a society designed around the principle of utility would be "unstable". He claims that a well-ordered society satisfies a "publicity condition", that all within the society know the principles upon which the society is built. Therefore, under a society based around the principle of utility, people's knowledge of this would lead to both resentment of others: "Their well-being depends upon my suffering!" and a lack of self-respect: "I only get what I do because it creates happiness. I don't meaningfully earn any of it!" Self-respect is seen as an important primary social good; combined with resentment of the better off, it is seen leading to instability.

The obvious utilitarian response is that instability is in itself a negative consequence, factored into the calculations of utility. A utilitarian would see no inherent point to Rawls' injunction that all should know the founding principle of their society, and so could deny his whole argument. They could argue that a society based upon the minimax principle would suffer from the same problems - "I'm paying my hard-earned wage to look after that lowlife!" "He has so much spare time, he can't really be worse off than me, why must I subsidise him?" "I have no personal value; my only value is the extent to which I improve the lot of the worst off." This argument, like the other two purporting to provide evidence for minimax over maximising the sum of utility, is solid 24-carat bunk.

I'm heading off to sleep now, but I wouldn't want you to think I've run out of objections. Here are some more upon which I intend to expand, and I'm pretty confident there are more than these to come.

Can we be truly represented behind the veil of ignorance? (We are the sum of our experiences; we don't know personal things which would not allow identification, e.g. risk-aversion...)
Treatment of people in classes violates Rawl's own "Separation of persons"
Not knowing probabilities of different strata of society is a contradiction
Assertion that all societies must follow the same principle, no choice to move to societies based upon different principles
Overstating the case/ assuming away counterexamples, even where we can be confident they exist - "only justified if improving the lot of the worst off" vs. "unjustified if making the worst off worse off"
Basic freedoms - complete Lockean/Nozickian natural rights perfectly consistent with first and most important principle
Idea that economic growth can be ignored if necessary to help the very poorest in existing society - classes considered at fixed point in time or dynamically?

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

HMHB, and Trying not to drown

On Tuesday evenings, I go kayaking with Manchester University Canoe Club (MUCC). Today we had the drill where you fill all the kayaks with water, and then the challenge is to get them all empty of water and get people into them, without touching the sides of the pool. Let's just say that if ever I'm in a group of people stranded in a fairly shallow sea with all the lifeboats currently underwater, I'll drown myself immediately in order to be spared going through the experience again. The group eventually got one kayak sorted before time ran out; I spent most if not all of the time trying to keep out of the way, and that was probably for the best.

That aside, I've had a fairly good few days. Last Thursday, I saw Half Man Half Biscuit live; it was incredible. I don't tend to swear Prior to then, I had never intentionally sworn (as in, realising the word I was using was a swearword rather than just an insult - ah, the joys of being nine years old) excepting when quoting others, and, having read about the singing along that is a mainstay of their concerts due to the devotion of their fanbase, I was uncertain as to what I would do in songs like "Vatican Broadside", "National Shite Day" and "Fuckin' 'Ell, It's Fred Titmus"; in the event, I just went along with it, swore more in one evening than I intend to in the entire rest of my life (any other HMHB concerts I may go to notwithstanding), and had a great time  doing so. There's a video of "For What is Chatteris?" (first song of the encore) here, although it's not the best quality and the person taking the video had the misfortune to be near the back; by virtue of being there early, I was lucky enough to be in the middle of the front row of the audience.

Unintended Consequences

When I was studying A-level economics, one of the basic arguments we were taught to mention whenever we were discussing government interventions was the risk of "unintended consequences". That is to say, government actions tend to have effects beyond their immediate, intended goal, and so we should be wary of government action in case it creates unforeseen problems.

This is a slightly puzzling argument. Yes, of course government action has unintended consequences. But then again, so does private action, and government action is of course a substitute for private action since resources are limited. Moreover, who's to say the consequences are bad? Advocates of larger government frequently cite the numerous technologies which have spun off from government programs - touchscreen computers and MRI from space programs, and the internet from the military. In this sense, they are making the same mistake as us smaller/no government advocates when we cite "unintended consequences" against a specific policy. Yes, there are unintended consequences and depending upon whether or not they are - on average - good or bad, this makes a prima facie case for generally larger or smaller government respectively, but they provide little if any reason to advocate particular programs.

I'm surely not the first person to have noticed this. The fact that the argument not only remains on the A-level syllabus, but continues to sound convincing to most people could be down to a number of reasons:

  1. We have reason to suspect that the unintended consequences will tend to be negative. If this is the case, then I see no particular reason to believe that an unbiased analyst will foresee positive consequences more often than negative ones. This would suggest that most people, including the people setting the syllabus, share the typical libertarian's scepticism of the motives of government officials, at least to some degree. 
  2. Advocates of government intervention have taken over the A-level syllabus writing committee, and are teaching students to use weak arguments for their opponents' positions. 
  3. Most people - including people intelligent enough to become senior examiners - do not tend to think to hard about an argument in front of them in order to see the problems with it. 
  4. We care more about negative unintended consequences. There are reasons this might be the case - for example, due to the endowment effect (or just simple diminishing returns) we would care more about losing £10m than gaining £10m.
  5. Less government is just good policy, and societies producing people with a bias towards wanting less government will do better and so by natural selection this kind of government-restricting belief will tend to form. 
There are probably plenty of other possible reasons I have neglected. Of the ones I have suggested, 1,3 and 4 seem highly plausible; 2 seems overly paranoid and fanciful; and while 5 might have some truth to it, it seems rather implausible as anything approaching an entire explanation when there are so many other factors affecting our psychology.

Ultimate moral of the story: Not all arguments against government are correct, not all arguments for government are wrong. (If you don't share my political views, you should of course reverse that). Each argument should be evaluated critically upon its own merits.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Dialectic Materialism

The writing of the famous psuedo-philosopher Hegel is remarkably difficult to understand. This is partly because the translation from German is difficult to render without losing shades of meaning. It is partly because what he said was itself not that clear, being the kind of system one typically expects to hear from stoned students. And it is partly because he was deliberately unclear, so as to conceal his atheism and thus be able to get a job at a university.

One way in which he went about achieving this stunning lack of clarity was through the use of what are known as Dialectical Triads. This was a rhetorical device which might be used in one of two ways.

The first way was for him to present an idea (e.g. master), then to present its opposite (e.g. slave) and then to present the two as the same idea (e.g. master = slave).

The second way was for him to present a pair of ideas (e.g. poverty and unconciousness), then to present a second pair consisting of the opposites to the first pair (e.g. riches and unconciousness); finally, he would choose one idea he liked from each pair and present them together (e.g. riches and conciousness).

Hegel had some wacky ideas, most obviously his disputing the Law of the Excluded Middle. (The law of the excluded middle roughly states that for two propositions P and not-P, exactly one of them is true). However, so far as I am aware he never saw the Dialectical Triads as anything more than rhetorical devices. Certainly, he didn't see them as powerful metaphysical forces which determined the course of history. It took Karl Marx for that particular idiocy to arise.

Marx believed that the driving force of history was a triad of:
Common Ownership & Poverty
Private Ownership & Wealth
leading to
Common Ownershio & Wealth

Based on this, he argued that prehistoric humans had lived under primitive communism in order to survive; there were then the stages of tyranny, feudalism and capitalism; and finally, the great capitalist economies would see workers' revolutions, leading to true communism - the third stage of the triad.

This was Dialectic Materialism; it was also, of course, compkete and utter tosh.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Gay marriage vs. Straight non-religious marriage

My position on state recognition for gay marriage was (and remains) roughly thus:

  • The State should not be involved in marriage at all, whether for straight couples, gay couples, or polygamous groups.
  • Thus, I opposed it being made legal, as this involved the state claiming the right to define marriage, This is as opposed to it merely being legal. I now oppose it being de-legalised for the same reason.
  • From a religious perspective, I do not personally see a marriage between two people of the same sex as being valid.
  • However, freedom of contract implies that two people who wish to have a contract between them which does not affect anyone else should be allowed to have that contract. If they wish to call it marriage, then that's their choice.
Th third point there is probably the most controversial. I see the fundamental purpose of marriage as being an illustration of the relationship between God and His people. God is an essential part of a marriage. This leads to a question which I'd never considered or even though of before it was asked on me on Tuesday by a housemate:

Do I see a straight marriage between two non-Christians as valid?

Since I see God as a fundamental part of a marriage, my instinct is not to recognise such as marriage as valid. This has important implications. Since I also believe that sex outside of marriage is wrong, answering "No" implies that I should believe sex to always be wrong for any non-Christian, "married" or not. It would not require me to advocate banning non-Christians from getting married, as explained above, but it might well mean that people who do advocate a ban on gay marriages should also advocate a ban on non-religious marriages.

There are perhaps ways of escaping this. Perhaps there is another crucial difference. The most obvious attempt would be some kind of Natural Law argument - that non-Christian marriages still serve a natural purpose of bringing new children into the world. However, I find this unconvincing - perhaps new children are brought into the world, but if those children are not brought up to be Christians, then is this really fulfilling Natural Law?

Perhaps it is that a straight non-Christian marriage has the potential to become a Christian marriage if both partners pledge themselves to Jesus. This simply isn't the case with a gay marriage. However, why then not say that the marriage becomes valid only once the partners have both committed themselves to God, and was previously invalid?

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

First Ceilidh of the new academic year

I've just got back from this aforementioned Ceilidh, and it was, as it always is, great fun. There were of course a whole load of beginners, and even the more experienced (well, slightly more experienced) among us were a bit out of practice, so there were more mistakes than usual, but who cares? By the end we were getting the hang of it, and in the final dance, the Mad Hatter's Threesome, myself and another guy who has been doing it for far longer than I terrified several third partners in turn. Great fun, I recommend Ceilidhs (that's not the correct plural, I don't know what is) (or folk-dancing in general) to anyone and everyone. Even the disabled, at IVFDF back in March I counted at least three people dancing in wheelchairs.

PS. By a weird coincidence, it turns out that one of the girls I know there (as in actually properly know and have met socially outside of the Ceilidhs, not just someone I happened to meet) is just living just two doors down from me this year. I know there have been far stranger coincidences, but it's still weird when it happens to you.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Fair-play theory is a crock of nonsense

Previously, I summarised the main theories as to my we ought to submit to a state. It is generally accepted amongst political philosophers that we do not actually consent to the state. Quite a few believe we would consent under certain conditions; I possibly agree, but do not think that this is relevant to the state as it is. Benefit Theory relies on circular logic. The idea of democratic fairness involves some rather heroic logical leaps: it seems to suggest that, by disregarding my friend's belief that I would be better off to donate £10 to the Labour Party than to keep the money myself, I treat him as an inferior. Consequentialism is ultimately a lawbreaker's charter, since there are many, many times when one can do better on utilitarian grounds than obey the state (e.g. one can evade taxes and this will likely help you and other more than it will hurt people by contributing to the national debt). The "Duty of rescue" argument is in my view the strongest one, but relies on a view of the state of nature with which I strongly disagree. Populism is very well dealt with my Michael Huemer in The Problem of Political Authority. Briefly, people have all sorts of biases which predispose them to obey people who apparently wield authority over them, whether or not it is really "legitimate".

But the view which most draws my incredulity is that of Fair-Play Theory. This is a view summarised by H. L. A. Hart: “when a number of persons conduct any joint enterprise according to rules and thus restrict their liberty, those who have submitted to these restrictions when required have a right to a similar submission from those who have benefited by their submission”.

This sounds very elegant and all that, but it is fundamentally pure assertion and, when you think about it, not a very convincing assertion. Suppose a group of workers join to create a firm making ingredients for spaghetti bolognese; the increased competition causes prices to fall and quality to rise; as a ravenous eater of spaghetti bolognese, I greatly benefit from this even if I do not actually buy their products. Clearly, this does not require me to join in their workers' co-operative; similarly, it is completely ridiculous to believe that a bunch of people agreeing to a common authority (as if this was even close to how government came about or continues in its existence) and so reducing the local rate of robbery and violence forces other in the region to also submit to this common authority.

In an attempt to move beyond this really rather ridiculous assertion, fair-play theorists typically introduce thought experiments; "people in a third-world village construct and maintain a well. Other people use this well; this does not harm the people who built the well, but still appears to incur a right of enforcement." This is easily dealt with by a basic appreciation of property rights. It is not okay for me to borrow someone's property without asking, even if they are not using it and it will not in any way be damaged or consumed, unless I cannot ask them and am pretty sure that if I did ask them then they would let me borrow it. Once this is understood, the argument collapses into simple consent theory and is easily dealt with.

George Klosko has an interesting account of why the state may justifiably force people to contribute to providing "presumptive goods". This essentially a modification of the economic definition of Public Goods (that is, non-rival and non-excludable, i.e. I cannot prevent you from consuming it and my enjoyment of it does not reduce your enjoyment of it; the classic example is a lighthouse) but with a couple of extra requirements. One of these is that "the benefits and burdens be fairly distributed". But what does Klosko mean by "fairness"? To my mind at least, it does not seem "fair" that anyone at all need contribute to the provision of public order: criminals ought simply to behave themselves, not mug or attack people, and that ought to be the end of it. It is "unfair" that I must put any effort at all into protecting myself or worry about being attacked. Or if it is necessary that public order be somehow provided, it hardly seems "fair" that I be forced to pay for a system of security which I regard as not only ineffective but also immoral.

There is a second way in which people approach fair-play theory, which is to argue that those who accept benefits from others without contributing to their production are "free-riding" and thus wronging those who provide the benefits. Perhaps they are free-riding, but it's not like they force you to provide the service. Go back to the spag-bol-ingredient-producing-workers' co-operative: I do not directly interact with them, but as a result of their actions I enjoy lower priced and higher quality spag bols. This increase in my welfare is worth (say) £50 a year. Would anyone seriously suggest that, since in its absence I would happily pay up to £50 for the firm to exist, I ought to actually pay money to this firm in return for the benefits with which it provides me?

A basic point about morality

I recently had a late-night discussion of sex, religion and ethics. Following this, I wish to point which I was arguing for and I think ought to be impossible to deny, but the people I was discussing seemed unwilling to accept:

It is impossible to be too morally good. It is possible to over-think morality and as a result act immorally, but this is a completely different thing. If you think it is possible to be too moral, then this simply means there is a difference between the morals you claim to believe in and the morals you actually believe in.

For example, suppose you believe that it is conceivable that by being too moral, you end up causing the destruction of human life. Actually, I reply, this does not mean that you were too moral; in fact, given that you regard the situation where you act "less morally" but human life is saved as being more valuable than the one in which you act "too morally", this simply means that, according to your view of morality, the action (or set of actions) which led to the destruction of human life were in fact immoral. Either that, or the destruction of human life was basically an acceptable thing given the existing circumstances.

PS. I haven't posted much recently. This was due to a) going on holiday, b) getting a new laptop and spending far too much time playing Civilization V after being unable to do so on my old laptop, c) writing a post about relationships and then removing it after deciding that there was too much detail that I did not think I ought to make public, and d) writing a post about money and altruism, then wondering if it was actually saying anything in the slightest bit original or non-obvious. The first reason no longer applies; I still play Civ V but the binging which occurred after ten months of deprivation is out of my system; and I do not regret removing posts which I do not feel actually have anything good to say. Basically, I apologise for my absence and hope to get back to a regular posting schedule.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Every Market Failure is a business idea

One accusations libertarians frequently face is that we are "utopian". I seek to demonstrate that the real problem is that non-libertarians are insufficiently imaginative.

To take an example: this is from Yvain's critique of libertarianism as a general approach towards the question of how much government there should be. (His position, as I understand it, is that each program should be evaluated on its own merits and according to its results; I disagree, considering morality to lie in procedure rather than outcome, but his is an understandable and eminently reasonable position).

2.3: How do coordination problems justify regulation of ethical business practices?The normal libertarian belief is that it is unnecessary for government to regulate ethical business practices. After all, if people object to something a business is doing, they will boycott that business, either incentivizing the business to change its ways, or driving them into well-deserved bankruptcy. And if people don't object, then there's no problem and the government shouldn't intervene.A close consideration of coordination problems demolishes this argument. Let's say Wanda's Widgets has one million customers. Each customer pays it $100 per year, for a total income of $100 million. Each customer prefers Wanda to her competitor Wayland, who charges $150 for widgets of equal quality. Now let's say Wanda's Widgets does some unspeakably horrible act which makes it $10 million per year, but offends every one of its million customers.There is no incentive for a single customer to boycott Wanda's Widgets. After all, that customer's boycott will cost the customer $50 (she will have to switch to Wayland) and make an insignificant difference to Wanda (who is still earning $99,999,900 of her original hundred million). The customer takes significant inconvenience, and Wanda neither cares nor stops doing her unspeakably horrible act (after all, it's giving her $10 million per year, and only losing her $100).The only reason it would be in a customer's interests to boycott is if she believed over a hundred thousand other customers would join her. In that case, the boycott would be costing Wanda more than the $10 million she gains from her unspeakably horrible act, and it's now in her self-interest to stop committing the act. However, unless each boycotter believes 99,999 others will join her, she is inconveniencing herself for no benefit.Furthermore, if a customer offended by Wanda's actions believes 100,000 others will boycott Wanda, then it's in the customer's self-interest to “defect” from the boycott and buy Wanda's products. After all, the customer will lose money if she buys Wayland's more expensive widgets, and this is unnecessary – the 100,000 other boycotters will change Wanda's mind with or without her participation.This suggests a “market failure” of boycotts, which seems confirmed by experience. We know that, despite many companies doing very controversial things, there have been very few successful boycotts. Indeed, few boycotts, successful or otherwise, ever make the news, and the number of successful boycotts seems much less than the amount of outrage expressed at companies' actions.
Upon reading this, my thought process was along the lines of: "OK, this seems like a reasonable model of the situation. Let's suppose I'm in that situation and there is no state. How would I go about solving it?"

Ultimately, the problem is lack of commitment from individuals. Talk is cheap, and the incentives and options available lead them to behaviour which fails to solve the problem. So clearly we want to change either the incentives or the options.

The first idea which came to me is that, since so many transactions are carried out by credit card, could one have one's credit card blocked from being used at certain stores? Then you would sign up to a campaign page which would work in a similar way to Kickstarter: you, and everyone else signing up, would enter your details and agree that upon the campaign reaching a certain, specified number of participants, some switch would be activated and none of you could use your credit cards at that particular store.

I won't claim this as a perfect solution: there would need to be more thought put into issues such as preventing the use of cash or alternate credit cards, and persuading people to trust the website with their details (though it should be noted that plenty of websites have managed to overcome this difficulty without any trouble). Perhaps these would turn out to be insurmountable and my idea wouldn't work. Fine then. Perhaps, with more and more websites moving online, there might be some kind of software that kept tabs on where you were shopping and would trumpet loudly that you had bought from someone you had pledged not to. The idea I am getting at is not that I have solutions - for all I know, these are both terrible ideas which could never possibly work - but that there do exist ways we can solve these problems without resorting to government.

Market failure exists, at least primarily, when individual rationality on the part of all actors leads to group irrationality. That is to say, any attempt by an individual to increase social welfare reduces their individual welfare. This creates a deadweight loss - it would be possible to make some (maybe even all) people better off without making anyone worse off. The classic solution is for the state to somehow mandate the behavioural changes which realise this increase in social welfare, but it seems to me that this model underestimates the ability of entrepreneurs to come up with new solutions.

What's more, technology is making these entrepreneurial solutions ever easier to realise. Perhaps 50 years ago, a stateless society would have had problems funding a road system. I don't know how it would have worked, but three ideas present themselves:
1) Roads are operated as a loss-leader by those selling cars and petrol. This seems unlikely, particularly in a competitive market system, partly because it is unclear that it would be worth the cost and partly because only a small portion of the increased revenue caused by a firm investing in roads would accrue to the firm making the actual investment.
2) Road users are charged a flat rate regardless of how much they use the roads. They would have to pay a fee for usage of a firm's roads, and would receive a windscreen sticker indicating a right to use that firm's roads; if caught by an agent of the firm using the roads without a sticker, they could be prosecuted. This is fairly similar if not identical to the statist system. and would have a number of problems - large economies of scale (in catching unauthorised users, logistics of road repair) leading to an uncompetetive market structure, poor incentives for road users, vast expenses for families driving on holiday.
3) Toll booths. These would also have problems - slowing down traffic, large economies of scale (because who really wants to pay twenty fares on the way to work) leading to an uncompetetive market structure.

There may well be other ways I have overlooked; I would guess that some combination of 2 and 3 would be most likely. (There might also have been a massive move towards public transport). However, the problem of funding would be ridiculously easy to solve nowadays. Something like the London congestion charge could operate, with cameras recording if you had been on a road, and if so then how often, and at the end of the month you would receive a bill. Alternatively, your car might automatically record where you went and send it to some agency.

This "failure of imagination", if you will, is common to many areas covered by the state. To take a quote from Clement Attlee (for non-UK readers, the UK Prime Minister 1945-51 and the chief founder of the modern British welfare state):
In a civilised community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways – they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organised community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community. The first way is intolerable, and as for the third: Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient’s character, and terminable at his caprice.
Ultimately, the problem of supporting the unemployed falls into two categories: the short-term unemployed, and the long-term unemployed. It seems fair to assume here that Attlee refers purely to the short-term problem (which is just as well, for otherwise I should be lambasting him for his - ahem - uncharitable approach towards the issue of charity). For this problem, he completely overlooks the possibility of private insurance, most likely through a Friendly society although I see no reason in principle why it should not be done for profit. Indeed, given that at this time National Insurance was a genuine insurance scheme for workers, rather than the income tax by a different name which it has become, it seems odd that he failed to think of this possibility.

Ultimately, the best way to demonstrate that something is not a market failure is to find a market solution. Perhaps these market solutions do not always exist. But it does seem rare to find evidence that state advocates have tried to find those solutions before decreeing intervention.


A thought experiment:

Two communities meet for the very first time. The Gorblaxians have a strict social edict - not necessarily enforced by a state as such, but at the very least adhered to for fear of complete social rejection -that every member of the community must give one eighth of their income to help the poor. The Jemishes have an identical edict, save for the fact that in their case it is only one sixtieth they must give.

The Gorblaxians have a mathematical system in which the default is to use base eight. The Jemishes have a mathematical system in which the default is to use base sixty.

As a member of the Gorblaxian society, would/should you regard the Jemish community as uncharitable and/or morally inferior?

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Primary Challenge of Political Philosophy...

...should be less to explain why the governments of liberal democracies, primarily in Europe and North America, are legitimate and that why we must obey them, but rather to explain precisely why less enlightened states are not legitimate, why there is no duty to obey them.

It seems to me to be beneficial to view political obligation as a number of sets of actions. There exists a set of acts which are morally permissible for an individual within the state of nature, and a set of acts which are morally permissible for the same individual when under a state. This essay shall discuss the relationship between these two sets, which we shall label the Natural set (actions morally permissible within the state of nature) and the Statist set (actions morally permissible when under a state).

The basic claim of the philosophical anarchist is that there are no acts in the Natural set which are not also in the Statist set, i.e. that there are no political obligations. The basic claim of the political anarchist is that there are no acts in the Statist set which are not also in the Natural set, i.e. that being a representative of the state confers no special moral status.

One of the key claims made by defenders of the state is that the legitimacy of its laws is content-independent: that is, that we have the duty to obey the laws of a legitimate state regardless of what those laws are. I take it as a priori that it is impermissible to murder or imprison someone purely on the grounds of their religion. It is a simple fact that many states, from various medieval kingdoms to Nazi Germany and the USSR to a number of modern states in Africa and the Middle East, have not respected this and have instead murdered many people specifically because they were of a different religion to that of the state's leaders. From these premises, it is obvious that either (a) the obligation to obey a state's laws is not content-independent, or (b) the citizens of many states, including a number which exist today, have no obligation towards their states. Otherwise the persecuted minorities would be required to hand themselves in to be killed, and if they did not then other citizens would be obliged to point them out to be rounded up and slaughtered.

If conclusion (a) is accepted, then the question becomes: even if a state is legitimate, what distinguishes its legitimate commands, which I must obey, from those which I have no duty to obey? This is likely to depend upon the specific theory used to defend the state. The question from the beginning of this essay may be formulated as "Why is it that I must pay a given proportion of my income to the state of the UK, while Jews under Hitler in 1944 were under no obligation to reveal themselves?" (1) If one appeals to Christopher Heath Wellman's argument from a "Samaritan Duty of Rescue", then one has a duty to obey laws only in so far as they are necessary to rescue people from the state of nature, which seems fair enough. If one appeals to a theory of Democratic Fairness, then one runs into problems - the Nazis were democratically elected, which makes it far harder to argue that they were illegitimate but that our existing governments are legitimate.

If conclusion (b) is accepted, then the question is much the same. This has slightly less of a problem, in that it need not explain why a state taking 40% of my income is legitimate while an otherwise identical state taking 100% of my income is not. However, it still needs to explain precisely why I must obey David Cameron, but no Syrian need obey Bashar al-Assad.

I would regard it as a failure of a theory of political obligation if it held that all people must obey all laws of their local state.

(1) The obvious, flippant answer is "Because the Jews would have been killed, whereas you just wouldn't be able to afford that new computer or whatever. Duh!" While not entirely impossible, this raises the issue of what exactly it takes for our suffering to be permissible for the state to inflict. Suppose that a 40% income tax is legitimate, but a 100% income tax will cause me to starve and die and is therefore impermissible. Given that a rate of 90% would leave me wallowing in homelessness and poverty but would not kill me, is this permissible? A rate of 70% would allow me to survive and to just about pay rent, but would leave me no security in case I fell ill; would this be permissible? Moreover, this answer fails to provide a positive case as to why the state has a right to even 1%, let alone 40%, of my earnings. It gives no substantive answer as to why the state could legitimately take 40% of my income, but I could not legitimate take 40% of your income.