A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 31 January 2016

What Should We Learn from Wilt Chamberlain?

Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia is full of thought experiments which have become classics. Though the libertarianism which is central to the book has been less influential than the left-liberalism of his then-Harvard-colleague John Rawls, it is hard to name much - if anything - from Rawls' magnum opus A Theory of Justice which has been reused outside of a Rawlsian context. Nozick, however, has furnished us with The Experience Machine, The Utility Monster, and a whole host of ideas besides.

The idea which I intend to discuss is not one which has been, to the best of my (admittedly very limited) knowledge, outside of a libertarian context, but which I shall show has strong implications for how even those who disdain libertarianism ought to think about distributive justice. This idea, known as The Wilt Chamberlain example, comes from as passage entitled "How Liberty Upsets Patterns" and runs as follows. Suppose you have a society which enjoys perfect distributive justice. This might be perfect equality, it might be in exact accordance with some measure of desert - you name it. Nozick's argument is intended to be perfectly general.

Now Wilt Chamberlain, the legendary basketball player, is willing in his spare time to play basketball for the entertainment of other people; a million other people, in turn, are each willing to pay him $1 for the privilege of watching him. If these trades are allowed to happen then Wilt ends up vastly richer than other people in society. Hence either there can be no solid principle of distribute justice, or, in Nozick's words, "an egalitarian society would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults". There's a bit more to it than that, but only in order to tighten up the details; the entire essence of the problem is contained in this paragraph.

This is a very persuasive argument. It's hard to argue against the freedom to make trades in which no-one is made worse off, but - suitably idealised - this is the whole process of modern capitalism. Must we accept libertarianism?

No, actually. There's a remarkably simple solution, which I'm amazed hasn't become the mainstream interpretation of where this argument ought to go. In a word: sufficientarianism.

Sufficientarianism is the view that equality per se is not what matters in terms of distributive justice; rather, we ought to care simply that each person has enough. What we mean by "enough" is a matter of some debate - it seems like every sufficientarian theorist has their own definition, none of which I am fully persuaded by. I won't pretend it has no difficultes, either - should we make the poverty of many people direr in order to bring a single person up to the line of sufficiency, as some formulations suggest? But it provides an easy, obvious answer to Nozick's argument. Our original stipulation was that everyone had enough. given that distributive justice had been achieved. Assuming no-one is putting himself below the line of sufficiency by buying basketball tickets, which seems to me a reasonable assumption, there is no reason why the distribution of resources should be objectionable after people have paid to see Wilt playing basketball.

We can have a view of distributive justice which does not hold it to be acceptable for people to be starving in the street, without having to interfere. Nozick's argument fails to establish libertarianism, but it functions as a strong piece of evidence in favour of sufficientarianism being superior to egalitarianism.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

On "Integration" and the Current Migrant Crisis

I'm never quite certain whether, when people refer to integration of immigrants, they mean making those immigrants into full members of our civil society or whether they just mean persuading immigrants not to blow us up or sexually assault women. These correspond to two different views of potential immigrants: as people who look different but otherwise completely like us, or as the products of less advanced societies who hold correspondingly backward views.

The way many high liberals talk about the topic - as though integrating some migrants is the duty of a civilised society, but it is not something we need do with every single person who wants to enter the country - seems like it works far more with the second view of migrants. But these same people would be deeply uncomfortable with the implicit picture of migrants. Say what you like about Steve Sailer and such people: at least their view of immigrants is consistent with their politics.

Given that I'm on record as a supporter of open borders, it would be very convenient for me to hold the second vision of integration but the first view of migrants. This seems to be roughly what most open borders people believe, and with regard to your typical economic migrant I think it is probably the most reasonable view. But the "typical economic migrant" is selected for being relatively ambitious and cosmopolitan; the people fleeing Syria are simply trying to get away from a warzone, and do not appear to be selected for anything much other than being young and male. Obviously the pictures of migrants I presented at the start of this post are both exaggerations, and all actual migrants will fall somewhere between the two, but in general we might expect that the direr someone's circumstances are back in their country of origin, the closer they are likely to fall towards the uglier end of the spectrum. This is an uncomfortable fact for anyone trying to come up with a compassionate immigration policy.

This is rather unfortunate, and I don't really have a good answer to it. One option would be to take the deontological "immigration is a basic right which may never, under any circumstances, be denied" line, but I forfeited that principle long ago when I failed to apply it to Israel. Another option is to suggest that yes, there are costs to taking in immigrants, but ultimately we have to apply a sense of proportion: the benefits to the immigrants, most of whom are entirely law-abiding, vastly outweigh the costs to host societies. This is definitely the option to which I am most inclined, but it is not without its problems.

A photo taken last Thursday in central Budapest. From left to right:
Damjan (Macedonian), Oshadie (Sri Lankan), Nino (Croatian),
Olesya (Ukrainian), myself (British), Puja (Indian), Rachel (US),
Errol and Christy (US, though they met while teaching in Japan).
First is the fairly explicit cosmopolitan worldview. This is not to say that I believe cosmopolitanism to be wrong - entirely the opposite. Rather, it is very easy for me, who grew up in one country, currently live in another, plan on moving to yet another to do a PhD starting in 2017, have no idea where I will eventually end up, and live on a corridor with people of more nationalities than I can count, to endorse this kind of globalist worldview. The average person, if their culture is disrupted by foreigners - something which is distinctly more likely for them than for me - has nowhere else to go.

Second, there are the worries about cultural collapse. Social trust really is an important resource, even though I think conservatives tend to overestimate its volatility, and immigration really can harm it. Especially when the liberal authorities refuse to take genuine complaints about migrants seriously. Having read Haidt I do take this argument seriously, but what it really needs is to be put into quantitative terms. Social trust is, as with everything, the subject of a vast empirical literature, so how about we try to, however roughly, measure (a) the extent to which social capital is damaged by immigration, and (b) the extent to which other things we care about are damaged by loss of social capital? Perhaps we also place an inherent value on social capital, in which case that's also something to be factored into the equation.

In sum: I remain convinced that under normal circumstances, the UK ought to accept vastly more immigrants than it currently does. These are not normal circumstances, and I'm still trying to understand the implications of that. Deporting students - who are especially well-selected for liberal values, SJWs aside - is still stupid. But again, that's easy for me to say.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

More Venting

One of the courses I'm currently taking is a broad overview of political theory, the first half of which is an examination of the alleged duty of obey the law. Today we were discussing Fair-Play theory, and in particular Robert Nozick's counterargument. Fair-Play theory is the idea that "when several people come together and make sacrifices towards a cooperative venture for mutual benefit, they have the right to demand similar sacrifice from those who benefit from their venture." Nozick's objection is that it is quite easy to foist benefits upon someone, and moreover even if you do enjoy benefits from such a scheme it doesn't really seem like you have a duty to comply.

What struck me in the decision was just how emotionally violent some of the defenders of this theory got. It was suggested - not by me - that one could extend Nozick's argument to public order and defence. One girl suggested then that anyone who refused to pay taxes for public order ought just to be murdered - or at the very least, that if they were murdered, they simply got what was coming to them.

Suppose some girls have been on a night out. Most of them decide to get a taxi back home together, but one decides it's not worth the expense. Instead she decides to walk home. On the way back, she is sexually assaulted. Did she "get what was coming to her"?

Monday, 25 January 2016

One Reason to be Glad About Sexism

I don't think many people in the chess world intend to be sexist - much of the more blatant sexism is of the "benevolent" kind - the tournament livestream watcher who, writing in, addresses the commentators as "wise Peter and beautiful Sopiko", for example. But the demographics are very much male-dominated, and the culture surrounding the game reflects that - not helped by the fact that FIDE, the game's international governing body, is one of the last remaining bastions of the USSR.

Perhaps because of this culture, perhaps because of sexism in the communities from which chess players arise, perhaps because men tend to think more analytically, and perhaps simply because men tend to exhibit more variation than women in their abilities, there are vastly more strong male players than female players. Hou Yifan, the strongest female chess player in the world, is the world's 68th strongest player overall. I don't know how many male players are stronger than Humpy Koneru, the female no. 2, but a bit of extrapolation from the ratings at the lower end of the top 100 men suggests she's probably some way outside the top 200.

This means that there are a great many men who could potentially choose to identify as transwomen and compete for the women's world championship. I can definitely imagine some men doing that to become Women Grand Masters, the bar for which is set considerably lower than that which exists for Grand Masters proper, but I think it's unlikely to happen for the world championship.

Firstly, success in top chess tournaments has a lot to do with preparation. Magnus Carlsen, not a player noted for his strength in the opening, had no fewer than four grandmasters helping him on a daily basis during his last title defence - three of them "Super-GMs", members of the elite group of fifty or so of the world's very strongest players. (Only one woman - the great Judit Polgár - has ever been a super-GM). I imagine that it would be easier for someone uncontroversially accepted to be a woman to find willing aides than someone who might be seen as a huckster.

Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, people don't really care about the women's events. Judit Polgár was the undisputed greatest female player in the world for over 25 years, and never once bothered to compete for the title of Women's World Champion. Hou Yifan's dominance of the female chess world is not as total as that which Polgár had - though still very solid, even more than Magnus Carlsen's domination of the men's game - and she is a past Women's World Champion, but at the time of the most recent Championship she simply didn't bother to compete. Granted, it was because of a clash with another tournament, but the tournament she went to wasn't especially high-status either. To Kirsan Illyumzhinov and other bigwigs at the Federacion Internationale d'Echecs (FIDE), such events are an extra source of kickbacks. To everyone else, they're just yet another low-level tournament, reports of which tend to include rather more pictures than normal.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Things Of Mine Which Are Currently Broken Or Otherwise Malfunctioning

  • The main light in my bedroom in Budapest. (Unreliable, probably a blown lightbulb).
  • Two of the strings on my cello. (Came off. I have put one back and am part way through putting the other back. All four strings are horrendously out of tune).
  • My cello bow. (Snapped the day after it arrived in Budapest).
  • My tablet. (Went unresponsive the day I left Budapest for Christmas, currently in for repairs).
  • The skin on my hands and around my lips. (Dry, hurts in cold conditions and under hot water).

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Liberal-Egalitarian Case Against Income Tax, Inheritance Tax, and VAT Exemptions

Liberal Neutrality is the belief that the state ought not, so far as is possible, to promote one conception of the good over another. In layman's terms, that means that people should be allowed to choose how they live their lives without being punished, rewarded or fined for it. (Obviously this excludes things where they harm other people. Then you have to work out what counts as a morally relevant form of harm, and it all becomes very complicated.) It is a view that, broadly speaking, I agree with.

In economics, there is a concept of "tax distortion". If you tax apples, then people change their behaviour: apples are essentially more expensive, so people eat fewer apples and eat more pears instead, and people have less money due to paying the extra tax, so they reduce their consumption of everything. A non-distortionary tax is one which has an income effect (that is, people becoming poorer and so reducing consumption) but no substitution effect (so there is no change in the relative prices of any goods).

There are three types of non-distortionary taxes. The first is the taxation of goods with an absolutely fixed supply, such as land. The tax does not affect demand, and cannot affect supply, so the price has to stay the same. A second non-distortionary tax is the poll tax, the tax on being alive. Finally, a consumption tax can raise the price of all goods equally, so that there is no change in the relative prices of goods.

I'm not aware of anyone previously having connected up these notions. It's worth noting that they are not the same: in my view liberal neutralism is also consistent with Pigovian taxes - that is, taxes on what economists call "negative externalities" - things like pollution, where one person unintentionally harms another in a way that is hard to enforce a legal right against.

For a state to fulfil liberal neutralism, then, requires it to abolish income taxation, inheritance taxation, sin taxes on sugar and alcohol, and move towards a consumption-tax system. This would of course be controversial, but I maintain that all objections which do not end up rejecting liberal neutralism are ultimately based upon misunderstandings.

Objection One: Consumption taxes are regressive
That depends upon what kind of equality you care about. It's true that philosophers tend to talk about wealth and income, but that's because they haven't really thought about what it means to have money which you don't spend.

Moreover, surely it's not important that the tax system be progressive so much as that the social system as a whole be progressive? If someone proposed a law to make "Jerusalem" the national anthem, you wouldn't object that the law failed to promote equality. Similarly, it's fine to have a possibly-regressive tax system if you combine it with a basic income; the combined effect will be similar to a negative income tax, and so will overall be progressive.

Objection Two: Okay, but there should at least be exemptions for staple foods and other essentials
Think about it this way: if everyone had plenty to live on, and there was no poverty, would it be a problem that tax was charge on these essentials? Surely it would no more of a problem than taxation of any other goods. This points us to the real problem here: that some people are in poverty and don't have enough to live on. But we can solve that problem by giving them money, such as through the basic income I suggested above. Compared to uniform taxation and giving poor people money, the effect of removing consumption taxes is to give a tax break to the well-off. If you're not convinced, read Joseph Heath (or listen to his interview on Rationally Speaking, which covers this ground).

Objection Three: This removes democratic choice
This is partly a question of how valuable you take democracy to be as an end in itself. If you believe that immoral things can be made moral by a democratic vote, then sure. Communities can have the right to levy whatever destructive and illiberal taxes they like. But if you think that democratic choice is constrained by justice, then liberal neutrality does indeed restrict the right of polities to tax in whatever way they choose.

Note, however, that we're still leaving room for a fair amount of democratic choice. Countries can still choose to nationalise industries. If you believe that state provision of education and healthcare free at the point of usage is consistent with liberal neutralism, which I think is highly plausible, then you can have that. And once you've decided exactly what services and benefits you want the state to provide, what exactly is left to decide? The actual rate of tax is just the government's budget divided by the total GDP, so it's not like there's a great deal of choice going on under any system (unless that choice is "let's have lets of spending now, put it onto the national debt, and our grandchildren can pay for it.")