Thursday, December 27, 2012

Is left-liberalism without foundations? And why its appeal?

Anonymous (but credible) 'blogger Philo asks the question: What are non-totalitarian leftism's intellectual foundations? and comes up with the answer that there are none, at least not in the way that libertarianism and conservatism are founded on their respective corpora.  Libertarians can claim (among others) Nozick, Richard Epstein, and both Friedmans; conservatives are still heavily influenced by Burke, Chesterton, and in Philo's view, Aristotle and Aquinas.  Both groups draw heavily from Hayek.  To whom do left-liberals look?

The first thinkers to come to mind are G.A. Cohen and John Rawls.  Those familiar with the historical emergence of an American left-liberalism may say "John Dewey" but the thought that today's leftists are inspired by or draw from John Dewey is as mistaken as thinking the typical libertarian is a Nozickian because Nozick was the one libertarian included in your college philosophy course.  Cohen is immediately out, because we're considering non-totalitarians.  (Thus, also, we disregard Marcuse and Alinsky.)  I've known one left-liberal who is really into utilitarianism, but only one; there isn't a movement of people thinking through things using the intellectual framework of Dworkin or Singer.

It's only a bit less wild to establish Rawls as a leftist Hayek.  Via The Nation and similar outlets, totalitarians--Friere, Marcuse, Adorno, Cohen--are influential, even if that magazine's readers aren't the would-be Lenins its contributors often are.  Rawls is the stuff of philosophy nerds.  Regardless:  Concerning Rawls, Philo is a bit too dismissive.  His approach may be fatally flawed, but not so thin that it wasn't influential.  It doesn't at all account for wealth being created, nor for progress, nor for humans not being cicadas entering this world all at once with the passing of each generation.  In drawing conclusions from its "maximin principle"--which Philo rightly points out requires the maximization of the welfare of mental patients, which is not what Rawls did--it should lean heavily on the positive social sciences, but what instead came through were Rawls's deeply bizarre prejudices.  Lomasky's "Libertarianism at Twin Harvard" is damning, not so much of the Rawlsian methodology, as of Rawls's conclusions--a Rawlsian Rawls with different prejudices may have arrived at a night watchman state (and a Nozickian Nozick with a different emphasis may have been a left-wing radical!) But this makes Rawls more instructive here, not less.

My conjecture:  Left-liberalism appeals (even to educated people) despite having little intellectual foundation because it caters to common prejudices, of the sort held by Rawls.  Psychologist Jonathan Haidt found that of the six dimensions of moral foundations of political belief he could identify, American left-liberals felt the most strongly (by far) about two: fairness and liberty.  This explains why, like Rawls through Lomasky's eyes, they often sound like funhouse-mirror libertarians.  Haidt and his collaborators measure naive judgements--prejudices--and not intellectual arguments.  In this work, they found further that instinctual/prejudicial  fairness to leftists is very different than fairness to libertarians or conservatives: to leftists, fairness is equality, not proportionality.  (Why equality and fairness were not made separate dimensions is unclear.)  Haidt does not explore sociobiology, but others who have speculate that the concern for material equality is atavistic.  In a hunter-gatherer society, if people do not get equal shares, they were probably cheated in the division of spoils.  Indeed, one often hears leftists talk of wealth as though it were spoils.

Left-liberals do not call for equal shares.  They'll insist up and down that they're not reds and support capitalism, and they're sincere.  They can't say where it will end, why they choose this intervention and not that, because their thought is without intellectual foundations.  Rawls didn't call for equal shares, either.  His methodological mistake and the flaw in egalitarians' moral instincts are the same.  His famous hypothetical, in a sophisticated way, causes the question of governmental regulation of wealth or income to be treated as a division-of-spoils problem.

Why care about the question of intellectual foundations?  It doesn't detract from the left-liberal position to point out that there are none, aside perhaps from the ghosts of totalitarianisms past.  This doesn't in itself render them incorrect issue-by-issue.  (There are other reasons for that.)  It's important for non-leftists to keep in mind how very different they are from the rest of us.  They are not having the same discussion or argument.  They are not thinking of the serious questions in the same way.  It is not just a difference of opinion.

To someone with different political tendencies, American left-liberals look like half-stepper, non-totalitarian cousins of European social democrats.  Some are, and the Web--every man a comparative government researcher!--has given American lefties a more European feel.  But even this is superficial.  They may always say "well, in [European Country] they do [Caricature of a Policy] and [Usually Fallacious Appeal to Statistics], therefore we should do it too," but the endorsement comes from a lazy consequentialism, not any ethical conviction nor theory of economics nor theory of government.  In my experience, they think themselves pragmatists--"I'm for What Works"--and spin themselves (and their intelocutors!) in circles when confronted with complications and more thorough analyses.  Ask them why.  Point out the moral and material tradeoffs, and ask why they balance things the way they do.

A similarly educated conservative or libertarian would be able to answer.  I am not claiming that the average libertarian is a deep thinker like David Friedman or Richard Epstein.  Both groups have their own peculiar prejudices--see Haidt's book The Righteous Mind--but for whatever reason, both seek out the wisdom of others in reconciling their perhaps internally conflicting moral instincts and formulating  political-philosophical beliefs.   Some stop at Ayn Rand, satisfied with false moral clarity.  But the step beyond instincts to foundations is there.  Why they make this step and lefties don't is, as far as I know, an unanswered question.  Maybe it is because leftists are culturally dominant whereas libertarianism and conservatism are countercultural.  Maybe it is because the left-liberal prejudices determine public policy positions whereas those of libertarians or conservatives leave more free variables.

The outcome is the same: The left-liberal thinks himself a pragmatist because he is solving, ad hoc, a problem of his own creation:  How can I make people free, equal, and better off?  Perhaps the best attack plan involves making the problem with this problem nakedly evident whenever possible.  There is little moral clarity in a world of tradeoffs.

Friday, January 7, 2011

High teenage unemployment? There's a four-word solution.

CNN Money reports high unemployment--approaching 25%--among teenagers.

The four-word solution: Eliminate the minimum wage.

There is no economic rationale--zero--for the minimum wage. It exists simply to satisfy those who think it somehow indecent to pay someone below a certain amount--when I entered the workforce, $4.25, but now it's much higher--per hour. But it doesn't merely raise the $5/hour worker's wages, because it doesn't magically increase productivity. Surely, those who keep their positions have higher wages. But as a prohibition on selling one's labor below the minimum, it has been documented to keep low-skilled and low-experience people out of the workforce.

In Arizona, back when voters raised the minimum wage above the Federal rate, it was documented to cause increased unemployment among teenagers and the retarded.

"But would you want to work for below the minimum wage?," advocates of it ask. No, I wouldn't. But of course one wants a high wage. That want cannot be satisfied by fiat; the Left is simply lying when it pretends that there are no tradeoffs. There is no such thing as a "decent" or a "living" wage, only a fair wage, and a fair wage is that which is arrived at by mutual consent. Those who support a high minimum wage--who oppose lowering the minimum wage-- oppose giving people the opportunity to enter or re-enter the workforce and put themselves on the path to a dignified, self-sufficient living.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Must liberals believe in fairy-tales? Dan Klein seems to think so.

This month's Cato Unbound, centered on Daniel Klein's essay "Against Overlordship", is rather painful to read. The participants began by talking past one another, but that aside, the content verges on the ridiculous.

I could spend a post on social-democrat Matthias Matthijs's seeming naiveté and descent into vulgarity. He writes of compulsory health-insurance in the abstract without any regard for what happened on the ground.

To Matthijs, "social democrats do not believe that you can be truly free – that is, capable of making rational and truly independent choices — without basic health considerations taken out of the picture. Social democrats are the true believers in liberty, real liberty, not the rather thin or limited kind most libertarians advocate. The social democratic concept of liberty is not encumbered by things we cannot control, like pre-existing health conditions or the financial resources of our parents." Forget that this would mean that social democrats do not make a distinction between liberty and capability, but the alternative is unclear. Is Matthijs (or Matthijs's hypothetical social democrat) proposing that humans cease being human and become disease-free? Is "liberty" contingent on being a new disease-free species? We all know that socialized medicine doesn't take away people's pre-existing health conditions, nor does it remove health considerations from the other choices we make in life. For Matthijs to claim otherwise is simply stupid.

It is as though Dworkin never wrote about "Justice in the Distribution of Health Care". Even to a leftist like Dworkin--and one who abuses vail of ignorance arguments--it was evident that the demand for health care, especially at the end of life, is infinite, and a socialized system must balance demand for this good against demand for others. Social democracy, then, does not remove health concerns so that people are somehow more free. It merely moves the choices about balancing away from the individual and towards his supposed betters. Why should the individual _not_ have to take into account his desire for future health care when making educational, business, or other decisions? How is that individual more free if that decision is instead put in the hands of others? That is how social democracy (a form of socialism) works. It is not a magical "abundance button". The individual will get sick, and will not receive infinite treatment. End of story.

Beyond that, Matthijs, even when asked about concretes, fails to acknowledge what Obama and the Democrats did. It is not just a forced purchase of insurance. Obama and the Democrats banned actuarially fair insurance pricing and required "insurance" to be issued for certainties. The bill passed earlier this year did not merely require that actuarially fair insurance policies (with or without riders) be issued to people with pre-existing conditions. It required that risk not play any role whatsoever in determination of the cost of an insurance policy. Perhaps this is what Matthijs (or his hypothetical social democrat) had in mind above. The individual need not worry about the costs of his actions: the "insurance" rates--and "insurance" is only a euphemism now--will be the same.

But it is lead essayist Dan Klein who is the most frustrating, and the most vulgar. Hang out around dilettante libertarians enough and you'll hear someone say (usually in different words) that the state being sovereign, the law being *gasp* changeable, or there being any law whatsoever means you don't "really own" your property, that the state or someone else owns it. This is Klein's position, too.

The left may continue: “There are no natural property rights. Property is a set of permissions, a bundle of rights, determined by the government and delegated to you by the government. When a rearrangement of the bundles would be good, that’s what the government should do. ‘Your’ property rights are simply whatever permissions result from the process.”

Let’s enter into that way of thinking, follow through on it, and surface its presuppositions.

Although they may not be fully conscious of it, progressives and social democrats are saying that everything is owned by the state. Or, perhaps, that the substructure upon which topsoil, buildings, and other things sit is owned by the state. Either way, simply by being in the United States, you voluntarily agree to all government rules.

Does Klein not understand that ownership is not and never has been the same thing as sovereignty? If he is correct about ownership than nobody except despots have ever owned anything.

It gets worse. Later in the essay he writes positively about natural rights, including a natural right to property. How much more stupid can an educated man get, than to presume that property rights--influenced strongly by the English common law--are somehow "natural", or at least a natural substrate to which government has made un-natural modifications. Not only is the history of property in our legal tradition fairly well documented--that something is old does not mean that it is natural--Elinor Ostrom and many others have also made careers studying how different socities meet their respective needs with different property rights. Why Klein's ideal is "natural" but the property rights systems of e.g. American Indians, Inuit, Somalis, and many others is by implication not "natural" is left a mystery.

In light of history, comparative studies, and even the sort of theoretical work done by Cato Unbound participant David Friedman, the "natural rights" approach is intellectually untenable. Indeed it is so ridiculous, involves so much begging the question, that it is shameful. There is no alternative to viewing property rights as transferable bundles of rights whose nature depends on law and social custom. This is simply the result of serious study of what property rights are and have been. Yet Klein, in his stridence, insists that we should see property rights as "natural". It is though he is saying to libertarians that it would be better if we acted as though we were either stupid or ignorant or both, that false advocacy of nonsense on stilts is necessary and that embracing the modern understanding of property (as e.g. Richard Epstein has done) means somehow that we will magically stop owning things and surrender our liberty.

Klein's objection to the "bundle of rights" approach seems to be that property rights can change if the law changes. Why does Klein not argue that the law should never change? This is a corner into which many "libertarians" of the Randist or Rothbardist (or "non-initiation of force") variety--the sort who think that there are closed systems that give all the answers--paint themselves. If you ever want to see one squirm, pin him down on this question: given what he argues, then should the law and thus property rights never change? Bring up interesting hypotheticals and historical problems. If Coasean bargaining is the excuse, pin him down on transaction costs, endowment effects, and other non-satisfaction of the premises of the Coase Theorem. Watch the lols ensue.

Before Will Wilkinson was purged from Cato, this vulgar nonsense would never have made it into Cato Unbound. What is certainly of no use to the cause of liberty is for Dan Klein to insist on a position best left to teenaged Rothbardites and get schooled by a social democrat. His essay makes it appear as though liberalism (libertarianism) depends on belief in fairy tales like natural property rights. That is not so.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Is this an opening against "May Issue" CCW?

Via Dave Hardy, news that a U.S. District Court judge is requiring that an Iowa sheriff take a basic course on the U.S. Constitution after denying a local activist a CCW permit because his views are unpopular.

This is a paradigm case, one in which the issues are very clear. But the problems Paul Dorr encountered are those of nearly everyone who is denied a CCW permit in a "may issue" state: a sheriff gets to decide, arbitrarily, based on extra-legal factors, whether you, too, can join the privileged few and discreetly carry a firearm. One can hope that legislators and judges in New York and California have taken note of the Dorr case.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hours before McDonald: Will Chicago Democrats obey the law?

Chances are that the Supreme Court will apply the 2nd Amendment to the states (via the 14th) and overturn Chicago's handgun ban. Will Daley and the Democratic Party obey the law or will separate enforcement actions be needed? Remember: this is the party and administration that carried out the "terrorist bombing" of Meigs Field in defiance of the Feds, not over some Constitutional dispute or in support of human rights, but rather, to build a park.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Shouldn't the press stop calling the Brady Center for its opinion?

Read a national-interest news story on firearms law and chances are high that the reporter solicited and quoted the opinion of the "Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence" (formerly Handgun Control, Inc). In the early '90s, when they got the Brady Bill passed and signed into law and stood prepared to destroy American firearms culture and support for RKBA altogether by defining each part of a firearm as a "firearm" and restricting private ownership to 20 such "firearms", or even in 2000, when the group raised over $1.6MM to attempt to influence that year's elections, this made some sense.

Nowadays, it's not too much of a stretch to claim that the Brady Campaign has effectively zero support. To date in the 2010 fiscal year, the Brady Campaign (PAC) has raised only $2,500, putting them in the ballpark of e.g. a typical Prohibition Party presidential campaign or Libertarian Party candidate for anarcho-capitalist dogcatcher.

To be fair, the "Brady Center"--the side of the operation that isn't a PAC or a lobby group, brought in nearly $3 MM in 2008, according to the Better Business Bureau. For a "national" organization, that's pathetic. The ACLU Foundation (the non-lobbying side of that operation), to provide a point of contrast, brought in over $66 MM in 2007 and the National Parks Conservation Association raised $61 MM. Things have gotten so bad for the Brady Bunch that they're having a "fire sale" of sorts, selling a mailing list they previously told members they'd keep private.

The Brady Center's political Brady Campaign has withered away to nothing, and the "educational" Center itself was in 2008 operating on what, for a national organization of its visibility and former prestige, was a shoestring budget. (If the trend in Campaign fundraising correlates to that of the Center, one expects that this year the Center will see far less than $3 MM.) It isn't unfair to say that support for the Brady Campaign is nonexistent and that the Center isn't far behind; only a single donor was willing to pay the Campaign to do what it does, and the Center is able to raise but a minuscule sum.

Phoning Paul Helmke for a quote when writing a firearms-law news article is like giving equal time to a third-party paper candidate when covering local politics or phoning a conspiracist, unscientific crank when writing a piece on climate change. It's false balance. That a group that has faded to nonexistence gets equal time is a sign of bias against RKBA in the press if there ever was one. The Brady Campaign and Brady Center are no longer newsworthy and should not be treated as such.

Hat tip to Alan Korwin for the $2500 number--it took a bit of searching to find the source.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Capitalism and Freedom in 2010.

Over on Epinions, my review of Capitalism and Freedom is up. There's a bit too much chapter-by-chapter commentary, making it a more tedious read than it should be, but there's so much confusion about what's in this book that it's worth it.

Have a look at the dopey remark and ensuing exchange in the comments section. People who blame Friedman or Chicago School economics for Chile's early 1980s recession are ridiculous: since when did Chicago Schoolers advocate fixed exchange rates and government favortism of industries, in this case, copper. Moreover, it's about time--just as is the case with global warming denialists--that we start calling lies lies and liars liars. Anyone who believes that Friedman was "sent" to Chile, that Friedman advised the Pinochet government in any meaningful sense of the word, or that Pinochet was a Chicago School "True Believer" and that this motivated repression needs to be shamed, as none of these statements have any basis in fact. They were lies when student radicals made them up in the 1970s and they remain lies today. More than 30 years later, there's no excuse for believing them, especially with Wikipedia and dozens of articles setting the facts straight immediately available.