Friday, September 22, 2006

A Good Point

Over at EconLog, Bryan Caplan makes an interesting obervation:

"Contrary to popular belief, Big Business often supports federal regulation. Economists' standard explanation: Regulation either directly restricts competition, or indirectly imposes a greater burden on smaller businesses. But there is another important reason why Big Business supports federal regulation that economists often overlook: To avoid the enormous transactions costs of dealing with 50 different sets of state regulation, and thousands of different sets of local regulation."

This poses a problem for my proposal for libertarians to support federalism. Because increased federalism would likely create a large set of differing regulations, this could impose greater costs on businesses than the more uniform federal regulation, however burdonsome the latter may be.

A plausible responce is that competition among states to attract business will result in more liberal regulation, as most companies can easily leave a state if the regulations are overly burdonsome.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

No Libertarianism Without More Libertarians

I'm beginning to think that a more libertarian society will never be possible without more libertarians. This should be obvious, I suppose, but it's a point I don't encounter very often. The fact is that most people in this country believe the Federal Government should do all sorts of things beyond the enforcment of common law and national defense.

The first step for libertarians, I think, is to argue for federalism. This is where the aliance between libertarians and conservatives may have some purpose, though how many conservatives really believe in federalism is not clear anymore; the marriage amendment comes to mind.

I don't have much hope, however. I fear there are too many interests with a stake in the power of the Federal Government to allocate wealth and privledge, including the states. Alas, things may have to get much worse before they get better.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Some Tough Questions

I believe most people accept the fundamental premises of classical liberalism- that state power should only be invoked to secure the liberty of the individual. Of course, how one comes down in concrete cases will vary enormously depending on how one defines 'liberty'.

War is one case where disagreement over the how to correctly apply liberal principles can lead to very different views on the subject. I've found my libertarian instincts challenged by the question of just warfare. I've found a similar cognitive dissonance among other libertarians.

I believe this cognitive dissonance stems from the difference in the outcome (as least as libertarians see it) of the minimal state domestically and abroad. Under a minimal state, enforcing common law principles, the invisible hand is free to work its magic, and prosperity and freedom result. But what of those who remain under the heel of the state abroad? Are we indifferent to their plight? The traditionally non-interventionist position of the libertarian leads him to defend some unpopular views, such as the proposition that the Civil War and the Second World War were unjustified.

But what, so the objection goes, of the black slaves, or the murdered Jews of Europe? As unpalatable as it may be, it behooves the good libertarian to respond: But what of the millions who died fighting these wars? What of the expansion of the powers of the state they spurred?

Far be it from me to give the answer to these prickly questions (though I believe the libertarian need not provide a definitive answer). Isn't it remarkable, though, that these questions are so infrequently posed? It has become clearer to me of late that the state will always hold up lofty ideals and neglect the difficult questions to wage war. Sadly, it seems most are willing to accept this tactic.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Why I'm an Atheist

When asked the question "do you believe in God?", I have usually answered something along the lines of "I don't accept the assumptions behind that question." I’ve been drawn to some version of mysticism, in which the divine is essentially ineffable, and can only be experienced, not "believed". I have been deeply moved by (the likely mythical figure) Lao Zi, Rumi, and the Upanishads. I rejected agnosticism, theism, and atheism.

In the past year or so, I believe I've come to better understand the language of existential claims. I have to give most of the credit for this to Wittgenstein. Such claims, I've come to believe, only make sense if they are falsifiable, either through empirical or analytical observation.

What sort of claim is "God exists"? The most intuitive follow up question is "what is the conception of God in question?" Here we arrive at a clearer understanding of atheism, and the position it rejects, theism.

Theism is the belief that God is a conscious entity possessing three necessary qualities: omniscience, omnibenevolence, and omnipotence. Let us then assume that this is sort of God purported to exist. The second question then may be "way observable conditions instantiate these three qualities?" In other words, what would we expect the world to be like were God, possessing these qualities, to exist?

Without going into the long history of this debate, it should suffice to say that there is no consensus about what such a world should look like, other than, of course, this world. The problem is that proponents of theism have not made any falsifiable claims about the existence of God. This is because they seek to show that God exists in this world.

The perhaps oldest challenge to the theist’s position is the problem of suffering. If there is a benevolent, all-powerful God, why do so many innocent people suffer? The typical theist answer is either that evil is the flip side of good, or that, simply, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

In the past, I found this response somewhat convincing. The problem I’ve come to see now is that such claims seem designed to apply in all possible situations. There is no limit to the cruelty that could exist to serve the divine purpose. It seems to me, then, that this is no answer at all, as it seems to say that no matter what conditions apply in this world, they speak to God’s existence. Thus I have come to see the claim “God exists” as either incoherent or demonstrably false.

I would, however, offer a caveat of sorts. I am sympathetic with the desire to transcend what sometimes seems like a hopelessly banal existence. While I deny most of the answers, I don’t deny the fundamental problem of how we are to live our lives, with the common intuition that there is some difference between what is pleasurable, soothing, or easy, and what is good.

The problem with mysticism is that it often seems to offer as a solution a retreat from all discourse. We’re to believe that the solution to our woes lies in meditation, or leaving society all together. I agree with William James that mysticism must be considered to be ultimately private, and cannot support any existential or ethical claims.

I also believe that the pursuit of the good, be it mystical or otherwise, if it is to be open to all, is predicated on the existence of an open society, founded on the principle of open inquiry. The problem with most religious doctrines is that they, at least implicitly, ask us to cease this inquiry, and uncritically accept their answer. In response to these doctrines, I call myself an atheist, not because I have the final answer, but because I cannot accepts theirs.

Friday, February 24, 2006

A Little Retroactive Disclaimer

Just to clarify a point related to my two previous posts:

I do not in any way endorse the disgusting tactic of suicide bombing of civilians, nor the equally disgusting doctrine that underlies it. I also see the preventative measures Isreal has taken as understandable, though that doesn't place them beyond criticism.

That's really all for now.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Less Hysteria, Please

I'm currently listening to yet another debate between a Palestinian and an Isreali about the significance of the election of Hamas. This is a complex issue, and I only want to express a small idea here: could we have a little less hysteria?

I understand that both parties have a lot at stake here. I understand Palestinians are indeed living under occupation, and Isrealis feel under siege. I also happen to know that there are many Israelis who are not endorsing the anexation of the West Bank. I personally had a number of conversations with an Isreali who had worked on the unofficial Geneva Accords, who expressed to me indifference to the fate of Jewish settlers.

Isn't it possible to detest terrorist tactics and Islamic extremism, while at the same time not casually dehuminizing the Palestinian people, as so many pro-Israel pundits seem to do?

I also have to admit that I find it a tad disingenuous that so many Isreali pundits demand an end to violence from Palestinians, while continuing to occupy Palestinian territory and declaring their right to assasinate Palestinians they consider dangerous. Can one blame Palestinians for not automatically buying into this deal?

I just want to offer these observations in the spririt of a more balanced assesment of a prickly situation. Particularly in this country, such views are immediately branded as anti-Isreal or even anti-semetic. Such a reaction seems to imply that the only moderate position is one that implicitly endorses anything Isreal does, and holds up a blatant double standard. Surely this is neither genuinely humanitarian or liberal, but merely tribalism, the antithesis of the former.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Chiming in on the "Intoonfada"

I can't claim credit for the above coinage- I read it in the wonderful Reason Online.

I'll assume everyone knows what that refers to and get started. My take? There are, as I see it, two reasonable positions I have encountered thus far in the blogosphere. The first is has been expressed most vehemently by Andrew Sullivan (I won't link to a specific post, just scroll along and you'll find plenty). Sullivan sees the right to offend as inextricable from the right to free expression. He has also vehemently decried the hypocrisy of media outlets who have refrained from publishing the cartoons. He questions the ability of the many Muslims to live in an open society.

Another, perhaps more nuanced, position comes from Gregory Djerejian at The Belgavia Dispatch (main post here). Djerejian point to the imprudence of publishing what might seem like crudely provocative material, which he sees as designed to offend Muslims of all stripes. He also expresses aversion to the wave of "Buy Danish" posts and reprinting of the cartoons throughout the blogosphere.

I'd have to say I side a bit more with Sullivan on this one, but only a bit more. The point Djerejian misses, I think, is that a free press cannot be seen as an arm in the war on terrorism or the effort to democratize the Muslim world. If the publishing these cartoons is imprudent, than certainly a lot of free expression is imprudent by the same criterion.

Djerejian also points out that the publishing of these cartoons doesn't make western pluralism look good to many Muslims. This may well be true, but it is also true that you simply don't have pluralism without the right to free expression, even offensive expression (I think many Muslims recognize this, and have protested and petitions peacefully, as is their right). In this case, prudence gives way to principle.

That said, I think Djerejian is right to be cautious of the way some have used this kafuffle to more or less say "See, I told you Muslims are antagonistic to the west!" This is the sort of reasoning that's very appealing to European isolationists, as well as to the more fanatical sort of pro-Israel types and other hawks. It's also plainly false. Certainly protests have been widespread, but, by all counts, violence has been fairly rare. One editor of a Jordanian paper was fired for publishing the cartoons. Characterizing this as the Muslims World rising up in rage is simplistic at best.

At the same time, it's also true that the Muslim world does not have the same tradition of secularism and free speech that the west does, and this is likely a reason, along with the misery and oppression under which many in the Muslim world live, for the wide-spread outrage. Christian zealots in the west have had a long time to get used to the idea that many people really don't give a flying fart about Jesus or what the Bible says. One of the great virtues of the United States is the amazingly inspired idea to completely prohibit state sponsored or endorsed religion. This idea has had over two hundred years to take route. Sullivan is right to take pride in this.

In many European countries, on the other hand, laws exist prohibiting insulting any religion. In Germany, denial of the holocaust, or the publishing of materials that do so is a crime. France has taken a different approach enacted laws widely recognized as targeting Muslims' expression of their faith in public places. One can hardly fault Muslims for pointing out obvious hypocrisy in European treatment of religious groups. Muslims are right to feel targeted in Europe, and, in a more abstract and debatable sense, by the U.S. Arabs might live under repressive regimes much infinitely worse than ours, but they’re not stupid. While I've heard countless pundits decrying Palestinian terrorism (rightly so), I don't here them deny that Israel is, in fact, occupying land internationally recognized as Palestinian territory, and has actively pursued the gradual annexation of that territory through the proliferation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Is it so outlandish to suspect the motives of the American government and the West in its Middle East policy?

My point here is only to say that just because a Muslim feels outrage because of this latest incident does not make him a fanatic, even if his attitude is based partially on pre-enlightenment notions of religion and the state. One of the reasons why the Bush administration's policy of democratization has met with such hostility at home and abroad is that it marks a radical departure in our approach to the region. I don't consider it in the least bit unpatriotic or pro-islamist to say that the west has done quite a job of fucking up the middle east, whether through colonialism, supporting various nasty regimes, or just plain negligence. I also don’t see why one can’t simultaneously be ardently against so called Islamo-fascism, and ultimately support efforts to counter its influence.

If we're really serious about the whole liberal society thing, we'd better be prepared to actually be liberal-minded and be prepared to admit our mistakes and contradictions. How well U.S. policy fits that bill is certainly open to debate, but surely we can't be so full of shit as to hold ourselves up as the absolute paradigm of liberalism when we've engaged in such illiberal practices in the past. I still believe that the U.S. is among the most liberal societies in the world, and has a good deal to offer the world. But that doesn't mean that we should engage is shallow posturing. I suspect our best chance of ensuring the spread of liberal societies is for our pundits and politician to show a bit more honesty and seriousness. I'm trying to do my part.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Socratic wisdom and political thinking

An idea that occurred to me only recently in this form, but is certainly represented in the work of Hayek, is that, in considering public policy, it is as important to firmly establish ones ignorance as well as ones knowledge. I believe much of what underlies classical liberal and libertarian thinking is the recognition of how one acquires knowledge, and how this knowledge can and can't be broadly applied. Thus it is important to consider what knowledge central governments don't and never can posses, such as the important time and place knowledge that allows individuals in the market to make intelligent decisions. These individuals also have limited knowledge of the market as a whole, and this is why the price system is so vital; it provides an easily understandable gauge of various complex market conditions.

Any person can also recognize that there is no simple, universal formula for the good life, and thus, if we care about fostering well being, there is a strong case to be made that the role of any central authority shouldn't be to establish and enforce such a formula, but rather to remove obstacles in the way of the creation for varying lifestyles. This, I think, is the central argument in favor of freedom as the chief virtue to be promoted by governments, and it rests largely on the recognition of limited knowledge.

Socrates' great wisdom lay in the knowledge of his own ignorance. This lesson, while widely recognized, has not taken hold among many intellectuals. Part of the reason why so many intellectuals oppose capitalism lies in their tendency to look for universal ideas. In this they follow Plato more than Socrates. Socrates was not a universal skeptic. He understood that knowledge was first and foremost a process, one which required constant dialogue with others. The case for liberalism (as always here, of the classical, non-American sort) lies in this principle. The principles it does hold as universal are the prerequisites for the open pursuit of knowledge and happiness. It recongizes the limits of knowledge, but also what makes it possible to make this a practical concept.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Musings on the latest scandal

To the few of you following this blog, my apologies for the lack of recent posting. There certainly has been no shortage of subjects to write about of late. I'm working to have something intelligent to say about current events. My first stab will be the scandal surrounding lobbyists and certain representatives in Washington. I have to state here that I'm still informing myself on the details of this matter, but I thought I'd offer some basic ideas about what this latest kafuffle may mean for the state of our government.

I doubt that any thoughtful commentators on government affairs will be confident that any reforms enacted will do much to address the problem as most people see it: deeply entrenched special interest exploiting access to and financing of legislators in order to influence policy tailored to their narrow interests. Without oversight from a vigilant electorate, politicians have little reason to hold themselves more accountable to their constituencies, much less to enshrine a system to enforce accountability.

I count myself among the skeptics. Because the government enjoys such broad powers to distribute wealth (not its own, of course), the incentive to influence government policy is great.
The problem, as many see it, is the involvement of large sums of money, which are used to wine, dine and otherwise court the favor of law makers. In principle, I see no problem with prohibiting this kind of thing as a matter of professional ethics. I suspect, however, that a ban would only drive these dealings underground, just as a prohibition of other highly attractive practices, such as drugs or prostitution, has done little to actually curb these activities.

As long as government is in the business of deciding winners and losers in the marketplace, the incentive for individuals are groups to gain favor by dubious means with lawmakers will be too great to halt. Even if giving direct favors is not involved, interest groups will still invest in mobilizing voters around tribalist credos, smear campaigns, and other means to persuade a sufficient number of voters that the narrow interests of the group are also the in the interest of voters as a whole.

While it might be described as democratic, even publicly endorsed plans to redistribute wealth or regular commerce and other behavior suffer from removing vital time and place knowledge and drives markets.

For years some have proposed complete public financing of elections as the only permanent solution to our ills. How placing the selection of viable political candidates completely into the hands of government will promote greater democracy is honestly beyond me. If anyone arguing this case has anything positive to say about Howard Dean's or Ralph Nader's recent presidential campaigns, they have already severely undermined their argument. Public financing of elections, it seems to me, would be a perfect example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; in removing government accountability to "special interests", you also remove most of the accountability to the voters in general. Public financing will inevitably favor incumbents and the party establishment, and supporters of grassroots movements should take a hard look at these proposals. At the very best, they represent a substantial trade-off.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I tend to think that only a government with substantially fewer powers will be reasonably immune to corruption. A government required to focus on maintaining basic common law principles will attract public servants suited for that task. What resources go where, and how one goes about exploiting them, is done most efficiently, and, I think, most democratically within free market conditions. The market may produce both winners and losers, but at least they are chosen by consensual agreements, rather than by a body whose choices, at best, pander to the most well organized portion of its constituency, and are enforced by its monopoly on legitimate coercive power.