Friday, October 26, 2007

Degrees of Confidence in Belief

I've come to believe that it is important to state your degree of confidence, or at least be aware of it, in any assertions you make. The reason is that there are many things of which we are uncertain, and that fact itself has a lot of implications.
Here's an example I've found myself running into a lot: given the existence of a market failure, you can implement a government solutions or allow the market to provide a solution. Both solutions are not sure to succeed. If we're not completely confident in either approach working, what can we do? I think the answer is to first weigh your confidence in both outcomes, and which ever you think is more likely to succeed, you choose. (This example is actually more complicated, because government intervention tends to creates certain institutions which has effects outside of the issue at hand.)
I think this point is pretty obvious, but intellectual discourse, especially in philosophy, often simply presents arguments consisting of various premises, which are assumed to be true, and a conclusion. But what if you are uncertain about what the facts are?

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Brief Summary of How I've Changed My Mind

I attended what is seen by most as an extremely left-wing liberal arts college. For most of my time there I was fairly hostile to most of the predominant ideas floating around campus. Since then, however, I've become less emotional about certain issues, and have changed many of my positions, some of them, though certainly not all, closer to those of the left. I thought I'd offer a brief summary of how my views have changed on a couple of issues.

9/11 happened about a week or so into my college career. I was never really emotional about the attacks, but I did support the invasion of Afghanistan for what I saw as good, non-nationalistic reasons. I then also came to support the invasion of Iraq, for a lot of the reasons that were floating around previous to the start of that war.
I've pretty much pulled a 180 on my position on war, from fairly supportive of extensive U.S. military intervention to an extreme skepticism that verges on isolationism. The reasons for this, as I see it, are as follows:
1. The clear failure of the war in Iraq to achieve any end worth the loss of life and enormous use of resources the war has claimed.
2. A better awareness of the enormous costs of previous wars, and an emerging skepticism of the gains from them are as large as is often claimed.
3. The discovery of the simple inference that we can expect the military to perform about as well as any other government program.
4. The observation that civil liberties and other freedoms tend to erode during wartime.
5. War has often correlated with the expansion of the state.

This is an area where my views are closer to the those typical of the left then they were before, but remain different in important ways. I've moved closer to the left in the following views:
1. Race matters. It's a mistake to allow your egalitarianism blind you to the importance of race and the perception of race in American society.
2. Institutional racism exists.

I still remain far from the left, however:
1. The state should not attempt to right the above problems through income redistribution or regulations such as anti-discrimination laws.
2. The state, not 'capitalism' bears the majority of responsibility for racial problems in the U.S. today, thus:
3. These problems are more likely to go away in a libertarian society than in the the one the left envisions.

I'll add more as they occur to me.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Reactions to "Radicals for Capitalism"

I finished reading Brian Doherty's book about a month ago. I figure posting my obligatory reaction is a good way to end yet another long blogging hiatus.

For those of you at all interested in libertarianism, I can recommend it as not only informative but also really entertaining; for a 600 plus page book it seemed like a quick read. I especially enjoyed its treating of some of the more obscure figures in the movement's history, as well as it's coverage of Murray Rothbard, who emerged as a more sympathetic figure than my previous image of him, which was mainly as a crank and ideologue who's highly axiomatic system of economics and ethics made him basically incapable of engaging in any constructive discourse. The presentation in the book didn't totally alter that perception, but I did come away with more admiration for his principled opposition to war and to the state, to which I've found myself increasingly sympathetic.

The book also makes an important contribution in going to considerable lengths to show that libertarianism is a substantively different ideology from modern conservatism. I find this especially important, because I've recently felt that many libertarians have become too comfortable with conservatives, who have largely become advocates of the expansive state created by the progressives. Early libertarians seemed to understand the pernicious effects of America's involvement in the cold war, which clearly separated them from the mainstream of the conservative movement. Indeed, great thinkers like Mises and Hayek clearly understood that communism was bound to be moribund and was not the omnipresent threat that conservatives saw.

I do have a few minor complaints with the book. I came away with the impression that I didn't really have a much better understanding of libertarianism as a movement. I would have liked more exploration of the broader social context in which libertarianism came about. There is some of this- Doherty does address how utterly alien libertarian ideas seemed to almost all people until the 70's or so. Perhaps I'm just craving a neat historical-sociological thesis, which may well end up being contrived.

The book also has some stylistic flaws. I felt a few passages felt a bit tacked on in an attempt to convey the "free-wheeling" spirit of our movement (this phrase does in fact appear to have been literally inserted into the sub-title of the book shortly before publication, and also appears on the cover made to look like it was stuck in there by hand). Overall, however, the prose is very clear and avoids too many flourishes, and, as I mentioned, it is a very fun read.

I'll be sure to post any other thoughts that occur to me on this subject. Till then, I recommend you read it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Looking at this month's Cato Unbound

OK, so I had been working on a post responding to some of the ideas presented in this month's issue of Cato Unbound, but I somehow failed to save the draft. I hate rewriting stuff from scratch, so in lieu of that post I'll just offer some brief thoughts on some of the ideas in this issue:

-Tyler Cowen's essay has almost certainly generated the most discussion in the libertarian blogosphere. I''m sympathetic to his ideas, though I reject most of his conclusions (my now deleted post was a defense of Cowen's defense of positive liberty against Tom Palmer). I think libertarians do need to reconsider the importance of positive liberty. My take is that the increase in positive liberty is the chief reason to support economic freedom (indeed, I think the notion of economic freedom without a positive liberty element doesn't make much sense). It is true, as Palmer points out in a recent Cato podcast, that notions of positive liberty are often used to defend state intervention, but I think a correct understanding of positive liberty generally supports libertarianism. We ought not abandon a valuable idea simply because it has been adopted to some extent by our ideological adversaries.

-Virginia Postrel again shows herself as one of the most lucid and intelligent contemporary libertarian thinkers in her essay. I agree with everthing she writes here. Just go and read it, because she says it better than I ever could.

-I don't think that the welfare state is inevitable. Given the clear unsustainability of many current programs, it seems conceavable that future generations will be increasingly sceptical of massive state-backed income transfers. As Brink Lindsey points out, as people get wealthier, they can afford more government, but they can also afford more of other stuff, including individual insurance and retirement saving which will almost certainly give them a better payoff than the state-provided alternative. Also, given the enourmous strides that free market ideas have made in our society, it strikes me that libertarians can and just might make a good deal more progress in the marketplace of ideas in the coming years.

I hope to go more in depth about some of these ideas soon. Stay tuned.