Archive for the ‘Political Philosophy’ Category

Regarding my previous thoughts on gun control, a reader writes,

Wow, do you ever miss the point. Put simply, drunk people do stupid things – and have bad aim! Picture the escalation of your average bar fight with guns instead of glasses and bar stools. They’re redesigning bar glasses to be less likely to shatter. How do you redesign the gun to be less lethal? And who would pay for that?!

Also, as one of many people who has worked in a restaurant with areas designated “smoking” and “non-smoking” – not everyone has a reasonable choice to make to avoid the smoke. Despite the significant decrease in tips, I chose to avoid working in the smoking section (not all places would even allow an employee to make that choice). I also, however, didn’t have a rent to pay at the time. Smoke travels easily inside a building. There were days I felt nauseated by the smoke. If the alternative is unemployment, it isn’t a reasonable option.

The objection is that I have missed the point because the reasoning for such a ban is that people have a higher propensity to do stupid things while drunk. Such an objection indicates to me that the reader entirely missed my original point.

Different people have different preferences, different tolerances for risk. There do exist bar owners and clienteles who prefer that patrons are able to carry a concealed weapon, or at least, do not mind it enough to to forgo patronizing the establishment. A blanket ban needlessly constrains those individuals.

Why constrain patrons in a uniform way? There are people who can be responsible with a firearm in a place that serves alcohol. Maybe they don’t drink, maybe they have one or two drinks, or maybe they get very drunk but are still responsible with a firearm. The point is that classically liberal philosophy explicitly condemns probabilistic models of policing to preemptively constrain people, as if they are irresponsible. Should we use racial profiling? Does the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” mean nothing? Thanks to the Second Amendment, by default a person can have a firearm on a public sidewalk. It is borderline arbitrary to remove that liberty when that person walks five feet into a bar or restaurant, provided the owner of the establishment allows it.

The state does not possess the knowledge to determine who is responsible with a firearm around alcohol, and who is not. The state does not have the knowledge to determine who prefers private environments where people are allowed to carry a concealed weapons. One aspect of the jurisprudence for the Second Amendment is to decentralize power. The state complements such decentralization of power with an additional mechanism, property rights.

Redesigning bar glasses to be less likely to shatter is an extreme absurdity. We already have penalties for assault and battery in the law. Why take measures to increase the cost to bar owners and patrons? Why punish, by making them pay more, the majority of drinkers who avoid violence? It’s hard to conceive of an individual owner who believes that suffering the cost of replacing types of glasses is profit-maximizing behavior. So this is a new regulation? If it is, it’s an absurd bureaucratic grab for power.

What is a “reasonable choice to make to avoid the smoke?” Who decides? Some people value the work highly enough to endure the secondhand smoke; some people wouldn’t. Appealing to “reasonable choices” for employees when advocating for a smoking band is a fallacious abuse of language. A smoking ban only reduces choices. The reader has fallaciously conflated incentive and coercion. Brandon Berg explains the difference well. The poor aren’t having their options limited by a restaurant offering a position in a smoke-filled environment; their options are limited by being poor. The option to work in a smokey restaurant expands their choices.


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Democracy and majority rule give an aura of legitimacy to acts that would  otherwise be deemed tyranny.   – Walter Williams

Liberals like to trot out the ‘democracy’ trope. Conservatives do it too, but more as a political ruse than as a principle. With Libs commitment to outcome equality, it’s easy to understand their support for pure majoritarianism. Ron Paul in 2005:

George Orwell wrote about “meaningless words” that are endlessly repeated in the political arena. Words like “freedom,” “democracy,” and “justice,” Orwell explained, have been abused so long that their original meanings have been eviscerated. In Orwell’s view, political words were “Often used in a consciously dishonest way.” Without precise meanings behind words, politicians and elites can obscure reality and condition people to reflexively associate certain words with positive or negative perceptions. In other words, unpleasant facts can be hidden behind purposely meaningless language. As a result, Americans have been conditioned to accept the word “democracy” as a synonym for freedom, and thus to believe that democracy is unquestionably good.

But facts are overwhelming against the majoritarian intellectual principle. Walter Williams explains: (more…)

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Earlier this week my friend Ethan pressed me about what I thought about gun control measures. The state of Virginia was considering a proposal which would lift the blanket ban on concealed carry in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.

Modern progressives have a completely illiberal sentiment towards state authority on the issue of firearms. It completely clashes with their liberal sentiment towards state authority on other issues. This inconsistency means that modern progressives are wrong either about either CCTV used for public monitoring, or gun control measures, or both. Which one is it? They are wrong in their support of state gun control measures.

Getting rid of both state CCTV to monitor public places and the security theater of the TSA have traditionally been issues of civil liberties for modern progressives. It’s a sentiment I agree with, because the foundation rests on the idea that in a liberal society, we mustn’t use probabilistic models of policing for criminal law. In deciding how to restrict the behavior of otherwise free citizens, we should not weigh probabilities, which have some degree of intrinsic arbitrariness and subjectivity of the people designated as authorities. To the extent that criminal law should exist at all, it should exist only be for harms that people commit; crimes should be crimes because an offender commits some harm. An action should not be designated a crime to prevent some harm that could be caused by unrelated deliberate future action. Is concealed carry unrelated to gun violence? Having a gun is logically necessary for future gun violence, but not logically sufficient.

In a liberal society, just as we should privatize airport security and refuse to treat free citizens as suspicious criminals by preemptively watching them on CCTV, so too should we refuse to criminalize ownership of a tool.

Handguns are a tool for coercion, injuring, and killing. In a liberal society, citizens contract out police and governments to provide some level of protection against unjust aggression from other individuals. Police are not omnipresent though, nor would we want them to be. Who watches the watchmen? Just because we have the police as one tool to protect against unjust aggression and enforce consequences for it, there is not a legitimate reason for a government to restrict substitutes for such protection. In a liberal society we should not punish people for propensities to cause harm; we should punish people for harm.

I don’t see a blanket ban on concealed carry in places that serve alcohol as particularly necessary. As with any private establishment, property owners who do not feel comfortable with having concealed weapons on the premises could form their own local rules, and advertise the status as such. The same logic applies to smoking in restaurants and bars. This is an issue best resolved by property rights.

Incidentally, Lance Armstrong once campaigned for smoking bans in restaurants on the grounds that smoking was fine if individuals wanted to accept the harmful consequences of smoking for themselves, but that a ban in restaurants was necessary because secondhand smoke imposed costs on other people. So, he completely missed the point. The issue is resolved by property rights. If people don’t want to patronize a restaurant because of cigarette smoke, no one is forcing them to do so. It’s just nonsensical to say that person A, by smoking, is imposing a cost on person B, when person B has voluntarily chosen to enter a situation.

Anyway, as a practical matter, I actually prefer that more people carry firearms, so long as they’re comfortable doing so, and have the proper training. It is intuitively obvious that any potential criminal in any particular location would be more deterred from trying to use a firearm to commit a crime if they could not determine who, if anyone, would have the relatively equal power to stop them. Isn’t an area where everyone is known to be unarmed a more attractive target for a criminal?

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Peter Somerville tweeted an interesting question, and our back and forth has been entertaining. If we continue, I’ll keep updating.

Peter: Question of the day: Is noblesse oblige incompatible with meritocracy? http://ow.ly/18cO3

Aaron: I don’t think so, it’s part of the market-produced incentive to be a good citizen. It can be condescending but not always.

Aaron: to the extent condescension offsets the good-citizenry benefits.

Peter: If you’re in the “deserving” elite, what do you owe the rest of society?

Aaron: does NO have a “deserving” component? Read it more as ‘by virtue of our position’ without regard how position was achieved.

Aaron: my point: markets morally force one to work in community without coercively forcing community. My sense of NO fits that.

Peter: Traditional elites view their status as unmerited, thus NO. If in a meritocracy you “earn” your status, that link is lost.

Aaron: but doesn’t the operative part of NO still apply? Consider Daliah/Caplan’s merit/value argument:http://ow.ly/18nJC and … how that dynamic applies. Duty to fellow man in a market stems not from god (old NO) but from fellowship of market society.

Peter: Markets change behavior… but attitudes? I am forced to buy my coke from CVS clerk, but am not forced to look out for him.

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Happy Stimulus Anniversary! Hope you’re all enjoying the jobs we saved! And your solid gold toilets, and your free taxpayer-funded golf carts! This one is rather long, but I do drop an F-Bomb if you stick around long enough.

Evan Bayh is stepping down, and blaming the poisonous partisanship on the hill. From Yahoo! News (which features consistently good journalism; the ! means quality!):

Bayh blamed the current atmosphere of intense partisanship on the need for senators to constantly campaign to be reelected to another six-year term. Citing his father, a popular liberal senator in the ’60s and ’70s, he noted that “back in the day they used to have the saying: ‘You campaign for 2 years and you legislate for 4.’ Now you campaign for 6!” He noted that the need for constant fundraising made it nearly impossible to focus on passing legislation.

Frustration over the increasing amount of money being spent on political campaigns isn’t exactly a new thing, as spending by candidates in the 2008 presidential election nearly quadrupled the amount of money spent by candidates in the 2000 election. Additionally, winners of House races in 2000 spent an average of $849,158 to do so, while House winners in 2008 spent an average of $1,372,591. Enhancing the concerns of many on the left and the right has been a recent Supreme Court decision to strike down the country’s existing campaign finance laws. Put simply, the ruling opens the door for an even greater influence of money by allowing corporations spend money directly on campaigns.

There are two ways to address the influence of money in Washington

We could spend millions more on intricate regulations, inevitably leading to a greater concentration of power in a select few, who will then be plied with even greater amounts of money to curry favor.

Alternatively, we could limit the power of all of the branches of government, reducing the incentives to lobby Washington, cutting off the flow of money.

But what’s interesting about Senator Bayh stepping down is his implied belief in the power and majesty of bipartisanship. From his comments, it’s evident that the Hoosier Senator believes in the power of Congress to lead, and that synthesizing conflicting or contradictory viewpoints can and will lead to good governance.

I don’t agree. Some of the worst bills are the most bipartisan. Sarbane-Oxley, McCain-Feingold, the egregious Farm Bills, the stimulus, TARP, the 80’s S&L scandles,  and on ad nauseam and ad infinitum. Of course on some issues bipartisan support is clearly a good thing, like defense, criminal statutes, and tax policy. The benefits here are avoiding arbitrary or biased regulation on issues that should be universal. Broadly I’m in favor there.

Where I disagree is in saying that compromise on fundamentally different beliefs can result in good government. Particular ideological beliefs of both parties shouldn’t be compromised to forward mediocre bills. If liberal’s truly believe that healthcare is an affirmative right, or conservatives sincerely hold that life starts at conception, what purpose do compromising these beliefs for political gain accomplish? The answer is in the question; political gain. Influence, privilege and money are preferred by the political class over ideals. The difference here is that these issues are primarily social and therefore subjective or personal, while the former set where I support bipartisanship are broadly universal.

Universal issues have objectively universal consequences, in ways that other issues don’t. For some getting an abortion might be unquestionably the right thing to do, for others it could be abhorrent. But equally important, there is a significant middle class where it’s an open question. Similarly, health insurance may save some (see Megan McArdle for an ongoing discussion on this issue), but the exact same level of care may not save another person suffering from the same disease; the same level of care also has varying degrees of “saved”, as anyone who knows cancer patients can attest. The issues aren’t universal in the same way as defense or tax.

Those areas of policy where compromise is illogical or politically motivated are fertile grounds for bipartisanship. Politicians want to be seen ‘accomplishing’ things, and often have little sense of what their accomplishments represent. John McCain pushed for campaign finance reform and ran on that platform for two presidential election cycles, before getting obliterated financially by President Obama, who skillfully used the rules McCain advocated to choke him.

All too often bipartisanship precludes social experimentation and enshrines one fickle majority upon the whole. Some liberals like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes realize this. He felt that the constitution was a threat to majority tyranny, and his progressive leanings elevated that elusive creature of ‘the public will’ above constitutional constraints. He famously wrote;

If my fellow citizens want to go to Hell I will help them. It’s my job.

That may be the worst perversion of the role of the judiciary ever. I’m less offended by outright bribery than by Holmes’ complete abandonment of constitutional duty. What a fucker.

Other progressives/liberals will argue that a centralized technocracy will avoid this majoritarian fickleness, but there’s very little evidence to support that theory. Even as politically insulated a technocrat as Alan Greenspan kept one finger always testing the political winds.

The genius of American federalism is that it leaves plenty of experimentation space for competing ideas of all stripes, and allows people with limited knowledge and limited rationality to demonstrably embrace one system or another, all while bearing the responsibility for their choices. Bipartisanship, and centralization in general, goes a long way towards chipping away at that dynamic. Jeffersonian “laboratories of democracy” don’t require unanimous or cross-party support, but Madisonian faction-on-faction action.

P.S. For more proof that Holmes is indeed a fucker, among his hundreds of terrible rulings,  he held that the mentally handicapped could be sterilized by the state. Perhaps the nadir of Liberal Fascism.

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Question for the commentariat:

Is the distribution of wealth to the needy through taxes morally superior to distribution through charity? Why or why not?

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I clearly need to develop my thoughts about consequentialism further.  When I attacked the mistake of deriving libertarianism from first principles earlier, I actually thought Aaron and I were in agreement.  Once Aaron and I had a conversation with another person about Kant’s deontological ethics, and both Aaron I remarked to each other later how silly it was that this person advocated Kantian ideas.

I’m not so sure Aaron and I really do disagree.  Aaron gives deference to utilitarian technologies, which neoclassical economists certainly use, but with an important caveat, that utility is ordinal, not cardinal.  What does this mean?  It’s incoherent to compare the value of $10.00, a market price, of any particular good or service, between two different individuals.  Individuals value what they purchase subjectively.  Trade-offs will be different; individuals have different utility functions.

Ordinal utility serves as a good universal principle.  So does self-ownership, and so does the importance of property rights.  I don’t dispute that these are valid principles that can be universally applied.  Rather, I’m arguing that these principles must be defended consequentially.  I don’t think that Rand solved the is-ought problem, and Aaron hasn’t either.  Even just by describing a solid, consistent principle that can be universally applied doesn’t mean that it has been derived from the intrinsic nature of the principle.  My intuition is that if we evaluate such principles, we’re constantly judging them on the basis of their consequences.

Suppose I tell a progressive that health care should be allocated on a free market.  They object that the consequences of such a policy mean that some people would not be able to afford some minimum amount of health care.  They evaluate the consequences of my recommendation, because in their mind, the consequence they desire is for all people to afford care.

Suppose a Marxist tells me that property is theft, and that all goods and services should be allocated centrally.  I evaluate the problems with this by noting that the failure to legally recognize private property for private goods distorts incentives, and will mean forgoing wealth that is otherwise possible with free markets.  I evaluate the proposed Marxist principle consequentially.

I don’t think Kant was being honest.  What makes a categorical imperative categorical?  Do we not need to evaluate the consequences of a universal principle?

Suppose that I propose, as the basis of an ethical system, that it is proper for every individual to to murder all other individuals, as many people as they possibly can.  This is pretty clearly a terrible ethical principle, but why is it?  Think of what it implies consequentially.

In evaluating ethical claims, consequentialism is unavoidable.

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