Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Shortsighted Thomas Sowell

Apparently an advocate of torture as practiced by agents of the US government.  I will not go into a detailed review / analysis of his post – I would have not much new to add since earlier today.  I will only comment on one line, his last line in the essay:

If we cannot see beyond the moment today, we will pay dearly tomorrow and in many more tomorrows.

To see beyond the moment requires some principle, something to believe in, future orientation, a set of values for guidance, culture.

Sowell knows well the value of culture. He can see beyond the moment when it comes to the various welfare and dependency programs of the US government.  He can see what these do to the culture.

From Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism, by John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and Germain Grisez:

For even if one has a serious moral responsibility, one can be morally barred from using the only available means to fulfill it…. If one finds oneself in circumstances such that there is no moral way to discharge one’s positive duties, then one should not discharge them.

Even accepting Sowell’s far-fetched hypothetical – of which I am completely certain does not describe the situation of even one of the tortured detainees – the methods applied will both be shaped by and shape the culture.

Ideas have consequences; values have consequences; an accepted culture has consequences.  A culture of constantly degrading, dehumanizing, and otherwise devaluing human life is a culture not long to survive.  When something is not valued, there will be less demand for it, and the market will ensure that less is therefore produced.  Simple economics.

Torture is just the latest discussion topic that demonstrates that this is the culture of today’s West.  Valuing human life is not demanded; therefore, as time passes (beyond the moment), the market will ensure that this is reflected in all aspects of relationships.

This is Sowell’s shortsightedness; inexcusable for someone so well-versed in both economics and the social sciences.

The Cultural Abyss

Abyss: 3(b): the infernal regions; hell.


Libertarian theory is focused on answering the question: when is aggression justified?  The foundation of libertarian theory is the non-aggression principle: aggression is justified only in self-defense.  This foundation leads to several corollaries; most fundamental is the absolute right to private property.

Libertarians will be the first to suggest that libertarian theory does not answer every question in life; it does not offer a complete philosophical or moral framework for man to live as an individual, to live with his fellow man, most importantly to develop a thriving community.

I have struggled in thinking through these additional necessities – more specifically, I have struggled through what is and isn’t derivable from libertarian thought; call these necessities “thick” – not for the purposes of turning libertarian theory into an unrecognizable bloated mess, but for the purpose of thinking about what is necessary to develop a thriving community – one able to sustain and enhance life, as opposed to one withering away in a slow death. 

“Thick” can be called by another, better known term: call it culture.

The Culture of the West

Relative to the small surface area I have scratched regarding libertarian theory, I am rather unqualified to discuss with any knowledge the cultural history of the West.  Not knowing much about a subject has never stopped me before….

Western culture as it has come to be known cannot be explained without understanding the impact that Christianity has had; of course, there was Greece and Rome before, and there were valuable contributions made by Muslim and Eastern thinkers, scholars, scientists and philosophers.  But the basic story can be told without these; I don’t believe it can be told without Christianity.

Don’t believe me?  I wouldn’t either; I already admitted I am not qualified.  Ask Jacques Barzun.  Seventy years of his scholarly work is summarized in his magnum opus, “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.”  His opening chapter – his “dawn” of “Western Cultural Life” – begins with Martin Luther.

But Luther wasn’t born from a virgin.  He didn’t nail his 95 theses on the post of the rathaus.  It was a church, a Catholic church.  For one-thousand years before this event, the Catholic Church played a major role in the culture of the west – some good, some not so good. 

It seems to me, mostly good.  Absent the Church, the misnamed Dark Ages might not have given us anything more than scattered tribes such as lived in North America when the Vikings, Chinese, or whoever first touched the land.  Instead, there was civilization.  Law, not based on edict, but law that was grounded in the old and the good.  Laws based on oaths – sacred oaths.  These oaths were the foundation of interpersonal relationships.  More than contracts, they were binding promises between men with God as a party to the agreement. 

Further, progress in the time included inventions and mechanizations; development of a society more liberal than the Rome that preceded it or the Europe that followed it; the preservation of the Greek and Roman classics.  Much of this discovery, this foundation, was to be formed in monasteries.

The Middle Ages ended in a convulsion – what is now remembered as the stereotype of the period was primarily to be found only in the later years, beginning in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  Wars, famine, plagues.  After this came Luther.

The Reformation, Renaissance; enlightened liberal – and liberalizing – thinking.  Italian banks, Dutch trading companies, British (to include all people of the Island) political and philosophical thought.  By the time of the American Revolution, the white, Christian populations of the Empire lived in perhaps the most free condition on earth – at least if considering the developed, division-of-labor economies.

The Peak is Glimpsed

The west was so close.  While certainly not extending the franchise to the non-white, non-Christian, significant progress was achieved – culminating in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Slavery abolished peacefully in much of the west; international arbitration often used instead of war; international commerce peacefully regulated by gold.

Wars were kept brief – at least when European against European; treaties designed with the future peace in mind, not as punishment for past (perceived) transgressions.  Citizens were as well-armed, relatively speaking, as those who governed.

This achievement – centuries, if not a millennium, in the making – would not be celebrated long.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Writing Doldrums

You will have noticed that I have not been writing much recently.  I think it worthwhile – both for the sake of those of you who regularly visit as well as for my own – to try to work through the reasons why.  Perhaps this exercise will help open the logjam.

To begin, I don’t like that I am not writing much; it is one of the things I enjoy – to learn, explore, and to try to understand / describe / explain / communicate; to receive feedback that helps me improve in all aspects.   A close cousin is that I am also not reading much – my usual sites, a stack of books waiting for me, etc.

The most direct reason is that my schedule in the real world has been consumed by both a work project and some personal projects.  I am past the workload peak, but I am not sure how soon I will get past the mental peak – where I am therefore able to keep my thoughts focused on writing. 

About ten days ago, I felt a sudden mental freedom – I don’t know from where it came.  I put out about three pieces in 2-3 days.  I really enjoyed that I was able to do that.  Then, it went away.

In any case, the workload cannot explain all of it; even when I have had some available time, I have found that I am not able to focus on writing something.  I think the events of recent months – the escalation of tensions regarding Ukraine, the incessant propaganda regarding ISIS, the flood of information regarding CIA torture, etc. – have overwhelmed me.

Not overwhelmed in a sense of hopelessness (I can never fall into this); more like a sense of what to make of it – trying to make some sense out of all of it.  There are times when – while reading someone’s view of the various events – I feel I capture a brief mental glimpse of some reasonable interpretation, a needle in their haystack that points me to something bigger, something else; but then it disappears, with me left unable to put any of it into words or even remember it.  And then I get (mentally) caught up again in these projects….

It isn’t clear to me which logjam needs breaking – the projects or my ability to mentally make some sense out of these recent events.  In the meantime, I really miss writing.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Weak Currency is Good for the Economy…Not!

Volume 2,475,623.  (Not really, but...well, you know.)

Apparently corporate bankruptcies are up in Japan; the bankrupt companies blame the weak yen:

Corporate bankruptcies linked to the yen’s slide hit a new record in November, highlighting the strains on small and midsize companies…

Small and midsize companies – no mention of large companies?

While some small firms are struggling to pass on higher costs of imported materials to customers, large exporters are reporting higher profits…

So the big guys are doing OK.

Forty-two of the companies that failed in November cited the weakened currency as a contributing cause, bringing total bankruptcies associated with the yen so far this year to 301, almost triple that of the same period in 2013…

Triple.  Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, are you paying any attention?

The story goes that a weak currency is good for exports.  Lower labor costs and all that.  But what about all of the stuff that needs to be purchased – at global prices – in order to thereafter produce?

It said surging costs of imported food, metals and construction materials are squeezing small companies.

Yes, that is my point.  Once inventory acquired by the stronger currency unit is depleted, it must be replenished via the purchasing power of a weaker currency unit. 

But at least the labor is cheaper – this has to help exports on net, doesn’t it?  I guess you might make a case that it helps exporters of products with a high labor content and a low bill-of-material content – in other words, exporters based in countries with un-developed and low division-of-labor economies (but even here, I doubt it) – for sure not Japan (or the US, or the EU, or the UK, etc.).

Besides the large exporters benefitting with increased exports, consider that a weak currency policy also wipes out the competition for the home market; take out the small and medium sized suppliers, and guess what happens?

Three constituencies benefit, at least to some extent, from a weak currency policy – and even these three are, to a good degree, overlapping:

1)      Large exporters
2)      Multi-nationals
3)      Executives with financial-performance based compensation (options / equity / bonuses)

I have touched on the benefit to the large exporters.  What of the multi-nationals?  Such companies have aligned production more-or-less with the location of sales – in other words, they have neutralized currency fluctuations naturally.  While this may not be a benefit, it certainly minimizes the cost.  How many small to medium sized businesses are structured in a similar manner?

Finally, the executives: large exporters and multi-nationals based in Japan report their revenue earnings in Yen.  For the large exporter, this results in an increase in reported results even if actual performance doesn’t change a bit.  For the multi-national, producing and selling in several jurisdictions world-wide, the result is similar.

For the small- to mid-sized company?  All they see is higher prices for their purchases.  For the average citizen, the same thing.  To say nothing of the value of savings being diminished.

Once again, policies developed for the connected at the expense of most of the rest of us.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Rothbard: Punishment and Proportionality

Today’s Mises Daily is an excerpt from The Ethics of Liberty, by Murray Rothbard.  The specific topic is “Punishment and Proportionality,” taken from chapter 13.

I one day decided to jump into this topic, motivated by a controversial post on this topic by Robert Wenzel.  After some dialogue on my original post, I decided to write a follow-up.

To make a long story short, I have concluded that the non-aggression principle cannot answer the question: how much punishment is the right amount of punishment?  Libertarian theory can offer a framework for considering this question, but it cannot provide precision.

Where does the precision come from?  To the extent that there will come something specific, it will come from society – society will determine what is acceptable.  I write this even accepting the libertarian-derived principle that the victim has rights in determining punishment.  I will not revisit my arguments in this post – the previous posts provide enough fodder.

Instead, I will allow Rothbard to make the point for me:

If A has stolen $15,000 from B, then the first, or initial, part of A's punishment must be to restore that $15,000 to the hands of B (plus damages, judicial and police costs, and interest foregone).

“Damages” is a subjective term, it seems to me.  Administrative costs can be easily calculated, as can interest.  Who decides proper “damages”?  Does the victim?  On what basis?  What if the larger community decides that the damages extracted exceeded reason – even applying the NAP?

Rothbard agrees: “What this extra compensation should be it is impossible to say exactly…”

That’s what I said.

For example, suppose that A has severely beaten B; B now has the right to beat up A as severely, or a bit more…

This seems so barbaric.

But simply to dismiss a concept as "barbaric" can hardly suffice…

This gets to the point: punishment for crime must be deemed acceptable within the ethical code of the given society.  This ethical code cannot be found within the NAP.  What if the individuals within the community within which the crime was committed decide that this is barbaric?  At minimum, social pressure will limit or eliminate the possibility.

Rothbard does an excellent service in fully presenting a libertarian framework for thought on this topic.  Yet, even Rothbard finds no specific answers within the NAP.

I guess I am in good company.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Can I Commit Suicide?

No, not me; merely an exercise in libertarian thinking.

There are so many thinkers / writers in the libertarian / Austrian community that I admire.  One of them pretty high up on the list is Wendy McElroy.  Her latest editorial, posted at The Daily Bell, is entitled “Can I Sell Myself into Slavery?  Her reply?  No.

As I hold to the view that a contract not otherwise violating the non-aggression principle must be held as valid in a libertarian world, I have, on this specific query, been on the side of Walter Block.

With this brief introduction, here we go:

Can a person sell himself into slavery? That is, can someone relinquish his humanity and become property?


Slavery is the social condition in which one human being owns another as property. This means the owner can use and dispose of the slave as he would other property such as a table or dog.

What are McElroy’s arguments against this possibility?

Of the various ways to argue against the possibility of a slave-contract, a powerful approach involves the inalienability of the human will. Free will is a defining aspect of man's nature. From the instant of awareness, he chooses. Sometimes the available options are limited or utterly unappealing but even the refusal to choose constitutes an act of choice.

Free will or volition is an inalienable part of man's nature in the same manner as his reason; it is inherent. The argument from inalienability does not refer to a moral or political objection to a man who wishes to dispossess himself of free will; it refers to the impossibility of his doing so. No one else can think for him or control his will and wishes; he thinks his own thoughts and feels his own emotions.

While there is some debate about the free will of man, I will accept this concept for purposes of this post.

One moment before I sell myself into slavery I exercise my free will by deciding to sell myself into slavery.  I am free when I decide.  One moment later I am a slave – but I did not decide to become a slave while I was a slave, I decided to become a slave while I was free.  Am I now forced to go back to freedom?  From which I choose to become a slave?  Back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball?

If my will is free, am I limited in my choices?  What kind of free will is that?  Does the NAP apply to actions I commit against myself?

Otherwise stated, without free will a man would cease to be a human being. This means that asking him to transfer his will to another person as property is as metaphysically absurd as asking a dog to become a cat.

Nobody is asking me to transfer my will, I just decided to do it.  Look, is my will free or isn’t it?

McElroy cites Rothbard, who disagrees with me:

"[T]here are certain vital things which, in natural fact and in the nature of man, are inalienable, i.e., they cannot in fact be alienated, even voluntarily. Specifically, a person cannot alienate his will, more particularly his control over his own mind and body....Each man has control over his own will and person, and he is, if you wish, 'stuck' with that inherent and inalienable ownership. Since his will and control over his own person are inalienable, then so also are his rights to control that person and will."

Is there basis in this in the NAP?  I cannot think of one.  I have free will the moment I make this decision.  Who has the right to stop me?  Which unwilling participant am I harming?  Me?  But I am willing the moment I decide.  And I still wonder if the NAP applies to actions I commit against myself.

Free will is a prerequisite for the concept of a contract; it is key to what gives the concept of contract its meaning. In his essay "Toward A Reformulation of the Law of Contracts," Williamson M. Evers observed that individual rights were "founded upon the natural fact that each human is the proprietor of his own will. To take rights like those of property and contractual freedom that are based on a foundation of the absolute self-ownership of the will and then to use those derived rights to destroy their own foundation is philosophically invalid."

I will see your invalid philosophy and raise you one: To state that I have free will and absolute self-ownership and then turn those against my desire to exercise free will and absolute self-ownership seems philosophically invalid to me. 

A slave-contract violates two defining aspects of what constitutes a contract. First, the ability to breach.

Someone offers to pay me $50 for a lifetime of service, with an out clause exercisable by me; alternatively, he offers me $5 billion (payable to whomever I designate) for a lifetime of service, but in this case I have to agree that under no circumstance other than death is it possible to breach the contract. 

I can’t take the offer?  Who is going to stop me?  With what initiation of force?

The second violation of what constitutes a contract is the lack of a transfer of value. A man may agree to transfer his will and, so, agree to become property but that transfer is a practical impossibility. Therefore, there is no transfer of value; there is no valid contract to be enforced.

Why is it a practical impossibility?  For $5 billion, someone certainly might agree to make the impractical quite practical.

I return to the question that is the title of this post: while I have free will, I decide to commit suicide.  Now I have done the deed.  Who is going to tell me I can’t?  Besides being too late, I ask: on what grounds?

Death is certainly a far more complete state of separation from my free will than is slavery.  Doubt me?   A slave can always choose death.  The dead cannot so easily choose slavery. 

Can I not commit suicide?