Friday, May 28, 2010

Rothbard "on" Hegel

This morning I was re-reading The Idea of Nature and found Collingwood writing:

"Hegel, nailing to the counter in advance the lie that he regarded his own philosophy as final, wrote at the end of his treatise on the philosophy of history, 'That is as far as consciousness has reached.'"

I put down the book and thought to myself, "Hmm, I bet Rothbard didn't like Hegel, and when there is a thinker Rothbard didn't like, and a common lie told about him, you can make a lot of money betting that Rothbard repeated that lie."

So I fetched my copy of Classical Economics from the shelf and looked up Hegel. Yep, right there on 355: "According to Hegel, the final development of the man-God [an idiotic phrase made up by Rothbard that Hegel never uses], the final breakthrough into totality and infinity, was at hand." (Although it might not seem so at a glance, this is the same claim as Collingwood is calling a 'lie', since Hegel's philosophy was final if and only if history had reached its conclusion.)

But what was really shocking was just how bad the entire section on Hegel is. First of all, in the course of reading this multi-page trashing "one of the greatest systematic thinkers in the history of Western philosophy," it becomes clear that Rothbard never read a single work by Hegel, because every quote is from a secondary source. Furthermore, it seemed he only used three of those: a 64-page biographical sketch of Hegel by Raymond Plant, Robert C. Tucker's Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx, and Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies. (That's all I could find, but I admit I only looked at the notes in the back of the main chapter discussing Hegel.) The first of these is obviously a lightweight work and is used just for a couple of quotes. The second author I had never heard of. A Hegel scholar? I looked him up, and he's... wait for it... a Sovietologist!

And Popper, we know, was quite important in the philosophy of science, but also well-known as a disastrously bad intellectual historian. In fact, in 1959, Walter Kaufmann exposed Popper's "critique" of Hegel as based on ludicrously bad scholarship -- although Popper did do a little better than Rothbard in actually having looked inside of a book by Hegel before trying to rip him a new one, he apparently based almost all of his comments on a single, badly translated volume of excerpts from Hegel's works intended for college students. About Popper's "critique," Kaufman writes: "Popper's treatment contains more misconceptions about Hegel than any other single essay. Secondly, if one agrees with Popper that 'intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish,' one should protest against his methods; for although his hatred of totalitarianism is the inspiration and central motif of his book, his methods are unfortunately similar to those of totalitarian 'scholars.'"

Kaufman is especially harsh on Popper's use of "quilt quotations," one of which Rothbard himself pulls from Popper:

"Sentences are picked from various contexts, often even out of different books, enclosed by a single set of quotation marks, and separated only by three dots, which are generally taken to indicate no more than the omission of a few words. Plainly, this device can be used to impute to an author views he never held... Popper writes like a district attorney who wants to persuade his audience that Hegel was against God, freedom, and equality — and uses quilt quotations to convince us.

"The first of these (p. 227 ) consists of eight fragments of which every single one is due to one of Hegel’s students and was not published by him. Although Popper scrupulously marks references to Gans’s additions to the Philosophy of Right with an 'L' and invariably gives all the references for his quilt quotations — e.g., 'For the eight quotations in this paragraph, cf. Selections ...' — few readers indeed will recall when they come to the Notes at the end of the book that 'the eight quotations' are the quilt quotations that they took for a single passage. And Popper advises his readers 'first to read without interruption through the text of a chapter, and then to turn to the Notes.'"

And here's a final excerpt from Kaufmann's "evisceration" of Popper: "No conception is bandied about more unscrupulously in the history of ideas than 'Influence.' Popper’s notion of it is so utterly unscientific that one should never guess that he has done important work on logic and on scientific method."


So, not having bothered to open a single book by Hegel, Rothbard yanks from Popper disjointed, out-of-context quotes, many of which were not even written by Hegel, and uses the to make a totalitarian monster out of the man, the same Hegel who wrote things like:

"Commonplace thinking often has the impression that force holds the state together, but in fact its only bond is the sense of order which everybody possesses.”

And who held:

"Hegel stresses the need to recognize that the realities of the modern state necessitate a strong public authority along with a populace that is free and unregimented."

Some totalitarian, huh?

So, one of Rothbard's two main sources on Hegel was known, by 1959, to have totally botched his chapter on Hegel, while the other was a Sovietologist whose work on Hegel seems to have been mostly a preliminary to getting to Marx! But Rothbard is determined to throw in original nonsense as well. He complains that Hegel was not a "patriotic Prussian" for rejoicing upon seeing Napoleon marching through Prussia, ignoring the fact that Hegel was not only not a patriotic Prussian, he was not a Prussian at all! (He was Swabian.) And amazingly, with no documentation whatsoever, he claims that Hegel thought Ancient Greece was "free of all division of labor"! For that to be true, Hegel, a Hellenophile, would have to have not realized that Plato wrote philosophy, Herodotus history, Sophocles drama, and that someone else made all those sculptures and someone else again those vases, and he would have had to have thought that slaves had identical jobs to freemen. That seems a little farfetched, but then, we can't check it out, because there is just no indication at all of where this "fact" came from.

Good job, Murray.

My Principle on Principles

"I have no horror of principle -- only a suspicion of those who use principles as if they were axioms and those who seem to think that practical argument is concerned with proof. A principle is not something which may be given as a reason or a justification for making a decision or performing an action; it is a short-hand identification of a disposition to choose." -- Michael Oakeshott

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Who Wrote It? When?

Try to guess the year this was written, before you Google for the quote:

"You have learned from astronomical proofs that the whole earth compared with the universe is no greater than a point, that is, compared with the sphere of the heavens, it may be thought of as having no size at all. Then, of this tiny corner... take away... the seas, marshes, and other desert places, and the space left for man hardly even deserves the name of infinitesimal."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Look at the Violence Inherent in the System!

So, someone is quietly sunbathing in the corner of a field I own, but am not using at the moment. I spot him, and call in security. When they tell him to leave, he says, "Hey, I'm just having a little nap in the sun! I'm not hurting anything -- I'll be gone in a half hour."

Security goes to drag him away, and when he struggles, hit him on the head with clubs.

Now, surely, I wouldn't go so far in the "strawman" arguments against libertarianism that people keep accusing me of making as to contend that any libertarian would say that the sunbather had "initiated violence" against me and that I was just responding in "self defense," would I? No one could really hold a position that stupid, so what would motivate me to make up crap like that?

Well, I don't have to, because Geoffrey Allan Plouche did it for me:

"Throwing out trespassers who refuse to leave is not initiating physical force. It is retaliatory physical force. Defensive."

And, by the way, I think private property in land is generally speaking a good idea. But it's not some "natural right" -- it's a social invention, and governed by the norms of the societies that created it. In the UK, the sunbather would have every right to stay where he was, because the UK has "right to wander" laws. In the US, the police should remove him if asked -- because what he is doing is against the law, not because it is "initiating violence."

(Now, some idiot is going to come along and say, "So, Gene thinks it is OK to turn Jews in to the Nazis because that was the law." Just wait for it.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Another Lap Around the NAP

Now, I am not the first one to point out the fact that libertarian (in fact, all liberal) arguments are circular in that they assume libertarian (liberal) premises to reach their conclusion. It was, in fact, Alasdair MacIntyre who first convinced me this is so. So imagine my delight when I discovered a libertarian, Geoffrey Allan Plauché, who had denied libertarians made these circular arguments, completing a lap around the NAP in the space of a single paragraph, and doing so in addressing... Alasdair MacIntyre!

Now, what MacIntyre claims is that liberalism is not the "tradition-neutral" umpire it claims to be, but is itself a tradition, a tradition intolerant of other traditions, and one that will use force to bring them into the liberal order. What does Plauché make of MacIntryre?

"What MacIntyre is ultimate objecting to is the prohibition on violence and other forms of initiatory force. Is this the sort of community tradition he has it in mind to preserve? Perhaps he will reply that if communities are not allowed to enforce their traditions by aggression or the threat thereof, then they will not last in the face of competition. If this is the case, however, then they must not have been as valuable to those who abandoned them for alternatives. Who is MacIntyre, or anyone else who wants to preserve a particular community or tradition, to coerce others into conforming?"

Let's say I live in a old, tight-knit community. (As I happen to do.) And let's say the life of this community is being threatened by the construction of huge high-rise apartment buildings that will bring hordes of transient strangers pouring in, people with no ties to the community, no sense of its values, and no interest in whether or not it survives. (They'll be living in Greenwich in five years.) So my neighbors and I decide to prevent construction of one of these monstrosities by sitting ourselves down (quite peacefully) at the construction site. Per Plauché's "principles," we are engaged in aggression, and when the property owner calls in cops with tasers and billy clubs to clear us out, he is not!

So, when a community acts peacefully to protect itself, it is engaged in "violence." And when the liberal social order responds with violence in order to break up all resistance to the total dominance of market values, that is called "self-defense"! Of course, if we first accept liberalism's counter-intuitive definitions of what constitutes aggression and what constitutes defense, then we will no doubt find that liberalism is perfectly peaceful, and all other traditions are engaged in "aggression" in trying to survive. So Plauché illustrates MacIntyre's point beautifully by running a lap around the NAP himself.

UPDATE: And notice what Plauché assumes is the only reasonable test for whether a tradition should survive: "If this is the case, however, then they must not have been as valuable to those who abandoned them for alternatives." Traditions must allow themselves to be judged by the ultimate liberal criterion of goodness, the market test!

Homesteadin' Is the Place for Me

So, let's take a look at John Locke's famous homesteading principle, the foundation of many libertarian theories of property rights. Locke begins by stating that in the commons, whatever one has mixed one's labor with is his: "Thus the law of reason makes the deer that Indian's who hath killed it." Well, the law of reason may make it thus, but this is not the way hunter-gatherer societies work. Instead, we find a traditional manner of dividing up the deer amongst the tribe, with the hunter perhaps getting a prize portion, or something of the sort. And this traditional division might cite a "law of reason" of its own: without the tribe, the hunter wouldn't have lived past a day. Without the tribe, he would have no idea how to hunt. Without the tribe, he would not have a bow and arrow. I could go on, but you get the point.

Furthermore, ownership in land almost never came about in the way Locke contends give the institution its justification. Hunter-gatherers did not have private land ownership. And when it came about, it certainly did not pop up the day someone first planted a seed. No, private ownership evolved slowly out of communal ownership, an institution created by the community in question (although never with the intention of creating some desired endstate of ownership, but in response to the contingent situation). Ownership in private property is created by communities.

But the 17th-century English landowning class had a problem. They had been busy robbing both the English peasant and the American Indian of their land. To their credit, they couldn't admit openly to themselves that they had been doing so. While the Athenians could just say to the Melians that it was natural for the powerful to dominate the weak, or the Israelites could simply claim a land as God's chosen people, these options were not open to 17th-century English Christians. They needed a good justification for their theft. And Locke's homesteading doctrine is formulated very precisely to give them one: only when a man "tills, plants, improves, cultivates" some piece of land does he actually gain ownership of it. So, there you go! Just because some English peasants had grazed a pasture for a thousand years, or some "naked savages" had hunted it for five thousand years, that land wasn't really theirs, because they hadn't done with it what a member of the landed gentry would, which was to enclose it and farm it (or at least the part not reserved for the folly and the decorative fish pond).

So, there's the basis of the homesteading "principle": it's a good way to justify taking things from the weak! (And here, in what is surely a slyly ironic article by Jeff Tucker and Manuel Lora, they note how, after several hundred years of being taught that grabbing things first is the just way to get them, people actually start to act like this is natural!)

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Hah! That got your attention, didn't it? But, as Aquinas taught us long ago, pornography is not essentially about sex -- it is a corruption of art, one that tries to sell us some emotion instead of merely portraying it. (I'm simplifying Aquinas' theory here, but not, I hope, mangling it!)

I thought of this while watching Two for the Money. Al Pacino plays a, well, dickhead, engaged in a thoroughly immoral business, manipulating his wife and friend, and unable to control his gambling.


As I was watching, I thought, "Well, the proper ending here is that we see this in-some-ways-likeable guy destroyed by his tragic flaws. But that's not what's going to happen."

And right I was. At the end, for no apparent reason, his wife forgives him, and a huge bet he never ought to have made goes his way. This is porn for the reprobate: you don't have to live right to live well! No, whatever you've done, at the end, the director will figure out a way to save your sorry ass.

Aristotle and Ideology, II

To continue:

It seems to me that Aristotle was, in fact, responding to the first 'rationalist in politics', Plato, who had initially confused theory and practice, in, for example, the myth of the cave, where the philosopher, because he has mastered theory, is entitled to come back to the masses and dictate practice to them. As Oakeshott commented upon this:

"The cave-dwellers, upon first encountering the theorist after his return to the world of the shadows [very well might be impressed] when he tells them that what they had always thought of as ‘a horse’ is not what they suppose it to be… but is, on the contrary, a modification of the attributes of God [and they will] applaud his performance even where they cannot quite follow it. [The cave-dwellers can appreciate the exotic pronouncements of the theorist, as long as he confines those pronouncements to their genuine field of applicability, ] but if he were to tell them that, in virtue of his more profound understanding of the nature of horses, he is a more expert horse-man, horse-chandler, or stable boy than they (in their ignorance) could ever hope to be, and when it becomes clear that his new learning has lost him the ability to tell one end of a horse from the other… [then] before long the more perceptive of the cave-dwellers [will] begin to suspect that, after all, he [is] not an interesting theorist but a fuddled and pretentious ‘theoretician’ who should be sent on his travels again, or accommodated in a quiet home."

As Aristotle's thought moved away from Plato's, he sought to explore the difference between theoretical and practical wisdom, to clarify where Plato had gone astray. I here quote from an excellent paper by Daniel Deveroux, "Particular and Universal in Aristotle's Conception of Practical Knowledge."

"Practical wisdom, as Aristotle understands it, is analogous not to medicine but to medical skill; it is practical both in aim and in efficacy, and it is self-sufficient in the same way as medical skill: the practically wise person has what he needs to achieve his aims" (1986: 494).

"Matters of health and conduct 'have no fixity,' and therefore it would be futile to attempt to formulate precise statements about how we should act in various situations. One must speak 'in outline' and 'not precisely'" (1986: 494).

"Such statements will at best be useful as rules of thumb; the experienced agent or doctor will be guided not so much by them as by his judgment of what is 'appropriate to the occasion'" (1986: 495).

So, we might define the ideologue this way: He is someone who, lacking in political experience, tries to turn these rules of thumb into hard 'principles' that will provide him with the unambiguous guide to proceeding that his lack of experience has denied him. Thus, contra Geoffrey Allan Plauche, principles, at least as understood by ideologues such as Rand or Rothbard, certainly do not have a place in Aristotelean practical reasoning. The proper role of a statement like "The government ought to respect property rights" is as a rule of thumb; yes, generally, it ought to, but there are clearly other times when to do so would be not practical wisdom but practical idiocy. (See 'Scenario 2' of this post for an example.) And that is just how someone as bright as Rothbard managed to arrive at positions as stupid as his belief that blackmail ought to be legal: by mistaking theory for practice and turning what ought to be seen as rules of thumb into a rigid ideology, he rendered himself incapable of sound practical thought.

Friday, May 21, 2010

It's What He Did Afterwards!

this fellow, who strangled his wife then faked text messages to him from her cell phone, was just convicted recently. CBS News Radio was covering the story, and they played an audio clip of the prosecutor saying, "Of course, the murder was awful, but what he did afterwards..." and then stopping, speechless. So, apparently, murder is pretty bad, but pretending you're a dead person when texting is abominable!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Aristotle and Ideology

The discussion of θεωρια and φρονησισ (roughly meaning theory and practice) in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is very helpful in understanding what critics mean by 'ideological politics' and how non-ideological politics is even possible (something ideologues often doubt).

I'm working from a translation that renders 'φρονεσισ' as 'prudence,' which is fine, as long as one understands what is meant by that is practical sagacity, and not timidity or an unwillingness to take risks. Aristotle differentiates theoretical and practical knowledge: the former is about universals and gives us necessary truths, while the latter has more to do with particulars than universals and its truths are less certain:

"Scientific knowledge is supposition about universals, things that are by necessity... Prudence, by contrast, is about human concerns, about things open to deliberation... Nor is prudence about universals only. It must also acquire knowledge of particulars, since it is concerned with action and action is about particulars."

The difference between the two realms is significant enough that someone may be very sharp theoretically but a 'klutz' in terms of practical action:

"That is why in other areas also some people who lack knowledge but have experience are better in action than others who have knowledge... Indeed [to understand the difficulty and importance of experience] we might consider why a child can become accomplished in mathematics, but not in wisdom or natural science. [This surely applies far less to today's highly abstract physics than to Aristotelean natural science.] Surely it is because mathematical objects are reached through abstraction, whereas in these other cases the principles are reached from experience."

The above, in fact, points to a good definition of what constitutes a political ideology: An ideology tries, by creating an abstract world of political 'principles' (e.g., the 'non-aggression principle') to make politics, a practical activity requiring experience, into a theoretical activity that even a bright child can become adept at through textbook learning. As Oakeshott would have it, an ideology is a 'cheat sheet' for those lacking political experience.

However, the creation of an ideology rests on a confusion:

"It is apparent that prudence is not scientific knowledge; for, as we said, it concerns the last thing [i.e., the particular], since this is what is achievable in action. Hence it is opposite to understanding. For understanding is about the [first] terms, [those] that have no account of them; but prudence is about the last thing, an object of perception, not of scientific knowledge."

By mistakenly equating political prudence with scientific knowledge, the ideologue has made a crippling error. Not that he can actually conduct politics as a sort of theoretical activity: in fact, he will again and again fall back upon disguised practical reasoning in forming his supposedly theoretical conclusions. But the contortions involved in doing so are damaging; as Collingwood said, "A person may think he is a poached egg; that will not make him one: but it will affect his conduct, and for the worse."

Karen DeCoster: Halfway There

This post about dog poop caught my attention at the end, where DeCoster writes:

"Or you can just pass costly, crazed, DNA doggie laws which 'respect property rights,' such as the article described. And then here’s the question: how will you enforce those mandates? By force? If it is truly 'voluntary,' you can turn your back on the condo mobocracy and refuse their Orwellian mandates."

The answer is "by force," of course -- the same way all "voluntary" private property rights are enforced. If private property were truly voluntary, I could just turn my back when some property owner tells me to get off his land.

Monday, May 17, 2010


"Contemporary libertarian individualism and statist collectivism created each other and are locked in a fatal embrace that destroys the civic middle and the life and economy of the associative citizen." -- Phillip Blond

NAPping at the Wheel

Now, to be very clear, in many of my recent post, such as this one, I have been concerned with a narrow topic: does the "non-aggression principle," employed as libertarians typically employ it, somehow point to libertarianism as a uniquely correct political stance? Is it true that all other political doctrines are "in favor of aggression"?

The reason I note the narrowness of my concern here is because of the startling number of times, as I've made these posts, that someone has responded something like, "Why do you claim libertarians have no reasons for their beliefs?"

Say what?! I have been pointing out that this one argument is circular, and therefore flawed. The response above is as if, when you tell your friend, "The fact you eat tunafish is not really evidence you love your wife," he responds, "Oh, so you're saying I don't love my wife!" No, maybe you do; I'm just saying the tunafish argument is a bad argument.

A variation on the above is the response, "Oh, so you're saying it's OK not to love your wife?" ("See, Callahan is arguing against any morality whatsoever" or "Callahan has embraced moral relativism.") Crimminy. Pointing out that one argument for one moral position is wrong now equates to moral relativism?! Well, it's often easier to just invent your opponent's position yourself and then attack it, because you can make it noce and vulnerable before you charge.

In any case, here I want to address the rubbish I've heard put forward a number of times by libertarians that "Anyone who is not a libertarian is in favor of aggression!" Let us again proceed by analogy.

Imagine, if you will, a doctor, Dr. Smith, who sincerely believes that arsenic is good for newborns, and recommends it for infants in a book. Now, it seems obvious to me that it is an abuse of language to claim "Dr. Smith is in favor of killing babies!" It is true that his advice, if followed, would result in the death of babies. But Dr. Smith loves babies, and is in favor of their flourishing -- he is just in error about what they need to flourish.

Similarly, Hobbes believes he has presented a good case for the necessity of a single sovereign in a society. (By the way, I like to use Hobbes as an example not because I am a Hobbesian, but because his straightforward case is easy to handle in a brief post.) Given that he believes his own case, it should be obvious that Hobbes does not think his sovereign engages in aggression by, say, collecting taxes. Now, Hobbes may be mistaken, but it is ridiculous to say he "favors aggression." No, he favors peace, but may, in fact, be mistaken about what constitutes peace. And pointing this out does not imply "So, you think Hobbes' political philosophy is just as good as libertarianism" or anything of the sort. It just means libertarians really ought to stop wielding the blunt propaganda slogan of "You're an aggressor" and deal with their opponents' actual arguments instead.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Libertarian Running Track

I have suggested that this is the logical form of the argument anarcho-capitalists make against the legitimacy of the State has the following form:

1) The State is unjust.

2) Private property is just.

3) True, both institutions involve coercion, but the difference is:

4) The State’s coercion is aggressive, which is what makes it unjust.

5) The coercion required to maintain private property is only defensive, which is what makes it just.

6) How do we differentiate this defensive nature of coercion that protects private property from the aggressive nature of the coercion that maintains the State?

7) See 1) and 2)!

When I point out that this is a bit circular, the only answer I have been given is that I should try a few more laps around the track, and see if I don’t get it then. To be fair, some people also have suggested I attempt starting my laps from a different part of the track; one ancap, for instance, just suggested to me that I might like starting from around 4) and 5) better than starting from 1) and 2). And some people seem to hold that 4) and 5) are simply self-evident.

Well, let me set out two examples that, I think, show just how non-self-evident 4) and 5) are. Now, I don’t hold these examples out as typical of State activity or the behavior of property owners, but they don’t need to be to make my point, as the ancap contention is not that State coercion is often unjust, but that it is inherently unjust.

Scenario 1

I own a large farm. Every year, I let some fields like fallow. Since the farm is large, I like to survey it with my field glasses. Today, I spot a bunch of durned hippies out sunbathing – nude!! – in one of my fallow fields. I hop in my foub-by-four and drive out to the filed.

“Hey, you durned hippies!” I yell. “Get off the sods, mods!”

Their spokesperson replies, “Yo, dude, chill out. We ain’t hurting nothing. This field is unused right now, and we’ll stay away from your crops.”

“But this is my land, and I want you off it!”

“Yo, dude, I never agreed to these stupid property lines. It’s God’s earth, not yours, and we can wander where we want, so long as we’re doing no harm.”

“OK, I’m calling the cops private ancap security service!”

Scenario 2

I live in a small city-state on the coast of Greece. I hear the Athenians are coming to kill all of the men and enslave the women and children because we refused to join the Delian League. At the behest of our αρχον I organize the resistance. I come to the house of a man I know to be too old to fight, but who has a large weapons cache. “Roderikes,” I tell him, “the archon has commanded me to requisition your weapons to use in protecting our lives and liberties from the Athenians!”

“Nah, you know, I just polished my stuff, and I really don’t want it all nicked up.”

“But Roderikes, if we are unable to turn back the Athenians, it won’t be just your weapons that are all nicked up – it will be you as well.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

So I command the men with me to seize the weapons despite the unwillingness of Roderikes to surrender them voluntarily.

Now, it strikes me that the use of coercion in Scenario 2 is, prima facie, much more justified than in Scenario 1. QED, the ancap assertion of 4) and 5) above is unwarranted.

The circle is not unbroken, and there is no better ancap home in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Nature of Ideology

I’ve been re-reading Temple Grandin’s wonderful book, Animals in Translation, and it has some important things to say about ideology and abstraction. For those of you who don’t know Grandin, she is the top designer of animal handling facilities in the world, a PhD with over one hundred published papers in both biology and psychology, and autistic. She attributes her success to being ‘detail-oriented’, and claims that most people cannot see the problems she sees because they are too ‘abstractified.’ Interestingly, she, much as the British Idealists did, relates abstraction to ideology, and complains that, rather than plainly seeing the situation with which they are asked to deal, many of the people she encounters substitute an abstract, ideological view of the situation, thereby falsifying reality, often with bad results. She offers an example of a woman who owned a fair number of dogs. Some of the ‘pack’ she had created were naturally more dominant, and others more submissive. She was repeatedly advised that she had to accept this as a fact, since that is the way dogs are, and, for instance, always greet the more dominant dogs first when she came home. But, her mind captured by an ideology of equality, she refused to listen, with the outcome that the dominant dogs would attack the submissive ones for improperly taking ‘first dibs’ with the master, so that finally three of the dogs had to be put down.

Grandin discusses the constraints of biology upon animal nature at some length; in particular, she devotes many pages to how a simplified, abstract understanding of genetics can bring about radically undesirable results when applied. For example, the single-trait breeding of chickens, first for quick growth, then for lots of breast meat, and finally for the vitality not to collapse after growing so much meat so quickly, led to rapist/murderer roosters – the various traits being bred for did not exist in the simple isolation of an abstract genetic model, but interacted with the rest of chicken biology in unpredictable ways, so that the roosters produced by the three successive breeding efforts had often forgotten how to do the proper mating dance to seduce a hen, and wound up raping and killing the females when they wanted to mate.

How does this relate to ideology? Well, I have encountered people who contend that monogamy is ‘irrational,’ sexual possessiveness immoral, and that we ought to consciously work to eliminate these elements from human life. But Grandin notes that sexual possessiveness, across many species, seems to be strongly connected to taking great care for one’s offspring. The ideological conviction that such possessiveness is irrational ignores this basic biological fact; if this ideology ever holds full sway, the result after enough generations pass will be humans quite unlike ourselves, who have little interest in raising their children. Whether the human race would survive that change I have no idea, but it certainly is not what the ideologues intend; instead, they are seeing these traits in abstraction, like elements in a model, where they can pluck out any element that offends them without otherwise affecting the whole.

The grip of ideology is usually broken only by the force of reality shattering it. I recall, in particular, two experiences that had that sort of impact on me. One, suggested by John Goes in a previous thread, came about during my second stay in Switzerland. During my first trip I had fallen in love with the country, and had to go back. Spending more time there on trip two, I thought I was in the most naturally orderly and civic-minded place I had ever been – and, I realized, if the Swiss ever adopted the open border policy I had advocated until then, that place would be gone in a decade. Now, when I recently expressed some reservations about unrestricted immigration on a libertarian blog, I was immediately accused of being a ‘xenophobe.’ To anyone who knows I spent ten years playing in a reggae band, often finding myself to be the only native-born American in the club I was in, and who knows I am married to an immigrant, and so on, that accusation might seem unlikely. But consider the context that led me to change my mind – I was in a foreign country, enchanted by these foreigners culture, and was worried that too many people like me moving there might ruin things. That is a funny sort of xenophobia. But to preserve an ideological view, such name-calling is necessary, to prevent reality from intruding. I imagine the woman mentioned above with the dog pack thought of those pointing out that she was acting recklessly as ‘dog elitists,’ who were in favor of ‘oppression’ of the timid dogs by the more aggressive ones.

My second major breaking in of reality had to do with public school teachers. After my kids begged me to let them attend our local public school, I found that ideology had created in my mind a bogeyman public employee and that, try as I might, I couldn’t force the real public employees I was dealing with to conform to this taxpayer-sucking parasite monster. The actual teachers and administrators I dealt with were dedicated to their jobs and were focused on helping kids, not on draining the public coffers to feather their own nests.

Now, a non-ideological approach to issues like the above need not be blind to existing problems or deaf to every case for reform. The public schools in the US certainly do have many problems, and it would be good to fix them. Immigration restrictions are not a panacea, and bring with them serious civil liberty and humanitarian concerns. But to adopt a simplistic stance towards those situations based upon ‘principles’ that are in reality little more than slogans – “immigration control is xenophobic” or “the public schools are evil monopolies that brainwash our children” – is unlikely to produce improvement. Instead, the discussion of the problems is degraded, and the targets of the slogans usually wind up getting their backs up, closing their minds to even reasonable reforms.

Finally, let me assert once more that I don’t mean to be picking on libertarians here – some of my best friends are libertarians. But that happens to be the ideology to which I was committed, and, so, it is the easiest one for me to mine for examples. Indeed, everything I write here should be understood primarily as self-criticism, and only secondarily as directed at anyone else.

Which brings me to my final, final point. A while back, my friend Bob Murphy remarked that the fellow who had inspired him to abandon his former materialism had become “Gene the cranky.” I think I now understand better why that was so: I was going through a painful struggle between my attachment to everything I had built up tied to a particular ideology – my many good friends, my professional contacts, my public reputation, my sources of funding – and the acceptance of the facts that reality was forcing upon me. Sadly, all too often, it is easier to project any internal conflict outwards than to acknowledge what is really going on, and, thus, “Gene the cranky.” So, to those who were subjected to my crankiness, let me offer a blanket apology. (If you want a personal one, you will have to take a number.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Lesson Is Unmistakable

Colin Barr, who has a bee in his bonnett about high-frequency stock trading, writes, of the turmoil in the market last week: "The exact causes of Thursday’s stock market short-circuit remain unclear, but the lesson is unmistakable."

This is a very weird thing to say. It strikes me as akin to a case where, say, someone's wife wants him to stop drinking. Then, when some mysterious medical ailment strikes him, well before the doctors know the cause, she says, "The lesson is unmistakeable: you need to stop drinking."

What would you think if you went to the doctor with a mysterious ailment, and she told you, "I have no idea what is causing your problem, but the lesson is clear: We need to amputate your leg."

The point being that, without knowing the cause, how can any lesson at all be drawn from any incident?

And the point here is not whether Barr is right or wrong about high frequency trading. The point is, rather, that until he knows the cause of yesterday's incident, it is invalid to use it is an example of any problem at all!

When I noted this to the Barr, he responded: "I am with the drunk guy's wife on this one." (Reproduced with his permission.) He also concluded that I must be a fan of high-frequency training.

Man, do people have a tough time sorting out good and bad argument from good and bad conclusions. Noting that something is a bad argument does not mean that one thinks the conclusion the argument is supposed to lead to is false.

"We can tell the moon is not made of cheese because otherwise it would be covered with mice" is a bad argument.

But if I point that out, it's also bad logic to respond, "Ah, so you think the moon is made of cheese!"

Monday, May 10, 2010

Troublemakers, Defined

Amy Meyers Jaffe lets us know who the "troublemakers" on the world stage are here:

"It will throw world politics for a loop—putting some longtime troublemakers in their place and possibly bringing some rivals into the Western fold.

"Again, remember that as their energy-producing influence grew, nations like Russia, Venezuela and Iran became more successful in resisting Western interference in their affairs..."

You see, a troublemaker is someone who resists my interfering in his affairs!

Confessions of a Recovering Ideologue, Part I

This is the first of a perhaps interminable series I might call “How I Went So Wrong.” Now, I happen to be quoting below from Thomas Knapp and Roderick Long, but I don’t mean to be picking on them. In fact, I am explaining my own mistakes here – reading Knapp and Long recently just happened to have brought them to mind.

OK, so the first quote from Knapp I will note has to do with immigration, about which he writes:

“Let me get straight to the point: there is no difference in principle between a ‘national border’ and the turf claim of a street gang. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.”

Well, since these things are quite obviously very different in many, many ways, we have to suss out what Knapp means by “in principle,” since obviously different things may always be the same “in principle” if one just selects the proper principle. Dying peacefully in one’s bed and being slowly eaten alive by fire ants while buried neck deep in desert sand are no different “in principle” if the principle in question is that of having a heartbeat at the end of the process or not. Here I suspect the principle Knapp is thinking of is something like, “Both rely on coercion to impose some restriction on the movement over land, the use of land, and so forth, on others who never agreed to the legitimacy of the borders which are held to set out where the restrictions apply.”

But consider the institution of private property, which anarcho-capitalists often hold out as ‘peaceful’ and ‘voluntary,’ as opposed to the ‘violent’ and ‘coercive’ State. Well, it is true that private property is peaceful – just so long as everyone agrees to follow the same property rules, in other words, its peacefulness depends upon its voluntariness. But the latter is often absent. Many, many times, people fail to agree on just who owns what – and then private property turns violent and coercive. Let’s say you believe wild lands should be free for all to roam, while I believe I own some woods in which I employ my truffle pigs. If this difference of opinion cannot be resolved, and the issue is of some importance to each of us, one of us will wind up coercing the other to accept his point of view.

The State is either peaceful and voluntary or violent and coercive in just the same way and for just the same reasons. As long as everyone agrees to and follows the State’s rules, there is no need for violence and coercion. It is only when there are disputes over the rules, or an unwillingness to follow them, that violence ensues.

This, of course, is the classical left anarchist complaint about anarcho-capitalism: since it doesn’t do away with private property, it doesn’t do away with coercion at all -- and the left anarchists are correct in pointing this out. (The problem with their solution is, of course, once you have done away with the State and with property, you have also done away with society.)

And so, when Roderick Long writes: “Bob Sanders wonders (May 8th) why we would fear Uncle Grady the tax assessor. Surely the answer is: because Uncle Grady’s edicts are ultimately backed up by threats of violence from Uncle Sam” – he has also stated a reason for fearing anyone laying claim to any property whatsoever – ultimately that claim is backed by threats of violence.

In any case, by the same principle Knapp and Long invoke, we can get straight to the point: there is no difference in principle between a ‘property line’ and the turf claim of a street gang. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

So this clearly isn’t a very useful principle.

In another article, Knapp states:

“’A little government’ is like ‘a little cancer.’ Once the state establishes a foothold in the body politic it invariably metastasizes, shutting down vital cultural organs and devouring every living thing in its path. The speed and directions of its spread varies from society to society, but the end result is never in doubt: If the cancer is not cut out, it will eventually kill its host."

It is hard to imagine what Knapp means by the ‘once’ in “once the state establishes a foothold in the body politic,” since, as Oakeshott put it, “Governing is an activity which is apt to appear whenever men are associated together… Indeed, it may be said that no durable association of human beings is possible in the absence of this activity… No large association has ever been known literally to govern itself, or in any direct manner to appoint its own rulers.”

Knapp’s suggestion that the State “invariably metastasizes,” and kills off society unless it is “cut out” is a little puzzling as well. States in the ancient world pretty much never metastasized, but perhaps the 3000 years of Egyptian culture just weren’t quite long enough to see the cancer beginning to spread. Odd, though, that the Egyptian culture seemed to fade precisely when the “cancer” of its State was cut out.

States only began undergoing this “invariable” process in the last few hundred years, which also happens to be the era in which ideology and perfectionism have come to the forefront in first European and eventually world politics. This does not strike me as coincidental: since ideologies attempt to replace the concrete, messy world of real politics with a vastly simplified abstraction, they always fail to achieve their goals, but, until the ideology is finally abandoned, the response is always to try even hard, meaning more money, more manpower, more legislation, and so on.

But anarchism is just a mutant strain of the ideological bacillus that is causing the rapid degeneration of most modern societies. It is certainly not the cure for its fellow bacilli. Rather, the anarchist depiction of the State as nothing more than a street gang only serves to increase the amount of State coercion. The actual way forward towards a less coercive society consists not in de-legitimizing the State, but in legitimizing it, in other words, promoting voluntary compliance with the State's laws in so far as they are just, and working to change them peacefully in so far as they are not. To the extent that anarchists recommend the State be ignored they thwart the former movement, and to the extent anarchists scorn participation in the current political process they prevent the latter.

Now, just how do smart people like Knapp and Long, and rather dull people like me, become ensnared in such obvious confusions? The answer is ideology – but more on that in our next installment.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

TNT OT Lextra

Man, I'm trying to watch the Suns and Spurs on TNT OT Extra (because I don't own a TV), and it is like watching a game shot by a cameraman who is a nitwit who has never watched a basketball game. Jason Richardson just took a shot, and instead of following the ball, the cameraman followed Richardson backpedaling towards the Suns defensive end! Yes, that's what I wanted to see -- not whether or not the shot went in, but how Richardson runs backwards.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Cheap Trick

Michael Moore is sometimes an entertaining filmmaker, and sometimes he has something interesting to say. But he just doesn't seem to be able to resist using cheap tricks to try to bolster his case. For example, in Capitalism: A Love Story, he includes a scene where he tries to demonstrate that the United States is not an intrinsically "capitalist nation" by pawing through the U. S. Constitution looking for the word 'capitalism.' However, 'capitalism' was not used to describe an economic system until about 1850. So the fact that the drafters of the Constitution did not use a terminology that lay 70 years in their future is hardly surprising, and proves exactly nothing.

UPDATE: Here is another word that doesn't occur in the U. S. Constitution, which certainly did exist to describe a political system at that time, and which is Moore's favored alternative to capitalism: 'democracy.'

Libertarian Class Analysis and Methodological Individualism

Chidem Kudras discusses a paper by Ralph Raico over at Think Markets.What this paper, and similar class analysis by, say, Murray Rothbard, illustrates is the actual way that methodological individualism functions in many libertarians' thinking: it is an ideological weapon with which to dismiss social explanations that one doesn't like, to be picked up when handy but dropped whenever another weapon will suit better. Thus, when, say, someone makes the point that individuals preferences themselves are often not a matter of their own choosing but are, as it were, handed to them by their social environment, including marketing, then such libertarians can load and fire methodological individualism and avoid having to really address the issue. On the other hand, when class analysis might serve to advance a case against the State, then methodological individualism is put back in the closet and ignored.

Zeno for the computer age

If you wish to better understand Zeno's worry about the continuum, you could do worse than to consider loops in software. Case 1: You...