Coercion: WTF?

— Here's a challenge for libertarians. What exactly is wrong with initiatory coercion, other than the fact that it strikes us as intuitively repugnant? For my part, I cannot find a satisfying answer. Other kinds of non-coercive psychological manipulation, such as those that occur in relationships gone sour, strike me as just as odious as bona fide coercion. Indeed, I'd rather do something under the threat of being puched in the nuts (or just punched in the nuts straightaway) than to be emotionally blackmailed by someone I love. So why is preventing and punishing the one considered the proper province of the state, while the other is considered a paradigm case of a purely private affair?

Furthermore, I'm not sure I even know what coercion IS anymore? An extremely diffuse structure of government threats is considered coercive (almost none of us are ever directly threatened by someone with the power to harm us). Yet a religious ideology, induced by childhood brainwashing and promising eternal pain in the case of rule-breaking, is NOT considered coercive. Why not? And what's so special about physical violation? Since I genuinely prefer to be kicked in the nuts over having my heart shattered by psychological manipulation, what's so special about nuts-kicking? If I kidnap your kid and threaten to break her kneecaps unless you give me a Toyota, then that's considered coercion. But if I date your daughter, and she falls so desperately in love with me that she will attempt suicide should I leave her, and then I tell you I will dump her unless you give me a Toyota, then that's not coercion. What gives?

I think I know what you'll say, but let's see if you suprise me.

And this brings us to positive vs. negative freedom. I'm no longer seeing the importance of the distinction. It seems to me the freedom worth caring about is positive. What we want is a bigger opportunity set–the ability to choose among more alternatives. If, in order to get a huge increase in abilities and possibilities for my future, I had to accept some small amount of structural coercion that would block off a much smaller set of abilities and possibilities, then I'd be quite glad for the coercion. In fact, the thing that seems wrong to me about coercion is just that it closes off a possible course of action that I should be free to choose. This is more salient than having courses of action closed off by, say, a set of tarrifs, but the result is the same. There's something I should have been able to choose to do, but, in some sense, can't. The negative/positive distinction strikes me as analogous to the killing and letting die distinction. Whether I kill someone, or let them die when I could have prevented it, someone ends up dead. Whether you forbid me under threat of prison from taking a drug, or regulate the pharmaceutical industry in such a way that they never produce it, then I end up without the drug. I don't really care WHY I can't have it. I just care that I can't. Just as Bob doesn't really care if you shot him in the head or starved him to death with your disastrous economic policies. Coercion, whatever it means, seems like just one way to prune that loveliest of abstract objects, the Tree of Future Timelines, and not obviously the most diagreeable way.

Now, I'm certain that one of the best ways to make our future as bushy as possible is to restrict coercion. And that's why I think restricting coercion, insofar as I've got a grip on what it IS, is a nice idea. But it's not obvious that the bushiest future emerges from the branch with the least coercion.

C.P. Snow's Five Year Plan

— I've just been reading C.P. Snow's famous The Two Cultures for a Liberty Fund in Indianapolis next weekend, and it's just an astoundingly obtuse book. Of course, I have the benefit of having seen how things panned out. In Snow's day, perhaps it made sense to delineate something like monolithic scientific and literary cultures, but today's world emphatically lacks any monolithic cultures. He was worried that physicists hadn't read Shakespeare, and that playwrights didn't understand entropy. Reading Snow, I'm filled with joy to be embedded in a culture of such richness and complexity that these sociological groupings make no sense, and that the tidy canons of cultural and scientific knowledge have simply been exploded by the ever accelerating proliferation of cultural invention and scientific discovery.

I have exactly no idea how I would fit into Snow's schema. I've a degree in drawing and painting and art history, a passable acquaintance with the “classics” of literature, and am working on a second advanced degree in philosophy. But my philosophy is post-Quinean naturalism, drawing its metaphysical assumptions about man and nature directly from the sciences themselves. Am I schizophrenic? No! Just a perfectly unusual sort of hybrid intellectual type. This meta-type is a nice possibility opened up by the “looseness” of the American system of education, which Snow derides.

How about this? I once took half a course with Mark Turner, who is a professor of English Lit at Maryland, as well as a faculty member of the program in neuro- and cognitive science, as well as associate director of the Center of Advanced Behavioral Studies at Stanford. He has an advanced degree in math from Berkeley. He has written lovely books on metaphor. Now, not everybody's a Mark Turner. But the naturalization of the mind has done a lot to bring the subject matter of science and the arts much closer together. (Philosophers of art these days are interested in such things as the neuroscience of musical experience).The message that aesthetic experience and quality are features of the natural world subject to scientific inquiry has yet to penetrate the darkest, frenchest corners of comparative literature departments, but the future is with the Mark Turners of world.

But I digress. Back to Snow… Two Cultures turns out to really be about the world's poor. The problem, as Snow has it, is that the poorer countries have yet to undergo a scientific revolution. Once they do industrial technology will chug and chug and chug and chug and puff until scarcity and want is fully overcome. He was clearly impressed with the USSR, although he should not have been. Pete Boettke tells me the Soviets produced heavy industry at an impressive rate, and those are the numbers that drew everyone in. But somehow, all that “conspicuous production” never cashed out in terms of increased consumption, that is, in increased quality of life for the folk, who, damn them, wanted toothbrushes and shoes and good booze, not i-beams. In any case, Snow liked to say things like this: “The poor countries, until they have got beyond a certain point on the industrial curve cannot accumulate capital. That is why the gap between the rich and poor is widening. The capital must come from outside.” And they can get either from us or… from the Reds!

It seems that a man of science, like Snow, would not need someone like P.T. Bauer to point out the just GOD DAMN OBVIOUS fact that Earth is an economically closed system, and so, necessarily, the first economy to accumulate capital didn't get it from the outside. Anyway, Snow entertains a massive technocratic fantasy to the effect that a huge effort to train scientists and industrialize the developing world (involving enormous expropriations of wealth) will straightaway make all those poor laggard brown people rich. If we fail to do it, the Russkie's will, and then, at best, the West will remain as a mere “enclave” surrounded on all sides by the vast engines of Soviet industrial might.

Laugh as we might, Snow was not alone in his breathtaking economic incompetence. (He shows no glimmer of an appreciation of even the most basic economic precepts. It's just we're-smart-enough-to-engineer-The Bomb,-so-we're-sure-as-hell-smart-enough-to-engineer-worldwide-economic-growth fatal fucking conceit all the way down.) This kind of view once dominated development policy, and we're not yet totally in the clear. Let me close by sharing a relevant quote from John Nye's paper for a USAID Forum organized earlier this month by Mercatus's Global Prosperity Initiative (where I work–read the other papers too.)

If technology could do so much, who needed to worry about institutions? As one of my instructors argued at one time, good institutions may buy a nation an extra five or even ten percent income in the short run, but good technology raised growth rates by one or two percent a year forever. Indeed, it has taken a revolution in our views of economic history, and particularly the widespread assimilation of the claim by North and Thomas that technology did not “explain” modern economic growth, but was itself a manifestation of the phenomenon we think of as modern economic growth.

Which is the academic way of saying “ass backwards.”

Liberation Forthcoming

— After 4 1/2 years in College Park, a few of them simply dismal, I'm moving to the city! Where? Here. Five minutes or so on foot from Black Cat, 9:30, Velvet Lounge, Kingpin, Bohemian Caverns, Ben's Chili Bowl, Cake Love, Saint Ex, etc., etc. I am exceedingly enthusiastic, reflecting my pent up disenchantment with residence in the quasi-urban environs of PG County. I will be exchanging gay men for girls roommate-wise, which, I hope, will enable my life to maintain a good level of awkward but warm sit-comicity. It'll happen early next month I reckon, and there will be a party sometime after. You may or may not be invited.

[Update: And of course I'll be just a hop, skip, and a jump from Adams Morgan, where I am now, blogging from Tryst, writing about the Rawlsian “sense of justice,” listening to my new CDs from DCCD (White Stripes, Elephant, and Pedro the Lion, Control), watching little girls on the sidewalk doing some unbelievably complex patty cake hand slapping routine while waiting for their parents. How the hell do they do that? Oh and there go some church hats! I love church hats. College Park can eat me.]

Report from Buffalo

— So, last weekend I was in Buffalo for a grad conference on John Searle and a bigger conference on issues surrounding the works of Searle and Peruvian economist Hernando DeSoto. I presented a paper at the little Searle conference, and the man himself was there to comment. Searle has always been one of my philosophical heroes, so it was pretty thrilling to have him comment on a bit of my work. He liked it! Searle's a remarkably funny and affable guy, and, besides being just astoundingly smart, probably has the keenest bullshit detector on Earth.

Anyway, if you like to read things with titles like “Rationality, Institutional Ontology, and Contractarian Choice,” drop me a line and I'll send you my paper.

The Underdetermination of Just Social Order by Democracy

— Iraq, we are told, is to become a democracy. This is a laudable aim. But democracy is a genus, not a species. Getting a democracy is rather like getting a mammal for a gift. Kittens are nice. Wolverines will lunch on your eyeballs. You don't drop a wolverine in your friend's lap, and then walk away feeling you've done them a favor, since the best pets are mammals. Democracy names a vast range of possible institutional structures. There are good reasons to believe that certain kinds of democracy promote stable, mutually advantageous social order. However, other forms of democracy create incentives for corruption, dominance by special interest, and social instability. It's true that the best pets are mammals, but it's not an especially useful thing to know. What we're really interested in is whether, say, Vizslas are better with kids than Weimeraners.

That's why this paper by law and economics pioneer Robert Cooter is so important. He lays out the likely consequences of some different kinds of democracy. I won't summarize his arguments (you should read them yourself, espcially if you're rebuilding Iraq), but he indicates that countries like Iraq may benefit from a democratic structure quite different from our own.

Just as an example of the range of democratic possibility, imagine that there is no legislature. Instead of living in a single legislative district and voting for a representative who votes on every kind of issue–from economic policy to the environment to transportation–one instead is part of multiple overlapping jurisdictions that have authority over single issues. So you vote for a representative on the transportation policy board, and a different representative for the defense board, etc. And you just vote directly in referenda on certain issues, like what the tax rate will be, or whether weed's legal. Kitten or wolverine?

The Sound of Silence

— I hope you've enjoyed my experiment in meditative blog silence. If you thought I was inactive, you must have succumbed to my well-wrought illusion of stasis. More discerning readers will have noticed how each new day, my apparently unchanging page was commenting subtly–passively protesting the hectic, frantic hurly burly of the world at large. The silence takes on new overtones as its steady note interweaves with the symphony of human endeavor creating ever-shifting harmonies and dissonances. You missed it, didn't you? Next time, listen harder.