Caesar's Bath

OK. Here's my long-delayed Caesar's Bath contribution. I thought this was hard partly because all the easy stuff has been done (the bath water's pretty dirty, by now), and partly because I like almost everything at least a little bit. But here you go.

Thomas Jefferson. The more I read about the guy, the more I dislike him. He was without doubt a man of incandescent brilliance. But he also seems to have been sly, creepy, and an insufferable snob, in addition to having been a racist, slaveholding, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-commercial, Jacobin utopian. When his visage appears on Cato promotional material, as it so often does, I try to stay positive.

Vegetables. I know they are healthy, and that I should eat more of them. But I sort of hate them. I try, I do.

Thinking that anti-anti-red statism is a bit of willful contarianism. I like red states. I do not like red states because liking red states aggravates my blue state friends, but because I like red states. And I am not anti-anti-red state because I like to buck the trends, but because I think it is genuinely retarded to be anti-red state.

Anti-Swedenism. Conservatives and libertarians seem to have an irrational disdain for Sweden, as if it could slide into full-on Juche flesh-eating collectivism at any moment. They crave and horde bad news about the Swedish economy or the travails of the Swedish welfare state. Why? Because Sweden is a fairly rich, happy, stable, and quite free nation with a gigantic welfare state. And we don't want to be more like Sweden, and we resent the fact that it works as well as it does. But I think it is quite possible to make the argument that we shouldn't be more like Sweden without feeling the need to argue that Sweden is a disaster.

Levittolotry. Yes. He's smart and interesting, but his work isn't that unusual, and he doesn't walk on water. He's a super-clever, McGyver-esque technician, able to conjure up a useful empirical study out of a paper clip, a length of string, and a stick of gum. It's sweet, but not filling. I want theory.

I'm as Free as a Bird Now

Over at Liberty and Power, Sheldon Richman complains about Ron Bailey's compatibilism:

Free will does not mean actions are uncaused. It means they are caused by persons. The popular notion that persons can be reduced to mechanistic neurological processes is self-refuting—if true, its advocates are uttering not words but meaningless sounds. The “causes” of actions, Thomas Szasz reminds us, are called reasons. But those cannot be reduced to brain activity, however much they may depend on it.

I don't want to get into get questions of reductionism. I just want to get into Richman's unmotivated question-begging assumption:

  • If determinism is true, then words do not have meanings (are just “meaningless sounds”).

    There is simply no reason whatsoever to accept this proposition unless one has already accepted that determinism (or the thesis of mechanistic causation) is false.

    We have just about as much reason to believe this:

  • If determinism is false, then words do not have meanings.

    But what do we know to be true? Words mean things. Yes, they do! I'm meaning things right now, if you know what I'm saying. And you do! So, words, not just sounds (or pixels, or whatever.) Great.

    And this is even relevant to questions of causation HOW?

    What don't we know? Whether or not determinism is true.

    But we know that it is possible to meaningfully communicate. So, if determinism is true, we know that determinism is compatible with meaningful communication. If indetermism is true, then we know that indeterminism is compatible with meaningful communication. We cannot, however, know a priori that either is incompatible with meaningful communication.

    Richman is right. Persons cause actions. But he is wrong to assert that persons are not some deterministically governed physical fact about the world under a different description. Because he just doesn't know that. And he is wrong to think that it matters. Questions about personhood, agency and responsibility have nothing much to do with questions about reductionism or the ultimate nature of causation.

    We know that our words mean things, and we know that under the right conditions we cause our own behavior and are responsible for what we do. However, though we cause our own behavior when a gun is to our head, we are not fully responsible for it. And if a drug is messing with the neurological conditions necessary for normal deliberation and choice, then responsibility is mitigated, whether or not behavior is fully reducible to neurological events. Similarly, if certain kinds of brain disorders undercut the neurological underpinnings of normal deliberation and choice, then responsibility may be mitigated.

    The question of whether I am responsible when coerced does not turn on deeper metaphysical questions. And neither does the question of whether I am responsible if I have a brain lesion that short-circuits that conditions for normal agency.

    I agree with Richman that free-will is self-evident. I deny that the self-evidence or experience of excercising free-will carries with it any information about the truth of reductionism or determinism, or that it tells us very much about the conditions for ascribing responsibility.

  • Investment and Ignorance

    Don Boudreaux, as usual, is right on in this post about the riskiness of allowing ignorant citizens invest in the market.

    The fact that Uncle Sam has for so long assumed primary responsibility for providing for Americans' retirement goes a long way toward explaining much of Americans' ignorance about investing for retirement. Americans simply have less incentive to learn about such matters than we would have if each of us were responsible for our retirement.

    Its sort of slimy to note that people don't know much about the market, because the government has discouraged the motivation to gain information about it, and then turn around and argue that the government needs to therefore protect people from the market.

    Relatively Relativistic

    All this relativism talk. Velleman posts on relativism because he isn't satisfied with what he sees. Me neither, even after reading Velleman. Allow me to ruminate.

    The correct thing to say about relativism is that some version of relativism is true, and the correct thing to say about absolutism is that every version of absolutism is false. If you don't think there is a BOOK OF RULES from the transcendent PLANE OF MORAL TRUTH, then you're likely some sort of relativist. And that's OK. Don't worry.

    Velleman's use of “agent-relativism” is confusing. Generally agent-relative is contrasted with agent-neutral with respect to value or reasons for action. My reason to get a drink of water is agent-relative, because its MY thirst. My reason to go to dentist school is agent-relative because being a dentist is MY goal. Etc. Whether or not there are agent-neutral reasons, reasons not based in our individual aims, reasons we just have because we're rational agents, or what have you, is a tricky question. (The answer is yes and no. You can have a reason to do something that is independent of your particular aims and projects. Your reason not to murder me is not agent-relative in the way your reason to go to scuba classes is. But agent-neutral reasons don't get off the ground without the enterprise of coordinating agent-relative reasons.) Anyway, if you are sane, you are an agent-relativist in the sense that you believe there are agent-relative reasons. Some thing really are right for me and wrong for you, because you and I want different things.

    Any non-transcendent moral standard is relative to SOMETHING, isn't it. Aristotle, for example, is a species-relativist. What is right for me to do is relative to what natural kind I'm an instance of. In updated terms, you can be a genomic relativist. The right thing to do is relative to your genome. This is not, however, any kind of transcendent standard. The human genome, say, is a contingent kludge. Evolution could have taken a left and that species (not us) would have a different genome, and a different moral standard based in their “nature.” So, yes, if you believe in SCIENCE and believe in a human nature-based morality, then you're a kind of relativist. But that's not so scary, is it?

    Utilitarians may seem like absolutists. But the right thing to do for a utilitarian is relative to contingent empirical facts about what does and doesn't cause pleasure in sentient beings. (Am I just playing with words?)

    The Pope I suppose, is worried more about cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is a little bit true, though. Being a member of one culture rather than another can give you a reason to do something that you wouldn't otherwise have. There ARE culturally relative reasons. Is it morally OK to impale kittens on pikes because your culture says so? Probably not. To kill your sister if she is accused of whoreishness? No. Does anybody think so? (People who think its OK to kill their allegedly whoring sister don't think its OK because its THEIR culture that says so. They think its OK because that's what they think the transcendent BOOK OF RULES says.)

    Actually, I don't have any idea what the Pope is talking about. It actually sounds like he's sort of longing for the days of moral hegemony that died with Luther, and confusing pluralism for relativism.

    Anyway, here are some things my reasons are relative to: my genome; my capacity for sympathy and moral imagination; my personal goals and projects; my social and family commitments; other parochial allegiances; the conventional terms of social cooperation where I live; lots more. And yours too!

    I meant to say something usefully clarificatory, but oh well. Coherence will return in future posts.

    Distributed Wealth-Enabling Conditions and Collective Entitlement

    In a chapter from this book, Jerry Mashaw from Yale Law lays out a prime piece of welare statist reasoning with great lucidity, and it got me thinking.

    Mashaw says that an economic system characterized by a wide division of labor and well-functioning legal and civil society institutions:

    Our capacity to support ourselves depends critically on others' willingness to engage with us in a complex system of productive activity.

    In any such system of market capitalism there is typically a considerable dispersion in individual returns to economic participation. Those returns depend on the public's demand for particular services and goods. People who work or risk their capital in endeavors whose demand proves strong will be well-off economically; people in enterprises for which demand proves weak will not do well at all. Luck also plays a role: being born into a family of wealth and education often brings lifelong advantages. And market returns depend critically on well-functioning government institutions, police, civil and criminal courts, laws against fraud and deception, to name but a few. Some substantial portion of the nation's output–of income from both labor and capital–is, therefore, a societal rather than an individual creation. But the return of that collective enterprise will end up in some individuals' pockets and not in others. In order for this dispersion of economic rewards to be acceptable–for the system to maintain its legitimacy–variations in incomes must be seen to be “fair.”

    Now, I think there is something to this argument. But I think there is less to it than Mashaw, Elizabeth Anderson, or the Leaugue of Eminent Rawlsians might think. It is too fast, even if you fill in the missing steps.

    This part of the argument is true: in a market-based society, our well-being is radically interdependent. Our ability to become wealthy in a market libreal order depends crucially on the maintenance of certain set of beliefs, expectations, behavioral norms and various state and non-state institutions. Our interests are complexly interrelated and mutually supporting. This is why it is total nonsense to characterize the market as a morality-free zone of self-interested atomized individuals jockeying to step on each others' heads on their way up. It is especially incoherent when welfare liberals accuse markets of involving BOTH radical cooperative interdependence, such that much of a society's wealth is a “social product” to which individuals have no moral claim independent of some rule of distibutive justice, AND a kind of radically fragmented free-for-all state of nature war of all against all. Mashaw doesn't make this mistake, but it's just stunning how often you see it.

    Have you ever seen this: On the market we're so interconnected that what's “yours” can't truly be yours. And, besides, without the state binding us together through corrective coercive redistribution, we'd be so radically disconnected that we'd barely count as a society.

    What I'm interested in is the argument that goes from the social, legal, and political enabling conditions of the market to the conclusion that some “substantial portion of the nation's output . . . is . . . a societal rather than an individual creation” and that, therefore, this portion should be understood as a kind of common asset that must be distributed according to some principle of just division, even if it is already distributed among the members of society and considered by the laws to be individual property.

    If we take the reasoning strictly, it seems that we ought to run a bunch of regressions and try to isolate what norms and institutions account for how much of the national output. So, suppose that having good police matters a lot. Say 3% of our national output can be attributed to having efficient, uncorrupt police. The police, however, internalize only a tiny fraction of those gains. So doesn't fairness/justice demand that we redistribute much of this wealth back to the police? Suppose 5% of the national product comes from a widespread norm of trust and trustworthiness. More or less, everyone in society in contibutes to the effectiveness of the norm, so why not take 5% of the national product and divide it up as even shares for each citizen?

    If you think that the rich guy's benefitting from the norm, but the poor guy's not. But consider how much poorer the poor guy would be without the prevailing norms of trust. (Compare: lowest 5% in US & lowest 5% in Brazil.)

    Of course, it also generally true that the wealthier the capitalist, the smaller the percentage of the positive economic externalities he is able to internalize. Bill Gates has been able to internalize only a miniscule fraction of the wealth he has created. Does Bill Gates get a raw deal? But I digress.

    Let's think about the relationship between background enabling conditions and desert. Suppose I am the only person in the world who likes jelly donuts. I derive huge pleasure from jelly donuts. But I cannot make them. Nor can anyone else, because there's no money in making jelly donuts, so its not worth knowing how to make them. Now, suppose that 1000 people came in on a boat and moved into my community, all of whom love jelly donuts. So now there is demand for jelly donuts and a jelly donut shop opens up, and now I can happily pig out.

    Question: is it wrong for the donut shop owner to internalize all the money I paid for my donuts? I mean, the donut shop owner is not respsonsible for the demand that brought the donut shop into existence, and neither am I. I owe the existence of the shop to the 1000 boat people. Shouldn't some of the cooperative surplus created by my exchange with the donut shop go to them, since the existence of their demand for donuts confers benefits on me and the donut shop, but neither of us had anything to do with it?

    The intuitively obvious correct answer is, no, I don't owe the boat people anything, even though I am, in effect, free riding off the existence of their demand. So the question is: does Mashaw have to deny that this is in fact the intuitively correct answer, or that our intuitions are screwy? Is the benefit I internalize from the existence of complementary preference orderings, like in the jelly donut case, different in principle from the benefits I internalize from the existence of norms of trust? From the existence of legal institutions?

    In general, then, is there really any plausible principle that can tell us why it should be the case that some portion of the cooperative surplus in certain exchanges must be forfeited by the parties to the exchange because there are enabling conditions to the exchange that neither party is directly responsible for?

    Or try this. Suppose gravity works only if a team of powerful telekinetic dwarves sit in a room together and concentrates really hard. It turns out that a lot of them just like doing this and do it for free, or else like to do it if they're given a hot dog each day, which are happily supplied by Oscar/Mayer for public relations purposes. You and I walk from opposite ends of the street, meet in the middle, and hug, which makes us very very happy. How much do we owe the dwarves?