Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pure mind and the individual

The relationship of the two must be the hardest thing to express accurately in words. This difficulty has led to the great variety of attempts to express it better: "You have always had Buddha nature," "The Father and I are one," "That art thou," "The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything," "Allah is the sustainer" and so on

I have nothing to add to this millenia-old discussion except to say that perhaps I like the Zen approach the best: don't say anything about it at all. Just get the disciple to sit.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

I walked through the quiet woods...

nursing my anger. My problems were tight in my grasp as I tried to wrestle them into submission. Ahead of me the surface of a lake bore a rippled reflection of the sky. A bench overlooking it beckoned.

I sat down exhausted. Too weary to maintain it, I gave up my grip on my worries, and saw them carried away on the breeze. My vision cleared, and all around me I saw the limitless waters of pure mind, bearing afloat every creature, every tree, every pebble, and each blade of grass.

Friday, August 29, 2014

My new private community...

is a lot like Singapore.

I just bought a small house in a private community in the Poconos that I am fixing up to either sell or rent. The experience with the community government has been interesting.

First of all, the idea that because I bought in the community I explicitly agreed to all its rules no more true or false than if I had bought a house in an ordinary "statist" town. In fact, I did not receive my packet containing all the community rules until the closing. I suppose I could have halted the closing while I read through the many pages of regulations, but if you have ever been at a closing, you can imagine that there would've been a number of other unhappy people at the conference table.

As I began to learn the community's rules, I found some interesting things. I had my regular tree guy come over to look at some trees overhanging the house that definitely needed to come down. He told me, "I can do this work, but you need to get a permit. For every tree you take down with a trunk diameter of over 3 inches, there is a $650 fine." I went and applied for my permit, but in the meantime, there were a number of small trees I could take down myself. About 10 minutes after I started my chainsaw, a security vehicle drove by my house and slowed to see what was going on: the tree police.

I have been doing AirBnB rentals at my other Pocono house. Perhaps, I thought, I could pick up a few extra dollars doing those at this new place as well, when I didn't need to stay at the house. Nope. The community rules forbid rentals of under 30 days, and the community charges a $500 fee each time a new tenant occupies the house.

The community, for a place with low traffic volume, is also chock-full of stop signs, and has a low posted speed limit. When I stopped to register at the "government" office, I was told I would be fined for failing to stop at a stop sign or exceeding the speed limit. Oh, and while I was there, the community board president saw a newcomer, approached me, introduced himself, shook my hand, and told me his office was always open to me I had any problems or questions. Kind of like a... politician.

Today I had my house power-washed. Within a few minutes of the rather noisy power-washing machine starting up, a security vehicle was again passing my house, again slowing to have a look at what was going on. In two weeks, my house in a private community has already garnered more security attention than the two houses I have owned in rural areas under the control of "statist" governments had in a dozen years.

In short, private government looks a lot like plain-old government, except maybe a bit more intrusive than I am used to. Yes, I chose to live here, but so does anyone moving to an old-fashioned town. And if we ever "achieve" ancapistan, this more intrusive form of government might become the norm.

And note: I do not object to this community having these rules. But I also don't think that I am somehow "more free" living under private government than I was under public government.

UPDATE: And one thing I am certainly not allowed to do in this private community: secede. If I don't like the rules, I have to leave. Oh, and my "community fees" are MUCH higher than my "taxes." And if I don't pay them? I lose the house.

Why Government Entities Are Far Better Than Rothbard Contended

Bryan Caplan explains. For my money, these are the two most important reasons:
3. Government employees take pride in their work. In many parts of government, workers would feel bad about themselves if they fully exploited the system. This is obvious for teachers, most of whom clearly like children. But even most mailmen seem to care about doing a decent job.

4. Government employees care about their co-workers' esteem. Government employees, like most human beings, don't want people around them to hold them in contempt. As a result, a solid core of motivated government employees can use peer pressure to squeeze effort out of their careerist co-workers. Some professors, for example, love teaching - and therefore look down on professors who teach poorly. Fear of this down-looking impels conformist professors to do a better job.
By the way, Bob Murphy sent me this link as a Christmas present. Thanks Bob: I will find one for you.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Philosophy is not an infallible guide to moral conduct

"But philosophy itself in its results may yield opportunity to self-excusing egoism. The formulae in which it expresses conceptions of moral ends and virtues must always be liable to prove misleading, in the absence of that living interest in a practically true ideal which can alone elicit their higher significance." -- T.H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, p. 291

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Best Thing I've Read on Ferguson

Here. An important quote:

"As someone who knows the neighborhood and the city, though, I can tell that pundits around the world, left and right, are seeing in this tragedy whatever they want to see. Black activists see police racism, libertarians see a failure of big government, liberals see a need for better social policies, law-and-order conservatives for more … you get the idea. Whoever you are, this tragedy just proves you were right all along."

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Russell's History of Western Philosophy

I picked this book up at a used bookstore chiefly because of the chapter on Berkeley, but I have been perusing other sections as well. The book is somewhat infamous in its ahistorical approach to the history of philosophy. George Boas said of it:

"A History of Western Philosophy errs consistently in this respect. Its author never seems to be able to make up his mind whether he is writing history or polemic.... [Its method] confers on philosophers who are dead and gone a kind of false contemporaneity which may make them seem important to the uninitiate. But nevertheless it is a misreading of history."

In other words, Russell failed to place the ideas of past philosophers in their historical context, a significant flaw in many interpretations of Berkeley (as my forthcoming paper points out), and certainly a major failing in a book with "history" in its title.

While flipping through it, I found this little gem:

"In the general decay of civilization that came about during the incessant wars of the sixth and succeeding centuries, it was above all the Church that preserved whatever survived of the culture of ancient Rome. [So far so good: at least this avowed non-Christian admits that much.] The Church performed this work very imperfectly, because... [several reasons] and secular learning was thought wicked." (p. 175)

There is no citation of anyone actually ever saying such a thing, which one thinks might be wanted in a book purporting to be a history. Now, it is certainly true that there were important figures in the Church who thought that paying too much attention to pagan philosophers was a bad idea: their reasoning would've been something along the lines of claiming that whatever was good in these philosophers could be found in Christianity, and thus one could only pick up bad things by adding these philosophers to one's study of Christian thought. While I don't agree with this line of thought, it is not obviously nutty.

But "secular learning" would include much more than that: for instance, learning a new agricultural technique, or a new way of metalworking. There have been a lot of Christians in the world, so I'm sure you can find at least one who held that such learning was "wicked," but I've never seen any evidence that such a believe was common. Russell's claim seems to be just another instance of "in those deranged Dark Ages, they believed the stupidest things."

Update: Agatha Christie *Was* a Skilled Historian!

My curiosity piqued by my own remarks of a couple of days ago, I looked up Christie's Wikipedia bio, and discovered that she was, in fact an accomplished archaeologist (which as R.G. Collingwood, himself a renowned archaeologist, noted, is merely history done with artifacts instead of documents). Her husband, a professional archaeologist, once told here that she knew "more about prehistoric pottery than any woman in England."

So my guess proves correct.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Green on the Categorical Imperative

"If -- not merely for practical purposes but as a matter of speculative certainty -- we identify its injunction with any particular duty, circumstances will be found upon which the bindingness of that duty is contingent, and the too hasty identification of the categorical imperative with it will issue in a suspicion that, after all, there is no categorical imperative, no absolute duty, at all. After the explanations just given, however, we need not shrink from asserting as the basis of morality an unconditional duty, which yet is not a duty to do anything unconditionally except to fulfil that unconditional duty." -- Prolegomena to Ethics, from Principles of Political Obligation and other writings, p. 261

This captures very nicely a point I have been making about morality: it is both timeless and universal and dependent upon circumstances. The view that it must be one or the other ignores Hegel's philosophical breakthrough in conceiving the concrete universal.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Agatha Christie could have been a great historian

I have noted before how Collingwood compared the work of the historian to that of a detective. And I have noted how Agatha Christie, whether she had read any philosophy of history or not, seemed to grasp this as well. Here is one more piece of evidence:

"To be sure means that when the right solution is reached, everything falls into place. You perceive that in no other way could things have happened." -- The Clocks, p. 236

That is just how an historian knows that she has solved an historical problem: The right solution makes all of the evidence fall into place. (Of course, new evidence may come to light, and the historian will have to go back to the drawing board.)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The worst argument against raising the minimum wage

I completely understand the basic argument against price setting, and I agree that, in general, raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment. I also understand that under particular conditions, that might not be true. For instance, if insufficient aggregate demand is the key problem in an economy, it is certainly theoretically possible that an increase in the minimum wage could result in increased employment.

On the whole, I am inclined to think that price setting by the government is generally a bad thing, and that there are much better ways to help the poor than an increase in the minimum wage, such as providing more public goods and free basic life requirements*, or eliminating barriers that prevent entrepreneurial activity on the part of those less adept at filling out government forms. (One might notice how much better the poor are at entrepreneurship in the black market, where all they need to know is how to satisfy their customers, than they are in the "legitimate" market.)

But an utterly absurd argument against raising the minimum wage I often see put forward contends that, if raising the minimum wage from seven dollars an hour to eight dollars an hour is good, why not just raise it to $1 million an hour?

Right: If I have a friend who seems to be wasting away on a diet of 1000 calories per day, and I recommend that he up his intake to 2000 calories per day, it is a good counter-argument to ask me why I just don't recommend he go up to 1,000,000 calories per day.

* Let the market set prices according to market principles, but provide plenty of free libraries, so the poor have access to the Internet and books, plenty of free health clinics, so the poor can get healthcare, plenty of free soup kitchens, so the poor can get nutritious food, great parks, so they can enjoy nature, and so on: then, if someone takes on a job at two dollars per hour, they will not be living in dire conditions. And the freedom to take on a job at a very low wage may be the very thing that allows a person to gain skills that lift them out of poverty.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Green on the individual and society

"There can be nothing in a nation however exalted its mission, or in a society however perfectly organized, which is not in the persons composing the nation or the society. Our ultimate standard of worth it is an ideal of personal worth. All other values are relative to value for, of, or in a person. To speak of any progress or improvement or development of a nation or society or mankind except as relative to some greater worth of persons, is to use words without meaning. The saying that 'a nation is merely an aggregate of individuals' is indeed fallacious, but mainly on account of the introduction of the emphatic 'merely'. The fallacy lies in the implication that the individuals could be what they are -- could have their moral and spiritual qualities -- independently of their existence in a nation. The notion is conveyed that they bring those qualities ready-made into the national existence, which thereupon results from their combination; while the truth is that, whatever moral capacity must be presupposed, it is only actualized through the habits, institutions, and laws, in virtue of which the individuals form a nation. But it is none the less true that the life of the nation has no real existence except as the life of the individuals composing the nation..." -- Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation and Other Writings, p. 256

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My conversation with a big-city cop

I received a phone call today from a cop from one of our major cities. (We know each other only electronically.) He wanted to talk because he was so discouraged about the state of police-civilian relations in the country right now. He has always been honest at his job (within human limits, of course: I'm not saying he never took a pen home), always obeyed the law as if he wasn't a cop, chastised his men when they would break it, sought to respect the community he was policing... and what's more, he assures me that most cops are more like him then they are like the jack-booted thugs of libertarian fantasies, a few of whom actually exist. (I say "fantasies" and not "nightmares" because I think most anarchist libertarians secretly are overjoyed by each act of police brutality, since then they can be so smugly right.) He readily acknowledges "We brought some of this on ourselves." He wants dirty and violent cops punished.

But he also tells me that the one-sided sensationalizing of every possibly suspicious action on the part of a cop makes things worse. Naturally, if cops feel they will be attacked and smeared even if innocent of any wrong-doing, they will become defensive, and tend to dismiss any criticism of any cop as just more libertarian/leftist hate. (And many posts I've seen on Facebook from libertarians about the police truly are filled with hate.) Furthermore, promoting the idea that all cops are "violent thugs" justifies attacks on cops, which naturally leads to cops who are quicker to pull the trigger when they feel threatened.

Once again, assertions that excessive police violence is is merely "the essence of the state," as one poster fatuously put it recently, is a falsehood designed to promote a political agenda: police forces all over the developed world are enormously less violent than the American police. For instance, in 2011, all of the police from the entire nation of Germany, policing 80 million people, only fired 85 bullets while policing. By way of contrast, in one incident resulting from a driver's failure to stop when ordered to do so, Miami police fired well over one hundred shots, killing their target as well as injuring five bystanders. (That number represents one third of the entire total the Dutch police injuring in shootings per year.) So in the course of a few minutes the Miami police launched more bullets at a single man than the German police do at 80 million people over the course of a year. If excessive police violence is "the essence of the state," every other state in the developed world must have had its essence sucked out.

No, this crisis in police-community relations is a symptom of a larger problem plaguing the American polity And its solution, if it is to be solved, will necessarily involve enlisting the aid of the many, many decent cops, like the one who called me today, who are horrified at the vision of the American police as a militarized, occupying force, charged with keeping a hostile population relatively pacified. And one thing that will surely make this situation worse and worse is smearing all police as being equivalent to the very worst of them.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Watching Ferguson unfold, please stop saying, "Well, this is just what state law enforcement is like!"

Because it is just plain false:
So the biggest government in the free world chooses not to keep statistics on how many people get shot by law enforcement. So be it. It does keep figures on "justifiable homicide", which it defines as "the killing of a felon by a law enforcement official in the line of duty". When is a police homicide not "justifiable"? Ah, well. At any rate, for 2012, the corpse count was 410.
By comparison, for the years 2012 and 2013 in England and Wales: No fatal police shootings. In the Netherlands: The average for the last 35 years is three dead and 15 injured.
Fifteen injured per year in the entire nation? Pikers! Over here, the police can rack up almost that many in innocent bystanders at a single incident outside the Empire State Building: 
New York (CNN) -- On a busy Friday morning in Manhattan, nine pedestrians suffered bullet or fragment wounds after police unleashed a hail of gunfire at a man wielding a .45 caliber pistol who had just killed a former co-worker. So the problem here, to put it in Mr Castagnoli's terms, is that what are any other developed nation's annual statistics add up to one mere "anecdote" in the United States. 
In Germany, a nation of 80 million people, police in 2011 fatally shot six persons. In Denmark, police shot 11 people in 11 years, and this was felt to be so disturbing that the National Police Commissioner held an inquiry into why his cops had gotten so trigger-happy.
In Australia, 41 people were shot by police in eight years, and the then Justice Minister Amanda Vanstone (whose friend thinks I'm "eminently shaggable", but I digress) thought that that was too high. In Iceland, police have fatally shot just one suspect. That's one guy in the entire history of the country. He was killed by police last December: 
The 59-year-old was reported to have been shot on Monday after firing on police as they entered the building in the east of the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. Teargas canisters had initially been fired through the windows after the man continued shooting and two police officers are reported to have been slightly injured after they entered. The gunman was brought to hospital but was pronounced dead there at around 10am local time. The case will be investigated by Iceland's state prosecutor. The country's national police chief, Haraldur Johannessen, told a press conference in Reykjavik that the incident was "without precedent". "The police are deeply saddened by this tragic event and would like to extend their condolences to the family of the individual in question," he added. Iceland, a country where gun ownership is widespread, has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world.  
So, whether you're talking about gun-controlled England or heat-packing Iceland, comparisons between American "justifiable homicides" and police shooting rates of other western nations are hardly worth bothering with. Indeed, the US police "justifiable homicide" figure looks more like the total murder count for most other developed societies.
This is not a problem inherent in government police forces at all: it is a uniquely American problem.

And if you are misidentifying the cause of a problem to advance you own political agenda, despite massive evidence against you... you are part of the problem!

This is the age of knowing what you are made of

I love that line in the Viagra ads. I always think the follow-up line should be: "And you are made of something a lot softer than it used to be."

My ability to be honest is protected by...

I recently heard someone who has been on Wall Street for twenty years as an analyst telling a young person aspiring to work there, "As an analyst, my ability to be honest is protected by the SEC." What he meant was that if not for the "Chinese Wall" that the SEC enforces between trading and analysis, the traders would force the analysts to act as mere shills for whatever securities they were trying to move.

Can you imagine that: someone who works for private industry, asserting that they would be forced to lie (or retire) if it wasn't for government regulations that allow them to write honest analysis!

Friday, August 15, 2014

You Can't Be Breaking the Rules When You Are Creating the Rules!

So, we received this interesting comment from Bob Murphy:

"Right, and if an NBA referee got caught throwing a game because a gambler paid him under the table, I'm sure you and Argosy Jones would laugh your heads off at the idiots claiming that was somehow "cheating" or "against the rules." Anything goes in the private sector! The winner is whoever pays the most to the judge, duh."

Of course, this was not at all what Argosy Jones and I contended: what we noted was that under some popular versions of anarcho-capitalism, what laws are "best" should be determined by supply-and-demand factors, just as we determine what sorts of bread should be made and how many massage therapists we "need." And if someone declares that is how law should be made, it is hard to see what their objection is if, under some future anarcho-capitalist system, Microsoft, Disney, Monsanto, etc. decide that our current intellectual property laws are way too weak, and pay billions to ancap defense agencies to enforce even stronger IP protection than we now have. In doing so, these companies would not be acting "against the rules": the rules are supposed to be determined by market forces, and all they are doing is "voting" for rules they prefer with their own dollars.

What is fascinating here is that Murphy, in writing the above comment, is apparently unaware of the work of this important anarcho-capitalist writer, who declared that "Profitability is the standard" by which we should judge law, and that there is no need to worry about what rules we ought to have: we can "let the market take care of it, automatically." In the scenario I just described, the ancap defense agencies are doing just what they ought to, according to the above-linked writer: they are letting profitability be the standard as to what the law should be. I recommend Murphy pick up a copy of that book and fully absorb its lessons.

As the public was waiting with bated breath...

I felt it was high time to offer my advice on the drug war.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Speading Mobile Phone Illness

I was speaking with a business owner in town told me that at his restaurant, he is having increasing trouble finding wait staff who can stay off their cell phones during the time they're supposed to be actively working the floor of the restaurant. They only look up when a customer actually calls them, or every 10 minutes when they rush around asking every customer "Is everything okay?" so they can rush back to their phone.

The Market for "Justice"

Argosy Jones makes a great point in the comments here:

"What does it mean to be a corrupt official in a system where justice is meant to be for sale or wielded in one's own interest? Not staying 'bought'?"

If someone declares that "law" should be determined on the market, then they hardly complain about whatever laws the market comes up with: the market has spoken, after all. So if a group of defense agencies decides that insolvent debtors can be enslaved... well, that is the market outcome, right?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Green on Free Will

"Though it is important to insist that, since in all willing a man is his own object to himself, the object by which the act is determined, the will is always free -- or more properly that a man in willing is necessarily free, since willing constitutes freedom, and 'free will' is a pleonasm = 'free freedom' -- the nature of the freedom really differs according to the nature of the object which the man makes his own, or with which he identifies himself." -- "On the Different Senses of 'Freedom' as Applied to Will and to the Moral Progress of Man," from Principles of Political Obligation and other writings, p. 228

Green on the Puritan Revolutionaries

"In the pride of triumphant reason they took pleasure in trampling on the common feelings and interests, through which reason must work, if it is to work at all." -- "Four lectures on the English Revolution," from Principles of Political Obligation and other writings, pp. 220-221

Monday, August 11, 2014

Big Brother is... snoozing

At my house in the Poconos, I have had some difficulty getting Internet service. The house is on a steep slope, too steep for a satellite dish to pick up a satellite signal. There is no cable service on my side of the road at present: it would cost me $4000 to have them bring it over.

Finally, I discovered that Verizon could provide me with DSL Internet: slow and primitive, yes, but better than nothing. So I ordered the service four weeks ago... and am still waiting for the delivery of my DSL modem.

After several calls to Verizon, it turns out that their shipping department has repeatedly tried to send the modem via UPS to my PO box. Now, I knew that you could not do this, but apparently the "shipping professionals" at Verizon were oblivious to this fact. And when the modem kept failing to arrive, it did not even occur to them to investigate what the problem might be.

So huge corporations of inhuman scale can be just as frustrating to deal with as huge government at an inhuman scale. Yes, corporations rarely shoot or imprison people: but that is because governments stop them from doing this. We know that cut loose from this check, corporations can be just as violent as can governments.

Now I have great sympathy for the position of the ancaps who are also wary of concentrated corporate power, and who note that such power is enabled by the state. But their conclusion, "just eliminate the state and we will eliminate corporate power at the same time," is simplistic. It is true that, given there is a state, corporations within its jurisdiction must make use of that state to gain the sort of power to which we both object. But if the state is replaced by private defense agencies providing "justice" for money, what in the world is to stop giant corporations from simply buying a legal system that favors them even more than does the present one? After all, while money has quite a bit of influence in our present system of governance, votes still do have some influence. In ancapistan, as it is usually depicted, that check on the power of money has been completely removed.

One ancap commenter here, faced with this problem, dismissed it by saying, "Sure, the rich will get all of the justice under ancap, just like today they buy up all of the bread."

Frankly, this response reeks of desperation: there is a pretty hard limit to the amount of bread that a rich person can consume, but I cannot conceive of any limit to the amount of laws enabling the rich person to get even richer that he might be willing to purchase.

Ancap scenarios seem to envision a world in which, when the state is dissolved, all of the wealth and power possessed by giant corporations simply vanishes at the same stroke. Only under that fanciful scenario would ancap defense agencies actually wind up providing the sort of justice that the "little guy" wants. But I have not seen a hint of a suggestion as to how that corporate wealth is to be made to disappear.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Green on legal obligations versus moral duties

"And it is important to understand that while the enforcement of obligations is possible, that of moral duties is impossible. But the establishment of obligations by law or authoritative custom, and the gradual recognition of moral duties, have not been separate processes. They have gone together in the history of man. The growth of the institutions by which more complete equality of rights as gradually secured to a wider range of persons, and of those interests in various forms of social well-being by which the will is moralised, have been related to each other as the outer and the inner side of the same spiritual development..." -- Principles of Political Obligation, p. 192

Science and physical reductionism

The triumph of science is the triumph of Mind. As Hegel might have put it, Spirit is the telos of Nature, as it is through Spirit that Nature becomes aware of itself. To regard this triumph as evidence that everything is really just brute matter is a bizarre inversion of what really has occurred.

Consider my family trip to Niagara Falls. An automotive engineer could "explain" everything about our trip (at least until we got out of the car at the falls) in terms of the principles of automotive engineering. But it ought to be clear that such an explanation is no answer to the question, "Why did the Callahan family wind up going to Niagara Falls in August of 2011?"

Similarly, the fact that evolutionary biology can trace the biochemical processes that led up to modern human beings (a wonderful achievement!) does not mean that it offers any insight into questions like, "What is the purpose of human life?" or "How ought humans to behave?"

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Confusing legislative intent with legislative effect

It is hardly a secret (at least among anyone remotely serious about the study of politics) that the fact that a piece of legislation is well-intentioned does not go very far towards guaranteeing it will have good results. But I heard a particularly blatant example of confusing intent with effect on the radio today.

Governor Cuomo has proposed legislation in New York allowing municipalities to lower their speed limit from 30 to 25 mph. The goal is to prevent pedestrian deaths.

This is a worthy goal for which I have some personal feelings: since my son began kindergarten nine years ago, he has had two classmates killed by vehicles on the streets of New York City. So I strongly support the intention of this legislation.

But on the radio I heard some legislator arguing for its passage as follows: "When the speed limit of a car is reduced from 30 to 25 mph, the chances of a killing a pedestrian strikes are reduced by half."

Oy vey! Cars don't have a "speed limit" with which they strike pedestrian; they have a speed that they hit them at. And all the law can do by itself is reduce the speed limit, and not the speed. For the law to have its desired effect, it must be combined with some means of actually producing lower driving speeds. Ticketing is one way, but a better one is traffic calming devices and mixed use roadways. But putting those in place costs money; it is a lot cheaper to just talk and pass legislation.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Denying the common good

A common libertarian move, when encountering a claim about the common good, is to deny that any such thing exists. As someone said to me today, "There is no common good: only a multitude of individual goods."

Such a denial flies in the face of both common sense and the bulk of the Western philosophical tradition. Imagine the cells of your body declaring that there is no common good they share, but only an individual good to be sought by each cell on its own. We have a name for cells that "think" this way: we call them cancer cells.

It is easy to generate an example where a society of individuals each pursue what they see as their individual good at the expense of the common good. For instance, imagine a society composed of individuals who each decide that children are a bother, and get in the way of having a good time. It is obvious that on the societal level, this is suicide: this society will not survive the current generation.

Green on the right to life and liberty

"In order then to understand the nature of the state, we must understand the nature of those rights which do not come into being with it but arise out of social relations that exist where a state is not; it being the first, though not the only, office of the state to maintain those rights. They depend for their existence, indeed, on society -- a society of men who recognize each other as isoi kai homoioi [equals], as capable of a common well-being -- but not on society's having assumed the form of a state. They may therefore be treated as claims of the individual without reference to the form of the society which concedes or recognizes them..." -- Principles of Political Obligation, p. 116

It's Official!

The worst steaming pile of software of software feces I have ever used is... Google Docs! It has never taken me so long to figure out the basic sense of a piece of software from a familiar category as this nonsense. Just trying to control where your files are put is a continual challenge. And today, all of a sudden, my Word documents started opening with QuickDocs, an app I had never seen before. This wonder kept generating new file names on its own, so in a half-an-hour I had "Berkeley21.docx," "Berkeley22.docx," "Berkeley23.docx," and "Berkeley24.docx." But when I went to mail the doc to myself at the end of my work session, it turned out that the newest of these was "Berkeley22.docx"!

Does anyone out there have any experience with these apps who might make some sense out of this for me?

If I Had a Third-String, I'd Send It In!

Do you remember that point in the recent NBA finals where you knew the Miami Heat had lost? Suddenly their shoulders were a little slumped, there eyes went a little dead, the charge for a loose ball just was not as energetic. It was a little sad.

But at least they did not reach the point of despair where they were simply lobbing the ball up in front of the San Antonio basket for the Spurs to slam home. Unfortunately, a good friend of ours apparently has fallen into such a lamentable state; in response to this post, Bob Murphy commented (quoting me first):

Gene: a nation-state, just like any other human group, has the right and the need to control who may become a member of the group.

Bob: But I don't think you believe the "just like any other human group" part. If I want to add someone to my company to show up with the group and work at the office every day, but the Nation-State says, "Nope he was born in the wrong country no can do," then you side with the Nation-State's decision, not mine.

But I don't have Corey Joseph available to send in, so I will have to handle this myself. So...

Consider the Spurs: they, to be a coherent team, must have the ability to decide who is and isn't a part of their team. But that discretion does have its limits. In particular, as the Spurs themselves are members of a larger group, the NBA, the Spurs do not have the discretion to add a player who is ineligible to play in the NBA, because, perhaps, he is only 17, or he has been banned for betting on games.

A professor at a university may be running a seminar where he is told that he has discretion as to which students may enroll. But one thing he may not do: enroll a student who has been banned from the university, perhaps for a violent crime while on campus.

Or think about a household living in a private community. They are free to decide who may and may not join their household, but with a restriction: they may not allow anyone to move in who is forbidden to live in the larger community. (Perhaps, say, no one on a sex offender list may move there.)

Note that not a single one of these cases has anything to do with some special rule that applies to the state: no, the rule is simple and simple common sense: group A may choose its members, but with the proviso that if it is contained within group B, its chosen members must be eligible to be members of B as well. So given that we can suppose Bob's company is an American company...

Does anyone know if Aron Baynes is interested in guest blogging?

Batman Begins...

To puzzle me about what is going on with time.

Rachel, with Bruce in the car, makes a sharp left turn down a ramp. It is broad daylight.

When she reaches the bottom of the ramp, it is full night.

She slaps Bruce when he shows her his gun. He gets out of the car. The next thing we see, he is throwing the gun into the water at dawn.

Then he goes back to confront Falcone at the place where Rachel told Bruce that Falcone hangs out. It is full night again.

Except for the time of day, this sequence of events would appear to have taken an hour or so. But going by the sky, it would have to be about 36 hours.

UPDATE: Here is a second little puzzle: That microwave weapon that Ras Clot or whatever his name is steals, it is suppose to vaporize all of the water nearby, right? He just needs to pass by some water with the thing in a train and the water starts vaporizing. So... what about all of the water in Ras Clot himself? And all of the other people who stand around right next to the machine while it is operating?

Well, maybe the machine only cooks water underground in pipes, and can't penetrate a few millimeters of flesh.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Walzer on open borders

"To tear down the walls of the state is not . . . to create a world without walls, but rather to create a thousand petty fortresses. The fortress, too, could be torn down: all that is necessary is a global state sufficiently powerful to overwhelm the local communities . . . . The distinctiveness of cultures and groups depends upon closure and, without it, cannot be conceived as a stable feature of human life. If this distinctiveness is a value, as most people (though some of them are global pluralists, and others only local loyalists) seem to believe, then closure must be permitted somewhere. At some level of political organization, something like the sovereign state must take shape and claim the authority to make its own admissions policy, to control and sometimes restrain the flow of immigrants." -- Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice

So I find that Walzer made this point before me: a nation-state, just like any other human group, has the right and the need to control who may become a member of the group.

Tyler Cowen whiffs on joke

He titles a post "How do moles smell underwater?"

Obviously, the post body ought to have been the single word, "Terrible."

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A Subject Described by Many Words Appears to Call for a Comma

No minimally competent writer of English would write:

"John, kicked the ball."

But I often see sentences like:

"The most famous proponent of subjective idealism in the Western world, was the 18th-century Irish philosopher George Berkeley..." (This was on Wikipedia, where I just corrected it.)

I think it is just the sheer number of words describing the subject that leads people to stick that comma in there: so many words must need a separator!

Contra Strauss, Historicism Is Not the Same As Relativism

Apparently Leo Strauss, and certainly many of his acolytes, use the term "historicism" as if it were a synonym for "relativism." Now, it is possible for someone to practice "relativist historicism" I guess, but for most important thinkers who might be labeled "historicists," the charge of "relativism" is false. It might help to think of this first in areas aside from ethics as it relates to historical cases, so we can understand it in a less charged atmosphere.

Let us say that a critic of the Ancient Romans declares, "They were fools: they had to calculate things all the time, and yet they never invented the computer." This complaint is, of course, ridiculous: there were centuries of technological development that had to occur before the computer could be invented, and so it is no fault of the Romans that they failed to invent it.

Similarly, imagine someone scolding a three-year-old child as follows: "By watching that television program sponsored by Monsanto, you are offering your support to a giant recipient of corporate welfare, a lawsuit-happy foe of the small farmer, and a destroyer of the environment." The point here is not whether any of these charges against Monsanto are true, but rather that a child of three is in no position to evaluate such issues. It will take years of intellectual development before she can begin to even discuss them. For now, she is being "good" if she shares her toys with her brother, and "bad" if she hits him.

While these cases show the historical contingency of practical judgments, they are not a case for relativism. If a Roman engineer failed to calculate the number of stones needed for a job using the best tools available, he would be blameworthy for doing so. If the three-year-old smacks her brother it is reasonable to discipline her. Their own possible thoughts that they were doing right do not exonerate them: we can look at their circumstances, and see that, given that situation, they should have known better.

As I replied to Samson when he asked about this in a comment, if one thinks historicism implies relativism, one should ask oneself: "Does pointing out that quantum mechanics could not have been developed before the 19th-century advances in physics commit one to scientific relativism, and a belief that Aristotle's physics are every bit as good as ours?" No, but it does mean comprehending that Aristotle's physics was about the best that could have been developed at that time and place, and realizing it would be silly to condemn him for not formulating Newton's laws of motion.

Morals, too, develop over time. It also would be ridiculous to condemn the American founders for not giving women the vote: basically no one at the time of the founding, not even women, was considering such a thing. (Wollstonecraft's groundbreaking book did not appear until 1792.) On the other hand, since they themselves were expressing reservations about slavery, it is a quite different question whether or not they should be condemned for their handling of that issue: the idea that slavery is wrong was already well developed by that time.

"Maybe she just wanted other things."

I just heard the above line in a TV show, and it made me think of the false anthropology of Lockean liberalism* that lies behind it. (We, the audience, were to suppose that if the teenager who was the "she" in the quote "wanted other things" then, gosh darn it, she should have gotten them!)

The false anthropology of Lockean liberalism pictures human beings as atomic bundles of "wants" or "preferences." The "good life" consists in satisfying as many of those wants as possible. The only limit on the number of these wants that should be satisfied arises from the fact that at some point, my attempt to satisfy one of my wants may collide with your attempt to satisfy one of yours. And the role of government in this liberal understanding is to soften the force of those collisions to whatever extent is possible. (This is true of all Lockean-liberal proposals for governance, from Rawls on the left through to Rothbard on the right.)

The falsehoods behind this are at least twofold:

1) We are not atoms** only related to each other as potential sources of preference satisfaction. We are in fact, to a great extent, constituted by our social relations. There is no such thing as pre-existing human individuals who choose to enter into society or not. Outside of society, the human individual is an impossibility: we would only find a wild beast. (And as a corollary to this, there is no such thing as a "purely private" action: all of my actions impact those around me to a greater or lesser extent, since their relationship to me is part of their very being, so that if I alter myself I necessarily alter them as well.)

2) Wants are not all equal, and not all should be satisfied. Joe's desire to have a nice family life and Joe's desire to snort up a giant pile of cocaine are not to be measured merely by their intensity, and social arrangements then judged based upon how well they score on some "utils gained" scale. The first desire is moral and the second immoral, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with society encouraging the first and discouraging the second. (This does not imply that any and all means of doing either are good!)

* I am now using "Lockean liberalism" based on the fact that I am discovering a different strain of liberalism has co-existed alongside it, at least since Hegel.

** Yes, some Lockean liberals pay lip service to this fact. But if they actually thought through its implications, they would cease to be Lockean liberals, since this atomic view of individuals underpins the whole Lockean project.

Sunday, August 03, 2014


My wife was coming in to New York through the Holland Tunnel for the second time in the last three days. "Hey," she said, "gas prices have dropped a good bit in just a couple of days."

"Consumer greed," I replied.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Green on Slavery

Bob Murphy has several times asserted that the conception of rights that has been put forward here would have made me a supporter of slavery in 1859.

Let's have a look at what T.H. Green, an early forwarder of this understanding, had to say about slavery:

"The claim of the slave to be free, his right implicit to have rights explicit, i.e. to membership of a society of which each member is treated by the rest as entitled to seek his own good in his own way on supposition that he so seeks it as not to interfere with the like freedom of quest on the part of others, rests, as we have seen, on the fact that the slave is determined by conceptions of a common good to himself with others, as shown by the actual social relations in which he lives. No state law can neutralise this right. The state may refuse him family rights and rights of property, but it cannot help his living as a member of a family -- acting and being treated as a father, husband, son, or brother -- and therefore cannot extinguish the rights which are necessarily involved in his so acting and being so treated. Nor can I prevent him from appropriating things and from associating with others on the understanding that they respect each other's appropriations, and thus possessing and exercising rights of property. He has thus rights which the state neither gives nor can take away, and they amount to or constitute a right to freedom in the sense explained." -- Principles of Political Obligation, p. 115

Thus we see that, far from offering any support of slavery, this view offers a solid argument against the institution. What is true of this understanding of rights is that it (correctly) views rights as only making sense within an historical tradition. There was no, and could not have been any, anti-slavery movement in Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome because their traditions contained no idea equivalent to "all men are created equal." Only within a tradition containing such an idea could the inconsistency of the institution of slavery with that principle be articulated.

Old-fashioned excuse: "The dog ate my homework."

Modern excuse: "Dual-factor authentication ate my ability to do my homework."