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Paradox of Thrift

So it wasn't all that long that Keynesianism was pretty much dead and buried. A 1996 article in the Cato Journal, entitled appropriately enough "The Paradox of Thrift: RIP," gloated that Paul Samuelson's seminal Keynesian-oriented textbook had dropped its references to the paradox of thrift. Yes, Keynes was discredited and the triumph of the Chicago school was at hand.

And yet, it appears to be back again. Witness, for example, Paul Krugman's warning in the NYT yesterday that "we're in serious paradox of thrift territory here." And it's not just left-leaning Nobel laureates who see a danger. Solidly-libertarian Megan McArdle likewise argues that the paradox looms.

Megan's argument seems pretty solid. In Keynes' day, the paradox may have been a threat, since a lot of people hoarded actual cash. Taking money out of circulation really did remove other people's income from the mix, which if done widely enough, would ultimately make everyone worse off, as firms cut back on either production or wages.

In the modern world, not many people stuff cash into their mattress. They put in into banks, which then lend the money back out either to individuals who want to buy houses or send Sally to college or to business that want to retool or expand or just plain ol' start-up. The former stimulates demand which in turn drives business expansion and the latter drives expansion directly, which in turn drives wages. All is good.

Only, in the current climate, banks aren't really lending out money. There are lots of reasons for this. Americans, in general, have too much debt and so are not looking to acquire more in a shaky economy. Banks have invested poorly, are over-leveraged and are now hoarding cash to ride out future declines in their balance books. And businesses are not, at the moment, really looking to do any massive expansions. Indeed, many of them are also over-extended, too. The result? People save, and the money kind of ends up just sitting around not being used. Hence, the paradox of thrift.

So my question (or really questions) to DR readers: Is this a stopped clock sort of thing, where a Keynes is actually right about the paradox, but only because of a particularly unique set of circumstances? Or is there some reason to think that the paradox isn't really looming? And if it does loom, what then? The logic of the paradox suggests that it might count as a genuine public goods problem. So is a stimulus (one that actually stimulates, as opposed to the monstrosities that are working their way through congress now) actually warranted? Discuss.

UPDATE (Feb. 5): The arbitrage possibilities of tax cuts hadn't occurred to me. But as Megan points out today, even if people are simply saving whatever they get, it's worth remembering that the government borrows money at awfully low interest rates. Even tax cuts didn't jump-start the economy, they might still end up increasing wealth. Whether that would produce more wealth than infusing cash into the economy is something I'm not even remotely qualified to address.


On Blessings and Taxes

In his post criticizing the idea that tax rates should be based on income, Brandon writes:

I will grant that there's a legitimate argument to be made in favor of taxing people on the basis of the blessings they have been given. For example, the fact that I'm smart enough to make a good living as a computer programmer while most others aren't is a matter of sheer luck; I haven't really done anything to deserve the cognitive advantage I have over someone with an IQ of 90.

This strikes me as a perfectly reasonable position. Regardless of what we think about the nature/nurture question (and much virtual ink has been spilled over this question right here at DR, with Brandon often leading the way), it's clear that I have very little to do with my IQ. I was either lucky enough to be born with the right set of genes and then develop in the right sort of environment or I wasn't. There's little I've done to earn my natural talents.

That said, I wonder if this sort of concession doesn't set us on a fairly slippery slope. Consider Brandon's own example:

Two men of roughly equal intelligence, from similar class backgrounds, who go to school together and end up going to the same college—men who have been more or less equally blessed. When they reach college, their paths diverge. One decides to become an artist, the other a doctor. Ten years later, the doctor is paying 10-20 times as much in taxes as the artist.

Becoming a doctor is hard; it involves many years of study and very hard work, with no payoff until age 30 at least, and as late as 35 for some specialties. Ultimately there's a large monetary payoff, but the doctor pays a heavy nonmonetary price (not to mention student loans, which are not tax-deductible). The artist doesn't make much money, but he enjoys the nonmonetary benefits of being an artist, such as leisure, more enjoyable work, and art groupies.

This strikes me as problematic on a couple of levels. For one, Brandon is probably underplaying the amount of training involved in becoming an artist. Plenty of people have (some) artistic talent, but moving from potential-artist to actual-artist requires some degree of work. There are, after all, plenty of artists out there who acquire an MFA, or even a PhD, apprentice for years and so on. I've neither been to medical school nor to art school, so I can't at all compare the two. But it does strike me as a tad glib to assume that becoming a physician requires hard work while becoming an artist is a walk in the park. At the very least, the fact that there are far more successful physicians than there are successful artists ought to give us some pause.

More significantly, though, while Brandon does well to consider the role that luck plays with respect to intelligence, he seems strangely to ignore the fact that luck plays an equally big role in a lot of other areas. It is, for instance, really a matter of luck that Brandon happens to live in a society that values physicians more highly than it values artists. Move 200 years into the past and having a knack for open-heart surgery just isn't really all that important: People were too busy worrying about having enough to eat to bother with shelling out a lot of money for surgery. As a result, physician wasn't a particularly high-status profession.

Similarly, if we move 200 years into the future, it's likely that physicians won't be that terribly in demand. Our on-board supply of nanites will be keeping us healthy, and physicians will simply have to keep us injected with the latest batches. Indeed, with our longer life spans and increased leisure time, the artist may be far more valued than the physician.

My point here is just that even people who are similarly smart aren't necessarily gifted with exactly the same aptitudes. Whether my talents happen to line up with the things my society really values is a matter of purest luck. Brandon, I think, has to assume that equally smart, equally advantaged people are also equally talented in every single respect. But that's not really true. In fact, that's not true at all. Some smart and advantaged people just don't like science and thus won't be any good at medicine, however smart they might be.

Now if Brandon wants to make the (very narrow) point that it's unfair that a tax code would treat differently two people with exactly the same talents and aptitudes but who consciously chose two different career paths, then that's fair enough. It's somewhat academic, as I suspect it's pretty unlikely that we'll be able to find all that many real-world examples.

Brandon is certainly right that money isn't everything. And a tax code that based its rates on overall utility rather than income would probably be morally preferable to the one we have. But until we have a reliable utility meter, income is arguably the best proxy we have.


Burn Notice, Leverage and the Virtue of Con Artists

In his otherwise excellent post on politics and virtue, Constant observes:

A thief is actually a bad person. A thief is morally corrupted. A vandal is morally corrupted. A con artist is morally corrupted. These are bad people.

I realize that this is a bit of a throwaway line, and as a general observation, it's undoubtedly true. There are, of course, exceptions, the clearest of which often appear in fiction (Robin Hood is arguably a non-corrupt thief and V's vandalism is not obviously villainous). Con artists, however, are a bit trickier. In general, they are often the worst of the bunch, frequently preying upon the weakest members of society. As it happens, though, pop culture provides us with a couple of recent examples of possibly-virtuous con artists.

Indeed, the central conceit of TNT's Leverage is that of con men looking out for the little guy. Timothy Hutton's Nathan and his team right some of the world's wrongs by targeting the wealthy and corrupt. And, of course, this being TV land, "wealthy" and "corrupt" are more-or-less synonymous. The Leverage team concocts elaborate scams that end with bad guys getting dragged away in handcuffs and the good guys siphoning off money which they then distribute to those who really need it.

Except when they don't. As Kyle Smith observed over at Culture11, Nathan feels no compunction about keeping some of the swindled cash to buy himself a $100,000 Tesla Roadster. Never mind that the money came via the U.S. government (aka, lots and lots of taxpayers who might have liked to, you know, have it back.) And the Leverage team's scam to short "Bering" Airlines stock ultimately screws over a whole lot of ordinary 401k portfolios.

See, the problem is that while Leverage's writers clearly intend the gang to be an updated Robin Hood, their intentions are done in by their rather unsophisticated understanding of the complexity of the modern economy. Robin Hood stole money from wealthy aristocrats who got that wealth by squeezing it from peasants. So when Robin gives back to the poor, he's just returning ill-gotten gains to the people from which it was taken in the first place. In targeting corporations (even corrupt ones), however, the gang isn't taking money and giving it back to the people from whom it was taken. Rather, they take wealth from some people who got it illicitly while in the process harming a bunch of totally innocent bystanders and then give their gains to a totally different set of people. The Leverage gang reminds me less of Robin Hood and more of the protagonist from one of the great B-movies of all time:

Princess Evie: Oh, so you rob from the rich, and give to the poor?

Deathstalker: No, I rob from the rich, and pretty much keep it for myself.

A more promising example of a virtuous con man is Michael Weston of USA's Burn Notice, a show that's one part MacGyver, two parts Miami Vice, and a sprinkling of Bruce Campbell for seasoning. The show's main story arc revolves around former-spy Weston's attempts to discover who "burned" his cover. But each episode features a Helpless Sap of the Week, someone whose own stupidity, naive credulity and/or desperation has resulted in an unscrupulous bad guy taking advantage. Michael and his friends (mostly Bruce and the alarmingly-skinny Gabrielle Anwar) then target the bad guys with a scam that results in the bad guys going to jail and the HSOTW getting his/her money and/or life back.

But where Burn Notice's cons differ from those of the Leverage crew is that the victims of Michael's cons have harmed specific individuals. And his pursuit of his victims is aimed largely at restoring the status quo ante. Or, rather, his scams mostly end up restoring the victim of the original scam back to the status quo ante while leaving the bad guys in jail. Last week's "Do No Harm," for example, found Michael and company conning a trio who had been running a modern snake oil scam. By the end of the episode, the family had its money back to use on a real treatment and the woman running the scam had called the cops and confessed her crime.

What's the upshot here? I'd argue that Michael Weston is pretty unambiguously a virtuous con artist. The Leverage crew, not so much. But don't try to take too much from any of this. Real-world versions of virtuous thieves, vandals and con artists are extremely rare. But the existence of fictional examples is, quite possibly, sufficient to show a fundamental weakness of virtue ethics, namely, that it's awfully tricky to detach an evaluation of someone's character from his or her intentions.


Bentham on Public Choice

Jeremy Bentham, from the sadly out-of-print Handbook of Political Fallacies:

In his [British M.P. William Gerard Hamilton's] eyes, Parliament was a sort of gaming-house; the members on the two sides of each house the players; and the property of the people, insofar as any pretense could be found for extracting it from them, the stakes to be played for...Whatever question is raised, the one consideration that is never taken into account by anyone is: what course will be for the advantage of the universal interest?

Change "his" to "their" and that's not a terrible nutshell-version of public choice theory.

Bentham, of course, wrongly believed that the problem was that Hamilton was simply a crappy legislator. So it's not as if Bentham was actually anticipating Buchanan and Arrow. Still, it's interesting that he was so close to seeing the problem, even if he didn't quite see that the problem is endemic to representative government. Although, given the obvious need for reform in Parliament during the first half of the 19th century, Bentham can perhaps be excused for thinking that a few structural reforms in Parliament would turn everyone into happy utilitarians.


On Libertarian Progressivism

Like Wilkinson, I'm unsure how I missed Ed Glaeser's now 10-day old post on libertarian progressivism. And also like Will, I find there's much to recommend here.

Here's the nutshell version of Glaeser's position:

Libertarian progressivism distrusts big increases in government spending because that spending is likely to favor the privileged. Was the Interstate Highway System such a boon for the urban poor? Has rebuilding New Orleans done much for the displaced and disadvantaged of that city? Small-government egalitarianism suggests that direct transfers of federal money to the less fortunate offer a surer path toward a fairer America.

I know the idea won't find a lot of favor with many DR folks. Structural libertarian types, in particular, are going to see this as only a modest improvement (more efficient stealing, perhaps?).

But, for those who do see value in policy libertarianism, Glaeser's post provides important insights. There is very little chance of convincing a large swathe of people that taxation is stealing. (Mostly because it's not. But that's a different argument.) But there is a pretty large chunk of people who think that a big government is a problem. There's also a bit chunk of people who think that government ought to help out those who can't help themselves. And there is a fair amount of overlap between these two sets.

Our current political arrangement currently has four positions:

  1. The Big Government Liberal: This is the familiar FDR type who says there's no problem that can't be solved with a government bureaucracy and a few million taxpayer dollars. Occasionally pays lip service to the market, but mostly bad-mouths it. See Obama, Barack and Congress, U.S.
  2. Big Government Conservative: The Bush Republican who is willing to spend boatloads of taxpayer money on programs that are thinly-disguised corporate giveaways. Prone to enacting mercantilist policies in the name of the "free market." Also known as Big Government Liberals Who Hate Sex. See Bush, George and McCain, John.
  3. Small Government Conservative: The Reagan Republican who wants to slash spending on social programs. They have never met a social program that they like. Unless that program involves limiting people's sex lives, in which case, groovy. See Paul, Ron and Kyl, John.
  4. Libertarians: Small Government Conservatives who like sex. There are pretty much none of these in government.

Libertarians tend generally to despair (aka, turn to structural libertarianism and/or political apathy) once they realize that no one is likely to get elected to office on a pure libertarian platform or else they latch on to the libertarian-like traits of figures in one of the other categories (like, say, Ron Paul or even Obama). But those mired in despair tend to forget that a lot of the people who end up in either the Big Government Liberal or the Small Government Conservative category by default. Many BGLs don't really like the Big Government part and many of the SGCs don't much care for the Conservative part.

Libertarians would do well to remind voters that there is another option. Caring for the poor need not entail massive government programs. Indeed, many such programs (think tax deduction for mortgages, public education or farm subsidies) end up doing serious harm to (or, at the very least, not helping) the poor. If we spent money more efficiently, it'd be possible to cut government and continue to help those most in need.

Better still, moving more people into the "progressive libertarian" category gets us one step closer to actual libertarianism. Though, if the truth be told, it's not entirely clear to me that the basic idea behind Glaeser's "progressive libertarian" direct transfers of cash to the poor is really all that different from Milton Friedman's plain old libertarian negative income tax.


Obama Has Let Me Down

We're nearly 24 hours into the Obama administration, and I still don't have my pony.


DeLong and Libertarianism

Brad DeLong has an interesting discussion of the differences between classical and modern liberalism. His nutshell conclusion:

It is, in short, that modern liberal economists are wanderers who have been expelled from the garden of classical liberalism by the angel of history and reality with his flaming sword...

It starts with an observation that we are all somewhat more interdependent than classical liberalism allows.

DeLong may well have a point here, though, of course it's a point that most people at DR will readily acknowledge. But I think that DeLong overstates his case:

It is not completely true that it is from the self-interest and not the benevolence of the butcher that we expect our meat. Self-interest, yes, but benevolence too: a truly self-interested butcher would not trade you his meat for your money but instead slaughter you and sell you as long pig. So this opens up a gap between the libertarian view and the world.

This isn't quite right. DeLong is mixing his philosophical metaphors, if you will. Or, to be more precise, DeLong's example requires positing a Hobbesian butcher living in a Lockean world.

Hobbes, of course, is most famous for concluding that life in the state of nature (i.e., sans government) is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Hobbes argues that the state of nature is effectively a prisoner's dilemma wherein cooperation is irrational. Basically the idea here is that, given that I don't know what you're likely to do, it's rational for me to kill you before you can get around to killing me. The same reasoning will lead you to try to kill me first. Neither of us need be evil: pure rationality will lead us to a really crappy world.

Locke, however, posits a slightly less grim world. According to Locke, while there will still be defection in the state of nature, there will also be a fair amount of cooperation. Locke's own arguments for the claim get into a bunch of weird theology, but we needn't go down that road. We can use Hobbes' own prisoner's dilemma to arrive at a Lockean position; all we need is the additional realization that, in the real world, we'll have to play the game over and over. But iterated prisoner's dilemmas have a subgame perfect Nash equilibrium, which is a fancy way of saying that it's rational to cooperate when we don't know how many times we'll end up having to play the game.

So how does this relate to DeLong? Basically, it's that DeLong's example posits a butcher. That is, someone who is already engaged in a particular trade. Which itself presupposes that, in at least some cases, people really do make trades. Which in turn is a way of saying that some people actually do cooperate in the butcher's world. But DeLong's butcher, on the other hand, behaves as a Hobbesian, who assumes that each particular instance of the prisoner's dilemma is a stand-alone event. But given that the butcher does in fact live in a Lockean world, she would have to expect that she might well be punished in a future version of the game.

All of this is really a long-winded way of saying that if DeLong's butcher really does slaughter his potential customers to sell as long pig, then she isn't behaving rationally. Indeed, one wonders to whom the butcher will be selling anything if, as DeLong suggests, it's always in her self-interest to slaughter her customers.

Again, this isn't to say that DeLong doesn't have a point. No one disputes that, in certain cases, a butcher might have an incentive to sell her clients. But it's not clear that there are any non-strawman libertarians who would seriously dispute the point. Which is why libertarians still favor legal and criminal justice systems. We're just divided as to whether those should be minarchist monopoly systems or some version of polycentric systems.


Sweatshops and Zero Sum Games

Ezra Klein, responding to Nick Kristof's NYT column on sweatshops, gets this close to an actual free market position. Kristof raises a familiar point: Sweatshops seem like a terrible thing right up until you realize that people work in them because the sweatshops are less bad than the alternative (namely, subsistence farming for the lucky and outright starvation for the less fortunate). Klein, however, finds Kristof's argument "troubling":

The implication is that labor standards are zero sum. Keeping them high means fewer children offend our conscience by working in sweatshops and more children spend their days in the stench of the landfills. Lowering them means the American working class loses jobs and the Burmese poor gain them.

That's close, but not quite right.

See, lowering labor standards actually means that the American working class loses jobs and the Burmese poor gain them and the shirts produced in those factories get slightly less expensive.

And that, of course, means that the American working class has slightly more money to either spend on other stuff or (gasp!) invest somewhere. And either of those things ultimately spur growth and thus more jobs.

Economics is not (by and large) zero sum. It's a bit surprising that Klein doesn't seemed to recognize that basic fact.


Rent-A-Judge

No, we're not talking about public choice economics. Or corruption of any sort. We're talking dispute resolution. Outside the formal legal system. Now available online. The (admittedly cheesily-named) RentAJudge.com is now offering fixed-cost arbitration.

Of course, everyone knows that private legal systems are crazy talk best left to SF or possibly fringy AnCap blogs.

(HT: Katherine Mangu-Ward)


Policy Libertarianism & Nonideal Theory

I'd been meaning to comment on Jacob's insightful post on Policy vs. Structural Libertarianism for a while now. But, what with the holidays and all, it rather slipped my mind. Having seen the dreaded Policy Libertarians(TM) at Reason weigh in, I'm reminded of my earlier reaction.

It seems to me that Jacob's disdain for policy libertarianism really amounts to a dislike of what political theory types call nonideal theory. That's jargony shorthand for asking what it is that we should do given that at least some other people aren't doing what they are morally obligated to do. To take up nonideal theory is to ask whether the misbehavior of others changes my own moral requirements.

Perhaps the paradigm example here is Kant's famous murderer at the door example, wherein I must decide whether or not I'm morally permitted to lie to a potential murderer about the whereabouts of his prospective victim. For Kant, the answer is a decided No! The Categorical Imperative, after all, prohibits lying regardless of circumstances. But many (most?) of us think that the murderer's wrongdoing actually changes my moral obligation. That is, most of us hold some version of nonideal theory when it comes to moral issues.

But many libertarians (including, perhaps, Jacob) reject nonideal theory in politics, holding that current political institutions run fundamentally counter to liberty. These structural libertarians, to use Jacob's term, hold that policy changes are useless, as the underlying structure can (and usually will) corrupt even the best policies. What's needed, they argue, is wholesale change. As Jacob colorfully puts the point:

No amount of pamphleteering and blogging will make vast amounts of people act against their self-interest. Quoting Jefferson at housewives isn't going to sway them when Obama Claus is on the television offering free college educations and health insurance. Putting 51% of the country on welfare programs and then campaigning to enlarge the payments will remain a winning strategy no matter how many DVDs of "Freedom to Fascism" are printed.

For starters, let me say that I think Jacob is overstating the extent to which changing policies is difficult. (In one of his comments, Patri makes the same (mistaken, IMO) claim. After all, it's not necessary, to borrow Jacob's own example, that my pamphlets convince 51% of the country to give up their welfare programs. I need only convince 0.9% of Jacob's welfare recipients. That's a tall but doable task. Indeed, it strikes me that there's at least some recent evidence that changing policies isn't all that hard to do. I'm fairly optimistic, for example, that a simple election has changed U.S. policy with respect to torturing prisoners at Gitmo.

Now I'll freely grant that some policies are harder to change than others. It's unlikely, for instance, that Social Security is going anywhere any time soon. And it's possible that little short of a massive overhaul will dislodge it.

But Jacob's distaste for policy libertarianism, I think, amounts to a failure to recognize that however much we might want to live in Libertopia, it's arrival isn't coming any time soon. In the meantime, liberal democracy is almost certain to be nonideal (at least from a libertarian perspective.) So given that lots of people aren't going to do what we think they ought, libertarians have to ask themselves whether they prefer to adopt a Kant-like disdain for sullying the purity of their ideal theory or a (dare I say commonsense?) nonideal approach of bringing the policies that exist in our current world more closely in line with respect for liberty.

For the record, it seems to me that both policy and structural libertarians are crucial. Until the pamphleteers finish convincing that last 0.9% of the power of libertarian ideas, the chances of making any sort of libertarian-friendly structural changes are, well, rather dismal. Or, to put things another way, we need Cato to keep the state from sucking up all of The Seasteading Institute's venture capital.


We Are All (or Mostly) Mike Vick

I had sworn that I wasn't really going to write on the whole sad Michael Vick thing. In part, that's my Hokie background. When I think Mike Vick, I still think of him putting the Hokie offense on his back in Morgantown and pretty much single-handedly saving the Hokie's undefeated season in 1999.

Indeed, the whole Vick family saga, which once seemed so inspiring (freakishly talented brothers escape poverty) turned into a sadly commonplace one (spoiled, self-indulgent athletes think that rules are for everyone else). But this post isn't really about Michael Vick. It's actually about hypocrisy. Plus, Patri sort of opened the door for this. So blame him.

You see, one need not look very hard to find all sorts of people calling for everything just short of drawing and quartering (in comments) Vick. I don't dispute the assertion that Vick's actions are wrong. But I do find the calls for Vick's punishment to be curious at best. Consider, if you will, what it is that makes Vick's dogfighting wrong in the first place. As I see it, there are two possible lines of argument:

Rights argument

  1. Animals have a moral right not to be tortured.
  2. Violating a moral right is morally wrong.
  3. Dogfighting necessarily involves the torture of animals.
  4. Therefore dogfighting is morally wrong.

Suffering argument

  1. It is wrong to cause animals needless suffering.
  2. Dogfighting necessarily involves needless suffering.
  3. Therefore dogfighting is morally wrong.

I am not going to try to argue for one of these arguments over the other (though I suppose that I might as well mention that I personally find the rights argument to be uncompelling, largely because I don't think that anything has moral rights). What I am going to point out is that both versions of the argument are pretty much parallel to some other sorts of arguments about animals. To wit:

  1. Animals have a moral right not to be tortured.
  2. Violating a moral right is morally wrong.
  3. Factory farming necessarily involves the torture of animals.
  4. Therefore factory farming is morally wrong.

And

  1. It is wrong to cause animals needless suffering.
  2. Factory farming necessarily involves needless suffering.
  3. Therefore factory farming is morally wrong.

I think that it's fairly clear that anyone who buys the argument that animals have moral rights really has to give up eating them. After all, if a thing does possess moral rights, then surely the right not to be killed for someone else's pleasure has to rank right up there among those rights. And, at the end of the day, what is eating an animal if not the killing of it for the pleasure of how it tastes (since one can, after all, get complete proteins from things like soybeans, quinoa, and spelt)?

The analogy between the suffering argument against dogfighting and the suffering argument agains factory farming, however, is a bit more complicated. After all, there are a couple of (I think superficial) differences. Let's consider the arguments in a bit more detail.

Here's an expanded version of the consequentialist argument against dogfighting

  1. Training a fighting dog requires depriving the dog of food and light and forcing it to exercise for hours at a time.
  2. The act of fighting results in significant (and often fatal) injuries to the dog.
  3. Dogs suffer when they are deprived of food and light, forced o exercise for hours at a time and subjected to significant (and often fatal) injuries.
  4. Some people receive enjoyment from watching dogs fight.
  5. The enjoyment that people get from watching dogs fight is not sufficient to outweigh the suffering that the dogs must endure as a necessary condition for fighting.
  6. Suffering that is not outweighed by enjoyment elsewhere is needless suffering.
  7. It is morally wrong to cause needless suffering.
  8. Dogfighting creates needless suffering.
  9. Therefore dogfighting is morally wrong.

Now let's compare that with the consequentialist argument against factory farming

  1. Factory farming cows requires depriving the cow of space, force feeding the cow an unnatural, protein-rich diet, and forcing it to spend its final days confined to a feedlot.
  2. Cows suffer when they are deprived of space, force-fed unnatural protein-rich diets, and confined to a feedlot.
  3. Some people receive enjoyment from eating inexpensive beef.
  4. The enjoyment that people get from eating inexpensive beef is not sufficient to outweigh the suffering that the cows must endure as a necessary condition for factory farming.
  5. Suffering that is not outweighed by enjoyment elsewhere is needless suffering.
  6. It is morally wrong to cause needless suffering.
  7. Factory farming creates needless suffering.
  8. Therefore factory farming is morally wrong.

Now the interesting thing here, I think, is that in the argument against factory farming, lots and lots of people object to premise (4), claiming things like, "Hey, I don't know about you, but I really get a lot of pleasure from my hamburger." I'm not entirely sure that I buy such a claim. I mean, a hamburger is good and all, but the cow spends a couple of years suffering so that you can eat that burger. Two years of cow-suffering for the 15 minutes you're going to spend scarfing a burger? Seems like a crappy deal. Still, I can hardly be in a position to know how much happiness you really get from eating a hamburger. But I submit that there's something slightly disturbing about claiming that my happiness makes someone (or something) else's suffering all okay. I mean, suppose that Michael Vick were to say something like, "Hey, I really enjoy watching dogs try to rip each other's throats out." Do we then just say, "Oh, well in that case, have at it?" No. I think that, in point of fact, what we say is something more like, "I don't care. It seems pretty obvious that the dog's suffering outweighs your pleasure. And if that isn't the case, well, then, that just makes you a sick fuck."

That doesn't seem a totally irrational reply to Vick. So why we don't say exactly the same thing to someone who eats a factory farmed cow?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not out to shill for PETA. I'm a vegetarian, but I'm not a particularly good one. Just last night, I cheated with a big plate of fish and chips. (I also tasted a cheeseburger, my first taste of beef in 5 years. Surprisingly, it wasn't nearly as delicious as I'd remembered.) At any rate, there's no high horse here. I'm just out for a bit of consistency. If you're going to jump all over Mike Vick for torturing dogs, then, by the same logic, you really ought to start clamoring for the folks at Smithfield to face some jail time for their treatment of pigs. And if you're okay with that BLT you had for lunch, you probably should break out the "Free Mike Vick" t-shirt campaign. At the end of the day, there's really very little to separate the two. Except for the fact that we all think dogs are cute and cuddly, whereas we all think of cows (to the extent that we do) as lunch. I'm pretty sure, however, that cuddliness isn't a morally relevant trait.

So either trade in the steak for some quinoa or lay off Michael Vick.


Flash Gordon and the Boring Lockean Stereotype

Late to the party again, but...passed up on my usual Monday routine last week, and instead spent the evening lounging on the couch, eating leftover pizza and watching the premier of Sci Fi’s new version of Flash Gordon with dissident1L. My initial reaction was to be a tad disappointed. I wasn’t sure going in whether I was mostly hoping for the bold re-imagining Sci Fi did for BSG or whether I wanted to see more of the camp that has me all atwitter at the DVD release of the 1980 film version (sing it with me now – Flash! aah-AHHH!). The answer, at least after the premier, is that it’s neither BSG nor Sam Raimi.

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s certainly some re-imagining. Flash gets a backstory. Zarkov is more bumbling nutty professor than brilliant half-mad kidnapper. Ming is no longer the evil oriental stereotype of the 1930s. (Now he’s an evil monopolist. Progress!) There’s also a bit of camp (“If she’s an Abbot, I'm Costello”? Really?). Plus it has some fairly cool effects, particularly for a cable TV series.

Traditionally, of course, Flash Gordon has more-or-less epitomized science fantasy-style space opera. The All-American Hero, his Beautiful and Smart-But-Not-Intimidatingly-Smart Girlfriend, his Brainy But Hugely Naïve and Unworldly Sidekick, and a Handful of Colorful Humanoids battle it out against the Supremely Evil One, his Slightly Less Evil Protégée, and a Horde of Nameless and Faceless Henchmen for nothing less important than The Fate of All Mankind! Along the way are gigantic battles fought with ray guns, FTL spacecraft, and thirty-seven thousand violations of the laws of physics. It’s all great fun, and done well, it can rise out of the genre fiction ghetto to become a cultural touchstone (see George Lucas pre-Star Wars VI: The Muppets Save the Rebellion).

Even more interesting, of course, is when science fantasy / space opera slips off the standard good v. evil meme in favor of something more complicated. And there is at least some potential in that regard. Mongo has (again traditionally) offered a number of different types of society. I, for one, am interested to see how they all play out. Thus far, we’ve had but a glimpse of Mingo City which Ming (natch!) describes as the only safe place on the planet. As I see it, the show can go one of three directions.

A. Hobbes

Ming is right about Mongo. It really is full of savage egoists who will as soon slit your throat as look at you. Ming may be a bloody tyrant, but, when the alternative is a Hobbesian war of all against all, the bloody tyrant starts to look like a decided improvement. At the very least, it’s better to have just one person who can kill you arbitrarily than it is to have a whole planet full of people who can do so. Plus, at least in the pilot, Ming isn’t killing arbitrarily. He rapes women, orders Flash tortured, and demands that missionaries pay full market value for water (even when that water is going to saving children from disease). That may be evil (the first two certainly are), but it’s not an arbitrary evil. Flash reluctantly teams with Ming to civilize the savages.

B. Locke

Ming is completely wrong about Mongo. It is in fact a pluralist planet with a number of different perfectly functional societies, most of which are generally free and happy. Communities come together to combat scarcity and to provide mutual support and protection against threats to life, liberty and property. These happy, free societies are mainly threatened by Ming, whose brutal police state constitutes the greatest real threat to Mongo. Flash provides the heroic leader necessary to unite the various societies in a civil war to overthrow the evil tyrant Ming.

C. The Mixed Bag

Mongo is neither a Hobbesian nightmare nor a Lockean Eden, but rather something in between. There are a number of different societies on Mongo, some better than Mingo City and some much, much worse. Flash finds himself sometimes allied with a particular society against Ming’s tyranny and sometimes allied with Ming against a far worse threat.

My sneaking suspicion is that what we’ll get is something similar to B – which, of course, is also a pretty standard space opera theme. Personally, I would find A to be fairly entertaining, though to be perfectly honest, I think that outcome better suited to a movie or mini-series with a definite closing point. The interesting part would be watching Flash realize that siding with Ming really was the best option. Actually watching the “civilizing of the savages” – perhaps less fun. Unless FG is taken over by the editors at Baen Books, I don’t much look for A to happen.

So I’m holding out for C. There’s a perfect opportunity to explore different types of social structures; indeed, that’s what SF and fantasy really do best. What I fear, though, is a fairly boring B with cool effects and occasional campy dialogue. Which I’d probably still watch (because there’s a part of me that hasn’t progressed all that much beyond age 12). But the part of me that’s an actual adult (small though it may be) would be a bit saddened by that outcome.


Political Theory 101, or Little Known Facts About the Social Contract

I was reading TPMCafe yesterday when I stumbled across this short little post from Greg Anrig, Jr. I was moved to write about it largely because I found it so very surprising. Anrig, over the space of just a few paragraphs, makes two political theory-ish claims that I’d never heard before. I was so shocked to realize how badly I’d misunderstood some of the basic principles of government and of foreign policy that I just had to bring it to everyone else’s attention, too. Anrig’s post, initially bearing the provocative title “Actually, It Is Terrorism,” takes conservatives to task for refusing to provide funding to shore up the nation’s aging infrastructure. I guess that the implication is supposed to be that opposing highway funds constitutes an act of terrorism. I had no idea, really. I mean, at first I was looking around for some DHS people to send after Ron Paul. But then when I checked Anrig’s post later, I saw that he’d changed the title to, “Actually, It’s A Lot Like Terrorism.” So I'm guessing that Rep. Paul will probably be spared a trip to Gitmo.

Still, I thought that maybe I should look into this whole terrorism business a bit more. I mean, I didn’t realize that opposing the Department of Highways might make one a terrorist (or even a lot like a terrorist), so I figured that I should maybe find out what other things might make me almost a terrorist. So I started by looking for a definition of terrorism. Turns out, the U.S. State Department uses the term “terrorism” to mean

premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

Now to be fair, I found several people who didn’t much like this definition, but most of that disagreement seemed to center around the issue of whether or not to restrict terrorism to “subnational groups or clandestive agents.” Pretty much everyone, however, seemed in agreement that terrorism has to be premeditated and politically motivated. That left me puzzled, since it’s not at all clear to me that any of the evil conservatives out there actually plotted to blow up a bridge.

My instinct is to ask Anrig to maybe lay off the old everything-bad-is-really-like-terrorism line. And possibly to suggest that such comparisons (a) provide far more heat than light, while (b) rendering the previously useful term “terrorism” meaningless by turning it into a synonym for “bad.” Plus, it's just confusing; apparently he didn't get the memo that that's a Republican strategy.

But, as if the whole terrorism thing confusing enough, Anrig goes on to offer an opinion on basic political theory:

Making us less vulnerable to sudden, out-of-the-blue preventable disasters is the job of government.

Really? Now I’ll admit that I’m no Century Foundation scholar, and it has been a while since I engaged with the political theory thing, but I honestly couldn’t recall ever reading anything about the function of government being to prevent sudden, out-of-the-blue disasters. I remember a lot of stuff about tyranny and liberty and individual freedom, but really not so much about preventable disaster. Still, I figured that maybe I’d just forgotten. I mean, Locke says a lot of stuff; maybe it was all just buried somewhere.

The responsible thing to do, obviously, would be to re-read all the core texts in political theory. Leviathan, The Second Treatise, and On Liberty for starters, with maybe some Jefferson and Madison thrown in for good measure. That plan, I quickly surmised, had a rather serious flaw: it’s an assload of reading, and I’m fairly lazy. So I cheated. Using a nifty little online copy of Locke’s Second Treatise, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, I searched for “preventable disasters.”

Alas, much to my surprise, I found no such thing. Which is really puzzling, what with Anrig being a scholar and all. Nothing at all about preventing disasters. Just a lot of stuff about protecting individuals from the tyranny of the state. Very strange. I guess I’ll have to keep searching. Anybody know where there's a searchable copy of A Theory of Justice?


Liberal Eugenics

A little behind the power curve on this one, but...shorter Ross Douthat:

  1. Eugenicists support the use of abortion as a way of eliminating debilitating but non-life-threatening characteristics like Tay Sachs or Downs Syndrome from the human race.
  2. Some would-be parents choose to abort fetuses that have debilitating
    but non-life-threatening characteristics like Tay Sachs or Downs
    Syndrome.
  3. Liberals support the rights of parents to choose to abort fetuses that
    have debilitating but non-life-threatening characteristics like Tay
    Sachs or Downs Syndrome.
  4. Thus liberals are modern eugenicists.

Plenty of people have jumped all over Douthat for this argument. But I’ve yet to see anyone point out the real fundamental problem. Namely, that for all his pointing to famous people who say similar things, Douthat’s simple little argument manages to contain two fallacies in its four short steps.

First, notice that (1) deals with a claim about abortion’s usefulness as a way of perfecting the human race, whereas (2) and (3) deal with a claim about an individual parent’s decision about a specific child. To make parents' decisions about abortion (and hence also liberals’ support of those decisions) parallel the eugenicist, Douthat would need an additional premise, namely something like

2a. Parents who choose to abort fetuses that have debilitating but non-life-threatening characteristics like Tay Sachs or Downs Syndrome are really acting in such a way as to eliminate these debilitating characteristics from the human race.

And (3) would accordingly be altered as

3’. Liberals support parents who choose to abort fetuses that have debilitating but non-life-threatening characteristics like Tay Sachs or Downs Syndrome are really acting in such a way as to eliminate these debilitating characteristics from the human race.

The problem, of course, is that (2a) doesn’t in fact follow from (2). Indeed, it’s an instance of a composition fallacy. It’s the claim that because A has a particular view about one specific human being, then A holds that same view about the human race as a whole.

Though properly speaking, I suppose I should say that the fact that the amended argument relies on a composition fallacy is a problem, as there’s still another to go along with it. Douthat’s conclusion is, one presumes, supposed to follow from (1) and (3’). The problem? Well, the argument has the form

A believes X
B believes X
Therefore A is B

That, however, is what logicians like to call the fallacy of the undistributed middle.

So can we please stop complaining about whether or not Douthat has conflated liberals with old-style progressives and whatnot? Indeed, I think it should be a firm principle of blogging that any post that contains as many fallacies as it does inferences really ought to just wither away into unlinked and unremarked-upon obscurity.


Peace Through Superior Firepower

So, Sunday evening rolls around, and what better way to end perhaps the best weekend in recent memory than with a trip to the Drafthouse and a showing of Hot Fuzz.

For those of you who have been living under a rock, Hot Fuzz is the buddy cop spoof from the Shaun of the Dead guys. If you’ve not seen either one, then it’s pretty clear that you’re a sad, culturally illiterate soul. You’re also not the sort of person I’d like to go drink a beer with. And that, my friend, is far worse fate. Or something like that. Seriously, you should go see it if you haven’t done so yet. Preferably in a place where no one minds if you shout things back at the screen. And clap during the movie. At any rate, I’m not going to really try to explain the movie itself, other than to say that buddy cop clichés, played straight and with just a hint of slightly stiff and formal British mannerisms and set in small-town England: now that’s some seriously funny shit.

But there’s more to the film than mere humor. Not to pile too much pretension onto a film that features a scene with an exploding head, but I think that there’s a case to be made for Hot Fuzz as Animal Farm for the 21st century. Now I’m sure that this seems a strange claim, but just bear with me a moment. And if you’ve not seen the film yet, you may well want to stop reading here, ‘cause I can’t really write this thing without more-or-less giving away a big chunk of the ending. So consider yourself warned.

After gleefully unraveling Sgt. Nick Angel’s bit of detecting (and thereby nicely avoiding a standard cop-movie cliché plot), the film’s denouement finds that under the scary black cloaks at the spooky graveyard gathering lies a collection of small-town busybodies who murder their fellow-citizens for such grave offenses against the common good as misspelling words in the local paper and offering really horrendous performances of Hamlet at the community theater. About the only really spooky thing about this collection of aging British gentry is their collective chanting of “the common good” at weirdly inappropriate moments.

Mostly all this is set up for the shootout scenes, which are replete with pretty much every set piece from several cheesy cop movies. But for all the silliness of the plot itself, there is, I think, a fairly straightforward lesson here: central planning by groups of elites in the name of the greater good has a tendency to go a bit haywire. At the end of the day, it’s up to rugged individuals – preferably ones with lots of really big guns and maybe a couple of good friends – to protect individual liberty from the central planners. It’s an Orwellian warning against collectivism…only coupled with a rather charming faith in the power of heroic American individualism. Except with a British accent.

I’d say that it’s a nice libertarian theme except that, as it turns out, the bad guys are the members of a private protective association (the neighborhood watch). And the heroes are cops. Make of that what you will.