Wednesday, November 28, 2007


People believe things for a variety of reasons, some pretty good, others not so good. I think in the pre-renaissance days people tended to have a strongly conservative bias. That is, if things had been done a certain way for a long time, that was considered to be strong evidence that there were good reasons for doing things that way (even if nobody remembers what the reasons were) , that change is likely to be for the worse, and that going back to ancient ways is likely to be an improvement over modern ways.

Conversely, in modern times there seems to be a what I call a "progressive bias". By this I mean not a belief that all change is good, but that after a change has been adopted for some time, the fact that the change has occurred is strong evidence that it constitutes an improvement. Those who advocate undoing some particular change are accused of wanting to "turn back the clock", as if all social and technological change were interwoven to the extent that one couldn't possibly overturn Roe vs Wade without also putting lead back in the gasoline and eliminating the personal computer.

I think it's beyond reasonable dispute that increases in scientific and technological knowledge in general represent a genuine improvement. But the case of social change is much less clear. Certainly some social changes are for the better, and some for the worse, but we won't necessarily agree as to which are which, and it's not at all clear to me that there's a strong tendency either way.

This is not to say that social change is anything like random. Over the last few centuries there has been a general tendency towards centralization of authority in many countries. One major reason for this is that a strong central government is necessary for fighting modern wars. Another is essentially Parkinson's law: in the absence of an external counterbalancing force, entities tend to increase their own jurisdictions.

There are major drawbacks to excessive centralization. It forces everyone to accept "one size fits all" rules that don't really fit anyone particularly well. People sometimes talk of states as being like "laboratories", but I think this is a very bad metaphor. It seems to imply that the purpose of "experiments" in these "laboratories" is to discover a "right" way of doing things, which will later be copied by the other states, either voluntarily or through federal legislation.

Referring to moving to a different jurisdiction as "voting with your feet" is an even worse metaphor. In terms of actually improving one's own life, voting is among the crudest and least ineffectual means available. Ineffectual because your individual vote is highly unlikely to ever decide an issue, crude because it requires enforcing your own preferences on everyone else in your jurisdiction. One might as well refer to undergoing surgery as "loading your shotgun with scalpels and shooting yourself".

A typical example: I think most Californians are glad that casino gambling is not legal in most of the state, even ones that are also glad that it is legal in Nevada if they feel the desire. Personally I would just as soon see it legal anywhere, but it makes no practical difference to me either way. I'm not a libertarian, I don't think that people who may have problems resisting the temptation to gamble are being unreasonable if they want to live in communities where there is not legal public gambling. But it seems to me almost beyond reasonable dispute that most people will be best off if regulations of this sort are kept at as local a level as possible. I'll probably write more about this in a future post.

Changes in laws aren't just caused by political forces, though, but by changes in norms. Earlier generations were, in general, harder, tougher than mine, and I think the next couple generations will be still softer. "Nanny state" regulations are becoming more common, among other reasons, because to oppose them is to be seen as lacking compassion. Even arguing against a policy on pragmatic grounds, while fully supporting the policy's aims, can be seen as lacking compassion. Caring is more important than results. Personally I don't see this change as being a good thing.

One can't derive a pure ought from a pure is, of course, but even if one subscribes to modern norms, one might want to consider the possibility that the true reason for this is simply that they are modern norms, that they are acquired from society without much questioning, and that accepting them brings approval and challenging them brings hostility.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Money is perhaps the single most useful invention in human history. Without something like a uniform medium of exchange any sort of modern society would likely be impossible.

By "money" I mean goods which people will accept as part of a transaction, not for any direct use it may have, but because it will be used as a payment in future transactions. It follow that it is not strictly correct to say of something that it is or is not money, but rather that it is or is not being used as money. If you accept gold coins because you actually expect to use the gold, say to make an lovely ornamental calf statue, from your point of view the gold coins aren't money, they're a consumption good.

People will sometimes say things like "money is also a measurement of value or a store of value". This is a confusion of conncepts. In the first part, it is the same sort of error as using the same word for "meter" and "meterstick", and concluding the same thing. A "dollar" as an abstract measurement of value is something different from a coin or note considered to be worth a dollar. The second part is a different sort of error. There are reasons why the same sorts of things are likely to be useful as a store of value or as a medium of exchange, but if we accept that calling something "money" denotes what it is used for rather than what it is, and incidentally that it is not always true that the same sorts of things are useful for both purposes, we can see why calling these two concepts by the same name is misleading.

There are many sorts of things that have been used as money, but they come in two general sorts of categories: goods that are considered to carry intrinsic value (even though it is not expected that they will be used as primary goods, it is vital that they could be), which I will call "value money", and signifiers of some sort of transferable promise, which I will call "promise money".

There are many reasons why metal coins have been particularly popular as value money. Uniformity (value is determined solely by the mass), durability (gold won't rot or rust), density (an ounce of gold will usually fetch more than a ton of wheat).

Because metal coins have so often been the items used as value money, and because promise money (at least initially) pretty much has to be redeemable for something specifc, there is sometimes a tendency to view metal coins as being "real money" and promise money as just "representing" money, the promise money representing some quantity of metal. In 1957 dollar bills were still "silver certificates". But fundamentally gold and silver are just commodities like any other, subject to the same sort of fluctuations in value. The advantages of metal money really only apply when the metal itself is being used as money. Any sort of certificate would have the same advantages.

There's no reason in principle why there must be a direct relationship between price denomination and form of payment. For example, one could imagine a loan arrangement where the debt payment is specified in tons of wheat value equivalence but the payment is in the form of gold coins. This of course necessitates specifying a method of determining what the relative vales of gold and wheat are, so one wouldn't introduce this added complexity for no good reason.

But such an arrangement would make sense if wheat had a more constant value in time relative to other goods and services (so tons of wheat makes a better measure of value) but gold is much more convenient as the actual medium of exchange (because you only have to ship ounces rather than tons).

I believe the state's involvement in the issue of money originated because it's a convenient way to tax. Demanding that internal trade takes place using the official coinage allows for charging a seigniorage, and also allows the state to effectively repudiate a portion of its internal debt by debasing the coinage (or "inflating the money supply"). This is better for the state than repudiating the debt directly, since by requiring citizens to accept debased coinage at face value the state causes the burden to fall on the people as a whole rather than merely upon its creditors.

Friday, November 9, 2007


It's a bit of an exaggeration to say that "government" is nothing but another name for "sedentary bandit". But really not that big of one.

For the vast majority of governments past and present, the primary activity has been the forcible taking of goods and services from some and giving it to others, the support of the recipients being necessary to keep the government in power. This includes modern democracies.

It seems likely to me that some form of government is unavoidable, and perhaps even desirable. "Government" essentially denotes an organization that is ultimately capable of effectively applying coercion in a region, and although the arbitrary initiation of coercion
is clearly undesirable, I don't think a complete absence of coercion is even possible. When two disputants are absolutely incapable or unwilling to come to an agreement, either one will enforce its will upon the other or some third party will enforce a decision upon both.

It might be desirable to have some organization entrusted with enforcing resolutions upon disputants, with more or less monopoly power over a region. Or perhaps not, this strikes me as a topic particularly open to debate.

The particular set of functions and policies executed by modern governments is a result of historical processes, and doesn't necessarily make any sense when viewed as if they had been recently designed with some purpose in mind. For example, in some countries governments run the liquor stores and in others the brothels. This is not because private industry is incapable of adequately serving the public need in these areas, but because positioning itself as a monopoly supplier seemed a convenient way of raising revenue. They could almost certainly serve their customers better and get higher total revenue by privatizing these industries and taxing them rather than continuing to operate them directly, but this is not obvious to most people, and there are vested interests in continuing the current policies, whereas the individuals who would significantly benefit from privatization are just theoretical people. That is, they must exist, but nobody (including themselves) can know who they are.

I think economists have by now shown that it's a highly reliable rule that market-oriented dispersed decisionmaking will consistently outperform centrally planned decisionmaking. The implication is that, from an efficiency standpoint, the only activities that should be performed by governments directly are those which are intrinsically coercive, and that regulatory law should wherever possible be goal rather than process oriented. For example, if the objective is to decrease pollution from coal-fired plants, it would be better to limit legal emissions rather than to mandate specific pollution reduction measures, and still better to apply a tax based on the amount of emissions. "Better" in the sense of resulting in lower total pollution at lower cost. So why aren't things usually done this way?

Several possibilities spring to mind. First off, a lot of it really is just disguised payoff to certain groups for their support.

Second some of it may be crappy economics. The idea that central planning will outperform the market if only you have smart enough central planners seems intuitive to many people. You have to spend more time looking at the historical record than most people are willing to to convince yourself that it is not true, and more time studying theory than most people are willing to to understand why it is not true. Certainly I couldn't convince anyone of the advantage of the market who did not believe in it already.

Another is the possibility that certain functions must be operated directly by the government in order to fulfill the government's objectives. For example, governments run the post office because they want to be assured of the ability to read people's mail. Governments run schools because they want to determine what children are taught. Governments run television and radio stations because they wish not merely to objectively inform and entertain, but to influence public opinion in particular ways.

Last on my list is the possibility that the purported objectives are actually much less important than the signal sent. For example, it's likely that most people would receive more direct benefit from appearing to care about polar bears than actually increasing polar bear populations, since most of us will never encounter a polar bear outside a zoo, and that's probably for the best.

Other suggestions?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


I'm hoping to make this largely a discussion blog with my own posts just as jumping off points, but we'll see how that goes.

What I want to do is to discuss ideas for spreading freedom through voluntary action. In particular I want to focus on the applications of modern technology. Anything that is done must be done for the first time, but I suspect if an idea hasn't been tried before and it's any good, most likely it's because it hasn't been possible until recently (or perhaps isn't possible quite yet, but soon will be). I'll try to avoid speculations which require major technological breakthroughs.

This isn't intended to be yet another individualist political blog. There are plenty of those already, many written by people who are much better writers than I am, and much better informed on current political events. I intend to keep my discussion of such things to a minimum.

Some of my posts (like this one) will be about pretty general concepts, and may seem quite basic. I think they are necessary, because my experience is that people tend to think they are being understood much better than they are, and people think they understand much better than they do.

This post is about freedom. I don't want to spend a lot of time quibbling on precise definitions, but "freedom" in the context of this blog means more or less the power of individuals to decide what actions to take tregarding their own lives, and to bear the consequences (good and bad) of those actions. This blog is dedicated to the proposition, "freedom is good". Not necessarily the only good, not even necessarily the highest good, but good in and of itself. If individual choice is to be restricted, this requires justification. Removing such restrictions requires only that the restrictions have not been sufficiently justified.

There are people who use the "freedom" in the sense of "freedom from want" or "freedom from fear". I consider those not to be different kinds of freedom, but rather completely separate concepts that are unfortunaltely referred to by the same word. If I feel the need to refer to such concepts here, I'll describe them in some other way. In any case I don't think anyone is morally entitled to something like a guaranteed minimum standard of living, not do I think such a guarantee is possible in practice.

I reject the concept of "false consciousness", by which I mean the idea that there's something people "really" want which is very different from what they think they want. Irealize that people may do things at the heights of emotion which they may regret in their more sober moments, and I realize that small children or people with severe mental disabilities may have no idea what is harmful to them. But I think for normal, sane adults taking time for serious reflection, not only are they generally capable of deciding what is best for themselves, they essentially define what is best for themselves.

The last thing I want to rule out is the idea of group rights, that is, the idea that a group has rights as distinct from the rigts of its members. I understand that people are naturally social, that they will form groups, that they will do things on behalf of the group itself or to demonstrate loyalty to the group, and that a person may voluntarily join a group on the understanding that the group has the authority to discipline its members. But nobody outside a group has a moral responsibility to aid a group in enforcing its rules upon its members, and a person is not morally subject to the authority of a group he has not voluntarily joined. In particular, upon reaching adulthood a person has a right to leave a country or religion he was "born into".

I don't want to waste effort debating basic premises. I understand that my beliefs are very much in the minority, I don't care. I understand that there are people who believe that individualism is fundamentally bad, and sacrificing one's own desires in favor of the interests of others is fundamentally good. If anyone reading tends to think this way, I'm well aware that I will be unable to change your mind. I suggest that your time is better spent elsewhere, as our viewpoints are too distant for their to be any profitable mutual discussion. In any event, please don't comment, since I'll just delete and ban anyway. This blog isn't for discussing what our goals should be, it's for suggesting ideas about how to achieve them.

I hope I haven't driven away all my potential readers. I think within the boundaries I have set there are still many lifetimes' worth of potential discussion. Please be civil, both to myself and to each other. Remember that, once suggested, the quality of an idea is independent of who its proponents are.