Saturday, December 22, 2007

Public and Private Behavior

The world as a whole will never agree on everything. We will never even agre on the fundamentals of right and wrong. I think the best we can realistically hope for is some form of order which allows large groups of us to get along relatively peacefully. As I've remarked before, I think the rules governing society, whether enumerated or tacit, will not and should not be universal.

Personally I would prefer to live under very libertarian laws, but experience has taught me that most people would prefer otherwise, and that this is not going to change, almost certainly not within my expected lifetime, probably not ever.

Fundamentally, there's no good reason why they should.

The idea that people act rationally in order to achieve their goals is potentially highly misleading. People will often do things which seem appealing to them at the time but which they will later regret, and in some cases this later regret is predictable in advance. A person who has problems resisting the urge to drink or gamble, for example, might quite sensibly prefer to live in a community where he would not be subjected to constant temptation.

The concept of a right to free speech essentially refers to the right of people to converse among themselves without fear of reprisals. It has never been absolute in the sense of permitting anything which might be considered speech or symbolic speech. Threats, criminal conspiracies, fraudulent business offers, and slander all contain a speech element, but they aren't only speech. It seems to me that deliberate attempts to offend go beyond being only speech in the same way. I'm talking about something like this. Asshole had it coming, Buzz is a hero.

In general, the strict libertarian people have an absolute right to cause emotional harm to others, whether inadvertently or deliberately, provided no physical harm is done to person or property, seems to me unreasonable. Certainly a negative emotional state represents a reduced quality of life. Given that the value of property is largely subjective anyway, why shouldn't one treat emotional harm as being as real as property damage? I can certainly see a strong pragmatic argument against legislation attempting to prevent emotional damage. Since in principle anything could be emotionally damaging to someone, giving a government agency blanket authority to protect people's fragile emotions would be giving it unlimited power to micromanage everyone's lives. But a pragmatic argument cannot justify a moral principle, and the fact that the most extreme examples of something imaginable would clearly be bad does not indicate that it is always bad in any degree.

On the other hand, it strikes me as being absurd that people would take it upon themselves to invade other people's privacy in order to root out behavior which would tempt or offend them if it were done in public. I understand that people do, but I can't understand the mindset that encourages it, and I think it's a fairly rare one. I suspect the main reason it has infested our legal system is that people have been fed a false dichotomy between draconian private enforcement and public tolerance; that it's necessary to break down doors in the middle of the night and gun down grandmothers on the possibility that there might be a joint in the house, because the only alternative is to have the streets littered with semi-catatonic junkies and their disease-infested needles.

It's a straightforward consequence of economics that the more intense the efforts to suppress "victimless crimes", the more potentially profitable they become. Conversely, the more discrete "victimless criminals" are in their activities, the less the public is interested in suppressing them. It seems natural that societies would protect their sensibilities by either regulating the times at places at which "vices" can be indulged, or ostensibly banning them but making no real effort to enforce the ban provided that the law is not publicly flouted. I think historically that's what most socities have done, aside from outbreaks of puritanism.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Book Review: Ideas Have Consequences by Richard M Weaver

This is a very interesting book. I highly recommend reading it. I found myself thoroughly disagreeing with most of it, but there is very little I could actually refute. The author's viewpoint is internally self-consistent and many readers may find it appealing.

Chapter 1 begins, "Every man participating in a culture has thre levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world". The title reflects the author's thesis that this metaphysical dream often has more influence over one's actions than do the specific ideas. An illustrative quote which I found astonishing: "The Schoolmen understood that the question, univeralia ante rem or univeralia post rem, or the question of how man angels can stand on the point of a needle, so often cited as examples of Scholastic futility, had incalculable ramifications, so that, unless there was agreement upon these questions, unity in practical matters was impossible."

He blames what he considers to be the decadence of the modern (1948) world on a shift in this metaphysical dream: "Man created in the divine image, the protagonist of a great drama in which his soul was at stake, was replaced by man the wealth-seeking and -consuming animal".

Weaver acknowledges that the modern world has vastly more material productivity and knowledge of specific facts than the older world, but he considers these to be of comparitively little value. He asserts that although we know more specific facts, our understanding of things in general has atrophied. He considers the shift in attitude from one of duties to one of gain vs. loss to be of much greater significance, and quite harmful.

Weaver goes on to discuss how art has been corrupted by the idea that there is no reality beyond that perceived by the senses, how the sensible idea of equality before the law has been distorted to obliterate sensible distinctions between classes of persons (young and old, men and women), and many other topics. He covers quite a lot of ground in under 200 pages. A 21st century summary may make him sound like a senile coot raving about kids today, but reading the actual book he sounds quite sensible if not persuasive.

The last three chapters are about areas in which Weaver saw hope, although I'm sure he would have been appalled by what has happened since then. They are about how there remained respect for the concept of property as a metaphysical right, how words might again be regarded as having meaning as opposed to being merely symbols, and about repect for the virtues of piety and justice.

I think Weaver is correct that metaphysical beliefs do have consequences in human action, and rejection of belief in the transcendental probably was a necessary precursor for Nazism and Communism, and is at least partially responsible for the social ills that plague us today. But I doubt that it can be helped. So far as I can tell there is no transcendental, and if there were we could not have any reliable knowledge of it.

Monday, December 10, 2007


There is an old debate as to whether law is "created" or "discovered". I think this is because the word "law" is used to mean two very different things: what I will call "abstract law", which is basically people's general sense as to what is and is not acceptable moral behavior, and what I will call "codified law", which is a set of enumerated rules saying what is allowed or forbidden.

The fact that something like abstract law exists can be inferred from the observed fact that people will generally exhibit some sort of orderly behavior even when there is nothing like a law enforcement officer present and, barring extreme actions, there is no risk one's actions will be reported to a law enforcement officer. That codified legislation does not always reflect abstract law can be inferred from the observation that in some situations people in general will modify their behavior when a law enforcement officer is present. For example, if almost everyone slows down at the sight of a police car on a certain stretch of road, that is strong evidence that the posted speed limit is lower than what most people would consider a safe and acceptable speed.

The reason it can be useful to have codified law is that in general there isn't anything like unanimous agreement as to what abstract law is. Abstract law should not arbitrarily favor certain persons over others, and it should prohibit behavior which is on the whole harmful while allowing that which beneficial or neutral, but these criteria are not sufficient for determining what abstract law is, even before we consider the problems of human uncertainly and error. There is a great deal of "wiggle room" within which codified law can be consistent with abstract law. If this is the case, people will generally believe one ought to obey the law simply because it is the law. But if codified law is not in good accord with abstract law, particularly if it is created or changed to arbitrarily favor persons, it loses all moral force and will not be obeyed voluntarily. The key point is, one's moral compulsion is to obey abstract law, but what is enforced is generally codified law.

The "law is discovered" argument was fundamentally flawed because it assumed that what they called law existed independent of human minds and was unambiguous, unchanging, and universal. But the "law is created" argument is much worse, because it considers all law to be good provided that it is enacted via the approved legislative process. This has led to the belief that not only is it acceptable to use the political process to try to gain special privileges for one's group, but that fundamentally that is what the political process is for.

The idea that there exists such a thing as law apart from arbitrary human will is the cornerstone of Western Civilization, and perhaps all civilization. But this abstract law does not come from God (and religious scripture tends to be a poor guide to it), and cannot be discerned by reason alone. There probably isn't anything close to a 100% reliable process for discovering what it is at a given time and place. But when codified law is routinely violated by multitudes without shame or guilt, that likely indicates a problem with the codified law.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


Mosquito carried viruses have been among the greatest causes of death and misery in human history. The mosquito eradication and malaria control programs have been among the greatest success stories of 20th century American government. According to the cdc in 1933 30 percent of people in the CDC suffered from malaria. Now it is virtually eliminated in the USA.

Malaria in particular and mosquito carried viruses in general are an area in which applications of libertarian philosophy in its purest forms could lead to highly unfortunate results. The methods used for malaria control (requiring people to install screens on all doors and windows and requiring them to eliminate all standing water on their property) don't seem terribly oppressive to me, but they are the sort of thing that a purest could regard as being intolerable in principle. A neighbor three miles down the road who leaves an old tire in his back yard probably intends me no harm, and probably won't cause any. But if I become infected with malaria it will be impossible to prove where the mosquito came from, so obtaining compensation from the person who allowed the mosquito to breed on his property is impractical, even if he were to agree that if it could be proved that it was "his" mosquito which infected me he is liable and that he is capable of adequately compensating me for the damage, neither of which is likely to be the case.

Of course, no sensible person would suggest that a full modern regulatory state is necessary for malaria control, and if it were, perhaps one might prefer to avoid the regulatory state and accept the malaria. I think in the early 20th century it was understood that contagious diseases were a matter of legitimate public concern in a way that obesity, steroid use, and even smoking are not.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


I used to consider myself a libertarian. Although I still frequently agree with libertarians, I no longer call myself one. There was no sudden moment when I decided I was not a libertarian; I just sort of gradually drifted away.

By "libertarian" I mean one who accepts the idea that one can never justly initiate force as an absolute moral axiom, and that essentially all moral rules can be derived from this axiom. Equivalently, one has an absolute right to do as one pleases provided one does not directly harm another. Although I think this is a good guiding principle, I think it is neither absolute nor sufficient.

There are several problems with what I will refer to as "the libertarian axiom". First, I don't think there's a clear objective threshold as to when harm occurs. For example, I think it would be absurd to complain about the secondhand smoke from a cigarette miles away, but there must be some limit as to how much noxious fumes one can be expected to endure. Things only get more complicated when one considers that how much is being emitted will also be uncertain.

There also is a problem with what happens when, inevitably, force is initiated. It seems to me insufficient for people to simply agree not to initiate force themselves. There ought to be some responsibility to aid defenders or punish aggressors, but I can't see how that would be consistent with the axiom. The idea that one may (but need not) side with a defender against an aggressor is appealing in clear cases, but it is often not completely clear who the initial aggressor was.

It's clear that some degree of retaliatory force must be acceptable, but I think there ought to be some limit as to how much retaliation can be justly applied.

I also think that in some circumstances it is reasonable to stop people from doing things which endanger one but which have not yet caused harm, even without evidence that harm is intended or proof that harm definitely will occur. Certainly I think it can be appropriate to act against someone who clearly does intend harm.

These are the main pragmatic difficulties I see with implementing a system based on the axiom, but even if they could be satisfactorily resolved, there's a more fundamental philosphical problem: there is no guarantee that people can be convinced to accept the axiom in the first place, and my experience indicates that most people can't.

I think most libertarians tend to be less affected by material jealousy than is the average person. They tend to like having stuff, but it doesn't bother them much if at all if other people have more or better stuff. I'm like that myself. Most people would agree that if everyone could have more stuff it would be better. But many people seem to value a universal improvement only slightly, and primarily seem interested in what they have relative to everybody else. It does no good to assert that people "shouldn't" view the prosperity of others as a bad thing. People's preferences are what they are.

The argument that free market policies tend to lead to increased prosperity for everyone is only powerful if one has already decided material prosperity is important. In a society in which people value leisure highly and primarily are concerned with relative rather than absolute material well-being, it would not be at all surprising if laws limiting the number of hours one can legally work (for example) could make most people better off according to their own conception of the good.

Similarly for freedom of speech, the press, religion, etc. I have no desire to tell other people what to read or not to read, and I don't really care much what they believe or say, only what they do. Whereas it is very important to me to be able to read and say what I choose. But the fact is, most people in the world don't feel that way. There's a notion that almost everyone would prefer to be able to speak his own mind to being able to suppress the speech of others, but I I think this idea is mistaken. Many people would feel it outrageous that they should be subjected to blasphemous speech, inconceivable that they would ever want to blaspheme themselves, and madness that the ideas of other cultures as to what does and does not constitute blasphemy is equally valid as their own.

If someone were to assert that equality (whatever that means) is good purely for its own sake, or that the individual subsuming his own interests to those of the group is good in and of itself, it would be impossible to prove the asserter "wrong", and societies designed with those values in mind could be optimal according to their own conception of good. The fact is, one can make as many internally consistent value systems as one cares to, and they all seem absurd looking at them from the outside. Libertarianism only appeals to a small fraction of the world's population, and this isn't going to change anytime soon. It might be possible to live in a libertarian community. It is not possible to live in a libertarian country of major size, much less a libertarian world.