Death and taxes: morality versus bureaucratic casuistry

by Chris Bertram on July 18, 2014

Killing people is wrong.

People ought to do their fair share.

Both of these seem like plausible but not exceptionless moral principles. Sometime it is ok to kill people. For example, if you need to kill someone who is attacking you to protect yourself from death or serious injury, then you are permitted to do so. But if you can achieve the goal of protecting yourself without killing your attacker, then you should. The things you do to protect yourself should be necessary and should be proportional to the actual threat. In ordinary life, it is only people like Tony Martin or George Zimmerman (or their apologists) who think that a threat or the mere perception of one gives you licence to simply blow someone away.

Likewise people should do their share to contribute towards the common infrastructure from which we all benefit. Public services, maintaining a legal system, filling in holes in the road, stuff like that. Sometimes there are excuses and justifications for not contributing. Some people have no money, some people are even too young, or old, or sick to do so. But most people should do their bit, though there may be disagreement on exactly what that bit is.

These two things—killing and paying taxes—don’t seem to have much to do with one another. But I think there are some interesting similarities. In both cases there are plausible moral principles but alongside them there are detailed public and legal codes that purport to implement those principles. And in each case there are people or bodies who think (and claim) they have discharged their moral obligations when they have complied with the letter of the codes – that the codes encapsulate all the things that they are morally required to do. What is more, in each case, many of the people who take this attitude to the rules expend a lot of effort trying to affect the content of the rules and attempting to find interpretations of the rules (“loopholes” and similar) that work to their advantage.

Take the case of killing, as covered by “just war theory”. People (and peoples) have the right of self-defence. (At least, I assume here that they do.) But under just war theory the thought you shouldn’t kill an attacker unless you really need to is transmuted into rules about necessity and proportionality that simply provide a weak constraint on states pursuing their advantage. So long as a vaguely plausible interpretation of military necessity can be cooked up and enough uncertainty shed on the general requirement of proportionality, the rest becomes public relations. You can kill, just so long as you can gesture in the vague direction of the rules. And people (lawyers, philosophers) can be employed to write stuff muddying the waters. (Some of them will even do it for free!)

A rather similar thing happens for tax. The tax laws define an expected level of contribution, but wealthy people and corporations lobby government for all kinds of exemptions and changes and then employ lawyers and accountants to minimize their own contribution. And when people object to Apple, Google and Amazon using the roads and infrastructure by domiciling themselves in Luxembourg or Ireland to avoid paying for them, they point to their compliance with the letter of the law.

There’s a further parallel too. In both cases, a fiduciary relationship with someone else is deployed by way for moral justification for the policy. In the tax case, companies have a duty to their shareholders that supposedly means the are under an obligation to minimize their contribution. In the case of war, governments pursue the interests of their citizens (supposedly) subject to the very weak constraints that they themselves have helped weaken. And in each case, the lawyers, accountants, philosophers are on hand to lobby, interpret or write op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal.

For both death and taxes, a moral principle that ought to guide a person’s (or a collective’s) actions has been transmuted into a matter of bureaucratic rule compliance and public relations management. Impertinent questions about whether a state is entitled to kill some people or about whether Google is paying its fair share can then be batted away with a gesture towards “the rules”. So it goes.

{ 150 comments }

1

dax 07.18.14 at 8:15 am

“In both cases, a fiduciary relationship with someone else is deployed by way for moral justification for the policy.” Who deploys this? Surely a fiduciary relationship is a legal, not a moral, justification. (It becomes moral only after adding the precept “one should obey the law.”)

2

Chris Bertram 07.18.14 at 8:21 am

No, “fiduciary relationship” can have a perfectly good moral sense too. Perhaps you should read more Locke.

3

shwe 07.18.14 at 8:47 am

With the caveat that doing your fair bit is, as you say subject to disagreement and not always reflected in the legal obligation to pay your tax demands. Some, though not all believe that finding ways to mitigate the amount required by the latter is compatible/driven by what they feel is a fair contribution. (although most of the time this amounts to plain self-justification – most tax evaders, including one I met recently – start with “don’t get me wrong I believe in paying taxes, I just object to being unfairly rinsed while xx get away with paying nothing”.) The difficulty with expressing one’s moral obligation through compliance with what appears to be its legal form (fairness is but one aspect of a tax system) can be seen in the fact that few of us would willingly pay more than our tax bill demands in as a way of fulfilling our obligation to do our fair bit.

4

ConallBoyle 07.18.14 at 9:12 am

I’m not so sure if ‘paying taxes’ is a moral imperative. However, not taking what belongs to others, including what belongs collectively, is.

The 1% get rich by ‘enclosing’ what is not theirs, most notably Land and Money. So Land Value Tax (and other resource levies) is not a tax, more of a community payback. Removing sovereign money-issuing powers from commercial banks and returning it to the State is overdue. Whether the State uses its money-issuing power to avoid borrowing or reduce taxes is a matter of debate. Better still would be if all new money issue was paid out (as in Alaska) as a Citizen’s Income. It’s our money, so can’t we all share it, equally?

5

Gareth Wilson 07.18.14 at 9:21 am

It’s tempting, but very dangerous, to use “morality” to get corporations to do something they’re not legally obliged to do. For one thing, they get to judge your morality once you raise the question. I believe one of the politicians who criticised Google as immoral was part of a government that supported the Iraq War, just to bring it full circle. There was a clearer example when Al Gore said that global warming was a moral issue. By using that word he wanted to exploit the positive associations of morality. But those positive associations are strongly connected to judging some things as immoral. Like married men having sex with employees young enough to be their daughters…

6

novakant 07.18.14 at 10:16 am

The government also uses our taxes to fight useless and brutal wars, prop up cruel and corrupt dictatorships and to simply waste money due to gross incompetence with little accountability. So while I’m all for filling potholes and helping old ladies across the street, the moral case for paying taxes as such is a very mixed bag at best (it also depends on the country you live in). Equal treatment of all taxpayers carries a bit more moral weight.

7

Salem 07.18.14 at 10:28 am

As others have pointed out above, the meaning of “doing your fair share” is contested. When Republicans talk about “welfare queens,” “takers,” and “moochers,” they are precisely appealing to the notion that some people aren’t doing their fair share. They just have radically different notions of what that fair share might be.

Moreover, I don’t think it’s right to say that the problem is people with an excessively legalistic attitude. Rather, it’s that people who have a completely different perspective on what is fair aren’t going to see the “spirit of the rules” as being morally normative. To give an example, I have a friend who helps provide various kinds of representation for asylum seekers. She views our laws on the subject to be horrific and barbaric, and will certainly take any legal (perhaps not in the “spirit of the rules”) loophole to afford them the right to remain, and the right to benefits etc. The reason for this is not that she doesn’t have an innate sense of “fairness”, but precisely that she does.

Others, and there are many, say something like “What you’re doing is wrong. You aren’t playing fair, and you’re helping let in these asylum seekers, who aren’t paying their fair share.” She replies “I’m following the rules.” They grumble and try to change the rules. So does she. It strikes me that this is healthy.

Mutatis mutandis, it’s the same for taxes. If you think that Herman Cain’s 8%, or a flat tax system, or whatever, are what’s fair and just, then of course you’re going to feel morally justified in using whatever loophole you can find to lower your contribution. If you think that tax rate on those greedy 1%ers are far too low, you’re going to accuse the tax avoiders of not playing fair, just like people accuse my friend of not playing fair. In a liberal society, what people aren’t going to agree about standards of fairness, precisely what is needed is prospective rules – that’s not your scare-term “bureaucratic rule compliance”, that’s Rule Of Law.

8

Brett Bellmore 07.18.14 at 10:35 am

In ordinary life, it is only people like Chris Bertram who think being pinned to the pavement while being repeatedly struck by your attacker is a mere “perception” of a “threat”, unworthy of defense. (Because said attacker might stop short of beating you to death?) And most people are aware that, presumptively, between a person who got shot, and a person who got the crap beat out of them, the former was the attacker, because you don’t normally beat the crap out of someone after being fatally shot.

What is it about the Zimmerman case that causes some people to throw reason out the window? Just the fact that he was the assigned egg, when an omelette had to be made in attacking Stand Your Ground? Their respective skin colors? Must be something.

Whatever, displaying your madness on this particular topic was somewhat gratuitous.

Why do the standards shift, between self defense and war? Because, government.

The standards always shift, when it’s the government. They have to shift, when it’s the government. Because, if they don’t shift, you recognize that government is an abomination. And recognizing that government is an abomination is inadmissible.

Why? Because you were socialized in schools run by the government? (And this is why the government runs schools….) Because you really, really want things only government can give you? (Because providing them involves conduct we recognize as wrong if not done by government…) Because it’s just too painful to recognize that you’re trapped beneath the heel of an abomination, with escape implausible? (I think this last is perhaps the most common.)

Whatever, they have to shift, which is why you think there’s a moral obligation to pay protection money to protection rackets, but only if they’re the biggest one around.

9

Jim Buck 07.18.14 at 10:45 am

pinned to the pavement while being repeatedly struck by your attacker reads like an analogy for what’s happening to the Palestinians.

10

Ebenezer Scrooge 07.18.14 at 12:26 pm

Jay Katz once characterized lawyering as largely consisting of deontological engineering. (When I’m feeling snarky, I call it ends in the service of means.) Whenever you have a flexible deontological structure, you can find a lawyer who can flex it in the interests of their client.
One alternative, I suppose, is a rigid deontological structure. But that has its own problems. Another alternative is utilitarianism–again with problems. Oh, well.

11

Cian 07.18.14 at 12:33 pm

In ordinary life, it is only people like Chris Bertram who think being pinned to the pavement while being repeatedly struck by your attacker is a mere “perception” of a “threat”, unworthy of defense.

Oh yes, the Zimmerman case where the creepy stalker of a teenager somehow became the victim. Despite the fact that it was the teenager who ended up dead.

12

Ebenezer Scrooge 07.18.14 at 12:34 pm

The moral problems of corporate fiduciarity were well understood in the 18th century, at the dawn of business corporations. William Findley may have been the greatest Founding Father nobody ever heard of. (He was low-born and an anti-Federalist: a combination fatal to enshrinement in the Pantheon.) In 1786, he opposed the rechartering of the Bank of North America–back when Tom Paine was supporting it. Let me turn the mike over to him:

Enormous wealth, possessed by individuals, has always had its influence and danger in free states. Thus, even in Rome, where patriotism seems to have pervaded every mind, and all her measures to have been conducted with republican vigour, yet even there, the patricians always had their clients—their dependents—by the assistance of whom they often convulsed the counsels, and distracted the operations of the state, and finally overturned the government itself. But the Romans had no chartered institutions for the sole purposes of gain. They chartered no banks.

Wealth in many hands operates as many checks: for in numberless instances, one wealthy man has a control over another. Every man in the disposal of his own wealth, will act upon his own principles. His virtue, his honour, his sympathy, and generosity, will influence his disposals and designs; and he is in a state of personal responsibility. But when such an unlimited institution is erected with such a capital, for the sole purpose of increasing wealth, it must operate according to its principle; and being in the hands of many, having only one point in view, and being put in trust, the personal responsibility arising from the principles of honour, generosity, &c. can have no place. The special temper of the institution pervades all its operations: and thus, like a snow ball perpetually rolled, it must continually increase its dimensions and influence.
This institution having no principle but that of avarice, which dries and shrivels up all the manly—all the generous feelings of the human soul, will never be varied in its object: and, if continued, will accomplish its end, viz. to engross all the wealth, power and influence of the state.

The human soul is affected by wealth, in almost all its faculties. It is affected by its present interest, by its expectations, and by its fears. And must not, therefore, every thinking man see what advantage this institution has on the human feelings, above that of wealth held by many individuals? If our wealth is less equal than our kind of government seems to require—and if agrarian [i.e., redistributionist] laws are unjust in our present situation, how absurd must it be for gov¬ern¬ment to lend its special aid in so partial a manner, to wealth, to give it that additional force and spring, which it must derive from an almost unlimited charter? Can any gentleman avoid seeing this to be eventually and effectually overturning our government? Democracy must fall before it. Wealth is its foundation, and gain its object and design.

DEBATES AND PROCEEDINGS OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF PENNSYLVANIA, ON THE MEMORIAL PRAYING A REPEAL OR SUSPENSION OF THE LAW ANNULLING THE CHARTER OF THE BANK 65-66 (Matthew Carey ed., Philadelphia, Seddon & Pritchard 1786)

13

Abbe Faria 07.18.14 at 12:57 pm

I think you are just wrong. Corporations are not fiduciaries of share holders. The laws of war say nothing about necessity and proportionality against attackers, they’re merely means to reduce damage to civilians.

14

David 07.18.14 at 12:57 pm

If you should defend yourself from attack, does that not make a Gandhi or Jesus essentially immoral? I think most people are wary of the entire edifice of justified homicide and just war theory. In essence, the world is not a moral place.

15

Weaver 07.18.14 at 1:08 pm

Traditionally acting in self-defence has not been a legal defence against a charge of murder or assault because one has “a right” to attack one’s attacker, but because a situation where the legal defence is is held to be available is one where the choice to kill or seriously injure an assailant has been taken from your hands by their actions. The courts hold that where you have no option – to committing what would otherwise be a crime – than being killed or seriously injured yourself is a situation in which you have no options at all; hence no mens rea, no crime. And also, that you could have run away and chose not to leaves you with no such defence to the charge of the crime you’ve committed. But the the legal concept does not demonstrate the notion that you are permitted to do anything – it is based on the idea that a person fighting for their life has no intent to act the way they do – because forced to it by circumstances – such that they can be held legally culpable for their actions.

This would suggest that there is no parallel between the notion of self-defence of individuals , as it is enshrined – and sadly misunderstood – in the law, and the concept of defensive war (by “peoples” – apparently the modern age’s stroke word of choice for states) unless we imagine every military action has “existensial” consequences (but for who?).

How much this might be affected by the widespread misunderstanding of the concept (“you attack me and I have a right/i> to attack you back, eye for eye style”), and, for that matter, idiocies like “stand your ground” laws, is a problem I don’t have the patience to unpick, but I nevertheless regard the conflation of individual “self-defence” and military defence as pretty dangerous, even when critiquing the latter.

16

Joshua W. Burton 07.18.14 at 1:45 pm

Governments saved the earth’s ozone layer, dodging an actual human extinction bullet by so doing. Why didn’t people do that on moral principle, without relying on bureaucratic rule compliance?

A tax-dodging entity, supported almost entirely by assets amassed by a fiduciary corporation that makes legalistically-defended IP (and a mere holding company that makes nothing, if you please), is saving over a million lives a year in Africa. Why didn’t people do that with their own money, instead of appreciated, tax-favored shares conveyed to a tax shelter?

Bellmore @8 speaks sardonically of things we “really, really want.” Whether we are talking about corporations or governments, surely there is charity and honor as well as greed and expediency in action at a large collective scale. That our institutions operate remotely, with only mediated access to the morality of the humans that drive them, is mainly an artifact of their size and power, which fit large but nonetheless human needs. A steam shovel doesn’t feel (and, insensible, can be an instrument of swift accidental brutality), but if you need a big enough hole there’s no other way. By all means, keep improving the tactile feedback on the levers and the visibility through the windscreen and the signage around the worksite.

17

jake the antisoshul soshulist 07.18.14 at 1:50 pm

“Because it’s just too painful to recognize that you’re trapped beneath the heel of an abomination, with escape implausible? (I think this last is perhaps the most common.)”

High rhetoric indeed, for an anarchist. Most sometimes find themselves under the heel of abominations, government being only one, and often nowhere near the greatest.

I also find it interesting that you accept George Zimmerman’s narrative unconditionally. From my experience, everyone is an unreliable narrator, particularly when under stress.

18

Chris Bertram 07.18.14 at 1:55 pm

It seems our commenters are being rather obtuse today, not least the commenter #16.

The point is not to deny the usefulness of rules, it is to comment on the attitude that what is morally required is captured by adherence to rules (often rules that the person speaking has lobbied to shape or weaken) in abstraction from what the point, the underlying rationale, of the rule is. It is the attitude of the person who says “*technically* this wasn’t a war crime, because [insert nitpicking reference too loophole]” or “*technically* the point of sale was in Luxembourg”, where the person making the utterance believes they have demonstrated that they have complied with what they ought to do.

19

Ed 07.18.14 at 2:01 pm

I thought that Thoreau was widely admired for not paying taxes, and I come here and find out now that he was evading his moral obligation to make a fair contribution to society?

20

Joshua W. Burton 07.18.14 at 2:06 pm

The point is not to deny the usefulness of rules, it is to comment on the attitude that what is morally required is captured by adherence to rules

A silly attitude, to be sure. My point @16 is that the contrary attitude that what is morally required can be directly intuited and implemented by moral actors, rules be damned when they get in the way, is a much more pervasive and predictable cause of human misery. The inadequacy of large rules to ensure small morality while solving large problems is real, but it’s basically an engineering problem in feedback and control; it admits of incremental solution. And it’s a second-order problem when viewed against the alternatives.

21

Chris Bertram 07.18.14 at 2:15 pm

“I thought that Thoreau was widely admired for not paying taxes …”

Yes of course, Thoreau not paying his taxes is just like Google contriving “tax efficient” arrangements, and Thoreau justifying not paying his taxes is just like a press-release from Google justifying those arrangements. [facepalm!]

22

JW Mason 07.18.14 at 2:18 pm

Great post!

There’s a flip side, tho, isn’t there? There is also the problem of people who claim the right to ignore the law and follow the underlying moral duty directly. Not such a problem for pacifists or tax resisters but a big one when it’s vigilantes and war-makers. In those cases, we’d rather see more scripting about the letter of the law and less acting on principle. No?

There’s an old and maybe unresolvable problem here. We can’t collectively impose a set of moral principles except in the form of concrete rules. The rules don’t bind unless people regard them as having the same force as the underlying principles. But once you take the step of treating the rule as equivalent to the principle, you are no longer able to ask how well they match up. In the most general case, you and I would like to make an agreement. On the one hand, we want to be free to evaluate any possible agreement on the basis of reason. But once we have made it, we have to NOT reevaluate it. Since if we are still free to reject it, it wasn’t an agreement at all. And yet at some point, an agreement that was freely entered into may become intolerable. How do you decide?

23

JW Mason 07.18.14 at 2:19 pm

scrupling, not scripting.

24

Trader Joe 07.18.14 at 2:23 pm

I think there is a good bit of both moral and secular space between people ought to do their fair share and the corporate tax code of the US (or any other place).

The 16th Amendment that establishes an income tax might be viewed as the “people ought to do their fair share” amendment. The massive personal and corporate tax codes and all of the case law, private letter rulings and everthing else amounts to being an interpretation of how to define “do,” “their,” “fair” and “share.”

I think most people collectively would prefer simplified tax codes even people for which simpler would mean paying more. But I have a comparatively harder time faulting a person or organization for optimizing their position against governement interpreted and written rules. Notably this admininistraion has had multiple studies done on simplifying tax codes and has chose greater complexity at each turn – clearly one more beholden to the interests behind that complexity rather than some interest in “paying ones fair share.” (most other administrations are similarly guilty, with the debate focused on degree)

25

David 07.18.14 at 2:35 pm

What we need is a more cynical stance- the state takes taxes because the state can, not for any exacting moral reason. Once you insist that the state has the moral right to tax, you must define the ends to which this taxation will serve. This will itemize the functions of government and limit the liberating potentials of left-ish collective action.

26

bianca steele 07.18.14 at 2:40 pm

It seems to me the problem described in the OP isn’t caused by rule-following or even, really, by rule-fetishizing. Rather, it’s conflating “rules” with “self-interest”, on the one side, and organic ideals followed by emotion, tradition or instinct on the other, and both sides are equally liable to conflate those things with one another.

The idea that the corporation’s duty toward its shareholders is so enormous and overwhelming that it overrides every other consideration, whether duty to the community, to customers, to members, even the reason the corporation was chartered in the first place–that’s yet another thing I’ve never understood. Individuals are permitted to use reasonable means to reduce their taxes, maximize their income, and so on, but not to the extent corporations are. This is different and has to be understood differently.

27

Joshua W. Burton 07.18.14 at 2:40 pm

JW Mason @22: There’s a flip side, tho, isn’t there?

Exactly so. And, furthermore, our perception of the relative magnitude of the complementary problems is conditional on our present comfy situation. Were we to systematically allow our governments and corporations to act much more conscientiously and less legalistically, holding their present mechanisms and checks on governance constant (or even relaxing them, the better to free individual leaders to act morally), I argue that even a cynic like me who is braced for the deluge would be disagreeably surprised.

28

Theophylact 07.18.14 at 2:46 pm

It should be remembered that Thoreau and Gandhi went to jail rather than pay their poll/salt taxes. Not quite like Google, Apple or AbbVie.

29

Thornton Hall 07.18.14 at 2:50 pm

Again, I think there is a universalizing of our present state going on here that misses a radical recent transformation.

American business executives did not view their job as maximizing shareholder value until Milton Friedman told them that that is what they were supposed to do. Add in Richard Posner arguing (ala B Russell with math and logic) that the purpose of the common law itself was to maximize shareholder value, and you realize something radical happened.

It is simply impossible to imagine George Romney saying, “I paid every penny in tax I owed and not a penny more. You’re stupid if you don’t.” In fact, he almost certainly would have called such a statement “immoral”.

30

Joshua W. Burton 07.18.14 at 2:50 pm

If I ever met Google in the street, I would tell him to act more like Thoreau. But he’s very big; he might not hear me up there. So I have to prioritize what I shout to him, starting prudently with “please, watch your step!” Also, I’d shout to my big Uncle Sam.

31

Thornton Hall 07.18.14 at 2:56 pm

And the tax code changed everything. In the 1970s how did you prove you were master of the universe. In 2013 dollars, you paid 70% on income over $650k. CEO salaries were restrained because bigger salaries went to the government. Instead, penis length was determined by the success, size, and longevity of the business you built.

Imagine if that were the measure of Mitt? His penis size determined by a chain of office supply stores and a string of leverage induced bankrupcies!

32

William Timberman 07.18.14 at 3:00 pm

Mmm…civil disobedience for corporations? Well, since we’ve already granted them a religious exemption, why not? The Texas executions can wait for a more propitious moment. And will somebody PLEASE shut off that damned category error alarm.

33

SIS 07.18.14 at 3:20 pm

I don’t think it is really possible to speak about “moral codes” without thinking about enforcement. What befalls me if I kill someone? If the group I am part of disapproves, I will be punished. If they don’t, I won’t. Perhaps you can argue about how morals should be divorced from a discussion about enforcement, but honestly what purpose does that serve? Human beings are very good at finding justification for why their act is moral: Oh, those people had to die for the greater good, or, taxing me removes my incentive to make everyone’s lives better through my wonderful actions.

I think most people have a natural aversion to killing others and trend towards reciprocity, since these are characteristics that have positive value for social apes such as ourselves, but these natural impulses will exist in a continuum and have to compete with other natural urges towards mild xenophobia, which makes killing non-group members acceptable, and the selfishness needed to seek individual advancement through greater breeding. So we have an evolutionary basis for all sort of behaviors, not just the ones we might label “moral”.

Since we humans have natural inclinations towards what might be termed both moral an immoral acts, the question of what incentives the individual faces to help tip them one way or the other, and here the question of consequences matter – what consequence does the individual think they will face for their actions will influence their behavior. In small groups, where everyone will know everyone else and everyone else’s business, coming to some social agreement on morality might be possible, but if a group expands and settles, and a political authority forms, how else would morality be enforced but through Laws, and how would you be able to get agreement on shared morality but through the Law?

34

Joshua W. Burton 07.18.14 at 3:24 pm

And will somebody PLEASE shut off that damned category error alarm.

Type error. A category error would be the tax code or Google’s articles of incorporation demanding their rights — like using a pointer without dereferencing, or putting the recipe in with the eggs and flour. Category errors are hopeless; type errors can usually be fixed with a cast (“they call it a cast because it enables code that’s fundamentally broken to limp along”). Asking the IDF or Hobby Lobby to abide by the rule of law is perfectly coherent; you just need appropriate law. I agree there’s a lot of room for improvement, but it’s not a doomed project.

35

Wonks Anonymous 07.18.14 at 3:24 pm

If roads were paid for with usage fees, it wouldn’t matter where the company was headquartered. We’re running out of highway funds because it’s paid with a static gas tax in a time of improved mileage.

I think it’s silly to say the LVT is “not a tax”. It’s just one of the most obvious taxes, given the inelasticity of the supply of land.

36

JW Mason 07.18.14 at 3:24 pm

American business executives did not view their job as maximizing shareholder value until Milton Friedman told them that that is what they were supposed to do.

Not til quite a bit later than that, actually. The Business Roundtable, for example, strongly rejected this view well into the 1990s. Chapter 3 of Gerald Davis’s Managed by the Markets is very good on this.

But while the principle of profit maximization does make this conflict more acute, I think the problem goes deeper than that.

37

Joshua W. Burton 07.18.14 at 3:27 pm

If roads were paid for with usage fees, it wouldn’t matter where the company was headquartered.

But it would suddenly matter a lot where all that vehicle tracking data was stored.

38

Brett Bellmore 07.18.14 at 3:56 pm

“I also find it interesting that you accept George Zimmerman’s narrative unconditionally.”

I don’t accept it unconditionally, I just find the physical evidence rather dispositive. As I say, people to not generally beat you up *after* you have fatally shot them, which leads to the reasonable presumption that Martin attacked Zimmerman, not the reverse.

39

mud man 07.18.14 at 4:12 pm

Likewise people should do their share to contribute … filling in holes in the road …

For a minute there I thought you were talking about taking a shovel and moving some gravel. I’ve done that. Corvee preceded taxes and local cooperation preceded corvee. Probably the solution to the “Just War” oxymoron is the same: some things need to get taken care of, and least worst way is to go ahead and take care of it yourself. And just stop monetizing every damn thing.

40

Tom Hurka 07.18.14 at 4:20 pm

Two comments about the laws of war.

1) What the laws say about proportionality and necessity (especially the former) is extremely vague, because there’s never been a prosecution for violations of proportionality that would require a court to specify the requirement more precisely. Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions forbids incidental harm to civilians that’s “excessive” but there’s been no legal determination of exactly what that means. So this isn’t a case where there’s a “detailed and public legal code” that falls short of what morality requires; there just isn’t that kind of code, though there could have been one had more prosecutions been launched.

2) One issue of uncertainty about the legal requirement of proportionality is whether it’s at all relaxed if the civilians who’ll be harmed by your attack on a military target were wrongfully placed there by the enemy, to serve as human shields. Some (e.g. UK military lawyers) say yes, others say no. But the disagreement here is ultimately moral, i.e. is about whether the moral requirement of proportionality is relaxed in these cases. Chris may be confident and even certain that it isn’t relaxed, but others take the contrary view, and I don’t think their view is obviously mistaken. (I find the issue too difficult to have a confident opinion about.) This issue arises frequently in the Israeli/Palestinian case, which is clearly in the back — or front — of Chris’s mind. But it’s inaccurate to describe it as one where the Israelis are using the letter or vagueness of the law to get away with doing what’s obviously and recognized by everyone to be morally wrong. It’s a case where disagreements about what’s legally permitted rest on more fundamental disagreements about what’s morally permitted.

41

William Timberman 07.18.14 at 4:29 pm

Joshua W. Burton @ 34

1) You’re playing the optimist here. I’m thinking of putting in an irate call to the casting director. 2) Confusing an economic construct with a moral creature seems pretty categorical to me, ontologically speaking. 3. If the law supposes that, the law is a ass, but under its present management, we’ve little reason to expect any better from it.

42

Thornton Hall 07.18.14 at 4:39 pm

@bianca 26 The idea that the corporation’s duty toward its shareholders is so enormous and overwhelming that it overrides every other consideration, whether duty to the community, to customers, to members, even the reason the corporation was chartered in the first place–that’s yet another thing I’ve never understood. Individuals are permitted to use reasonable means to reduce their taxes, maximize their income, and so on, but not to the extent corporations are. This is different and has to be understood differently.

One of the individual/corporation break downs coming out of the crisis was the idea that one has a moral obligation to abide by contracts. This is a universal law in American Civil Religion, but in the last 20 or so years it has come to no longer apply to corporations. Bankers simultaneously argued in favor of abrogating contracts when the liquidated damages were less than the cost of upholding the bargain while calling homeowners who walked away from underwater loans “immoral”. That’s new.

43

J Thomas 07.18.14 at 4:51 pm

#8
What is it about the Zimmerman case that causes some people to throw reason out the window?

It’s about guns.

Without the guns it’s a different story. Say you go up to somebody and you start a fistfight. Maybe somebody wins, somebody loses, maybe both get banged up. Afterward somebody might sue. They argue in court who started it, who should have backed off, the judge or jury makes a decision.

If you get in a fistfight and later the coroner says you knocked the other guy out and then strangled him to death, you’re in trouble. If he says you hit the guy’s head on concrete 20 or 30 times while his skull splintered, you’re probably in a lot of trouble. Most people don’t find it easy to kill somebody in the middle of a fistfight while they’re hitting back. If the other guy gets a concussion without much visible damage then it can look like an accident and maybe you aren’t in as much trouble.

But then there are the guns. I’ve listened to the basic gun talk from a variety of gun owners, and every single time somewhere along the line it comes to the intruder-in-your-home talk. If somebody breaks into your home you have to defend yourself. But if you shoot him and he lives, he will sue you. He will say he’s permanently incapacitated and he can no longer work at a job so you have to support him for the rest of his life. You will have a long trial with a lot of lawyer fees and you might wind up supporting him for the rest of his life. When he was the criminal! You have to kill him. It’s the only decent choice. Once you shoot him you have to make sure he’s dead.

That’s what we have here. There was probably a fight. Zimmerman claims there was. Who started it? Nobody alive knows but Zimmerman. Was Zimmerman losing when he shot Martin? He says so. Zimmerman followed the standard advice and made sure nobody’s story got told but his. The court didn’t listen to both sides and decide. They listened to his side and decided there wasn’t enough evidence to prove he was lying.

If Zimmerman and Martin had had a little fracas and nobody got hurt much, probably nobody would have been in much trouble about it. Zimmerman had no evidence connecting Martin to any crime, they could argue about who started it and who should have backed off, likely Martin would have gotten a few months. If Martin had killed Zimmerman with his bare hands and got caught, he would be in a whole lot of trouble. But Zimmerman got declared not guilty because he followed the standard advice and killed Martin dead. Maybe if they’d both been alive to tell their stories Zimmerman would have come out OK, not charged with any crime. Maybe if he killed Martin in front of a witness the witness would have said he was telling the truth. Who knows? But he did what every gunowner knows they’re supposed to do, he made sure the other story didn’t get told, and it worked.

I think the rules need to be different. Like, any time you shoot somebody you need to get locked up for at least a couple of weeks. And if you kill somebody with a gun or a knife or your fists you should be locked up for at least six months. If you’re defending your life then it’s worth that. If you have some way to get out of the fight that can avoid you 2 weeks imprisoned, and that makes it worth ducking out, then fine.

So if somebody breaks into your home and you can scare him off or keep him immobilized until the police arrive, that’s good! If he’s enough of a threat to be worth 2 weeks of your life, then shoot him. If you think his lawsuit is worth 6 months, then shoot again to kill. We need some kind of balance and that might not be enough. But right now we don’t have any balance at all.

44

Joshua W. Burton 07.18.14 at 4:55 pm

William Timberman @41: the law is a ass

Now there, if you please, is a categorical error. Not even the five justices in corpore are necessarily asses; in each case, you have to check beneath the robes. (Equus asinus is a perissodactyl; the absence of cloven hoof is the giveaway.)

45

Joshua W. Burton 07.18.14 at 5:02 pm

J Thomas @43: It’s about guns.

I’ve tried to sell, among the few NRA members in my acquaintance, the proposition that nobody would have been hurt if Florida law had only allowed the minor to carry for deterrence and self-protection. I find there is very little enthusiasm for this reading, and thereby have been reluctantly driven to the conclusion that it might be about race even more than about guns.

46

Chris Bertram 07.18.14 at 5:06 pm

Tom Hurka, it isn’t that the people I have in mind are using the letter or vagueness of the law to get away with what *everyone* thinks is morally wrong, since they plainly think that what they are doing is morally OK. It is rather that they have an impoverished conception of what morality requires, a conception that is more or less exhausted by rule compliance.

(Actually I don’t think the issue of “human shields” arises frequently in the I/P case, except as an ex post facto excuse for civilian deaths and an attempt to shift the burden of responsibility to the other side. Propaganda, not reality, for the most part.)

47

LFC 07.18.14 at 5:12 pm

JW Mason @22

In the most general case, you and I would like to make an agreement. On the one hand, we want to be free to evaluate any possible agreement on the basis of reason. But once we have made it, we have to NOT reevaluate it. Since if we are still free to reject it, it wasn’t an agreement at all. And yet at some point, an agreement that was freely entered into may become intolerable.

There is an international-law doctrine or principle (and doubtless in some domestic or ‘municipal’ law systems as well) that an agreement can be re-evaluated and/or nullified if the circumstances that led to its signing have substantially changed. (Well, I’m sure I haven’t gotten the wording quite right, but I think that’s fairly close to the gist.) The notion is captured, perhaps in exaggerated form, in an old saying: For every pacta sunt servanda there’s a rebus sic stantibus.

I don’t think there’s really a parallel in the laws-of-war or just-war area, but there is the (controversial) notion that the rules can be violated in an “extreme emergency” (Churchill’s phrase, w/ the usual reference pt being Walzer’s well-known, and controversial, discussion). I don’t think it has any application to the present situation in the M.E.

48

Consumatopia 07.18.14 at 5:16 pm

And most people are aware that, presumptively, between a person who got shot, and a person who got the crap beat out of them, the former was the attacker, because you don’t normally beat the crap out of someone after being fatally shot.

As I say, people to not generally beat you up *after* you have fatally shot them,

I resisted this the first time, but if you’re actually going to repeat this nonsense…

Leave aside Zimmerman. As a general rule, this presumption will be wrong more often than right.

You don’t have to wait for for the bullets to leave the attacker’s gun, if someone is reaching for their gun to shoot you it’s still self-defense to tackle them to stop them. You’ll probably be able to reach them, but if they already have the gun in their hand, they still have a good chance of being able to shoot you, even if they have some minor injuries from the fall.

OTOH, if someone is beating the crap out of you, you aren’t normally able to grab, aim and shoot their gun while the beating is still in progress. If someone claims to have done this successfully, I would suspect (though, perhaps I wouldn’t presume) that he had the gun in his hand before the “beating” in question started.

So you have it backwards. “Beating the crap out of someone” is a viable response to an attacker reaching for their gun. But if an attacker is close enough to you to have already started beating on you, it’s probably too late to reach for your gun.

49

LFC 07.18.14 at 5:29 pm

Correction to my 47:
Supreme emergency, not ‘extreme’ emergency.

50

William Timberman 07.18.14 at 5:38 pm

Joshua W. Burton @ 44

Look beneath Justice Scalia’s robes? Heaven forfend!

51

JW Mason 07.18.14 at 5:47 pm

There is an international-law doctrine or principle (and doubtless in some domestic or ‘municipal’ law systems as well) that an agreement can be re-evaluated and/or nullified if the circumstances that led to its signing have substantially changed.

But who decides when conditions have changed? If I make a commitment to follow some rule and then add, “unless things change,” I haven’t made a commitment at all. The only reason anyone agrees on rules is precisely to commit themselves to acting in unforeseen circumstances, and specifically to commit themselves to acting *differently* in those circumstances than they would otherwise choose.

52

J Thomas 07.18.14 at 6:56 pm

#45 Joshua Burton

“It’s about guns.”

I’ve [...] been reluctantly driven to the conclusion that it might be about race even more than about guns.

It depends on who you talk to.

Like, the US Civil War for yankees was mostly about slavery. But for southerners, it was about the right of states to make their own choices (including but not limited to slavery).

So — just as background — for some Americans young black men are generally assumed to be criminals even if they are proven innocent of some specific crime, while others (who generally live farther from communities where young black men wander) think that’s an atrocious attitude.

But the specific outrage in this case is connected to the killing. A white man killed somebody which probably kept evidence against him from being heard. He directly benefitted by killing, he would have been in more trouble if he hadn’t killed Martin than when he did. That just seems like the wrong way for things to go.

If Martin had survived, and gotten to tell his side of it, and the case still got to be a big deal for the media, and the court ignored Martin’s testimony and accepted Zimmerman’s, that would have been a different scandal about racism. (Of course without the killing the whole thing wouldn’t have been such a big deal and that outcome would be just normal.) As it happened, for liberals it was a scandal about guns with the race angle thrown in to guarantee there would not be a fair trial. But for conservatives it was surely about race, and guns are the last faint chance to equalize the laws which pamper black criminals and punish white victims.

53

Ze Kraggash 07.18.14 at 7:11 pm

I haven’t read the comments, so perhaps this has been addressed already. This may just be a problem inherent in liberalism. A ‘collective’ can’t really exist because the individual rights fetishism leads to atomization, and because a ‘collective’ could only be defined in opposition to Other, which is a Big No (see unrestricted immigration and all that).

So, what’s the surprise? We are all independent individuals, and we all act in our best interests (which is the core value of liberal morality), finding our ways around bureaucratic rules.

You want a collective – but then you need some higher purpose: the nation, the empire, the workers’ paradise, something. But then you’re not a liberal anymore.

54

J Thomas 07.18.14 at 8:20 pm

Ze Kraggash, it looks to me like you have confused “liberal” with “libertarian”.

The confusion is understandable, since they’re spelled similarly.

55

Ze Kraggash 07.18.14 at 8:51 pm

They are the same, conceptually. Focused on the interests of individual. What’s the purpose of a ‘collective’ of random individuals who find themselves living in the same state?

56

roy belmont 07.18.14 at 8:55 pm

Rules, unless they’re being handed down from heaven somehow, by necessity almost always follow after wrong-doing. So the objective task, which is something like stopping bad things from happening, means chasing after what it seeks to prevent.
Evil evolves ahead of the rules. Of course it does. It has to, to survive. Darwin!

Ultimately rules are the moral ground, the bottom past which one should not go, the idea is you go up from there.
Virtue has nothing to do with regulation, can’t be regulated into existence.
It’s freestyle, just like the yet-to-be unregulated wrong. Which is why there’s very little codification of virtue outside institutional religion. And why the concept of virtue is scorned in many areas. It has no analysible substance, so it can’t be worked around the way regulations can.

B. Steele’s “rule-fetishizing” is the essence of contemporary morality.
If you’re not convictable you’re not immoral.
The directional polarity – virtue up, depravity down – is reversed by default in this cultural moment, where the rules are taken as a kind of beacon for moral behavior. Just don’t break them and you’re automatically “good”.
Or if you do break them, get a good lawyer.
Or a team of p.r. professionals specialising in disinformation.

I have no opinion about taxes whatsoever.

57

Brett Bellmore 07.18.14 at 9:43 pm

Ze, you really are confusing liberalism and libertarianism. The former barely even acknowledges individual rights, let alone making a fetish of them.

58

Joshua W. Burton 07.18.14 at 9:55 pm

BB @57: [Liberalism] barely even acknowledges individual rights, let alone making a fetish of them.

Locke, Paine, Gladstone, Smith, Bentham, and Mill called while you were out; I knew you were behind on the reading, so I covered for you and said you’d be busy this weekend.

59

Thornton Hall 07.18.14 at 10:00 pm

Locke? That will just inspire more prolixity!

60

David 07.18.14 at 10:26 pm

The only real philosopher is Ayn Rand, natch.

61

J Thomas 07.18.14 at 10:28 pm

#55

They are the same, conceptually. Focused on the interests of individual. What’s the purpose of a ‘collective’ of random individuals who find themselves living in the same state?

Ze, I can see how it would look that way to you.

But consider the penguin. Human beings have trouble telling males and females apart without dissecting them, but the penguins themselves have no trouble telling each other apart at all.

Just because libertarians and liberals look the same to you, as a being from Mars, does not make them the same. They look very different to each other.

The difference is real, because they can unerringly tell the difference. If there was no difference they would at best randomly decide which way to classify each other and would get it wrong on average half the time.

You can decide the difference is unimportant, but it is important to them. Similarly a Martian might decide that gender is unimportant among penguins, but he would be wrong.

62

Ze Kraggash 07.18.14 at 10:34 pm

“The former barely even acknowledges individual rights, let alone making a fetish of them.”

That’s not fair. Anyway, the point is: the purpose of one’s life is living as long as possible (no smoking!) and realizing one’s potentials to the fullest extent possible, as long as you don’t actively harm others. The pursuit of happiness. And since I’m focused on me and my life, that makes it kind of hard to pay attention to the needs of some arbitrary ‘collective’. Let alone going an extra mile.

63

Collin Street 07.18.14 at 11:40 pm

One of the individual/corporation break downs coming out of the crisis was the idea that one has a moral obligation to abide by contracts

Of course, under traditional english common law you have no legal obligation to abide by your contracts per se.

Courts don’t order contracts enforced, they order that recompense be made for the damages engendered by the breech. Makes a surprisingly large difference, most obviously in how penalty clauses are handled.

Is this still the case in the US? I’ve read some judgements and commentary that suggest this framework might have been abandoned.

64

YankeeFrank 07.19.14 at 12:29 am

#52 “So — just as background — for some Americans young black men are generally assumed to be criminals even if they are proven innocent of some specific crime, while others (who generally live farther from communities where young black men wander) think that’s an atrocious attitude. “

You have that backwards, in typical stupid racist fashion. Its the whites that don’t live around blacks that are terrified of blacks and assume they’re all criminals. White people, like myself, that grew up in or around majority black neighborhoods aren’t prone to see black men as criminals because we see lots of black men and the vast majority of them, just like the vast majority of whites, are just trying to keep their heads down, do their jobs and live their lives.

65

LFC 07.19.14 at 12:42 am

JW Mason @51
But who decides when conditions have changed?

I guess courts do, at least in some of the situations I was describing, but I take yr point.

66

LFC 07.19.14 at 12:43 am

Locke [et al.] called while you were out; I knew you were behind on the reading, so I covered for you and said you’d be busy this weekend.

LOL.

67

ZM 07.19.14 at 1:13 am

Collin Street,

“Of course, under traditional english common law you have no legal obligation to abide by your contracts per se.”

At least some contracts were in the chancery law division of English law rather than the common law division. (I think this sort of law is called equity law in the US, but I would presume to think there are differences between the US approach and the English/Commonwealth approach ) (also there were other sorts of courts as well eg. The French church court)

I will give some details on this because it is relevant to the OP on codified law not always meeting moral requirements – thus in England led to the beginning of the Chancery court, under the chancellor, keeper of the great seal, and keeper of the king’s conscience.

Common law gave some protections that life, liberty, and property could not be seized without due process of law. But so far as I can tell people with property tenure were advantaged in the codified common law system, but the King ‘was sworn ‘to do equal and right justice and discretion in mercy and truth’, and so if the regular procedures proved deficient it was his royal duty to furnish a remedy’ (p. 98)

So ‘by the end of the 13th C numerous petitions (or ‘bills’) were being presented to the King , asking for his grace to be shown in respect of some complaint. … In the time of Edward III such bills were commonly passed on to the judges of the courts concerned , with a covering letter commanding them to do right’ p . 98)

In some cases the King took direct action – ‘we can see the beginning of the newer jurisdictions’

14th C ‘petitioning of the king by bill, seeking a remedy as of grace, was so common that such business had to be referred to special sessions of the council or parliament ; and in hearing these petitioners the council directly continued the role of the Anglo Saxon witan and the Norman Curia Regis.’ P 98

Arising from that were ‘several distinct courts; but the most important because it developed a jurisprudence of its own, was that of the chancellor’

From JH Baker ‘the court of chancery and equity’ in An Introduction to English Legal History, OUP , 2002
chapter available as PDF from moglen.law.columbia.edu/ELH/baker/Ch6.pdf

Baker has also written of the ‘constitutional revolution’ under UK PM Blair affecting the Chancellor. This writing is available from his Cambridge uni page.

68

Brett Bellmore 07.19.14 at 1:20 am

“Locke, Paine, Gladstone, Smith, Bentham, and Mill” would not recognize modern “liberalism” as a species of such. Being too hung up on individual rights…

69

john c. halasz 07.19.14 at 3:57 am

@59:

Except for yours, naturally.

70

Tony Lynch 07.19.14 at 4:06 am

Please read Locke. First there is natural law, then come natural rights – where these rights are meant to enable one to fulfil the natural law. And the natural law is to preserve onself and to preserve humanity. You can only do the second if you are around to do it, and capable of doing so – hence the rights to life, liberty and property; and in doing the first – so long as in doing this you do not take away anothers capacity to preserve humanity, by, say, killing them, or depriving them of their liberty and resources -you are doing the second.

Libertariansism tends to drop natural law for rights, or to collapse natural law to rights – hence missing the essential duties to humanity – self and others – crucial for the Christian Locke.

71

Weaver 07.19.14 at 4:45 am

Ze Kraggash, it looks to me like you have confused “liberal” with “libertarian”.

Actually J Thomas (& Brett Bellmore), you’re confusing liberals with leftists, a common error amongst Americans, what with their insanely narrow Overton window n’ all.

72

Lee A. Arnold 07.19.14 at 4:53 am

Ever since reading Jonsen and Toulmin, I have protested the abuse of “casuistry”.

73

bad Jim 07.19.14 at 9:16 am

Apropos of nothing, I have found, in dealing with my bank and in the process of settling my mother’s estate, a nearly universal assumption that there is a moral obligation to minimize one’s taxes. Perhaps this is merely what lawyers and accountants do; it’s a reasonable default assumption for people who work in occupations whose clients are predominantly wealthy. It is somewhat at odds with the way most people deal with such things, however.

I keep my home’s assessment and property tax bills within easy reach to horrify visitors. I don’t need to dress up; California’s laws are sufficiently Gothic by themselves. My income taxes are no more reasonable, but since I don’t understand them myself their entertainment value is negligible. I can point to the special treatment of dividends and capital gains and municipal bonds and their eyes glaze over, and it isn’t even the point, because it turns out that I didn’t pay anything this year because of business losses, yadda yadda …

74

J Thomas 07.19.14 at 9:16 am

#64

“So — just as background — for some Americans young black men are generally assumed to be criminals even if they are proven innocent of some specific crime, while others (who generally live farther from communities where young black men wander) think that’s an atrocious attitude. “

You have that backwards, in typical stupid racist fashion. Its the whites that don’t live around blacks that are terrified of blacks and assume they’re all criminals. White people, like myself, that grew up in or around majority black neighborhoods aren’t prone to see black men as criminals because we see lots of black men and the vast majority of them, just like the vast majority of whites, are just trying to keep their heads down, do their jobs and live their lives.

I was not considering whites who live in majority black neighborhoods. There are so few of them.

Whites who live near poor black neighborhoods tend to expect trouble, in my experience. Whites who live farther away tend to call the nearby whites racists.

Speaking from a value-neutral point of view, it all makes sense to me. Poor people of any race tend not to cause trouble for criminals who do their crimes outside the community. They’re busy trying to keep their heads down, and for example if the police get called in they are likely to hurt people at random.

Meanwhile whites tend to think that poor blacks are more violent. The official statistics say so, and while they are not trustworthy they aren’t completely fraudulent. For example, they claim that in 2012 there were slightly more murders by blacks than by whites, though there are far fewer blacks. This is easily explained — poor blacks do not have much protection by the police and legal system. (Or protection from the police and legal system for that matter.) So they must protect themselves. Sometimes disputes can be settled by religious figures or other respected members of the community, but it isn’t surprising that there would be the occasional murder or vendetta from failure to resolve issues — one of the purposes of the legal system is to reduce that sort of thing. And while the per capita murder rate among blacks is much higher than for whites, it is still very low.

People who live near poor areas get more burglaries than people who live farther away. Most burglaries are not solved, though it’s possible that most burglars are eventually caught and imprisoned — occasional prison time is just one of the occupational hazards for that profession. It’s only to be expected that many whites who get burglarized assume it’s blacks doing it. They don’t want to think it’s their local white teens getting their kicks too close to home.

Everybody’s behavior looks plausible to me. I don’t right off see the hinges where it’s predisposed to bend instead of break, where pressure could be applied.

75

Brett Bellmore 07.19.14 at 1:59 pm

“Libertariansism tends to drop natural law for rights, or to collapse natural law to rights – hence missing the essential duties to humanity – self and others – crucial for the Christian Locke.”

Libertarianism does not pretend to be a complete moral theory. It does not try to dictate what you should do in every situation, but only what you should refrain from. You are free, beyond that, to assume other duties. Just not to impose them upon others.

That’s because libertarianism is a political philosophy, and concerns itself with the question of when it’s permissible to coerce, not with what people should do voluntarily. It’s perfectly natural that a political philosophy should look somewhat “legalistic”.

76

Layman 07.19.14 at 2:12 pm

The thing I don’t get about libertarians is why they invariably choose to live in highly functional (read: coercive) states. Why don’t they all move to dysfunctional states – Somalia, say – where they can live relatively free of coercive governments? I suspect they like the kind of coercion which makes their commute more predictable, but I don’t really know the reason. Perhaps some friendly libertarian can use the free wifi, while slurping his or her latte, to explain.

77

Lee A. Arnold 07.19.14 at 5:51 pm

Brett Bellmore #75: “That’s because libertarianism…concerns itself with the question of when it’s permissible to coerce…”

Except libertarians don’t much concern themselves about the case of coercion by the free market, because that is given as a natural circumstance, although it is really a circumstance created by prior coercion, and it presumes the illusion that the choices in it are ontologically free.

Thus libertarianism is not coherent at a deep political level, either: it just draws a line that is rather convenient, then starts drawing its incomplete morals from there.

Certainly, classical liberals such as Locke, Smith and Mill would not have been fooled by libertarianism. To them, liberalism meant the intellectual and spiritual primacy of the individual, not trifling about whether or not the individual should be compelled to pay into a system of universal healthcare.

But then, libertarians have fallen behind in the intellectual and spiritual development too. It is unclear to me how far Bentham bent.

78

Bruce Baugh 07.19.14 at 6:27 pm

No true libertarian would grant anything like this to the state:

The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.

Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.

It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all the people in general and to every one of his subjects in particular the just possession of these things belonging to this life. If anyone presume to violate the laws of public justice and equity, established for the preservation of those things, his presumption is to be checked by the fear of punishment, consisting of the deprivation or diminution of those civil interests, or goods, which otherwise he might and ought to enjoy. But seeing no man does willingly suffer himself to be punished by the deprivation of any part of his goods, and much less of his liberty or life, therefore, is the magistrate armed with the force and strength of all his subjects, in order to the punishment of those that violate any other man’s rights.

Now that the whole jurisdiction of the magistrate reaches only to these civil concernments, and that all civil power, right and dominion, is bounded and confined to the only care of promoting these things; and that it neither can nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls, these following considerations seem unto me abundantly to demonstrate.

Why, that’s a direct mandate for health care! For safety regulations! For restrictions on work hours! For all sorts of terrible things we ought to leave to the blessed market!

John Locke did say that, in A Letter Concerning Toleration. Another case of text idolators not paying attention to which’s in the text.

79

Bruce Baugh 07.19.14 at 6:29 pm

I don’t see how you can have a Hobby Lobby ruling under Locke’s framework, either, or how you can’t have strong and ruthlessly enforced civil rights legislation.

80

Lee A. Arnold 07.19.14 at 7:25 pm

Back to Chris Bertram’s top post, it seems to me that we are looking at the distinction between the “letter of the law” and the “spirit of the law”. In non-criminal cases, concerning many sorts of infractions, it seems that judges and juries still have a little bit of discretion here.

Most people used to understand the importance of following the spirit as well as the letter of the law, until the need for simple certitudes came to sweep through our lands in a dim pall.

In the case of tax evasion or tax havens, we should add two circumstances: One, nobody likes to pay taxes and the endless news reports of successful corporate tax evasion invite a cynical personal attitude. (We could start here, by overturning the idea that corporate taxes are unique in being able to transfer their incidence to labor or consumers. ALL taxes transfer their incidence, more or less! And then we should start to raise corporate taxes, globally.)

But two, we are also finding that most people have a huge blind spot about how markets work, and about how government spending works. Not least among economists themselves!

Whether or not humankind will ever emerge from this Reaganic alchemical medievalism, feverishly trying to turn hot air into gold, cowering fearfully in dark Thatchered huts, still remains to be seen…

But in the longer view, for me at least, the turn against the spirit of the law is tied to the turn of modern science away from the noncomputable contexts of intentionality that Wittgenstein referred to as “language games”. It is where pure logic breaks down, and so, maths afford little remittance.

In social science, the analogy to the language-game is the institutional common rule-set. The top post is talking about the relationship of the group members to their common rule set, and what they say about that, aside and in addition to their relationships to each other. These two kinds of relationship (i.e. member-to-rules; member-to-member) are different logical types, and incommensurable. Let’s just focus for a minute on the our common relationship to the rule set.

In some ways I think that the furthest anyone has gone to address this is Elinor Ostrom, who developed a list of attributes that functioning rule-sets MUST exhibit to be democratically successful: Simple; sharply focused on the object; universal (covers all members); but allows for heterogeneity; can be transparently monitored by all; prevents free-riders; easy dispute settlement; clear penalties; easily redressed by certain procedures (e.g. voting); low overhead.

This is equivalent to, or analogous to, the general characterization of a common-rule set that reduces the transaction costs of the member-to-member relationships. In other words it is the economics definition of a good institution.

Of course it is easy to list a hundred ways that current legislation veers far from these principles. Both conservatives and liberals fail, here.

81

Layman 07.19.14 at 7:47 pm

“Thus libertarianism is not coherent at a deep political level, either: it just draws a line that is rather convenient, then starts drawing its incomplete morals from there.”

I have a comment in moderation (perhaps too snarky) more or less to this effect – that libertarianism as a philosophy seems to thrive primarily in coercive states. It takes a significant degree of personal safety and comfort before one decides that taxation is the supreme example of coercive evil in the world.

82

UserGoogol 07.19.14 at 11:46 pm

Setting aside classical liberals, a big part of modern liberalism is an emphasis on positive individual rights. The right to education, or health care, or housing, or join a union: whether or not you think they are morally on par with the right to free speech or the right to a fair trial, are certainly individual in scope. Individuals are the ones who get to do all those things.

83

J Thomas 07.20.14 at 1:47 am

#75

Libertarianism does not pretend to be a complete moral theory. It does not try to dictate what you should do in every situation, but only what you should refrain from.

That has profound implications.

It implies that part of the moral theory is completely independent of other parts. With lots of moral systems, you have to look at the whole picture before you can be sure what’s right in one little piece. Because it depends.

But you claim that you can always know about the things you must never do, independent of any of the rest of it. That requires that the part of moral theory that libertarianism does describe, trumps everything else.

People who think about ethics like to make up stories to demonstrate their points. Like the one where you can act and kill somebody to turn a runaway train onto a siding and save five others. Is it better to kill one person and save five, or better not to be personally responsible for killing one. Whatever it is you say libertarians should never do, I’m sure it’s possible to build an artificial story like that. The details of the story could be set up so unless you break the libertarian rules in a specific case, everybody in the world gets killed.

It’s hard for me to believe that the libertarian rules trump the extinction of humanity. So probably it’s an incomplete ethical system that’s just plain incomplete.

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ZM 07.20.14 at 2:17 am

“People who think about ethics like to make up stories to demonstrate their points. Like the one where you can act and kill somebody to turn a runaway train onto a siding and save five others. Is it better to kill one person and save five, or better not to be personally responsible for killing one”

I wish I knew why philosophy makes up this issue in counter to how in real life people actually usually try to prevent pedestrians walking in front of oncoming trains through building level crossings, over passes, having sirens and horns, announcements, etc

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ZM 07.20.14 at 2:29 am

Or public service campaigns (apologies if this us insensitive to anyone who has lost loved ones to trains etc)
http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=IJNR2EpS0jw

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David Gross 07.20.14 at 3:17 am

“These two things—killing and paying taxes—don’t seem to have much to do with one another.” Maybe not where you live, but they certainly do in the U.S., where so much of the tax money goes to maintain the world’s largest collection of death-dealing machines and personnel. You probably shouldn’t write an essay about ethics, war, and taxes without at least familiarizing yourself with the arguments of those of us who refuse to pay taxes for ethical reasons.

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UserGoogol 07.20.14 at 3:59 am

ZM: Because the point of the exercise isn’t to explore the morality of train safety, it’s to explore the general point of allowing people to die versus making people die by setting up a contrived situation where you only have two options.

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ZM 07.20.14 at 5:06 am

I think it is strange to have determined that (one of?) the best method/s of exploring that issue is through a story of a character who lives in an odd society with exceptionally careless attitudes to public safety with regard to trains and sometimes even a society that lets passersby change the direction of trains at their own discretion . It also ignores that the character could have previous to the incident joined a public safety campaign to prevent such incidents from occurring etc.

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Bruce Baugh 07.20.14 at 6:57 am

I have here a prominent libertarian arguing that…if I summarized, people who haven’t seen it would think I made it up.

On the other hand — and at the risk of confirming Mark Kleiman in his belief that libertarians are loopy — I don’t speak for all libertarians, but I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. I think it’s O.K. to violate people’s rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people’s rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it’s not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone’s rights; if that’s so, then I’m not sure I can justify preventing it through taxation.

Absurdios come pre-reducted in cases like this.

I’d go tongue-in-cheek to argue that all life on Earth with more than one cell being destroyed by a meteor would interfere with rentiers’ ability to collect rent and that therefore it’s OK to stop the meteor. But I have a feeling someone’s probably already made that argument seriously.

I agree with ZM that we are not obliged to accept every offered thought experiment’s premises, and that in fact the ways we deal with the setups is an important element of moral reasoning.

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Martin Bento 07.20.14 at 8:39 am

Suppose a corporation stated prominently in its charter that, while it did intend to try to make a profit, it also had other purposes that may sometimes take priority. For example, suppose a company developing alternative energy technology said that it may relinquish patents earlier than the law requires if it determined that this would lead to wider adoption of technology to reduce global warming, even at significant cost to its own bottom line. Would this actually be illegal? Is the obligation of public corporations to pursue increased profit at all legal costs actually the law, or is it just charter boilerplate that then becomes enforceable as a contract? Corporations do commonly give to charity after all. This is understood to be PR and therefore theoretically not injurious to the bottom line in the long run, but I think the monetary benefits of such PR are seldom measurable, so it cannot be clear whether this is strictly worth the candle or not.

Why would anyone create such a corporation? Professional investors would not be amused by this. But microcapitalism promises to bring dilettantes into the field, and people tossing in some of their beer money may well decide they want to support companies for reasons other than the strict bottom line. If so, such companies will find it easier and cheaper (in equity, primarily) to raise capital, which might make it worth it to draft such a charter. Of course, there is the second-order problem of whether such companies will be sincere or can be compelled to live up to such commitments. But the charter could probably be worded so that fiduciary responsibility becomes the responsibility to fulfill the moral commitments you made, which were presumably at least part of why people invested in you in the first place.

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ZM 07.20.14 at 9:08 am

I don’t think fiduciary responsibility is separate from moral responsibility in law – I think it’s probably a matter of practice rather than law per se. For instance in Victoria according to the law all development since the 1980s should have been environmentally sustainable – but in practice this has not been the case and this is a great dereliction of duty by government, the public service, and developers.

The only projects I know about pursuing this fiduciary responsibility failure is the Asset Owner’s Disclosure Project and also the Are You The Vital Few project. John Hewson who was leader of the Australian Liberal party in the 1990s is involved or the instigator of both. People with investments or superannuation are encouraged to be involved in both.

“Chair of AODP, former Liberal leader Dr John Hewson, said that since AODP launched its first index in December last year, civil society organisations had successfully begun to question “the legitimacy of an industry that is supposed to manage key long risks on behalf of its beneficiaries”.

Unfortunately, he said, “an alarming number of asset owners still pin most of their long term risk strategies on a financial marketplace that has become infamous for its short termism.”

Dr Hewson said things were changing, however, and that in 2014 the industry would be “smoked out of its fiduciary duty bunker” and would have to prove to members it was acting to address the “calamitous systemic risk” that climate change presented.”
http://www.thefifthestate.com.au/archives/57883/

http://aodproject.net/news/50-the-vital-few-launches-to-link-pension-funds-to-members-over-climate-risk.html

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J Thomas 07.20.14 at 11:35 am

I wish I knew why philosophy makes up this issue in counter to how in real life people actually usually try to prevent pedestrians walking in front of oncoming trains through building level crossings, over passes, having sirens and horns, announcements, etc

People like to think in vivid images. That’s one reason.

Also, when they try to make philosophical points, if they get it contaminated with a real immediate issue that affects real people’s wallets, people will start making up answers that help their personal bottom line and that will get in the way of the philosophy. Plus when the real issue gets resolved then the argument will look dated.

So sure, I think even libertarians will almost all agree that if a railroad is poorly designed so that people die, then their heirs have the right to sue for millions of dollars damage each. If you design something that makes accidents likely, you’re legally liable, right?

Unless of course the victims were customers who knew or should have known that there was some risk involved and chose of their own free will to participate. Or if it happens on land owned by the railroad and the victims were not customers but people the railroad had no legal obligation to. Etc.

In the long run we can depend on free markets, since if accidents become an issue then a competing railroad can serve the same routes and advertise its low accident rate and outcompete the accident-prone railroad. Everybody will work to have an accident rate that maximizes their profits, and this is the correct accident rate for them to have. By maximizing their profits they automatically do what’s best for society.

But never mind about all that. I’ll try to make up a better story.

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Brett Bellmore 07.20.14 at 11:50 am

J. Thomas:

You’ve correctly noted that libertarianism isn’t a consequentalist theory. It isn’t teleological, but deontological. Note the difference between classifying a theory, and refuting it.

Naturally, consequentialists are going to find this a fatal weakness. Just like libertarians find the fact that liberals can always excuse committing some evil by imagining they’re doing it to avert some greater evil to be problematic.

Let me be explicit about the big problem with consequentialist ethics: It gives you a motive to imagine a trolley is about to run over a crowd, whenever you feel like directing it to run over somebody else.

I think the consequentialist nature of the ethical theories most liberals are adherents of explain their Manichean view of the world, their attribution to conservatives of a remarkable degree of evil. The worse you think your opponents, the worse you are free to be yourselves, because your ethics permit you to do evil to prevent greater evil.

You want to be free to do anything you want, so you conceive of your opponents as ultimately evil. And this is a natural consequence of holding to a consequentialist theory of ethics. Who doesn’t want to be free? And the more evil you believe conservatives to be, the more free you become.

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J Thomas 07.20.14 at 11:52 am

Here goes:

An evil government creates a doomsday device. It’s hidden underground, and set to explode and destroy the world in 10 years. Every now and then the evil government leader resets the timer. They figure that if revolutionaries overthrow them so they don’t reset the timer, then the world will be destroyed which will serve the revolutionaries right.

But the government collapses and is replaced by a libertarian paradise. You look through the old government records and you find out about the doomsday device. You find out where it is and how to disarm it. But it will go off soon!

You rush to the place. But that land has been possessed by a libertarian. He knows there’s an entrance to some old government stuff there but he hasn’t yet bothered to figure out how to get in. He says that this is HIS land and nobody gets to step onto HIS land unless he says they can. You explain about the doomsday device and politely ask him to let you disarm it.

He says this is a load of horseshit and he will not waste his time with crazies who believe in government doomsday devices. He says he will not listen to anything else you say and if you ever step onto his land he will shoot you. At this point you have one hour left to disarm the device.

What should you do? To my way of thinking there are a few obvious choices.

1. Kill or disable him and disarm the device.
2. Sneak onto his land to disarm the device, kill or disable him only if he actually tries to stop you.
3. Quickly collect a large group of your armed friends and relatives and intimidate him into letting you disarm the device.
4. Accept that his right to his private property is a higher obligation than saving the world. Hope that the government documents were joking.

Should libertarian principles that say you must not coerce people, operate in every case? Is there ever a higher morality that reverses the result of the incomplete libertarian morality?

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Brett Bellmore 07.20.14 at 11:57 am

See, here you are, already imagining excuses to commit evil.

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J Thomas 07.20.14 at 12:24 pm

#93

Naturally, consequentialists are going to find this a fatal weakness. Just like libertarians find the fact that liberals can always excuse committing some evil by imagining they’re doing it to avert some greater evil to be problematic.

Yes, you have explained the difference exactly!

Once you decide that results don’t matter, then it’s easier to create an absolutist morality. You can say “I will do the right thing even if it kills me!” or “I will do the right thing if it kills me and my family and everybody I care about!”. Liberals will tend to hear you say “I will do the right thing even if it kills a bunch of strangers I don’t care about.”

Here is a story that my old Iranian roommate told me:

There was a village in the desert where people cut gemstones. They would cut and polish the stones, and sell them, and once a year miners would visit their town and auction off uncut stones. The villagers would use their savings to buy the uncut stones, and then they would cut them the coming year. And that was how they lived.

One year a stranger showed up at the auction. And for every stone he outbid every villager.
“Twenty tomans.”
“Twenty TWO tomans.” And he made an evil laugh.

When the auction was over the villagers had no stones to cut. They had no way to make a living. The mullah came to the man and begged him to reconsider, in the name of Allah, don’t do this evil. And the man gave his evil laugh and said, “But I am a Jew.” Then he distributed the stones to the people and paid them wages to cut his stones.

It struck me that the story worked just as well if the man was not really Jewish. It was the obvious thing for him to say to shut the mullah up, because in that time and place everybody believed that you could not beg for mercy from a Jew. So any stranger who did evil could claim to be a Jew to cut the conversation short.

I think we might develop something similar here, soon. The incomplete libertarian philosophy says it’s fine to be merciful when you choose to, but you are never obligated to. So when people beg for mercy from a person who has none, he can give an evil laugh and say “But I am a libertarian.”. And they will know there will be no mercy.

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ZM 07.20.14 at 12:24 pm

J Thomas,
Re: railroad competition – it is a bad use of land to build multiple railroads between the same destinations. In Victoria we had private railroads in the 19th C but they didn’t build out to areas where they thought it would be unprofitable and there were all sorts of other problems and shady goings-on and there was a great crash in 1891 and around then Victoria Railways owned by the government took over the lines.

In terms of recent railroad safety scandals, the current Liberal government drew much condemnation for deciding to upgrade level crossings in suburbs represented by its own MPs ahead of suburbs where the danger and the need was greater

http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/brighton-jumps-the-queue-as-death-trap-waits-20130207-2e1d0.html

http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/liberal-seats-get-crossing-priority-20110604-1fmca.html

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J Thomas 07.20.14 at 12:39 pm

#97

Re: railroad competition – it is a bad use of land to build multiple railroads between the same destinations.

ZM, yes. There are circumstances where free competition does not work very well.

One possible response to that is to say that we should invest only in technologies that do allow free competition. For example if we moved our freight with balloons that can go anywhere, we would not have the problems of railroad tracks and roads, and they could compete freely.

Another possible response is to say that if the advantage of a particular noncompetitive industry are big enough to outweigh the problems of noncompetition, then it’s worth it to choose that way and who should complain?

My own view is that if you want to claim that a particular method to solve problems works in all cases, but it doesn’t, then you should apply it only to the cases where it works. And you need to get an idea which sorts of problems it will work better for, and which it will work worse.

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Brett Bellmore 07.20.14 at 12:41 pm

And once you decide that consequences can excuse committing evil, you start imagining consequences, and become rather unimaginative about finding alternate ways to avoid the consequences without committing evil.

All moral theories have their characteristic weaknesses. I don’t find the trolley problem to be a serious weakness to deontological ethics, because I have yet to drive past a railroad siding with somebody tied across the tracks, and a rave going on across the main tracks. I’ve never encountered a doomsday machine buried under an innocent person’s land, either. (And I can’t recall the last conversation I had with a Chinese Room.)

You can construct situations where libertarianism leads to nasty consequences. Do they naturally occur? Or do you simply imagine that they’re all around, ignore the third siding, because you really want to run that one guy down?

The trolley problem? It’s an exercise in imagining excuses to run people over. Is that really something we want people to practice, and get good at?

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J Thomas 07.20.14 at 1:27 pm

#99

And once you decide that consequences can excuse committing evil, you start imagining consequences, and become rather unimaginative about finding alternate ways to avoid the consequences without committing evil.

Yes. And once you decide on excuses to avoid doing good, then you stop imagining consequences to guess whether the results will be good or bad.

You can simply ignore the consequences of your actions, except of course in practice you don’t ignore whether you expect they will be profitable for yourself.

And so we have libertarians who *know* that climate change cannot be an issue because if it was true it would mean that lots of individual actions put together have a bad result. But first, it has to be true that everybody working for what they think is their own self-interest has to have the best result, and second, results don’t matter.

All moral theories have their characteristic weaknesses.

Yes. Agreed.

I’ve never encountered a doomsday machine buried under an innocent person’s land, either.

Yes, and you’ve never encountered a climate change problem. Who knows how many things there are that you’ve never encountered because they are invisible to you?

The trolley problem? It’s an exercise in imagining excuses to run people over.

That’s prejudging the answer. You might, for example, figure that if the train runs people over that’s the railroad company’s responsibility and they can be sued in court.

But if you kill one person to stop it, that’s your legal responsibility and you might likely go to jail. Possibly a court might decide that the extenuating circumstances are sufficient to let you out again, or very likely they won’t.

Do you have a moral responsibility to sacrifice your own freedom to save other people’s lives? Many people would argue that you do not. It’s Somebody Else’s Problem. You don’t need to get involved.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” But for all you know, you’re the evil one who should do nothing. Maybe there isn’t any good and evil, maybe it’s just everybody working for his own self-interest, and some people are stupid and work for something other than their self-interest. So they punish themselves. Maybe that’s all there is to it. Maybe we’re beyond good and evil.

Asking the question is different from claiming the answer. If you ask the question in a way that helps people make their positions clearer, that’s good.

So it looks to me like you’re saying that if you kill somebody when you have the right to, it’s fine because you have the right to do it. You can look for alternatives if you feel like it, but you have no obligation. If you have the moral right to do something then the consequences don’t matter.

But if you kill somebody when you don’t have the right to, consequences still don’t matter. There are no extenuating circumstances, only rights.

The trolley problem? It’s an exercise in imagining excuses to run people over. Is that really something we want people to practice, and get good at?

We certainly have the right to think about it. Are you arguing from consequences that it might be better if we didn’t?

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Layman 07.20.14 at 1:33 pm

“You can construct situations where libertarianism leads to nasty consequences. Do they naturally occur?”

Pick a part of the world where libertarianism rules. Observe the consequences. If you like them, move there. Please.

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Consumatopia 07.20.14 at 2:08 pm

You want to be free to do anything you want, so you conceive of your opponents as ultimately evil.

I have never met a deontological libertarian who did not match this description.

Anyway, the asteroid isn’t a trolley problem because it will inevitably happen some day unless human action stops it. And, of course, situations in which libertarianism, if followed, would lead to harm naturally occur all the time. (Brett could at least modify the question to ask whether libertarians leads to harm more often than a willingness to deviate from libertarianism would lead to harm.)

Nevertheless, consequentialism is the wrong argument to make against libertarianism. It goes too far. Does the government have the right to compel people into slavery to stop the asteroid? Can the government not merely take someone’s property, but also their liberty as persons, to prevent mass harm? Reasonable people (i.e. people other than deontological libertarians) can disagree on that question.

The right argument is to just point out the obvious, the disingenuous lie that’s at the heart of deontological libertarianism. Property is coercion. Men with guns (whether those men are private actors or work for the government) prevent you from using a piece of the Earth’s surface or the Universe’s matter and energy that existed long before said men ever did. If you use your property claims to prevent someone else from taking positive action (e.g. feeding a child or stopping a world-destroying asteroid), then you are using coercive force to prevent others from averting harm.

In that context, one should re-consider this:

Why do the standards shift, between self defense and war? Because, government.

The standards always shift, when it’s the government. They have to shift, when it’s the government. Because, if they don’t shift, you recognize that government is an abomination. And recognizing that government is an abomination is inadmissible.

Why? … Because you really, really want things only government can give you? (Because providing them involves conduct we recognize as wrong if not done by government…)

All of this, of course, applies to deontological libertarians most of all. If they really believed in a consistent standard against violence and coercion, one in which standards did not shift, they would be pacifist anarchists. Deontological libertarians really, really want things that only violence and coercion can give them–specifically, the institution of private property, which requires conduct that we recognize is wrong if not done with the goal of defending private property.

Whatever, they have to shift, which is why you think there’s a moral obligation to pay protection money to protection rackets, but only if they’re the biggest one around.

And, of course, “protection rackets” are one aspect of government that both minarchists and anarcho-capitalists would keep around. In the case of anarcho-capitalists, they would literally rather pay money to a protection racket than to their current government!

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Joshua W. Burton 07.20.14 at 2:35 pm

And the man gave his evil laugh and said, “But I am a Jew.” Then he distributed the stones to the people and paid them wages to cut his stones.

This is actually a very old story. The psychologically interesting part is that it comes down to us as a save-the-world consequentialist fable, and the well-capitalized rentier . . . er, I mean statist thug . . . er, I mean Jew — where was I? Anyway, Joseph comes out a popular hero in Egypt. Eventually comes a pharaoh who knew not trolley problems, of course, and the class struggle reverts to ethnic struggle, as these things do.

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J Thomas 07.20.14 at 3:02 pm

#102

“You want to be free to do anything you want, so you conceive of your opponents as ultimately evil.”

I have never met a deontological libertarian who did not match this description.

Yes, of course. People do empathy, they see others as they see themselves. They have the most fun arguments when that works. Statists and libertarians agree about the fundamental issues, which are things like who has the right to coerce other people, and when. They only disagree about some of the specifics, so they can easily understand each other and disagree.

When the fundamental assumptions are too different, usually people get baffled and confused and feel uncomfortable. Much harder to have a good time disagreeing.

Anyway, the asteroid isn’t a trolley problem because it will inevitably happen some day unless human action stops it.

Well, but there’s no reason to expect the problem to get worse with time. As far as we know, the number of asteroids is not increasing, and we’ve already cleared out most of the ones that are likely to collide with us. The odds per year of it happening are not particularly going up. The last significant impact event was probably around 3 million years ago, so the odds of another one are something like one in 3 million per year. Should we take drastic action this year? Within the next ten years? Probably not.

Meanwhile, there is no good evidence about the probability of a great big nuclear accident. It has never happened yet so we don’t have good odds. But given the small, insignificant accidents like TMI, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, it’s plausible that the chance of a big accident is more than one in 3 million per year. We should have a higher priority to shut down aging, unsafe nuclear power plants compared to being ready to move asteroids.

After all, when we get the ability to change asteroid orbits, we will get the ability to bombard our enemies as well as to avoid asteroids. So there’s every reason to think the rate of asteroid impacts will go up instead of down….

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Collin Street 07.20.14 at 3:31 pm

> And once you decide that consequences can excuse committing evil,

See, look.

“Permitting evil to happen” and “enacting evil” can only be distinguished in an absolute moral frame-of-reference, that defines what counts as “action” and what counts as “inaction”, which we do not have and will never have. Because we don’t “take actions”, we chose actions, and there’s nothing special about any of the choices that we might take that mark it out as the null no-choice-choice.

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Collin Street 07.20.14 at 3:37 pm

This is a pretty consistent error libertarians make, btw, thinking that there’s some special super-choice they can make in any situation that doesn’t count as a choice, or something. See it come up again and again.

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Consumatopia 07.20.14 at 3:53 pm

Statists and libertarians agree about the fundamental issues, which are things like who has the right to coerce other people, and when.

By this you mean statists agree with other statists, libertarians agree with other libertarians, right?

Even then, I wouldn’t agree. “Statist” is a word libertarians and anarchists use to refer to a wide variety of ideologies (sometimes including other libertarians/anarchists), and libertarians disagree amongst themselves as to who has the right to coerce others (not all libertarians have deontological ethics).

More than that, the disagreement doesn’t even go far enough. When we’re talking about deontological libertarians, the disagreement is not who may coerce and when. The disagreement is on what coercion is. And that’s what makes discussions between deontological libertarians and everybody who is not a deontological libertarian pointless (whether conservative, liberal, anarchists, socialist, whatever). Because deontological libertarians define “coercion” to include everything that they hate and nothing that they like. That is, conservatives, liberals, anarchists, socialists and even consequentialist libertarians can sometimes agree on what coercion is even as they disagree on whether it is justifiable or good. They can still explain where they disagree even as they speak the same language. Not so with deontological libertarians–if you refuse to define words the way deontological libertarians do, their claims are no longer intelligible.

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J Thomas 07.20.14 at 4:39 pm

“Statists and libertarians agree about the fundamental issues, which are things like who has the right to coerce other people, and when.”

By this you mean statists agree with other statists, libertarians agree with other libertarians, right?

Oops! I meant that this is an issue they can agree is an issue to disagree about.

Like, one time I was discussing things with a christian woman, the wife of a missionary to China — they had been driven out of China and he had a small chapel in the USA where he could eke out a living — and it took me awhile to understand that in her opinion if you spent too much effort trying to do the right thing, it meant you were trying to be “Christ-like” which was a sin. Nobody can act like Christ because he’s God and we’re sinners. And if you spent too much effort figuring out the right thing to do, that was prideful and a sin. You were supposing that your own thinking was good enough, when only God knows what you should do. Everything I said got her angry and I couldn’t figure out why. I never did figure out how to talk with her without getting her angry, but I learned to avoid her.

My assumptions about what was important were simply too different from hers.

When we’re talking about deontological libertarians, the disagreement is not who may coerce and when. The disagreement is on what coercion is.

That does sound like the sort of fundamental difference I’m concerned about.

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Lee A. Arnold 07.20.14 at 5:47 pm

Brett Bellmore #93: “libertarianism isn’t a consequentalist theory. It isn’t teleological, but deontological.”

We need evidence of this. I think libertarians espouse this as a convenience. The rules that libertarians accept, are ALWAYS set-up to produce a result. This is consequentialism.

But it goes further, because it also won’t escape the charge of coercion. Again, this is revealed in the leading case: the libertarian support for the market economy. There are two problems here: A. the market system originated by coercions, and B. it continues coercions but defines them out of existence.

With regard to #1, you could say, “So what! People’s lives were ruined, indeed people were murdered, at the time of the Enclosure Acts, or in the appropriation of Native American land. But now, the market works to the benefit of everybody, or at least to the benefit of the majority [consequentialism].”

But of course, it really doesn’t. Right now, the market frequently enables some people to act according to status-quo institutional rules that may harm or cause suffering to another — BUT, if the actor is oblivious or indifferent to the harm or suffering he causes, libertarians do not call it “coercion” of others. They claim natural circumstance and deontology.

Further, this convenient avoidance of the charge of “coercive” acts occurs along different avenues in the market economy. Let’s take just one, though a big one: the overall case of inequality, which obviously causes poor people to be unable to afford necessities.

What causes inequality, basically? Well, in the existing social system, even if all people were EQUAL in skills and personal attitudes toward work, inequality would happen because the structure of production (and the asset-ownership thereof) is set up INSTITUTIONALLY to be hierarchical, i.e. one-to-many. The aggregate result for the whole market economy is a fractal distribution, in which a significant number of people are remaindered to the bottom. This effect will be quite INDEPENDENT of their skills or attitudes. (And of course there is another percentage of inequality which is related to personal deficits in skills or attitudes; but this is not necessary to cause all inequality.)

Libertarians want to avoid the charge of coercion of others, but they can only do so by presuming that this set-up of rules is “natural”, not coercive to begin with. So then after that, you depend upon “natural rights”.

(So not coincidentally, in other discussions, we hear lots of conservative/libertarian talk about natural rights due to natural law. Now the concept goes back to the ancients. But why should it be applied to the emerging market system? There is far from anything “natural” about it… “Natural law” and “natural rights” were pump-primed in the 18th century to become the explanatory social principle to justify the emerging modern economy. It was essentially a religious turn of events. The popular religious philosophy of the “chain of being”, theretofore a static conception, fractured, under the popular knowledge of the new scientific discoveries, into at least two proto-evolutionary beliefs, and these were quite new things in the history of the world: “the individual ascends through the moral (and material) hierarchy, based on the rewards to his own merit” — i.e. today’s right-wing market tribalism –, and “the individual can reinvent the rules of the world, by his own spiritual/artistic imagination” — i.e. Romanticism, still going strong today. These conceptions, or misconceptions, may not be opposed to each other.)

Perhaps it is unnecessary to take it so far back. Because before any discussion of the historical origination of our modern intellectual predicament, libertarians usually jump off, and argue, “So what? It is still makes the best of all possible worlds.”

Observe, however, that the argument:
1. is now circumstantial not philosophical,
2. is justified to the people it rewards, but not to the others who are coerced, and
3. it is clearly teleological, not deontological.

110

Bruce Wilder 07.20.14 at 8:55 pm

Opposing deontological ethics to consequentialist ethics is one of those word games that follow from mistaking a purely analytic distinction for a difference in the world. They are just different styles of rhetorical rationalization within exactly the same frame of analysis positing rules and actions and outcomes in a system of social cooperation for mutual benefit. Either one can bootstrap a rough first-order rationalization for one’s ethical intuitions, but either path leads to the other: the deontologist must argue the consequences for judging general principles; the consequentialist must argue for general principles in judging consequences.

As Collin Street said, the null is a rhetorical pose — a debater’s trick, to avoid having to take any affirmative side, while being always able to argue the inherency of harm. The inherency, though, is general to social cooperation; cooperation entails conflict, and resolving the conflict, constraint and commitment. We gain a common interest in the benefits of cooperation, which can never subsequently be entirely divisible into purely private and separable interests. As we come into cooperative proximity, whatever the activity, there will always be some public rule emerging, which will place some constraint on one or both of the cooperating parties, to enable the cooperation and blunt the conflict, because the common, general interest in the benefits of cooperation requires it. We cannot debate whether there will be rules, anymore than we can debate whether there will be consequences. There will be rules and there will be consequences; all we can debate is our judgment of them both together.

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J Thomas 07.20.14 at 10:19 pm

#105

“Permitting evil to happen” and “enacting evil” can only be distinguished in an absolute moral frame-of-reference, that defines what counts as “action” and what counts as “inaction”, which we do not have and will never have.

That sounds good to me. And the railroad siding story is one vivid way to approach discussion about that. Is there really a distinction between doing nothing when you could have stopped people from being killed, versus killing people? Legally there is, but the law is stupid. To libertarians there is, it’s fundamental to their thinking. To me there sort of is in practice. I could be asleep and not find out I could have saved lives until later. If I’m asleep at the switch when I had an obligation to pay attention, that’s very bad. But it’s usually hard for me to intentionally kill people. I need to aim the gun and pull the trigger, and with a knife it’s personal and grotesque. A big difference between that and doing nothing.

But in a deep philosophical sense, the difference is not important. It’s all choices, and if I never think about it and things happen as a result, that’s my choice to not think about it. Can we be held responsible for things we never thought about? Yes. Sometimes we have an obligation to think.

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roy belmont 07.20.14 at 10:26 pm

BW:
There will be rules and there will be consequences

And there will be known knowns and unknown knowns and…ah, right, different theater.

The unforeseeable reality of the future by definition contains consequences we can’t evaluate the efficacy of our rules by.
The only two responses I’ve seen to that dilemma – aside from the obvious one so prevalent in the circles in which this thread’s embedded, of pretending that you CAN see consequences sufficiently completely enough to make value decisions about your rules – are:
1. Get your rules from an intelligence capable of seeing all possible outcomes, or religion.
2. Confine your analysis of consequences to the verifiable, truncate the timeline of consequence to a limited relatively personal arc, a scale of “Me, us, now.”
3. Base your rules on likely harm or harmlessness, extended to the threshold of an imaginable future. Which is a kind of kid’s version of the hyper-rationalist pretense to being the intelligence in 1. as opposed to that Native American thing of seven generations figuring into the moral calculus.

Problem with likely harm is it fades after a vague amount of time. Burying nuclear waste with a half-life of umpteen thousand years in containers and places that can only be relied on to function a few hundred.
No immediate harm, and the imaginary invisible inheritors, who will be there, who will exist, and who will inherit the consequences of deferred and abnegated responsibility, get to deal however they can. Because too bad for them.

It all comes back to this weird assumption that selfishness is central to the human character, even when it’s obvious that most rules are designed to inhibit selfishness in one form or another.
It looks like it’s mostly a battle taking place in the zone of tension between preservation of the status quo and an enabling of the promise given to and held for those to come.

Selling out the future, by the book and by the law as may be, does have its rewards, but they’re pretty much confined to the immediate moment.
Which passes.

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Collin Street 07.20.14 at 11:00 pm

#111
> Legally there is, but the law is stupid.

It’s not stupid, it’s a heuristic: we tolerate a certain amount of error in the final result in the name of reasonable practical applicability. Moral frameworks are used in different circumstances and are judged by different measures.

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J Thomas 07.20.14 at 11:18 pm

#112

Problem with likely harm is it fades after a vague amount of time. Burying nuclear waste with a half-life of umpteen thousand years in containers and places that can only be relied on to function a few hundred.

Apart from humanity, the biosphere doesn’t make anything that isn’t biodegradable.* There are reasons for that.

The obvious solution to nuclear waste is, don’t make more than research quantities of it until after you’ve decided how to use it and how to use all of its decay products. This is only common sense.

Similarly, we have more than 8 million new chemical compounds which as far as we know have never existed in nature. It’s quick and easy to do tests which *might* reveal whether a particular compound is very carcinogenic. Much harder to tell whether they are hormone analogues, or have other weird effects. It’s only common sense to avoid them all for a few generations until we’ve done enough testing. Use them only in circumstances where humans will not contact them. I expect within 20 years or so there will be a movement among rich people to avoid untested chemicals, plastics, etc and allow only natural or well-tested things in their houses, in their food, their transportation, etc. Poorer people will not be able to afford that of course, and will have to take their chances.

This stuff is not that difficult. It isn’t that hard to tell about the biggest of the loops that aren’t closed. Unless the climate changes.

* I can’t prove this but I have good reason to think it’s true.

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Bruce Wilder 07.20.14 at 11:50 pm

Amateurs speculate, professionals govern.

You can create a great deal of threshold anxiety, trying your existential best to calculate the incalculable future, pondering trolley problems and the like. That would be very CT of you. Or, you can turn around and walk your ethics backward like a normal person.

There was a time, when economists, playing as they will, with their rationally expectant ciphers, imagined that a long-term contract was necessarily a costly commitment, a speculative gamble. Then, someone went out and read an actual long-term contract, and found, in a contract of nominal 30 years duration, a provision allowing either party to terminate on mere notice, with effect within 180 days. Oh, well.

I think what we do, in fact: we govern ourselves. We calculate not upon the future, but upon the past. We tell competing moral stories about past behavior, and try to formulate general rules from examined experience. We make mistakes, suffer for it, and sometimes try to learn from it, making up rules as a summary mnemonic.

Many of the rules a bureaucracy or government will promulgate will not be ethical imperatives in the manner of Moses or Kant, but clever little trip-wires, the better to observe and judge behavior after the fact, or to create the judge’s freedom to impose that judgement without dispute.

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Bruce Wilder 07.21.14 at 12:01 am

J Thomas @ 114

Oh, please. There already was a movement of rich people 30 years ago trying to avoid untested chemicals, plastics, etc. And, of course, the people, who know that the untested chemicals, plastics, etc are what made rich people rich, because they use the untested chemicals, plastics, etc to build the artifacts of the modern world want the first people to know that they are idiots.

Which is why literally everywhere you go in California you will see neat little printed notices to the effect that the hotel lobby or office or laundromat or grocery store you are in, or the product you are using, contains chemicals known to the State to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. So comforting and so informative.

117

UserGoogol 07.21.14 at 12:03 am

J Thomas: Limestone and fossil fuels aren’t biodegradable, although they kind of occupy the middle ground between biosphere and lithosphere.

118

Collin Street 07.21.14 at 12:52 am

As Collin Street said, the null is a rhetorical pose — a debater’s trick, to avoid having to take any affirmative side, while being always able to argue the inherency of harm.

It’s actually plain old question-begging: immorality is defined as excluding inaction, but what counts as “action” and “inaction” is definitional.

119

Brett Bellmore 07.21.14 at 1:05 am

“Burying nuclear waste with a half-life of umpteen thousand years”

Strictly speaking, nuclear waste doesn’t have a half-life of umpteen thousand years. Used nuclear fuel consists mostly of isotopes usable as fuel, with half-lives in range of 76k years to half a billion years. These are not “waste”, they are FUEL.

The actual waste component consists almost entirely of isotopes with half-lives of a couple of decades to days. The longest half-life waste isotope is an isotope of radium with a half life of 1,600 years.

Does “umpteen” = 1.6?

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J Thomas 07.21.14 at 1:18 am

#117

Limestone and fossil fuels aren’t biodegradable, although they kind of occupy the middle ground between biosphere and lithosphere.

Limestone is a low-energy mineral, and it dissolves in water when organisms produce acid (or base) to put in that water.

Fossil fuels biodegrade when microorganisms among them get oxygen. The organisms grow faster if they have a phosphate source which both coal and oil tend to be deficient in. Often there isn’t enough nitrogen, and also sometimes not enough sulfur.

Bacteria which can handle the things in fossil fuels tend to break down the easiest ones first. Hydrocarbons in linear chains go pretty quick, big polycyclic stuff goes slower after the snack food is gone.

121

ZM 07.21.14 at 3:23 am

Plutonium 239 has a half life of around 24,000 years, it’s main use as a fuel seems to be in nuclear weapons.

Also, much used nuclear fuel is left to accumulate as ‘waste’ whether it is ‘waste’ or not. Probably technically nothing is really waste – waste just means vast – like Waste Land – but with wrong English pronunciation. Toxicity is the bigger issue and used nuclear fuel is certainly very toxic and hazardous.

122

roy belmont 07.21.14 at 3:26 am

Mr Bellmore:
Umpteen is a vernacular term for a common mathematical expression of indeterminate quantity, in this case of time period “x”, where “x”=(y)a lot.
Maybe if I had used the phrase ” spent nuclear fuel”, which is only figuratively waste because no one wants it, you would have been more inclined to reply to the actual point of the illustration, which was the half-life of the responsibility the present carries in regard to the inheritors of the results of our actions/reactions.
How that terminates inevitably – because of the limits of our imaginations and a nexus of cultural identity that squats obscenely and exclusively in the immediate present – before the repercussions of the things we do themselves end. Because those repercussions never end.
-
Mr Wilder:
Dukes and earls govern, peasants toil. Until things change.
Which they do, you know.

This: I think what we do, in fact: we govern ourselves. What you mean “we” white man?
Seriously there’s seems to have been a certain amount of serious effort made over the years to get into that “we” and commence the governing, and not always by individuals with a clear dedication to the well-being of the larger community.
Currently there’s an easily observed disconnect between the expressed will of the people, in many areas affecting them and their children, and the actions and policies of “their” governments.
So that “we govern ourselves” business, I dunno, man.
There’s a note of increasing desperation behind the coercive subliminalities of big-box media these days that shows that disconnect widening.

Back to the “plastic is good for you” assertion.
The paternal sneers of the rationalist priesthood are irritating as all hell, but in a fair fight it’s child’s play to knock down such delusional arrogance.
Yet the confidence remains, intact, bull-chested as ever, blustering across the laid-down inanities of ascientific California hippies. Because it feels good, right? You’re in the Dad position, and you’re gonna stay there. Maybe feeling secure because that same big-box media’s got your back?
Nothing in the above-ground history of technocracy, or whatever noun you want to put there, anticipated the change(s) in the weather we’re now experiencing, and bid fair to continue experiencing for quite some time.
Not until they were well under way. The Cassandras of climate change were marginal voices at best, of no volume. Until shit began hitting the fan.

That’s the moral thing there. Making rules is impossible if you allow every whacked-out loon a chance at the mic.
But ignoring the prophets has got its own price.

123

Bruce Wilder 07.21.14 at 5:48 am

Too many of the would-be Prophets and revolutionaries are in it to feel good about themselves, not to figure out how things work, or what is necessary to make things work better. They confuse creative complaining, leavened with cheap-ass anti-authoritarian whining, for serious criticism and you can forget reform.

124

Ogden Wernstrom 07.21.14 at 5:57 am

Brett Bellmore:

And once you decide that consequences can excuse committing evil, you start imagining consequences, and become rather unimaginative about finding alternate ways to avoid the consequences without committing evil.

I can see he’s laying the groundwork for an argument against concealed-carry permits and stand-your-ground laws.

125

J Thomas 07.21.14 at 6:19 am

#119

Strictly speaking, nuclear waste doesn’t have a half-life of umpteen thousand years. Used nuclear fuel consists mostly of isotopes usable as fuel, with half-lives in range of 76k years to half a billion years. These are not “waste”, they are FUEL

Practically speaking, used nuclear fuel gets recycled once. It gets more plutonium which is usable, but also it gets a lot of bad stuff that’s hard to separate out. So after the second time it isn’t worth recycling again.

You can’t just wait 100 years for the short-halflife stuff to go away and then re-use it, because the fuel keeps making more short-halflife high-radioactive stuff so it doesn’t go away.

When the fuel gets more expensive then we can spend more money recycling it. But we need the fuel to get less expensive, not more.

If we get a cheap safe way to separate out the bad stuff, then most of the waste turns to fuel.

If we get a bunch of uses for moderate quantities of the short-halflife stuff so it’s more valuable, then it gets more worth separating them.

If we get reactors that are cheaper to shield, then it would make sense to keep the spent fuel in the reactors. For awhile it reacts and releases energy. Then it absorbs more neutrons than it releases, and that can work too, the operators just need to know what to expect. Every neutron that gets absorbed by spent fuel instead of the shielding helps you when you need to take the reactor apart and do something with the radioactive shielding.

We might find ways to speed up radioactive decay. So far all I’ve heard of is that some reactions go faster close to a neutrino source like a nuclear reactor. I see no reason to expect a breakthrough along those lines, but if a way is found to cheaply speed the rate of radioactive decay by a million-fold or so, that could help a lot.

There are various technologies that might appear, that would assist with the problems of disposing of radioactive waste. If enough of then turn true then nuclear energy might someday become practical.

126

J Thomas 07.21.14 at 6:44 am

#116

Oh, please. There already was a movement of rich people 30 years ago trying to avoid untested chemicals, plastics, etc. And, of course, the people, who know that the untested chemicals, plastics, etc are what made rich people rich, because they use the untested chemicals, plastics, etc to build the artifacts of the modern world want the first people to know that they are idiots.

The same people who think that untested plastics are good for you to store food in etc, also believe that burning lots of fossil fuel is good for you and for the same reasons.

So OK, let’s say somebody has made a whole lot of money selling baby bottles made of inadequately tested plastic. And then when people started getting concerned about it, he made a whole lot more money selling baby bottles that had no phthalates but instead contained other ingredients that have had less testing.

None of that says he will want to use any kind of plastic for his own baby bottles.

Similarly, a man who made a lot of money from condoms who pays far more than you could afford to have a lovely ballerina or singer visit him, may feel he doesn’t need condoms.

And a man who made a lot of money from spam doesn’t need to eat spam.

If a bunch of rich people decide they will be safer and healthier by avoiding untested chemicals, they can afford to avoid them. I predict it will happen.

127

Bruce Wilder 07.21.14 at 7:07 am

J Thomas discovers specialization in production.

My local Trader Joe’s sells organic produce. His predictive powers know no bounds.

128

Brett Bellmore 07.21.14 at 10:09 am

Roy: I’m aware that “umpteen” is undefined, though it’s conventionally considered to be larger that 12, (Hence the “teen”.) not less than 2.

I was simply making a technical point: The claim was not true.

Now, of course, it is uneconomic at the moment to reprocess spent fuel rods, because Uranium is dirt cheap. It will remain dirt cheap for some time to come, but even when it gets expensive enough to justify reprocessing, the cost of the fuel will be a minor contributor to the cost of nuclear electricity.

Until then, the rods can sit around, getting less “hot”, which they WILL do, because, while the short half-life waste products continue to be produced out of the reactor, they’re not produced nearly as fast as they decay.

There’s a variety of anti-nuke activist who likes to claim that nuclear “waste” is dangerously hot, and radioactive practically forever, and elide, (If they even know it.) that, while both these are true, they don’t imply that it’s dangerously hot forever. The claim I was responding to sounded like the sort of nonsense they emit.

129

Brett Bellmore 07.21.14 at 10:38 am

J Thomas: I think ultimately, we’ll end up using the molten fuel reactors. They can have incredibly high “burnup” ratios, because the waste products that poison the reaction can be removed on a continuous basis, a little bit at a time. They also have a number of inherent safety features, such as the reactivity going down with increasing temperature. The “waste” rods can just be dissolved and fed into them a little at a time, to dispose of them while using the fuel.

But doing this will require getting people to think rationally about nuclear power, which is a very tough row to hoe indeed.

130

J Thomas 07.21.14 at 11:22 am

# 127

J Thomas discovers specialization in production.

My local Trader Joe’s sells organic produce. His predictive powers know no bounds.

Bruce, I think you might know what I mean. A serious effort to avoid new chemicals in clothing, paper, cellphone cases, automobiles, house paints and insulation, sports equipment, etc etc etc.

You’ll know it when you see it.

131

J Thomas 07.21.14 at 11:32 am

There’s a variety of anti-nuke activist who likes to claim that nuclear “waste” is dangerously hot, and radioactive practically forever, and elide, (If they even know it.) that, while both these are true, they don’t imply that it’s dangerously hot forever.

Thirty thousand years is a long time to guarantee something will stay isolated. Practically forever. You seem to think you’re making some sort of point but I don’t see what it is.

I think ultimately, we’ll end up using the molten fuel reactors.

If cost does not matter, we might very well do that.

If someday we get technical breakthroughs that make nuclear power affordable, they might make molten fuel reactors affordable too. It’s hard to predict scientific and technical discoveries that haven’t been made yet.

Maybe fusion reactors will turn practical first, Who knows?

132

Brett Bellmore 07.21.14 at 4:25 pm

I would be surprised, frankly: Most versions of fusion involve the production of neutrons, and hence nuclear waste, with the added difficulty of superconducting magnets in close proximity to the neutron source. Really, the only advantage fusion has over fission, is PR. And that will evaporate as soon as it becomes feasible to actually build fusion plants.

133

J Thomas 07.21.14 at 5:30 pm

“Maybe fusion reactors will turn practical first, Who knows?”

I would be surprised, frankly

I wouldn’t, particularly. Both technologies are so far from being practical that it’s way too soon to figure which will get there first. Quite plausibly neither of them will make it in the next couple centuries.

134

r 07.21.14 at 7:51 pm

to figure out how things work yep.
So they, those things, can be taken apart and reconfigured to gratify the greed-hunger and insane thirst for dominance of everything by spiritual autistics, who are now totally cornered by their arrogance-driven incompetencies, and facing a gathering tsunamic backwash of what should have been easily predictable negative effects of raw selfishness as a moral guidance system.

The cliche of constructive criticism – work within the System! – that allows the Sauronic borg to modify its design motifs and brand perceptions, to better accommodate the consumer discordancies created by “cheap-ass anti-authoritarian whining” having been adopted by overly-impressionable children, whose only other cultural influences are the algorithms of control and seduction developed by off-stage human experimentation and the inevitable refinements of the seducer’s gambit over time.
What are you kids upset about now?
Oh, well gosh okay, we have that in fifty-five different flavors/colors/tones, and a model for every set of buttocks that waddles in the door.
*car commercial with stunning green landscape empty of all human artifacts but a brand new car*
Because our research indicates you like seeing landscapes empty of all human artifacts at the same time you eradicate every vestige of the living world not susceptible to your direct control, or that of your masters, depending on your place in the hierarchy.
-
Mr Bellmore:
It is with reluctance I take time from a busy day already half gone to inform you that I knew you knew, if not precisely, because how much precision can we associate with such a word, at least functionally, workably, knew what “umpteen” means, and what it meant in the context in which I used it, above.
It is with even more reluctance still that I reply to this phrase “It will remain dirt cheap for some time to come”.
Any design, any plan, any action whatsoever that depends entirely and absolutely on a continuing uninterrupted rise in human civilizational complexity and control, that relies on what must be a constantly increasing measure of control over a constantly increasing amount of terrestrial life and terrestrial systems, aside from being essentially a Satanic wet dream, must be viewed by any dispassionate and open-minded observer as a symptom of mental dysfunction, and treated accordingly.

135

roy belmont 07.21.14 at 8:13 pm

That “r” was me in case Wilder’s browsing the comments links on the front page of the site.

136

Bruce Wilder 07.23.14 at 10:13 pm

re: r

ah, poesy!

137

William Timberman 07.23.14 at 11:18 pm

An impertinent observation, and well past its sell-by date, on this thread at least: Am I not right that Roy Belmont is a masterful composer of apocalypsos, and as such a sort of gleeful pessimist? On the other hand, doesn’t Bruce Wilder think that the complexity Roy despairs of is manageable even in the long run if we could only find enough people who understand what’s required, are competent at dealing with the complexity of human interactions as well as inanimate control systems, and having found them, put them to work?

Assuming I’m right about the Belmont and Wilder take on things, and setting poesy aside for the moment — much as I LIKE poesy — I think I’d be happier siding with Bruce. Surely we’d have a better shot at putting off Roy’s our common apocalypse for a lot longer if we could just stop leaving our affairs in the hands of morons, sadists, religious fanatics, and people with more money than sense. Maybe not forever, I grant you, but forever’s a helluva long time, and we’re talking imminence here, no?

138

john c. halasz 07.24.14 at 12:27 am

WT @ 137:

In the old jargon, the distinction is between “abstract negation” and “determinate negation”. The former ends up re-enforcing, in its sheer abstraction, what it ostensibly opposes. The latter finds the point of transformation in the opposition and thus changes the terms of opposition, re-synthesizing them, whether conceptually or materially, (and there is never the one without the other), such that, if the opposition isn’t entirely “abolished”, it is brought to a “higher” and more fruitful level. Simple doom-saying is probably right, in terms of empirical likelihoods, but it ends up re-enforcing what it opposes. So it’s a Hobson’s choice.

139

William Timberman 07.24.14 at 1:27 am

jch @138

An old Jew, speaking of Israel, once said to me. I remember a day when, if you saw a Jew carrying a fiddle case, you could be reasonably sure there was a fiddle in it.

And nodding, I thought, Yeah, between the Maccabees and Meyer Lansky, or maybe better, Ariel Sharon, we had Maimonides, Buber, Heine, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Mahler, Salk, Frankfurter, Heifetz, Perelman, etc. Nu? I mean, evil doesn’t have as much to do with intention as we imagine. It often has just as much to do with the pressures on us as individuals and as societies. Sometimes it’s just rotten luck that we lose our grip on the good.

Maybe 1945-1980 has been like that for our generation — an intermezzo. And even then, we had to ignore a lot. Maybe we should just stop bitching about what’s slipped out of our grasp and get on with trying to do better.

140

roy belmont 07.24.14 at 3:21 am

facebook:
“to facebook” verb. meaning to manipulate the digital information flow of someone, without their knowledge.

Just add that in to the giant bodiless distributed head the NSA has now stuffed with enough raw data for social algorithms to keep behaviorist dweebs busy for years and years.
Current perceptions of that intimate panoptic knowing are that it’s passive, a gathering in of granular profiles of all of us. So just throw that facebook in there. The possibilities of micro-control of virtually everything are so powerful, so close, the temptation will be irresistible.
What’s that look like?
Looks like the immediate future to me.
Pessimist? I dunno man. I see a crux, not a dilemma.
A pretty serious fork in the road. And the default, the “unless it turns pretty abruptly”, is doom for sure. Doom in a way.
But not all the way.

The singular characteristic of evil, once you get past the shock and awe and the glamor, is its incompetence, the myopia of visions driven mainly by selfishness.
The conscious cunning Destroyer is a fairytale. The super-villain of cartoon reality.
Conscious, intentional evil.
What we’re looking at is arrogance and incompetence in tandem. The only metaphysical darkness there is the inability to see.
Life on earth has been hijacked by blind men.

Complicity with that fool’s gambit is worse than anything like death or extinction.
Doom would be buying in, selling out. A fate worse than death.
So it turns, we bounce off the guardrail a few times, and get back to what worked for most of our history, consistently enough to get us here.
Or it doesn’t turn and we’re done. Because of blind selfishness acting like it’s the human soul.

I see a win no matter how that plays out.

141

ZM 07.24.14 at 3:33 am

“The singular characteristic of evil, once you get past the shock and awe and the glamor, is its incompetence, the myopia of visions driven mainly by selfishness.
The conscious cunning Destroyer is a fairytale. The super-villain of cartoon reality.
Conscious, intentional evil.”

http://youtu.be/2Bls1KKDwmo

http://www.laborrights.org/in-the-news/14-worst-corporate-evildoers
http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2011/09/temp-s20.html
http://systemicdisorder.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/chinese-exploitation-and-multi-national-corporate-profits/

142

William Timberman 07.24.14 at 3:50 am

Roy, we aren’t what they have on us. Let thinking it is be their mistake, not ours.

143

William Timberman 07.24.14 at 7:37 am

Sigh…nothing like screwing up the punchline with a grammatical error: not it is, but we are. And so to bed….

144

Bruce Wilder 07.24.14 at 11:40 pm

wt @ 137
jch @ 138
rb @ 134, 140

The hobby I expose in comments most often is criticism of economics. It’s a curious business, how policy economics — the economics of op-eds and public policy slogans and, to a large extent, the college curriculum — gets dumb and dumber. It’s easy to see how people one doesn’t like — for me, Greg Mankiw or Tyler Cowen stand as representative — dumb down the discipline to get to their ideologically favored conclusions. Unfortunately for me, it’s also often painfully easy to see how stupid the relative good guys — Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma, Joseph Stiglitz, Noah Smith — can be. Is it simply a case of “determinate negation”? Is the problem that Paul Krugman must fend off deliberate misunderstanding among his centrist and right-wing interlocutors and slanders on his integrity, repeating and repeating simple mantras? (IS/LM, IS/LM, IS/LM . . . )

First and second-best policy is off-limits as politically infeasible, so, like Obama, Krugman is forced to defend third and fourth-best policy — Quantitative Easing as a macro policy cum macro-prudential policy; a Rube-Goldberg health insurance reform — the lesser evil’s evil is defended, denied to an extent, even advocated for, because . . . consider the alternative! As if all moral choice is analogous to a utilitarian preference for aging over death — the idealism and vigor of youth a standard of impracticality and nostalgia, beyond practical reach.

A pure evil — even an unpure evil of selfishness and greed — serves as a dichotomous creator, or definer, of good as self-denial, selflessness and purity. In fairy tale form, it means that the villain will be a far more interesting character than the hero — better-dressed probably, with better lines certainly. In practical form, it’s a prescription for rank hypocrisy in public service at best; child-molesting priests at worst.

In the political dynamics, where’s stupidity to be located? Where’s the moral cowardice? Is the “singular characteristic” of evil its incompetence, its myopia? It’s true that the bank robber doesn’t want the bank to fail, or money to become worthless; his activity is premised on his belief that what he does won’t be that consequential. If the bank robber has taken Bill Black’s advice and become a bank executive the better to execute bank robbery by the expeditious means of control fraud, he still doesn’t want his activity to bring the financial system to ruin. What would be the point of stealing money if the payments system that makes money into power collapsed? Our robber has the foresight to promote Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner to high office in the nick of time. That’s not myopia — at least it is not the bank robber’s myopia!

The core insight of modern economics, however mangled by ideologues, is that we owe productivity and prosperity to social (aka political) cooperation in specialization and trade, setting up a multifarious opposition of private interests, from which a general, common or public interest may emerge: a sense of justice as equitable fairness and a social confidence in the possibility of collective self-government, sufficient to prudently manage the commons and the common wealth. This is a balancing act, not a dilemma nor a crux, a tension between collective action and individual responsibility, productive of practical individual liberty and the freedom of collective, democratic self-government. Fail at the balancing act, and then you come to the crux, rb speaks of.

I like rb’s image of the mythic American Consumer, buying an SUV, after seeing a teevee ad, of the SUV traversing photogenic verdant wilderness, without much thought for the implications of her mode of life for the long-term. All the investment in deep thinking is concentrated into designing the SUV for its eye appeal and making that persuasive television advertisement — millions spent on production values and focus groups. And, if there’s a suggestion that burning the gas profligately with no concern for the atmospheric, climate commons — or war to get the gas, or poisoning the water with frakking, etc — is a bad idea, then the great capitalist machine spits out lies and propaganda. “abstract negation” or “determinate negation”? I don’t know. Does it matter?

The point is that we’re failing at the balancing act. The balancing act, done successfully, is, imho, necessary — as good as it gets. I don’t think we can abolish greed or private interests. I don’t think there’s a path forward, where we overthrow “capitalism” but retain fallible human nature, and thus solve our problems. I do think the ideology of neoliberalism / conservative libertarianism is making us stupider than we have to be, making it harder than necessary to see that we need to succeed in the balancing act. But, it isn’t just that that ideology and its tired rhetoric is holding us back. Behind the fatuous, facile neoliberal rhetoric, there’s that bank robber holding us hostage: rescue me with free money and de-regulation or the economy will crash, ruining things for everyone. We need to develop oil and gas resources, or the economy will falter and economic growth will be lost. We need that license to pollute, or jobs will be lost! The balancing act is made into a dilemma, by that cynical act of political extortion, and made into rb’s crux, by the passive acceptance of extortion as a dilemma. (“Consider the alternative!”)

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roy belmont 07.25.14 at 1:17 am

“The point is that we’re failing at the balancing act.”

Clear and present affirmation. Yes. Big yes.
It’s a false dichotomy that when we define the worst as raw ungoverned selfishness, the best must automatically be its diametric opposite. Normal people recognize they aren’t saints, so the option of being a complicitous sinner makes more sense.
But the lived opposite of selfishness is precisely that non-linearizable balance between arrogant self-centeredness and total self-negation
Mother Theresa may have been a very charitable nurse but she would have been a terrible baby-sitter.
Balance, a living paradox.
It’s the fucking human condition.
It is the best we can hope for.

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john c. halasz 07.25.14 at 4:08 am

BW @ 144:

“The core insight of modern economics, however mangled by ideologues, is that we owe productivity and prosperity to social (aka political) cooperation in specialization and trade, setting up a multifarious opposition of private interests, from which a general, common or public interest may emerge: a sense of justice as equitable fairness and a social confidence in the possibility of collective self-government, sufficient to prudently manage the commons and the common wealth.”

Of course, this is the classic liberal ideological vision, that all interests and values can be reconciled into a harmonious whole, which can be derived from a contract appealing to all those conflicting, yet private, interests and values. The public interest, the commonweal, is simply the summum bonum of aggregated individuals. It’s been through numerous reiterations and variations ever since the late 18th/ early 19th century. But is it “true”? From whence do all those individuals and their separately articulated interests come together? Or mustn’t some prior collective be assumed, in order for there to be a public and collective interest? And how are private interests to be determined, if not from differential property “rights”, which must be publicly instituted and enforced, but which also must divide the “public” into the haves and have-nots? Then how does one ensure proper “balance”, amidst such basic conflicts and oppositions? Or its stability or endurance? And what is to say that any such compromise between competing interests, however inequitable, nonetheless corresponds to the “objective” limits, ends and requirements of social survival and flourishing?

Perhaps you missed my irony in referring to the “old jargon”, but we aren’t on any sort of “classical” terrain nowadays.

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William Timberman 07.25.14 at 5:29 am

It seems to me that literature has been better at grasping the nature of the balance, the dilemma, the crux than any of the the various secular religions put forward by our political economists. I think of poor Hans Biberkopf, wandering the back alleys of 1920s Berlin in search of some way to be anständig.

Wearing somebody’s armband — hoping for admission to the made-up tribe of the moment — was all that was on offer then, and may be so again, once the last half-dozen or so of our convinced technocrats finally find it impossible to hear their own supposedly well-meaning speeches played back to them without throwing up. Israel has a right to defend itself, opines President Obama, and everybody who’s seen the pictures groans. How much of this can anybody stand, and for how long, oh Lord, how long?

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Bruce Wilder 07.25.14 at 5:43 am

I would rather gargle with drano than endorse the “classic liberal” claims of contractual harmony or methodological individualism. I certainly would not endorse the idea that the public interest is an aggregated sum of individual “bonum” or that the public good is some divisible pie. I am a liberal, a liberal institutionalist, so not a “classic liberal” or conservative libertarian.

In a world of radical uncertainty, we muddle through, learning and adapting. The liberal idea is to keep the game going: an open, pluralistic society, mixed economy, constitutional government, deliberative politics where opposed interests can compete strategically and dynamically, and the body politic renews itself periodically with crisis and reform.

The “classic” terrain was disguised authoritarianism and b.s. But, no, things are not looking good.

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J Thomas 07.25.14 at 5:44 am

The core insight of modern economics, however mangled by ideologues, is that we owe productivity and prosperity to social (aka political) cooperation in specialization and trade, setting up a multifarious opposition of private interests, from which a general, common or public interest may emerge: a sense of justice as equitable fairness and a social confidence in the possibility of collective self-government, sufficient to prudently manage the commons and the common wealth.

When the wealth is increasing fast, it isn’t a big issue how to split it up. When everybody’s getting richer, people don’t mind if some people are getting richer faster than others.

There was a time when we had that. The Depression was over, the war was over, and things were getting better. A lot of investment went into the US South, which was like a bunch of third-world nations where they spoke English and where they were forbidden by US law from nationalizing stuff etc. Things improved in the south fast enough they didn’t really mind if things improved for blacks too. It wasn’t a zero-sum game, what blacks had didn’t have to set other people back. There was more than enough to go around. But a lot of people weren’t sure it would last.

The Cold War consumed more and more resources. Vietnam took a lot. People were less convinced there was enough to go around.

The USA ran low on oil and had to import. Oil exporters, led by Faisal of Arabia and Pahlavi of Iran, tried to form a cartel. Within 2 years Faisal was assassinated by his nephew who saudis believed was mind-controlled by the CIA, and in 6 years Pahlavi was overthrown. They had found that it did not do them enough good to corner the market and cause a world wide recession and get the USA angry at them. But the oil supply was still limited.

A long time ago, anything you wanted to do had to be done with human muscles. We got slavery.

Then people learned to use oxen, with yokes. Power. Megaliths. Take three giant stones and tow them to a place you’ve scraped out some ditches. Plant the stones, bury them, drag a fourth stone on top. Pull some of the dirt out, and you have a picnic shelter. A lot of work with human muscles, not so much with oxen.

Then we got wind and water power. Sailboats, mills. Etc.

Coal and oil gave us the industrial revolution. Cheap concrete. Cheap steamships. Cheap railroads. Cheap food. Cheap paper. Cheap electronics. Lots of room for optimism. We could do things that were never practical before. It was a new world.

Now the oil and coal are getting more expensive. So everything that uses them gets more expensive. There is less to go around.

When there is less wealth even when we cooperate well, the value of cooperation is less. The fight to get more than your share turns uglier. Increasingly, it’s chumps who share, chumps who try to produce rather than scam. It isn’t as important to keep the system going, when it’s going to fail anyway.

The obvious solution is to attempt alternate energy. Find something cheap to replace coal and oil and we can be wealthy. This is happening. The research is going at a steady pace. Nobody wants to build too much production yet because the research is going well — build now and your stuff will be obsolete long before it wears out.

Will it work out well? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows.

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J Thomas 07.25.14 at 6:54 am

#147

Israel has a right to defend itself, opines President Obama, and everybody who’s seen the pictures groans.

Look at it in historical context.

Obama speech, Cairo, 2009: Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed — more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories, while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve. On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations large and small that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.

This was considered a horrible insult by zionists, who said it drew an unfair moral equivalence between the Holocaust, the worst atrocity in human history, compared to the Israeli occupation which is the most humane occupation ever — not really an occupation at all since palestinians have no right to any part of Eretz Yisrael.

Obama UN speech, 2009: Yesterday, I had a constructive meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. We have made some progress. Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security. Israelis have facilitated greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians. As a result of these efforts on both sides, the economy in the West Bank has begun to grow. But more progress is needed. We continue to call on Palestinians to end incitement against Israel, and we continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.

Zionists pointed out that this was antisemitic. Some settlements will be abandoned after successful peace negotiations, but for the President of the USA to say the settlements are not legitimate is a horrible offense against Israel.

In the 2010 elections many US zionists did not compaign for Democrats — although every Democratic and every GOP candidate announced 100% unconditional support for Israel, except for Ron Paul — and many said it was because of Obama’s attacks on Israel. GOP candidates were well-funded, and there were claims they got considerable zionist money. The GOP did very well in that election.

Obama meeting with 37 Jewish senators and congressmen, 2010: “I walked through a minefield in the Middle East and I stepped on the land mines. I got some toes blown off.”

Obama UN speech, 2011: America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day.

The reality is that Obama is not strong enough to stand up to Israel.

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