Vindictive billionaires

by Henry on May 26, 2016

There’s been a lot of reaction to the news that Peter Thiel secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit (which has led to a $140 million award) against Gawker. Thiel is, of course, not only a Silicon Valley billionaire, but a man of strong, if idiosyncratic, libertarian views. Hence, it’s ironic that he illustrates some of the blind spots of libertarianism – in particular, the tendency of many libertarians to discount the problems of wealth inequality.

A few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen wrote this post on Trump:

It is sad to see so many people, including those on the Left or in the Democratic Party, criticize the idea of a Trump presidency without ever uttering the phrase: “No man or woman should have so much political power over others.” I agree with many of the moral criticisms of Trump as a leader, but don’t let them distract you from this broader truth. It is strange but instructive how many Democratic criticisms of Trump circle back into criticisms of other, earlier, and now often irrelevant Republicans. That is simply a language of attack they are more comfortable with. The good news, if that is what one should call it, is that the best criticisms of Trump involve the concept of individual liberty and freedom from arbitrary legal authority and pure presidential discretion. The bad news is that so few intellectuals have the relevant ideological vocabulary in that regard.

building on his earlier argument that Trump, if elected, could employ the tools of the state to vindictive ends.

I think that the basic criticism is completely fair – liberals and leftwingers do tend to discount the power of the state, and the ways that it might be employed for vindictive purposes, rather more than they should. But Thiel’s actions potently illustrate how a very similar reproach might be made of libertarians. Many, perhaps most libertarians, and libertarian leaning people like Tyler, tend systematically to discount the politically obnoxious and indeed dangerous consequences of wealth inequality. For example, they don’t pay much attention to the ways in which e.g. billionaires might employ their wealth for vindictive purposes (e.g. apparently setting out in Thiel’s case to destroy a news organization that had outed him as being gay), even when this plausibly has “very, very frightening” consequences for the free press.

Or, more succinctly put, the claim “No man or woman should have so much political power over others” applies just as well to gross inequalities of wealth as well as to concentrations of regulatory power. Billionaires have an awful lot of power, and an awful lot of leeway to use it to pursue personal grudges. This may be highly uncomfortable for libertarians, who often have what might be described as an elective affinity to tolerance for wealth inequality, but that it is uncomfortable does not render it untrue. It doesn’t matter much whether a news organization is destroyed by a billionaire via regulatory action once he becomes President or whether it is destroyed by a billionaire secretly underwriting multiple lawsuits from others. Either which way, the damage is done. Great wealth goes together with great power to do political harm.

Tyler and I debated this on Twitter – I didn’t come away convinced by his answers (you can find them on my feed or his), although perhaps others might be. He has since written three posts on the topic. One inquires into the status reasons why billionaires might complain. One reposts extracts from an interview with Thiel where he says that he was doing this as an act of charity (a claim that Tyler independently made yesterday) and from Jason Willick’s argument that this all doesn’t really matter very much because there is no obvious policy solution (this seems to me to contradict Tyler’s tweet yesterday, suggesting that this is not very relevant, because there are policy solutions, but that’s an aside). The last post is a tu quoque, arguing that environmental organizations too file lawsuits, that Tyler has heard gossip suggesting that they are perhaps sometime getting funded by rich people who want revenge, and that this is perhaps OK, and anyway, the left doesn’t seem particularly bothered when this happens.

None of this is really responsive to the fundamental issue. If Tyler and libertarians are (rightly) uncomfortable with the ways that vindictive people could abuse great political power in pursuit of their personal revenge missions, and feel that the left is willfully blind when it ignores this possibility, why should they be relaxed about billionaires abusing their wealth in pursuit of revenge? Perhaps it is because Tyler agrees (as he seems to suggest on Twitter) with Thiel’s claim that he was not interested in revenge, and undertook this as a charitable act, looking to help others against bullying. However, Thiel’s self-exculpatory account seems improbable on its face, given Thiel’s secrecy, his political support (as a delegate) for notable bully and wannabe Calumniator-in-Chief Donald Trump, and Denton’s near-contemporaneous statement that Thiel had sent “a series of messages relaying the destruction that would rain down on me, and various innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, if a story ever ran.”

But even if this account is true in all its particulars, so that Thiel is a sort of libertarian Bruce Wayne, wounded by trauma into donning a secret identity of cape, mask and lawsuit to protect Gotham’s innocents against perfidious tabloid journalists, it’s completely irrelevant. So too are the putative vengeance-seeking wealthy environmentalists. As Tyler has himself compellingly argued, when complaining about the left, we should not trust any man or woman with such great political power over others. The claim travels. I don’t imagine that Tyler would have been convinced if someone had responded to his post on the ideological blindness of the left to the potential of abuse by a vindictive president, by claiming that president Trump’s hinted retaliation against e.g. Amazon for the sins of the Washington Post might help Amazon’s suppliers and customers, or by listing all the useful things that could be done by presidents who used their vast discretion for good. He would rightly have said that this ducked the question of whether or not this great preponderance of power created risks, when combined with vindictiveness. Just so, he cannot wave away the problem of great power being potentially used for vindictive purposes when it is being wielded by an unelected billionaire rather than an elected one.

If one were to be uncharitable, one might describe these marked inconsistencies as the result of what Tyler himself calls ‘mood affiliation.’ I don’t, however, think that this is an especially helpful term in this situation or in most others. It’s better to think of this as a general manifestation of a general problem that all of us face, whether we are brilliant or whether we are not. As numerous results from cognitive psychology demonstrate, we are all, whether on the left or on the right, better at noting the motes in our sisters’ eyes than the beams in our own.

If you are minded to see intellectual improvement as an individual activity, you might see this as grounds for despair. If you’re more optimistic, you may see this tendency as not a circumstance to be deplored so much as the impulsive force of a social engine of discovery. If we’re relatively poor at spotting our own ideological blind spots, and relatively good at spotting other peoples’, then there is enormous value to argument between people with strongly different understandings of the world, as long as they are committed to a minimal standard of honesty, and of trying, however gradually or grudgingly, to adopt or adapt to the best arguments from those with whom they disagree.

From past experience, this is often an uncomfortable and messy process, involving mutual grumpiness, uncharitable feelings, suspicions that the person disagreeing or being disagreed with is a troll, concern troll, sea lion or what have you, etc &c usw. For indeed, the desire to be right on the internet is natural and present to all. But this kind of debate across ideologies is also, over the long term, very useful indeed in mitigating biases and sometimes in harnessing them. Hence, my belief that Tyler’s initial intervention was useful in pointing out that leftwingers were too blase about the potential for abuse of state power by vindictive people. Hence too my belief that libertarians very often lack the “relevant ideological vocabulary” to think about how the extremely wealthy can also use their power for vindictive purposes, and that they really need to be pushed to acquire it.

{ 122 comments }

1

Brett 05.26.16 at 5:22 pm

I wouldn’t over-read the Thiel support for this law-suit into a general trend. Thiel could only back-stop a lawsuit otherwise allowed to go forward on legitimate grounds, because of Florida’s anti-SLAPP law – and even then, it only went as far as it did because Hulk Hogan was willing to forgo a potentially multi-million dollar monetary settlement just so he could beat Gawker and make them suffer (along with getting millions). The big comparison that’s being made is the lawsuit against Mother Jones, but that was happening in a state with no such anti-SLAPP laws.

We’ve had stuff like this before, with rich people back-stopping ACLU or environmental lawsuits either directly or via fundraisers. Not sure how you would stop something like Thiel without attacking the latter as well, but a strong national anti-SLAPP law coupled with disclosure requirements for any funding of a lawsuit above a certain monetary amount might help.

2

casssander 05.26.16 at 5:30 pm

>But Thiel’s actions potently illustrate how a very similar reproach might be made of libertarians….Billionaires have an awful lot of power, and an awful lot of leeway to use it to pursue personal grudges

First, the share of political power a president or even a congress person has is VASTLY larger than the share of wealth that a billionaire has. And the conversion of wealth into power happens at rates far from 1:1 (i.e. having 1% of all wealth does not give you 1% of all power). If your concern is inequalities of power, billionaires are very, very far down the list of most powerful people in the world.

Second, the libertarian solution political inequalities works just as well for billionaires as it does for state actors. Clip the wings of the state and you also clip the wings of the ability of billionaires to employ the state on their behalf. Theil did not hire Blackwater to abduct people in the dark of night and imprison them, he used his considerable resources to mobilize the state against Gawker. In a world with a much smaller, simpler state, theil would have acheived far less.

3

Marc 05.26.16 at 5:33 pm

It’s at least relevant that the basis of the lawsuit appears to be sound – Gawker was a genuinely bad actor. Other than legal action, what recourse do people have against the media when, say, the media publishes a secretly recorded sex tape of them without their permission?

Put another way – in addition to government and rich individuals being able to act badly, corporations and the media can also act badly.

4

SamChevre 05.26.16 at 5:38 pm

Just so, he cannot wave away the problem of great power being potentially used for vindictive purposes when it is being wielded by an unelected billionaire rather than an elected one.

My argument would be that one of these three possibilities will occur in almost all cases of “vindictive use of financial power.”
1) The power is a power to get the government to do something. The question then becomes “should the government have powers that support this kind of vindictive behavior”
2) The power is one already widely used by organizations. Peter Thiel and Frank VanderSloot together have spent way less getting the government to harass their opposition than the HRC.
3) Trivial case–the power is illegal already.

The use of lawsuits, even on apparently unrelated topics, as a harassment tool is wildly common–I’m trying to think of a major infrastructure build that didn’t have them. See this one, for example–do you really think Lummi fishing rights were the motivation?

5

BenK 05.26.16 at 5:51 pm

The issue should not be personal power over another person, per se.

The issue is personal power over people to whom one has no lasting connection. In the clearest example I can come up with, a caregiver for an adult with developmental disabilities can have immense power over that individual. The right person to have that power is a person connected to the person by bonds which cannot be shed – for example, a parent or sibling. It is not unacceptable that this power exists; and attempts to diffuse it result in tragedy.

6

Koen 05.26.16 at 6:04 pm

2 Responses:

1. In ideal theory I think the problem you sketch need not emerge for libertarians as they could just say that this is all under the assumption that the legal system works and delivers just results. That way it cannot be abused by billionaires in the sense of billionaires causing unjust outcomes of lawsuits. The only thing billionaires would be facilitating is people’s access to that just legal system.

2. In the real, non-ideal world rather than making it impossible for billionaires to help people to sue other people perhaps attention should be focused on the following two issues:

a) Make the loser of a lawsuit pay the legal costs (within certain limits) of the winner? (that way it would become impossible for billionaires to drive people to financial ruin by just launching one hopeless lawsuit after the next)

b) Improve the legal system so that chances of just outcomes – regardless of who funded what – increase

7

Adam Hammond 05.26.16 at 6:11 pm

Are libertarians interested in limiting standing in the civil courts? I haven’t heard that rallying cry. Paying creative lawyers to find grounds for a law suit will still be a viable strategy in a libertarian utopia, especially if torte reform caps the size of settlements.

8

Brian 05.26.16 at 6:28 pm

1) The power is a power to get the government to do something. The question then becomes “should the government have powers that support this kind of vindictive behavior”

This is not really correct. The power is having a much greater amount of power to get the government to do something. Getting the government to do something in this case is reasonable and necessary, but Thiel can do it to the maximum extent possible, for an indefinite period of time, and for reasons entirely unrelated to the purpose of the courts.

9

nickj 05.26.16 at 6:43 pm

perhaps the left (and indeed, the right) should be more concerned at Obama’s imperial thumbs down to various “terrorists” presented to him by the CIA.

must go, I seem to have a nasty tu quoque in my throat.

10

LFC 05.26.16 at 7:02 pm

Although I read it quickly, I judge this a very good post.

I may not be quite so hopeful as Henry is about the potential of ‘cognitive democracy,’ the exchange of views among ideological opposites, etc., but that’s no reason not to try on suitable occasions. This issue of the vindictive wielding of power (state or private) seems to present one such occasion.

11

alkali 05.26.16 at 7:05 pm

I would note that the rules of civil litigation are structured at least in some respects to promote a certain kind of economic efficiency, with the idea that people should be encouraged to settle their disputes rather than prolong litigation. To be clear, I don’t know what the Thiel-Hogan arrangement was, but I can imagine that a judge would be very concerned to learn that a plaintiff had entered into a funding arrangement that discouraged the plaintiff from agreeing to a reasonable settlement.(*) Pretending to fight is OK for pro wrestlers but not for civil litigants.

(* Litigation finance arrangements need not create those kind of problems. For instance, the idea behind contingent fees — i.e., a fee determined as a percentage of a judgment or settlement — is that it roughly aligns the incentives of the plaintiff and the attorney.)

12

David 05.26.16 at 7:19 pm

“liberals and leftwingers do tend to discount the power of the state”
I’m not sure that the Left does, or at least it didn’t in the past, simply because the state was so often used against it.
Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be obsessed with the state because they fear a loss of economic freedom, which, as Mrs Thatcher taught us, is the only true freedom there is. On the other hand, liberals are often blind to the dangers of the concentration of economic power and inequalities of wealth. For what it’s worth, also, even powerful individuals in politics often have to contend with rivals and countervailing powers, in a way that billionaires don’t necessarily have to.

13

Keith 05.26.16 at 7:48 pm

This is a bit precious. All politics is about using state power. “The Left” and “The Right” however you define them, merely want the state to do different things as they want different things. Labels like Libertarian are rather irrelevant. This rich man has used state power via a judge under civil Law. Power is Power.

It might be more useful to ask how far the freedom of the press should infringe on privacy of individuals. Rich or poor are there secrets I am allowed to keep via legal actions ? Or should the press be allowed to publish to my embarrassment and if so when? I suspect it is actually very hard to answer that question correctly as people in a Democracy tend to both say they support freedom of expression and privacy rights. They however always tend to conflict in various situations.

14

LFC 05.26.16 at 7:51 pm

David @12
Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be obsessed with the state because they fear a loss of economic freedom, which, as Mrs Thatcher taught us, is the only true freedom there is

I took the OP to be using ‘liberals’ in the contemp. US politics sense, not the European sense that you use here.

15

David 05.26.16 at 8:08 pm

@LFC. Fair point – I don’t want to get into the whole liberal/libertarian thing again, but I wonder if even liberals in the US sense might not have reservations about the way that government power was used against them – the civil rights movement, Watergate, that kind of thing?

16

LFC 05.26.16 at 8:19 pm

@David
One-word answer wd be yes.

17

bruce wilder 05.26.16 at 8:27 pm

The American liberal argument was that the democracy, as long as it works, can be used to constrain a powerful state to governance by deliberation, by checks and balances and requirements for due process. Such a powerful state, responding to fluid and shifting electoral coalitions reflecting and sustaining contention among conflicting interests, can then be an effective vehicle of countervailing power and just arbitration of disputes.

Or not.

18

baa 05.26.16 at 8:39 pm

But even if this account is true in all its particulars, so that Thiel is a sort of libertarian Bruce Wayne, wounded by trauma into donning a secret identity of cape, mask and lawsuit to protect Gotham’s innocents against perfidious tabloid journalists, it’s completely irrelevant.

I don’t see why this is irrelevant. If we stipulate Gawker is a bad actor and the claim against them is obviously non-frivolous, it matters a great deal.

Per this stipulation, Gawker deserves to get sued, and they deserve to lose, and if those injured by them want their destruction more than money, that’s super. If absent Thiel, Hogan doesn’t get the justice that (per stipulation) he deserves, the complaint should be that pursuing a legal remedy against them costs so much money. Poor Hulk Hogan, rich as he is, couldn’t afford to get justice against the big corporation . You shouldn’t need a kickstarter to get justice.

19

Jason Smith 05.26.16 at 9:54 pm

One quick note — the vindictiveness of government argument is at cross purposes to the ineffectiveness/inefficiency of government argument from libertarians. Governments can be effective/efficient in vindictiveness, but not in regulation?

20

Yankee 05.26.16 at 10:25 pm

The point with Hulk vs. Gawker isn’t so much outsize political influence of billionaires (compared with Senators, Fed officers …) as that the individual is able to focus that power in a way that officeholders are constrained (or at least frictionally restrained) from. If Gawker goes down, well these things come and go anyway, doesn’t amount to significant political damage. But Thiel is able to do a nontrivial amount of damage locally totally at his own whim or shall we say recognizance. The Hulk (the green one), yes.

Billionaire power wields the power of large corporations, but has unchained itself from the restraints of the corporate structure. Bound to be destabilizing.

21

F. Foundling 05.26.16 at 10:27 pm

@OP quoting Cowen:
>”It is sad to see so many people, including those on the Left or in the Democratic Party, criticize the idea of a Trump presidency without ever uttering the phrase: “No man or woman should have so much political power over others.”

I suppose I’m missing something, but I still don’t understand how this even remotely makes sense. How is this supposed to be an argument against a Trump presidency specifically and not against the US presidential institution in general? Is Cowen saying that the only truly principled criticism of Trump would involve demanding the scrapping of the US constitution? Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

@OP
>liberals and leftwingers do tend to discount the power of the state, and the ways that it might be employed for vindictive purposes, rather more than they should.

More than they should? Yes, being human. More so than rightwingers? No — f***ing — way.

@BenK @5
>The issue is personal power over people to whom one has no lasting connection. … The right person to have that power is a person connected to the person by bonds which cannot be shed … It is not unacceptable that this power exists; and attempts to diffuse it result in tragedy.

Tell that to incest and domestic abuse survivors. *All* personal power must be limited as much as possible, fullstop. Don’t worry, there will always be plenty left.

22

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 05.26.16 at 10:47 pm

With all these assholes around, there’s got to be some pony shit somewhere…
~

23

Daragh 05.26.16 at 11:27 pm

Good post Henry, and one that I think extends considerably greater benefit of the doubt to Thiel than he deserves. I’ll admit that such open-mindedness is probably beyond me.

That being said I think you’re being a bit too generous to libertarianism by debating it on it’s own terms. I don’t think this is a case of ‘leftists are too blase about state power and libertarians are too blase about financial power’, because ultimately what Thiel is doing is petitioning the state to direct it’s power against a group Thiel doesn’t like. Leftists and liberals generally hew to some sort of notion that the state should treat it’s citizens equally. Thiel wants to hijack the state to prosecute a grudge (with terrible consequences for the fine journalists at Deadspin, io9, Kotaku et al who will be out on their ears if Gawker Media is forced to fold despite having nothing to do with a story published 9 years ago that repeated what was by most accounts I’ve read common knowledge at the time) and his writings suggest that he believes social relations should be governed by Worthington’s Law.

All in all, this episode has done little to shift me from the position that ‘libertarianism’ as a belief system consists of little more than a narcissistic resentment that one is required to follow the same rules and laws as everyone else, rather than any principled objection rules and laws per se. It’s not liberty the likes of Thiel wants, it’s feudalism (so long as they’re the ones in the keep, natch).

24

heckblazer 05.26.16 at 11:47 pm

baa @ 19:
Hogan’s lawyer in the case normally works on a contingency basis, which means normally he only gets paid if he wins the case for his client. People were speculating Hogan had a benefactor (e.g. this New York Times piece published the day before the Thiel news broke) because his legal team made decisions that otherwise didn’t make economic sense. That included turning down several settlement offers and not making an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim that would have made Gawker’s insurance company liable for damages. That last decision in particular looks designed more towards maximizing damage to Gawker than it does to generating justice for Mr. Hogan.

25

Anderson 05.27.16 at 2:39 am

“and not making an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim that would have made Gawker’s insurance company liable for damages”

Things turned out well for Hogan, obviously, but that steers awfully close to malpractice. Which is a reason why champerty and maintenance ought still to be illegal IMHO.

26

oldster 05.27.16 at 2:47 am

I’m always baffled at seeing Cowen taken seriously and treated respectfully.

Cowen plays the same role in the left-academic world that David Brooks plays for your elderly NPR-listening relatives: he has found the right tone of voice for making the inexcusable seem inoffensive.

Brooks is a reliable lackey for right-wing power who will never, ever cross his Republican owners. But somehow the tote-bagger set thinks he’s “a very nice man, so reasonable”.

Cowen, too, invariably winds up on the side of power and privilege, but left-academics continue to engage him as though he is an honest actor making honest arguments.

He is not.

27

Sam Bradford 05.27.16 at 3:51 am

I agree entirely with your argument…
But I still don’t feel bad about this. Gawker deserve to go down – their approach to ‘news’ is corrosive to democracy. Just like billionaires!

28

Tabasco 05.27.16 at 4:07 am

There’s an an important principle at stake here. It is good when billionaires finance the apparatus of the state to take down people I don’t like and to promote causes I do like.

29

js. 05.27.16 at 5:00 am

Sorry this is a bit off topic, but why do people hate Gawker so much? I mean, I realize they do dumb/questionable shit and have for ever. And I’ll also admit that I haven’t read the site regularly since the old Pareene/Nolan/Lawson days, but back then it was a site that had really smart (and funny!) political coverage, and also fairly good comment threads (way before Kinja obviously) — and my sense is that across its various sites, Gawker Media still employs a lot of good, young journalists and bloggers. Seems to me that a lot of hate that gets directed towards them is a bit misdirected.

30

js. 05.27.16 at 5:09 am

Also though, this piece is utterly brilliant. I don’t think I can say anything about it other than noting that it’s a model of intellectual engagement.

31

Vasilis 05.27.16 at 6:26 am

Has Cowen ever extended the courtesy of recognizing the error of his ways in anything other than not being libertarian enough/nor cowtowing to “job creators” enough?

32

Niall McAuley 05.27.16 at 8:07 am

Invisible Hand Legal Services.

33

dax 05.27.16 at 8:17 am

I’m just surprised how this episode is framed in terms of vindictiveness – as if that’s unusual. The whole fucking American justice system is based on vindictiveness – of punishing wrong-doers. There was a time forty or so years ago when this wasn’t the case and there was a thought to rehabilitate criminals, but now the idea is just to lock them up. That’s vindictiveness. “Holding people responsible for their wrong-doing” is not based on the principle of charity, people.

Secondly, it seems some are simply reasoning, “Thiel libertarian Trump supporter. Thiel bad. Anything Thiel does is bad.” I don’t see that at all. There is a right to privacy. In Europe this is a hard legal right, in America in depends on the restraint of the media source and the ability of the victim to sue for damages. Gawker abused the unwritten rule in the U.S. by revealing Thiel’s sexual orientation. Thiel’s only legal recourse was to sue; he didn’t do it in his own case, I presume, because he didn’t want to have his private life ventilated more in public, so he waited for another similar case. Absolutely no problem with that. Gawker was the bad actor here. Gawker showed no remorse. And Gawker continued to trample on the right of privacy.

Finally, the only thing I would criticize here is that Thiel’s support of the case was anonymous (until recently). This is bad, in the same way that anonymous donations of large amounts of money to PACs is bad.

34

Stephenson-quoter kun 05.27.16 at 8:39 am

js. @29: There’s a good summary here.

Back to the OP:

Billionaires have an awful lot of power, and an awful lot of leeway to use it to pursue personal grudges

This is true. But they can’t break the law, and can only pursue their vendettas by purely legal means. The question is whether this is enough of a limit.

If I’m feeling charitable, I’ll accept that libertarians want a world in which initiative lies with individuals under the rule of law. Thiel can sue people and libertarians don’t need to care about whether he wins or loses. If he is bringing good cases he’ll win and presumably continue suing until he runs out of good cases to bring; if he loses then it’s because he had a bad case and sooner or later this will cost him enough money to deter him from further action. Even a billionaire can’t force the process to give them their desired outcome.

This differs from the exercise of political authority in that there’s rarely any cost to exceeding political authority, and the nature of political authority is that it can generally make its own rules about what might be considered an excess. Mass deportations, religious restrictions, renunciation of international treaties, all of these should be impossible under the rule of law. Trump seems to believe that once he has political authority, he’ll be able to do them anyway, and it’s not obvious that the mechanisms designed to prevent him from doing so are going to work.

I think this argument can be boiled down to the notion that political power is both highly concentrated and inadequately constrained, whereas power in the hands of individuals is both widely dispersed (there’s one President but many Thiel-level billionaires, not all of whom share his views or even close) and more constrained by law. However, whilst this is basically true, it would be a strange argument for an individualist to make, because what matters is not the aggregate effect on society but the worst thing that could be done to any individual – in this case, whoever Peter Thiel decides to sue. If it can be shown that a billionaire can ruin the life of a single private individual through the simple deployment of large amounts of money, I can’t see how a libertarian can avoid condemning the possibility.

35

Trader Joe 05.27.16 at 11:22 am

So if Theil gives $10m bucks to an abused women’s defense fund since he has a deep seated grudge against any a-hole that would hit a woman, we’re meant to clap politely and laud his largess in helping powerless women get access to legal resources, its not buying legal outcomes since the victims are obviously powerless and they need a benefactor.

If he spends the same money to help the Hulkster put a hurting on a garbage-feeding “news” (generously applied) organization which has demonstrated its own limited moral character time and again we’re meant to be appalled at the gall of these billionaires.

This was an invasion of privacy case, it was proved in the courts before a competent judge and jury. If justice was done, it was done. Gawker complaining that they didn’t play fair and let them off cheaper is nearly on par with Zimmerman complaining that Martin didn’t fight fair. Gawker started it – Thiel/Hogan ended it.

36

Barry 05.27.16 at 11:58 am

Henry: “Billionaires have an awful lot of power, and an awful lot of leeway to use it to pursue personal grudges. This may be highly uncomfortable for libertarians, ….”

Idea that there is any significant number of libertarians who actually care about such things needs to be put down like a zombie.

In the end libertarianism is just another right-wing ideology which seeks to maximize the power of the rich and other Herrenvolk. The only conflict is when the interests of the rich and the Herrenvolk are in clear conflict.

37

F. Foundling 05.27.16 at 1:29 pm

@ BenK 05.26.16 at 5:51 pm
>The issue is personal power over people to whom one has no lasting connection. … The right person to have that power is a person connected to the person by bonds which cannot be shed … It is not unacceptable that this power exists; and attempts to diffuse it result in tragedy.

Stuck in moderation, so – again: this is a theoretical justification of (tolerance for) domestic abuse, as well as of all kinds of hierarchies claiming to involve a ‘fatherly’/natural/intimate relation between dominator and subordinate, which means pretty much all pre-capitalist hierarchies and sometimes capitalist ones as well. Power must be minimised through control; if it can’t be controlled to a significant extent by those over whom it is exercised, as in the case of the mentally disabled, it should be controlled by the rest of society.

38

Barry 05.27.16 at 1:38 pm

Stephenson-quoter kun 05.27.16 at 8:39 am
js. @29: There’s a good summary here.

Back to the OP:

Billionaires have an awful lot of power, and an awful lot of leeway to use it to pursue personal grudges

This is true. But they can’t break the law, and can only pursue their vendettas by purely legal means. The question is whether this is enough of a limit.

If I’m feeling charitable, I’ll accept that libertarians want a world in which initiative lies with individuals under the rule of law. Thiel can sue people and libertarians don’t need to care about whether he wins or loses. If he is bringing good cases he’ll win and presumably continue suing until he runs out of good cases to bring; if he loses then it’s because he had a bad case and sooner or later this will cost him enough money to deter him from further action. Even a billionaire can’t force the process to give them their desired outcome.”

That’s not how it works. In the case of Gawker, for example, Thiel had his lawyer aim for the destruction of Gawkets, rather than serving his client.

In addition, Thiel can likely spring for enough lawyer time to bankrupt many parties.

On top of that, even a bad lawsuit occasionally wins, and one win can do the job.

39

William Berry 05.27.16 at 2:15 pm

@js:

I like Gawker quite a bit myself.

But then, one of my favorite wise-cracks is: “If you don’t have anything good to say about anybody– why, then, sit right here by me!”

40

LFC 05.27.16 at 2:26 pm

oldster @26
The idea that only “elderly” people with the logo “tote bags” ever listen to NPR or other public-radio etc things (e.g. ‘The World’, The NewsHour) is, to be blunt, ridiculous.

And as for taking Cowen seriously: people in general should be allowed to take seriously who(m)ever they want.

Henry Farrell obvs likes reading Cowen’s site and finds it worth doing so. I don’t generally read Cowen but I have no particular problem w HF doing it. Cowen has a visible academic post, is a prolific writer, writes online under his full name, and is viewed by some as having sharp things to say. (Compared to someone like me, who has no ac. post, has not published bk(s) in my field, and writes under my initials, I completely understand why HF chooses to read Cowen, say, rather than my (rather infrequent these days) blog. If I were HF I’d prob do the same.) As I said, I’m not a fan of this “why are you taking X seriously” theme and think people shd be allowed, within a fairly wide though not limitless latitude, to take seriously whom they want to take seriously.

41

LFC 05.27.16 at 2:33 pm

@oldster
The other thing you don’t seem to get is that HF’s whole theory of ‘cognitive democracy’, which he has referenced repeatedly at CT, depends on encountering and conversing w/ one’s ideological ‘others’, as the OP says. Now maybe you think that’s all BS, and that “intellectual growth” is much more of an “individual activity” than Henry believes, and that’s fine. But at least you shd recognize where he is coming from.

42

Brett 05.27.16 at 2:48 pm

@Trader Joe

This. This wasn’t and isn’t Thiel slamming Gawker with frivolous lawsuits – this is him ensuring that already-existing lawsuits have access to financing in case they want to fight it out. It’s more than a bit rich for Gawker to be complaining about Thiel making it possible for their opponents to fight out it instead of being forced into a settlement by legal costs.

43

Barry 05.27.16 at 3:11 pm

Brett, the whole point of the OP is that that is not the case.

44

bianca steele 05.27.16 at 3:17 pm

From what I understand, the award is rather high. It also seems a bit sleazy to take actions that would make the award lower, solely so the insurance company won’t get involved, and bring in its own lawyers, making it necessary for the publication to pay costs itself. Also, from what I understand, some people care less about privacy than I, personally, would, and are saying things like “only a person with the wrong (prudish liberal or anti-sex right-winger) would think sex should be hidden.” It’s actually a good story, pitting one new avatar of the Internet world against another.

But I find this post frankly baffling. The point of view expressed in the first quoted paragraph should be considered far, far out of the range of acceptable opinion for anyone but an anarchist. We have a bad candidate, and the solution is to abolish government? Really? I don’t understand why this should even be taken seriously, even by someone who wants (for whatever reason, which I have never understood in Henry’s case) to treat libertarianism with extreme respect, verging on deference.

As for “cognitive democracy,” well, I don’t have whatever “nous” lets LFC be so certain he can connect the term to the thing (nor do I believe such a connection could exist), but Henry’s brought it up a fair number of times, and I can’t connect that to this post.

45

LFC 05.27.16 at 3:49 pm

I can’t connect that to this post.

See the post’s last two paragraphs. One of those graphs even links to the Farrell & Shalizi ‘cognitive democracy’ paper.

46

bianca steele 05.27.16 at 3:55 pm

Well, thanks, LFC. I guess my difference of opinion with you is just down to my ignorance. You’re right, the reason I said Henry has talked about cognitive democracy before was exactly that I hadn’t read what he’d already wrote about it! I’m sure if I read it I will come around to your point of view. I’ll go and re-read that and all the other posts, and if I still disagree, I’ll read them again. And if I think I have reasons to disagree, I’ll figure out what those are, and I’ll eradicate them from my brain.

47

oldster 05.27.16 at 4:11 pm

Thanks, LFC. May your bluntness never finder more vehement expression than “ridiculous”–it would be a more genteel internet if we were all that blunt.

I certainly think that everyone is permitted to engage with, and take seriously, anyone they wish to. And how you could imagine that I thought I was in the business of granting or withholding permissions is quite beyond me.

Cognitive democracy sounds like a fine slogan (though I prefer “cognitive whiskey” and “cognitive sexy”), but I hope that Henry does not take it seriously. Will we find him engaging soberly and respectfully with Bill O’Reilly next? Finding much to ponder in Rush Limbaugh latest excreta? To-be-sure-ing with Michelle Malkin? I don’t recall his doing so. He may have pointed and laughed, or roundly condemned, but did he respectfully engage?

I for one hope not–not because I have any permits to hand out or deny, but because I think there is a pale, and they are beyond it. Henry’s general lack of engagement with the Stormfront crowd suggests to me that he, too, thinks there is a pale, and some are beyond it. Limited democracy, then, and the better for it.

Why is it not more generally recognized that Cowen is as politically vicious as that lot? Partly because he has mastered the tone. And partly because otherwise sensible people keep giving him cover.

48

bianca steele 05.27.16 at 4:25 pm

Ha ha, LFC and I were just playing a little game, where I pretend not to understand something and he points it out! That way I get to do the work of writing the long post and he gets to look up citations and get the credit! Obviously I agree with Henry 100%, it would be sooo stupid not to!

Sorry if your not understanding how things are done makes you feel stupid.

49

LFC 05.27.16 at 5:07 pm

bianca:
so in what way are you not able to connect Henry’s views on cognitive democracy with what he has written in this post?

It’s one thing to say you disagree w Henry — no prob w that. It’s another to say that you see no connection btw something he cites to in an OP and the OP itself.

I really think you are being nasty to me for no good reason. Obvs you disagree. But I do think the question at the beginning of this comment is a legit one.

50

LFC 05.27.16 at 5:12 pm

As for “cognitive democracy,” well, I don’t have whatever “nous” lets LFC be so certain he can connect the term to the thing (nor do I believe such a connection could exist), but Henry’s brought it up a fair number of times, and I can’t connect that to this post.

Filtering out the gratuitous nastiness here and your — to me — slightly opaque ref to connecting the ‘term’ to the ‘thing’, I think my reading of this — i.e. that you profess to see no connection betw HF’s views on ‘cognitive democracy’ and the post — is a fair one.

I’ve been trying not to engage you here (or anywhere else) b.c of your persistent, unwarranted nastiness and misreadings/misconstructions of whatever I say, but when you mention me by name (i.e. by initials) in a comment I think I’m entitled to reply.

51

oldster 05.27.16 at 5:14 pm

my comment is awaiting moderation. I cannot see any content that could have triggered it, so perhaps someone simply thought I need moderating in general.

And they might be right!

As Russell Baker wrote long ago,
Don’t snarl like Vercingetorix;
come, moderate your rhetorics!

52

bianca steele 05.27.16 at 5:17 pm

LFC:

What kind of role do you imagine that you play in the CT comments thread, that you’re entitled to demand an answer to any question you think is “legitimate”, or to continue demanding anything from someone you’ve insulted and continue to insult?

53

Sebastian H 05.27.16 at 5:20 pm

“One quick note — the vindictiveness of government argument is at cross purposes to the ineffectiveness/inefficiency of government argument from libertarians. Governments can be effective/efficient in vindictiveness, but not in regulation?”

No. It is much easier to kill with a knife than it is to perform surgery. And even the best surgeons often can’t cut out a cancer without seriously risking the patient’s death. It is completely plausible that some governmental tools might be very efficient at vindicitively destroying things without having much in the way of likely positive effects. That not being clear is “living under historically low amounts of corruption government privilege” or something.

There is a lot that is wrong with the US legal system. I’m not sure that bankrolling legitimate cases that deserve to win is one of the top problems. I would say that the top problems are things like awards disconnected from the actual harms, reluctance to judge frivolous cases in such a way as to punish frivolous case bringers, and the ability to paper to death legitimate cases brought by smaller actors. The last one is most closely related to wealth but the government is the very best at papering legitimate cases to death so I’m not sure it works on the axis we are talking about here.

I’m not impressed with the discussion on the Hogan case.

1. Where is the feminist critique about the importance of severely punishing vindicitively published sex tapes? Did that whole discussion suddenly become irrelevant?

2. This is a case that Hogan deserved to win. Right? So are we complaining that Gawker should have been able to beat Hogan back because THEY were a better funded corporation than he was a rich individual? When you put it like that a lot of the discussion looks odd, but why shouldn’t we put it like that?

3. Framing this as a dualistic question of individual/government power is wrong. This is a case where both the libertarian critique AND the liberal critique have something useful to say. Critiques can work like that. Maybe the government should have less power to completely destroy a business AND rich individuals should be given less power to use the government to completely destroy a business.

4. Any attempt to limit actors like Thiel on legitimate lawsuits like this one is going to have to contend with the problem of applying the same rules to other actors who back lawsuits. Unions, the ACLU, and environmental groups are all going to have serious trouble under any rules that I can think of which would deal with this case. Maybe that’s ok, but I’m very skeptical of the assumption that you can design a fair rule that excludes this kind of case without dramatically changing those kinds of cases.

The Mother Jones case is much more useful to analyze. There the case was clearly crap. In a much more just world, the judge would have thrown it out and gotten all the defense costs paid. (That case also is about forum shopping, which wasn’t the case with Hogan. Forum shopping can be a genuine evil depending on the circumstances, and can be especially evil in media cases because of the way long arm statutes operate–a progressive innovation by the way).

54

LFC 05.27.16 at 5:22 pm

What kind of role do you imagine that you play in the CT comments thread, that you’re entitled to demand an answer to any question you think is “legitimate”, or to continue demanding anything from someone you’ve insulted and continue to insult?

What kind of role do you think *you* play in the CT comments thread, that you’re entitled to claim repeatedly and falsely that I have insulted you?

You’re allowed to make cryptic, nasty references to me and I’m not allowed to reply? That’s insane.

55

Sebastian H 05.27.16 at 5:27 pm

Relatedly, personal vindictiveness as played out in government shaped the way foreign policy experts refused to consult with Sanders as his campaign progressed:

This is one issue on which Sanders has largely avoided extreme left-wing positions (supporting the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan, for example) while Clinton has a record that is in many ways to the right of most Democrats. And yet essentially no experts rallied to Sanders’s standard even as Clinton has repeatedly suggested that she is more hawkish than Obama on questions relating to Israel, Iran, Syria, and other issues.

Here’s Fisher:

The Clintons are notorious for rewarding loyalty and punishing perceived disloyalty — no matter how slight or how long ago. Even when Clinton was part of the Obama administration, her State Department shut out quite a few people who had supported Obama.

If you’re a foreign policy professional, you remember that. And you see that a Clinton primary victory still looks likely. So if you think you might want a job in government anytime in the next four to eight years, especially a high-level job, siding with Clinton in the primary is the safe bet.

This elite-driven lack of expert heft made it consistently difficult for Sanders to get the campaign focused on an issue terrain that objectively should have been very unfavorable for Clinton.

Both Clintons are legendary in their willingness to punish people forever for being on the ‘wrong’ side of intra-party disputes. In the context of government I don’t know how to deal with that (maybe our UK friends have some thoughts) but it can warp things in very unhealthy ways.

56

bianca steele 05.27.16 at 5:27 pm

LFC, you’re right, I did mention you by name. And you’ve continued to prove my point. You apparently think that if someone writes something, there are no questions to be asked. And you’ve decided that you should patrol the comments looking for people who ask questions, so you can correct them (or play a game of citations, I honestly don’t know what’s going on with you, except that you have all the marks of someone who’s become way to comfortable with people I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley). And according to you, nobody deserved the “if you’d read the post, you would agree with me” treatment except me.

57

Salem 05.27.16 at 5:28 pm

Cowen responds (at 6). Frankly I think he gets much the better of this exchange. Trader Joe’s unanswerable critique at 35 is just a recapitulation of Cowen’s analogy to environmental lawsuits, which the OP evidently failed to understand.

58

LFC 05.27.16 at 5:30 pm

@ b. steele
I might be tempted to conclude that you adopt this posture w/r/t every other commenter, but I recall on a thread just the other day someone raised a question about one of your comments and you replied courteously enough, saying you — I believe this was your phrase — might “walk it back.” But when I raise a question, you treat it as an insult.

59

bianca steele 05.27.16 at 5:31 pm

LFC: No, you can reply, you can make false claims, you can do whatever you want. You can try to become Puchalsky-minus-substance if you think that will get you somewhere.

Apologize for the threadjack.

60

LFC 05.27.16 at 5:31 pm

I wasn’t playing a game of citations, but I’m going to drop this now, as it is pointless.

61

bianca steele 05.27.16 at 5:33 pm

@57 You know, people are allowed to dislike you. I’ve given you every benefit of the doubt, here and at my blog. In my opinion, you are a slightly better educated version, cleaner-vocabularied of the worst kind of harassing troll.

62

Sebastian H 05.27.16 at 5:53 pm

On the doomsday side of the debate we have Felix Salmon. I have a weird mix of agreement and disagreement with that piece. I wonder if media companies haven’t been floating in a bubble where they just now are experiencing what lots of other companies have to deal with.

It is absolutely not true that this is a new tactic being developed by Thiel. This may be a new tactic as employed against media companies, but the inappropriate employment of repeated “environmental review” attacks, or serial filings by the Sierra Club against loggers in the 90s, has been threatening companies for decades.

I think Salmon gets to the heart of the threat, but it isn’t a new threat. It may very well be time to re-look at how serial lawsuit attacks work. It may very well be that we need to tighten them up. I guess my critique about environmental suits could be taken the other way, maybe we should restrict the ability to fund serial suits?

I don’t know. The devil I know in the current legal system is really terrible. But I’m hesitant to say that the devil I don’t know in restricting motivated backers is better than the devil I know.

63

LFC 05.27.16 at 6:05 pm

b. steele
and at my blog

What actually happened was that I left a comment or two — something that bloggers usually like — quite a long time ago, and you then made it clear that you did not welcome further comments from me, which is of course your prerogative.

64

bianca steele 05.27.16 at 6:16 pm

Oh FFS. This is my last comment on this, sorry Henry.

What happened is that you were writing 5K screeds in response to everything I wrote. You evidently disliked my take on Michael Walzer, not respectful enough for your taste, not respectful enough of the discursive significance of his connection to Rawls (who, I recall, you criticized me over at CT, too), I don’t know. I wrote two short paragraphs in reply, I got 2K back.

I wrote about a couple of novels, you wrote that you thought I’d got one of them wrong, and the other you didn’t remember well but I’d gotten that one wrong too.

I asked you to cut back as I was not enjoying spending hours on a post, just to have my ONLY commenter go on about stuff that had no connection to my post. You didn’t ask for details, and on the next post, you wrote another 5K screed.

Then I turned on comment moderation and the next thing I know, you’d announced on your blog that I’d “banned” you but you were taking the time to show that I was wrong about Rawls.

65

LFC 05.27.16 at 6:30 pm

Dispute most of this. (I don’t where you’re getting the “5k screeds” from — they were pretty short comments.) However, would take too long to rebut it at all and of no general interest, so I’m not going to bother.

66

LFC 05.27.16 at 6:32 pm

correction:
don’t know where

67

F. Foundling 05.27.16 at 6:56 pm

@bianca steele 05.27.16 at 3:17 pm
>But I find this post frankly baffling. … We have a bad candidate, and the solution is to abolish government? Really? I don’t understand why this should even be taken seriously, even by someone who wants (for whatever reason, which I have never understood in Henry’s case) to treat libertarianism with extreme respect, verging on deference.

Seconded, for once.

@LFC 05.27.16 at 2:26 pm

>people in general should be allowed to take seriously who(m)ever they want.

And other people should be allowed to criticise their choices whom to take seriously.

68

Barry 05.27.16 at 8:58 pm

Sebastian H @ 52: your argument contradicts itself, and perhaps reading the OP and previous comments would help.

69

Priest 05.27.16 at 9:07 pm

Check out Matt Yglesias’ post about Thiel:

http://www.vox.com/2016/5/27/11798470/peter-thiel-donald-trump-gawker

I don’t think he’s someone a libertarian would want to be associated with.

70

Soullite 05.27.16 at 9:16 pm

Gawker thinks it’s above the law.

The problem here, as many others have pointed out, is that even millionaires need a billionaire bankrolling them to pursue completely valid legal claims. And remember that, Gawker is getting dinged for breaking the law. They broke the law, over and over and apparently, over again.

Fix the system so that you don’t need to be a billionaire to get justice. Don’t whine when a rich media company gets bitten in the ass by it’s own lack of ethics.

This just sounds like one leftist defending a known hive of SJWs to me, despite the fact that Gawker is even less valid a news source than HuffPo or Fox News.

71

Sebastian H 05.27.16 at 9:44 pm

Barry, I’m not sure precisely what you are objecting to, but to the extent that I appear conflicted, it is because I’m conflicted.

72

bianca steele 05.27.16 at 9:54 pm

@66

Thanks. I’ve actually long been baffled by the way some front-pagers at CT seem to start from an idea that all the serious thinkers in the world are on the right or center-right, and that to be left is basically to take a critical attitude to those thinkers. On some topics, they shift emphasis a bit, as Henry does in the OP, arguing that concentrations of wealth should be thought of as problematic, as well as power. On others, what marks the critique as “left” seems murky to me.

The focus on the ideas of the center-right (and the conflation, at times of the center-right and serious reactionaries) seems to welcome right-wing readers and commenters more than (left-)liberals or social democrats. (And the kind of left-wing commenter who likes most to talk about the right.) After all, how can you be properly critical of ideas you don’t understand fully?

For the center-left, what’s on offer sometimes seems to be a kind of lopsided “democracy” in which “the people” is understood to be inherently on the right and the rest of us are invited to “listen”. This seems to me to be a peculiar way to counter the rising alt-right.

(Obviously, if I’m so baffled by this point of view, it might make sense to comment here less or not at all, and that’s what I’ve done. But I’m still curious about why it might make sense to some people.)

73

TM 05.27.16 at 10:13 pm

“liberals and leftwingers do tend to discount the power of the state”

Which explains why only right-wingers are out on the street to protest the latest police shooting. Oh wait.

Henry, do you ever realize that much of your writing on CT consists in channeling right wing talking points, often the most absurdly far-fetched ones?

74

TM 05.27.16 at 10:31 pm

“I’m always baffled at seeing Cowen taken seriously and treated respectfully.”

Me too. Am I the first to notice that the Cowen quote doesn’t make a shred of sense? Don’t believe me? Go and actually read it.

75

engels 05.27.16 at 10:36 pm

The reason Henry debates ‘respectfully’ with Cowen rather than lefties is that Cowen’s views are well-represented within USian academia. The reasons Cowen-type views are well-represented with USian academia is because people like Charles Koch want them to be…

76

TM 05.27.16 at 10:43 pm

Thanks brother. For once I’m glad yo have you around ;-)

77

William Berry 05.27.16 at 11:32 pm

@engels 74 nails it, I think.

Which, for one thing, leaves me baffled by the “concern” with HF’s mode of argument expressed by some commenters.

Yglesias’ argument, linked above, makes less than no sense. Thiel’s support for HH’s suit might have some (however negligible) negative impact on press freedom. His support for DT only so if Trump wins; which I am still taking to be (admittedly, perhaps too hopefully [I think that is actually a correct use of “hopefully”!]) an extremely long-shot possibility. Which contradicts the idea that Thiel’s support of Trump is a more serious threat to press freedom than his support of the HH lawsuit.

Or something.

78

William Berry 05.27.16 at 11:49 pm

Also, too: Hulk Hogan has smeared his pornographic personality in the face of the public for decades (not that “the public” is without culpability in allowing him to do so); he is a ridiculous clown who richly deserves whatever mockery is directed at him.

I think Gawker could be in the wrong to some degree in posting the sex tape, but the size of the award (140M$?) is absurd. A more sensible outcome would be a judgment for HH and an award of, say, fifty bucks.

I can’t understand why anyone would take the HH/ Thiel side in this (except for Soullite, who would obviously do so).

(Comments in mod for whatever reason. Carry on, all.)

79

otpup 05.28.16 at 2:11 am

Engels @74. I think your take is slightly askew (or rather a semantic adjustment might be in order), to wit, the views of Cowen et al don’t have cachet within academia so much as within the policy establishment (which overlaps academia particularly in econ and to a lesser extent poli sci departments). Anyway that’s the impression I made over many beers with lefty sociologists.

80

Peter T 05.28.16 at 5:49 am

If you debate a theological point, you have accepted the existence of god(s), and so the priest has a head start. Likewise, economism being the theology of the age, most debates on detail start by conceding the ground to the Tyler Cowens of this world. Or, as BW would say, TINA.

81

David 05.28.16 at 10:39 am

Why concede anything to the right? I’d be interested to read a CT post beginning something like “Extremes of wealth are undesirable in a democracy because of the concentrations of power that they produce. We therefore need to look urgently for ways of producing a more egalitarian society where billionaires cannot co-opt the legal and political system.” or something like that, and going on for a few hundred words Anyone feel up to it?

82

bianca steele 05.28.16 at 12:14 pm

When it comes to economism, the left at least has a strong counter-argument. The OP goes farther than that, to political theory, and accepts all the right’s assumptions. The right is certainly present but not overwhelming. It looks like there’s a preference for engaging the right, and neglecting the center. There’s plenty of liberal thought that isn’t libertarian (some of it would count as social democratic in Europe, but that’s solely a matter of terminology). That thought has really a lot of penetration among ordinary people, a fact that seems to be ignored, at times.

83

bianca steele 05.28.16 at 12:15 pm

economism being the theology of the age,

This is a metaphor. It doesn’t mean very much, in terms of factual implications.

84

Peter T 05.28.16 at 12:30 pm

bianca

sorry to disagree, but I think it has major practical implications. In one previous era, the question “will it make us richer or poorer (in money terms)” was secondary to the question “what will it do for our souls?”. Which gave rise to a very different politics (and other eras had different questions again). If we are to survive, the question now has to be “what will it do for the environment?”. Economism as the agreed general framework for thinking about political and social issues is simply the wrong frame of reference – one that blocks out the key issues.

85

bianca steele 05.28.16 at 12:40 pm

Peter

I’ve seen the idea that we even could have a theology of the age in that sense expressed only by conservative religious writers. I don’t know why a person would even think of it. Theology didn’t actually ever even play that role except in the imaginations of conservative theologians who wish for a world where they were more important. To think the kings of Europe thought in terms of what their actions would do for their souls is ridiculous.

The idea that we all have to focus on one thing, ecology or global utility or anything else, is theological. It’s a replacement for the idea of prayer and of First and Last Things. It’s not a practical guide.

86

LFC 05.28.16 at 12:56 pm

oldster @48
Just to let you know I saw your reply here, which had been stuck in moderation. Thanks. I understand yr point re ‘beyond the pale’ etc. I’m not going to say anything substantive about it b.c I don’t have any inclination for any further engagement on this particular thread. It has nothing to do with you, I just am not inclined to say anything further (about anything) in this thread.

87

Barry 05.28.16 at 12:57 pm

Soullite 05.27.16 at 9:16 pm
“Gawker thinks it’s above the law.”

Proof, please?

“The problem here, as many others have pointed out, is that even millionaires need a billionaire bankrolling them to pursue completely valid legal claims.”

Proof, please?

“Fix the system so that you don’t need to be a billionaire to get justice. “

I’m sure that Thiel and his ilk are hard at work on that problem.

“This just sounds like one leftist defending a known hive of SJWs to me, despite the fact that Gawker is even less valid a news source than HuffPo or Fox News.”

BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZT. Use of ‘SJW’ – 10 yard penalty.
20 yard additional penalty for improper use of ‘SJW’ as generic insult, applied to people who aren’t.

88

Peter T 05.28.16 at 1:14 pm

“To think the kings of Europe thought in terms of what their actions would do for their souls is ridiculous’

Well, they waited barefoot in the snow outside Canossa, walked from Canterbury to London in repentance, went on crusade, spent large sums endowing prayers to be said for their souls after death, spent days in earnest theological debate, imperilled their thrones enforcing what they thought was correct doctrine…

But, hey, we now know they were really just the same as us….

89

bianca steele 05.28.16 at 1:30 pm

Peter @ 89

That was a joke? If you believe that strongly in the importance of theology, I don’t know what to say. It doesn’t seem worthwhile debating you. In terms of “cognitive democracy,” well, you haven’t said anything for me to consider: I know nothing about what you believe. Democracy isn’t one person remaining silent and waiting for the other person to come around. In terms of academic or theoretical discussion, you also haven’t said anything for me to consider.

Politically, you’ve denied the importance of economism, but you’ve given it a religious foundation, so I’m not sure you’re even interested in a discussion about politics.

90

Plume 05.28.16 at 4:16 pm

“No man or woman should have so much political power over others.”

Perhaps the biggest weakness of American libertarianism is demonstrated by that sentence. Right-libertarians — the left has more than two centuries head start on the philosophy — believe “political power” is the only kind to fear. Left-libertarians, OTOH, would remove the adjective and just say “No man or woman should have so much power over others.” Actually, the vast majority of them would get rid of the “so much” qualifier too, and just say “No one or woman should have power over others,” period. And they shouldn’t. Right-libertarianism, ironically, is quite tepid and inordinately selective when it comes to power over others, and, conversely, who gets to claim, much less exercise, “freedom and liberty” in society.

The capitalist system, which is beloved by right-libertarians but despised by left-libertarians, makes legal one person’s control over the bodies of other humans, sometimes many other humans. It sets up a legal framework whereby one person, or a very small number of persons, basically own(s) the bodies of others, often many others. It sets up a master/slave dynamic, in effect, and it’s only been in recent decades, after considerable anticapitalist agitation, that this ownership of human beings was reduced in time to roughly eight hours a day . . . . In recent decades, however, especially in America, that time allotment for ownership has crept back up, with the advent of the on-call, “independent contractor” economy. We are not risking 24/7 ownership.

(In the developing world, of course, American capitalists, many of whom spout right-libertarian views, own humans for a much longer period of time each day, exploit them to a much greater degree, and place them in virtual slave conditions all too often. When no one is looking, the conditions of actual chattel slavery emerge, as is the case now in Thailand, Malaysia, parts of China, etc.)

In short, right-libertarians have zero credibility on the subject of “power” over others. Their economic system of choice is the first global, inherently imperialistic economic form in history, and no previous system has ever been even a fraction as bad when it comes to controlling every aspect of one’s life and times. No previous system ever had as its main purpose the absolute commodification of all things.

91

Plume 05.28.16 at 4:18 pm

Should read
“We are now risking 24/7 ownership.”

92

Rich Puchalsky 05.28.16 at 4:32 pm

I think that it can be interesting to start from a presumption of anarchism and ask what, specifically, another politics thinks that the state needs to be in existence to do. That’s a way of revealing what that other politics thinks is specifically important.

In the case of American “libertarianism”, they think that one of the reasons that the state needs to exist is to allow billionaires to sponsor lawsuits against media for improper revelation of personal matters about a celebrity.

If you look at the concept of the “night-watchman state” as adopted by many U.S. libertarians, it’s supposed to be a state “whose only legitimate function is the protection of individuals from assault, theft, breach of contract, and fraud.” (to quote wiki for convenience) I think that it’s pretty much agreed that any society, whether statist or anarchist, has to be concerned with protecting people against assault. But look at the others. I’ll leave out “fraud”, but the middle two pretty much come down to protecting the rich against the poor, and the “only legitimate” part means that it is illegitimate for the state to protect the poor against the rich. U.S. “libertarians” differ from anarchists in that they want a state specifically in order to maintain the power of ownership of wealth.

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James Wimberley 05.28.16 at 5:01 pm

There’s a wrinkle missing from this discussion arising from the fact that Thiel used his wealth to bankroll a lawsuit, and not buy a newspaper like Bezos, some academics like the Kochs, or even a political campaign like Trump. The acceptability of the legal system depends on a degree of inefficiency. If the rule of law means one in which every violation of every law however petty is the subject of prosecution or civil suit, it’s a dystopia. In a civilised state, you need some sand in the works to make recourse to law non-universal. We want criminal prosecutors to give priority to murder and large-scale fraud over vagrancy and public drunkenness; civil suits for defamation to ignore the rough-and-tumble of everyday arguments. This creates the problem that it takes money to overcome the inefficiencies. It’s bad enough when wealthy men and corporations use their deep pockets to bully the small fry. It’s even worse when they do this on behalf of third parties. I like the idea that champerty and maintenance should be revived in US law.

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TM 05.28.16 at 7:26 pm

94: “The acceptability of the legal system depends on a degree of inefficiency.”

That is an awfully sweeping statement to make. I believe you are referring specifically to the US legal system, since no analogy to this court case is even imaginable in most other legal systems. Inefficiency is a poor way to make a legal system “acceptable”, and by the way it really doesn’t work very well.

88: Google tells me that Gawker announced they were going to disregard a court order to take down the offensive video. That looks an awful lot like the people in charge imagine themselves to be above the law. Generally, I don’t think progressives should take any side in this soap opera or even waste their energy on talking about it. The award is obviously absurd but won’t stand on appeal. Gawker isn’t innocent victim and the freedom of the press is not even marginally affected by the affair itself or Thiel’s intervention. Leave this BS to the yellow press and find better arguments against libertarian billionaires, and for chrissake don’t elevate an incoherent Tyler Cowen rant into a topic for serious debate, don’t elevate Gawker to victim status for the sake of an argument against libertarianism that won’t convince any libertarians, and don’t elevate Thiel to bad guy status for the same purpose. Just ignore these idiots. There are real world issues in need of progressive solutions, haven’t you noticed?

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F. Foundling 05.28.16 at 9:51 pm

@Peter T 05.28.16 at 1:14 pm
>Well, they waited barefoot in the snow outside Canossa, walked from Canterbury to London in repentance, went on crusade, spent large sums endowing prayers to be said for their souls after death, spent days in earnest theological debate, imperilled their thrones enforcing what they thought was correct doctrine…

Off topic, but can’t help pointing out that specifically Canossa is a particularly poor example to use in order to make this point (anyone in doubt can look it up). In general, I’m sure there was often some degree of sincerity, as people are good at doublethink.

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Sam Bradford 05.28.16 at 10:35 pm

I think protecting privacy from frivolous, sensationalist ‘journalism’ is good.
What Gawker did was morally shitty, not newsworthy, and also illegal. (The articles I’ve read give evidence that they knew it was illegal, but considered themselves untouchable.)

I think this is comparable to a wealthy patron bankrolling an environmental org to protect a forest he’s fond of. Sure, he’s got his own selfish motives, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong outcome. Judges should provide protection from frivolous lawsuits by throwing them out — but this wasn’t a frivolous lawsuit.

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Peter T 05.29.16 at 7:32 am

F Foundling

point acknowledged about Canossa. I would not count it as doublethink – everything we know tells us that almost all Europeans before c 1700 put religious considerations very highly (same could be said of much of the contemporary Middle East).

The comment was intended to get across that, in much the same way, we start from the viewpoint that considerations of individual utility, usually operationalised in money terms, are the first goal of policy. This puts us in the economistic framework, and so concedes a great deal of ground to the Tyler Cowens of this world. In what other framework, for instance, would intelligent people argue about the appropriate discount rate to apply to the survival of the current environment? We try to keep some domains separate from money, but it seeps in because our current central values revolve around it (cue Marx…). But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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William Berry 05.29.16 at 3:24 pm

@Peter T: “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Yeah, no. I think it does have to be that way, actually.

As long as the world wallows in a miserable stew of social and economic injustice and inequality, discussions of sky fairies, god-talk, and so on, are just a distraction from the central problems of our times.

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Paul Davis 05.29.16 at 8:49 pm

Tyler and I debated this on Twitter

How are the smart and the wise are somehow suckered into using a clearly inappropriate technology to “debate” each other? Why does this keep happening? How can we stop it?

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Brett Dunbar 05.30.16 at 12:56 am

There are limits to value you place on something, sometimes there is a trade off for which a monetary valuation can be fairly useful. At times not giving a notional financial value to a live badger made the culling policy seem more cost effective as a bovine TB control programme compared to vaccination. Failing to place a positive value on something risks the value being treated as zero.

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Peter T 05.30.16 at 2:22 am

William

The central problem of our time is environmental – the need to consider our needs in the context of the state of the planet we live on. Economism is a distraction from that.
Brett – not all values are monetary. Placing a monetary value on something is an invitation to sell it (that, after all, is how money values are determined).

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Brett Dunbar 05.30.16 at 10:46 am

Not placing a notional monetary value risks it being treated as de facto worth zero, which is what happened with badgers. It is more to do with what resources are you prepared to put into doing this. As you are constrained in what resources you are going to use to do a specific thing then there is an implied value, making this explicit can be useful when you are actually determining what you are going to do. Once you are dealing with prioritising then you are inherently placing a comparable value on something a comparable value can be converted into a notional money value. If you find the logical result of said calculation morally repugnant then you can revise your valuation to better reflect your moral intuition.

For example the desire to keep the death rate from nuclear power zero has resulted in setting safety standards for nuclear materials at the level of detectability. This makes it prohibitively expensive. The near total lack of a detectable increase in cancer associated with Chernobyl (the exception was a single, rare, highly treatable childhood thyroid cancer caused by radioactive iodine, largely preventable with iodine tablets) indicate that the linear no-threshold assumption was over cautious. Basically a sensible safety standard based on the same implicit value of a life as used for other forms of power generation would make building a plant and storing the waste much cheaper. If an accident on the scale of Chernobyl occurred then distributing iodine tablets downwind for three months (ten times the radioactive iodine’s half life of eight days) would largely eliminate the only demonstrable risk.

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Peter T 05.30.16 at 1:05 pm

Brett

“Not placing a notional monetary value risks it being treated as de facto worth zero”. Only by people who want to measure everything in money terms. If someone wants to treat others as worthless (or only worth what money can be extracted from them) they will do so. That’s a judgment on the person, not the calculation – as your next observation implies:

“If you find the logical result of said calculation morally repugnant then you can revise your valuation to better reflect your moral intuition.”

So just make up a number? A better answer is to stop evaluating everything in money.

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engels 05.30.16 at 1:25 pm

Not placing a notional monetary value risks it being treated as de facto worth zero,

Leaving your beer on the table while you go out for a cigarette risks me drinking it

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Brett Dunbar 05.30.16 at 1:55 pm

If dealing with policy you have to use some method of comparing costs, that inevitably involves a valuation which can be expressed in a monetary value, given limited resources you need some method of prioritising. For example when evaluating a safety standard you have to compare how much it would cost per life saved and whether that is worthwhile. Something the cost £1 billion per life saved isn’t worth it. Something that costs £1 million per life saved probably is. The monetary valuation isn’t how much value you can extract from the person it is how much you are prepared to spend in order to achieve that end. Yes the approach is simply make up a number, see what the results are, then refine your number to better reflect your intuitive valuation.

My example involving badgers was as DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) hadn’t put a notional value on a live badger so failed to reflect public affection for badgers while accounting for the costs to farmers of bovine TB when deciding on the trial cull. The Welsh Assembly Government did take account of public opinion and decided to cancel a proposed cull and trial vaccination instead. Killing a badger was estimated to cost £30 capture and vaccination cost £622 (the Badger BCG has to be injected) so if you value a live badger at £0 then culling looks the better option; if you value a live badger at say £1000 then vaccination is clearly preferable. £1000 seems to better reflect public affection for Britain’s largest land carnivore.

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Collin Street 05.30.16 at 2:16 pm

> Only by people who want to measure everything in money terms.

We have to make trade-offs, which means we have to make outcomes commeasureable. Money is a terrible yardstick, for various reasons, but since the whole point is to make different negative outcomes commeasureable that means they all have to be made commeasureable with monetary loss. Which means, any useful system for making tradeoffs inescapably means assigning an equivalent cash value to everything.

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bianca steele 05.30.16 at 2:43 pm

We don’t evaluate published writing in money. Unfortunately, we do still need money to publish it. So it gets bundled with things that do get valued in money: sports, sex, outrage politics. Hence: Gawker.

Most people who want us to value money less still, oddly, decide who’s important based on how much money they make (record sales, box office, whatever).

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bianca steele 05.30.16 at 5:10 pm

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Peter T 05.31.16 at 1:50 am

okay
Brett hasn’t got beyond “you have to use money values, but you just make them up”. I’ll leave that one there.

Collin

“We have to make trade-offs, which means we have to make outcomes commensurable.” So when you are thinking about whether to visit your mother or have a hamburger instead, you compare the value of 30 minutes time spent with your mother against the cost of the hamburger? Of course you don’t. Living has no single standard of value, and we make trade-offs all the time without bringing all the options within the same metric.

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reason 05.31.16 at 10:45 am

Sebastian H.
“rich individuals should be given less power to use the government “

Shouldn’t we stop saying this in cases like this? This should read “rich individuals should be given less power to use the legal system”. The legal system and the government are not the same thing. (Not that I don’t think that rich individuals should be given less power to use the government.) I hate this tendency to treat all of the government as a single force with agency. If I said the “private sector” should not do so and so, rather than companies or individuals, I have the feeling that Libertarians would complain.

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Layman 05.31.16 at 11:00 am

“So when you are thinking about whether to visit your mother or have a hamburger instead, you compare the value of 30 minutes time spent with your mother against the cost of the hamburger?”

Thanks for this. Hamburger it is!

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engels 05.31.16 at 11:06 am

Are we talking about McDonalds or Burger King?

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Brett Dunbar 05.31.16 at 11:56 am

The notional price is based on your subjective valuation of the thing. So a subjective method consisting of an initial guess followed by refining the guess is pretty reasonable. Bayesian statistics uses a similar method, the initial weighting is a, hopefully informed, guess refined based on further information. In this case you are attempting to make explicit and comparable an implicit valuation.

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reason 05.31.16 at 12:22 pm

Brett Dunbar,
I hate to point this out (this is so childish) but value FOR WHOM? Visiting your mother might just well have external benefits that are independent of your own valuation of the action. And note when several people are involved money ceases to be a neutral measure (because people place different values on money).

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reason 05.31.16 at 12:24 pm

Look Brett, you come across sometimes as extremely naïve, but you don’t have to go out of your way to confirm the impression.

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Brett Dunbar 05.31.16 at 1:18 pm

You have to deal with resource allocation, so costs are involved. You need to incorporate subjective aesthetic valuations into priorities so you try to estimate what value it has.

You can aggregate the notional monetary valuations of multiple people in the same way you can with real monetary valuations. Dealing with notional externalities the same way you do with real externalities.

If you don’t give a thing a positive notional valuation you implicitly value it at zero. For a live badger this was clearly wrong, the real value is pretty much zero but the public generally like having badgers around so the notional value should be higher.

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reason 05.31.16 at 1:41 pm

Brett you still don’t get it, Who is this “you”, you are talking about?

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reason 05.31.16 at 1:42 pm

To put it another way, next time you decide to have a hamburger instead of visiting your mother, how much will you offer her, and how much will she accept?

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bianca steele 05.31.16 at 1:43 pm

I kind of feel bad for the English that their largest and cutest wild animal is the badger. (Are all those goats privately owned?). Maybe they would like a bobcat or two.

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Layman 05.31.16 at 1:50 pm

Also, too, why all this talk about the cost of badgering one’s mother?

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Brett Dunbar 05.31.16 at 9:31 pm

The three largest wild carnivores in the UK are the European Badger, the European Wildcat and the Red Fox.

There are reasonably concrete plans to reintroduce the native Eurasian Lynx (locally extinct after 450 CE). The public response is highly positive so the notional value is fairly significant to balance against possible livestock losses to farmers.

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Brett Dunbar 06.01.16 at 1:14 am

European Badgers are the largest wild land carnivore. The largest wild land mammal is the Red Deer. The largest breeding wild carnivores are the Grey Seal and Common Seal.

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