Might Liberalism and Progressivism Divorce?

Some recent blogosphere pieces (like this from Scott Alexander, and this exchange among Don Boudreaux, Bryan Caplan, and others) has me wondering if there might be a political movement divorce on the horizon.

Liberals – that is those who broadly favor human freedom and flourishing – have for decades been “married” to the Progressive political element forming the political family known as the Left. While the capitalists of the 18th and 19th centuries were largely liberals, late 19th- and early 20th-century ideologies, like anti-trust, state-run education, state-run welfare, and unionization, lured liberal-minded types to the left on economics. This progressive-liberal marriage was so established even by the 1930’s that left-authoritarian movements like Nazism and fascism got lumped in with the right because to be on the left was almost by definition to be liberal.

While liberals may have believed they had a common cause with Progressivism a century ago, I believe modern liberal views are turning. Far fewer liberals today believe that a scientific, technocratic government can improve most people’s lives. There has always been a strain of liberalism that has rejected that view, which since the 1970’s has been called libertarianism. I think that, on the margin, young liberals are more accepting of markets in spite of the market’s theoretical flaws (though the set of actually manifested flaws in the market is much smaller than the set of theoretical flaws).

The Lorax, High Priest of Environmentalism

Earth Day. It’s the High Holy Day of the Church of Environmentalism. Conservationists don’t use such language of themselves, but the analogy is not far off. They have a god (mother nature, the Earth, etc.). They have a concept of sin (pollution, deforestation, extinction). They have penance (recycling, biodegradable products). They have an apocalyptic, redemptive eschatology (green energy and mass reduction in the human population and therefore human impact on the global ecosystem). They have a priestly caste (scientists and especially climatologists). Perhaps most scary of all, they have gotten themselves installed as the official state religion of at least one big political party and much of the “Deep State” bureaucracy that enjoys a symbiotic relationship with them.

Among this secular, pagan religion, one of the well-known parables is The Lorax by Theodor Seuss Geisel – Dr. Seuss himself. This short, illustrated story is a cautionary tale to children about the dangers of succumbing to the temptations of the Great Enemy (capitalism). A grim setting reminiscent of a rust belt city introduces us to the tragic, anti-hero cum narrator, The Once-ler, who tells his sad tale to the young inquirer (who stands in for the reader).

The story opens on an Edenic forest scene, where various creatures live in peace, harmony, and happiness with each other, and the sacred Truffula trees stand at the center of the ecosystem, providing shelter and food to Bar-ba-loots. The Once-ler happens upon this forest, and from his mind there springs whole the idea for a Thneed – some sort of all-in-one article of clothing that soon becomes popular. Once-ler quickly hires his whole family, builds a factory and logging machines, and sets to work growing his Thneed empire. In the process, his factory pollutes the air and water, and he unintentionally but uncaringly drives out the sympathetic creatures from their habitat. In the end, the Once-ler family cuts down every last Truffula tree and goes out of business. The only hope for the species affected is a solitary Truffula seed that Once-ler passes on to his listener.

This seems like a nice morality tale about greed and caring for the earth. What problem could anarcho-capitalists have with this? Do they just hate nature and want to see the whole world turned into one giant Pittsburgh (sorry Pittsburgh residents – Detroit gets a lot of hate)?

Actually, there are some redeemable elements to this story from the point of view of liberty-lovers. The problem is, as with many of these sorts of myths, it starts from poor assumptions.

To the modern environmentalist, nature is pristine – holy, almost – and humanity is a malevolent invader into this nature. I believe that is why so many advocate a reduction in human population; they truly believe humans and our intelligence and desire to better ourselves are a disease on the earth.

Moon catches earth's STD (humans)
An example of environmentalist views of humanity

As a Christian, I realize there’s a half-truth here. God did create a perfect world for us, which we ruined by joining the rebellion against Him. However, it’s important to note that in the Christian and earlier Mosaic histories, earth is created for mankind – not to destroy, of course, but to enjoy. And God will once again restore that perfect world for humans, not destroy them in order to heal the world.

So, in The Lorax we see this mythology played out. Man is the antithesis of Nature, and unless we repent and seek to undo the wrongs of our fathers, Nature will spew us out of her mouth and we will wallow in a suffering of our own making.

But what if there is another way to view this story? What if you are not a misanthropic environmentalist, but actually care about human well-being? Does that mean you inevitably must support the actions of Once-ler? Of course not! Even from a capitalist point of view, Once-ler was a very poor manager of resources.

Consider farming, one of the oldest economic activities in the world. If the first farmers had behaved like Once-ler did in The Lorax, they would have harvested the first wild corn or wheat crops and eaten them all, leaving nothing for regrowing a new crop. That was obvious to people thousands of years ago and it’s still obvious today. The way to get the most value out of a renewable resource (like corn or trees) is to make sure it keeps growing.

What advice would a wise, free-market economist give Once-ler? For the sake of example, let’s assume that it takes 30 years for a Truffula tree to reach maturity when it can be harvested to make Thneeds. Therefore, to make his business sustainable (in the sense that it will go on as long as there is demand for Truffula products), he would need to harvest no more than 1/30th of the Truffula trees each year, and he would need to replant young Truffulas to take their place. If demand was sufficient, he could even plant new Truffula forests where less valuable trees or even no trees at all were growing. In other words, he probably would have increased the habitat for Bar-ba-loots and the other animals.

What about the pollution of the water and air around the factory? This is a bit more complicated. Certainly in the past humans have fouled up rivers and lakes and the air around cities. But the wise businessperson has some good reasons not to pollute as well, even if that pollution is not coming near any other person’s property (which would trigger a whole other set of considerations).

One such reason is that pollution, being waste, is expensive! Pollutants are little bits of your product that aren’t being put to good use. Perhaps the Thneed factory ran on coal, which had to be brought from far away. If the coal is putting out pollutants, that means you paid to have those pollutants shipped to your factory just to pump them into the air. How wasteful! That’s good reason to convert to more refined and cleaner fuels that give you more energy per pound, and consequently put out less soot.

Another reason is that pollution lowers the future value of the land. A wise person would have a contingency for an unexpected decline in the demand for his Thneeds – say, they go out of fashion as quickly as they came in. If he ruined all the water and air in his Thneed forest (besides being potentially harmful to the valuable Truffula trees), he would be left with a useless, unsalable piece of land for years until the pollution cleared up. Not smart! If he kept the pollution to a minimum, the land would be much more attractive for other uses should Thneed-making become bad business.

A third reason is that unpolluted forest could offer other revenue streams. Once-ler could have operated a Bar-ba-loot safari, or rented out picnic pavilions or opened a woodlands resort.

Of course, no one person is likely to think of every possible use of a given resource. That’s why markets are so important. According to F. A. Hayek and others, markets and the prices of goods that make them up are means of conveying information to the world about the uses of that good, even without having to know every detail yourself. I don’t need to know every possible use for a resource like copper to figure out whether my idea for it is the most valuable for society. I just have to compare the price of copper (which is driven by everyone else’s trying to buy it for their ideas) to the value of the product I want to use it in. If the value of my product in the market is worth more than all the inputs (copper, energy, my labor, etc.) then it is more valuable than at least some other uses for copper. Likewise, I don’t have to know much about the inner workings of Google or Wal-Mart, for example, to know whether I ought to invest in them. I can look at the price of their stocks and bonds and see what a vast number of other people have learned about those companies recently.

This brief explanation does not do justice to the beauty and power of markets. I include it merely to say, that the tale of Once-ler and the Lorax is about not heeding the voice of wisdom. Yet you notice I didn’t even include the Lorax in my synopsis of the story. That’s because the Lorax is ultimately useless. He does nothing to help the Bar-ba-loots or Swomee-Swans or Humming-Fish. All he does is nag Once-ler. This Lorax would fit in nicely at the EPA or on a congressional committee about the plight of the Truffula. Sadly, this world Dr. Seuss created had plenty of moralizing nags and not enough self-interested capitalists.

What Anarchy Is Not

I am very sympathetic to the ideas of anarcho-capitalists. If you were to ask for a very brief description of my political views it would be, “Government is not necessary, but it’s inevitable.”

In discussing this with friends, I find that many balk at the idea of anarchism. Indeed, most libertarian-minded people, well-known and otherwise, do not go to the extent of anarchism. I think, though, that the hesitation is mostly semantic. Let me try to clarify what I mean by anarchism and (the lack of) government.

By government I mean an organized, political system whereby some individual or group makes a monopoly claim to the legitimate use of force. Where I think I differ from most people is I do not equate “government” with “governance” or “rule of law.” So here is my list of things anarchy is not.

Anarchy is not…

  • … lawlessness. Anarchist societies would still have laws, in the natural law sense that many scholars, such as Hayek, have discussed at length.
  • … a lack of governance; that is, an anarchist society still has institutions (note the important plurality) that limit or inform the behavior of people and communities.
  • … rule by the strongest – such a society is by definition not anarchist (i.e., without rulers), and anyone attempting to assert rule over others would be breaking the law and would become subject to the governance of the society at large.
  • … the natural state of humans.

This last point may be the most important. I believe anarchy is the polar opposite of the base tendencies of humans. An anarchist society would require that the vast majority of its citizens be highly virtuous, committed to all of the virtues as cataloged by Dierde McCloskey:

  • Love for fellow man that sees others as not only capable of making decisions for themselves, but intrinsically worthy of being afforded the right to make their own choices;
  • Faithfulness to the ideology of anarchy and absolute freedom;
  • Hope that future generations will be able to sustain the virtues that make anarchy possible;
  • Courage to stand against those who do stray from any of these virtues;
  • Seeking justice for others whose rights are violated, just as if your rights were violated;
  • Temperance (with a large dose of humility) to restrain from thinking that you can decide for others better than they can decide for themselves;
  • Prudence (again with humility) to understand that spontaneous order is better than any societal order you or another person can imagine.

Anarchy is not childish or violent. Indeed, it is possible only when most people think and act like mature adults.

Libertarian Theory and the Rights of Children

Two years ago, my wife and I had just finished the training and paperwork to become foster parents. At the time, I wrote this post about a possible non-coercive way to help the children of bad parents. Today I want to look at the theory behind parental rights in a libertarian society.

Both libertarians and their critics often lament the gaps in libertarian theory regarding the rights and protection of children. In a purely libertarian, anarcho-capitalist society, would parents be free to neglect their children? Is forcing people to properly care for their children justifiable? Is the case of children in abusive homes a critical flaw in libertarian thinking? I argue below that it is not. Continue reading Libertarian Theory and the Rights of Children

Understanding the Value of a Vote Makes You More Friendly

What’s the value of a vote? In a presidential election, practically zero. Your vote has virtually no chance of impacting the outcome. That’s one reason I don’t feel bad about not voting.

The corollary to this fact is that since no one’s vote is likely to affect the outcome, there is no reason to be upset about anyone’s voting intentions. If your co-worker’s or relative’s vote for a candidate you dislike had virtually no impact on the election, then there’s no reason to feel resentful towards them because of how they vote.

If you really embrace this logic, then you ought to be more friendly and charitable towards people whose politics you dislike because their vote has no impact on you personally.

Unboxing Nexus 6P

For the first time in 5 years, I have a latest-generation phone. My trusty Galaxy S3 went through the washing machine and while it still sort of works, it’s not 100%. So I am going ahead and switching to Project Fi and got the Nexus 6P.

The packaging is quite nice. A rounded square, white box with a gray graphic wrap. The SIM came in a separate envelope in the shipping carton. On the back of the warranty manual is a metal tool to open the SIM tray. A very nice touch is that it comes with two USB Type C cables, one long and one short. I guess they realize you’ll want to plug it into the car and at home. Good job Google and Huawei.

Battery was about two-thirds full when I turned it on. I was half expecting the fingerprint sensor to be the power button as in LG’s, but there’s a separate power button above the volume buttons on the right edge. No buttons on the left edge, just the SIM tray. When it booted, it prompted first for WiFi and downloaded an update. That process took about 10 minutes. It just finished, so I’ll move onto setup.

As typical with Android, it asks if you want to use an existing account, though it’s worded a little less technically (“Got another device?”, the title bar asks). Oh, this is something I haven’t tried. You can use the Google Settings app on your old phone (in my case the old S3) to set up the new phone. I click “Set up nearby device”, click next, and it sees my new phone. It finds the 6P and gives a verification code that should match on both screens. (Reminds me of the Signal app authentication to ensure against man-in-the-middle attacks). Click next on the old phone, then Copy, and it’s done. Now on to the 6P setup.

For some reason I had to do the steps again, but now it’s asking for my Google password. Now it asks if I want to opt in to Google data collection. Personally, I don’t mind leaving all those checked, but it’s up to you.

The next step is the number setup. I had already told Fi I wanted to transfer my old number, so it’s pre-filled. Click Next, and all my carrier info is pre-filled as well, so I just clicked Next and it’s doing the transfer. It says it will take 1-2 days. Oh well.

Next is optional email account setup. I’ll add my work account so the calendar is synced. I kept hitting the little next arrow on the keyboard, not realizing I need to close the keyboard from the soft key bar to get to the actual button to continue the process. Just a new quirk from recent Android I guess.

I added my unlock pattern and fingerprint, and turned on Google Now. Now it’s on the “Restoring…” screen. Took about 30 seconds and now I’m at the home screen.

The rest of the setup was the typical Android experience.

It’s been a couple of days since I wrote the unboxing above. My one complaint with the form factor of the phone is that the power and volume buttons are a little too easy to accidentally press. I have multiple times put the phone in do not disturb mode by holding volume down while picking it up. And double pressing the power button opens the camera app, which happens in my pocket on occasion.

Other than that, the experience is a huge improvement over my old S3. I used the phone quite a lot the first full day I had it, and it was still at 20% when I went to bed. The dual front-facing speakers sound great; I only need to keep the volume at the first or second notch unless there’s a lot of background noise. The display gets darker than my old phone, too, which I like for reading at night

Why I Don’t Vote

Why don’t I vote? Because politics is, at its core, immoral solutions to problems which are exaggerated, non-existent, or caused by politics themselves.

I’m optimistic about the present and the future. I see that the world is richer, safer, more peaceful, and better educated than ever, and is getting better overall. Politicians feed on pessimism and fear – fear of foreigners, fear of other “classes”, and especially fear of freedom. They see the human world as a hostile place and getting worse every day. This is not limited to one group, nor is any group free from it.

What problems do I think are exaggerated or made up? Let’s take for example fear of foreigners, usually manifested as fear that jobs will be lost to cheap foreign labor or immigrants. Prophets of doom have been pushing this fallacy for decades, yet as globalization has spread, Americans’ material well-being has only gotten better. Where would the state of the electronics industry be if America had blocked imports from Japan and Taiwan. Today we don’t fear losing jobs to those places, because they are as rich as Americans. The same will happen for China, India, Vietnam, and other places where productivity and wages are currently low. This is one of the central theories of economics that has been proven over and over: trade, including trade in labor, is beneficial to both sides.

So the problem of foreigners reducing Americans’ job prospects is at best exaggerated and at worse completely fabricated. If that weren’t bad enough, politicians and their advisers want to implement immoral “solutions” to it. Yes, blocking people from entering the country is immoral. When a non-citizen comes to America, they don’t kick a family out of their house and take it over, and they don’t go to employers and demand jobs at gunpoint. Just like anyone already here, they must trade what they have – a willingness to work – for what they need. If a major city were to say, “People from the rural areas come here and work for lower wages and live in tiny apartments, and bring down our average income, therefore we are imposing quotas on how many people can immigrate from poor rural areas and will punish anyone who employs them or rents them an apartment”, everyone would be rightly horrified. Moving to a big city is a dream for many people, and even if they have to start out living in a studio apartment eating ramen every day, it is worth it for the opportunities it holds for the future. And cities are not made worse off by allowing people to move in – the large population is part of what makes a city what it is! Why should the case of a person from the countryside moving to the city be different from a person from a poor country moving to a rich one? Just because the latter is crossing a different kind of artificial boundary? To keep poor people from moving to rich countries where they are wanted as employees and as customers – as producers and consumers – is to condemn them to poverty for no other reason than being born in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is no different, morally, from Jim Crow, and I hope that my descendants look back on this period of anti-immigration sentiment with the disgust with which we consider state-sponsored racism.

That is just one example of many: fear of capital (such as robots) putting people out of jobs, fear of poorly educated people harming the morality of a nation, fear of wealthy people, fear of poor people, fear of drugs, fear of guns, fear of terrorists, fear of spies. To the extent that any of these fears are justifiable, there is no political action that will be both achievable and ethical.

That, in short, is why I don’t vote. I have no desire to put my name to anyone’s awful propositions. I don’t need to feel like I’ve played for the right team, or demonstrated my credibility to the right people, or shown my undying faith in democracy. Besides that, I don’t live in a swing district in a swing state nor do I vote for one of the major parties, so my vote has no effect. My life will be made richer by looking at pictures on Facebook for 30 minutes rather than spending that time voting.

One last soapbox speech: Politics is not the answer. Loving your neighbor – which in part means giving him or her the respect you want others to treat you with – is the key to a good society. Treat adults like adults, be generous and gracious, be slow to speak and slow to become angry, and you will do more good in a single day than a lifetime of casting ballots.

Scott Adams: “What the Heck is Fascism?”

“Generally speaking, if your word has a fourteen-element definition with a “pick any” quality to it, you don’t have a word. You have a list. So I would say that “fascism” is – first and foremost – not an actual word with meaning (agreed meaning) in the English language. So if you use the word as a label, you are literally talking nonsense.”

Spoken like a true fascist.

Scott Adams Blog

Answering Scott Adams on Immigration

Scott Adams asks, “I find myself wondering what legal immigrants think we should do about illegals? I have a feeling I would defer to their judgment.”

I disagree, for much the same reason that I would disagree were Scott to say, “I find myself wondering what major exporters think we should do about the Export-Import Bank? Or, what major sugar farmers think we should do about sugar subsidies? Or, what union organizers think we should do about minimum wage? I have a feeling I would defer to their judgment.” Legal immigrants are the beneficiaries of a government monopoly. Relaxed immigration restrictions would impact current legal immigrants most directly, assuming that the legal immigrants are about equal to potential immigrants in areas of job and language skills. Therefore they have a vested interest in keeping immigration difficult, except perhaps for close family members.

Warning: discussions of abortion and suicide below the fold.

Continue reading Answering Scott Adams on Immigration

Self-Ownership Should Be More Controversial Than Property Ownership

Listening to Tom Woods’ discussion with Matt Zwolinski on Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), I had a thought I haven’t heard anyone else discuss.

Zwolinski favors taxation of property because a person does not create natural resources, but expropriates them from nature. Others have raised the question, if an individual does not have the right to lay claims on natural resources, why would a group of individuals have such a right? But my thought was, why does Zwolinski assume the self-evidentiary nature of self-ownership, but reject the idea of personal property-ownership, when if anything, society has a greater claim on an individual’s body and work than it does on property? That is, since a person likely would not exist apart from the actions of countless people in the past, does society not have a strong claim on the fruit of that individual’s mind and body? Since natural resources pre-date society, society’s claim on the fruits of those resources is much weaker by comparison.

My point is not to support income taxation or communism, but rather that if one correctly supports self-ownership, for deontological or utilitarian reasons, then supporting property-ownership and rejecting collectivist claims on property is a much smaller logical step.