Monday, May 27, 2013

How Strongly do Believers Believe: Historical Evidence

George Orwell, writing about religious belief in England, commented that what he wanted to know was not how many people confessed to a vague belief in a supreme being but how many believed in Heaven the way they believed in Australia. I was recently reminded of that comment reading a book on Ottoman law. Under that legal system, there were situations in which a defendant could clear himself by swearing an oath. According to the author's account, there were records in the surviving legal documents of capital cases where the defendant refused to swear and was executed as a result, as well as other cases where the defendant was convicted of a capital offense on his own voluntary confession. The obvious conclusion is that the defendant must have believed in Heaven and Hell very much as Orwell's contemporaries believed in Australia, and preferred death with a hope of Heaven to a life leading to Hell.

It is the obvious interpretation, and the one the author of the book I was reading offered. It may well be the correct interpretation. But I would want to know more about the situation to be sure.

Imagine someone a few centuries hence looking at records from the current American legal system without much knowledge of how it actually worked. Observing that a large majority of felony convictions were by confession, he might well conclude that 21st century American criminals were so honest,  perhaps so afraid of divine punishment for denying their crimes, that they preferred a certainty of prison to a chance of freedom bought at the cost of a lie. What he would be missing would be the institution of plea bargaining, under which a defendant confesses to a lesser charge in exchange for not being tried on a greater, choosing a certainty of (say) one year in prison over a gamble between going free and serving a much longer sentence. Given that institution, the fact that someone pleads guilty not only does not show that he is honest, it does not even show that he is guilty.

Which makes me wonder whether we might be missing similar features of the Ottoman case. The charges were probably for Hadd offenses, the short list of offenses deemed Koranic. Hadd offenses have fixed penalties and high standards of proof. Zina, unlawful sexual intercourse, is a capital offense if committed by someone who is or has been married and so has had the opportunity for lawful intercourse, but normally requires four witnesses to the same act for conviction. Or confession.

In some, perhaps all, cases the same act that can be prosecuted as a Hadd offense with a fixed penalty and a high standard of proof can also be prosecuted as a Tazir offense with a variable penalty, set by the judge, and a lower standard; the schools of law differ on the upper bound of the penalty. One can imagine a case where a defendant believed that if he denied the Hadd charge he would be tried instead on the Tazir charge and receive a penalty as severe or almost as severe. And one can also imagine pressures, legal or non-legal, religious or secular, that would make him prefer the former alternative. 

There is another possibility. Islamic religious law, fiqh, does not permit torture. Ottoman law, a fusion of fiqh and Sultanic pronouncements (kanun), did. So we do not know, at least I do not know, how voluntary the voluntary confessions were.

One might be able to explain away the evidence for strong religious belief along these lines, but it is entirely possible that the author I have been reading is correct in his interpretation. For those of us who do not believe in religion, it is tempting to see other people's belief as only semi-real, as more like my belief in the world of Lord of the Rings (the book, which I read early enough so I had to wait for the second volume to be published, and have reread many times since) than my belief in Australia. It is tempting to interpret our picture of how religious people were in the past as an artifact of filtered data, our sources for the relevant history largely consisting of accounts written by clerics, a point made by Georges Duby, a prominent medieval historian, in a book that used a rare secular source to provide a balancing picture. But it is hard to see how one can give a complete account of history, or even of the present world, without concluding that for  a substantial number of people Heaven really was, or is, as real as Australia.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hard Line Natural Rights: Alternatives To

The version of libertarianism that I refer to as the hard line natural rights position holds that individuals have an absolute right to themselves and their property, hence that any violation for any purpose is wrong. Obvious implications are that it is wrong to collect taxes for any purpose or for a starving man to steal a loaf of bread. It is a position that many libertarians not only agree with but view as defining libertarianism.

I explained my reasons for rejecting that position in Chapter 41 of The Machinery of Freedom (second edition). The Bleeding Heart Libertarians with whom I have recently been arguing reject it too. Thinking about our argument, it occurs to me that there are at least three different approaches to creating an alternative, and that part of my reason for arguing with them is that their approach strikes me as the least attractive of the three.

The first of the three approaches is to argue that the logic of libertarian rights theory leads to different conclusions than those most libertarians accept. One way of doing so is to leverage the problem of initial appropriation of unproduced resources such as land. I did not create the land my house sits on, nor did the person I bought it from or the person he bought it from, so how do I get the right to keep other people off it? It might be argued that I owe compensation to the people I am keeping off that land for violating their rights, an argument that can be used to defend  forms of taxation and/or income transfer as vindications, not  violations, of natural rights.

I have problems with all versions of that argument that I have seen, but I agree that there is a real problem. In the introduction to Machinery I argued that most income in a modern society does not come from unproduced resources, hence the solution to the problem of who is entitled to collect it does not matter very much—not a very satisfactory response, but I had no better one. Since then I have managed something a little closer to a solution, but not one I am entirely happy with. I am not convinced by the Georgists or other left-libertarians with similar approaches but I regard what they are doing as an attempt to get a modified version of libertarianism out of a solution to a real problem in the theory.

A second approach to modifying libertarian rights is the one I associate with the members of the BHL group I have been arguing with, mostly Jason and Matt. It attempts to resolve the conflict between the implications of the hard line position and their moral intuitions by importing into libertarianism ideas borrowed from modern academic philosophy. Like the first approach, the conclusion is a modified theory of rights, this time one in which the right to use force in the defense of property—this time all property, not just land—is conditional on meeting some sort of conditions of social justice.

Both approaches produce arguments that justify some amount of taxation and income transfer as compatible with rights, with the details and the justification varying within and between the approaches. The language is not identical, but if letting me use force to defend my property is unjust unless the poor are properly taken care of, then I do not have a right to both defend my property and refuse to help the poor, which makes the use of force in defense of my property a rights violation, so the essential conclusion is the same. The difference is in where they get it from.

My preference for the first approach over the second comes from my unhappiness with what I have seen of modern political philosophy, of which the work of John Rawls provides a prominent example. I have been observing it for quite a long time, having been present when the pre-publication version of one prominent variant—not by Rawls—was  being presented to an audience and had the frustrating experience of trying to persuade its author to follow his logic where it led instead of where he wanted to go. I read Rawls' A Theory of Justice early on and never was able to figure out why anyone took it seriously, beyond the fact that it provided arguments for conclusions they wanted to reach.  Reading modern philosophers I occasionally come across an interesting idea that is new to me, but not often enough to make me want to read much modern philosophy.

Which explains why when I see academic political philosophers trying to import into libertarianism ideas from modern "high" liberalism, ideas which I largely regard as pretentious fluff, my reaction is not positive. Even though they, like me, are trying to construct an alternative to hard line natural rights. For some of the reason I regard those ideas, nicely exemplified by Jason's "minimally decent lives," as fluff, see my previous post.

Which gets me to the third approach—mine. Unlike both of the others, I am not trying to produce a modified theory of rights. Like the second group, I find some conclusions of hard line natural rights strikingly inconsistent with my moral intuitions. My conclusion is that rights are not a complete account of oughts. That an act violates a right is a strong argument against doing it, but not a conclusive argument. If, to take an old example of mine, the only way of saving the human race from destruction by an approaching asteroid requires, by some bizarre set of facts, that I steal an object worth a nickle from its rightful owner, I should do it. Doing it violates his rights, which may mean that he is morally entitled to try to stop me. But a small violation of rights is more than outweighed, in my moral calculus, by an enormous benefit in consequences.


For a more complete account of the first approach described, see:

The Origins of Left-Libertarianism


Left-Libertarianism and its Critics

both edited by Peter Vallentyne and Hillel Steiner


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What's Wrong With Mushy?

An issue that I keep coming back to in my exchanges with various of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians is what I see as their unwillingness to offer a clear description of their position. It comes up in details of what they write, such as Jason Brennan’s use of  the phrase “minimally decent lives,” a term I have been describing as dishonest mush. It comes up in the overall pattern of the exchange, which started back on Cato Unbound, was continued on, and revived here when I responded to Jason’s cartoon libertarian post. I have been trying to get the BHL people to tell me what they want to add to libertarianism as other libertarians see it, with a notable lack of success.

This raises the question I have used for my title. Jason wants to argue, in the specific case of “social justice,” that terms do not have to have clear meanings in order to be useful and he claims that lots of terms we routinely use, such as “justice” or “liberalism,” don’t. That is surely true to some extent; the meaning of words is usually at least a little fuzzy at the edges. It is true even for such  obvious classifications as male and female, since there are people whose genetics are neither XX or XY, people who are biologically male but (by their report, which I am inclined to believe) psychologically female, people who are genetically of one gender but morphologically of the other, hermaphrodites, and a variety of other sorts of people (not to mention other organisms) that cannot be neatly classified by gender. But there is still a  difference between a word that has an adequately clear meaning and one that does not. And there is a further difference between both and a word or phrase which appears to have a clear meaning, is designed to appear to have a clear meaning, but dissolves into mist or turns out to have a very different meaning when you look at it closely.

There are two problems with mush, one having to do with arguments, one with implementing them in institutions. The first may be best described in George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language.” If you have never read it I suggest that you now do so, since it is more worth reading than this post.

Clear language promotes clear thought, fuzzy language makes possible unclear thought. The less clearly your ideas are defined, the harder it is to see problems with them, the easier to evade problems when other people point them out. That is part of why, at this point, I prefer the category of left-libertarians of whom Georgists, admirers of the 19th century economist Henry George, are the most familiar example to the ones I have been arguing with lately. The Georgist position starts from the observation that since land is not created by human effort there is a problem justifying anyone's claim to own it and exclude others. It goes on to argue for a land tax used to fund government and, possibly, provide payments to poor people. In an old article I discussed problems with one version of this line of argument and offered an alternative solution to the problem of ownership of land, although not one I find entirely satisfactory. But at least the Georgists are willing to offer an explicit argument, which makes it possible for other people to look for holes in its logic or implications that they find unattractive.

So far the BHL people I have been arguing with are not, which is why I at one point described my exchange with them as trying to nail jelly to the wall. The pattern is illustrated by their attitude to Rawls and his Difference Principle. They speak of Rawls with respect, imply that they, or at least some of them, are in favor of something with a vaguely Rawlsian flavor, but are unwilling to actually defend the argument with which he justified his principle. They think libertarianism should include something beyond natural rights but, aside from making it pretty clear that that something is not utilitarianism, are unwilling or unable to give a clear description of what.

So much for why I find mush irritating. Why do I also find it dangerous?

Suppose one concludes that people with characteristic X deserve special treatment, say a payment of a thousand dollars a year funded by other people’s taxes. Assume, first, that X is clearly defined, someone either has X or doesn’t and it is obvious to everyone which is the case. Let X be blindness, and assume for the moment that it is well defined.

There will still be costs, in addition to the direct cost of the transfers, to implementing the policy. Individuals can and will spend resources supporting or opposing the proposal, and that expenditure is a net cost. If the proposal is implemented, there may be additional costs as some people, most obviously the blind and those who provide goods and services to the blind, try to push the amount up, others to push it down. And there might be a cost due to a reduction in the incentive to avoid blindness or to cure it, although that effect is likely to be small as long as the disadvantages of being blind are  much larger than the payment, and disappears if we assume that whether you are blind is entirely outside of your control. That assumption corresponds to the usual assumption in talk about social justice that it involves consequences of characteristics that are not your fault.

Now suppose we alter the assumption just a little by replacing “blind” with “legally blind” and giving a very fuzzy definition to the latter, something like “vision bad enough to significantly reduce life opportunities,” which is not too bad a parody of the sort of definitions moral philosophers like to give for disadvantages that they think deserve some sort of compensating special treatment. All of the problems I have described now expand. Anyone with less than perfect vision has an incentive to lobby Congress to broaden the criteria. Anyone with or without perfect vision has an incentive to try to get classified as legally blind, whether by bribing the inspector, getting a well paid physician to testify that he has an obscure optical problem, or merely faking the symptoms—at the cost of the inconvenience of not driving when he might be caught doing so. Make the criteria fuzzy enough—my example might do it—and what you really have is a subsidy to anyone with enough money and/or political influence to get himself qualified as legally blind, whatever the actual state of his vision.

Which is why mush, used in philosophical arguments that are intended to justify legal rules, is dangerous.

Let me end by returning to the specific example of “minimally decent lives” and a slightly more defensible version that came up in the comment thread on the BHL blog, “basic needs.”  I begin with the latter.

A reasonably objective definition of “basic needs” might be  “enough food and shelter so that their lack would not greatly reduce your life expectancy.” To make it more precise, replace “greatly reduce” with “reduce at least in half relative to those who had such food and shelter.” What would that work out to?

There are parts of the U.S. where housing is pretty cheap, down to about $100/room/month, probably less if I searched further. Assume that people are packed in ten beds to a room, along the lines of housing for tramps in London as described by Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris. That gets annual housing cost per person down to about a hundred dollars.

On further thought, that’s too high. There are parts of the U.S. where the weather is temperate enough so that living outdoors, perhaps with a roof to shelter you from the rain, is not a serious risk to health. So all you need is some empty land in such an area, enough roofs for everyone to huddle under when it rains, and local authorities willing to put up with the land being used as a refuge for the homeless. Cost per person close to zero. Add a little for porta-potties and a water supply.

I should probably include clothing. There is a place in Boston that my wife, daughter, and some of our friends like to visit that sells second hand clothing at fifty cents a pound. Twenty pounds of clothing should easily last a year in a temperate climate, so call that another ten dollars a year.

What about food? George Stigler, back in 1945, provided an estimate of the lowest cost diet that satisfied what was then the list of nutritional requirements. It cost a little under $40/year. A recent repeat of the calculation, using current prices and current nutritional requirements, produced a figure of about $600/year.

That again is too high, since a sizable fraction of the world’s population survives on considerably less than Stigler’s 3000 calories/day, and probably considerably less than whatever figure the more recent calculation used. Stigler's diet was for someone doing moderately hard labor—again I don’t know the assumptions in the current version. But if all we are asking is what it takes to prevent severe malnutrition for someone who is presumably sitting around unemployed, since if he were employed he would already be making more than the amount we are considering, 2000 calories/day should do it easily. And we can get a better estimate of the cost of a really minimal diet, one designed to keep you from starvation, by simply looking for the foods that have the lowest cost per calorie. The last time I looked at the problem I checked supermarket prices and calorie contents, but now we have the web and someone else has done it. The result was that 200 calories of canola oil or wheat flour cost $.07, of peanut butter $.17.

Those three items, suitably combined, let you choose your mix of carbohydrate, protein, and fat, although I expect you would need a few other things, perhaps some vitamin pills, to avoid serious nutritional deficiencies. Call the total $.10/200 calories, or $1/day. That is not allowing for the cost of food preparation, but that ought to be pretty minimal if we are only trying to provide minimal nutrition, not a tasty meal.

Adding it all up, it looks as though a serious estimate of the cost of “basic needs” in the U.S. at present, taking the term seriously as describing what it takes to stay alive, would come to something around $500/year. Is there any of the BHL authors, any modern American philosopher who uses the term, who would be willing to interpret it that way? Anyone who is not, it seems to me, is pretending to use an objective standard when what he actually intends is something more like “a standard of living I would find tolerable.”

I am not suggesting that people ought to have to live on $400/year, although one risk of making this post is that at some point in the future someone may quote me out of context to claim I am. It is not the life I would choose—although if we assume that the homeless refuge contains some interesting people and not many unpleasant ones and that some generous donor provides a large supply of second hand books I expect I would prefer it by a good deal to not living. I have included no expenditure for medical care in my calculations, which could get unpleasant, but I think the historical evidence suggests that while the lack of medical care reduces life expectancy, it is unlikely to cut it in half.

So much for "basic needs." "Minimally decent life" is harder to give any content to. For most of us, I suspect it gets interpreted as the least attractive life we would feel reasonably happy about living, which in practice probably means life at something like half whatever our annual expenditure presently is. That is not an objective standard and I think it would be hard to come up with any convincing argument, certainly with any argument convincing to a libertarian, to show that everybody is entitled to achieve it, if necessary paid for by other people.

For anyone who has not been following the argument from the beginning here are are the relevant links:

The discussion

My reresponse

Another contribution to the debate on the BHL blog, this time from Kevin Vallier

More argument can be found on the comment threads to some of those posts.

And may I humbly suggest to the people at that they ought to provide a page showing, with links, the structure of such exchanges? And, if they already have done so, tell me how to find it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Jason Brennan Defends, I Reply

Jason Brennan has now responded to my criticism. He did so on his blog rather than in comments on mine, so I will rerespond here instead of there.

His first response to my claim that "social justice" has no definite meaning is to concede that I am correct if "definite" is taken in a strong sense. It does not seem to have occurred to him that that concession raises problems for his earlier post, in which his very first "you may be a cartoon libertarian if" criterion was "You think the term “social justice” has no definite meaning in philosophy today."

He argues, however, that even if "social justice" does not have a precise meaning, it describes a cluster of related ideas and so is as precise as other terms used in philosophy. A simple test of that claim is whether he can use his definition to say what is a theory of social justice and what is not, and he attempts to do so. 

To illustrate the failure of that attempt, I offer three quotes from his post:
 1. “Theories of social justice focus on the idea that moral justification of coercive institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor or least advantaged.”

2. “Few advocates of social justice think this is the only criterion of legitimacy or justice.”

3. “The most basic form of utilitarianism is a theory of distributive justice but not social justice, because it has no special concern for the poor or least advantaged.” 
Point 2 implies that serving the interests of the poor or least advantaged only has to be one of the things determining justice, not the only thing. Utilitarianism has no special concern for the poor or least advantaged, but it includes their utility in the total (or average) it is maximizing, hence the serving of their interests is one of the things determining justice for a utilitarian; if the poor do worse in society A than in society B and everyone else does exactly as well, then A is a less justified. It follows that, contrary to point 3, utilitarianism is (among other things) a theory of social justice.

To avoid this conclusion, Jason has to introduce the requirement of "special concern for the poor or least advantaged" (italics mine). We have been here before. My clash with BHL folk over the question of what "social justice" means started in an exchange with Zwolinski and Tomasi on Cato Unbound where I made the point I have just made, and got the following response:
As David notes, utilitarians care about the poor in the same way they care about everyone else: their interests are to be taken into consideration equally along with the interests of everyone else. Advocates of social justice, in contrast, seem to care about the poor in a deeper sort of way: in Rawls’ version, the interests of the least well-off have a very strong moral priority over the interests of everyone else.

This is a fine and important distinction for philosophers to make. But it’s worth noting that for most of the real world problems that the classical liberals were concerned about, it is a distinction without a difference. ...  
And, in the rest of their reply, they never explain what a special concern means.

As long as Jason's point 1 is interpreted to mean some concern with the treatment of the poor, as I think his point 2 has to permit, the only theories that do not count as theories of social justice are ones that hold that outcomes to the poor don't matter at all and I have a hard time thinking of any examples. Jason may think Ayn Rand qualifies. I will leave it to Objectivists to demonstrate that, in her approach to political philosophy, the lives of poor people mattered along with the lives of other people and leaving each person free to control his own life was the best way of serving man's life qua man.

Part of my criticism of Jason's position centered on a definition of social justice offered on his facebook page, using the term "minimally decent lives." In his response he switches to something closer to the definition I offered from Z&T, claiming that the two are close enough to both describe the same cluster concept.

That raises an obvious question: Does he agree that "minimally decent lives" in one of his definitions is, as I argued, dishonest mush, a term implying an objective standard that does not exist? If he does agree, he ought to take his use of such a term as some evidence of a problem with the concept whose definition he is offering, for reasons along the lines of those offered by George Orwell in his classic essay "Politics and the English Language." If your objective is to clearly express ideas that you are thinking clearly about, there is no need to use terms that are emotive but meaningless.

Jason goes on to respond to the challenge in another recent post, where I suggest that he is more respectful to a bad argument offered by an academic philosopher, specifically John Rawls' argument for his minimax principal, than to bad arguments offered by libertarians. He disagrees with my evaluation of Rawls argument, and writes:

"Rawls’s defense of the Difference Principle is not fully compelling because there are some important objections and questionable assumptions."

"Not fully compelling" implies that it is a pretty good argument with problems.  But the central assumption of the argument is that someone who knows he will live a life in a society but does not know which he will live will choose as if he is certain to live the worst life. No justification is provided for that assumption, on which the entire argument rests. Does Jason think there are pretty good, if not entirely compelling, arguments for it? Would he like to offer some?

If not, I do not see why he regards that argument as more defensible than the (bad) arguments Rand offers for her views. He goes into some detail on what is wrong with Rand's critique of Kant, and very likely he is correct. But his rebuttal of Rand depends on an analysis of exactly what Kant meant in parts of his writing. My rebuttal of Rawls is more nearly on the level of "his argument assumes that 2+2=5."

Aside from giving me an opportunity to get back at Jason for implying that I might be a cartoon, why does all of this matter? My criticism of the concept of social justice arose in the Cato Unbound discussion, in the context of my trying to get the Bleeding Heart Libertarians to give a clear answer to the question of how their view of libertarianism differed from the views of other libertarians, most obviously from my view. Part of the answer seemed to be that they thought libertarians should make more of a point of the fact that a libertarian society would be good for (among others) the poor, but that defines at most a difference in rhetoric not  content, since essentially all libertarians agree with the claim.

The other part was that they wanted to incorporate social justice into libertarian philosophy. So I tried to get them to tell me what "social justice" meant. To put some substance into the concept, one needs more than concern for the poor, one needs a special concern for the poor, so I asked them to explain what that meant, and they didn't. 

Part of what is interesting about Rawls is that he does answer that question. Brennan, Zwolinksi and Tomasi all speak respectfully of him, but none of them is willing to adopt his answer. That leaves their position as the combination of a critique of the hard line natural rights version of libertarianism, a critique I agree with and made in print a very long time ago, with language about caring for the poor whose content they are unwilling or unable to explain, at least to me.

One final digression, having to do with my interest in moral philosophy. What originally intrigued me about both Rand and Rawls was their claim to have solved Hume's is/ought problem, to have offered a rational argument for normative conclusions based on positive facts—I think a stronger claim in Rand's version than in Rawls'. I concluded that both claims were bogus. Not only do both of them present chains of argument with at least one gaping hole, both of them try to paper over the hole with rhetoric—Rand more entertainingly than Rawls. Readers interested in my view of that feature of Rand's work will find a sketch here.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Different Sort of Bullying

There has been a good deal of talk in recent years about the evils of bullying and what to do about it. Almost all of what is discussed seems to be bullying of low status people by low status people, largely schoolchildren bullying schoolchildren. There is another sort of bullying that is unfortunately common in our society, arguably a more serious problem, and the subject of less, or at least less uniform, condemnation. Some examples are illustrated by two of my recent posts and one older one.

The first is anti-smoking rules carried beyond the point at which they can plausibly be defended as protecting non-smokers. My example is a proposed rule to ban all smoking from my campus. Smoking is already forbidden in buildings and, I'm pretty sure, near the entrance to buildings, so the proposal would have only a tiny effect on exposure to second hand smoke. I am a non-smoker, find cigarette smoke mildly unpleasant, and cannot remember having ever been significantly bothered by it on campus. The document circulated on the ban asserted a number for total excess mortality due to second hand smoke that I argued in my post on the subject was doubly bogus—it misrepresented the claim it was based on, and that claim was almost certainly based on cherry picked data. And, even if the number were correct, it would say little about the effect of the small additional reduction due to the proposed rule.

One motive for such a rule—whether it has passed or will pass I do not know—is probably paternalism, the theory that if you make smoking sufficiently inconvenient smokers may give it up. But I suspect that another motive is bullying. People, unfortunately, enjoy pushing other people around. Such a rule lets people who disapprove of smoking make life more unpleasant for those who smoke,  demonstrating the power of the former over the latter.

My second example is the behavior of police officers. There are obvious reasons why police officers would wish other people to be deferential towards them, since the more extreme forms of non-deference can, in that context, be lethal. If the only people who talk back to them are criminals, mostly criminals about to attack them, that provides a useful signal of when to be on their guard. Making things unpleasant for people who demand a badge number (I once got arrested for assisting someone else to do so), point a cell phone camera at them, or in other ways fail to acknowledge their status and authority, is one way of getting that deference.

There are also obvious reasons why people in general want other people to be deferential towards them, making a profession which legitimizes the demand for deference and makes it possible to enforce it with the threat of death, injury, or prison, attractive to those with that taste. Which I think helps to explain the increasingly common pattern of unnecessary SWAT style raids, kicking in doors, pointing guns at innocent people and ordering them to lie on the floor, shooting dogs. 

I do not think it would be hard to come up with other examples in both categories. People like pushing other people around. Doing so is generally safer and more effective when you have the power of the law on your side. One way to do so is to make rules or pass laws that make life harder for people you disapprove of, whether smokers, gays, or college students who get drunk and have sex. Another is to get a position one of whose perks is the right to order other people around—and, in some contexts, threaten, assault, beat, even kill anyone who objects, with minimal risk of suffering any criminal penalties for doing so. That includes TSA agents whose opportunities are limited to vandalizing checked luggage and ordering people to stand still while being patted down, and police officers with a wider range.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Question for Bleeding Heart Libertarians

In a recent post, I took issue with Jason Brennan's claim that "You might be a cartoon libertarian if: 1. You think the term “social justice” has no definite meaning in philosophy today." One point that came up in the discussion thread was the suggestion that the BHL folks, who are (I think) all or mostly academic philosophers, are unfairly prejudiced against other people who are not.

Apropos of which, I have two simple questions for Jason or any of the others associated with the BHL blog:

1. Do you believe that the derivation of the rule that, as one of you put it, "lies at the heart of John Rawls’s theory of social justice," is more intellectually defensible than any of the items on Jason's list of criteria for recognizing a cartoon libertarian? Is his derivation of the minimax rule more defensible than the claim that "Ayn Rand’s critiques of Kant or Plato (or any philosopher, for that matter) are insightful." Than the claim that  “'social justice' has no definite meaning in philosophy today." Than the claim that "there are no involuntary positive duties to others."

If the answer is that you think Rawls' argument is more defensible than any of those, I would be happy to argue the matter with you. When I raised the question with Zwolinski and Tomasi in a recent exchange, I got a response which I interpreted as implying that they were unwilling to defend Rawls.

Supposing you are not willing to defend Rawls, at least to that limited extent, the obvious next question is:

2. Would you be willing to describe Rawls as a "cartoon liberal?"

Preferably online or in print.

If the answer to both questions is "no," I do not see how you can defend yourself against the charge that you have a double standard, treat arguments made by academic philosophers, at least famous ones, with more respect than arguments made by other people—even when both are equally bad.

Which is not, I think, consistent with justice in the ordinary sense of the term.

P.S. Thinking about this in response to comments, I concluded that I had overstated my argument. Jason did not say that Rand was a cartoon libertarian, although for all I know he thinks she is, he said that you might be a cartoon libertarian if you think certain of her writings are insightful. Applying the same standard to him, the question I should have asked is whether he would be willing to say that:
You may be a cartoon liberal if you think Rawls' argument for the minimax principle deserves respect.
P.P.S. Jason has now responded to this (and my previous post criticizing me) on his blog.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sometimes the Good Guys Win

A moving account by a young lawyer who succeeded in getting his client acquitted of a bunch of charges that could have put him in in jail for the rest of his life. The client's offense was shooting two police officers in the legs--when the police smashed down his door in the middle of the night in a SWAT raid. The police fired 37 rounds, mostly from a rifle, into a house containing a bunch of people, including six children—by good fortune none of them were hit. The client fired four shots, all aimed low through the door they were breaking through, and stopped firing as soon as it became clear the attackers were police.

The grounds for the raid? A police informant had told them that someone else in the house had sold crack cocaine. The police found cocaine concealed in a room used by both the client and the person they had been told sold it—and tried to convict the client of having it.

As far as I can tell, none of the policemen were charged with reckless endangerment or anything else, and they are presumably still out there, armed and dangerous.

This summary is based on the lawyer's account, but given other such stories I have seen I see no reason to doubt it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cartoon Libertarians, Social Justice, and Bleeding Hearts

"Social justice = the idea that coercive institutions can be legitimate (i.e., permissible) only if, under favorable circumstances, they can reasonably be expected to help ensure that most conscientious people will lead minimally decent lives."

(From Jason Brennan’s Facebook page)

"social justice is a moral standard by which the institutions of a  society can be evaluated on the basis of how well they serve the  interests of the poor and least advantaged."

(Definition offered by Zwolinski and Tomasi in the course of a Cato Unbound exchange)

In a recent piece on the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog, Jason Brennan took some of his fellow libertarians to task for “cartoony opinions on complex matters.” His list of examples started:
You might be a cartoon libertarian if:
1. You think the term “social justice” has no definite meaning in philosophy today.
(followed by points 2-17)

While I agreed with many of his examples, that was not one of them. If “social justice” has a definite meaning in philosophy, philosophers should be able to offer clear definitions and the definitions should be consistent with each other. As the quotes above, from philosophers from the same faction of the same political movement, demonstrate, they are not. The first specifies that it is about coercive institutions, the second about institutions in general. The second makes the evaluation of a society depend on how well it serves the interests of the poor and least advantaged, the first makes it depend on maintaining a minimal standard for “conscientious people.” The poor and disadvantaged are not all conscientious, conscientious people are not all poor and disadvantaged. Both definitions look more like political rhetoric than political philosophy.

Not only are the definitions not consistent with each other, neither has a clear meaning. Consider, for instance, “minimally decent lives.” A modern making a list of the requirements would almost certainly include access to decent medical care, by which definition no human being prior to 1900 lived a minimally decent life, since what we consider reasonable medical care did not then exist. One obvious response is that what is a minimally decent life changes over time. But that is to concede that the definition uses dishonest rhetoric, pretends that a relative concept is an absolute one. To say that the same life would be minimally decent if lived in 1700 but not if lived in 2000 makes nonsense of the words “minimally decent.”

An egalitarian might say that what matters is not the absolute level but how equal the society is. A utilitarian could point out that what distribution of income maximizes utility depends, among other things, on how much income there is to be distributed. The BHL folks are unwilling to identify with either of those approaches and unwilling or unable to offer a substitute that actually means what it says.

To continue …  . “Advocates of social justice believe the moral justification of our institutions depends on well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged.” Depends entirely? Two societies are equally justified if they equally serve the interests of (say) the bottom 10% of the income distribution, even if, in one of them, the rulers live a life of luxury supported by the taxes of everyone else above the bottom, or if, in one, almost everyone above the bottom 10% is a (well taken care of) slave? Does Brennan think there is any human being who thinks none of that matters, that the moral justification of the institutions depends only on how well they serve the bottom of the distribution? I am pretty confident he does not—he is, of course, welcome to correct me in the comment thread to this post.

One possible response is that advocates of social justice believe that the justification of the society depends in part on the implications for poor people. But so does very nearly everyone else. Utilitarians believe that the justification of the society depends on how well it serves everyone’s interests, the poor and disadvantaged included. Similarly for alternative candidates. The concept that, according to Brennan, has a definite meaning in philosophy either has a meaning that nobody could take seriously or a meaning that distinguishes it from practically none of the alternative concepts—the only exception I can think of is a pure deontological position that pays no attention at all to consequences. I agree with Jason that consequences matter, but that agreement does not define social justice.

To return to the first definition …  . If “coercion” means the literal use of force, then fighting off a murderer or rapist counts as coercion, making a society that permits it a “coercive institution.” Does Brennan believe, does he think anyone believes, that permitting such self-defense is only morally permissible if it helps “ensure that most conscientious people will lead minimally decent lives?" What if self-defense is relevant to only a few, and most will get to live minimally decent lives without it? What if it is important only to people who would manage minimally decent lives even if they are not able to use force to defend themselves, but much better lives if they are?

Brennan might reply—he is again invited to do so here—that using force in self-defense does not count as coercion. But that would bring him straight into one of the problems with libertarian theory that he is, I suspect, already aware of. Libertarians say they are against the initiation of coercion, but their definition of initiation of coercion depends on their definition of what rights people have. If Brennan uses the same definition of rights for his definition of social justice, then practically all libertarians believe in it. If not, then what distinguishes Brennan et. al. from the rest of us is not their commitment to social justice but their view of what rights people have.

One of the things that bothered me in a later online exchange with Matt Zwolinski (on was a tendency to slide over from the right to use force to protect property in land, which raises serious moral issues since most land was not produced by humans, to the right to use force to protect property in general. Without a theory of what property claims are legitimate, one cannot distinguish the use of force to protect legitimate property from other and coercive uses, which gets us back to the idea that one is only permitted to fight off a murderer or rapist if doing so helps the poor—or at least helps whoever is at risk of not living a minimally decent life, whatever that means.

I should probably stop now, at least for long enough to give Jason Brennan an opportunity to respond. Before doing so, it is worth pointing out just how heavy a burden of justification he has imposed on himself. In his point 1 he was not merely claiming that his view of the status of the meaning of social justice was defensible. He was claiming that it was so obviously true that to deny it was a cartoonish position.


My challenges to Zwolinski and Tomasi on social justice from the Cato Unbound discussion.

Discussion started by Bryan Caplan, with comments by me and others, on the problem of defining social justice.


You might be a cartoon bleeding heart libertarian if:

1:  You describe Rawls as offering the “philosophically most sophisticated” theory of social justice—and then decline to defend it when "David Friedman trenchantly critiques the maximin decision rule that lies at the heart of John Rawls’s theory of social justice."

2. When asked to define "social justice" you insist that the idea is well defined and prove it by offering two or more inconsistent definitions.

3. When asked in exactly what sense your philosophy implies a special concern for the poor, you change the subject.

4. Your explanations of why the views of other libertarians are wrong are clearer, better written, more convincing and much shorter than your explanations of what you believe and why it is right.

5. You describe your associate professor's salary as a "minimum basic income." (Suggested, perhaps a little unfairly, by Sean II commenting on Brennan's post)

P.S. I continued the argument in a later post, and Matt Zwolinski offered some responses in comments to that post.

P.P.S. Jason has now responded on his blog.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Benghazi and Intra-Party Politics

The current controversy over the attack on the Benghazi consulate and its aftermath looks, at first glance, like a straightforward case of inter-party politics, with Republicans using their control of the House of Representatives to produce and publicize evidence of the misdeeds of the Democrats controlling the White House. But it occurs to me that something else, perhaps more interesting, may develop.

The evidence so far suggests that the Administration, in particular the State Department, deliberately misrepresented the information available to them, blaming the attack on a spontaneous demonstration due to a UTube video, something which they could not be held responsible for or expected to have anticipated, when the evidence suggested that it was actually a pre-planned terrorist attack. And some of the testimony suggests that the objective was to mislead not only the public but Congress, something that members of Congress, Democrats as well as Republicans, might reasonably object to. Hence it would not be too surprising if at some point some Democrats in Congress announced that, much as it pained them to admit that their Republican colleagues were, in this case, correct in their suspicions, the demands of truth, justice, and their obligations to the American people forced them to rise above politics.

It might even be true. But ...  .

Politics exists within parties as well as between them. The part of the Administration most obviously responsible for both failing to protect the consulate and misrepresenting the nature of the attack was the State Department. The Secretary of State was Hilary Clinton. Barack Obama cannot run for President in the next election, but Hilary not only can run, she is currently the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination.

And there are surely other Democrats who would like to be President. It will be interesting to see, when and if Democratic unity on this particular controversy breaks—I have not followed the story carefully enough to know if it has yet started breaking—which Democrats break it, and what their alignment is within the Democratic party.

The Binding Constraint on Book Length

Nonetheless, a  non-exhaustive but still wide spatiotemporal coverage has its own epistemic and methodological problems, especially if attempted within the realistic constraints of page economy (scholarly publication being increasingly subject to the harsh rules of profit and loss).
(Wael B. Hallaq, in the introduction to his Sharia: Theory, Practice, Transformations, a book more than six hundred pages long)
Hallaq's complaint takes it for granted that the constraint on how long a book he can write is how long a book his publisher is willing to publish. I suspect that the more important constraint is how long a book his readers are willing to read. As some evidence, I note that he also published a drastically shortened version of the book, discussed in a recent post here. That version, about a third as long and about half the price, ranks 152,814 on Amazon. The longer version ranks 871,161. Amazon does not provide actual numbers for book sales, but my guess is that the latter figure represents a fraction as many as the former.

It is possible, of course, that the still longer book he would like to have written would do better. There is a straightforward way in which he could find out. CreateSpace, Amazon's print on demand subsidiary, will publish a book at negligible cost to you, put it up on Amazon and send you the resulting royalties; the rate depends on the price you choose to charge. If you are willing to accept royalties of 10%, the price for a 600 page book is about $16. So Hallaq could  publish twice the number of pages he did as a two volume work and sell it on Amazon for a total of $32, which is less than half the price of the existing book.

My guess is that it would not sell many copies, even at that price, but I could be wrong.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

A Positive Health Effect From Smoking

I just came across an interesting article reporting on new evidence suggesting that eating peppers substantially reduces the risk of getting Parkinson's disease. It mentioned, in passing, that it is well established that smoking anti-correlates with getting Parkinson's.
The observation that smokers have a lower risk for PD has been "consistently reported in more than 60 epidemiological studies," Honglei Chen, MD, PhD, from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, who wasn't involved in the study, told Medscape Medical News.
 The link between smoking and peppers is that both tobacco and vegetable peppers are in the same vegetable family (Solanaceae) and that pepper contain small amounts of nicotine.

The information about peppers is more relevant to me than the information about smoking, since smoking has enough negative effects to make it quite unlikely I will start doing it—although I have played with the idea of trying one of the smoking substitutes, such as a nicotine patch or an eCigarette, to see if I like the effects. But the information about smoking is more interesting, precisely because the fact that I was not aware of it is evidence of a problem with the mechanisms by which information reaching me gets filtered.

Assuming that the quote from Chen correctly reports the evidence—a quick google suggests it does, and that the effect is substantial—it is surely relevant to the question of whether people ought to smoke, a positive effect, possibly a substantial one, to set against the well established negative health effects. So why has it not been widely reported, at least widely enough so that I would have heard of it? Why does it only appear as a passing comment in a news story about something else?

My guess is that it is for the same reason that the evidence that moderate alcohol consumption is good for you is not widely known, a point I discussed here about a year ago. It is widely, and I think correctly, believed that smoking is bad for you. Hence publicizing evidence against that belief, evidence that in at least one important respect smoking is good for you, amounts to supporting the bad guys, which very few people, whether scientists or journalists, want to do. The result is a sort of informal and unofficial censorship, a filtering of the information that reaches the public to make the case for whatever the conventional view is look stronger than it is.

In a previous post I expressed my skepticism about popular claims on the magnitude of the negative effect of second hand smoke. While I think those claims are bogus, my guess is that second hand smoke does have negative effects, since there is good evidence that smoking does. But ...

For a long time, opponents of nuclear testing argued that the resulting increase in background radiation increased the rate of cancer and birth defects, on the grounds that high levels of radiation were known to do so. The implicit assumption was that the negative effect was proportional to the dosage, that if a large amount of radiation had a substantial effect, a small amount had a proportionally smaller effect. As I understand the evidence, that assumption turned out not to be true, the standard counterexample being Denver. Because it is about a mile above sea level, the background level of cosmic radiation is higher than most other places people live, but rates of cancer and birth defects are not correspondingly elevated, indeed may not be elevated at all. 

That suggests that human biology can deal with low levels of radiation,  has problems only with high levels. Suppose that turns out to be true of the effect of tobacco smoke as well. From the same article:
"A few studies suggest that secondhand smoke might be associated with a reduced risk of PD, so that prompted us to look at another source of a relatively small amount of nicotine — foods in the same plant family as tobacco," [Dr. Searles Nielsen] added.
If it turns out that secondhand smoke does reduce the risk of Parkinson's and does not cause cancer, heart attacks, or other adverse effects associated with smoking, secondhand smoke might, aside from the unpleasant smell, be good for you. If so, even if the evidence turns out to be reasonably good, it may be a long time before you find out.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

A Defense of Traditional Islamic Law

I have just finished reading an interesting book, An Introduction to Islamic Law by Wael Hallaq. The author is a scholar, but the book is clearly aimed at a general audience. Its central theses are:

1. Traditional Islamic law was a well functioning legal system, superior in most ways to modern law.

2. That system was corrupted and ultimately destroyed in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries by some combination of western influence, direct and indirect, and the rise of the nation state.

The author makes a persuasive case and one that ought to be particularly interesting to libertarians, since it starts with the fact that, in Islamic legal doctrine, law is independent of the state. Judges are appointed by the ruler, but the law they enforce is not state created but derived by legal scholars from religious sources. I like to describe it as what Anglo-American common law would be if the decisions of judges were replaced by the books and articles of law professors. Further, the legal system itself was polylegal, with (eventually) four mutually orthodox schools of Sunni law coexisting, along with Shia, Christian, and Jewish law.

The case Hallaq makes is persuasive, but that does not necessarily mean it is true. A ruler could, after all, use the power to appoint judges to select ones who would rule according to his view of the law and use his control over the enforcement of rulings to determine what laws actually got enforced. 

There is a medieval example in the story of the Caliph al Mansur and the poet Ibn Harma:
The Caliph, delighted with the poet's performance, told him to name his reward; the poet replied that the reward he wanted was to be let off from the punishment for drunkenness when he was found drunk and brought in to the authorities. Al Mansur replied that that was God's law, not his, so he could not change it, and asked ibn Harm to name a different reward; the poet responded that there was nothing else he wanted.
So al Mansur sent instructions to the officials in Medina that, if Ibn Harma was found drunk and brought in, he should receive sixty lashes as specified in Koranic law—but whoever brought him in should receive eighty. And ever after, when someone saw the poet drunk upon the pavement, he would turn to his companion, say "eighty for sixty is a bad bargain," and pass on.
It is a good story and demonstrates one possible disconnect between legal theory and legal practice. But we do not know if it is true or whether if true it represented the rule or the exception.

Why would a ruler choose to leave the content of the law out of his control? Hallaq's answer is that the rulers were typically foreigners—Turkish princes, for instance, ruling over Syrian, Egyptian, Arabic populations. The existing system of Islamic law provided them with legitimacy in the eyes of the population and a link into local customs and social structures. Both were particularly important in a world where pre-modern limits on transport and communication made a modern bureaucratic state of any substantial size, controlled by direct authority, impractical. The rulers were therefor willing to make an implicit deal with the legists, the legal scholars and those associated with them. The ruler left the content of the law to the legists and provided them with material support—salaries for judges and endowments for legal schools, which in turn provided salaries to professors and food and lodging to students. The legists, in exchange, supported the legitimacy of the ruler and ran his legal system for him in a way acceptable to the population he ruled.

Further support for legal independence came from the distinction between the roles of qadi and mufti. The qadi was the judge appointed by the ruler to decide cases. The mufti was the legal authority upon whose expertise both the qadi and the general populace relied. A party to litigation, or anyone else who wanted an authoritative opinion on a legal or moral question, presented the question to the mufti, who provided him with a fatwa, an advisory opinion. If the case got to court, that opinion would be offered as evidence of what the law was. While the qadi was, ideally, a legal scholar himself, he did not have to be, since he could rely on opinions brought to him by litigants or provided by the mufti at his request. And while the qadi was appointed and paid by the ruler, the mufti was not; his position depended only on his reputation.

By Hallaq's account, the result was a legal system that produced generally just and attractive results. In particular, he claims that the poor and powerless frequently succeeded in using it to defend their rights over the rich and powerful, non-Muslims over Muslims, Women over men. He further claims that Islamic law, in contrast to modern law, saw its function more as producing outcomes satisfactory to all parties, where possible arbitrating among them, than as simply choosing winners and losers.

Hallaq obviously has an axe to grind, a conclusion he wants to argue for. He knows much more about the subject than I do, and large parts of his argument depend on facts I have no easy way of checking, in particular on the surviving records of the outcomes of court cases. I know that there is a wide range of opinions about modern legal systems, including the one I live under, despite the fact that they are there to be looked at, and I do not know how wide the range is of possible interpretations of a system that disappeared, by his account, a century or more ago. That leaves me unsure how much of the story he tells to believe

To solve that problem, I have tried to find parts of his story, both what he says and what he does not say, that I can check against other sources. The parts that are clearly true, judging by everything else I have read on the subject, are the theoretical separation of state and law and the existence of a polylegal system in which different people in the same city were under at least somewhat different systems of legal rules. Also, I have access to two webbed accounts of the legal rules, one from the tenth century (from the Maliki school) and one from the fourteenth (from the Shafi'i school), and can compare their contents with what Hallaq says the rules were.

For the most part, what he says is consistent with what they say. I am less happy with what he does not say. Part of his argument, clearly intended to counter hostile views of Islamic law in the modern world, is that the system in practice was not seriously biased against women and non-Muslims. He mentions that a woman's testimony in court counted for half that of a man, but argues that the active involvement of women in court cases shows that that was not a serious handicap. He does not mention that women's testimony was only acceptable at all in a limited subset of legal areas or that, while two women in those areas were the equivalent of one man, a hundred women were also the equivalent of one man, the usual legal rule requiring either two male witnesses or one male and at least two female. Nor does he mention that the damage payment for killing a woman was half that for killing a man or that the damage payment for killing a Christian or Jew was half to a third (depending on the school of law) that for killing a Muslim, or that deliberately killing a Muslim was a capital offense, deliberately killing a Christian or Jew was not. 

None of those facts imply that the system failed to provide a reasonable degree of protection to those who were not male Muslims, or even that it was, in practice, less egalitarian than modern law. Part of his implied argument is that the protection provided by modern law is largely dependent on how much money one has, while it was effectively free under Islamic law.  But they are all facts that would make his case look less persuasive to the readers the book is aimed at. His failure to mention them makes me less confident that the facts he does offer and I cannot check present a balanced picture of the evidence.

When it comes to his second thesis, what happened to destroy that system of non-state law, the problems seem to me both clearer, on his own evidence, and less fundamental. The essential change was the takeover of law by the state. That consisted in part in replacing a system of law as deduced by scholars with one of law as written down by the state, in some cases based on religious law, in others on western models. It consisted in part in the state taking over the machinery for supporting and training the actors in the legal system.  Hallaq wants to blame that change mostly on western influence, direct in the case of Islamic societies under colonial rule (India, Indonesia, Algeria), indirect in the case of the Ottoman Empire, responding both to foreign pressures on an increasingly weak state and by the desire of Ottoman elites to imitate western practices in order to catch up with its western rivals. 

The problem with that account is that, judging both by Hallaq's account and by others I have read, the changes in the Ottoman empire occurred long before the 19th century. The Ottomans supported the Hanafi school of law, with the result that, in much of the empire, judges were required to rule in accordance with that school, while elsewhere judges of the other three schools were subordinate to a Hanafi chief judge who had to approve their rulings as not too inconsistent with those of his school. As early as the sixteenth century, the Sultan sometimes instructed judges as to which of several alternate rules within Hanafi laws they had to follow. In the same century the Ottomans recognized a Grand Mufti, a state appointed top level religious authority. They also took over effective control of the schools where legal scholars were trained. And the Ottoman sultans produced their own legal code, the Qanun, running in parallel with and, in theory, supporting, the religious legal code of the scholars.

Hallaq goes to some length to try to argue that, despite these changes, Islamic law in the Ottoman Empire was alive and well, providing justice and even restricting the power of the Sultan until corrupted by western influence over the course of the nineteenth century. I found this one of the less convincing parts of his argument. 

As I read his evidence, what destroyed the traditional system he admires was the increasing power of the nation state, which eventually annexed the independent legal system and used it for its purposes. That development parallels the process in western societies by which the state took over the church. Hallaq describes the seizure of the property of the waqfs, Islamic charitable foundations used both to support the families of the donors and to support mosques, schools and other charitable enterprises, something that occurred in a variety of different Islamic states, independent or under colonial rule, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He does not mention the obvious parallel to the seizure of the property of the monasteries by Henry VIII. One obvious conjecture is that changes in both east and west reflected changes, possibly technological, that strengthened the position of centralizing political institutions.

It is an interesting book, a persuasive book, and its central thesis, however implausible it may sound to modern readers, could be true. I have a lot more reading to do.
A note on terminology

Many writers, including Hallaq, use "Shari'a" as the label for the Islamic legal system. As best I can tell, that is not quite right. Shari'a, as I understand it, is the legal system as it ought to be, the legal system in the mind of God. The actual legal system, fiqh, is an imperfect human attempt to implement shari'a in the real world. Since "shari'a" is the wrong label and "fiqh" unfamiliar to most of my readers, I have been simply referring to it as the Islamic legal system.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Seduction to Matrimony—from PUA to Red Pill

Some years ago, I came across a series of web pages that offered what spam messages sometimes claim to offer—instructions to men on how to seduce women. They were labelled PUA, for "pickup-artist," and were more interesting than one might have expected, especially if one was twenty years or more out of that particular market. 

Part of what made them interesting was that there was a theory underlying them: Women are attracted to alpha men, so the way to attract women is to be, or at least pretend to be, an alpha male. Another was the frankly amoral approach. As best I could tell, the authors did not regard either honesty towards or the welfare of their would-be partners as matters of much importance. The objective was simply to bed as many desirable women as possible, and the techniques were worked out in some detail.

Recently, reading comments on an interesting post by Eric Raymond, I came across a mention of the current incarnation, or perhaps descendant, of PUA, and followed it up via Google. This time the label was "red pill," a reference to the film The Matrix, where the red pill represents possibly painful reality as an alternative to pleasant illusion. The underlying theory—women are attracted to dominant men—is still the same, but the application has changed. The objective this time is successful marriage.

The tone has also changed. The central idea, as best I can judge it, is that the husband's role should be that of a benevolent dictator. He should work hard, do all the husbandly duties, pay careful attention to the desires and welfare of his wife, listen when she talks. But he should also make it clear that, in the last analysis, he is the one who decides things. I do not know if any of the authors of red pill pages are familiar with Blackstone's famous explanation of the legal status of a married couple: "In law, husband and wife are one person, and that person is the husband"—but I expect they would approve of it. 

Which reflects how conservative the terminus of their intellectual journey is. They start with amoral hedonism aimed at as much casual sex as possible and end up with a conventional, if somewhat old fashioned, version of traditional monogamous matrimony. Their one addition to the traditional account, carried over from where they started, is the objective: Since women are turned on by dominant men, following their marital formula is supposed to provide lots of matrimonial sex and a happy and satisfied wife.

I do not have the data to judge how successful either the original program or the later version are. My guess is that both work for some people some of the time in some situations, but less universally than their proponents believe. The PUA tactics appear designed mostly for single bars where, as I understand the institution, the women present are there to be picked up, so the only question is which of the men they end up with; I would not be surprised if, in that setting, the advice works pretty well. And I expect there are successful marriages that work in part along red pill lines, as well as others that would not. But what I found most interesting was the way in which a mating philosophy designed for men in their early twenties with a single-minded focus on casual sex had morphed into a form suited to the same men a little older, a little more mature, and with a different set of objectives.

I will now await the comments of those who know both versions better than I do and can either correct my account or fill it out with their own data.

The Greatest Post Ever Written?

That was how another blogger referred to this post by Dierdre McCloskey. I don't have sufficient data to confirm that claim, but it is very good.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Economics of SF Fandom

I expect to attend a local science fiction convention (Baycon) in a few weeks, which makes this an appropriate time to talk about the economics of fandom. One part of it—fandom as a modern gift economy—I discussed briefly in an old post. This one is on gains from trade and the risks of technological progress.

Suppose you are a moderately successful sf author but not one of the handful of top writers. Your writing pays well enough to support you but not well enough to make you rich. Your neighbors, unless they happen to  read your books, see you as no more important, no higher status, than anyone else on the block. You are, along with most of the population of the world, a nonentity.

Most of us don't like being nonentities. But somewhere, scattered around the world, there are thousands of people who look up to you as an artist, a magician, a story teller, the creator of worlds where they spend hours of enjoyment. Humans enjoy status, and putting you together with your fans gives it to both of you. You get to spend time being an important person, a celebrity. They get to actually meet, talk with, a celebrity—not, perhaps, a celebrity for most of the world, but a celebrity for them. Both of you are better off, benefiting by gains from trade, although a trade not in material goods. That is one of the reasons they are willing to pay to attend a science fiction convention at which you are a guest, and one of the reasons you are willing to show up at the convention and spend many hours interacting with fans, even though you are probably not being paid to do so. That, as I interpret it, is one of the things that makes the subculture of sf fandom, and similar subcultures that I know less about, work.

The mechanism I describe has worked for quite a while, but it may be encountering a problem due to technological progress. One way of interacting with an author you admire is to attend a convention and hope he shows up. Another is to read his blog, comment on it, with luck get comments in return. Exchange emails with him. Chat with him on one of the sf Usenet groups. The less such interaction depends on being in the same room, the better a substitute it is for a convention, hence the less the gains from trade that a convention produces. 

The loss is to conventions, not to fandom more generally. The new technology has made it possible for substantial parts of what fandom produces to move to cyberspace, where it can be produced at a lower cost in money and effort. How large the effect is, I do not know. I read and write sf and attend an occasional convention, but I am not enough a part of the subculture to tell whether attendance is on net falling, or if so by how much. 

One relevant question, to which I do not know the answer, is to what degree people see virtual contact, contact online, as an adequate substitute for realspace contact. That gets me back to an old puzzle—why the mass lecture survived the invention of the printing press. Reading a book is also a form of virtual contact, it too is more convenient than the realspace equivalent, and it has the further advantage of giving you contact with a much higher quality and higher status partner—the author of the best book ever written in the relevant field. Yet many students still prefer to get their information sitting in a room with several hundred others listening to a professor talk.

Which may mean that sf conventions will be with us for a while longer.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Why I Believe Things

I was recently in an interesting online argument on the subject of rational ignorance. My claim was that rational voters, knowing that their vote had a negligible probability of altering the outcome of an election, had no incentive to pay the substantial cost of learning enough about political alternatives to have a well informed opinion as to which candidate was better. 

The friend I was arguing with raised the obvious counterargument—if I was right, why do people bother to vote at all? I made my usual response. People enjoy the pleasure of partisanship, as demonstrated at football games. Every four years a game is played out across the nation with the future of the world at stake. For the cost of an hour or so of your time, you can not only cheer for your team, you can even, in at least a token sense, play on it. Who could resist? 

Unfortunately, enjoying the pleasure of partisanship does not require the partisan to have a well informed opinion of which side he should be a partisan for. Acquiring such an opinion might even make cheering less fun, since in some cases, on some issues, you would have to face the fact that you were cheering for the bad guys. Better, more fun if less realistic, to believe that your people are all basically good, their opponents bad.

His response, at least as I interpreted it, was that he rejected the rational ignorance argument because he saw it as a tactic of the bad guys, a way of undercutting support for democracy—our exchange had grown out of a disagreement on the relative merits of government vs private production of things such as health care. The problem with that response is that, until you know if the rational ignorance argument is correct, you do not know who the bad guys are. If democracy really works as badly as the argument predicts, that is a reason, on some political issues, to switch sides, which changes which side you approve of arguments in favor of.

I concluded (and said) that he was offering evidence for my view of democracy, picking what to believe not on the basis of arguments or evidence but on the basis of partisanship. My argument undercut the position of his team. His conclusion was not that he should reconsider which side he supported but that he should reject the argument.

Which started me thinking about to what degree my own views are based on reason, and to what degree something else.

I think I can fairly claim to be more familiar with the arguments for and against my political positions than most people are with the arguments for and against theirs; to that extent my position is based on reason. I think I have some evidence from my past behavior that when I am faced with a strong argument against my views to which I can find no plausible rebuttal, I eventually change the views.

On the other hand, there is a significant range of political positions that are defensible, positions I disagree with but cannot claim to have adequate arguments to refute. At the very least it covers the range from my father's limited government views to my anarchism, and arguably quite a lot more than that. Why, within that range, do I believe what I do?

I think at least part of the answer is wishful thinking.

I would like to believe in a world where people are primarily rational and benevolent, a world where political conflict ultimately comes down to trying to figure out what is true, not to which side can force the other to give in. Looking at the same question on a smaller scale, I cannot ever remember a conversation with any of my children that came down, on either side, to "I don't care what the arguments are, I want ...  ." If I participated in such a conversation I would find it upsetting, on a small scale the same problem that makes me see the biggest risk of having children as the risk of having children who don't like you—something that I am very glad never happened to me.

The same attitude shows up in my fiction. One common criticism of my Salamander is that the characters are implausibly rational and reasonable. My response is that some people are like that. Those are the people I prefer to interact with and, by extension, to imagine and write about.

Which gets me back to my political beliefs. I prefer to believe that people are fundamentally rational and benevolent, where by the latter I mean that they would, on the whole, prefer that good things rather than bad things happen to other people. I think it is clear that some people are like that and reasonably clear that practically everyone is to some degree like that. But it is not a full description of human beings, and I have no good basis to estimate how good a description it is, how many people  to what degree fit my preferred pattern. My political beliefs come in part from modeling the world on the assumption that rationality and benevolence are the norm, the signal, everything else something more like random noise. 

Which is to say that they come in part from wishful thinking.

My suspicion is that the same is true of other people, probably including the friend I was having the argument with, although I have no good guess about what particular features of the world he prefers to believe in.