Friday, August 28, 2020

My Disagreement with Murray Rothbard

I have been working on a book based on my past blog posts. The current chapter deals with my criticism of Rothbard's historical work and the attitude behind his approach to it and other things, the view that political disagreement is ultimately war not argument (my terminology, not his). 

At the end of the chapter, I point out that the question of whether Rothbard's work is honest is relevant to whether you should trust him but not to whether his views are correct and has nothing to do with our real disagreement. Here is my current draft of that part of the chapter. 


Our important disagreement, about which I do not think he ever commented, had to do with differing views of how the law of an anarcho-capitalist society would be produced. His was that the law would be the product of libertarian philosophy. Since there was, in his view, one correct answer to what the law should be, everyone would agree and so all courts would accept the same law.

 [I]t would not be very difficult for Libertarian lawyers and jurists to arrive at a rational and objective code of libertarian legal principles and procedures based on the axiom of defense of person and property, and consequently of no coercion to be used against anyone who is not a proven and convicted invader of such person and property. This code would then be followed and applied to specific cases by privately competitive and free-market courts and judges. (Rothbard [1965], 208[1])

There are, in my view, two problems with this. The first is that, as the history of libertarianism makes clear, libertarian thinkers disagree on many features of a just legal code. To take only the most obvious ones, some libertarians, such as Ayn Rand, support laws protecting intellectual property, others oppose them. Some libertarians, probably most, believe that abortion should be legal, since a woman is the owner of her body. Others argue that it should be illegal, since the fetus has rights that should be protected.

One might attribute these disagreements to intellectual error on one side or another, and that is probably how most of those involved in such controversies see them. But it should be obvious to anyone who has made a serious study of the law that there are many legal questions to which philosophy gives no clear answer. Consider, for example, the question of what the penalty ought to be for theft. If the convicted thief is merely required to give back what he stole, theft becomes a profitable activity, since not all theft is detected: Heads you win, tails you break even. So the penalty must be something more than that.

How much more? Rothbard’s answer was that the thief must give back twice the value he stole, but he never offered any convincing reason why it should be two rather than three or ten.[2] The rule is supposed to apply to all societies, but in a society where theft is hard to detect it will still leave the thief with a profit hence will not deter theft. That is one example of the problem, but any thoughtful legal scholar or law student could offer many more. 

The second problem with the idea of deriving law from philosophy is that it ignores the problem of making it in the interest of courts to follow that law. In market anarchy, courts and rights enforcement agencies are private businesses. They can be expected, like private businesses in our society today, to try to maximize their profits. Rothbard seems to be assuming that, once the philosophers have determined what the law should be, everyone else will choose to accept it. That might make sense if one believes both that the philosophers can show what is right and that morality is such a strong force that, once what is right is shown, everyone will want to act accordingly. But if that were true there would be no need for law and law enforcement.

I have a different solution to the problem of producing libertarian law in a market anarchist society, one which uses the self-interest of the courts and their customers rather than ignoring it. In my version, each individual is the customer of a rights enforcement agency that sells him the service of protecting his rights and arranging for his disputes to be settled. Each pair of rights enforcement agencies whose customers might interact agrees in advance on a private court and agrees to accept its verdict in conflicts between their customers, an agreement enforced the fact that they are repeat players. If my agency refuses to go along with a judgement against its customer today, yours will act similarly tomorrow. Fighting is a lot more expensive than litigating and produces less predictable outcomes, so both agencies will prefer to keep the agreement.

Private courts are profit maximizing businesses, so want to produce the system of legal rules and procedures that rights enforcement agencies will want to buy. Right enforcement agencies are profit maximizing businesses, so want to use courts with rules and procedures that their customers want to live under. Individuals are choosing rights enforcement agencies, in part on the basis of the legal rules of the courts they patronize.

It follows that the private courts will want to produce legal rules that individuals want to live under, just as private firms in our society want to produce products that their customers want to buy. In our present political system politicians want to pass laws that voters approve of, but the voter is neither able to observe and compare alternative legal systems nor to choose among them, since his vote has a near zero chance of affecting the outcome of an election. Under market anarchy, the individual can see how the legal rules of different private courts are working out and can choose among them by his choice of what rights enforcement agency to hire. He cannot, of course, have unlimited choice, since they have to be rules that other rights enforcement agencies are willing to accept, but he has much more control, hence more reason to make an informed choice, than in our system.

It follows that the laws produced under market anarchy will tend to be welfare maximizing ones. If libertarians are correct, those will tend to be libertarian. There is no guarantee that the legal system will be perfectly libertarian. But then, there is no way to guarantee the outcome of any set of institutions. The reasons to expect the laws to be reasonably libertarian depend neither on philosophers solving the problem of deducing oughts from is’s or on courts and enforcement agencies acting on philosophy rather than self interest. Only on economics.


It turns out that Rothbard did comment, in at least one place, on the difference between his view of an anarcho-capitalist legal system and mine, as was pointed out to me by David Gordon, who I have been corresponding with in order to make sure I do not misrepresent Rothbard. David is at the Mises Institute, a Rothbardian institution, and has been very helpful. 

But although Rothbard notes that I do, and he does not, assume that different courts may judge according to different legal rules, he does not deal with the central question of why we would expect the legal rules of a market anarchist society to be libertarian ones. His only answer to that question is: 

"Within the anarchist camp, there has been much dispute on whether the private courts would have to be bound by a basic, common law code. Ingenious attempts have been made to work out a system where the laws or standards of decision-making by the courts would differ completely from one to another.7 [footnote to my book]But in my view all would have to abide by the basic law code, in particular, prohibition of aggression against person and property, in order to fulfill our definition of anarchism as a system which provides no legal sanction for such aggression."

That is an evasion — proof by definition. He sets up his system, courts adopt rules that permit aggression, and he gets to announce that it isn't anarchism, which has no effect on what they are doing. And by his initial definition it still is anarchy, since courts are not supporting themselves by taxation, hence are not governments. It just isn't libertarian anarchy.

If you find the argument convincing, imagine the same argument by someone on the other side. Someone says what he is in favor of is "Just Statism." You object that, for one reason or another, the state will not act justly. He responds that in that case it is not Just Statism, which is what he is proposing.

[1] Rothbard, Murray N. [1965]. “The Spooner-Tucker Doctrine: An Economist’s View,” reprinted in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays , pp. 205-218. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2000.

[2] An extended discussion of the issue from Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty has been excerpted and webbed on the Mises Institute site. Readers may decide for themselves whether they disagree with my claim that it offers no convincing defense of his position.

Monday, August 17, 2020

For any Slate Star Codex Refugees

Parts of the community have moved to data secrets lox. It is not as good as SSC was, in part because Scott is not there, but it's considerably better than nothing until SSC reopens. At this point you can look at old SSC posts and comments, but there are no new ones.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

A Smaller Point About the Russian Vaccine

People are claiming that the incentive for each country to get a propaganda win by developing its vaccine is bad thing and that Russia is acting badly by introducing a vaccine that has not yet been adequately tested. The only argument I can see for that is the idea that if this vaccine flops that will make people less willing to take the next one, but unless the flop kills a lot of people that seems unlikely, especially since the fact that they are bringing it out early is being widely publicized.

The other, and I think more important, side of the argument is that if the vaccine flops that means Russia has wasted some money and if it has serious side effects, they will effects on Russians. If it succeeds, the rest of the world benefits, with Russia having provided a very large scale stage 3 trial at their expense.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Russian Vaccine

Nobody appears to have any evidence that the vaccine is either dangerous or ineffective. What people are complaining about is a lack of evidence in the other direction, both because the Russians have not been publishing information on their research and because it is being brought out prior to the usual stage three testing. My conclusion, assuming as seems likely that Putin has or could hire competent people to develop a vaccine, is that it will probably work and probably not have serious side effects. 

My basis for that is what I have read about the other vaccine projects. It seems clear that everyone else is being very careful, unwilling to bring out a vaccine until they are virtually certain of both effectiveness and safety. A vaccine that has passed the stage two testing is probably safe and probably effective, but probably is not sufficient. 

Insisting that you have to be certain a drug is safe is good rhetoric but bad science, since safety is not an option. To see whyy, consider the case of  Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a fertility drug that turned out to produce medical complications in the daughters of some of the women who had taken it. The complications took a minimum of ten to twelve years to appear and the most serious, a form of cancer, appeared, according to varying estimates, in between one in 250 and one in 10,000 of the daughters. In order to be sure a drug did not have such an effect it would be necessary to give it to something upwards of a hundred thousand pregnant women then wait fifteen years or so and do extensive analysis of the medical problems of their children. Applying that standard to protecting against every long-term risk one could think of would make the production of new medical drugs very nearly impossible.

The current global death rate from Covid is about six thousand a day, so each month by which the introduction of a virus is delayed costs about 180,000 lives. That, plus other costs associated with the pandemic, should be set against the risks of introducing a vaccine earlier, when we can be less certain of its safety and efficacy. I do not know enough about the risks of vaccines that have passed the stage one and stage two tests, how serious and how likely they are, to judge whether the caution exhibited by everyone except the Russians would or would not pass a cost/benefit test, and I doubt that current policies are based on any such calculation. But, given how cautious everyone else is being, I doubt that the risk of serious side effects is as much as 25%. If I am correct, the odds are that Putin's decision will turn out to be correct ex post, whether or not it was correct ex ante.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Covid: The Invisible Elephant in the Room

Calculations of the requirement for herd immunity are based, as I understand it, on the implicit assumption that everyone is equally at risk, hence that the probability that one infected person will infect more than one other can be deduced from data on the early spread of the disease. That assumption is unlikely to be true, for both behavioral and biological reasons. Some people spend more time interacting at close range with those likely to be speaking loudly than others. And it seems likely that some can catch the disease more easily than others.

Suppose we drop that assumption. Suppose, for simplicity, that half the population consists of people vulnerable to the disease and half, for behavioral or biological reasons, invulnerable. Observing the early spread of the disease, we find that, on average, each infected person passes the disease on to two others. We conclude that we will only reach herd immunity when half the population have had the disease and become immune as a result.

But the relevant figure is not what fraction of the population has become immune but what fraction of the vulnerable population has. In my simple model, half the vulnerable population is only a quarter of the total population, so we reach herd immunity much earlier than the simple calculation implies. 

The real world distribution of vulnerability will, of course, be much more complicated than that, but the qualitative conclusion still holds. Over time, the people most vulnerable will be most likely to get the disease, so the average vulnerability of those who have not yet gotten it will decline, lowering the average number that each infected person passes the disease to. Hence herd immunity will come sooner than the simple calculation implies.

So far I have only considered differences in how easily individuals can get the disease. There will be similar differences, at least for behavioral reasons, to how easily individuals can transmit it. The two will tend to correlate — someone who spends a lot of time in loud conversation with lots of others will be more likely than average to get the disease and, if he gets it, more likely to pass it on. So, over time, the probability of transmission will fall as those most likely to transmit are selectively removed from the pool of potential transmitters.

All of this tells us that herd immunity will come earlier than the simple calculation implies, but not how much earlier — that depends on the actual distribution of vulnerability, of probability of transmission, and the correlation between the two.

Has anyone done the research necessary to estimate these numbers and recalculated the requirement for herd immunity according?

A further problem with the simple calculation is that it ignores behavioral changes due to the pandemic itself. Presumably part of the point of lockdowns was to temporarily push the transmission rate below one, driving the virus to near extinction — far enough down so that it could be controlled by a test and trace approach. In most countries that imposed a lockdown that didn't happen, but even without a lockdown the existence of the pandemic changes behavior in ways that should reduce the transmission rate below its initial value, at least somewhat.

P.S. a commenter on another blog where I raised the post gave two links to relevant material. The first goes to the editors' blog of Science magazine. The most interesting bit is:

we were concerned that forces that want to downplay the severity of the pandemic as well as the need for social distancing would seize on the results to suggest that the situation was less urgent. We decided that the benefit of providing the model to the scientific community was worthwhile.

That implies that the editors believe that part of their job is filtering the scientific literature in order to bias the public perception in the direction they approve of, although in this case they decided not to. It follows that one cannot take the published scientific literature on any controversial issue as giving an unbiased picture of the actual science. That is disturbing, but not surprising.

The post contains a link to the paper, which appears to be simply a fancier version of my argument, without actual empirical data that could be used to figure out the size of the effect.

The second link goes to a paper which, judged by the abstract, does make an attempt at estimating real world numbers, and concludes that particularly hard hit areas, such as New York City, may already be close to herd immunity. I couldn't find the full text online.

But a commenter could.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Thoughts on Dating Apps

I have been thinking about the  problem that computer dating is designed to solve. I can see four different approaches, three that exist in both realspace and online, one that could exist online but I am not sure does.

1. Examine the characteristics of many people, looking for someone you believe would work as a partner.

Subscribers to OKCupid answer questions about themselves, if they wish many questions. They look at the answers of other subscribers to find someone who looks like a good fit. It is an approach that people routinely use in realspace, considering people they encounter of the appropriate age, sex, and marital status as possible partners — except in a society such as Saudi Arabia where contact between single men and women is very strictly limited, leaving it to a man's mother and sister to find him a suitable bride.

The great advantage of computer dating is that it lets you search a much larger number of potential partners than you would encounter in realspace. On the other hand, the information you are using is provided by the potential partner, designed in part to make him or her appear a good match, so may be less reliable than what you could learn by direct observation.

2. Search a set of people already selected for you to have characteristics that make success more likely.

OKCupid allows you to filter for people within a given geographical area, by age, gender and some other characteristics. Dating apps as a group carry this farther, specializing in Christians who want to marry Christians, Jews who want to marry Jews, individuals looking for casual sex, individuals interested in marriage and uninterested in casual sex, and  other categories of potential subscribers.

On the other hand, computer dating does not use the information implicit in who you associate with in real life, mostly people who have a good deal in common with you. A student at Harvard or Vasser is associating with other people who have passed the same filter, making a fit much more likely than with random pairing — this may be one of the major functions of institutions for higher education. Joining a political movement, becoming involved in a hobby, entering a profession, all put you in contact with a set of potential partners who share with you characteristics that might lead to a good fit.

3. Use an intermediary, someone looking at individuals and trying to match them up.

In the case of computer dating, the program can be the intermediary, showing you not a random collection of individuals but individuals that, in its judgement, fit what you are looking for and are looking for what you fit. The obvious way of doing this is based on the subscriber's account of his preferences for a partner but it also could be, perhaps sometimes is, based on someone else's theory of what characteristics go well together.

The realspace version in more traditional societies is the shadchen, the marriage broker. In a society such as modern-day America, it is done more informally. A colleague's wife suggests that there are a lot of nice girls at folk dancing — I go, despite not being a dancer, and meet the woman I have now been married to for almost forty years. I ask the wife of my married son, a perceptive woman who knows lots of people, if she can suggest anyone my single son or single daughter would get along with.

4. Use feedback on the results of attempted pairings to discover what characteristics predict successful ones.

The first approach depends on individuals knowing what sort of person will work for them as a partner. The third depends either on their knowing that or on someone else figuring it out for them. There might be a better way.

I am imagining a dating app one of whose terms is that, after your first date with someone met online, you provide the app with feedback, report whether things went well or badly, with further reports after any later dates and a final report after you either give up on each other or decide on a long-term relationship. The program uses that information to figure out what characteristics, defined by the information provided to them by each subscriber — not "is X," which the program does not know, but "says he is X" — predict a successful match. The fact that I had a successful or unsuccessful date with someone with a given set of characteristics not only predicts what other people I will have successful dates with, it  predicts the same thing for other people who share my characteristics. Thus, over time, the program could provide experimental evidence on successful pairing based on self-reported evidence, making possible a better version of the previous approach.

Have any dating apps actually done this? If so, with what results?

I originally came up with the idea in the context of matching readers with books, inspired by a talk I heard on multi-dimensional voting theory, an approach to matching the positions of voters with the positions of politicians in order to predict electoral outcomes.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Wimps, Boors, and Philosophers

I am mining my accumulated blog posts to convert them into one or more books and have started the first chapter. It is based on exchanges with a group of libertarian political philosophers who describe themselves as Bleeding Heart Libertarians. It occurred to me that the argument I was making there was related to a different argument in a different post.

My central claim in the first group of posts was that, while the BHL were offering legitimate criticisms of arguments made by their fellow libertarians, they were unwilling to apply a similar standard to arguments made by academic philosophers. They wanted to add "social justice" to libertarianism but were unable or unwilling to give a clear explanation of what it was or on what basis it could be defended. They spoke respectfully of John Rawls but were not prepared to actually defend his central argument, which, I had long concluded, hinged on a claim about as defensible as 2+2=5, even less defensible than the libertarian arguments they had attacked.

My conclusion was that what they were offering was a version of libertarianism designed to appeal to their non-libertarian colleagues.

My other post came out of the controversy over the Ron Paul newsletters, some of which contained articles attacked as racist. While I may have missed something, I do not think any of them either asserted innate inferiority of blacks or hatred of blacks qua blacks. What they did was express a derogatory opinion of particular blacks — Watts rioters or muggers — in a gleeful fashion. They were thus likely both to appeal to racists and to offend liberals — more generally, people who accept current conventions of acceptable and unacceptable speech. My guess is that both effects were intentional.

I see the clash as between people who see non-PC speech as a  virtue and those who see it as a fault, between people who approve of offending liberal sensibilities and those who share enough of those sensibilities to prefer to respect them. The former group see the latter as wimps, the latter see the former as boors.The wimps have friends on the left they respect, so prefer to think of those on the left as reasonable people who are mistaken. The boors are more likely to have friends on the right, including some, such as religious fundamentalists or neo-confederates, whom the wimps disapprove of, so in that case the pattern reverses, with the wimps seeing those they disagree with as evil or stupid, the boors seeing them as reasonable people with, perhaps, some mistaken views.

Ron Paul, or whichever of his people wrote the relevant articles, identified with and was appealing to the boors and so offended the wimps. The Bleeding Heart Libertarians are professional academics, associate mostly with people well on the left, so speak respectfully of even bad arguments that such people respect and would like to revise libertarianism to make it more palatable to their left wing friends.