Sunday, September 20, 2020

A Very Long Shot

 At the 1975 Libertarian Party Convention in New York, I gave a talk on Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia. Nozick was in the audience, and we had an interesting exchange. Someone recently asked me if there was any record of the talk. I don't have any, and that was long before the time when everyone in the audience could be expected to have a video camera in his pocket, but it occurred to me that someone might have tape recorded the talk, perhaps the whole convention. If so, I would like to put a copy on my web page.

Does anyone know of such a recording and, if so, where it is?

Friday, September 18, 2020

A Little of my New Book

As I have mentioned here, I am working on converting fifteen years of blog posts into one or more books. I have now webbed one section, chapters dealing with libertarian philosophy and related issues, for comments.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

My Talks this Weekend

There is a very large virtual event, How the Light Gets In, this weekend which I have agreed to participate in. The web site doesn't make it easy to figure out when a particular speaker is speaking on what, so I am posting a link to my itinerary here. The titles of my talks are their creation, not mine. All times are BST, and I have added the PST times. The first talk, not counting the pre-recorded one, starts at nine in the morning here.

I am also giving a talk as part of a different event on October 4th, and will post something about that later.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Products I Would Like to See: Category Peanut Butter

I am currently on a low glycemic index diet. 

Fortunately, peanuts are consistent with the diet and I like peanut butter. 

Unfortunately, the standard commercial versions of peanut butter have quite a lot of added sugar, which is not consistent with the diet. 

Fortunately, a number of firms make "old fashioned peanut butter," which contains only peanuts. 

Unfortunately, such peanut butter tends to separate, with the oil rising to the top. Stirring it is messy, especially when the jar is full, and one tends to end up with hard, dry peanut butter at the very bottom.

I think it unlikely that sugar keeps peanut butter from separating, although I could be wrong, and so conjecture that one of the other ingredients added to the standard brands is what does it. If so, it should be possible to make peanut butter that does not have sugar and does not separate. 

I want it.

What I want cannot be found, at least so far by me. I conjecture that part of the reason is information cost — the fact that the old fashioned peanut butter separates is an easy signal that it only has peanuts — and in part religion. The religion in question is the popular form of nature worship that equates "natural" to "good," and so rejects "chemicals" in food whether or not there is any reason to believe that they are bad for us.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Theory vs History

Yesterday, Mike Huemer and I had a debate with two anarcho-communists on the topic of left libertarianism vs right libertarianism. It can be viewed on YouTube.

One thing that struck me as interesting was a difference in how we supported our positions. While I made some factual points, my central argument was theoretical, based on the coordination problem. In order for each of us to achieve his objectives he requires the cooperation of thousands, probably millions, of others, as you can see by tracing the supply train for anything we use — what things went into making it, what went into making those things, and so forth — and considering the number of people involved at each stage. Property and trade provide a decentralized way of solving that problem.

My challenge to my opponents was to explain how, without property, they would solve that problem. They never made a serious effort to answer it. Instead, they offered what they claimed was historical evidence that it had been solved, most notably by the Catalonian anarchists during the Spanish Civil War, with a variety of other claimed factual examples.

The problem is that neither I nor they knew if any of that was true. In my experience, if you look carefully at any controversial bit of history, you can find convincing arguments for a range of very different interpretations. I have not tried the experiment, but my guess is that a sufficiently able holocaust denier could offer persuasive arguments that it would take at least an hour or two of research to debunk. I have encountered cases where a false claim, for instance that Hoover's response to the stock market crash was to cut government expenditure or that Adam Smith supported public schooling, is widely believed. Unless one happens to have already spent time and effort investigating a historical claim, there is no way to know if it is cardboard or gospel truth. Even if you have, there is probably no way, in a context like a debate, to prove its truth or falsity to your opponents and audience.

Theory, on the other hand, is something you can actually look at inside your own head, without worrying about biased or otherwise unreliable sources of factual information. My confidence that a minimum wage must always reduce employment opportunities for low skilled workers was answered not by Card and Kruger's very weak factual evidence but by their demonstration, using the conventional price theory I accept, that there was a conceivable situation in which it would have the opposite effect. I doubt that situation has much real world relevance in the U.S. at present, since it depends on the market for such labor being monopsonistic, but it might well be relevant in other environments. 

Similarly here. Persuading me that the coordination problem could be adequately solved without some equivalent of private property and trade on historical evidence would be difficult, since I would have to look at lot of historical claims, find people who disputed them, evaluate their arguments for myself. A clean theoretical argument, possibly inspired by looking at real world examples, could do it in twenty minutes. To the best of my knowledge and belief nobody has produced such an argument yet, which makes me suspect that it cannot be done.

None of that, of course, is an argument against doing empirical work — the real world sometimes has lessons to teach us that we were not clever enough to think of for ourselves. It is an argument against giving much weight to claims about such work that you have not yourself investigated with reasonable care or, short of that, seen confirmed by people who have investigated them and whose honesty and competence you have reason to trust.


Friday, September 04, 2020

A Question on Libertarian History

I am working on another chapter of my current book, one that starts with the letter I wrote Edith Efron back in 1978, responding to an article of hers in Reason. Her article is webbed and I have now reread it, forty some years later. One thing that struck me again was this passage:

I suspect that a critical turning point in the evolution of this movement occurred when the proponents of a constitional republic, who by definition advocate a nation-state, agreed to suspend their endless quarrel with the anarchists, on the grounds that one should not split the forces of a small pro-liberty movement. After all, the argument went, one could wait a few hundred years to debate the issue of whether the government should be merely microscopic, or downright non-existent. All, presumably, could agree on the necessity to diminish its powers. It sounded like a plausible agreement. But it wasn't. For the constitutional republicans it was a very serious error. Already traumatized by the Objectivist debacle, which had severely undercut their self-confidence, they actually had agreed to abandon a series of important areas of political thought-above all they had abandoned the affirmative aspects of their position—the value of nation, the necessity of a national culture, the value of a government, the need to defend the country, and the need for a radical reformer to formulate a political position which integrates his proposals for change with his desires to preserve ... The constitutional republicans were struck dumb. They became paralyzed, mute, and stupid. The plain fact is that repression addles the brain.


By agreement with the anarchists, no examination of the affirmative aspects of the nation-state or of the unifying abstractions of the nation's pluralistic culture, was allowed. Over the years, in fact, the taboo became so intense, that ugly invective broke out whenever an individual presumed to explore these areas. The invective, of course, came from the anarchists, whose sole position on nation and state is negative—and who had lost nothing whatever by the agreement.

I was an active libertarian throughout the relevant period, and cannot remember what Efron describes ever happening. As a Harvard undergraduate I attended meetings of Radicals for Capitalism, the campus Objectivist group, argued with its members, and was eventually asked to stop coming because they did not like having to defend their views against my arguments. As a member of YAF and the token libertarian columnist on The New Guard I argued with everyone from traditionalists through fellow libertarians. When, at a libertarian event, I gave a critical talk on Anarchy, State and Utopia with Nozick in the audience, the interaction was friendly. The agreement as I understood it was that anarchists and minarchists were all libertarians and could work together, not that either side was forbidden to argue its position.

I am guessing that some of my readers were also part of the libertarian movement in the sixties and seventies, the period Efron is describing. My question for you is whether your memory supports her description of the history or mine. 

One possible mistake I made in the letter was to identify the anarchists Efron was attacking with Murray Rothbard. She mentions Rothbard early on in an anecdote about the failure of an early attempt of his to interact with people on the left but not thereafter, despite the fact that, throughout the period, he was the most prominent figure in the libertarian anarchist movement. That may be because, having initiated the attempt to ally with the left in 1965 he had abandoned it by 1970, eight years before Efron wrote her article. That makes her identification of "the anarchists" with the people she is criticizing a bit odd — presumably most of them were Rothbardians who had followed him into the left but not out of it.

When I have the whole chapter done I may put it up here for comments, but at the moment I am just curious as to the difference between her account and my memory.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

One Advantage to High Infection Rates

The obvious disadvantage is the risk of overwhelming the hospitals, but it occurred to me that there may also be one advantage. 

The latest evidence suggests that immunity after infection probably lasts at least four months. We don't know how much longer it lasts. Suppose that over four months everyone who can get infected does. At that point everyone is immune, so the virus has nobody to infect and vanishes away.

That is an extreme case, but four months is also an estimate of the current lower bound for how long immunity lasts. More plausibly, assume that the infection rate is high enough to push the population to herd immunity before the immunity of a significant number of those infected first wears off. At that point the number of infections starts to go down, since each infected person passes the disease on to fewer than one other. If it goes down far enough before the number of no longer immune people gets high enough to push the population back below herd immunity, it may reach the point where further transmission can be controlled by test and trace.

Suppose, on the other hand, that we hold the initial infection rate low enough so we eventually that reach a point at which people are losing immunity as fast as people are getting it, while the number immune is still below the herd immunity level. In that case the disease goes on forever, or at least until a vaccine becomes available. 

Obviously the argument does not hold if a vaccine is going to show up shortly, which at this point seems likely. It also does not hold if immunity is permanent, as might be the case. But it does imply that under some circumstances a higher infection rate is better, in the long run, than a lower.


How to Keep Home Schooled Kids Out of College

The University of California is apparently moving to abandon the use of standardized tests in admissions. That means that they are eliminating the only way in which home schooled kids, lacking the usual high school grades and teacher recommendations, can demonstrate their academic qualifications to a university.