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Archive for January 2011

We Live In The Anarcho-Capitalist Utopia

with 11 comments

In my previous essay, “Markets Are Ungrounded,” I undertook to list some of the regulations that are necessary for a market to function. The idea of a “meta-market” is particularly tempting to those opposed to “government” regulation – the idea that we might not only choose our transactions, but choose the rules for our transactions. I think this is an impossible, incoherent fantasy.

In The Machinery of Freedom, David Friedman defines government as “an agency of legitimized coercion.” Friedman believes that government should not exist, and that the functions currently performed by government either should not exist or should be undertaken by private individuals and groups.

He says:

The special characteristic that distinguishes governments from other agencies of coercion (such as ordinary criminal gangs) is that most people accept government coercion as normal and proper. The same act that is regarded as coercive when done by a private individual seems legitimate if done by an agent of the government. (In “What is Anarchy? What is government?”)

Further, Friedman defines “coercion” as “the violation of what people in a
particular society believe to be the rights of individuals with respect to other individuals.”

So how would these private groups work to perform functions now performed by government – for instance, preventing and punishing crimes? Friedman imagines that this would all be done voluntarily – that is, by individuals subscribing to protection agencies that use force to protect citizens from violations of their rights (as defined by the private, competing protection agencies). These protection agencies would then patronize private courts who would compete for jurisdiction.

Here is my problem with the Friedman model: it’s exactly the system that exists today, and has always existed since the beginning of human kind.

At the deepest level, Friedman is not proposing any change to the current system(s) of government at work in the world today.

Friedman proposes not regulations for a market, but a system of markets and meta-markets, a system that resolves everything through voluntary transactions. However, this is an illusion. Ultimately, it can’t be “markets all the way down” (or up) – competing protection agencies use force, and the balance of force is what supposedly protects citizens. The “free market” is at the deepest level founded upon force.

This is exactly the situation that we have today.

For instance, our Federal and state governments today compete with various forms of organized crime, which fill the institutional vacuums created by the “legitimate” governments denying contract enforcement to some transactions. These are perfect examples of competing protection agencies under the David Friedman model.

Let me repeat Friedman’s definition of coercion: “the violation of what people in a
particular society believe to be the rights of individuals with respect to other individuals.”

Friedman wants to eliminate this “coercion” thing, at least by governments.

But the protection agencies themselves define what coercion is, for their subscribers. And they enforce their definitions by force.

How is that any different from . . . all of human history? Are not all anarcho-capitalist protection agencies “agencies of legitimized coercion”?

There is no way to protect oneself from coercion (whatever one’s definition of this is) without engaging in the coercion of others.

(In case it’s not clear, I’m happy to be straightened out here – I’d much rather understand the dimensions of the problem than be “right.”)

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Written by Sister Y

January 24, 2011 at 5:16 pm

The _____ Must Go On

with 15 comments

Something Greater

Virtually everyone agrees: there is something that is extremely important, more important than the concerns of individuals—perhaps even universally important. The exact nature of this important something varies, but what does not substantially vary is the fact of believing something to be of all-encompassing importance. The importance of this something is often so self-evident to those who value it as to be axiomatic to them.

Forms of Valuing

There are many ways to value something, or to express its importance. When we value something, we may devote attention to it, as with a piece of music, a painting, a child, a lover, a novel, a sport. We may even suggest or demand that others devote attention to it, as we do when we write essays or make laws. If the valued something is an aware being, such as a dog, we may act to give it pleasure, or to prevent its suffering. If it is a conscious being with its own values, i.e., a person, we may express its own universal value by promoting what it values. This is what we do when we enable another to make a choice that we do not agree with.

Especially if the valued thing is NOT a conscious being, our devotion may rise to the level of reverence, as we might express toward a flag or a god. This may be expressed in protecting it from competition from other symbols, or prohibiting its symbolic desecration.

The _____ Must Go On

There is one way of acknowledging or expressing something’s value, however, which is often mistakenly viewed as the only way to properly value something: to preserve it, to promote its longevity, to ensure its continuation into the future, as long as possible.

Maximizing longevity—the lifespan of a person, for instance, or of a political or ethnic group, or of a religion, or of a species—is not the only way to acknowledge that it has value. Why is so much importance placed upon a thing’s position and duration in time?

In “A Right of Self-Termination?” (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 606-628), J. David Velleman considers two of the forms of valuing that I list above: respect for the expressed values of a conscious being, and promoting longevity. He argues that the latter trumps the former; that is, we need not respect the stated value of a conscious being if that expressed value is the desire for the being to end. I claim (see Respecting and Erasing) that promoting longevity and continuation is only one of many ways of expressing something’s value. Robert Rauschenberg, I note, expressed and highlighted the profound aesthetic value of a Willem de Kooning drawing by erasing it. A familiar story is that of a group disbanding, rather than compromising its ideals in order to continue. All those Aztec codices burned because of their enormous value—value that threatened to compete (symbolically) with new mythologies and political systems. They turned to cinders, yet still condors scream from them in our imaginations.

Why Longevity?

If something matters in and of itself, not just instrumentally—if it has value not only in the positive feelings it gives to existing beings, but inherently—what does it matter when or for how long it exists in time? Why should we care so much about duration and continuity only, to the exclusion of the intensity, integrity, or other qualities of the valued thing’s existence?

This question, I propose, has an answer: we express the value of our “important somethings” in terms of preventing their extinction because we wish to—but cannot—prevent our own individual extinction.

This psychological explanation is not arbitrary; it is empirically grounded in the robust results of the field of Terror Management Theory.

Judges and Prostitutes: An Introduction to Terror Management Theory

In 1989, a small group of psychologists decided to subject some of the claims of Ernest Becker’s influential-but-fuzzy Denial of Death to empirical testing. Becker’s model proposes that “human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality.” Okay. How do we test that?

The scientists, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg, decided to test whether a reminder about one’s own death (a “mortality salience induction,” in TMT jargon) would change a person’s behavior. They chose as their experimental subjects a group of judges, who are culturally expected to be fair, impartial, and unmoved by emotional matters such a fear of their own deaths.

Both the experimental group and the control group were given packets of questionnaires to fill out. However, tucked among these many pages of questions, the experimental group was given a mortality salience induction: the judges were asked to describe, in as much detail as possible, what they expected to happen to their physical bodies when they died, and the feelings this aroused in them. The control group was given a control question instead.

Both groups were then asked to make a very simple (simulated) legal judgment: to set bail for a prostitution charge. Would there be a significant difference between the bail set by mortality-salience-induced judges and control judges?

Yup. Big time. Like, an order of magnitude.

The control judges set the bail amount for an average of $50. The judges who were asked to contemplate their own deaths set the bail at an average of $455.

Why Do Death-Reminded Judges Pick On Prostitutes?

Terror Management Theory posits that the judges, reminded of their own extinction, unconsciously engaged in the psychological practice of worldview defense. Reminded of their own eventual extinction, they reached for something eternal to attach themselves to, in order to achieve symbolic immortality. The “important something” they chose was the traditional idea of law and order, violated by this hypothetical prostitute. The death-reminded judges, the theory goes, punished the prostitutes for their violation as a way of protecting the institutions of law and order and traditional society, allowing the judges to attach themselves to something eternal-seeming, and hence symbolically prevent their own extinction.

Prostitutes threaten law, order, and traditional morality. Judges reminded that they themselves are under threat of death were willing to do more to protect these “eternal” values.

From this one colorful, evocative experiment sprang a field of study whose results have been replicated and expanded worldwide. It would be impossible to even touch on the variety of experiments that have been conducted. It even works when the death reminder is not explicit, and may not even register consciously – as when one group of experimental subjects was asked to report to an experimental site located near a funeral home, and control subjects to another site. Imagine how many death reminders each one of us receives daily, without even realizing it.

And it’s not just ordinary physical death that triggers such responses, although they do so extremely strongly. It can be a reminder of social death as well—the threat of losing one’s place in society, which, in the EEA as in modern times, frequently contributes to actual death.

What Must Go On?

What else do we cling to when reminded of our own eventual extinction? Religion is a big one—occasionally promising actual immortality to believers, although this need not be the case. Political and ethnic groups, symbols, and ideas form powerful targets of worldview-defending attachment: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Nature and endangered species work well as Something Higher.

As my title suggests, the cry of an entertainer is that “the show must go on.” As vacuous as entertainment culture may be, it does have its Something Higher that trumps the individual needs of the performers. Art is a powerful worldview defense.

And then there’s having babies.

Children offer the closest thing to physical immortality. Our genes, if not our bodies, may live on after us; this is a major reason why people are willing to beggar themselves in order to have genetic children. But even raising non-genetic children allows people to pass their stories and information into the future, or imagine that they do so: to imagine that they have an effect on the future, rather than extinguishing completely.

Aside from personal survival through one’s own family, there is a nearly-universal feeling that the human race should go on. This is perhaps the ultimate remedy for mortality salience. Without humans (or at least conscious creatures), there can be no stories. We must be able to imagine the world continuing after us, and we can only do so through stories.*

Must The _____ Go On?

I am not arguing that art, nature, family, justice, humanity, or the Green Bay Packers are not important. What I wish to demonstrate is that our most strongly-held values arise through a non-conscious, irrational process to which we have no access. This is, I think, reason enough to look at our most strongly-held values with uncertainty and suspicion. We do not arrive at our deepest values by reflection and reason. To a large degree, our values “just happen”—like our brains. When our values conflict—the value of preventing suffering versus the value of preserving the human species—we are tempted to choose the latter because it feels axiomatic to us. But that is a reason to treat it with extra suspicion, not to treat it as axiomatic.

That we feel something is of all-encompassing value is not evidence that the something has such value, as much as it is evidence that we are driven to see things as valuable. The “must go on”-ness is primordial to the valued thing itself.


Readers who find this familiar will note that I wrote about this a long time ago.

For that, please read the information-dense, highly entertaining, incredibly well-written In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, written by the scientists themselves. (The book has almost nothing to do with 9/11 or terrorism, except that terrorist acts are highly visible death reminders that may be exploited for their capability to arouse worldview defense.) For an introduction that requires less time investment, watch the documentary Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality, which is awesomely available to watch instantly on Netflix.

* I do so when I imagine someone reading an essay of mine after I am dead; not even a suicide is immune to this phenomenon.

Written by Sister Y

January 20, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Ask Sister Y

with 5 comments

Paul asks:

One of the supposed signs of clinical depression is a person’s inability to enjoy their usual interests. Do you consider this to be a societal denial of an individual’s process of disillusionment and another facet of the conspiracy against suicide?

DSM-IV Major Depressive Disorder is diagnosed on the basis of one or more Major Depressive Episodes. A Major Depressive Episode is a period of at least two weeks during which at least five of a list of criteria are present. One of these five criteria must be either the “depressed mood” criterion, or the “loss of interest” criterion to which the question refers. So it’s actually a really special criterion, not just one of many things on a list. In some ways, it’s the essence of the disease, to the extent that we conceive of it as such.

This very special criterion is stated thus in the DSM-IV (and not scheduled for alteration in the DSM-V):

(2) markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day (as indicated by either subjective account or observation made by others)

The diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder is critical to the question of suicide rights, since the modern conception of suicide is as the consequence of untreated mental illness. As the vomitrocious suicide.org puts it, “Over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death. And the most common mental illness is depression.”

Suicide, we are told, is the act of a mad person, not a genuine choice. One of the other diagnostic criteria for depression is, in fact, suicidal ideation or “thoughts of death.” This is a very suspicious move; while on the one hand, the media explain suicide as a result of mental illness, the psychiatric establishment defines the desire to die as part of a mental illness. The criterion Paul points to deals not with the desire to die, but with a failure to find satisfaction in the world. This defines the well-functioning of a person as finding satisfaction in everyday activities.

But are we really so sure that satisfaction is properly found in human activities?

Pathologizing a failure to find satisfaction and meaning in life is, to some degree, appropriate – failure to find meaning represents a real source of suffering in the world, and pathologizing something allows us to “treat” it. But it should be recognized that this failure to find meaning and satisfaction is not a failure to see truth. It’s not like hallucinating that you have a pet lion, or hallucinating that the walls are not there. There is a genuine epistemic question as to whether meaning and satisfaction are available or even properly found in life.

When you hear a news story about suicide, it will probably mention what I think of as the “party line”: suicide is caused by untreated mental illness. Next time you hear this, read between the lines. The deeper meaning, according to actual DSM-IV criteria, is something like: suicide is caused by not finding enough satisfaction in life to justify the pain.

I’m not sure I’d use the word “conspiracy,” since that implies conscious collaboration toward an explicit goal. There is collaboration toward a goal, but it must be largely unconscious. The field of Terror Management Theory has created a robust model of human mental functioning in which we are constantly reminded of our own death, but just as constantly engage in defense mechanisms to prevent the terror associated with thoughts of death. These defense mechanisms are most commonly “worldview preservation” – attaching ourselves to something eternal, something that has meaning and will live on after we are gone. I would posit that most everyday activities in which people find meaning qualify as mental defenses against the future reality of death. They point us away from truth – the truth of eventual extinction. This refusing-to-see-truth helps us function. But is functioning really so great?


Rob asks:

Really trivial question: what’s behind the pseudonym “Sister Y”?

Y is my Vietnamese name – I’m not Vietnamese, but my, uh, heterosexual life partner is, and a close friend of his family gave me the name Y. (This family friend also has the honorary title “Sister” (ji), which I think is cool.) It has complicated diacritic marks over it, to indicate that it’s pronounced with a falling-then-rising-tone, like you’re really surprised to hear something: “EEeeeEEE???!?” It’s a relatively common name, and I’m told it means something like “dream.”

Written by Sister Y

January 18, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Posted in Ask Sister Y

Unexpiated Tears: Ivan Karamazov on Justice from Subsequent Events

with 5 comments

” . . . I’ve collected a great, great deal about Russian children, Alyosha. There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother, ‘most worthy and respectable people, of good education and breeding.’ You see, I must repeat again, it is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only. To all other types of humanity these torturers behave mildly and benevolently, like cultivated and humane Europeans; but they are very fond of tormenting children, even fond of children themselves in that sense. It’s just their defenselessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal, that sets his vile blood on fire. In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden—the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain, the demon of diseases that follow on vice, gout, kidney disease, and so on.

“This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty—shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones! I am making you suffer, Alyosha, you are not yourself. I’ll leave off if you like.”

“Never mind. I want to suffer too,” muttered Alyosha.

“One picture, only one more, because it’s so curious, so characteristic, and I have only just read it in some collection of Russian antiquities. I’ve forgotten the name. I must look it up. It was in the darkest days of serfdom at the beginning of the century, and long live the Liberator of the People! There was in those days a general of aristocratic connections, the owner of great estates, one of those men—somewhat exceptional, I believe, even then—who, retiring from the service into a life of leisure, are convinced that they’ve earned absolute power over the lives of their subjects. There were such men then. So our general, settled on his property of two thousand souls, lives in pomp, and domineers over his poor neighbors as though they were dependents and buffoons. He has kennels of hundreds of hounds and nearly a hundred dog-boys—all mounted, and in uniform. One day a serf-boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favorite hound. ‘Why is my favorite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog’s paw. ‘So you did it.’ The general looked the child up and down. ‘Take him.’ He was taken—taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought from the lock-up. It’s a gloomy, cold, foggy autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry…. ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs…. ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes!… I believe the general was afterwards declared incapable of administering his estates. Well—what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!”

“To be shot,” murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale, twisted smile.

“Bravo!” cried Ivan, delighted. “If even you say so…. You’re a pretty monk! So there is a little devil sitting in your heart, Alyosha Karamazov!”

“What I said was absurd, but—”

“That’s just the point, that ‘but’!” cried Ivan. “Let me tell you, novice, that the absurd is only too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and perhaps nothing would have come to pass in it without them. We know what we know!”

“What do you know?”

“I understand nothing,” Ivan went on, as though in delirium. “I don’t want to understand anything now. I want to stick to the fact. I made up my mind long ago not to understand. If I try to understand anything, I shall be false to the fact, and I have determined to stick to the fact.”

“Why are you trying me?” Alyosha cried, with sudden distress. “Will you say what you mean at last?”

“Of course, I will; that’s what I’ve been leading up to. You are dear to me, I don’t want to let you go, and I won’t give you up to your Zossima.”

Ivan for a minute was silent, his face became all at once very sad.

“Listen! I took the case of children only to make my case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its center, I will say nothing. I have narrowed my subject on purpose. I am a bug, and I recognize in all humility that I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is. Men are themselves to blame, I suppose; they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them. With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level—but that’s only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it?—I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven’t suffered, simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when every one suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be, when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”

—”Rebellion,” from Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, Constance Garnett, transl.

Written by Sister Y

January 14, 2011 at 4:11 am

Posted in children, desert, justice

Markets Are Ungrounded

with 18 comments

There is no truly free market, in the sense that it is absent from state regulation. State regulation is inherent in the notion of a market. The absence of state regulation is anarchy, in which markets do not function.

The idea of a free market is a popular one. It’s a nice idea – it allows us to lay all kinds of complicated ethical questions at the feet of consent. But, as I have mentioned in the past, it’s not “consent all the way down.” A market must have regulation to exist, and regulation by any means but unanimous consent is inherently non-consensual.

So what does the state have to do in a market economy?

1. The state must define who is a market participant.

In other words, the state must decide whose choices and property rights must be respected.

Who may participate in the market? Who may buy and sell, or refuse to buy or sell? Who may own property?

Are men and women both proper market participants? Are children? Adolescents? The elderly? Deceased people (through documents or proxies)? Unborn people (perhaps through imaginary proxies)? Future people? Possible future people?

Are animals? Dogs? Chimpanzees? Cattle? AIs?

Are people with severe developmental disabilities proper market participants? People with moderate developmental disabilities? People with thought disorders? People with mood disorders?

Whose welfare or utility are our rules designed to maximize?

To some degree, the state must also define the unit of a market participant. Is it a single individual? Can it be a family? A business partnership? Is a single individual over his entire lifespan a market participant, or are young and old versions of the same person separate market participants?

2. The state must define what counts as property, and what belongs to each market participant.

Is one’s labor one’s property? Does one own one’s genetic endowment?

Can people be property? Are our children our property? Our spouses or sex partners? The sexual services of our sex partners? The promised future sexual services of our sex partners?

Are animals property?

Does one have a property interest in one’s feelings?

Are our bodies our property? Our organs? Blood? Semen? Ova? The years of our lives? What about antibiotic resistance – is the capacity for antibiotics to prevent infections our property? Is our appearance our property? Are the feelings that we produce in others our property?

Do we own our attention?

Is our general good behavior (not stealing, not raping) our property? Are things we have been promised our property?

Do we have a property interest in having enough air to breathe? Water to drink? Food to eat?

Can land be owned? If so, does a land owner own the wild animals on his land? The air above his property? How high up?

The related issues of (a) who is a market participant and (b) what is property are especially convoluted when we consider that some entities may be classified as either a market participant or a piece of property – or have elements of both, as with the current position of children and the historical position of women.

3. The state must define appropriate remedies for enforcing property rights.

Once the state has defined who may own property and what property may consist of, it must define what may happen when a property right is violated. Money sanctions? Specific performance? Self-help? Death or loss of a member by the breaching party? Imprisonment?

This is an especially complicated question, as the state may define different sanctions as appropriate remedies for different sorts of property violations.

4. The state must define what requires consent.

The state must define what counts as a transaction requiring consent. This is related to the above questions about what counts as property, what belongs to a person, and who is a market participant. If my money is my own, taking it from me requires my consent; but if it is not my own, it may be taken without my consent. And if I am not a market participant, my consent is not required in any case.

What counts as consent? Is affirmative consent required, or merely a failure to opt out? Must we consent to be advertised to? When can consent be presumed?

When can a substitute for consent be used? What substitutes are appropriate?

How far into the future may consent operate? Can it operate into the past?

When is apparent consent not real consent?

5. The state must define cheating.

There are many flavors of cheating that tend to undermine the market. Open up an introductory contract law text book to get an idea of the issues that must be regulated.

Is fraud okay? Accidental misrepresentation? How careful must an assertion be? What disclosures are required to make a transaction consensual?

What about coercion? Undue influence? Mutual mistake?

Is exploiting the cognitive biases of one’s contract partners “cheating”? Exploiting the naivety of a contractual partner? Exploiting his illiteracy? His poor understanding of the contract’s language?

Do the motives for putative cheating matter? What are the relevant states of mind?

And perhaps most importantly . . .

6. The state must define the procedure (if any) for changing the rules of the market.

As I hope I have shown, social norms affect and are affected by market rules. But social norms – and material circumstances – change, and with them, perhaps the rules of the market should change. How can this be accomplished? Majority rules? Unanimous consensus? Should there perhaps be . . . a market for establishing market rules? (And, if so, what are the rules of the meta-market?)

The State Has A Lot Of Work To Do

It’s not simple. It can’t be “free.” And it can’t be based on pure consent.

Written by Sister Y

January 11, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Posted in economics, markets, rights

Parable of the Good Republican

with 9 comments

Jesus and the Pharisees ordered another round of light beer.

“Jesus,” said one of the Pharisees. “The older I get, the more I realize that my faculties for moral reasoning are flawed – especially since they are the products of the amoral process of evolution. I still have strong moral intuitions, which present themselves as objective. But it seems like there are lots of good people who have drastically different moral intuitions. How can I tell if my moral intuitions are correct?”

Jesus lit a cigarette. “You should try with all your might to be less confident in your moral intuitions if they conflict with those of your epistemic peers,” he said, and coughed.

“Ah,” said the Pharisee. “But who is my epistemic peer?”

“Let me tell you a little story,” said Jesus, who was on his fourth light beer of the night. “I was speaking at a conference last year in support of minimum wage laws. There were two questions at the end of my talk.

“One was from an anti-poverty activist, who congratulated me on supporting the minimum wage, and said that those opposed to the minimum wage were instruments of oppression.

“The other was from a Republican who grew up in the American Midwest. He said that he, too, wanted to help poor people, but had studied the effects of minimum wage laws, and found that these laws actually harm poor people.”

“Now,” said Jesus, pointing dramatically at the Pharisee. “Who has proven himself my epistemic peer?”

Written by Sister Y

January 10, 2011 at 3:44 am

Posted in meta-ethics

Pareto, Kaldor-Hicks, and Deserving

with 3 comments

In my recent post, I argued that our received notions of not applying human morality to the natural world are wrong, and that we should judge Nature – and judge it very bad indeed, and worthy of being stopped.

In doing so, I acknowledge that the actions of animals are not up for moral judgment; but their experiences are proper subjects of moral concern.

This framework of considering beings as moral objects whose experiences matter, but not agents whose choices “deserve” reward or punishment, is properly applied not just to animals, but to small children, the insane, and other “near persons” who lack the faculty of rationality.

This is nearly the opposite of Kantian “respect for persons” as I understand it, which accords the mysterious quality of “dignity” to all those with rational faculties. This “dignity” – this human-like rational function – is why we should respect the wishes of others, why what others want should matter to us.

I find it obvious from inspection that the pain of other experiencing beings should matter to us even if the others have no rational faculties at all. And I see the path from conscious-experiencing to conscious-choosing to be a continuum, rather than binary categories, with humans not even fully embodying the rational/choosing end of the spectrum.

I am concerned with suffering. Justice often concerns itself with suffering only so far as the suffering is “undeserved.” I do not think any suffering is deserved. The notion of desert is entangled inside the context of a particular system.

In the bad old days, academics in criminology frequently wrote about victim-precipitated rape. Menachim Amir writes, in 1967:

We are accustomed to believe that forcible rape is an act which falls upon the victim without her aid or cooperation, but there often is “some reciprocal action between perpetrator and victim” in such cases.

Once the victim and the offender are drawn together, a process is set in motion whereby victim behavior and the situation which surrounds the encounter will determine the course of events leading to the crime. If the victim is not solely responsible for what becomes the unfortunate event, at least she is often a complementary partner.

Victim Precipitated Forcible Rape,” in The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science 58:4 (1967). Citations omitted; bolded emphasis mine.

I think victim-criminal interaction theory is a fruitful and interesting field, especially with an evolutionary psychology orientation. However, I also agree for once with mainstream academic feminists: nobody deserves to be raped.

The fact that a victim contributed somehow to cause a crime does not imply that the victim is a deserving victim. Rape is simply not an appropriate sanction for any behavior – even rape itself. Not even a rapist deserves to be raped.

But why should this be? To see this, we need to ask ourselves: what justification is there for saying a rapist deserves to be raped? Or that a thief deserves to have his hand cut off?

Considering the classical theories of punishment (justifications for a society imposing criminal sanctions), most of them – general deterrence, specific deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation – justify punishment on the grounds that it is good for someone, or good for society as a whole. Punishment is justified in order to create the proper incentives, to maximize the happiness of everyone at the expense of the suffering of a few. Only the retributive theory of justice – vengeance, punishment for its own sake, spite – is compatible with a notion of desert on the part of the suspect. The rest justify punishment only on utilitarian grounds, and might equally justify punishment of the innocent!

The vengeance motive – the retributive theory of justice – is not explicitly utilitarian. It is the deeply-felt human idea that harm simply deserves harm – an eye for an eye. Under the framework of vengeance, it’s a bad thing when a criminal dies before having the opportunity to be punished, even though everyone is made better off by his death. But there is a great deal of evidence that this spite function – the desire for revenge even when it doesn’t make anybody better off – is an adaptation for realizing the most effective, versatile game strategy in social animals. A social animal that allows others to get away with defection unpunished encourages more defection, and meanwhile does not compete as well as a social animal programmed to follow tit-for-tat. In this light, we can see vengeance as evolution’s tool to get a social organism to cooperate the optimum amount to maximize its fitness. I would argue that the justice of vengeance stands or falls with the justice of the utilitarian theories of punishment.

All the utilitarian justifications come down to this: we must punish people, make them suffer, so that overall, people in society suffer less. What this assumes is that we have a right to make people suffer against their will for the greater good. This assumption is wholly unsupported, and can never, in my view, be supported. How the unconsented suffering of some can be justified by the happiness of others is something I have never understood, and something that concerns me a great deal. I have argued that this is the same as the move in economics from “humane Pareto efficiency to ugly, realist Kaldor-Hicks efficiency.”

Pareto efficiency is the idea that a transaction is just (and we should encourage it) if it helps someone and hurts no one. Any fully consensual transaction should have this characteristic, so a contractual exchange would be a Pareto improvement. (However, the justice of any transaction relies on the justice of the initial distribution, which is, in reality, totally unfair.)

Kaldor-Hicks efficiency comes from a recognition that consent is hard to do. With Kaldor-Hicks, we jump from requiring a transaction to help someone and not hurt anyone – that is, to be fully consensual – to allowing the transaction if the gains for some outweigh the costs to others, so that theoretically the losers could be compensated. (It doesn’t matter if, in reality, the losers are compensated.) Many non-consensual transactions can be justified under Kaldor-Hicks; the good for some just has to outweigh the bad for others. For instance, rape is never a Pareto improvement, but if the rapist enjoys it more than the victim suffers from it, it could be a Kaldor-Hicks improvement. It is my contention that Pareto has a shot at being just, but Kaldor-Hicks is churched-up evil.

What is missing in any sort of justification for why it’s okay to make some suffer so that most of us can be better off. And what’s especially fascinating is that although in general in economics we do not compare utility functions of people, Kaldor-Hicks thinking essentially requires us to compare utility functions of different individuals. Why is it okay here and not okay in other places? There’s no market here, by definition, so we’re not using revealed preference as a guide.

But even a market based on actual consent is not grounded or justified in any way that should make us ethically comfortable. A market or social system may provide for individual choice in any given transaction, but a participant cannot decide whether to be part of a market economy. It’s not consent all the way down, you might say.

Having a baby might be a Kaldor-Hicks improvement, but it cannot be a Pareto improvement. We need to pay more attention to this type of unconsented transaction, and our primary concern should be for its victims, rather than for the rights of agents making these harmful decisions for their own benefit.

Written by Sister Y

January 6, 2011 at 8:11 pm