Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Global Warming: some unpleasant news for denialists

In my previous post I intentionally avoided taking a stance on both climate change and AGW since I was making the case that libertarianism is political philosophy and thus independent of scientific hypotheses regarding climate.  But Unforeseen Contingencies isn't just a libertarian blog.  So here's a short post giving UC's official position on climate change (note it's not about libertarianism).

Two contentions:
1. Global warming is occurring, and AGW is an important factor.  Since both statements are empirical, I might as well give in to my Bayesian side and put numbers on these: I put the odds at 90% that AGW is occurring.

2. I believe this because the evidence seems very strong, and most scientists seem to agree.

Here are a few pieces of evidence I find convincing, all of them well-documented by research scientists and non-controversial.*

A) Recorded global temperatures have increased rapidly of late.  The magnitude of recorded temperature fluctuations is not unprecedented, but the rapidity seems to be.

B) The evidence from temperature data is further supported by long term climate records developed from ice core drilling.

C) Glaciers in both the northern and southern hemispheres are shrinking.  This seems to be anomalous behavior; typical glaciation cycles seem to be driven by changes in earth's orbit with glaciers in one hemisphere tending to expand while those in the other shrink.  Current patterns are consistent with general warming.

D) Climate change has led to great expansions in the range and populations of pine bark beetles, both in North America and Europe.  Anyone who lives in the Rocky Mountain West has seen this first hand.

None of these prove global warming, of course, but anyone who expects proof has no understanding at all of epistemology or science.  (My reference to Bayesianism was certainly lost on them, too.)  There's other evidence, lots of it, but these are things I've looked at with some care and found convincing.

Additional support:
E) In addition there's theoretical support: the proposed mechanism for AGW -- a greenhouse effect from certain gases -- seems clear enough, and there's evidence to support it.  I'm less impressed by climate models; my own experience with economic modeling suggest there's too much susceptibility to "assumptions in, assumptions out," and if these were the main argument for global warming I'd be quite skeptical, but they are not the main argument.  (This isn't an argument against modeling, incidentally.  Economic models and climate models have their places.)

F) One thing I keep in mind is that I'm economist, and most of the science relevant to studying climate change is outside my fields of expertise.  So what do experts in these fields think?  So far as I can tell, the great majority of scientists believe in global warming, and if we consider only climate scientists, over 95% believe in AGW.  Unless I have good reason, I'm quite hesitant to dispute people who have studied something carefully.

G) As much as possible, I try to ignore popular debates on the subject of climate.  The news media is incapable of good scientific reporting, and denialists and alarmists both treat the subject with religious fervor and hysteria.  Just because I think AGW is real doesn't preclude me from recognizing that Al Gore is an idiot  and a crook.

Here's a very nice, measured summary of the issue by economist Thomas Shelling.
* Non-controversial except among those who take climate change denial as a matter of faith, to be defended at all costs.  I haven't provided links to my sources, but will mention them.  My primary sources on temperatures are a series of articles and interviews in Scientific American including an interview with an ex-skeptic, a public lecture by a climate researcher from U. Michigan, and discussions with a couple of physicists I know.  My sources on ice cores include the public lecture previously mentioned and discussions with a friend who participated in a drilling project in Greenland.  My primary source on glacier cycles is a paper written by glaciologists at Ohio State University (I no longer have the link).  My sources on pine beetles include personal observation, discussions with an entomologist friend, and several research papers by respected entomologists.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Reclaiming Libertarianism part 3: Science, Global Warming, and Libertarianism

Libertarianism -- it’s the political philosophy that holds individual liberty as the highest political value. It’s informed by good economics and good political science to try to identify the institutional arrangements that will best support the objective of maximizing freedom. We also know that an institutional framework that promotes freedom also fosters general prosperity; thus libertarians focus a great deal of attention on the properties of institutional frameworks.

So here’s a question: what is the libertarian position on the relative merits of prostatectomy vs. standard radiation therapy vs. proton beam therapy for treating a moderate case of prostate cancer, Gleason score 3+4?

Ridiculous question, don’t you think? Why would a political philosophy have a position on a question like this? It’s first a question of medical science – what treatments have demonstrated effectiveness and what are the associated risks? And second it’s a matter of personal characteristics and preferences – what best suits a particular patient, what are the costs, what does his doctor suggest given specifics of the case? Political philosophy has nothing to say on the matter.

So here’s another question: what is the libertarian position on whether or not anthropogenic global warming (AGW, or climate change induced by greenhouse gas emissions from human activity) is occurring?

Again, what a ridiculous question. Why would a political philosophy have a position on a question like this? It’s first a question for physics, atmospheric science, and climatology. Other sciences – such as geology and biology – have something to contribute as well. And of course, political philosophy has nothing to say on the matter. If manmade greenhouse gases are changing the earth’s climate, then they are, and if they aren’t, they aren't, and it doesn't matter whether one is libertarian, progressive, conservative, Marxist, or anything else.

That should be obvious. Well, welcome to the asylum.

Unfortunately, climate change is an issue where a number of today’s libertarians have gone off the rails into libertoonism, arguing that denial of climate change is a part of libertarian doctrine. (A quick set of definitions: as I’m using the terms, climate change denial consists of ignoring scientific method and evidence, or of abusing them. It’s essentially a religious position. Denial differs from skepticism; skepticism – a requirement of rational thought – approaches questions with an open mind and critical eye, and treats method and data seriously.)

If you meet someone who adamantly maintains AGW is nonsense and this person has not carefully and fairly studied the science, in depth, you know you’re facing a denier, someone for whom the position is religious, not a conclusion of careful reason.  If you're doing this -- stop it at once!  And no, cherry-picking the evidence doesn't count as "careful and fair."

Let’s start with an anecdote: I was at a dinner party with a number of friends, some libertarians and some not. At one point someone said something like “you’re libertarians, so that means you don’t believe in climate change, right?” Before I could answer "no," two of my libertarian friends agreed and began explaining with near religious fervor why AGW is bogus.  Neither had any training at all in any relevant science other than undergraduate physics. Neither had studied the literature on climate change. Neither had a single argument connecting libertarianism to climate theories. I found this quite disturbing (i.e. deeply embarrassing) and began pointing out that a position on AGW is a position is climate science, not political philosophy, that adopting a libertarian position implies nothing about one's belief in AGW, and besides, most of the scientific evidence seems to be on the side of AGW.

Here’s the problem: my libertarian friends knew very little about climate, but instead of admitting this, they made absurdly strong statements about the falsity of AGW.  I later asked one about this and he basically admitted that he didn't want it to be true, because it’s a hard problem to solve, and even worse, because leftists believe it.

What?! You're kidding, right?  There’s a question in physical science...and you choose your position simply to be opposite of what your political opponents think?  Because your opponents identify a problem and use it to promote bad solutions that promote their political agenda, you therefore deny the existence of the problem itself? You've got to be kidding!  That's totally nuts!  What if the problem is real?

Even worse, though, was the tendency to then claim that this position is the libertarian one. OK, so then if it turns out that AGW actually is occurring, that refutes libertarianism? If it proves to be a fact that human-generated greenhouse gases are warming the climate, then it’s no longer true that liberty is the highest political value and that freedom advances human well-being? You’ll give up being libertarian, right?  Good grief!

Please, transcend the madness!

In fact, there are all sorts of problems with central planning "solutions" to AGW. And these are perfectly legitimate targets for libertarian theory. A rational response of libertarian theorists to AGW would be to figure out how a libertarian society could cope with such a problem if it proves to be real.*  Most of the serious solutions proposed for AGW make use of property rights and market forces anyway. Market forces don’t go away simply because governments ignore them. But then, “external costs” don’t go away simply because they’ve not been internalized.

It's not that libertarians shouldn't argue about whether AGW is true or not, and not that there’s no room for skepticism. Rather it’s that a particular position on climate science is not a part of libertarianism, and also that one should not speak with dogmatic certainty about something one understands poorly.  Climate change denial is certainly not a proper part of libertarianism.

So far this is just a personal story; so how prevalent is climate change denial among libertarians? I don’t know.  My impression is that it is more common among conservatives than libertarians, but even with libertarians it’s sufficiently common that others have noted it, e.g. “Stand Up Economist” Yoram Bauman and Matt Bruenig.  (Breunig's piece is particularly worth reading because it is a fundamental challenge to libertarian philosophy.  I think he's entirely wrong, because Coase's work on incomplete property rights and transaction costs addresses this challenge head on.  But that's a topic for another post.)

Why does this matter?  It matters because climate change denial is anti-scientific, and when libertarians make anti-science arguments they discredit libertarianism.

Here's an example.  A few years back I heard economist Walter Williams lecturing at Hillsdale College.  It was the kind of lecture at which Williams excels -- basic economic principles, illustrated with clear examples, delivered with with passion -- when suddenly, Williams went off the rails and launched into the craziest denunciation of anthropogenic global warming I've ever heard:

"The very idea that mankind can make significant parametric changes to the Earth has to be the height of arrogance. How about a few questions because temperature is just one characteristic of the Earth. The Earth’s orbit is another."

"If all 6.5 billion of us, all at once, started jumping up and down for a little while, do you think we’d change the Earth’s orbit or rotation? Do you think mankind could change the direction and timing of the ocean’s tides? Is there anything that mankind can do to stop or start a tsunami or hurricane?"

"You say, 'Williams, it’s stupid to suggest that mankind could change the Earth’s orbit or rotation, ocean tides or cause or stop a tsunami or hurricane!' You’re right and it’s also stupid to think that mankind’s activities can make globalized changes in the Earth’s temperature."

Say it ain't so, Walter!  My heart sank on hearing this: one of my heroes, off the deep end into the worst sort of libertoonistic madness imaginable.  I hoped it was a one-off, maybe the hallucinatory effects of food poisoning from a bad salad at dinner or something.  But unfortunately he's put this crazy argument in print, in his syndicated column, and it's all over the internet.

Why make such crazy arguments?  Williams himself is stupid here.  How can any reasonable person hear such inanity and take Williams seriously after that?  And there's the tragedy.  Williams does know a great deal about economics, and especially the economics of race and discrimination.  But now he sounds like an idiot.  He makes himself an idiot.  So far as I can tell, he has no training at all in any science relevant to climate, nor is he known for his work in econometrics, math modeling, or some other branch of economics that might be relevant.  He's just making stuff up because he doesn't want it to be true, because it’s a hard problem to solve, and because leftists believe it.

This kind of denial is anti-scientific, and when it's associated with libertarianism it gives the impression that libertarianism itself must be anti-scientific.  That global warming is real is a majority opinion in science,** overwhelmingly so.  The vast majority (89%) of members of the American Meteorological Association seem to believe in global warming.  Sure, that's not proof of global warming, but by all rights it should shut up deniers who think it's easily dismissed.  It's not religion, "herd mentality" (note PL's comment at the end), nor conspiracy.  The "hockey stick" in temperature time series, shrinking glaciers in both the northern and southern hemispheres, sharp changes in insect populations and behaviors, evidence from ice core drilling,  changes in polar ice caps, all are independent pieces of empirical evidence, from different branches of science, for anomalous climate change.

Libertarianism is political philosophy.  Leave climate out of it.
* Here's an example of a serious proposal by legal scholar Jonathan Adler.  See also this and this and this.

** I know, I know,  9,029 people with Ph.D.'s in science and related disciplines have signed a petition stating that there's "no such thing as AGW" (more precisely, they don't deny climate change, only that they are not convinced it is catastrophic).  Well, considering that each year the United States cranks out 30,000 new science Ph.D.s, nine thousand is a tiny number.  Of scientists I know personally who have studied AGW, every single one believes in it.

Photo credit: NASA, from the website of Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Russell Means, American Hero

Russell Means has died.  Means was leader of the American Indian Movement, fought against the federal government at Wounded Knee SD, and almost became the presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party.  He was a very unusual and interesting man.

I saw Means speak twice, both times at Montana State University.  The first time, in the 1970s as a representative of AIM, and the second time in the late 1980s as a conference speaker.  The first time I saw him he was with several other AIM members.  When they entered, there was very much the sensation that a band of warriors was in the room.  I don't remember much of  what he said, just that they were deadly serious and saw themselves as directly confronting the federal government.  The second time I heard him he was in the running for the LP; the conference was not an LP event, but Means did give an explicit endorsement of libertarian principles.  He was relaxed and quite jocular.

He was not a typical classical liberal, and I probably would have disagreed with him on a number of issues.  But I greatly admire his willingness to fight for freedom and for his principles.  Here's something he said:

"In 1974 I heard John Maw, a Seneca leader of the Iroquois Confederacy, say 'if you want to be sovereign, act sovereign.' That is all you have to do. If you want to be sovereign, act sovereign. Be an example. Freedom works. Create free institutions. When you are in a war, every front is necessary."

"Think tanks are necessary, election campaigns for the President on down are necessary; everything in fighting for freedom is necessary, because we are surrounded. But most importantly, we have to create our own freedom institutions."

We soon may all be in need of Russell Means' courage and willingness to fight.

Brian Doherty of Reason has a nice survey and tribute (it's the source of the above quote).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Reclaiming Libertarianism, Part 2: An Asylum of Libertoonists

The political philosophy that holds individual rights, and liberty to exercise them, as the highest political value dates back at least as far as John Locke, the French Physiocrats, Adam Smith, and the American founders.  It’s an extremely important and respectable intellectual tradition.  It’s hard to overestimate its importance – even the highly doubtful conceptions of “human rights” and “positive rights” held by today’s progressives depend in part on it. 

The original name for this line of thought – liberalism – was taken by leftists and progressives and changed to mean something quite different, hence the need for terms such as “classical liberalism” and “libertarianism.”  Modern incarnations deal with new issues – you won’t find John Locke discussing drug laws (there weren't any) – but libertarianism is an important and serious intellectual tradition, and libertarian ideas are a fundamental component of Western political thought, even among people who do not identify themselves as libertarians.

It’s most unfortunate, then, that some of the most vocal of today’s exponents of libertarianism have turned it into a caricature of itself, a “libertoonism,” bordering on a quasi-religion,* rather than a carefully reasoned political philosophy.

Who are some of the worst culprits?  My own “preferred” list starts with Lew Rockwell and those associated with him – the Ludwig von Mises Institute,, and the bloggers on Rockwell’s own site.  They are closely connected with Ron Paul – one of the most libertarian members of Congress, but oftimes something of a libertoonist himself...far too closely associated with Rockwell and LvMI.  I’ve often documented here how crazy this crowd can be (e.g. here and here, and I’m hardly the only person to do this.  There are other libertoonists, though – the Independent Institute has some very clear-headed libertarian scholars, e.g. Alvaro Vargas Llosa.  Unfortunately, they also keep at least one prominent libertoonist on board, Robert Higgs (his series of haiku lamenting the death of Osama bin Laden and suggesting this would lead to the destruction of the United States by nuclear weapons is a case in point).  FEE – the Foundation for Economic Education – the oldest and I think most venerable of the free market think tanks – strikes me as a sound organization, featuring lecturers no less than Israel Kirzner, and promoting work by serious economists such as Sanford Ikeda.  But as PL of the Post Libertarian blog has pointed out, FEE too has been infected by the libertoonist virus, particularly with some of the crazier stuff former Freeman editor Sheldon Richman promoted. 

Speaking of “venerating,” another “libertarian” organization off the rails is the Ayn Rand Institute, whose leaders “ex-communicated” philosophy professor David Kelley for daring to suggest that Rand’s philosophy is not a “closed system” but an open one, i.e. one that can be challenged, added to, corrected... in short, subjected to rational analysis.  Kelley even went so far as to suggest it would be acceptable for Objectivists to enter into friendly debates with non-Objectivist libertarians, rather than simply condemning them as evil.  The conclusion of the ARI was that Kelley wrong, Rand’s is a closed system not open to further inquiry, and the Rand must be “venerated.”  It’s hard to find a clearer example of libertarian ideas being turned into a religion, although the Rockwellites come close in some of their statements concerning the work of Murray Rothbard.  (They also do this with Mises, while studiously ignoring what Mises actually said.)

I provided this short list just in case some readers aren’t sure who or what some of us mean when we talk about “transcending the madness.”  (It’s exclusively my own list, BTW.)  The main message, though, isn’t “here’s a list of the crazies.”  Libertoonism is a mindset, and it’s wherever you find it.  Any of us libertarians, including “us” at Unforeseen Contingencies, can fall for it to one degree or another, and we need to check our own thinking to guard against it.  I've fallen prey to the virus at times, and it's something I need to guard myself against.  

Furthermore, it’s certainly not something unique to libertarians at all – I’ve had numerous discussions with progressive and farther left academics that leave it obvious, sometimes even to them, that their political convictions are unfounded, irrational religious dogma.  The same goes for conservatives (although some brands of conservative seem to strive for unfounded, irrational religious dogma as a virtue).

But I don’t give a tinker’s dam about conservatism, progressivism, and the far left – these philosophies have much deeper problems than this.  I do care about getting libertarianism back “on the rails” because it’s a crucial set of ideas, and deserves much better treatment than the libertoonists give it.  Frederic Bastiat once observed that more harm is done to a good idea by a bad argument for it than by a good argument against it. ("The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.") Here's just one example of how the kooky advocates of libertarianism discredit it.

For my birthday my ultrarunning friend Fran Z. gave me the wonderful book, An Exaltation of Larks, and I’m now reading it.  It’s about terms of venery, i.e. names for specific collections of objects.  So let’s play the Game of Venery.  Tom Palmer already coined the term “a fever swamp of Rockwellites.”  Perhaps without realizing it, PL of Post Libertarianism has invented “a madness of Szasz-bots.”  May I now offer “an asylum of libertoonists?”

Next stop, a visit to that branch of the asylum that supposes libertarianism includes theories of physical science.
* In most of the links here to my own UC articles, the comments sections contain a number of "rebuttals."  Save for the one post on the misguided economics of the LvMI (in which several people tried seriously engaging me with rational but mistaken arguments) the comments are invariably angry, nasty, and without any substance or coherence.  I've committed a sin against the faith and they condemn me to hell for it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Breaking News: Breakthroughs in Peace! Nobel Prize!

I'm stunned speechless by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2012.  How could the Nobel Committee have done such a thing?  I mean, after all, how could they not have awarded it (a second time) to Barack Obama for running for reelection, and against a (shudder) Republican?  What a hero of peace!

Frankly, giving the Peace Prize to the EU is more idiotic than any absurdist award I can imagine.  As Andrew Roberts (Bloomberg) observes, "Nothing better represents this degradation of the Nobel Peace Prize than the ludicrous decision to award it to the EU, an organization that has done nothing whatever to bring peace, and is currently spawning riots and mayhem in many of its vassal states."

Roberts has it right: "A Nobel Prize for Idiots."

Additionally, Daniel Hannan in Britain's Telegraph has some serious analysis.  After observing that this award confirms (for the umpteenth time) Tom Lehrer's observation that "satire is obsolete," he notes that nationalism was not the root cause of Europe's incessant bloodletting -- it was always ideological conflict.  And further, forcing people of radically different cultural backgrounds into a single polity, often as not against their will, doesn't work.

A Nobel Prize for the EU. good grief.  Let's be honest, if the Nobel Committee wants to give an award for "peace in Europe," they ought to award it to the United States.  In the last 100 years, whenever stupid European twits have begun a bloodletting, it's Americans who have stopped it -- usually having to kill a few of the idiots in the process.

Photo: Happy Greeks celebrate union with their German friends.

Finished Number 12!

Quick update: I successfully completed the Le Grizz 50 Mile Ultramarathon for the 12th time, amidst frequent light rain (and once in a while heavy). I was very slow, but experienced no serious problems other than that. Fresh at the end? I was tired, but my legs had another 20 miles in them. This morning I don't feel very stiff or tired. I think the training I've done had zero effect on my speed, but my endurance and recovery seem much improved over last year. Full report later!

Monday, October 08, 2012

This coming Saturday...

...the 31st running of the Le Grizz 50 Mile Ultramarathon, from Spotted Bear to Hungry Horse, Montana!  And of course, your faithful Unforeseen Contingencies blogger will be participating (for my twelfth time).  This might mean blogging will be reduced, but I should be able to get a race report up at the very least.

I'm better trained than I was for the last few; my long runs in September were 23, 34, 24, and 25 miles, spaced six days apart.  My pace is, well, slow, but my endurance isn't too bad.  That past two years we've run the east side of Hungry Horse reservoir (the non-traditional course).  This year we're back on the traditional west side, the more scenic one.

I'm particularly interested in how I feel over the last fifteen miles and the finish.  This will be a good indicator of my condition for the Beast of Burden 100 in January.  At 50 miles I need to be, as a friend with substantial experience at 100 miles put it, "fresh."  We'll see how close I am to that.

More soon!

Photo: Our race venue, Hungry Horse Reservoir and Great Northern, from the west side.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Reclaiming Libertarianism, Part 1: What libertarianism is, and isn't

Here are three questions.  They are not rhetorical.

1.      Who owns you?
2.      Whom do you own?
3.      When is it proper to use or threaten violence against someone?

Libertarianism has specific answers to all three:

1.      No one.
2.      No one (or yourself).
3.      Only to defend against someone else’s initiation of force.

Libertarianism is the political philosophy that holds that individual liberty is the highest political value, and that the protection of individual rights is the only proper use of force, the only proper end of government.  And by individual rights, we mean the fundamental right of self-ownership and additionally the corollaries of individual self control and choice, and the consequences thereof, including the right to one’s property as well as responsibility for one's acts.  In the view, the relations among people that we call “society” are voluntary and mutually beneficial; society is a “positive sum game.”  We come together because we all benefit. 

For most libertarians these benefits are not primarily material, but first of all moral, spiritual, or psychic, they are matters of human dignity and human flourishing.  After all, each individual human being is an autonomous agent.  We each have control of ourselves by nature.  Being forced into a political relation where one is controlled by another against one’s will is an unhappy state of affairs; it’s oppressing, it can crush the spirit.  Conversely, being free to pursue what one thinks best is the only system compatible with our natures.  Even should one choose to follow a leader, there’s all the world of difference between this and being compelled to do so.  Additionally, a society of freedom also provides superior material benefits, as free exchanges in the market lead to specialization, entrepreneurship, and innovation.  Hence, for libertarianism, freedom is both a moral principle and a pragmatic one.

The prerequisite for this “positive sum game” is respect for individual rights.  If individual rights are not respected, then social relations begin to include the sacrificing of some for others’ benefit.  And if we begin institutionalizing this, we set up a zero sum game of winners and losers, a world of dog eat dog, might makes right, a world of rent-seeking and perpetual war for advantage.  In fact, justice is the respect for and defense of these individual rights.  Injustice is the violation of them.

Individual rights, in this view, are the bedrock of civilization.  And libertarianism is the political ethic of rights, informed by reason.

There’s another important way of looking at individual rights: they are restrictions on our behavior.  They tell us what we may not do.  We may not violate others’ self-ownership.  We may not use force, fraud, and deception to gain for ourselves at their expense.  And if we ignore others’ rights we can be justly met with force to make us stop.

What’s the underlying origin or nature of these rights?  Libertarians have given multiple answers, including natural rights theory, utilitarianism, theological origins, and perhaps others.  As Tom Palmer puts it (in his Realizing Freedom), what these arguments have in common is that rights are imprescriptable, that is, rights aren’t doled out by political authorities, the set of rights is not arbitrary or ad hoc, and they can’t be violated without injustice, without invoking dog-eat-dog principle.

Most of this is likely obvious to libertarians.  But there are some important implications that are sometimes missed, and that’s when libertarians can start to go off the rails.  So let’s look at a few of these.

1.      Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not an all encompassing worldview.  Sometimes libertarians act as though libertarianism is a complete theory of everything.  It isn’t.  If two people agree on what rights are and that respecting and protecting them is the paramount political concern, they are both libertarians, yet they might differ on fundamental philosophical issues, as well as everything else imaginable.

One can arrive at libertarianism from a wide variety of philosophical starting points.  Those I’ve encountered include (but are hardly limited to) Objectivism, Aristotelianism, Kantianism, deism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, utilitarianism, pragmatism.  John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman – all were libertarians, as defined here.  Yet they did not generally share the same, or even similar, basic philosophies.  I’m met Christians who derived their libertarianism from the Bible and Muslims who derived theirs from the Koran.  All agree on what are individual rights, and all agree that preserving them is the fundamental political goal.  Despite deep philosophical differences on other matters, all are libertarians.

Corollary: There’s no such thing as “the libertarian position” on ontology/metaphysics or epistemology.  Ontology and epistemology are important, but separate from political philosophy.  Libertarians who argue that their own particular positions on these are the authentic libertarian doctrine (as did Rand, and as do some natural rights libertarians) are simply wrong.  If one insists on respect for individual rights, one is a libertarian.

Libertarianism is also not a complete ethical system.  It is not supposed to be.  It doesn’t tell one whether or not one should or shouldn’t work hard, give to the poor, drink moderately, swear, believe in God, treat friends and neighbors politely, nor does it say anything on the many, many other questions of ethics that don’t involve questions of utilizing force, except that these are not matters for the police.  This is not the same, as some dishonest conservatives (e.g. Russell Kirk) have claimed, as libertarianism being immoral.  It is simply that libertarianism holds that morality isn’t to be enforced at gunpoint.

Similarly, there are numerous dimensions of knowledge apart from libertarianism, since they are not part of political philosophy.  For example, there’s no such thing as the libertarian version of history.  Some libertarians imagine that their own personal views on, say, Lincoln and the Civil War, or the founding of Israel, are a part of libertarian doctrine.  But they are not.  Neither are positions on other subjects, such as climate change, or mental illness and psychotherapy.  Often libertarians who hold strong positions on these subjects seem to think their views are the libertarian doctrines.  But they are not.  Libertarianism is political philosophy, not an account of history, nor a theory of geophysics, nor of medicine.  There’s no libertarian position on evolution.  There’s no such thing as “libertarian physics,” “libertarian chemistry,” “libertarian mathematics,” “libertarian mechanical engineering,” “libertarian theory of football strategy,” “libertarian diet,” etc.  Most emphatically, there’s no such thing as “libertarian economics,” and anyone who supposes there is understands neither libertarianism nor economics.

I will address “libertarian history” further in a future post, because of its prominence in some very embarrassing (and sometimes malicious) confusions from which libertarianism needs to be divorced.  I will also post something on libertarianism and science, perhaps with special reference to climate change.

2.      Libertarianism is not “hating the state;” it is respecting and defending rights.  Listen to enough libertarians, and you’re bound to come across some who are so vituperative when it comes to “the state,” and so cavalier when it comes to the rights of individuals, that for them the fundamental defining criterion of libertarian is opposition to the state, whether they are fully conscious of this or not.

Now there are often good reasons to hate the state.  But from a libertarian standpoint, this can only be when the state violates rights – a common occurrence, but not a universal one.  What if “the state” actually defends individual rights in some instance – as it often does?  I’m using quotation marks around “the state” because of the tendency in this line of thinking to personify the state, to treat it as the seat of all social evils, and to attribute to it a singular purpose – an evil one, of course.  This is a strawman state, and the arguments that presume such a “state” tend to have little to offer in terms of how to preserve and expand liberty.

The reality of the state is that it consists of people of varying objectives and knowledge organized under a set of institutions, and hence is every bit as complex as other social phenomena.  What is different about the state is the near monopoly it holds over force.  Since the fundamental tool of the state is force, libertarianism holds that it needs to be strictly constrained to defensive activities – defending individual rights from force and fraud.  It also must be minimal, as small as possible. 

Libertarians can disagree on how small this is.  If the state can be reduced to zero, and rights preserved, then this would be the preferred alternative under the libertarian criterion.  Anarcho-capitalists believe such a system is feasible.  Perhaps it is.  On the other hand, suppose that abolishing the state leads almost surely to a power vacuum, followed by conflict among the most ruthless, from which a tyranny is likely to emerge; in that case a minimal state that prevents this would be the preferred libertarian alternative.  A libertarian might believe in one or the other (anarchism or minarchism); neither is the libertarian position.  (In my view, neither of these choices as commonly conceived by libertarians is a very good alternative, perhaps the subject of a future post.)

There can also be considerable dispute among libertarians on how force should be employed to defend rights.  Is any particular application of force justified?  What is and what isn’t defensive?

This is often a much more difficult matter than it might seem.  Going from the libertarian ethic to application in the real world can be very, very complex.  What are the legitimate rights in any particular case?  Furthermore, what are the facts?  Who really is the aggressor, and who the defender?  Can force be justly employed in a pre-emptive fashion?  If so, what standard must met to justify pre-emptive force?  How much force?  What about side effects?  These sorts of questions arise particularly in the cases of foreign policy (broadly defined to include relations in an anarcho-capitalist world) and war.

I will feature at least one post each on foreign policy and war – I particularly want to address some of the nonsense written by libertarians on these subjects, because it is so rarely examined critically from a libertarian standpoint.

There it is – a short, careful description of what libertarianism is, and isn’t.  There’s also your playbook for my coming posts for “Reclaiming Libertarianism” month.

As always, comments welcome.  And don’t forget, for this month, also welcome are on-topic guest posts from all comers.  

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Note on the debate

Tie.  Big deal.  Two boring guys who really don't know very much babbled about fictional details of fictional plans.

Romney is "concerned" about the direction the country has taken in the last four years, but certainly doesn't sound like it.

Obama promises to continue to be "everyone's" president... maybe Bryan Terry's president?

I suspect Romney is incapable of going after Obama on any serious issue.  The PBS commenters are now babbling, trying to figure out anything interesting from this.  "Romney looked mildly more comfortable."  "Obama seemed a little rusty."  There's some talk about the relative merits of the candidates' ties.  The subtext that keeps poking its nose into the discussion is that no one is sure why they didn't actually go after each other.

New York Times captured the drama well: just as the debate ended, they sent out this News Alert:

Yankees Win A.L. East as Orioles Lose

"Organic Shmorganic"

I'm listening to the presidential debate. Ugh. What better way to dispel the disgust than by blogging about something very closely related entirely unrelated -- organic food.

A study by researchers from Stanford University of "organic" food was unable to find any health benefits, prompting a rant from NYT's Roger Cohen against organic food.  Finally, finally, finally!  Cohen on track, rather than off the rails!

Many years ago I heard Bruce Ames, a cancer researcher and head of College of Public Health at Stanford give a lecture in which he discredited the health claims of the "organic" movement and warned that it would raise costs without returning corresponding benefits.  His main fear was that this would lead people to eat fewer vegetables rather than more.  The second most important thing people can do to avoid cancer is eat more vegetables, he explained (stopping smoking is  number 1).  He based this in part on his own research with with carcinogenic properties of manmade pesticides and naturally occurring ones; the naturally occurring ones were every bit as bad and as prevalent in vegetables, and neither posed a meaningful risk in his research.  (Obviously misuse of pesticide could be a different matter.)  The new Stanford study was unable to find the superior health benefits attributed to "organic" foods, corroborating Ames' argument.

I've also heard agriculture experts discuss the alleged environmental harmfulness of "non-organic" agriculture, something not covered in the Stanford study.  Again, the alleged environmental benefits of "organic" are mostly hype, and in some cases it can be worse.  Chemical fertilizers in particular deserve none of the slander that's directed at them.  (Again, use them incorrectly and you can poison things... but that's also true with "organic")

I've been putting "organic" in quotation marks, because the word itself always meant something different: it refers to carbon-based compounds.  That is, that's what it meant until the word was grabbed by -- let's be honest -- hippie food faddists.  "Organic" was changed to mean "simple, healthful, close to 'nature,'" (another doubtful word), all utterly unsubstantiated claims.  Next yuppies and similar types jumped on the bandwagon, because it made them feel good about themselves "saving the planet and eating healthier and sidestepping 'corporate agriculture' blah blah blah."

This is a great example of the fundamental role of subjective utility in economic value.  Belief in "organic" is essentially religious faith, unfounded in evidence.  What makes "organic" more valuable is consumer demand, based on perceived, imagined characteristics, not some physical measurable properties.  That's why big food corporations got into the act -- they were slow to enter, and when they did, they were entirely responding to demand.  They'd prefer NOT to produce this way, because it is costlier, but so long as consumers demand it, you give 'em what they want or you lose market share.  There's quite an irony here -- anti-capitalists frequently accuse "big business" of manufacturing consumer preferences in order to manipulate people and reap profits, yet the whole "organic" movement was manufactured by a motley collection of  anticapitalist  mystics from both left and right.

I heard NPR cover this story, and the idiotic reporter concluded that the whole "organic" thing must have been a conspiracy by "big agriculture" (another dubious concept) to hoodwink us and get our money... a completely backwards argument as most farmers, big or little, would prefer less costly, easier, more productive modern agricultural methods.  It's quite common to be producing "organic" crops, meat, etc. and have some small step go wrong and have the "organic" label be lost -- and even though the stuff is perfectly good, it now can't be sold for enough to cover costs.  I've had farmers tell me about this, and have read of many more examples.

"Organic shmorganic" indeed!
Note: The Post-libertarian blog features a nice rant on this subject (scooping Unforeseen Contingencies).  Also worth noting that author PL is a cancer researcher by profession.
Debate update -- ugh.  But note this, as Lehrer tries cutting off Romney around 22:11...

CNN clock shows BO with about 3 mins more than MR. RT @steven_ritchey:@kairyssdal It seems like Leher gives Obama much time than Romney.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Why "Reclaiming Libertarianism?"

Happy October!  "Reclaiming Libertarianism" month is upon us.  What's it all about?  Why libertarianism anyway?

Libertarianism is the only political philosophy that respects the rights of every individual, and it's also the only political philosophy consistent with the idea that these individual rights are co-equal across individuals, non-conflicting, and mutually compatible.  That's quite mouthful of jargon, but what it means is, "Freedom for the individual means freedom for everyone!"  In other words, libertarianism is that political philosophy that every individual is to be free to pursue truth, life, happiness, or whatever s/he chooses, so long as s/he respects (i.e. doesn't violate) the equal rights of others to the same.  It's a happy corollary that when individuals are free and their rights respected, the ensuing interactions create a positive-sum world.

This political ethic matters now, more than ever because we humans have a rapidly increasing mastery over our physical environment.  We have more ability, more wealth, and more power to act -- for good or ill --than ever before in history.  Consider, for example, information technology.  Individuals now have the ability to communicate almost instantaneously with others essentially anywhere in the world.  We can transmit news, art, ideas, instructions, financial capital, and cyber weapons simply by pecking away on a keyboard.  We can organize ourselves into clubs, government agencies, criminal syndicates, spontaneous 'organizations' like Anonymous, etc. to increase our power by working together.  The power of the individual, whether alone or contributed to a group effort, is greater than ever, and growing.  The same goes for other kinds of activity, other sorts of technology.

Great, our growing wealth and abilities are wonderful things.  But do we have a similarly growing ability to use these things wisely and decently, without doing great harm to ourselves?  In fact, I think there's more than a little evidence that we do (e.g. here and here).  But unfortunately, it's not really clear to most people what the institutional prerequisites for a peaceful, prosperous, successful social order are.  Instead, 21st century humans labor under primitive ethics coupled with confused economic and political doctrines, all of which enshrine, in one way or another, the principle that some people are properly prey for others.  The libertarian ethic sees society as an opportunity for of mutual gain, the alternatives devolve into zero-sum exchanges.  A zero-sum world in which humans are gaining increasing power is not a sustainable world, a world of mutually beneficial exchange is.  Or more bluntly, once humans reach a certain level of development, they'd better recognize each others' rights, because if they don't they'll destroy civilization.

So it's "our" contention that the world needs libertarianism like never before.  Furthermore, the world is ripe for it; I think it's fair to say that nearly everywhere in the world there's increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo, coupled with a desire for, well, what to call it but a "bourgeois" lifestyle (Deidre McCloskey's terminology).  And so, rising to the occasion, libertarian thinkers everywhere are preparing to stand up and explain these ideas and lead everyone to a better tomorrow and...

Uh, one problem.  Half of the libertarians seem to have gone entirely off the rails... a very vocal half.  Fiddle around reading "libertarian" websites and you'll find all sorts of bizarre things: neo-Confederate denunciations of Lincoln, 9-11 Trutherism, anti-vaccine nonsense, climate change denialism, idiosyncratic "theories" of mental illness, apologia for Putin, arguments for the moral equivalence of Nazi Germany-United States-Israel, and (especially) rabid, blind rage against anyone who dares offer a counterargument.  A sensible person, wondering what libertarianism is all about and trying to find whether it offers anything of value, would be so put off by this stuff that they'd forswear libertarianism as a kind of madness.  (This isn't hypothetical -- decent people occasionally ask me how I can be associated with such craziness.)  So right when the world most needs 'em, libertarians are going bonkers.

"We" at Unforeseen Contingencies have tried to expose some of this nonsense from time to time, and PL's excellent Post-libertarianism blog is now doing the same.  So for October, Unforeseen Contingencies will feature several pieces on where libertarians go wrong and why, as well as a few choice reviews of the crackpottier side of the libertarians.

Transcend the Madness! 

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