Life By Subscription

Once upon a time some busybody do-gooder paternalists said stuff like, “We need taxpayer money going to support music halls and concerts, because it is important that all citizens have access to good music, not just people with enough money.” (Never mind that most people don’t really care to go to the symphony or listen to NPR.)

Now for free anyone can listen to any music in the world on Spotify. For $10 a month, you can do all kinds of advanced stuff, no ads, special playlists, and hey, even listen to music selected by experts, bureaucrats, and NPR if you want to!

The idea that a monolithic monopoly needs to provide all kinds of services whether we want them or not is stupid. It’s always been stupid. But it’s easier to see the stupid now that our lives are comprised of a growing web of voluntary subscription services and Amazon delivers everything for free.

I look forward to the world of SaaS everything. Governance, dispute resolution, protection, insurances of all kinds, education, infrastructure, and more.

I’d like to pick and choose what services to pay for and at what level. The ability to do so will not only make every individual’s life better and cheaper now, it will create clear signals and incentives for providers to innovate and compete and build new stuff we’ve never imagined, easier, cheaper, better.

Sign me up.

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Governing Least‘s Immigration Oversight

Dan Moller’s Governing Least barely mentions immigration.  But it should have, because of its strong implications for this hugely important issue.  Applying Moller’s approach, there is not only a moral presumption in favor of open borders, but a host of residual obligations that accompany even justified restrictions on immigration.

Recall that Moller’s libertarianism highlights the effrontery of extra-libertarian moral demands:

Imagine calling a town hall meeting and delivering the following speech:

My dear assembled citizens: I know most of us are strangers, but of late I have fallen on hard times through no fault of my own, by sheer bad luck. My savings are low, and I don’t have friends or family to help. Now as you know, I’ve previously asked for help from you as private citizens, as a matter of charity. But unfortunately that hasn’t been sufficient. Thus, I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) owe me assistance as a matter of justice. It is a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to help me. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts.

Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you help me to force your fellow citizens to assist me. It doesn’t matter if these others say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or if they’re just hard-hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to assist me whether they wish to or not, since that is what is owed me in light of my recent bad luck.

Could you bring yourself to make this speech?

But Governing Least also gives this imaginary speech a libertarian foil:

Compare, then, a similar speech advancing a different substantive claim:

My dear assembled citizens: of late, some of you have been stealing my money. I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) give it back. This means that you owe me thousands of dollars which you stole. It’s a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to pay me back what you stole. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts. Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf to repay me what you’ve stolen. No, I insist that you help me to force the thieves among you to pay restitution. It doesn’t matter if these thieves say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or that they’re just hard- hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to repay me what they stole.

No one is likely to be embarrassed by this variant. Even if we are shy and uncomfortable about confronting others in public speeches, there is nothing strange about the idea of giving such a speech, or about someone giving it. To the extent there is a problem with the first speech it lies not in its manner but its substance.

When a foreigner demands his right to work for a willing domestic employer or rent from a willing domestic landlord, it closely parallels the second speech.  The only out is to appeal to the very “emergent moral powers of the state” that Moller decisively rejects:

Essentially, the issue is whether there are emergent moral powers of the state — permissions that the state enjoys that mere individuals do not. It is an important assumption in some of my arguments that we can compare the actions of the state to the actions of individuals, and that objections to what individuals or groups of individuals do to us by way of infringing our rights can be objections to what the state does, assuming the circumstances and grounds of infringement are similar. I will assume, that is, that it makes sense to ask such questions as, “Could I and my friends break down your door and compel you to give us your money for reason X under circumstances Y?” and to draw conclusions about what the state may do. We can call this the non- emergence assumption.

Since it would be normally be morally wrong for my friends and I to exile someone for being born in a different country, it is also normally wrong for governments to do so.  In other words, Moller’s work implies an open borders presumption.  Furthermore, even if the consequences of immigration were sufficient to surmount this presumption, regulators must mind Moller’s residual obligations:

I propose the following non-exhaustive list of residual obligations for cases like Emergency:

Restitution: although I didn’t do wrong, I must repay the $1,000 if possible, perhaps in reasonable installments.

Compensation: to the extent you are otherwise harmed by my actions, I should attempt to compensate you. For instance, if I smashed your windows getting in or forced you to incur some loss because you had to come home at short notice, I must compensate you at some reasonable rate.

Sympathy: it is incumbent on me to convey, if not an apology for my (permissible) actions, at least sympathy for the harm I have caused you. (“I’m very sorry I had to do that” would be the natural if slightly misleading phrase.) I cannot offer a Gallic shrug at your distress and announce, “I did nothing wrong— it’s your problem” as you survey the wreckage of your home. To do so would exhibit a serious character flaw.

Responsibility: my obligations are not just backward looking, but forward looking. If I can reasonably foresee that some action of mine will put me in the position of facing an emergency that will then render it permissible to harm you, I must take responsibility to avoid such actions if possible. I should not think that I have less reason to take responsibility because I can avoid harms by transferring them to you instead. And failing to take responsibility weakens my claim to impose costs on others when the time comes.

So even when immigration regulations are morally justified responses to dire consequences, governments cannot legitimately restrict immigration unless they also:

a. Pay restitution/compensation to innocents denied admission.

b. Earnestly apologize to innocents denied admission.

c. Scrupulously eschew policies that give immigration dire consequences.  For example, governments cannot rightfully refuse immigration on the grounds that, “Our welfare state is so generous that you would be a big net fiscal burden.”  Even if this is true, Moller’s framework places the blame on the governments that create dangerously generous welfare states in the first place.  Once a government adopts these irresponsible policies, they have no right to “avoid harms by transferring them” to immigrants.

To repeat, I’m the one using Moller’s approach to morally assess immigration.  He focuses almost entirely on the welfare state, mentioning immigration only in passing.  To my mind, this is doubly unfortunate because…

First, the harm of the welfare state, though serious, is minor compared to the harm of immigration restriction.  Denying billions of desperately poor people the right to move to opportunity is far worse than forcing hundreds of millions of fortunate people to “donate” a quarter of their income.

Second, it reinforces the false stereotype that libertarianism disregards the rights of the poor.  When the U.S. government jails families for the “crime” of seeking asylum, an exclusive focus on the evils of programs like TANF and SNAP really does reveal a major moral blind spot.  Since Moller reads abundant empirical research, moreover, he can’t easily plead ignorance of the facts.

Fortunately, Moller can remedy this situation… by writing a follow-up article on the ethics of immigration.  He totally should.

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On Obstruction, the Mueller Report is Clintonesque

On April 18, US Attorney William Barr released Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the probe into “Russian meddling” in the 2016 presidential election. The report cleared President Donald Trump and his campaign team of allegations that they conspired with the Russian government in that meddling. But on the question of “obstruction of justice,” Mueller punted in an eerily familiar way.

Return with me briefly to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Specifically, July 5, 2016. As I wrote then:

“FBI director James Comey spoke 2,341 words explaining his decision not to recommend criminal charges over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server to transmit, receive and store classified information during her tenure as US Secretary of State. He could have named that tune in four words: ‘Because she’s Hillary Clinton.’ Comey left no doubt whatsoever that Clinton and her staff broke the law …”

Mueller’s report likewise cites evidence of multiple attempts by the president to obstruct his investigation. “[T]he President sought to use his official power outside of usual channels,” he writes. “These actions ranged from efforts to remove the Special Counsel and to reverse the effect of the Attorney General’s recusal; to the attempted use of official power to limit the scope of the investigation; to direct and indirect contacts with witnesses with the potential to influence their testimony.”

But before the evidence, the punt: “[W]e determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment. The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has issued an opinion finding that ‘the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions’ in violation of ‘the constitutional separation of powers.’”

Translation: Anyone else who did what Donald Trump did would find himself buried under obstruction of justice charges. But Donald Trump is the President of the United States.

The difference between Comey’s treatment of Clinton and Mueller’s treatment of Trump is that Clinton’s immunity to laws meant for mere mortals was unofficial — based on her prominence as a ranking member of the political class — while Trump’s similar immunity is a formal function of his holding a particular office.

Did Trump “obstruct justice?” I’m no lawyer, but Mueller’s report indicates that Trump abused his power to attempt to impede the investigation. That sounds like obstruction to me.

Does it matter that the investigators found no underlying crime after overcoming the obstructions? Some people think so. I don’t.

If you were accused of a “missing body” murder you didn’t commit, and asked someone to give you a false alibi (because you were actually in bed with someone other than your spouse and didn’t want THAT known), or gave a false tip to the police, you’d face charges independent of the underlying crime even if the supposed victim turned up alive.

Why? Because (in theory at least) a criminal investigation pursues the truth of the matter, not just a particular suspect or verdict.

Trump’s conduct was aimed at frustrating that pursuit of truth. Immune or not, that’s wrong.

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You Can Fight City Hall, but You’ll Almost Certainly Lose

One of the chief reasons why almost every regime in the world has converged to a system of participatory fascism is that this system creates or retains a great variety of institutionalized opportunities for the state’s victims—who compose the great majority of the people—to challenge the state’s exactions and to “make their voices heard,” thereby gaining the impression that the rulers are not simply oppressing and exploiting them unilaterally but involving them in an essential way in the making and enforcement of rules.

These opportunities help to allay public resentment and anger, assuring people that they have had “their day in court,” and thereby serve to prop up the regime and its ongoing exploitation. These official avenues of protest and resistance are, however, rarely of any real avail. The oppressed citizens and other residents are protesting the actions of legislatures, government executives, bureaucracies, and courts run by the very people who are engaged in the oppression and plunder. The opportunities for voicing feedback are, in effect, ways in which people are allowed to request that the slave master stop beating them or reduce the severity of the beating. Rarely do the petitioners win, and even when they do, the costs of making their appeals, especially through the legal system, guarantee that they will be impoverished in the process.

Heads you lose, tails you lose. I promise you that in making the foregoing statements, I am speaking not only from my scholarly engagement with the matter but also from my personal experience, some of which grinds on seemingly endlessly even as I tap out this cri de coeur.

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Assange, Trump, and Obama

Yes, president Trump is doing the wrong thing by not dropping all charges against Julian Assange immediately. Very wrong.

Yet, had Obama done the right thing– and he had plenty of time and opportunity to do so– this wouldn’t even be up to Trump. He could have ended this years ago. He is every bit as much to blame. This isn’t just another Trump crime, it’s an Obama crime, too.

Presidents are cancer. Assange is a cure, as are all whistleblowers. Of course presidents are not going to be fans of his.

Coincidentally, and with amazing timing, Ammo.com just sent me a link to their newest: A Historical Guide to the Freedom of Information Act.

It’s perverse that government believes they have a “right” to decide whether or not (usually not) to let you know what they are up to, and that your right to know what these parasites are up to needs an “act” to codify it and give them excuses to hide things. The very notion that anyone working for government has any “right to privacy” where their “job” is concerned is absurd. But this is the world of statists we live in.

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The Delicate Art of Listening but not Listening

“If I asked people what they wanted, the would’ve said a faster horse.” — Maybe Henry Ford

Changing the world means showing people something they couldn’t tell you that they needed.

Nevermind. They can and do tell you what they need. Just in the wrong language.

People will tell you what they need in a language composed of what they see around them. You need to listen carefully to the meaning but ignore the language. When they tell you “faster horse”, you listen and take it seriously as a clue to a problem while ignoring it completely as a solution.

Why faster? What does a horse do? Get you from A to B. OK. That’s a real problem people are telling you they want solved. Better A to B travel. Listen to that. But ignore the word “Horse”. That’s a solution word. For real innovation, you don’t want to listen to their solutions, only their problems.

If their solution was awesome, it’d probably already exist. But their problem is a source of all kinds of inspiration and opportunity.

This is a weird kind of listening. You can’t play the tortured creator who hates consumers because they demand things you think are crappy. The consumer is king and deserves utmost attention and respect.

But you can’t treat them as a solution generator either, and focus group your way to innovation by asking them to design it for you.

Your job is to be more keyed in on the problems people feel than anyone else. Listen to the pain. Your next job is to be less keyed in on the expected and proposed solutions than anyone else. Ignore the remedies.

That’s how you change the world. Introduce something nobody was asking for but everyone was asking for.

Easy, right? 😉

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