Konrad Graf: Action-Based Jurisprudence (58m)

This episode features a lecture by author Konrad Graf from 2012 on a number of topics relating to action-based jurisprudence. Topics covered include: rights-violating rights protectors; law and ethics; legal theory; responses to aggression; rights-protecting legal institutions; and misplaced complexity. Purchase books by Konrad Graf on Amazon here.

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The Dissident Ambassador

In a new paper, Greg Mankiw shares some thoughtful reflections on teaching and heterodoxy:

I have always thought that instructors, especially in introductory courses, are like ambassadors for the economics profession. The role of ambassadors is not to represent their own views but to act as agents for their principal. Just as ambassadors are supposed to faithfully represent the perspective of their nations, the instructor in an introductory course (and intermediate courses as well) should faithfully represent the views shared by the majority of professional economists.


This perspective of instructor as ambassador raises the question of what instructors should do if they hold views far from the mainstream of the economics profession. If you are an Austrian or Marxist economist, for example, what should you do if asked to teach an introductory course? In my view, there are only two responsible courses of action. One is to sublimate your own views and spend most of the course teaching what the mainstream believes, even if you disagree with it. Because many introductory students will take only one or two courses in economics throughout their educations, it would be pedagogical malpractice, in my judgment, to focus on an idiosyncratic minority viewpoint. The other responsible course of action is to avoid teaching introductory (and even intermediate) courses entirely. In a more advanced elective, there is nothing wrong with teaching an idiosyncratic minority viewpoint, as long as students know what they are getting.

Mankiw’s view definitely resonates with me, but my position – and my practice – is rather different.  I say that a professor’s fundamental fiduciary duty is to teach their students about the world – not what his peers think about the world.  As long as your discipline is fundamentally sound, fortunately, these two goals closely overlap.  If your discipline is a corrupt pseudo-science, however, your obligations to your students require you to teach heterodoxy.  Sure, you’ll have to explain the normal view in the process of debunking it.   Yet it’s a dereliction of duty to teach nonsense as fact.

Analogously, by the way, it’s fine to act as a loyal ambassador for a fundamentally virtuous organization.  But if you’re the ambassador for North Korea, you have not only the right but the obligation to be a traitor.  “I’m just promoting my client’s interests” is as flimsy a defense as “I’m just following orders.”  See Mike Huemer on legal ethics for further discussion.

Since I am a professional economist, I’m happy to say that I don’t consider my discipline a corrupt pseudo-science.  However, economics is also far from “fundamentally sound.”  When I teach, then, I try to split the difference.  I spend about half of the time as Mankiw recommends: neutrally describing the economic consensus.  When the consensus is far from the truth, though, I go out of my way to amend it.

Yes, I try to plainly disclose whether I’m describing the research consensus or just telling them what’s actually reasonable to believe.  And no, I don’t penalize students for arguing that the consensus is right and Caplan is wrong.  Some of my exams even require students to disagree with me!  Still, my primary goal is to teach students how the economy works, not what most economists happen to believe.

Furthermore, the only economics students who really need to understand the current conventional wisdom of economics are… graduate students!  After all, no matter how misguided the research consensus happens to be, you can’t be a successful researcher unless you understand it.  Most Econ 1 students, in stark contrast, will never take another economics class.  So the sole economics instructor they’re ever going to have should rigidly focus on economic reality.  Thus, I essentially reverse Mankiw’s advice to confine “idiosyncratic minority viewpoints” to advanced students.  No matter what you think about Keynesianism, you have a fiduciary responsibility to teach your grad students all about it.  Otherwise, they’ll be at a severe professional handicap.  For undergrads, in contrast, the truth of Keynesianism is pivotal.  If your students’ lifetime commitment to economics comes to fifteen weeks, it would be silly to spend five weeks on an intellectual dead-end.

Am I saying that professors should teach whatever they feel is true?  No; a thousand times no.  If you use your “feelings” to form beliefs, you shouldn’t be a professor at all.  The first fiduciary duty of every intellectual is to set emotions aside, and calmly and patiently study a wide range of arguments and evidence.  Once you’ve done that, however, you owe it to your students to share the fruits of your labors.  And if, along the way, you discover that your discipline is misguided, you should let your students know that, too.

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The Peace of Mind in Probabilistic Thinking

I’m a big believer in agnosticism. (See what I did there?)

There are so many things that don’t require a strong opinion or position, and don’t warrant dying.

It’s very stressful to be confronted with questions and claims about culture, physics, politics, psychology, health, economics, history, ethics, aesthetics, and philosophy and feel the need to have a clear answer. Especially when answers immediately get interpreted as sides and you’ll get lumped in with some tribal collective blob and be associated with whatever bundle of biases they may have, real or imagined. It’s like behind every possibility lurks a mob shouting, “Are you with us or against us?!”

This is bad for curiosity, learning, and fun.

Besides having fewer opinions and focusing on individuals instead of collectives, another way I’ve found relief from relentless pressure to pick is to think in probabilities instead of binaries.

“Do you think eating gluten is bad for you?” is the kind of question that makes you feel a bit uneasy. You know about the weird tribes in this debate and don’t want to be in them. Still, maybe you’re interested in the topic for yourself or as a general curiosity. If you’re not content with, “I don’t know”, try assigning probability.

“I think there’s a high probability that too much gluten is one cause of my digestive problems” is way more relaxing. You don’t have to give up the examination. You don’t have to stay out of the conversation entirely. But you distance yourself from binary conclusions and tribes, individualize your opinion, and leave open the possibility that your sliding scale of probability can change with more information.

You can’t fake it though. If deep down you’re a hard-liner (which is not all bad in every situation, just very, very dangerous), pretending to be probabilistic to seem sophisticated will only make you more stressed. If you can begin to unwind the reactive need to pick a yes/no and assign probabilities, you will find a release of tension and an expansion of curiosity. You may even be able to read Twitter debates with a smile instead of rage!

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Immoral Walls and Dishonest Manipulation

Sarcasm only works for me when you don’t demonstrate dishonesty while attempting it.

I listen to Scott Adams’ “periscopes” to keep an eye on what some of those on the pro-government side are thinking. He’s right about half the time– when he isn’t in his pro-government box, unable to see beyond its horizon. But sometimes it amazes me how dishonestly he frames an issue. I wonder if others notice.

Of course, since he is a trained hypnotist, it may be intentional on his part; an attempt to manipulate the opinions of his listeners. I don’t criticize him for that– it’s what I hope to do with my blog. But I hope to do it honestly, without deception. I am not trying to be sneaky about it.

A day or so ago he was mocking Nancy Pelosi’s absurd contention that “walls are immoral“.

I agree conditionally; walls are not, in and of themselves, immoral. Unless your particular morality is somehow anti-wall, which I seriously doubt. Morals being what they are (“situational ethics”) I can see how someone might have a set of morals which doesn’t allow for walls, but it’s not likely. It’s more likely to be political posturing.

The real question is whether or not walls are ethical. For simply being walls. The answer is: walls are ethically neutral.

You can almost always use your own money/resources to wall off your own property from adjacent property without any ethical problem.

Or you can help wall off “collective property” in the very rare cases where you have part-ownership in some actual collective property and there is unanimous consent to build and fund the wall.

There is an ethical problem if you wall off property which doesn’t belong to you, or if you force others to pay for a wall they don’t want to pay for.

If you wall off a neighbor’s property a few doors down, you have unethically built a wall.

If you force someone to help pay for a wall around your own property, you have unethically built a wall.

You could say those particular walls, under those circumstances, are unethical walls. Probably even immoral walls.

“Government land”– dishonestly referred to as “public land” in the same way kinderprisons are called “public schools”– is not yours to wall off. It isn’t true “collective property”, and there is not unanimous consent. Nor does it really belong to the government. Everything government claims it either stole from the rightful owner or bought (and maintains) with stolen or counterfeited money. A thief does not own the stolen goods he possesses, so government can not rightfully own anything. Any wall financed with stolen money is not an ethical wall.

A “border” wall fails on both accounts. No matter how “necessary” you believe it to be. It can not be done ethically under government.

You can sarcastically mock the truth, but the truth doesn’t change to suit your wishes. Not even if you are a president or Scott Adams.

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“How Do You Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Believe in Climate Change?”

This was actually the first sentence to an introduction to a TED talk, and it illustrates a big part of the problem with Anthropogenic Global Climate Change (AGCC) fanatics. Their condescending need to preach at the rest of us is annoying, as is their conviction that we could be won over to their side.

First of all, climate changes. Very few people seriously doubt that. The Earth has been both a snowball and a sauna in the past. I completely “believe in” the evidence that this has happened and will continue to happen. That’s not what they are talking about when they say “doesn’t believe in climate change”.

They are talking about the fact that intelligent, informed people don’t necessarily worship with their cult of AGCC belief and their preferred social agenda, and they can’t bear it. That’s it.

The best way to “talk” to someone who “doesn’t believe in climate change” is … don’t. Stay quiet. But if you can’t mind your own business, and you ignorantly (and unwisely) broach the subject, maybe you could at least listen to the reasons why they aren’t in your cult. If you can’t do even that much, then drop the religious devotion to your cult before opening your mouth. No one wants to hear it.

Second, it would help if you would recognize that what you are promoting isn’t science. AGCC believerism is partly science; mostly collectivist politics. When you mix politics with science (by funding it through theft, for example) what results is less science than politics. This brand of politicized “climate science” cherry picks data, relies on completely unreliable models (computerized guesswork which is never, NEVER reliable), ignores economics, and violates ethics– all of which would need to be taken into account for AGCC believerism to be credible enough to be taken seriously. They ignore all the inconvenient factors, which is why they aren’t credible, no matter how much they posture and preach. No matter how much they try to talk down to those who aren’t falling for their violently imposed “solutions”.

I believe the Earth’s climate changes over time. I accept that it is possible human activities have changed the rate of change by adding atmospheric carbon dioxide. I don’t doubt there is some amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide which would be trouble. I acknowledge that it is possible, although unlikely, that this climate change is entirely negative, with no benefits at all. I am more open-minded and scientifically oriented on this topic than any AGCC believer. And yet I’m not one of them and can’t support them in any way. That offends their feelings.

I doubt their “solutions” are solutions. I know they aren’t ethical– more government control never is. If they get their way more problems will be created, yet they won’t be held accountable. You can’t let the perpetrator of the greatest amount of environmental damage– The State– tell everyone else what they are allowed to do. Not on this planet or any other. Denying this reality is science denial.

I am completely in favor of businesses and individuals finding ways to reduce pollution of every sort. It’s dumb to foul your own nest. I am not in favor of imposing “solutions” at the barrel of a government gun, no matter what someone imagines will happen otherwise.

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