Governing Least: A Litany of Insight

Dan Moller’s Governing Least is packed with random insights and philosophic wit.  Some highlights:

Why so much political philosophy sounds desperate:

Only those already unsympathetic to utilitarianism are likely to be swayed by Rawls’s brief observations. Those who begin their political philosophy by defending the morality of rights don’t so much preach to the choir as exorcize the elect.

Why so much political philosophy sounds so blind:

The reason France does not require aid is not because some external group took pity on the French, but that they were able to generate exponential economic growth themselves. This makes it puzzling that philosophers write long books about aid without mentioning economic growth, and generally seem to imply that the path to escaping poverty lies through individual altruism. Why ignore the only mechanism that has ever succeeded in lifting millions of people out of poverty when thinking about poverty?

A great explanation of the Theory of the Second-Best:

Suppose that a company enjoys monopoly powers that we cannot immediately remove under the present regulatory regime, but that one of its upstart rivals enjoys a market- distorting state subsidy which we can remove. It is a fallacy to infer that market efficiency will be improved by at least killing the subsidy— the reverse may well be true— just as it is fallacious to reason that if our military lacks both bombs and bombers the second- best solution is at least to build the bombers.

Why predictable outcomes can co-exist with abundant opportunity:

The data on intergenerational mobility or its absence is sobering, to say the least. In the United States, sometimes this leads commentators to call into question the traditional self- conception of America as a “land of opportunity.” It’s hardly a land of opportunity if outcomes are determined at birth, runs the criticism.

Let us consider this reasoning in more detail. The critic seems to reason as follows: If there were anything like equality of opportunity, then we couldn’t predict outcomes at birth, but we can, and so the land of opportunity is a myth. Let us assume the standard to meet here isn’t exact equality of opportunity for every single citizen. Could there still be reasonably high levels of opportunity despite outcomes— including bad ones— being highly predictable from the start? The critic seems to assume the following principle:

Predictability defeats opportunity: if we are able to specify social outcomes with a high degree of accuracy in advance, then the people in question cannot enjoy much opportunity.

Why accept this principle? What is it that connects predictability and opportunity? The obvious answer is that we think we know enough about people to be confident that if they did enjoy opportunities, they wouldn’t exercise them in a way that leads to bad social outcomes. The fact that we know that Smith will end up poor in all likelihood suggests that he is powerless to avoid it, since if he were capable of influencing the outcome, then he would. This amounts to another, deeper principle:

Predictability is evidence of incapacity: the fact that we can predict poor social outcomes is evidence that those who experience them lack a capacity for avoiding them.

Another way of putting the matter is that a fixed proportion of poor outcomes might be bad, but it wouldn’t be bad for reasons of diminished opportunity, since it might be the case that there are going to be winners and losers in anything resembling a free society, and as long as everyone has a fair shot at being a winner, things aren’t so bad. (No doubt more would need to be said about what “losing” amounts to for us to feel reassured.) What is terrible about predictability is that the losers aren’t just random, but never had a chance. Because predictability is evidence of incapacity, we know that those with poor outcomes never had a chance to succeed, and a fortiori they lacked anything like an equal or reasonable opportunity for success.

The problem is that it isn’t true that predictability, in itself, is evidence of incapacity, that outcomes are beyond our control. I don’t want to deny in the end that certain forms of incapacity do play a role in social outcomes, but how much is far from settled, and by opening with the assumption that predictability implies incapacity, we go wrong from the start. The fundamental confusion is between the epistemic question of what we can say about the future and the metaphysical question of what people are able to do at a given time in given circumstances. There are various fancy examples to illustrate this in the free- will literature, but for our purposes we can stick to some everyday examples:

Rope line: at the airport, we predict with great confidence that people will walk along a particular circuitous path— the one laid out by the velvet ropes. Nevertheless, the passengers are free to step over the ropes any time they like. It’s just that hardly anyone does. Predictability here doesn’t imply incapacity, it’s just that the passengers all have reason to exercise their freedom in a certain way.
Victim-blaming is (often) question-begging:
[I]t sounds mean to claim that people generally have a capacity to influence social outcomes when thinking about the poor, a bit like victim-blaming. But such a denial would involve insisting that something like the following claims are generally true (readers are invited to imagine these in the mouths of their own children facing unfavorable social circumstances, such as a lousy school system):
• “I can’t help it that I skipped class.”
• “It wasn’t possible to do my homework.”
• “I had no control over whether I had children.”
• “There was no way I could have worked this past year.”
It is important to acknowledge that for some people, these statements will be true. Mothers have children due to rape, classes go unattended because of gunfire or violence in the school, recessions destroy employment opportunities even for those who are highly qualified and persevering and willing to accept low wages. The point isn’t that all poor social outcomes are blameworthy, but that most (not all) people can exercise an enormous amount of influence over whether they lead a decent life in the developed world, even when ignorance or other internal impediments bar the way.
Governing Least is so packed with insight that I could easily have made this post three times longer.  Read it and see for yourself!
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Governing Least: What’s Really Wrong with Utilitarianism

One argument against utilitarianism is that no one actually follows it.  I call this the Argument from Hypocrisy.  A better objection, though, is that even highly scrupulous utilitarians don’t comply with their stated principles; I call this the Argument from Conscience.   In Governing Least, Moller powerfully develops a parallel objection: While utilitarians often urge self-sacrifice, they rarely preach other-sacrifice.  But given their principles, they totally should!  Moller’s explanation is so well-phrased that I decided to reproduce a complete section.

Challenges to living with utilitarianism tend to focus on what I called options— the option we think we normally have to flout the overall good when we rather sleep in, or buy a subwoofer instead of donating to charity. But what really cuts ice are constraints on our actions. Singer and others emphasize that they can accept that they do not, as utilitarians, have the option to loaf about when they could help others, however much they fall short. But what is really hard about living with utilitarianism isn’t self-sacrifice but other-sacrifice, paradoxically enough. This wouldn’t be so if we were purely self- interested, but we aren’t, and the prospect of exploiting others for the greater good thus terrifies us. Of course, it’s rare that harming innocents will produce much good, but it’s easy enough to come up with cases:

Grandma: Grandma is a kindly soul who has saved up tens of thousands of dollars in cash over the years. One fine day you see her stashing it away under her mattress, and come to think that with just a little nudge you could cause her to fall and most probably die. You could then take her money, which others don’t know about, and redistribute it to those more worthy, saving many lives in the process. No one will ever know. Left to her own devices, Grandma would probably live a few more years, and her money would be discovered by her unworthy heirs who would blow it on fancy cars and vacations. Liberated from primitive deontic impulses by a recent college philosophy course, you silently say your goodbyes and prepare to send Grandma into the beyond.

If this seems too outré to take seriously, we can try this instead:

Child: Your son earns a good living as a doctor but is careless with some of his finances. You sometimes help him out by organizing his receipts and invoices. One day you have the opportunity to divert $1,000 from his funds to a charity where the money will do more good; neither he nor anyone else will ever notice the difference, besides the beneficiaries. You decide to steal your child’s money and promote the overall good.

Recall that we’ve already set aside ecumenical views that side with deontic morality in practice. So it’s no use to protest that the true utilitarian theory has some esoteric feature that lets us ignore the case, say because we should only follow rules with good consequences, and killing those around us to reduce hunger would have terrible consequences overall. The only views left on the table at this point are precisely those that are willing to contemplate that, at least in some circumstances, rubbing out Grandma and stealing from our children is the right thing to do. The problem, then, is that most people don’t seem able to accept even that they ought to aspire to such behavior, let alone engage in it. Exploiting those we love isn’t an ideal we fail to attain, it’s the very antipode of the ideals themselves. Just consider contexts in which we are specifically seeking to articulate them, as when we instruct our children. Do revisionist utilitarians sit down their sons and daughters and implore them to steal from their friends when it is possible to do so undetected and to divert the money to famine relief? There are many books by revisionist utilitarians telling us that we ought to do more to live up to the demands of morality through self- sacrifice; the fact that there are so few urging us to engage in more other-sacrifice would be surprising if revisionists really could take their philosophy seriously in practice.

Notice, again, that Moller is not invoking the Argument from Hypocrisy.  “The problem, then, is that most people don’t seem able to accept even that they ought to aspire to such behavior, let alone engage in it. ”  In other words, utilitarians don’t preach other-sacrifice, but fail to practice what they preach.  They barely even preach it!  Suspicious, to say the least.

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Dan Moller’s Governing Least

Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority is definitely my favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  Dan Moller’s new Governing Least, however, is definitely now my second-favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  The two books have much in common: Both use common-sense ethics to argue for libertarian politics.  Both are calm, logical, and ever-mindful of potential criticisms.  Both strive to persuade reasonable people who don’t already agree with them.  Both are packed with broader insights.  And despite these parallels, both are deeply original.

So what’s most original about Moller’s position?  Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion:

[I]n my account libertarianism emerges from everyday moral beliefs we have about when we are permitted to shift our burdens onto others. In fact, my account intentionally downplays the role of rights, and is motivated by doubts about what we may demand of others, rather than outrage about what others demand of us.

The effrontery is most blatant when you speak in the first person:

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?

The fundamental objection to Moller’s position, he thinks, is to claim that governments have “emergent moral powers.”  But Moller firmly denies this.  Governments are just groups of people, so they are morally obliged to follow the same moral principles as everyone else.  While this may seem like libertarian question-begging, there’s nothing uniquely libertarian about it:

It is notable that many who wish to block rights-based objections to state action are nevertheless eager to enter their own moral objections to what the state does. Many of those unsympathetic to attacks on taxation rooted in individual rights also portray the absence of welfare provisions or various immigration policies as “unconscionable.” There is nothing inconsistent about this; the one set of moral claims may be right and the other confused. But the objection then cannot be based on the emergent moral powers of the state. We cannot both reject appeals to individuals rights on the general grounds that morality has nothing to tell us about what may emerge from government institutions, and then do just that, substituting our own preferred brand of interpersonal morality. Once we notice this, support for emergence should shrink drastically, since it will only come from those who think there are no policies of the state that can be rejected on fundamental
moral grounds. The non- emergence assumption per se has no particular ideological leanings.

But doesn’t common-sense morality admit that rights to person and property are not absolute?  Of course; exceptions abound.  Moller sternly emphasizes, however, that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.  In his “Emergency” hypothetical, for example, you steal $1000 under duress.  What then?

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.

A related principle is worth mentioning as well:

Need: my warrant for harming you depends on how bad my situation is. I cannot harm you if I am doing fine already merely in order to improve my position still further. I may be permitted to take your $1,000 to avert a physical threat, but not in order to make a lucrative investment in order to get even richer.

The political implications are expansive, starting with:

A welfare state justified in virtue of overriding reasons to promote the good of the beneficiaries incurs these residual obligations. Flouting them amounts to unfair burden- shifting. What would it look like actually to satisfy them? For starters, if I were the beneficiary of some emergency medical procedure that a third party compelled others to contribute to— say a state agency— I would be obligated to
repay those charged for my benefit, possibly with some compensatory surcharge. If unable to pay, I would be required to pay in installments, with the agency keeping track of my income and tax records to ensure that my repayment were in line with my means…

Moreover, in repaying, my attitude toward my fellow citizens ought to be one of gratitude for coming to my assistance, as opposed to viewing these services as entitlements due to me as a matter of citizenship. This may seem curious: by hypothesis, the services I received made it past the threshold, meaning that the wealth transfers involved were permissible, and since I am repaying, they won’t
even be net transfers in the long run, barring misfortune. Depending on how badly I needed aid, aiding may even have been obligatory on a third party. Why should I express gratitude for others fulfilling their duties? Consider the Gallic shrug— that supreme expression of indifference at someone else’s misfortunes, while disclaiming all responsibility for rectifying them, frequently encountered
in Parisian cafés. Why shouldn’t I shrug my Gallic shrug at the rich complaining about their tax bill, and point out I merely got what I was entitled to, as would they in a similar situation?

This complaint would be apt if appropriate moral responses were a function solely of whether our acts are required or permissible. But there are all kinds of inappropriate moral responses even when what we have done is permissible or when what the other has done was required. If we are to meet for lunch and an urgent business affair obtrudes itself, I may be permitted to skip our lunch, but
I shouldn’t treat putting you out lightly. What makes a Gallic shrug a vice here is that beneath the outer layer of permissibility there remains an inner structure whereby you have been harmed for my sake, which ought to be a source of concern, leading to some appropriate expression of regret if I am a decent person.  And the same is true in the case of welfare services. This is easy to ignore because
of the opaque veils of state bureaucracy. But behind the faceless agency lie people who are harmed for the sake of benefiting me.

Governing Least manages to be at once readable and dense.  And though you can’t tell from the passages I just quoted, Moller also repeatedly appeals to and grapples with cutting-edge social science.  What, for example, should philosophers think about Greg Clark’s work on the long-run heritability of social status?  Moller’s take will surprise many of you.

Last question: Why do I still prefer Huemer to Moller?  Intellectually, because Huemer’s appeal to individual rights is just more clear-cut than Moller’s objection to “burden-shifting.”  Furthermore, Huemer focuses on the broader case for libertarianism, while Moller self-consciously focuses on opposition to the welfare state.*  And while Moller’s book is beautifully written and well-organized, Huemer’s is stellar on both counts.

Thus, if you’re only going to read one book of libertarian political philosophy, I still say you should read The Problem of Political Authority.  If you’re willing to read two such books, however, read Governing Least.  I loved it.

* Moller: “I also ignore the many noneconomic causes that libertarians have sometimes taken up, like free speech, gay marriage, and drug legalization. This is the fun part of libertarianism and requires little heroism to defend. Many disagree with such policies, but few think their sponsors cruel or ungenerous, while resistance to the welfare state and programs intended to foster economic equality evoke precisely that response.”

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Big Government and Big Tech versus the Internet and Everyone

Governments around the world began trying to bring the Internet under control as soon as they realized the danger to their power represented by unfettered public access to, and exchange of, information. From attempts to suppress strong encryption technology to the Communications Decency Act in the US and China’s “Great Firewall,” such efforts have generally proven ineffectual. But things are changing, and not for the better.

The European Parliament recently passed a “Copyright Directive” which, if implemented, will force Internet platforms to actively monitor user content instead of putting the burden of proving copyright infringement on those claiming such infringement. The Directive also includes  a “link tax” under which publishers will charge aggregation platforms for traditionally “fair use” excerpts.

The US government’s Committee on Foreign Investment is attempting to force the sale of Grindr, a gay dating app, over “national security” concerns. Grindr is owned by a Chinese company, Beijing Kunlun. CFIUS’s supposed fear is that the Chinese government will use information the app gathers to surveil or even blackmail users in sensitive political and military jobs.

Those are just two current examples of many.

Big Governments and Big Tech are engaged in a long-term mating dance.

Big Governments want to regulate Big Tech because that’s what governments do, and because, as with Willie Sutton and banks, Big Tech is where the Big Tax Money is.

Big Tech wants to be regulated by Big Governments because regulation makes it more difficult and expensive for new competitors to enter the market. Facebook doesn’t want someone else to make it the next MySpace. Google doesn’t want a fresh new face to send it the way of Yahoo.

It’s a mating dance with multiple suitors on all sides.

The US doesn’t like Grindr or Huawei, because FREEDUMB.

The Chinese don’t want uncensored Google or Twitter, because ORDER.

The EU is at least honest about being sexually indiscriminate: It freely admits that it just wants to rigorously screw everyone, everything, everywhere.

Big Tech wants to operate in all of these markets and it’s willing to buy every potential Big Government as many drinks as it takes to them all into the sack.

Everybody wins, I guess. Except the public.

Governments and would-be monopolists are fragmenting what once advertised itself as a Global Information Superhighway into hundreds of gated streets.

Those streets are lined by neatly manicured lawns per the homeowners’ association’s rigorously enforced rules, and herbicide is sprayed on those lawns to kill off the values that made the Internet the social successor to the printing press and the economic successor to the Industrial Revolution.

As Stewart Brand wrote, “Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. … That tension will not go away.”

Big Tech and Big Government are both coming down, increasingly  effectively,  on the side of “expensive” and on the side of Ford’s  Model T philosophy (“you can have any color you want as long as it’s black”).

They’re killing the Internet. They’re killing the future. They’re killing us.

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Unforeseen Consequences, Boeing Edition

Nobody asked but …

I don’t want to rehash the details, to second guess, to play “I told you so.”  It looks as though, however, that complication has led again to unforeseen consequences.  It seems that a collision among customers, research and development, marketing, and multitudinous governmental regulatory agencies has produced another snarl of buck passing and finger pointing, diluted responsibility and destroyed accountability.  One American airline says that because they have 24 of the aircraft models in question, they will be cancelling an average of 90 flights a day for the foreseeable future.

The constellation of problems stem from a gaggle of causes.  Pricing and optional features have led to a matrix of bad outcomes that are being felt throughout the world, not least by the hundreds of people killed so far.  Past users of the global aviation system have died, current users have been displaced, and future users are thrust into deep uncertainty.

I have experienced over the weekend, a model in miniature of the above snafu.  Kilgorette and I undertook a Spring gardening project starting on Saturday, the making of a new hosta bed next to the woods near the house.  It wasn’t until after dark that my lovely bride discovered that the pinkie finger on her left hand had quit working properly.  Mystified as to the cause, she took some analgesic and went to bed.  From there things spun out of control.  By morning, the pain was excruciating.  Kilgorette now remembered getting a thorn in her gloved finger, and pulling it out.  By evening we were in a Lexington hospital’s ER.  We got home by 3am Monday morning with instructions to see a hand surgeon later in the day.  I had to cancel my 2 Monday classes.  In the afternoon, Kilgorette was scheduled for surgery Tuesday.  We also fell into the clutches of Big Pharma.  Tuesday, many hours were spent at a surgery site.  Wednesday, I am able to meet with my two classes, but I need to hasten off on a 5-city tour in the late afternoon to get her to physical therapy.  Then on Friday, I will have to miss the weekly meeting of the philosophy discussion klatch while Ms. Forelle and I go to follow up with the hand doctor.  I have learned that the human hand is an amazingly complicated appendage.

Now I get it — the intense meaning of the saying, “a thorn in the side.”  I also realize that, at least in part, airplane features are being designed by the same types as those who dream up television remote controls.

— Kilgore Forelle


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Your Future Is Not a Debate

Instead of pressuring yourself to discover and defend new dogmas, focus on exploring and experimenting with new mental models.

Self-improvement is an adventure, not a religion.

There’s no need to meet a belief-requirement, recite a creed, or pledge lifelong allegiance to a particular school of philosophy in order to better yourself.

Just choose to do more of what works for you and less of what doesn’t.

It’s that simple.

Don’t debate your future. Create your future.

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