If It’s Wrong to Steal Your Wallet…

I’ve been thinking more about Brian Leiter’s ethical trap.  (Caveat: I’m quoting Leiter’s questions from memory, so his exact wording will slightly vary).

During our debate, he repeatedly asked the audience:

“Suppose I threaten to shoot you unless you do what I want.  Are you free?”

At least one person in the audience dodged the question, but everyone knew “No” was the correct answer.

This then led straight to Leiter’s next question:

“Suppose I threaten to starve you unless you do what I want.  Are you free?”

Leiter’s point: Threatening workers with starvation is precisely what employers do to make employees do what they want!  How then is this any worse than threatening them with a gun?

In my original critique I replied:

[T]here is a vast moral difference between getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are morally entitled (e.g., your life) and getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are not morally entitled (e.g. my assistance).

On reflection, though, I could have explained this answer much more effectively.  Consider this line of questioning:

“Is it wrong to steal someone’s wallet?”

Yes, duh.

“So is it wrong to steal someone’s boyfriend?”

Normally not, right?  So what’s the difference?  Simple: You are morally entitled to your wallet, but you are not morally entitled to your boyfriend!  The rightful owner of your boyfriend, after all, is himself.  This is true even though many people suffer far more over a lost boyfriend than a lost wallet.

Deeper point: The language of “stealing a boyfriend,” though metaphorically compelling, is ethically confusing.  Why?  Because it makes it sound like you are the boyfriend’s legitimate owner.

Similarly, the language of “threatening to starve a person” is metaphorically compelling but ethically confusing.  Why?  Because it makes it sound like the person is the legitimate owner of someone else’s food.  Taking the food you grew and refusing to share the food I grew have radically different moral status even when they have the same physical effect.

To be fair, you could say, “The employer who fires a lazy worker has a right to do so, but he still deprives the worker of his freedom.”  My reply: “freedom” is a highly moralized concept.  Meaning: When moralists invoke the concept of freedom, they’re implicit making claims about rights.  Logically speaking, “The First Amendment protects the religious freedom of Muslims” and “The First Amendment deprives Americans of the freedom to ban Islam” are equivalent.  But when you say the former, you implicitly affirm the individual’s right to worship as they please; and when you say the former, you implicitly deny this right.

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COVID-19: What Would Rosie The Riveter Do?

Half the readers I hear from accuse me of Trump Derangement Syndrome. The other half accuse me of rabid Trump fandom. In truth, I think of US President Donald J. Trump in exactly the same way I think of most other politicians: He’s usually wrong and often dangerous. But when he’s right he’s right.

He’s right when he says that America needs to “open up” soon.

If anything, his target date of Easter is too distant.

The longer we wait to get moving again, the longer it will take to recover.

The longer we wait, the more Americans will descend into, or fall deeper into, poverty.

The longer we wait, the more Americans will die of causes other than coronavirus.

If we wait TOO long, starvation and malnutrition will be among those causes.

We don’t have to like it. That’s how it is whether we like it or not.

One of the oddest assertions I’ve heard from American politicians is that the COVID-19 outbreak is “our generation’s World War 2.”

I’m far too young to remember World War 2, but I’ve listened to veterans talk about it, read its history, and love the era’s propaganda posters. Rosie the Riveter in “We Can Do it!” “Lay-Offs Cost Lives!” “Work To Win.”

I’m trying to imagine a propaganda poster for “our World War 2,” and all that comes to mind is a hand reaching out from under a bed to grab a government check.

That image isn’t nearly as inspiring, is it? Nor is the sentiment nearly as practical.

America won World War 2 by working and fighting. It isn’t going to beat COVID-19 by shutting down and cowering.

Our politicians are thoroughly enjoying their extended Mussolini cosplay holiday, but their “lockdown” orders and such are merely feeding their egos, not starving the virus. The longer we continue to put up with that authoritarian nonsense, the harder it’s going to get to reclaim our rights and put them back in their places. Once they get used to filthy serfs like you and me taking a knee when they pass by, they’re not going to want to give it up.

The more quickly we seize back control of our lives — from the virus and from the politicians — the more quickly our lives will start getting better again.

Call me a Trump fanboy if it makes you feel better, but I’m with the president on this one.

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Don’t Let Politicians Use Pandemic as an Excuse for Dictatorship

By invoking the Defense Production Act, which “authorizes the President to require acceptance and priority performance of contracts or orders and to allocate materials, services, and facilities to promote the national defense or to maximize domestic energy supplies,” US president Donald Trump has declared himself America’s economic dictator.

He’s also moved to seal the nation’s borders, even as governors and mayors have banned public gatherings, ordered businesses to close or severely curtail operations, sealed off neighborhoods, and even in some cases — San Francisco comes to mind — ordered the entire populations of cities to remain indoors.

And we’re letting them do it.

Why? Because they say it’s about “public health.”

If this was about public health,  obvious vectors for the spread of COVID-19 like the Transportation Security Administration and its airport security screening lines would have been among the first things shut down.

Your neighborhood tavern, where people are seldom closely packed unless one is trying to sweet-talk another back home, is closed. TSA agents are still making airline passengers line up to be groped and coughed on.

If it was about public health, America’s non-violent prisoners would have been released to make more room for “social distance” between the remaining prisoners, reduce staffing needs, and prevent the virus from raging through captive populations.

Some prisons and jails are releasing some inmates or refusing to take in more. But not nearly as many prisoners are being released as Americans are being made prisoners in their own homes.

If this was about public health, government would be letting the market produce, and set prices for, essential goods instead of trying to seize control of production and suppress “price gouging.”

This isn’t about public health. It’s about political power. And things are getting very ugly, very quickly.

Vladimir Putin WISHES he had the power that American politicians have seized in the last couple of weeks.

Latin American dictators are green with envy at the enthusiasm with which Americans are surrendering our freedoms.

Pardon my French, people, but WTF?

A month ago half of us didn’t trust Donald Trump, half of us didn’t trust Nancy Pelosi, and many of us trusted neither. Now all of a sudden most of us seem to be practically begging both of them, and their henchmen, to order us around.

That’s not going to contribute to the public health. It’s not going to shorten the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s just going to crater our economy and leave us less free after than we were before.

If we force the politicians to knock this nonsense off now — by ignoring their orders until they run to the front of the parade by countermanding themselves — we might get off light. A short recession, maybe, and perhaps even some politicians who are scared into respecting our rights a little bit more, for a little while.

If we keep going along to get along, we’re more likely to end up thinking of the Great Depression and Stalin’s reign as versions of “the good old days.”

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Reflections on the Leiter-Caplan Debate

It was a pleasure debating Brian Leiter last week.  The resolution, to repeat:

“Social democracy is preferable to market capitalism, but ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”

Here are some thoughts I failed to fully articulate at the live event.  As always, I’m happy to publish any reply my opponent wishes to compose.

1. To his credit, Leiter expressed zero sympathy for any actual socialist regime.  He even condemned Cuba; good for him.  But Leiter still insisted that the totality of these awful experiences show next to nothing about the desirability of socialism, which frankly seems crazy.  As far as I could tell, Leiter hews to the classic Marxist position that we should transition to socialism only after capitalism creates incredible abundance.  Unlike most historical Marxists, however, he doesn’t think that even the richest countries are ready yet.  My question: If we finally got rich enough for socialism, why think that a socialist regime would be able to maintain the prior level of prosperity, much less provide continued progress?

2. When I discussed the actual performance of social democracy, Leiter was surprisingly apologetic.  He conceded that we have wasteful universal redistribution, instead of well-targeted means-tested redistribution.  His only defense was to repeat the flimsy argument that it’s too hard to sustain popular support for means-tested programs.

3. On regulation, Leiter appeared to endorse open borders; good for him.  He also professed agnosticism on housing regulation.  Since these are by far the two biggest forms of regulation in modern social democracies (measured by how much regulation changes the likely market outcome), it’s hard to see why he would believe that increased regulation has, on balance, been good for humanity or the poor.

4. According to Leiter, “ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system” because automation will one day cause mass unemployment.  This position baffled me on multiple levels.  Most obviously, why not respond to automation with redistribution rather than nationalization, and thereby avoid killing the capitalist goose that has hitherto laid a mountain of golden eggs?

My fundamental objection, however, is that history teaches us that technological unemployment is only a morbid fantasy.  When firms figure out ways to get more output out of fewer workers, this may cause unemployment in the short-run.  Soon enough, however, business has repeatedly figured out new jobs for workers to perform.  Business has already accomplished the miraculous task of creating new roles for the enormous number of workers disemployed by the mechanization of agriculture.  Every future economic transformation pales by comparison.  Remember: Almost everyone was a farmer for almost all of recorded human history.  Then industrialization eliminated almost all farm jobs.  Yet today, we don’t miss these jobs.  Instead, we get fat on all the cheap food, and do jobs our agrarian ancestors would have struggled to understand.

Leiter had two responses to my reaction.  One was “maybe this time it will be different”; Leiter even appealed to David Hume’s problem of induction to downplay all prior economic history!  If you take this line, however, it would only entitle you to say “it is logically possible that America will need to move towards a socialist system” – a vacuous claim indeed.  Frankly, if you take Hume seriously, even the best empirical evidence shows nothing about the future, so why bother debating at all?

Leiter’s better argument was that capitalists are perennially trying to cut costs – and that in the long-run capitalism works.  So eventually capitalists will figure out a way to run the economy without workers – an outcome that is individually rational for a capitalist, but socially disastrous for capitalism.  My response: Yes, capitalists want to figure out how to produce a given level of output with fewer workers.  Their deeper goal, however, is to figure out the most profitable way to employ all available inputs.  As long as there are able-bodied people who want to work, there will be a capitalist brainstorming how to make money off the situation.  And to echo Leiter, in the long-run this works.

5. Leiter bizarrely insisted that “the” goal of socialism was to allow human freedom – legions of vocally authoritarian self-identified socialists notwithstanding.  He followed up with the classic socialist argument that saying “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is just as much an abridgment of freedom as “If you don’t do what I say, I will shoot you.”

The standard reply, of course, is that there is a vast moral difference between getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are morally entitled (e.g., your life) and getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are not morally entitled (e.g. my assistance).  Thus, imagine you will be suicidally depressed unless I marry you.  Is my refusal to marry you morally equivalent to making you suicidally depressed by threatening to shoot you unless you break off your engagement to your willing fiance?  Of course not.  You aren’t entitled to marry me if I don’t approve, but you and your fiance are entitled to marry each other even if I don’t approve.

6. Moral entitlement aside, “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is rarely relevant in modern labor markets.  Why not?  First, there are competing employers, so if you don’t like an offer, you can shop around for another.  (Smarter yet, take what you can get, but keep searching for a better offer).  Second, if you live frugally, even a relatively low-wage worker can save up a nest egg, making it easy to turn down unappealing offers in the future.  Naturally, you can object, “I still face the choice to either live frugally, work for some employer, or starve.”  If so, we’re back to my original reply: Complaining about being “free to starve” is the flip side of demanding that strangers support you whether they like it or not.

7. Leither took umbrage at my authoritarian interpretation of Marx.  I freely grant that Leiter’s invested more time reading Marx than I have.  However, I too have devoted long hours to Marx’s oeuvre (though I’ve spent far more reading about the actual history of socialist regimes), and I stand by my bleak assessment.

Did Marx explicitly say, “We should round up priests and execute them”?  To the best of my knowledge, no.  Yet that is the most reasonable interpretation of what Marx had planned.  What are we supposed to think when Marx makes Orwellian statements like,  “[B]ourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part [socialism] endeavors rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion” (Critique of the Gotha Program)?  It doesn’t sound like Marx plans to respect the rights of people who don’t wish to be so “liberated.”  If Leiter is right, why did so few Marxists protest Lenin’s religious persecution?  I say it’s because Marx provided the Orwellian language they needed to insist that Freedom is Slavery.  As I wrote two decades ago:

Innumerable social thinkers disagree with much of Marx’s thought, but praise his reflections upon human freedom, the depth of his insight in contrast to the shallowness of liberalism. Yet it is difficult to understand how Marx’s concept of freedom is anything more than a defense of tyranny and oppression. No dissident or non-conformist can see society as the “realization of his own liberty.” And what can the attack on “the right to do everything which does not harm others” amount to in practice, except a justification for coercing people who are not harming others? The problem with “broad” notions of freedom is that they necessarily wind up condoning the violation of “narrow” notions of freedom. Under “bourgeois” notions of religious liberty, people may practice any religion they wish (“a private whim or caprice” as Marx calls it); how could this liberty be broadened, without sanctioning the persecution of some religious views?

Listening to Leiter, a law professor at the University of Chicago, I couldn’t help but think, “Leiter is talking like Marx’s lawyer.”  When a Mafia enforcer says, “Sweet kids you got there; be a shame if anything happened to them,” a Mafia lawyer will vigorously deny that his client threatened to murder children.  Any neutral adult, however, knows that the Mafioso did exactly that.  I say the same about Marx’s writings.  “I’m going to bring you real freedom” is a classic Offer You Can’t Refuse – as Marxist revolutionaries have shown us time and again.  A skilled lawyer can obfuscate this scary truth, but a learned philosopher should not.

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Six More Presidents

Nobody asked but …

I’ll say again, the Presidents of the United States are a motley crew.  So far the scorecard reads 45 attempts, 45 clunkers.  I am not saying there were no honorable persons in the group (“honorable” itself is a very iffy word).  But I have practically no regard for the intellects of any of today’s half-dozen.  With the exception of the monstrous Jackson, the other 5 are bound for the oubliette of history.  But, to me, there is no such thing as a great President.  To have been a POTUS places a black mark on that career.  Few (ie none) have risen above.

On some occasions, some wisdom has been dispensed independently of the downward slide to the oval office.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from the second six (7-12):

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their own selfish purposes.

As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.

The chains of military despotism, once fastened upon a nation, ages might pass away before they could be shaken off.

Let it be henceforth proclaimed to the world that man’s conscience was created free; that he is no longer accountable to his fellow man for his religious opinions, being responsible.

I would bring the government back to what it was intended to be – a plain economical government.

If elected, I would not be the mere president of a party – I would endeavor to act independent of party domination and should feel bound to administer the government untrammeled by party schemes.

But every person who has served in furtherance of this inauspiciously mediocre capacity, in my view, has a great atrocity to their name.  Again, the list:

— Kilgore Forelle

 

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Six Presidents

Nobody asked but …

The Presidents of the United States are a motley crew.  So far the scorecard reads 45 attempts, 45 klunkers.  I am not saying there were no honorable persons in the group (“honorable” itself is a very iffy word).  I have the highest regard for the intellects of Jefferson and Madison.  I believe that John Adams was among the greatest lawyers (a rare occurrence).  But, to me, there is no such thing as a great President.  To have been one places a black mark on that career.  Few have risen above.

On some occasions, some wisdom has been dispensed independently of the degradation to the office.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from the first six:

It is far better to be alone than to be in bad company.

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.

It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin.

America… goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

But every person who has served in this inauspicious capacity, in my view, has a great atrocity to their name.  Again, the list:

— Kilgore Forelle

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