Social Events No Place For Politics

In spite of how libertarianism is often portrayed, it’s not a middle ground between conservatism and progressivism. It’s not even on the scale with those positions. But during social gatherings libertarians can be a neutral zone between conservative and liberal disagreement.

The silliness of the political right and left is clear to libertarians, yet we have common ground with each, on those few issues where they still support individual liberty. Progressives and conservatives are more similar to each other than they’ll admit. Why should they fight over the minor details on which they disagree?

Cousin Xander might believe government should do something which Cousin Yolanda opposes, while Yolanda wants government to do something Xander feels would be the end of civilization. The libertarian in the room knows that neither cousin’s wish excuses government violence. Pointing this out can distract the factions from being at each other’s throats by giving them a common enemy.

Expressing skepticism about the importance of the issue they value enough to fight over can make them unite against you.

Grandpa Al and Grandpa Bill may revere different presidents and hate the presidents revered by the other. Their libertarian grandkid can see the flaws of both politicians and the ridiculousness inherent in the office of president. To explain there’s no substantive difference between their respective heroes is a sure way to help them forget their disagreement with each other for a moment.

Once you understand that all politics is the search to justify government violence against those who are looking for an excuse to use government violence against you, it’s easy to see why politics doesn’t belong in society. It also helps you understand why those who are arguing aren’t nearly as different as they imagine.

If you find yourself under the boot of government violence you won’t care whether it’s a right boot or a left boot. Libertarians decry the boot while progressives and conservatives argue over which foot ought to be wearing it. Consistent libertarianism is non-political, which is why the Libertarian Party — being political — has such a hard time gaining traction among libertarians.

Personally, I don’t think social occasions are any place for politics. Yet politics will crop up in the most devious ways and in the least appropriate places. Having a libertarian in the mix helps unite all the pro-government people against the one who can’t embrace their government extremism. It’s our sacrifice for the cause of world peace. Happy New Year!

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I’ll Keep My Loopholes, Thank You

In those moments when my skepticism falters, the recent midterm elections threaten to give me a little hope. It doesn’t last long.

A Congress divided between Republicans and Democrats brings the promise of sweet gridlock, but they always seem to find a way to work together more than is healthy.

I am naturally skeptical of those using theft and aggression against the individuals who comprise society — even when they call the theft and aggression “government” or “the law.”

As bad as partisanship’s reputation may be, bipartisanship is far worse. When working together, the old, fossilized political parties make it clear it isn’t “The Right” vs. “The Left;” it’s government colluding against the rest of us.

Back in 1866 Judge Gideon J. Tucker observed: “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” It has only gotten worse since then.

The best hope for the survival of your liberty is eternal gridlock preventing Congress from doing anything. While they are fighting each other they may not be paying as much attention to you.

Those who want government to “do something” are calling for your liberty to be crushed bit by bit until none is left. They consider any remaining islands of liberty in a rising ocean of government to be “loopholes,” which they want closed. In spite of everything they might claim, this is never for your benefit.

I don’t want Congress, or any branch of government, to get things done. There is nothing legitimate for Congress to do.

Laws were discovered; legislation is invented. All real laws were discovered centuries ago; no new laws are needed or even possible. All the real crimes have always been crimes in any civilized society. All attacks on life, liberty, or property are wrong, whether laws criminalize them or not. They are still wrong when laws say they are OK if done by government employees “just doing their jobs.”

Anything Congress imposes on the population will be legislation; fake “law.” These counterfeit laws look like laws to most people. They use legal language and are treated as though they are laws, but they lack the ethical foundation, which distinguishes real law. In fact, they violate real law by endangering your life, liberty, or property.

The last thing I want or need is for the houses of Congress to work together, with the president, to impose more legislation. I’ll keep my loopholes — my liberty — thank you very much.

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On Stoicism

To everyone who gets triggered or offended by words, take some advice from the ancient Stoic philosophy: recognize your own complicity in how you react to what you hear or read other people say or write. The Stoics taught that our emotional reactions to outside stimuli are largely our responsibility. Accepting this basic truth will allow you to take your emotional power back from those who upset you (including your children). No more will you require that trigger warnings be observed by other people, or expect them to condescendingly walk on eggshells around you. You will have more control over your mind and body if you learn that you don’t have to react in negative ways toward other people’s words. Simply observe them as you would observe a loud animal in nature, with curiosity, humility, and skepticism. And that’s today’s two cents.

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Stubborn Detachments

I’ve known Tyler Cowen for 25 years.  Straussian misreadings notwithstanding, I assure you that he has little patience for open borders and even less for my brand of pacifism.  But given the general moral theory that he embraces in his new Stubborn Attachments, it’s hard to see why Tyler doesn’t already agree with me.  At minimum, he ought to take my contrarian views far more seriously.  What else can he logically conclude, given his endorsement of the “Principle of Growth Plus Rights”?  After strongly endorsing the moral value of maximizing economic growth, Tyler adds:

The Principle of Growth Plus Rights.  Inviolable human rights, where applicable, should constrain the quest for higher economic growth.

Bear in mind that I am working with a pluralistic rather than a narrowly utilitarian approach.  I will return to the status and nature of such rights later, but for now just think of such rights as binding and absolute.  That means: just don’t violate human rights.  If we were willing to trade these rights against a bundle of other plural values, at some sufficiently long time horizon the benefits from higher economic growth would trump the rights in importance, and in essence the rights would cease to be relevant…

Philosopher Robert Nozick wrote of rights as “side constraints.”  The particular specification of these side constraints need not coincide with Nozick’s libertarian vision, and need not coincide with his absolute attachment to all forms of private property or his prohibition of most forms of taxation.  Still, these rights satisfy Nozick’s notion of rights as restrictions on the choice set of an individual or an institution.  As I see it, virtually everyone believes in rights of some sort… namely that they have to be pretty strong and nearly absolute.

Note that the traditional notions of “positive rights” or “positive liberties” – both of which refer to people’s opportunities – do not fit into this conception of rights… The result is that these negative rights, restrictive though they may be, represent a stripped-down set of bare-bones constraints, a series of injunctions about the impermissibility of various forms of murder, torture, and abuse.

Tyler’s big qualification make little practical difference:

…we should violate rights to prevent extremely negative outcomes which involve the extinction of value altogether, such as the end of the world, as is sometimes postulated in philosophical thought experiments.

OK, so why on Earth isn’t Tyler a pacifist in my sense?  In the real world, modern warfare always means deliberately killing innocent people.  What do you expect will happen if you bomb a city?  If anyone other than a government deployed such weapons on a population center, virtually any jury would convict them of murder.  Even manslaughter would be a stretch.

But what about stopping the “end of the world”?  World War II itself hardly qualifies.  Indeed, until the Soviet Union collapsed, it would have been quite reasonable to believe that U.S. participation in World War II was a critical step toward the end of the world.

Much the same applies for open borders.  Immigration restrictions need not involve murder or torture (though they often do).  But even if ICE enforced its laws with kid gloves, barring an innocent person from accepting a job offer from a willing employer or renting an apartment from a willing landlord is extremely oppressive.  Almost everyone would now recognize Jim Crow laws as “abuse.”  How are immigration restrictions any less awful?  You hardly have to be a libertarian to see the force of the question.

Stubborn Attachments is one of Tyler’s best books.  But if you share his abstract moral theory, you should reject his applied moral moderation.  On a personal level, Tyler relishes uncertainty and complexity.  But once you accept a moral presumption in favor of negative human rights, uncertainty and complexity reinforce skepticism against coercion rather than undermining it.  Clearly.

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Discrimination Should Be Left Legally Alone

Who would be desperate enough to eat a cake baked by someone who doesn’t want to bake it?

Would you want a wedding cake someone was forced to bake — at gunpoint?

Even if the gun is hidden at first, every law comes down to “do as we say or we’ll kill you.

At best, the newlyweds will get a cake they dare not eat.

So why follow this path? Perhaps they claim to only want things to be fair. Guess what — fairness isn’t a feature of the real world. You may as well accept the fact now. What you consider fair, someone else will call unfair.

The reverse is also true; what someone else sees as fair you’ll believe is unfair. The appearance of fairness depends completely on perspective. Dilbert’s Scott Adams goes further, saying fairness is a concept invented so less-than-intelligent people could feel like they are participating in conversations.

Despite my skepticism about fairness, I’m in favor of everyone doing their best to make others feel as though fairness is real. There’s really only one way to do this.

Just stay out of the way and let everyone exercise their right to choose who to do business with. Both as a provider and as a customer. Don’t infringe anyone’s right of association.

It’s not only about religion. If you don’t like someone’s politics, the color of their skin, the way they speak, how they worship, or anything else, you have the right to decline to take their money, or to refuse to spend your money with them. It doesn’t depend on the Supreme Court agreeing; this is simply a natural human right.

Someone will always step up to fill a gap if certain businesses choose to turn away customers. Think of all the willing and eager cake shops who never got the chance to show what an excellent cake they would have been happy to provide for the wedding that precipitated the recent cake ruling.

Discrimination goes both ways, and needs to be left legally alone. If bigots are out there, let them openly expose their bigotry. How else can you know who to reward with your business, or who to punish by going elsewhere?

There is one exception, of course: government doesn’t get to choose who it serves until people are allowed to stop paying for services they don’t want. As long as government exists as a monopoly, it is the only organization that can’t exclude anyone for any reason other than non-payment.

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Szasz and the Statistics of Rare Events

Many years ago, Thomas Szasz largely convinced me that mental illness is radically different from ordinary physical illness.  In economic terms: People with physical illness have unfavorable constraints; people with mental illness have socially disapproved preferences.  Physical illness is about what you’re able to do; mental illness is about what you want to do.

Yes, it’s generally bad manners to loudly call attention to this distinction.  Even though “I can’t come to your party” usually means, “I would rather do something else with my time,” it’s impolite to say so.  The same goes for “I can’t stop drinking” or “I just can’t manage to show up for work on time.”

But what about really weird cases?  Perhaps 95% of all alcoholics simply value their favorite beverage more than they value their families.  But every now and then, you read a compelling first-hand account of someone who persuasively insists, “I just can’t help myself.”  What about multiple personalities?  Severe delusions?  Can Szasz explain those?

Maybe not.  But Alex Tabarrok’s post on the statistics of rare events got me thinking.

The CDC asked 12,870 individuals about defensive gun use over the three samples. That’s a relatively large sample but note that this means that just 117 people reported a defensive gun use, i.e. ~1%. In comparison, 12,656 people (98.33%) reported no use, 11 people (0.09%) said they didn’t know and 86 people (0.67%) refused to answer. People answering surveys can be mistaken and some lie and the reasons go both ways…

The deep problem, however, is not miscodings per se but that miscodings of rare events are likely to be asymmetric. Since defensive gun use is relatively uncommon under any reasonable scenario there are many more opportunities to miscode in a way that inflates defensive gun use than there are ways to miscode in a way that deflates defensive gun use.

Imagine, for example, that the true rate of defensive gun use is not 1% but .1%. At the same time, imagine that 1% of all people are liars. Thus, in a survey of 10,000 people, there will be 100 liars… Adding it up, the survey will find a defensive gun use rate of approximately (100+10)/10000=1.1%, i.e. more than ten times higher than the actual rate of .1%!

Notice that Alex’s point generalizes readily from defensive gun use to extreme mental illness.  Suppose, for example, that you study the prevalence of multiple personalities (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder).  In a group of 10,000 people, ten insist they have it.  Taken individually, each of the ten seems credible.  But if .1% of respondents would energetically lie, the discovery of ten believable stories is perfectly consistent with the complete non-existence of the disorder.

Why oh why though would anyone tell such a lie?  Perhaps to be the center of attention – one of the most ubiquitous of all human motives.  As Szasz puts it:

[W]hen a grisly, unsolved crime is reported by the press and the police look for the person who did it, innocent people often come forward and confess to the crime. Such a confession is never accepted on its face value as true; on the contrary, it is treated with the utmost skepticism. On the other hand, when a person lodges a psychiatric complaint against himself, it is not investigated at all.

Do the statistics of rare events prove Szasz right?  No, but they do tip the evidentiary scales further in his favor.  If X almost never happens, basic numeracy urges us to question whether the few purported cases of X are genuine – especially if many of us feel a temptation to claim X regardless of the truth.

Isn’t it desperate, though, to use Tabarrok’s insights to treat admittedly rare events as absolutely non-existent?  Perhaps.  But then again, isn’t that just what the great David Hume did in his “Of Miracles“?

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle.

To my mind, a person who genuinely “can’t stop drinking” is almost as miraculous as a dead man restored to life.  If you dismiss the latter, you should at least be open to dismissing the former as well.

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