Friday, December 12, 2008

Demoralizing Moralism: The Futility of Fetishized Values

Below is an abridged version of an interesting essay by Jason McQuinn published in Anarchy Magazine (#58) back in 2005. I've reprinted it here, while removing a bunch of text that is specific to the particular community the author was writing for (and Americanizing the spelling). I assume those anarchists don't mind.

My source: Demoralizing Moralism: The Futility of Fetishized Values from Anarchy magazine #58 by Jason McQuinn
N. (pl. -ies) principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. (The New Oxford American Dictionary)

N. the practice of moralizing, esp. showing a tendency to make judgments about others' morality (The New Oxford American Dictionary)


Most anarchists-just like most other people on the planet-remain relatively naive concerning the many problems with theories and practices of compulsory morality and moralism. Positive, uncritical references to various forms of compulsory morality are nearly ubiquitous in both historical and contemporary anarchist writings, despite the occasional influence of Max Stirner's critique of morality amongst the more widely read. Even amongst anarchist writers who have actually taken the effort to read Max Stirner's 1844 master work, The Ego and Its Own (the publishing date was 1845, but it actually appeared in late 1844), his powerful and important critique of morality often remains either misunderstood, unduly ignored or ignorantly rejected. And although most anarchists may understand that moralism is most often a self-defeating practice in radical social movements, it is generally only excessive references to morality that are so understood, rather than uncritical submission to compulsory morality per se.

Every social theory-including those based on philosophy, religion or science-contains judgments of value by necessity. There is no form of knowledge that can be strictly value-free or even value-neutral. Unlike the natural sciences which can more easily-though never completely-evade acknowledgment of the human values expressed within their hypotheses, theories and research programs, the social sciences are unable to hide their multiple commitments to particular forms and particular expressions of human values. As Max Weber (one of the most important of the early scientific social theorists) put it: "There is no absolutely 'objective' scientific analysis of culture or of 'social phenomena' independent of special and 'one-sided' viewpoints to which-expressedly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously-they are selected, analyzed and organized for expository purposes." (see Max Weber's The Methodology of the Social Sciences edited by Edward Schils & Henry Parsons [The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 1949])

Values are even more obviously implicated in radical social theories which are explicitly formulated to aid the pursuit of deeply rooted structural changes in society. But such values can be constituted in two distinctly different manners: (1) as finite, historical expressions of people's individual and social desires, and (2) as being imputed to have some form of fetishized, transcendental-often absolute, ahistorical or objective-existence over and above human individuals and communities. Unfortunately, there is no commonplace, well-understood terminology to easily distinguish these two manners of constituting and speaking of human values. And this alone can lead to misunderstandings.

Problems of terminology

Terminology is a problem with many aspects of social critique wherever overcoming the many facets of social alienation is concerned. For every form of compulsory fetishization, whether religion, ideology, politics, commodity-fetishism and work, or morality, there remains a corresponding form of non-fetishized thinking and activity that is most often uncritically lumped together with it. Thus, the critique of religion often founders on a widespread, irrational insistence that nonfetishized thinking about life and the cosmos actually constitutes a form religion (even when it self-consciously denies such an identity). And that, therefore, since this particular imputed form of religion is not fetishized, then the critique of religion as such (as fetishization of the realm of the spiritual, divine or sacred) is argued to be unfounded. Similarly, those opposed to the critique of ideology tend to consistently (if insincerely) claim to see no difference between fetishized social theory and nonfetishized social theory, calling every form of social theory "ideology" in order to evade the sting of criticism for their own devotion to particular ideological mystifications...


Although most dictionary definitions of morality clearly imply it involves the fetishization of values, this implication is lost on most readers. For example, The New Oxford American Dictionary defines morality as "principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior." Obviously, the "right and wrong or good and bad" qualifiers here are most likely to be taken (unself-consciously) as fetishized, transcendental values, rather than as particular, finite choices with no claims to any reality beyond the unique desires of individual human beings. However, the moment the critique of morality is raised, even in Anarchy magazine, there are always those who pop up with the aim to confuse things (in order to defend their own moralistic commitments) by claiming in one form or another that there is no such thing as a non-moral human value!

Most people, in common with dictionary definitions, would never say that a person expressing her or his own desires with no claim to transcendental status for them is being moral by valuing a particular goal. But the defenders of morality will come out of the woodwork to claim that even the most finite, ephemeral and contingent human desire indicates the existence of a moral system every bit as real as those taught by the various branches of the Catholic Church!

To avoid this intentional confusionism wrought by those afraid of any criticism directed at their own sacred cows, people pursuing critiques of morality usually attempt to make a clear distinction between ethics and morality. In this case, ethics is considered to be concerned with finite, non-fetishized values, while morality is concerned with fetishized, transcendental values: right and wrong or good and bad. Unfortunately, since there is almost no radical and substantial criticism of morality in our popular culture (as opposed to the mountains of superficial and insubstantial, partial criticisms of morality), appeals by moralists to dictionary definitions of "ethics" often derail such attempts. (Most dictionary definitions in an alienated, moralistic society will be unlikely reflect the possibility that a dichotomy between fetishized and nonfetishized values could even exist. For most people consistently nonfetishized values simply aren't considered possible).

Therefore, in this essay, I will try to refer to the critique of "compulsory morality" in order to make it absolutely clear that I'm speaking of a system of fetishized values that demand compliance....I will also refer to "finite ethics" to make it clear that the alternative to compulsory morality involves finite, nonfetishized values.

The anatomy of compulsory morality

Compulsory morality involves self-subjugation to a system or set of values that are, for one reason or another, believed to require mandatory compliance-even if the person believing this is unable to-as the cliché goes-"live up to them." Although compulsory morality can potentially be grounded within an individual's subjective experience, it is almost always instead grounded somewhere outside the realm of directly lived human experience.

For example, religious forms of morality are commonly grounded in such unlikely (nonexistent) places as "the Word of God," or other forms of supposed direct revelation from some sort of unseen, disembodied, (unreal) Spirit. (Of course, this grounding is generally mediated through the supposed gods' appointed representatives on Earth, however irrational the belief in the authenticity of these representatives might be.) In this form of compulsory morality, God is supposed to be the source of moral values that must be followed because the source-whatever it may be-is in some sense considered far more real and important than the unique individual person who cannot be trusted to know what she or he should do without the guidance of a system of fetishized, sacred values. The formal structure of compulsory religious morality is thus: sacred values from an unseen source to be followed by a relatively worthless human being whatever the context.
With a system of values like this, whatever the actual content of the morality, is it any wonder that people attempting to live this form of alienation are constantly mystified about their lives, desires and social relationships?

However, in these modern times, the place of religion has often been supplanted by other things, like Science, or particular social or political ideologies (like Marxism) that demand compulsory adherence.


Science is one example of a source of many forms of modern, enlightened compulsory morality. I have capitalized it above to indicate that it is not the actual practice of experimental exploration of nature in pursuit of knowledge (science) of which I'm speaking, but an ideological construct (Science) of particular fetishized scientific ideas taken out of their finite, experimental contexts and elevated into general, quasi-religious principles. The prestige of the various forms of scientism (ideologies and worship of Science) is based on the practical accomplishments of experimental science in combination with industrial capitalism. Together their power seems to rival that of the old gods for many modern citizens of the civilized world. For those whom religion no longer satisfies, but who do not yet understand the social origins of ideas and values, the various forms of scientism can be very appealing.

They all involve the deduction of value systems from particular, reified scientific (or semi-scientific, or even pseudo-scientific) theories. Notable examples include the (misnamed) social Darwinist ideas whose morality is usually based on some version of the Spencerian "survival of the fittest" ("and Devil take the hindmost"), the ideologists of the fetishized gene whose morality is based on imagining what genes (as if they had minds of their own!) would want "their" bodies to do to promote their reproduction or evolution, and all the various ethnological, zoological, or evolutionary psychological reifications of humanity whose moralities are all based on imagining that our values are determined in one form or another by biology or genetics, etc.

The formal structure of the various scientific moralities is, once again, the same as that for religious morality: sacred values from an unseen source to be followed by a relatively worthless human being whatever the context. Like religious morality, scientific versions of morality attempt to limit and determine what is supposed to be humanly desirable and possible, narrowing the choices that can be made by true believers.

Radical moralism?

In the absence of genuinely lived community (of contestation) and a genuinely revolutionary movement throughout society, many would-be radicals tend to retreat into other activities that substitute for radical, direct action. One of the easiest traps to fall into is the reduction of the radical project into a moralistic project (and, as a corollary, the reduction of subversive, radical discourse into relatively meaningless moralistic discourses). Instead of creating a subversively radical social theory in concert with other rebels and putting it into practice with them with the aim of directly eliminating as many aspects of domination and social alienation as possible, the goal becomes the rigidly Manichaean division of the social world into "good" and "bad" parts (in themselves--outside of any context), with the aim of mechanically suppressing the "bad" wherever and whenever possible, and enlarging the "good."

Instead of a dialectical social theory aimed at increasingly sophisticated understanding in conjunction with an increasingly sophisticated, subversive practice, moralistic ideologies are aimed at simplistic dividing and labeling with little or no regard for context or the totality! For environmental moralists, for example, recycling and wilderness are always good, while SUVs and new housing developments are always bad. Context doesn't matter, resulting in mechanistic strategies aimed at, for example, simply discouraging SUV use (whether by firebombing new SUVs or working for legislation that makes them more expensive), or discouraging the construction of new housing (whether by arson or attempting to organize political pressure on developers). Rather than encouraging the spread of the (practical and theoretical) critique of capital and state as parts of a worldwide system of social alienation and domination, moralism tends to result in always seeing the entire social world in a series of single-issue blinders.


Examples could also be given for other forms of would-be radical moralism like pacifism, many forms of leftism including most Marxist ideologies, and various other single-issue campaigns.

One of the most striking aspects of moralistic practice involves the generally futile attempts to communicate across the finite ethics/compulsory morality divide. Even when those who have no belief in any fetishized value-systems make quite clear that their criticisms and commentary develop from their own practical experiences within particular social contexts and historical situations, their words are almost automatically interpreted instead through a moralistic framework that assumes these criticisms and commentary must be based on some undeclared, but still-transcendent system of values!

The effects of morality

Whatever the specific content of compulsory morality, the effects are basically similar. A person's ability to think clearly and act decisively in his or her own interests (within appropriate contexts) is compromised or sabotaged. If people are not able to consciously act in their own individual and communal interests, they will almost certainly end up acting instead in the (alien) interests of another in some fashion.

In most forms of compulsory morality this other around whose interests values are oriented is an abstract idea rather than a person or persons: God, Science, Nature, one's Country (or Nation-State), the Economy or Ecology, etc. (Although there are always real people, social groups and organizations just waiting to exploit the victims of morality by acting as mediators between them and their abstract ideals.) Even in those cases in which values are explicitly oriented towards people or groups of people (for example, the class-struggle morality that puts the Working Class at the center of value), these values usually remain oriented much more towards the abstract idea of the person or the group than towards any actual, concrete, living persons: the fetishized idea of the Proletariat or the Party (rather than actual living and breathing workers or the individual members who make up the party), Humanity (in the abstract rather than in the form of an aggregate of concrete individuals in all their interrelationships), the State, etc.

People whose compulsory moralities are organized around these abstract ideas attempt to force themselves to follow their demands because they have displaced (projected or alienated) their own subjectivity onto them, usually through the influence of years and years of alienating and
demoralizing socialization and indoctrination. Rather than understanding and acting for themselves the victims of morality attempt to make themselves the puppets of the abstract ideas they fetishize.

Living without morality

The radical alternative to morality involves the creation of critical self-theory. The formation of any coherent and effective anarchist perspective and practice requires that people develop (through interaction with their natural and social environments) a relatively sophisticated understanding of themselves and their places in their social and natural worlds. Without a consciously understood subjective locus of understanding, without a clear focus on one's own personal and social interests, it is impossible to develop a critical social theory that can comprehend social alienation and the possibilities for its supersession. Critical self-theory and critical social theory are two essential poles of one comprehensive project.

Only by developing and maintaining a self-critical understanding of oneself and one's world can people make comprehensively rational decisions about what their most genuine interests are and how to pursue them (rather than making narrowly or partially rationalized decisions which won't accurately reflect themselves or their overall context). In the 19th century language of Max Stirner, this kind of critical self-understanding was termed "self conscious egoism," but today it makes more sense to jettison this outdated, pre-Freudian term in favor of "self-theory."

Critical self-understanding involves the simultaneous development of a finite ethics, a set of values consistent with what are considered and felt to be one's most important interests, that are expressed in everyday life activities. These values are organic expressions of one's radical subjectivity, of one's self-possession, self-understanding and self-activity. They don't originate outside of one's life, demanding one's subjection, because they originate from one's own direct life-experiences and serve one's own interests.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The "War on Terror" and the "Reign of Terror"

A stray comment at Swords Crossed has driven me to read up on the French Reign of Terror. Upon reading quotes by Maximilien Robespierre, I recalled a conversation from earlier today with an Indian friend regarding the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. He asserted that the Indian government had made a mistake in repealing some laws relating to terrorism (apparently,the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act of 1987, which allows prolonged detention without trial and expired in 1995 following accusations that it was being abused; alternatively he may have been referring to the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance passed in 2001, updated in 2002, and repealed in 2004 after assertions of abuse).

Anyway, his basic attitude was "terrorists don't deserve procedural rights"--of course, assuming that the government is rigorous and honest in its identification of "terrorists". I've seen this same attitude in Americans who say that they wouldn't care if the government methodically tapped our phones to gather information about terrorism. Today, I saw the same basic attitude reflected in quotes from Robespierre, the architect of la Terreur. For instance:

The revolutionary government has to summon extraordinary activity to its aid precisely because it is at war. It is subjected to less binding and less uniform regulations, because the circumstances in which it finds itself are tempestuous and shifting, above all because it is compelled to deploy, swiftly and incessantly, new resources to meet new and pressing dangers.

The principle concern  of constitutional government is civil liberty; that of revolutionary government, public liberty. Under a constitutional government little more is required than to protect the individual against abuses by the state, whereas revolutionary government is obliged to defend the state itself against the factions that assail it from every quarter.

To good citizens revolutionary government owes the full protection of the state; to the enemies of the people it owes only death.

These ideas are in themselves sufficient to explain the origin and the nature of the laws that we term revolutionary. Those who call them arbitrary or tyrannical are foolish or perverse sophists who seek to reconcile white with black and black with white: they prescribe the same system for peace and war, for health and sickness; or rather their only object is to resurrect tyranny and destroy the fatherland.

 On Revolutionary Government (1793) in The Human Rights Reader

He goes on with the accusations of treason, and concludes by  calling for the reorganization of a special court, the Revolutionary Tribunal. Replace "revolutionary government" with "wartime government" and I wouldn't be able to distinguish this terrorist's rhetoric from George W. Bush's -- though in modern America there is no such thing as peace (In the 63 years since the end of WWII, we've had only 11 years in which we were not involved in either the Cold War or the War on Terror--and during all but two of those years we were at war with Iraq.)

From Wikiquote:

Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most urgent needs. 


We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people's enemies by terror. 

I like to think that Americans are less susceptible to these rationalizations of power than the 18th-century French were, but given how far we've gone when faced with a threat that is totally insignificant relative to what they faced (or even what the US faced at that time), I may lose some of that faith.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

McCain's ACORN conspiracy theory

McCain: We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama's relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.
McCain made this serious accusation during the third presidential debate. It has also been propagated by television advertisements, and extensive editorializing by Obama's opponents. However, if we look into the specific accusations against ACORN (let alone the actual evidence), they do not add up into the grand conspiracy theory that McCain is promoting.

Others have addressed the vapidness of trying to link Obama to ACORN's alleged grand conspiracy, and also some of the facts behind the allegations. I'm going to limit myself to a critique of how the grand-conspiracy claim cannot be built up from the specific allegations, and how the alleged voter-registration fraud would not be a reasonable act of someone involved in this grand conspiracy.

Before I get into the details, I want to point out that the ACORN conspiracy theory (or scapegoating, perhaps) is even broader than these baseless accusations of voter fraud. McCain is even trying to blame ACORN for the fact that Wall-Street bankers failed to manage their risk properly (see the TV commercial)--as if this relatively tiny organization could pressure the banking industry into destroying its own foundations at a time that it was raking in hundreds of billions of dollars in profits each year (FWIW, Greenspan places much/most of the blame on investor demand for mortgage backed securities).

Let's look at the traits of this grand conspiracy theory being promoted by McCain and his campaign:
  1. It is national: McCain implies this during his debate tirade, by focusing on a national organization (ACORN) and emphasizing the vast scale of the conspiracy. His TV advertisement explicitly refers to a "nationwide voter fraud".
  2. It relies on ACORN's infrastructure.
  3. It begins with fraudulent voter registration, and will be consummated with actual fraudulent votes being cast in swing states.
Consider how many people must be involved in this. First, there are the people who actually filled out the fraudulent forms, then there are their supervisors (up to the national level), and finally there are the individuals who will actually cast false ballots (with some sort of false identification).

I'm guessing this would involve hundreds of people, and law-enforcement agencies have apparently caught tens of people from that first group (registration fraud)--yet not a single person is alleged to belong to either of the other two groups (national coordination, and vote fraud).

Look at the propaganda I linked to above, and any other source you know of. Please let me know if any person has been charged/accused of participating in national coordination of registration fraud, or any sort of vote fraud.

Aside from the fact that we have no evidence of the most important components of this grand conspiracy, there is also the problem that this conspiracy would be the most asinine, bumbling conspiracy that I've ever heard of. Look at the allegations from the NRO editorial:
  1. First, the foot-soldiers in this conspiracy are "lazy crackheads"--as if such people could be relied on to keep their mouths shut about a conspiracy.
  2. ACORN illegally employed felons on work-release--no allegation that they were involved in any fraud, or that they would be reliable participants in a conspiracy.
  3. They registered "the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys" and Mickey Mouse -- as if using celebrity names wouldn't obviously attract attention to their activities.
  4. "21 separate voter-registration applications were filed for a single voter in Miami"-- again, a pretty obvious red-flag.
  5. "attempted to register untold numbers of dead, underage, imprisoned, imaginary, or otherwise ineligible voters ...apparently pulled out of the phone book at random" -- this might actually be useful for voter fraud, but there'd be a major risk of getting caught when you actually try to impersonate someone who has already voted (or who should be in jail!).
  6. "registrations...filed from nonexistent addresses"--another red flag; and how would the importers get their voter-registration cards?
  7. "forged signatures"-- bad, but no indication of intention to commit registration fraud.
  8. "In July of 2007, five ACORN activists pleaded guilty to fraud in Washington State for submitting nearly 2,000 phony voter applications"--and yet they did not provide any evidence of a conspiracy to commit electoral fraud.
I'm thinking about this from the perspective of how this conspiracy would play out in Pennsylvania. We have pretty lax ID laws, but we are pretty stringent on absentee ballots. If I were to submit a fraudulent registration, I would not know of its success until I received my voter registration card at home. Furthermore, to vote absentee, I would need to have the ballot mailed to my home. This makes it worthless for me to register at other people's addresses, and it would be pretty obvious if a large number of "voters" registered from my house.

Finally, why would an electoral-fraud conspiracy submit it's fraudulent applications in a big package (i.e. the ACORN submissions). Knowing that many of their fraudulent registrations would get caught, they would want to avoid any indication that their registrations were connected to each other. The obvious way for them to submit their application would be as if they were regular individuals just registering to vote as a regular order of business--not part of a transparently fraudulent voter registration drive.

The only reasonable strategy I can think of for voter-side electoral fraud would be to register a large, ineligible population with a strong preference for one party or another -- yet I haven't heard any allegations of the type.

So overall, there is no basis for McCain's claims about a grand conspiracy within ACORN, and it really only takes a little common sense to see through his BS.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Why is our government creating cartels?

In today's commentary on Marketplace, Robert Reich articulated some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head since the government started bailing out financial firms: Maybe 'too big to fail' is just 'too big':

We seem to have forgotten that the original purpose of antitrust law was also to prevent companies from becoming too powerful. Too powerful in that so many other companies depended on them, so many jobs turned on them and so many consumers or investors or depositors needed them, that the economy as a whole would be endangered if they failed. Too powerful in that they could wield inordinate political influence of a sort that might gain them extra favors from Washington.

Maybe the biggest irony today is that Washington policymakers who are funneling taxpayer dollars to these too-big-to-fail companies are simultaneously pushing them to consolidate into even bigger companies.
These companies aren't quite monopolies, but the fact that they are "too big to fail" seems to imply that they are involved in a form of market manipulation, whether intentional or not.

The prospect of corporate mergers leads me to ask "what is a corporation": it is a legally binding agreement among producers to regulate the production, pricing, and marketing of a good. This is the definition of a cartel, except that a corporation is treated as a single legal entity rather than a collection of entities. The fact that the maintenance of the corporation is legally enforced (shareholders cannot withdraw their capital) is important, because cartels are unstable in the absence of legal enforcement.

The very existence of a corporation (a creation of the state) implies the need for rules regulating how large a corporation can be. We've become very lax in this regard, and I think we're getting screwed for it.

Books: The Black Swan; The Impact of the Highly Improbable

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an engaging book about an important topic. However, if a reader who is familiar with the topic(s) will not find any new ideas.

This book is about risk management; specifically, how to deal with the risks arising from unpredictable events. To examine this issue, Taleb crafts a narrative that surveys a number of intellectual fields, including probability theory, complexity theory, epistemology (empiricism and philosophy of science), cognitive psychology, and social psychology. For a systematic summary, see Wikipedia.

The most striking thing about this book was Taleb's prescience with regard to the recent financial crisis. This book was published in April 2007, but Taleb (who made his "f*** you money" during the stock market crash of 1987) asserted that modern financial risk-assessment is total bullshit, and that when some unpredictable disruption occurs, the structure of the financial system will cause cataclysmic failure. Oh boy, was he right!

This book is supposed to be practical, so it's worth mentioning the advice provided. It can basically be summed up with two points:
  1. Know the limits of prediction (specifically, that some very important phenomena are fundamentally unpredictable). Don't fool yourself into thinking that you what the probabilities of events are (as if you were playing a game with well-defined rules)
  2. When you make predictions for unpredictable phenomena, ask yourself what are the consequences of being wrong. Don't estimate probabilities of being wrong--just avoid situations where being wrong will be fatal.
This book also has a few messages for how we think about social issues. One is that many "experts" are frauds, in that they pretend to be able to predict phenomena that are fundamentally unpredictable. The other is the randomness plays a major role in personal success, especially when we are looking at people who are extremely successful.

Taleb also warns us about putting much faith in predictions about what the world will be like in a few decades. He specifically dismissed predictions that the American Social Security system will be bankrupt in 40 years, implying that the funding of SS in 2048 is a concern for the people living in 2048, not for those of us living in 2008. By extension, we may also downplay predictions of radical climate change over the next few decades. However, both types of predictions do have value in that they provide us with a sense of the range of possible scenarios that we should be prepared for. [added after initial publication]

One more merit for this book is that it provides a good description of the life a scientist, including the methodological, psychological, and social aspects. I recommend this book for anyone interested in pursuing a career in science.

The main drawback of this book is that the author comes off as being quite arrogant. He is dismissive of many scientists, claiming that they make unjustifiable assumptions about the probability distribution of events. He even claimed that psychologists were "lucky" that they frequently used binary (Yes/No) measurements for which probability distributions ARE predictable. In fact, this is no accident. A careful scientist will design experiments in a way that the data conforms to certain assumptions, thereby allowing hypotheses to be tested. If you look in a book like Handbook of Parametric and Nonparametric Statistical Procedures, you will find extensive discussions about when it is appropriate to use various probability distributions.

Taleb also engaging in a form of name-dropping, describing how his arguments have gotten under the skin of a number of prominent intellectuals. This is the down-side of his narrative style of writing. However, the narrative of his life is what keeps this book interesting even if you are thinking "I know this already".

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Liberty, security, and luxury

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
-Benjamin Franklin
Over the past decade we have been constantly exhorted to trade our liberties for safety--both economic and physical. Sometimes, the liberties in question have been essential. As I tried to illustrate with a tribute to Frederic Douglass, we should not view our liberty as a luxury to be sacrificed in the name of security; indeed, liberty is the basis of our security. We cannot rely on others (e.g. the Feds) to protect us from a dangerous world, if that requires that we relinquish some of our ability to navigate the threats and challenges in the world on our own.

The sad thing is that even as we have been asked to delegate our personal rights to a government that seems determined to avoid oversight, we have undermined our own security with our thoughtless pursuit of luxury (eloquently described by One Drop at Too Sense). Our financial system is freezing up because everyone, from bankers down to homeowners, was blinded by the easy money that fell into their hands so that they refused to consider the risks that they were taking. Now people are failing to make mortgage payments, banks are failing on their obligations, and we are facing the prospect of a depression--mass business closure, mass unemployment, and mass homelessness.

This is not the recipe for security. Without a functioning economy we will not have the ability to fight terrorists, or any other military threat that may arise. Anyway, an economic depression will damage our health and community much more than any terrorist could.

This financial problem didn't come out of the blue--the signs have been there for years, most prominently in our trade deficit and the total absence of personal savings. To see how deep we're in the hole, consider the magnitude of our total debt (government and private)--it stands at 350% of GDP after growing for a few decades from a baseline of 150% of GDP from the 50's thru the 70's.

After the terrorist attacks of September 2001, you might have thought that Americans would get serious and dedicate our immense resources to the task of creating security at home and in the world. Instead, our President told us to shop and let him take care of our security. We dutifully continued with a binge of self-indulgence unparalleled in human history (perhaps comforted by faith in the paradox of thrift). Not only did we fail to reshape the world, but we couldn't even run our own country in a sustainable manner. Now that our credit has been cut off, what are we to do?

We've had a scare, and we may have tough times ahead of us. We can recover, and I believe that we can go on to transform the world for the better if we recognize that there are still plenty of problems in the world (even in America) and that we are not entitled to anything. We need to face our problems head-on.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Narratives of civil conflict

Posted at Swords Crossed

Much of our political discourse refers to narratives of civil conflict, either using them to frame issues (e.g. Lou Dobbs' War on the Middle Class) or accusing others of promoting these narratives of conflict (e.g. class war, racism) rather than narratives of unity. Below is a haphazard analysis of narratives of civil conflict. I'd love to hear your thoughts, as well as any recommended readings on the topic.

People have disputes for a number reasons; often disputes are tied to specific situations or events, but they can also be viewed as part of a general conflict between two parties. In the later case, the participants in the dispute view the problem as arising from some intrinsic quality of the other participant. These are the situations that I will be discussing as conflicts: their resolution requires a fundamental change in the relationship between the participants, rather than just reaching an agreement about some specific issue that is viewed as being external to the participants.

Civil conflicts exist between groups in a society, and revolve around access to power within that society. Power is often embodied in control of the dominant public institutions of that society (e.g. states, schools, churches, media, businesses, etc). In some societies, such as explicitly multi-ethnic states, the different groups may be relatively equal in power, even as each strives to gain more power. However, in the USA, narratives of conflict seem to be framed in terms of dominant and subordinate groups, so I'll be focusing on conflicts with that structure. The people who control public institutions I'll call "the elite", whereas the rest of society will be "the commoners".

In a stratified society like this, there is a narrative of unity, which is how the elite/commoners are supposed to cooperate harmoniously. Primarily, the narrative of unity requires that the elite acts in the interests of the entire society. The narrative of unity can also require that the elite allow some institutions (e.g. the family) to remain under the jurisdiction of the commoners, that the elite share the culture of the commoners, that the elite have respect for the commoners, and that membership in the elite is based on personal merit. A narrative of conflict describes how the narrative of unity fails.

The simplest narrative of civil conflict proposes that conflict arises directly from the nature of the dominant institutions in society and the separation of the society into the elite and the commoners. This class conflict narrative suggests that the elite form a coherent group, where control of major institutions is mixed or exchangeable, and status is inherited--resulting in a distinct social and cultural group that runs society with the primary interest of assuring its own status. This narrative isn't particularly common in America, and political opponents are often attacked by suggesting that they are promoting this narrative.

A more traditional narrative in America is that of ethnic conflict. The most extreme case involves the legacy of racism in America. For much of American history, the dominant institutions defined a "black" race that was explicitly excluded from power and exploited. many members of the resulting ethnic group distrust the dominant institutions in America and has been the source of "black resentment" and "black separatist" movements. From this perspective, affirmative action programs seem to be an attempt to create a narrative of unity between African-Americans (blacks) and the dominant (white) institutions of America, not an attempt to provide individualistic opportunities.

I was inspired to write this as part of an effort to understand another narrative of conflict, which seems to on the rise in recent years. It seems to be embodied in terms like "angry white men", and preached by talk radio hosts and the Fox News network. It is particularly complicated because it blurs the distinction between the elite and commoners, yet still plays on those concepts. It often attacks the elite on the basis that they hate the institutions that they control. Even as the narrators revel in their outsider/commoner status, they celebrate the power of their institutions and culture. There seem to be several aspects to this narrative.

One part seems to be nationalistic, with the idea that the national elite has abandoned its national base in favor of building an internationalist/post-nationalist community. When the nation in question is powerful and prosperous (like white America), this gets confusing because almost all members are relatively privileged, yet many members see themselves being passed over by individuals from groups that had previously been subordinate (as with Affirmative Action).

Aside from this "betrayal of nationality" narrative, this conservative movement also builds on a narrative of "creeping socialism"--or the expansion of public (elite) institutions into private realms, such as child-rearing, that have traditionally been the jurisdiction of the commoners.

This conservative narrative of conflict also seems to include complaints about the shifting balance of power among public institutions, for example, the expanding influence of schools and decreasing influence of churches.

Finally, I've noticed that conservative pundits like to attack professionals (e.g the media and academics) as "the elite" even as they celebrate the political and economic elite. I find this particularly strange since the professional elite is much more meritocratic than the political/economic elite. Furthermore, the professional elite have very little power over the lives of commoners, yet the political/economic elite can turn their lives upside down on a whim.

So, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue, particularly any thoughts on how conservatives can favor expansion of police powers and the freedom of corporations even as they rant about "the elite".

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Proportional Punishment

I, for one, was heartened by the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the limit that states may only apply the death penalty in response to crimes that result in death. As an Obama supporter, I am disappointed that Obama disagrees:

"I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime," he said, adding that if a state determines the death penalty should apply in such cases, they should be allowed to impose it.

Apparently, his disagreement arises from the view that killing is a form of self-expression:

he supports capital punishment in cases "so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment."

In contrast, I think that the act of destroying a life should be taken a little more seriously (or perhaps, I think that temper tantrums should be taken less seriously). When I remember Newt Gingrich's call to make drug dealing a capital offense, or the attempt of the Illinois legislature to make gang activity a capital crime, I'm glad that there is a Constitutional prohibition on expanding the use of the death penalty.

Virginia Sloan of the Constitution Project says it well:

That the rape of a child is a horrific crime that deserves a firm and swift punishment is not in doubt. But expanding the list of crimes eligible for the death penalty to include non-homicide crimes would have undermined the long-standing principle of civilized societies that reserves the ultimate penalty for those who commit the most heinous murders. Anything less than categorical exclusion of non-homicide crimes would have provided too great an opportunity for the unconstitutionally overbroad, random, arbitrary, and capricious application of the death penalty.

We are not the property of the state (or "the community"), and there must be a limit on what methods the government can use to coerce us for its ends.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Live Free or Die: a tribute to Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass' autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, is one of the best books that I've read and deserves to be read once, if not repeatedly. It provides a well-written perspective on how slavery impacted Americans, and displays the perspective of one of America's heroes. Furthermore the Narrative itself is of historical interest because of the role it played in the abolitionist movement.

While pondering Douglass' words, I realized that this book illustrates two sides of the revolutionary-era maxim "Live Free or Die".

First, we often associate the phrase Live Free or Die with the macho boasts of Revolutionary war heroes. The New Hampshire state motto originates with a toast written by General George Stark:

Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.

This sentiment mirrors the more famous quote of Patrick Henry:

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

When Frederick Douglass was in bondage, he probably was unaware of these quotes, but when Douglass later described his travails, he also expressed this sentiment in his own words. While his demands were more modest, his depiction was much more concrete:

My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

Douglass also provided a visceral depiction of why a person would be driven to such extremes:

I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed.

He is not merely stating that he is willing to risk death to gain freedom, but that slavery is no better than death, and is only made bearable by the prospect of future freedom. With that mindset, but with almost no social support, Douglass went about creating the conditions that would allow him to escape.

The second interpretation of "Live Free or Die" is not a macho boast, or a judgment of risks vs. reward, but a simple fact of life: the slave has no security. This is the fundamental basis of slavery, and a key point that may drive a slave to despair. Douglass also provided a good illustration of this notion, as he was made to fear for his life more than once. He also witnessed how whites could kill a slave on a whim and summarized the situation thusly:

It was a common saying, even among little white boys, that it was worth a half-cent to kill a [slave] and a half-cent to bury one.

That's all that I can say about Frederick Douglass today, but I hope it provides you with the motivation to read (or re-read) his book. I assure you that it is short and well-written. You can probably get it for $6 at your local books store (B&N reprints many historical works like this). You can also read it online.

As long as we're on this subject, let's not forget that the battle against slavery has not ended: 10 Shocking Facts About Global Slavery in 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008

CA district court shuts down Wikileaks

A district court in California has ordered to be shut down, at the request of the Cayman Island's Bank Julius Baer, apparently because Wikileaks published internal company documents related to money laundering.

I'm not happy. I'll be watching this.

Hat Tip to OpenLeft and the Draft Lessig movement.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

My left-libertarian pedigree

Via the Freedom Democrats blog (and Brad Spangler), I have been tagged with the "left libertarian pedigree meme":
“What motivated you to start looking into Anarchist/Libertarian thought?”
Well, it all started as I was approaching adulthood and deciding what to do with my life. I had developed the general attitude that life is easy and that I could make a great life for myself if others would only get out of my way. I felt that others were constraining me both with their lifestyle laws, and by demanding tribute for access to natural resources. At this point, my vision of "the good life" was most influenced by Thoreau's Walden and Huxley's Island*.

Based on these attitudes, my political outlook developed into a very ideological form of geolibertarianism, though I had never heard of "geolibertarianism", nor had I read core works such as Agrarian Justice or anything from Henry George, or even heard of "wage slavery". At university, I discussed these ideas with friends and received two responses that helped define my political path:
  1. A friend involved with the local LP told me that my ideas sounded like Dan Sullivan's.
  2. Another (non-libertarian) friend called me an anarchist.
Following these exchanges, I started to study anarchism and geolibertarianism. I rejected anarchism at the time, and turned my attention to geolibertarianism in the Libertarian Party. I helped out with Harold Kyriazi's campaign for state senate, in which we were trounced.

That electoral defeat marked the beginning of the end of my activities with the LP and serious electoral activism. I developed a renewed interest in electoral reform, with a special focus on proportional representation and strategic voting. This interest had originally been seeded in high school by Lani Guinier's The Tyranny of the Majority. This shift in attention marked a more general shift from an ideological (top-down, wholistic, megalomaniacal) view of politics to a more organic (bottom-up, individualistic, practical) view of politics, in which I focused on the nature of power in society.

This realignment of viewpoint coincided well with my increased involvement with the Unitarian Universalist movement. Their emphasis on freedom of conscience always attracted me, but now I was also attracted by their grass-roots organizing and their "peer-to-peer" approach to solving social problems. I was excited when I found out that the UU movement had a history of involvement with Henry George's movement, but I was turned off when the congregation would take positions that called for increased state activism in society.

My most recent political transformation occurred in 2002-2003. I was in the San Francisco Bay area while Bush was pushing for war with Iraq. I checked out one of the early anti-war rallies (Oct 2002, I think), but was turned off by the Marxist/Leninist organizers. The rallies grew and became more mainstream over the next few months. My congregation and many of my peers were involved in these massive protests, but by that time I had concluded that no protest would deter the invasion; the logic of the state had taken over.

During this crisis, a woman addressed my UU congregation. I don't remember much of what she said, but she identified herself as an anarchist. Her witness persuaded me to reconsider anarchism. I rejected the common Democratic idea that Bush's presidency (and the invasion of Iraq) were an avoidable mistake. I knew that the "lesser of evils" problem delivered political power to a self-interested elite and we'd get crappy Presidents on a regular basis. Even more troubling, I saw how the vast majority of Americans felt compelled to march to war without a good justification; some simply decided to give the President "the benefit of the doubt", but even those who strongly rejected the war would never consider withdrawing from the war machine. At this point, I recognized what libertarians meant by "the cult of the state".

Following this, I reconsidered the numerous arguments underlying the ideology of hierarchy (the mother of all ideologies), and realized how weak they were. I realized that the problem of cheaters and fools within society is nothing compared to the problem of a cheaters and fools ruling society, and I realized that we did not have an effective way to prevent cheaters and fools from taking the top spots in our hierarchy.

With this, I became an anarchist. I decided that my (casual) activism would focus on combating the cult of the state. Somehow, I found Kevin Carson's blog, which fed my growing awareness that the state exists specifically to allow the cheaters to rule society. Carson directed me to Benjamin Tucker's work, which has provided the most recent revelatory reading: State Socialism and Anarchy.

So here I am.

*Island presents an interesting vision of "the good life", but it's a poorly written book, probably because it was written specifically to present that vision.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Wikia search engine

It looks like Wikia is launching their search service. Wikia is a spin-off of Wikipedia, and since I like the design of Wikipedia and the attitude of Jimmy Wales, I'm gonna give Wikia a shot.

Right now, it's pretty primitive, so to remind myself to return to it in the future, I've installed its search engine into my web browser (Firefox). Here is the Wikia search engine add-on for Firefox.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


Our economic opinions are often influenced by our perceptions of how our decisions will influence the competitive environment faced by ourselves and others as producers. The nature of the competition that we face not only influences our productivity, but also influences our personal lives and social structures.

I'd like to see greater consideration of the impact of competition on our lives, but that seems to be difficult in the absence of a formal description of the competitive environments that we may face. If you, dear reader, are familiar with any writings on these issues, please point me to where I may find them. Otherwise, please consider the following analysis and provide any feedback that you may have.

I think that our competitive environments can be described by a point along a spectrum, ranging from monopoly, to competition, to hyper-competition. These environments are described in detail below, but I am specifically interested in hyper-competition, since I have never seen a discussion of this environment*, despite it's widespread occurrence in our economy.

Monopoly (including self-sufficiency): The condition where an actor's welfare is not influenced by competition. Economically, this arises when demand is satisfied by a single producer. The simplest example is an individual producing a good for his own use. However, producers can increase demand for (and hence, the value of) their produce by engaging in markets with others. The standard definition of "monopoly" applies to this condition, where a market is supplied by a single producer, who typically sees very large returns on his productive labors.

Competition: The condition where an actor's welfare is primarily determined by his own actions, but the benefit is limited by others seeking to access to the same resource. Economically, this arises in markets where multiple producers are satisfying the cumulative demand of consumers. Consumers are free to choose among the producers, meaning that producers will be unable to sell their produce unless they compete effectively with the other producers. This is the competitive structure that is typically studied in introductory Economics courses, where market prices tend towards the cost of production.

Hyper-competition: A competitive structure where an actor's welfare is solely determined by his performance relative to others. Hyper-competition is characterized by "winner-take-all" dynamics, and epitomized by sports and politics. Economically, this may take many forms, but it may arise from intense competition for access to monopoly benefits. A good example of this is our patent system, where "inventors may work independently for years on the same invention, but one will beat the other to the patent office by an hour or a day and will acquire an exclusive monopoly, while the loser's work will then be totally wasted."**

Many parts of economy seem to share this structure, to a lesser extent. I propose three ways that hyper-competition may arise:
  1. From inflexible demand, such that productive innovations do not expand the market--they only displace other producers.
  2. From formal bottle-necks in market-entry. One example would be an educational system where school admission is very competitive, but once accepted, students are almost guaranteed to succeed.
  3. From informal bottle-necks in market entry, arising from bounded rationality (limited information processing ability). This may arise from a positive-feedback loop where successful exploitation of one opportunity produces a reputation that leads to greatly expanded opportunities.
Along this competitive spectrum, I expect to see a change in how much reward a person receives for each unit of good that he produces. Under monopolistic conditions, the law of diminishing returns dominates, and rewards decrease with each unit of production. In competitive conditions, market prices are independent of one's own produce, so the producer gains a constant reward for each unit produced. In hyper-competitive conditions, the producer's reward per unit increases as total production increases (this increase may be continuous, or involve thresholds).

Overall, hyper-competition might be expected to produce Pareto distributions in human achievement, where success is not directly proportional to skill, but instead increases as a power function of skill. Conversely, the reduction of hyper-competition would put greater emphasis on the "long-tail". It's interesting to note that a progressive income tax may counter-act the influence of hyper-competition on income.

Any thoughts are appreciated.

*A Google search for "hyper-competition" turned up two concepts. Most prominently, a business-school professor has been using the term to describe a gradual erosion of market imperfections, thereby eliminating many semi-monopolistic advantages held by assorted producers; this is not what I'm talking about. My concept is most closely reflected by the writings of some random blogger, who discusses "winner take all" market conditions, specifically with respect to high-tech entrepreneurship.

**This quote is from Ayn Rand's essay on Patents and Copyrights, which I remember as the epitome of what I dislike about Rand. Her rejection of this "objection to patent laws" is quite dismissive, even as it exhibits glaring circular logic.

Have a cynical new year!

Mike Huckabee tells us not to be cynical.
This from a man who is asking us to give him broad powers to kill, imprison, or take money from others, and who will apparently use these powers liberally. Huckabee's quest for power seems to be driven by a faith that humans will only do the right thing when subjected to constant surveillance, bribery, and intimidation--and he tells us not to be cynical.
This from a man exhibiting quite bizarre behavior: first capturing media attention for a day with the promise to unveil an attack ad against Mitt Romeny, then showing the ad to reporters with their cameras rolling before "deciding at the last minute" to cancel the ad. Huckabee manages to effectively smear Romney while claiming to keep his hands clean--and he tells us not to be cynical.
Thankfully, in contrast to disingenuous candidates, we have the Capitol Steps to provide us with a bit of satire and cynicism. Enjoy the 2007 year-end show! (real media format)