Economics, Current Events

Human Capitalism’s Inconvenient Implications

The argument I make in Human Capitalism (see this prior post for a quick summary) raises uncomfortable questions across the ideological spectrum – and the corresponding philosophical spectrum as well. I’ll start by reviewing how my analysis confounds some of the prevailing assumptions of both libertarians and progressives, then I’ll turn to a broader challenge for liberalism, whether classical or high.

Since I’m a libertarian, let me pick on my own side first. I’ll identify a couple of implications of my book that are likely to make my confreres nervous.

Inequality matters. Libertarians typically feel like they’re on the defensive when the subject of inequality comes up, and they tend to react by minimizing its importance. Growth and opportunity are what we should care about, not equal outcomes. Indeed, inequality is a corollary of freedom: people with different abilities and preferences will naturally diverge in terms of socioeconomic achievement.

Of course BHL types, with their explicit commitment to social justice, should have no problem with the proposition that inequality matters – or, more precisely, certain kinds of inequality can matter under certain circumstances. Yes, the very concept of social justice gives most libertarians heartburn – and, I’ll admit, it’s not a turn of phrase that comes trippingly off my tongue. But if you’re any kind of contractarian, and I am, you recognize that a society’s policies and institutions should be judged on how well they work for everybody. So if one group in society is thriving while the rest lack vital opportunities or are failing to take advantage of those that are available, it makes sense to sit up, take notice, and look carefully at whether current policies and institutions need to be altered.

The ability to exercise personal responsibility isn’t something we’re born with. The idea of personal responsibility is central to the libertarian social vision: people should be free to make their own choices, and they should bear the consequences of choices. Yet nobody is born with the capacities necessary for reasoned choice: those capacities develop during childhood – i.e., during a time when no one believes we are fully responsible for our actions. So if the experiences of childhood have a big influence over how well we are able to make choices, and those experiences are totally outside our control, isn’t it a big problem when the conditions under which some people develop are flatly inconsistent with the robust personal responsibility we want to impute to them in adulthood?

This is just another way of saying that childhood doesn’t fit well into libertarians’ rights-based framework. Most libertarians will insist that our rights, properly understood, are all negative, and that positive rights don’t make any sense because they necessarily impinge on other people’s negative rights. But what about children? Unless you bite the bullet and argue that children are basically the personal property of their parents (which some libertarians have done – ugh), you have to concede that children have positive rights to care and nurture. How far do those rights extend? Are the concepts of child abuse and child neglect invariant or do their contents vary with changing social conditions? And what are the proper remedies when parents fail to care properly for their children?

Okay, time to pivot and make life difficult for my progressive friends.

Blaming capitalism for rising class-based inequality amounts to shooting the messengers. Progressives typically see the rise of class-based income inequality as a failure of free markets. Workers aren’t getting their fair share anymore; the wealthy are absconding with too much of the joint social product. But what exactly is the market failure? Labor markets are pretty good approximations of the textbook version of perfect competition: lots of suppliers, lots of customers. How then are the prices being generated by those markets systematically flawed? And what has changed in labor markets during recent decades to make them less competitive and less efficient? Please don’t say that inequality of bargaining power (now no longer compensated for to the same degree as in the past by powerful private-sector labor unions) is a market failure. Individual, non-unionized managers and professionals are able to strike sweet deals with huge corporations every day. Lack of collective bargaining is not a market failure.

Indeed, capitalism is currently operating exactly as we want it to. The world is getting more complicated, and the market is therefore signaling to everyone that more cognitive skills are needed. Because the supply of human capital isn’t keeping up with demand, the market is upping the returns to human capital and thereby encouraging people to develop their capacities and hone their skills by providing them with a strong economic incentive to do so. Contrast this reality with the old Marxist vision in which capitalism’s vitality depended on a huge, unskilled, and ever-more-miserably-oppressed proletariat.

The unequal incomes now being awarded in the marketplace are not the problem. Rather, they are signals of the underlying problem. In other words, the problem isn’t that workers are being underpaid; the problem is that workers’ labor is worth so little to others. By criticizing the market signals of wages as somehow unfair, progressives are just shooting the messengers and diverting attention away from the real problem.

Cultural explanations of socioeconomic underachievement do not constitute “blaming the victim.” When I argue that working-class family structure and parenting styles are important factors behind the human capital slowdown and rising inequality, many progressives will instinctively recoil. And I understand why: it’s easy to phrase that argument in a way that sounds like I’m saying that workers’ disappointments in the marketplace are their own fault. But honest, I’m not!

The way I see it, the distinctive working-class culture evolved as a perfectly appropriate adaptation to economic realities. If the economy requires large numbers of people to engage in low-skill work, why would communities of those people develop a culture that stresses the acquisition of skills they will never be called on to use? And if economic realities have since shifted, that’s nobody’s fault. You absorb your culture in large part from the family and community you were born into, and nobody gets to pick those.

Let me conclude by noting the tension between my policy prescriptions and the ideal of liberal neutrality prized by classical and high liberals alike. Liberalism is not supposed to privilege one “thick” conception of the good life at the expense of others; rather, it is supposed to provide a neutral framework in which rival visions of the good life can coexist peacefully. Yet in my book I talk explicitly about using policy to change culture – in particular, to promote a culture more favorable to human capital development. Aren’t I taking sides? Does that mean I’m being illiberal?

I think I finesse the tension satisfactorily. I do see promise in early childhood intervention, which effectively amounts to greater exposure to elite cognitive culture at the expense of family and community influences. But this is something the families involved would have to choose. And yes, compulsory schooling can be characterized fairly as a kind of forced acculturation. But I advocate greater control by parents over choosing their kids’ schools.

Yet even if I do finesse the tension, I don’t make it go away. In my view liberal neutrality is an ideal that can only be pushed so far; carried to extremes it can end up being self-defeating, as in excessive toleration of intolerance. I don’t see how the state can avoid expressing some cultural preferences. Biology classes in public schools (or even voucher-supported private schools) privilege science over creationism; government-subsidized healthcare privileges medicine over Christian Science. And no, minarchy doesn’t eliminate these conflicts either: national defense chooses against pacifism, and police and courts choose against a culture of feuding.

Since philosophy is emphatically not my comparative advantage, I throw this one out to the experts. If liberal neutrality does have limits, where are they and how do you know them when you see them?

  • DavidCheatham

    But what exactly is the market failure? Labor markets are pretty good approximations of the textbook version of perfect competition: lots of suppliers, lots of customers. How then are the prices being generated by those markets systematically flawed? And what has changed in labor markets during recent decades to make them less competitive and less efficient?

    Erm, isn’t this somewhat obvious? What changed is the ready supply of labor that have a lower standard of living than what used to exist.

    Previously, the people purchasing in the market were people working in the market. Three people bought a VCR and microwave, and one of them helped make the VCR and one of them helped make the microwave, and the last was the guy who fixed the other’s cars. Markets used to be closed systems, where money went in a circle, like a swimming pool.

    By inserting into the _employment_ market people who are not in the _purchasing_ market, i.e., Chinese workers paid 10 cents an hour who own neither microwaves or VCRs, the entire system got seriously fucked up. And people inserted themselves as middlemen and siphoned out huge amounts of money from that, creating inequality, but that’s a symptom, not the problem itself. (It causes other problems, though.)

    Yes, this is still, in theory, a closed system, but it’s a closed system in the same way that punching holes in the side of an above-ground swimming pool is a ‘closed system’. If you extend ‘system’ far enough, everything is a closed system…but people are going to have a hell of a lot of trouble swimming in that pool.

    And the people punching the holes sure took a lot for water for themselves before dumping a teaspoon of water in another pool, so it really doesn’t seem to be a very efficient model for filling other pools, and I refuse to be swayed by any ‘We’re helping the poor in other countries’ bullshit. This is akin to arguing that people should donate to a charity that takes 99% of the money for administrators and gives only 1% to the mission of the charity…if I want to help the poor in China I sure as hell can come up with some better way of doing it than giving the super-rich a dollar and hoping they give 30 cents of it to a Chinese corporation who will, in turn, give 1 cent of it to a poor person.

    • martinbrock

      Increased access of Chinese laborers to the world labor market explains rising inequality within the United States only if Chinese labor competes more with some U.S. laborers more than with others. Can’t Chinese labor compete for Barack Obama’s job or Henry Paulson’s job as well as anyone else’s job? It can’t, and that’s the problem.

      • DavidCheatham

        It’s not the increased access to cheap labor that has anything to do with inequality. It’s the _middlemen_ reselling it that.

        Let’s say tomorrow an alien spaceship crashes with a food duplicator. It can instantly duplicate whatever food is placed in it, at almost no cost. (For the purpose of this example it is limited to food.) One person ends up in control of this duplicator, and sells the food for, oh, 80% of current market value. Extrapolate this ten years, and I think we can all see this guy is a billionaire, or possibly a trillionaire.

        Change ‘one guy’ to ‘the entire ownership class of the USA’, and ‘cheap food’ to ‘cheap labor’, and that’s what happened here. The infinite cheap food, the infinite cheap labor, that is not the problem.(1)

        The problem is the rent-seekers have inserted themselves firmly in the middle, between a large amount of money on one side, and a tiny amount of wages on the other (Because that side has very low standard of living.), and it’s not really a surprise that the rest of the money has ended up in their pockets.

        This has sometimes happened in the past, but in the past there was some connection between ‘How much you paid the workers’ and ‘How much money consumers could spend on stuff you tried to sell them to them’. There was only so much money the rich can take from the swimming pool before the intakes stop being able to pull in water and the pump seizes up. (Aka, the Great Depression.)

        This stopped being true about three decades ago…the consumers were living on borrowed money, and the workers are living in dorms in China and don’t buy the stuff they’re making. Once those ‘buyers’ and ’employees’ became disconnected, the money that _used_ to cycle around between them became free for the taking when moved from one to another.

        And it was, indeed, taken. (And not given back when the ‘borrow money’ trick stopped working in 2008.)

        1) That is not the problem that causes _inequality_, at least. It’s a _different_ problem, but this post is about where the current inequality came from.

        • martinbrock

          If one person, or a small class of people, is entitled to sell labor in China to people in the U.S., then we want to subject this person or small class to more competition rather than limiting competition from common Chinese labor. Right?

          • DavidCheatham

            I at no point laid out any policy prescriptions. I just pointed out an obvious place that inequality had come from.

          • martinbrock

            You didn’t lay out a policy prescription, but you didn’t answer my question either.

          • DavidCheatham

            The answer to what I can only assume is your question: I do not think attempting to overthrow the Chinese government in an attempt to cause them to free their markets is a sane idea. (I like how in libertarian land there’s such a thing as ‘competition’ in China. Which state-owned business will we hire…decisions, decisions…)

            And that’s followed along by the delusional idea that adding _any_ competition can only be better, by definition. Forget safety standards, forget worker rights, forget anything. MORE COMPETITION!!

            No, I DO NOT agree we should subject people working in China to ‘more competition’, where ‘more competition’ means ‘Finding yet another third-world country for corporations to buy’.

            If you actually want a policy prescription from me, I think we should subject companies that wish to sell things in America to American laws and rules. (Including some sort of equivalent minimum wage based on a reasonable standard of living.) And I think we need to, while recognizing that protectionism is a dangerous thing to base an economy on, that sometimes the government should step in and attempt to protect American industry from _unfair_ competition from other countries, while making sure that we all understand that such protection will always be temporary and is not intended to protect _crappy_ American companies, or even protect industries that other countries have natural advantages at. (For example, car companies. Bailing them out was correct, but now they need to stand on their own two feet and actually make cars Americans want to buy.) I would ideally like to see some sort of non-partisan agency exist to make short-term (by law) decisions on this sort of thing based on empirical evidence.

            Of course, I am not a libertarian, and don’t really feel like defending that idea against libertarians, who have completely different views of the entire point of _having_ an economy and how it should work. And that’s complete off topic for this post anyway.

            I was just explaining where a lot of income inequality had come from: Because the Thousand-People-Who-Own-Everything(TM) had found an (almost) free labor source, and were sucking out money as it went by. I kinda thought that was obvious, and I thought that people here would disagree by pointing at _other_ causes of income inequality, and saying they were worse. But I’m rather confused by people being confused by my explanation. If you give part of society access to near-infinite, almost-free resource, uh, yeah, they’ll start making money hand-over-first. Duh.

          • martinbrock

            I was more interested in trade restraints, of the sort you discuss, than in military conquest. I am a libertarian, so I oppose these restraints as well as bailing out GM and the rest, but we possibly disagree on the point of an economy less than you imagine.

            I also favor unrestricted immigration from China (and everywhere else), so Chinese laborers may come here and work. This approach addresses your concern about disparate labor laws.

            Unfair competition from China (and from the United States) doesn’t benefit Chinese workers as much as it encourages malinvestment by distorting signals of comparative advantage. American workers should resist interference in their trade with Chinese workers rather than encouraging politicians here to interfere further. Politicians will interfere in their interests, not in your interests.

          • DavidCheatham

            I was more interested in trade restraints, of the sort you discuss, than in military conquest. I am a libertarian, so I oppose these restraints as well as bailing out GM and the rest, but we possibly disagree on the point of an economy less than you imagine.

            I think that that _temporary_ distortions of the economy should be granted to some sort of non-partisan agency with a specific budget that can help industries that have started to flounder (With preference for the industries that are doing bad through no fault of their own, such as natural disasters or unfair international competition.) for limited periods of time, preferable via loans and whatnot that we can recover, all of the help limited by time. (If you can’t get better in five years, well, too bad, you fail.)

            That is something that I know sounds bad to libertarian ears, but I think it’s a hell of a lot better than the system we have now, where random industries get a bajillion different random tax breaks based on complete nonsense, hidden all over the place. Let’s have one place, with a budget of $100 billion, with public knowledge of what it’s doing, restricted by law of the length of time it helps different industries. (And, as an added bonus, libertarians can then attempt to reduce the budget of it.)

            I also favor unrestricted immigration from China (and everywhere else), so Chinese laborers may come here to work. This approach addresses your concern about disparate labor laws. Expecting this immigration to harm American labor is like expecting my three children, soon to enter the work force, to harm American labor.

            I’m all in favor of unrestricted immigration. I’m not in favor of any sort of protectionism of Americans there, and I disagree with any sort of immigration that is not a path to citizenship and especially any that requires the goodwill of your employer.

            But I don’t see how that does anything about labor laws in other countries, unless the entire population of China is expected to move here.

            Free trade is only free between equals. I have no problem with Canadian or German or Japanese companies competing with us.

            But I have a problem with government-owned Chinese companies that can constantly underbid everything simply because they have the support of the Chinese government and can keep workers in conditions we would not allow in the US.

            A free economy is not a zero sum game. More labor means more employment, not a battle for existing employment.

            More labor only means more employment _when the workers are buying things_. That has only recently started happening in China, and China is big enough that the pool of workers who _do_ demand disposable income can be swapped out with those that do not.

            See, that’s the thing. The problem isn’t cheap workers being added. You can add 20 million cheap workers to the US, no problem.

            The problem is, once those cheap workers have their standard of living raised enough that they start asking for good wages…companies merely switch to the _next_ group of people. We used to go through several Asian countries like that, but now that we’ve hit China, which has like a billion people living via subsistence farming, there is essentially an infinite supply.

            The US cannot wait until all of China is expecting wages more than a five dollars an hour and thus our workers can compete with them. That would literally take decades. And then we’d just end up competing with Somalia or whatever the next developing nation is!

            The problem with employment in the United States currently has more to do with internal, structural problems than with external competition, fair or otherwise.

            I’m not sure what you mean by that. The problem in the US _right now_ is obviously the recession we’re in.

            I was talking about China competition causing the ‘wages remain steady for decades while price inflation still happens’ problem, the long term thing. The current problem is that the economy blew up and, surprise surprise, no one had any savings beside their house, as those savings had slowly been eaten, and their house was now worthless.

            Anyway, if by ‘structural problems’ you mean ‘People are mis-educated’, that is at least partially a myth. If that was true, we would expect to see the unemployment of different industries change differently during this recession, and we didn’t.

            I’ll agree that we’re wasting large amounts of time and money, and creating pointless debt, sending people to college instead of trade school. But I don’t actually think fixing that will do anything much about employment. (I have no objection to fixing it, it’s very idiotic, I just I don’t think it will help here.)

      • Jay_Z

        There’s plenty of competition for Obama’s or Paulson’s job. It’s the people that get to hire one that are so few.

        • martinbrock

          But I learned in Sunday school that everyone gets to hire one of the competitors for Obama’s job! You sound like an apostate.

          If we were freer to associate, either more of these jobs would exist or the compensation would be lower.

    • TracyW

      What are you talking about? The Chinese are ramping up consumption and Chinese wages are soaring. As are exports to China.
      https://www.uschina.org/statistics/tradetable.html

      http://worldfocus.org/blog/2009/04/10/china-rapidly-reduces-poverty-60-percent-decline-in-25-years/4922/

      • DavidCheatham

        You ask me what I’m talking about, and then you say two things that are unrelated to what I was saying. I really don’t understand what your question is.

        I am aware that Chinese wages have gone up, relatively speaking, and I am aware that exports have gone up, relatively speaking. If you wish to make the case that, _at some point in the future_, they will level out with the US, my post already included that premise.

        And I additionally pointed out that this is an incredibly shitty way of reaching that point. Chinese workers functionally get the ‘spillage’ from this setup, the tiny scraps of money left over, which, yes, _is_ helpful because they are so poor, but frankly they’d be better off with American jobs and simply asking all Americans to each mail a random Chinese person one day’s paycheck every year. (I’m not kidding about that. Moving all offshore jobs back to the US, and having Amecians workers simply send the previous-offshore workers a tiny fraction of their pay would increase the median income of American _and_ the median income of the offshore workers. Something is seriously fucked when it actually makes economic sense to pay someone money to _not_ replace you.)

        That is why inequality is _currently_ getting worse, and why it’s gotten worse for the past few decades.(1) If you want to argue what is going to happen in the future, well, I explained why inequality currently _existed_, not what was going to happen in the future. If your idea is that eventually the Chiniese standard of living will become comparable with our own, well, uh, there are a lot of developing nations in the world, so you are functionally saying ‘inequality will stop getting worse for that reason in 200 years’…which is quite possibly true, but rather unimportant to the present day.

        1) I have, of course, somewhat oversimplified this. And I honestly was expecting people to debate me with _other explanations_ for income inequality, not question the rather obvious “They found a dirt-cheap resource instead of ‘buying’ it from Americans and have been using that to make absurd amounts of money”. Of _course_ that causes money to flow in weird ways! I will admit I have no evidence that is the sole or even a major cause of the current inequality…but no one’s suggested anything else.

        • TracyW

          I was responding to your statement that:

          By inserting into the _employment_ market people who are not in the _purchasing_ market, i.e., Chinese workers paid 10 cents an hour who own neither microwaves or VCRs, the entire system got seriously fucked up.

          I responded this to pointing out that the Chinese are in the purchasing market.

          f you wish to make the case that, _at some point in the future_, they will level out with the US, my post already included that premise.

          An interesting claim. Why do you believe that Chinese wages will at some point level out with the USA? Europe’s wages haven’t (with the exception of a few tiny odd countries like Luxembourg, and Norway because it’s a small country with a lot of oil and gas reserves). Chinese government is a dictatorship with a major corruption problem, this is not a country that I’d expect to get ultra rich. I’m open to persuasion on this point, but I would like to hear your arguments as to why you’re so confident that they will.

          frankly they’d be better off with American jobs and simply asking all Americans to each mail a random Chinese person one day’s paycheck every year

          US GDP per capita is $48,442, according to the World Bank. Assuming a 5 day working week, with two weeks holiday a year, one day’s earnings from that is $193. Chinese GDP per capita a year is $5,445. Given these figures, I don’t see how the Chinese would be better off being mailed one American’s paycheck for a day each year. Particularly given that there’s about 300 million Americans and about a billion Chinese, so we’re talking about each individual Chinese person receiving only $64 a year from this scheme.
          (And that’s assuming that everyone in the USA would go along with your scheme, as opposed to donating to some other cause they find more important).

          Something is seriously fucked when it actually makes economic sense to pay someone money to _not_ replace you.)

          Yes, in this case your education. I’m surprised that you never learnt that if you come up with a ridiculous result, it’s a good idea to check your starting facts and your calculations.

          (1) If you want to argue what is going to happen in the future,

          Let’s not run before we can walk. Let’s get our understanding of what’s happening right now sorted out, then we can start arguing about the future.

          • DavidCheatham

            Firstly, what sort of insane way is ‘GDP per capita’ used to figure out average income? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

            Secondly, you completely ignored the entire premise that there would be _more_ American jobs paying better. And ignored the fact I was talking only about _offshore_ jobs. For what I said to even _conceptually_ make sense, you have to move, I dunno, 500,000 jobs back to America, along with the wage raise that would go with that.

            Thirdly, you seem to think we need to give _all_ Chinese money to make them better off. Uh, no, we need to only cover the incomes we just removed…everyone else can keep doing whatever they were doing. We’re not paying to run the entire damn country. Obviously we would not be better off if all of China just stopped working entirely and attempted to live off charity from the US, which wasn’t even close to what I said and makes no sense at all.

            The way it is set up now, every job that is moved to China results in the Chinese people having $3000 more cash on average, the American people having $30,000 _less_ cash on average, and results in the superrich here and and the Chinese government splitting the $27,000 left over.

            (Although, unlike the super-rich, the Chinese government actually spends the money, so I have to give them props for that. Sadly, they either spend it to buy our debts, which isn’t really causing any economic growth, or they use it to continually modernize their country, which causes plenty of economic growth…_in China_.)

            So 500,000 jobs back in the US would result in $1,500,000,000 more in the hands of American workers, and $150,000,000 less in the hands of Chinese workers. That’s, uh, 50 cents per American a year to fix. (So it looks like my off-top-of-my-head math was wrong, and it’s more like sending them an _hour’s_ pay, not a day’s.)

            The reason this works, in case you don’t see it, is that there is _massive_, 90% middle-man costs with doing business with China. If I’m selling water for $1 a cup, and someone in the next town over is selling it for ten cents a cup to a middle-man who’s bringing it to my town and selling it for 90 cents a cup, it makes sense for me to track down the guy selling it for ten cents a cup and pay him fifteen cents per cup he _doesn’t_ sell. (And _he’s_ better off, too.)

            I responded this to pointing out that the Chinese are in the purchasing market.

            Actually, no, depending on what you mean by ‘the Chinese’. The Chinese urban workers are, yes. Rural Chinese, no so much.

            However, Chinese workers have a tenth as much buying power as American workers, due to the fact they have a tenth the salary.

  • martinbrock

    I don’t feel at all on the defensive when the subject of inequality comes up, because inequality is largely a creation of the state. Sure, people are naturally unequal regardless of any state, but this inequality is rarely the subject in discussions of “inequality”. Typically, we’re discussing unequal entitlements, not unequal height or strength or intelligence.

    If a state shoots everyone not successfully completing a maze, then a natural capacity to complete a maze is very valuable, but an unequal capacity to complete a maze is not my problem in this scenario.

    If a state gives gold to everyone kissing the king’s ass, and gives more gold the further up the ass one’s tongue reaches, then a long tongue combined with a willingness to kiss a king’s ass is valuable, but …

    • Stillwater

      If a state shoots everyone not successfully completing a maze, then a
      natural capacity to complete a maze is very valuable, but an unequal
      capacity to complete a maze is not my problem in this scenario.

      If a state gives gold to everyone kissing the king’s ass, and gives
      more gold the further up the ass one’s tongue reaches, then a long
      tongue combined with a willingness to kiss a king’s ass is valuable, but

      There are other ways inequality materializes, yes? Some of them are caused and sustained by cultural norms which become codified. Some are caused and sustained by certain types of business practices. Some are sustained by ruthlessness independently of the state.

      In a pure state of nature, inequality can and in fact will exist (if the presuppositions of the state of nature are accepted). In that state, then, those who have attained power have an incentive to sustain that power, and so a state is born out of whole cloth. But the state didn’t create the inequality.

      And just as a state at that point sustains inequality, the state can both remedy the effects of otherwise persistent inequality as well as change institutional structures which give rise to inequality. That’s the central tension presented in the OP, one which I don’t think you’ve dissolved so much as skip right over.

      • martinbrock

        There are other ways inequality materializes, yes?

        Yes. Some people are more able than others, and some people want less leisure than others, and some people are closer to materializing opportunity than others, and some people control scarce resources more forcefully than others.

        Inequality is certainly natural, but most inequality exists outside of the state of nature. How many billionaire Chimpanzees do you know? The most land-rich man in the U.S. owns over two million acres. He holds more land than two U.S. states. That the state simply sustains this inequality from the state of nature is incredible. How much territory does the strongest lion dominate?

        “Some inequality is natural” does not imply “all inequality is natural.”

        I explicitly state that people are unnaturally unequal, and you obviously skip over this point, but I don’t skip over yours.

        • Stillwater

          How many billionaire chimpanzees do you know?

          By saying this, you’re effectively rejecting the whole “state of nature” model. That’s fine, of course, but I think you need it for your argument to go thru.

          • martinbrock

            I reject the state of nature only for myself. I need a model of the state of nature only to conclude that a single man owns hundreds of square miles of land only outside of the state of nature.

        • DavidCheatham

          Yes. This.

          Something I’m fun of pointing out, when talking to people who insist on no government regulations in the market, is to act completely shocked, accuse them of being anti-corporate, and then ask them how they going to dismantle all corporations, and if they think we can really function without them. It confuses the heck out of them, but, last I checked, corporations exist via government regulations.
          As an outsider looking in at libertarianism, my biggest issue with it is that it often seems completely unaware that the entire system is imaginary.

          It sometimes feels like I’m playing D&D, and some of the players are abusing some rule, and me and some other players are complaining about it to the DM and saying he should make rule about that…and different players say ‘We don’t need rules! We should be entirely unregulated, able to do whatever we want’.

          And I just look around in open-mouthed astonishment. You can’t have a game without rules! It’s reasonable to argue that individual rules are a bad idea, you can argue that the less amount of rules make it easier, but you cannot _play a game we made up_ while taking a philosophical position that _all rules are bad_. Characters do not even _exist_ without rules.

          And, to unanalogy this, corporations do not even exist without rules, land ownership does not even exist without rules, ownership of things not in your possession does not exist without rules.

          All this is a system that we invented. Everything. It is indeed possible to argue that certain configurations will make it better or worse, and certain configurations are more or less complicated, but it not possible to argue that certain configurations are ‘natural’.

          • martinbrock

            Ideally, a corporation is a free association of investors, employees and consumers requiring little regulation outside of the corporation.

            I’m fully aware that libertarianism is utopian. I routinely say so explicitly. Every political philosophy is utopian.

            I don’t want a game without rules. I want a game in which I play with others preferring the same rules that I prefer. If you don’t want to play with me, that’s fine, but I don’t want you and others ganging up on me and my friends to insist, forcibly, that we play by your rules.

            I have no problem at all with corporations per se.

            “We” don’t invent things. “We invented” is the language of a man with a gun to my head insisting that his will is my will.

          • DavidCheatham

            Ideally, a corporation is a free association of investors, employees and consumers requiring little regulation outside of the corporation.

            In other words, _you_ think the six million rules that we’ve invented for corporations WRT limited liability, tax differences, joint property ownership, etc, are fine. However, rule six million and one is completely unnatural and excessive.

            I don’t want a game without rules. I want a game in which I play with others preferring the same rules that I prefer. If you don’t want to play with me, that’s fine, but I don’t want you and others ganging up on me and my friends to insist, forcibly, that we play by your rules. I don’t want to force my rules on you either, except the rule that you may not force your rules on me.

            I swear to God, I _make a post_ about how all of societies rules are things we invented, including property ownership, and corporations and whatnot, and instantly I get a response _to that very post_ about people suddenly trying to ‘force’ rules on poor libertarians, which is why I really can’t take libertarians seriously.

            No shit I want to force rules on people. Because I wish to alter the _gigantic structure_ of rules forced on us, aka, ‘society’.

            All rules are forced on us, and all rules are arbitrary. (Some people claim there are a few natural laws. You don’t make the claim, but for completeness to those who do: Including real property rights and corporate law under ‘natural law’ is not reasonable. Believe in ‘natural law’ gets people 0.1% of the way to justifying laws. You can get to assault and robbery, basically.)

            We don’t invent things. “We invented” is the language of a man with a gun to my head insisting that his will is my will.

            There are only three places that laws, that anything, can come from:

            They can be some sort of pre-existing thing (No one invented the continent of America), in which case, even if you think you’re not, you’re actually claiming natural law. That’s what that means, that laws exist anyway, and we’re just figuring them out.

            Or they can come from someone else. But as the ‘we’ in my sentence refers to ‘people’, you’d need to postulate some sort of non-human intelligence gave us our laws. God, or aliens, or something.

            Or…we made them up, aka, invented them.

            There is nowhere else for laws to have come from. Laws are either natural laws, or alien-given laws, or we invented them.

            I also routinely reject the ridiculous idea that proprietary rights and other artifacts are “natural”. I don’t advocate “natural rights”. I advocate free association.

            First, by ‘free association’ do you mean a) individuals hanging out with each other, b) individuals working together for profit, or c) individuals working together to murder people? (And by advocating do you mean you _want_ them to do that, or just that you want them to have the option to do so?)

            I think you mean ‘People should have the right to do anything as a group that they can individually’.
            Which is a reasonable premise, but that does not then lead to the idea that we should have _laws_ requiring that _everyone else_, including the law, treat that group _as_ an person. That acting via such a group should create immunity to liability. That the group can own property.

            You are essentially attempting to claim the rules of baseball should not be altered because ‘Throwing small things accurately is an innate human skill’. That sentence is true, but you cannot magically get from ‘throwing things’ to the game of baseball. And you cannot magically get from ‘People should be able to freely associate with each other.’ to modern corporate law.

          • martinbrock

            In other words, _you_ think the six million rules that we’ve invented for corporations WRT limited liability, tax differences, joint property ownership, etc, are fine. However, rule six million and one is completely unnatural and excessive.

            You confuse your words with mine here. Again, we haven’t invented six million rules for corporations. A few men with guns invent these rules and then compel the rest of us to follow the rules.

            A subject of a state does not make the laws to which the state subjects him, including laws governing property ownership. If a person makes the laws, he is the state, not the subject. If you don’t take the distinction between a state and its subjects seriously, I think you should. Which end of the gun you’re on seems a very useful distinction to me.

            No shit I want to force rules on people. Because I wish to alter the _gigantic structure_ of rules forced on us, aka, ‘society’.

            At least, you’re honest about it. I don’t want to force rules on people. I want to associate with people who want to follow the same rules that I want to follow.

            All rules are forced on us, and all rules are arbitrary.

            All rules is a lot of rules, so one should be careful when making categorical statements about all rules. Gravity is forced on all of us by none of us, but the rules we’re discussing here are different.

            They can be some sort of pre-existing thing (No one invented the continent of America), in which case, even if you think you’re not, you’re actually claiming natural law. That’s what that means, that laws exist anyway, and we’re just figuring them out.

            A natural law is a law that is not artificial, a law not made by men. Gravity is a natural law. The territoriality lions is also a natural law, and human beings have a similarly natural sense of territory from birth, but this territoriality is not property. On the contrary, “theft” is part of this territoriality every bit as much as “ownership”. A lion may challenge the territorial dominance of another lion and take the territory.

            Or they can come from someone else. But as the ‘we’ in my sentence refers to ‘people’, you’d need to postulate some sort of non-human intelligence gave us our laws. God, or aliens, or something.

            I’d rather not call a law that you force on me “our law”. That’s all. I’d rather say that it’s your law forced on me, to avoid confusion. Possibly, the confusion bothers you less in this scenario.

            Or…we made them up, aka, invented them.

            The laws we’re discussing here are artifacts, but ignoring who produces what seems countproductive. Do we also produce your marriage to your wife? Do I get a turn with her too?

            There is nowhere else for laws to have come from. Laws are either natural laws, or alien-given laws, or we invented them.

            I completely agree with you here, and I even agree to ignore the possibility of alien-given laws.

            First, by ‘free association’ do you mean a) individuals hanging out with each other, b) individuals working together for profit, or c) individuals working together to murder people? (And by advocating do you mean you _want_ them to do that, or just that you want them to have the option to do so?)

            A free association in this sense is a group of people agreeing to follow the same rules. A contract is a free association between two people for example.

            A free association of people could work together to kill people outside of the association. I support a state ruling out this possibility; however, I do not oppose an association of people agreeing to kill one another, like an association in which every member agrees that duels to the death are permitted. I prefer not to join this association myself, but that’s only a personal preference.

            I think you mean ‘People should have the right to do anything as a group that they can individually’.

            I mean that a person within a group may do anything within the group that everyone within the group does not formally rule out. If you and I want to follow different rules, we should be in different groups. That’s all. I don’t need to force rules on you. I only need to disassociate from you.

            That acting via such a group should create immunity to liability. That the group can own property.

            Property is meaningful only within an association. Property is a right to exclude other people from the governance of a resource. The entire Earth is not the property of the last man on Earth. The last man on Earth has no property, not even himself, because he needs no property.

            If a group of people want corporations with limited liability, that’s up to them. If another group of people want corporations with unlimited liability, that’s O.K. with me too, but I personally want corporations with limited liability. Of course, “limited liability” requires specification here, but I suppose I know what you mean by the term.

            You are essentially attempting to claim the rules of baseball should not be altered because ‘Throwing small things accurately is an innate human skill’.

            No. I’m claiming that you and other people may play a game with a ball and bat by any rules you like. I don’t want to tell you and your friends how to play with baseball, and I don’t want you telling me and my friends how to play. If we agree to be friends and to play by the same rules, that’s great, but it’s not necessary.

          • DavidCheatham

            A subject of a state does not make the laws to which the state subjects him, including laws governing property ownership. If a person makes the laws, he is the state, not the subject

            I have no idea what the hell country _you’re_ in, but I am an American, and am not the subject of anyone. I am a citizen, and hence one of the many partial rulers of this country.

            I want to force one rule on all people. I may associate only with people who want to follow the same rules that I want to follow. Other people must not force their rules on members of my association, and members of my association must not force our rules on other people.

            Warning: If you don’t wish to associate with other people, you should avoid your house for the next few hours, as non-association members will be carting everything off that you are not holding in your hands.

            As I said, you seem to have some sort of idea of ‘natural law’ belief you are unaware of it. That somehow it’s _inherently_ wrong for people to move into your house, or take your car when you’re not using it. That such laws exist _magically_.

            Or, alternately, you seem to think that such behavior is fine, or just not something the state should be concerned about. (Aka, you’re an anarchist instead of a libertarian.)

            Property is meaningful only within an association. Property is a right to exclude other people from the governance of a resource.

            And that makes no sense, because to start with, you have to figure out which association _has which property_. Putting you right back at inventing laws.

            You want to change the entire universe into ‘associations’ instead of ‘individuals’, whatever. I have no actual problem with that. But all you’ve done there is change things from ‘Society must make laws for individuals’ to ‘Society must make laws for associations’.

            If a group of people want corporations with limited liability, that’s up to them. If another group of people want corporations with unlimited liability, that’s O.K. with me too, but I personally want corporations with limited liability. Of course, “limited liability” requires specification here, but I suppose I know what you mean by the term.

            Erm, no, actually, I have no idea what you mean, because liability is something that controls _how people interact with others_, and in your universe, it does not appear associations will be interacting with others, except possibly by choice. Hence not only would people in associations have no liability, _associations_ would not have any actual liability.

            You insist the only laws people in associations have to follow are the rules of that association, and thus it baffles me how a trans-association court system would exist. (Who’s making the rules for that?)

            I am finding this a very odd discussion. I’m used to libertarians saying ‘Everyone should be able to create their own rules’, but not with regard to _property ownership_, and I really have absolutely no idea how anyone could think that would work.

          • martinbrock

            I have no idea what the hell country _you’re_ in, but I am an American, and am not the subject of anyone.

            If you want to be subject to a state in which a small committee of a few hundred people chosen in biannual, majoritarian plebiscites exercise practically totalitarian authority over many other people, I think you should be subject to it, but everyone subject to the United States government doesn’t share your preference.

            Warning: If you don’t wish to associate with other people, you should avoid your house for the next few hours, …

            I do wish to associate with my neighbors, and I do. We have a community watch for example, so I worry less about people outside of our neighborhood taking the stuff that we agree to be my stuff.

            I’m not so willing to pay taxes enabling Barack Obama to kill innocent men, women and children with drone strikes. I prefer to associate with my neighbors as I do without associating with the drone strikers. I’d like to have that option. If you want to pay taxes to Obama, that’s up to you, of course, but I’d also like victims of Obama’s drone strikes to know that I disassociate myself from the drone strikers.

            I have no “natural law” belief. I only prefer that you not force rules on me, and I’m willing not to force rules on you either.

            People taking my stuff is no more “inherently wrong” than one lion fighting another lion for territorial dominance. I will resist these people with my own force, just as I would resist a charging lion, and I will join forces with my neighbors in a mutual defense association. A charging lion is not “wrong” in my way of thinking. He’s just a charging lion. I don’t have a “right” not to be charged by a lion. I only have a willingness to defend myself. I can have a right not to be killed by members of an association, if members agree these terms. In other words, associational rights are just like contract rights. A contract is a bilateral agreement. An association is a multilateral agreement accepted by more than two people.

            And that makes no sense, because to start with, you have to figure out which association _has which property_. Putting you right back at inventing laws.

            I claim land, and you claim land. You agree to respect my claim, and I agree to respect your claim. I also agree to assist you in defending your claim, and you agree to assist me in defending my claim. We not have an association, and we have property rights within the association.

            Of course, we invent laws within our association. That’s the whole point of an association.

            An association imposes its laws on people outside of the association only if the outsiders insist on interacting with insiders on terms that insiders do not accept. Again, you clearly understand nation-states in these terms. You understand that crossing the Canadian border subjects you to Canadian law. Right?

            A free association is no different, but free associations are smaller and more numerous than nation-states, because every member consents to the terms of association. This rule by consensus does not imply that members of an association never disagree. It only means that people don’t disagree strongly enough to disassociate.

            Churches are free associations ideally. Sometimes a schism occurs within a church, and one church divides into two, but membership in a church does not imply that every member agrees completely even on matters of theology. It only means that members accept the essential doctrines of the church.

            I don’t want to change the entire universe at all. Society doesn’t make laws. Individuals make laws. Again, a contract is the simplest example.

            A limited liability corporation is a group of investors pooling resources. Each investor owns shares of the corporation. The corporation may borrow against assets of the corporation without subjecting shareholders to liability for the debt beyond the price that each investor pays for his shares. Lenders to the corporation understand this limitation, just as someone lending directly to me understands that you are not liable for the debt.

            If you wish not to associate with a limited liability corporations, you may choose not to lend to it, not to accept employment with it, not to purchase goods it produces and so on.

            Associations do interact with other associations. Intentional communities are not theoretical. Thousands exist, and they do interact. Nation states are associations, if not free associations, and they interact with other nation states.

            Hence not only would people in associations have no liability, _associations_ would not have any actual liability.

            People within an association have the liabilities, vis-a-vis one another, specified by the terms of association, and assocations may interact through an association of associations specifying similar terms.

            A inter-association court applies rules that associations specify in the terms of their interaction (the terms of an association of associations), just as an intra-association court applies the terms of the association to individual members. This sort of interaction is not merely theoretical. Private courts exist. Intentional communities exist. Associations of intentional communities exist.

            I am finding this a very odd discussion. I’m used to libertarians saying ‘Everyone should be able to create their own rules’, but not with regard to _property ownership_, and I really have absolutely no idea how anyone could think that would work.

            Again, intentional communities adopting unconventional property rights exist in reality. Twin Oaks in Virginia is an example. Christian monasteries are also examples, and these monasteries were very influential in the development of western civilization.

            But I’m not suggesting that you join a monastery or any other association with unconventional property rights or that anyone else should. I’m only suggesting that people should be free to do so.

          • DavidCheatham

            Oh, you’re an anarchist. Silly me, assuming you’re a libertarian.

            I don’t bother having discussions with anarchists. There’s no point, I already exist within their framework! The world is, indeed, made up with people with guns telling others what to do.

            Instead, I just continue to wield political power _inside_ my association (called ‘The United Stated of America’), which has decided to respect only _itself_ and other nation-state associations, and not whatever other association anarchists have come up with. (Although it does let members of itself make subservient associations as long as those associations play by the rules the USA sets up.)

            Here’s a hint for anarchists: You are completely and utterly correct about how the world works…and you have failed to notice the actual state of the world and who has all the guns. You seem to think that anarchy is a state that can be gotten to, when, in reality, all the world is all anarchy all the time, and politics is just a system we _put on top of it_. Specifically, we created top-level associations that each claim the entirety of geographic areas, and then put politics in place to control them.

            Someone bringing anarchism to a discussion of politics is like someone bringing the Pauli-exclusion principle to discussion of architecture. You say that matter occupies space and cannot pass through itself?! I had no idea! That’s going to revolutionize home design!

          • martinbrock

            I explicitly describe the minimal state that I advocate, so I cannot be an anarchist.

      • martinbrock

        People are also naturally ruthless, but when we discuss “ruthless business practices”, we typically do not discuss practices independent of the state.

        • Stillwater

          Call it whatever you want. It seems to me you’re playing a game of semantics here, as if that resolves the issue of how inequality arises. Your view amounts to the claim that if there were no state, there would be no “bad” inequality (more or less). When you say that, I take it you mean that (on your view) the state is necessary for a certain type of inequality to manifest and be maintained, and that type is bad while other types of inequality are tolerable, if not good. The conclusion is that eliminating the state (or specific state actions) will eliminate all the bad kinds of inequality. (That’s a pretty fair summary of your view, right?)

          The question the OP asked is this: insofar as inequality has causes and origins other than direct state action, and insofar as that type of inequality is viewed as requiring a remedy, is the libertarian arguing for a “thick” conception of the good – one with moral content and achieved by coercive uses of the state? That’s an interesting question, I think.

          But I don’t think you’ve resolved that question by simply asserting that the only types of inequality that exist find their causal origins in the state. That begs the question, and pretty bluntly I think. It’s an open question – entirely open, since I happen to think this is true! – that some types of inequality are caused by cultural practices that persist independent of the state. If that’s right (and I, as well as Lindsey think it is) then Lindsey’s worry about libertarianism advocating for a “thick” conception of the good cannot be dismissed as easily as you think it can. No matter how you define the terms.

          • martinbrock

            That’s a pretty fair summary of your view, right?

            No. My view amounts to a claim that if there were no state there would be no inequality created by a state. I say nothing about “bad” inequality. I say only that most inequality of the sort we’re discussing is a creation of the state. Maybe the state creates only good inequality. I don’t believe so, but that’s a separate issue.

            Again, we aren’t discussing unequal height or strength or native intelligence. We’re discussing unequal entitlements, including titles to real property, Treasury securities and bank account balances. I’m a libertarian, not a proprietarian, and I don’t pretend to be an anarchist. Property is essential to market organization and is thus a useful artifact, but all forcible propriety is a creation of the state. All of the wealthiest people are close to the center of the state. They’re all in the safety net.

            The OP doesn’t discuss inequality apart from state action. That’s the point. It associates inequality with “capitalism” and “markets” and simply takes the virtue of this inequality for granted. “Capitalism is currently operating exactly as we want it to.”

            Does any libertarian believe that any economy anywhere, “capitalist” or otherwise, currently works exactly as he wants it to? If Lindsey is a libertarian, he’s the first I’ve ever met making this claim. Most libertarians will tell you that the nominally “capitalist” economies have incredibly regulated markets outlawing entrepreneurial opportunity of all sorts.

            I read the article differently. Markets create all of this inequality we don’t like, so we need government to temper markets somehow. All of the “market” inequality we see is just, right, proper and noble, but we need some noblesse oblige to balance the scales, and pumping lots of tax money into academic institutions might be a great way for the market’s nobility to oblige everyone else. I just don’t take that idea seriously at all.

            But I don’t think you’ve resolved that question by simply asserting that the only types of inequality that exist find their causal origins in the state.

            I explicitly deny that the only types of inequality that exist find their causal origins in the state. I deny it repeatedly. I deny it in the post to which you respond. How can you not see that?

            … some types of inequality are caused by cultural practices that persist independent of the state.

            I don’t deny and have never denied that some types of inequality are caused by cultural practices that persist independent of the state. I just don’t believe that Treasury securities and software patents and unlimited FDIC insurance for corporate transaction accounts fall into this category.

            You’re concerned with cultural practices that keep people poor. I’m concerned with statutory practices that keep people rich, because these practices encourage a culture of entitlement. I’m not particularly discussing food stamps here, but I am discussing all sorts of educational entitlements that serve largely to fatten the cats in established academic institutions.

            … libertarianism advocating for a “thick” conception of the good cannot be dismissed as easily as you think it can.

            I have not dismissed a “thick” conception of the good, and cannot dismiss it, because I don’t even know what you mean by it.

          • Stillwater

            Martin, you wrote

            The OP doesn’t discuss inequality apart from state action. That’s the
            point. It associates inequality with “capitalism” and “markets” and
            simply takes the virtue of this inequality for granted.

            In the post, Lindsey write:

            Liberalism is not supposed to privilege one “thick” conception of
            the good life at the expense of others; rather, it is supposed to
            provide a neutral framework in which rival visions of the good life can
            coexist peacefully. Yet in my book I talk explicitly about using policy
            to change culture – in particular, to promote a culture more favorable
            to human capital development.
            Aren’t I taking sides? Does that mean I’m
            being illiberal?

            Yet even if I do finesse the tension, I don’t make it go away. In my
            view liberal neutrality is an ideal that can only be pushed so far;
            carried to extremes it can end up being self-defeating, as in excessive
            toleration of intolerance. I don’t see how the state can avoid
            expressing some cultural preferences
            .

            I think we’re reading the article differently.

          • martinbrock

            I don’t know how we’re reading the article differently, because the statements you emphasize don’t seem to contradict anything I say about the article.

            I haven’t read Lindley’s book, but “using policy” presumably is code for a few people remote from millions of other people compelling the millions to give money to the few so that the few can then “promote culture more favorable to human capital development.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how the few are supposed to spend the money to accomplish this promotion. I suppose that’s tuition for students attending designated academies, research grants and the like.

            A state can’t avoid expressing some cultural preferences, but it can avoid expressing a lot more cultural preferences than Lindley wants it to express.

  • martinbrock

    The unequal incomes now being awarded in the marketplace are not the problem.

    That’s a categorical statement describing every income. How do you know it’s true?

    Is the income of David Petraeus or Barack Obama or Ben Bernanke or Henry Paulson or Elizabeth II or the Prince of Wales awarded in the marketplace?

    Suppose the state taxes everyone to employ ten people to run mazes, and suppose it pays each of these people a billion dollars a year. If everyone may compete for these positions, and if the competition is perfect (the billion dollar maze runners run mazes better than anyone else), are these incomes awarded in the marketplace?

  • I did not expect to see someone who once advocated the Iraq war to be on BHL. Should’ve checked that before I read this.
    Blaming capitalism for rising class-based inequality amounts to shooting the messengers. “Indeed, capitalism is currently operating exactly as we want it to.”

    What about the Federal Reserve?

    Jesus I thought BHL was a little left-leaning, I guess when I closed the Cato page and went here I brought right-libertarianism with me. Not that Brink Lindsey can’t contribute to the discussion. Just a little unpleasantly surprised.

    • martinbrock

      You’re being too literal. “Exactly as we want it to” is a metaphor for “more or less as we want it to”.

    • Brink Lindsey

      Just for the record, I long ago changed my views on foreign policy. See this mea culpa from 5 years ago: http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/1186?in=39:05&out=53:14

  • Sean II

    Cultural explanations of underachievement clearly DO constitute blaming the victim.

    Now it may be that blaming the victim is perfectly okay – as to some extent it must be when talking about patterns of self-destructive behavior. Who else would one blame in such cases? (A psychologist friend once told me “No one ever helps an alcoholic by seriously believing he’s a victim of genetic disease. Once they get in the clinic with a real live patient who’s killing himself, even the determinists end up making appeals to morality and free will.”)

    I suppose it’s better to say in this case that you’re blaming the victim’s parents, and thence blaming the parent’s circumstances.

    But the implication is still there, and still unpleasant as hell. It’s hardly a comfort to say: “Don’t feel bad, Brittany-Ann. Your low level of cognitive functioning is really just a rational response to the fact that your Dad was an interchangeable meat-cog in the machinery of late 20th century widget-making. Good news, though. We believe the cycle can be broken if we simply prevent you from transmitting the blight of your withered brain onto that of your prematurely born, unplanned offspring! Soon little junior will turn his back on Nascar and Kool-Aid, and open his arms to Kayaking and Beaujolais!”

    It’s not progressives who would recoil from that. Come to think of it, that reads like something that would get big laughs for all the wrong reasons from the audience on Bill Maher’s show.

    The idea of giving kids “greater exposure to elite cognitive culture at the expense family and community influences” is offensive to libertarians as such, and I think especially to BHLs.

    What poor people seem to need is more choices. What they already seem to have in too much abundance, is people telling them what to do with the few choices they’ve got.

    Haven’t we – the upper third – screwed things up bad enough for them already?

  • TracyW

    So if the experiences of childhood have a big influence over how well we are able to make choices,

    Leaving aside extreme cases of abuse or deprivation, the experiences of childhood don’t have a big influence on adult outcomes. (And, if you whack an adult on the head hard enough to give them a severe brain injury, then that has a big influence over how well they are able to make choices).

    • Sean II

      That’s a major sticking point for me too. The wet cement theory of early childhood cognitive development intervention is hardly an established fact.

      It’s a further leap, and rather a big one, to apply that theory to the development of moral capacity or free will itself.

  • A post at BHL that I 3/4 agree with! The disagreement coming, predictably, over the issue of labour markets. I won’t argue that here. I also have a quibble with the final section re parenting skills. I agree that we shouldn’t let working-class culture get in the way of early childhood intervention, but nor should we blind ourselves to the fact that the “concerted cultivation” (Annette Lareau’s term) model of middle-class parenting brings significant problems with it, downgrading childhood into a period of intensive preparation for work and the marketplace. Well there’s more to life (and childhood) than that.

  • Simon_Jester

    “I think I finesse the tension satisfactorily. I do see promise in early childhood intervention, which effectively amounts to greater exposure to elite cognitive culture at the expense of family and community influences. But this is something the families involved would have to choose. And yes, compulsory schooling can be characterized fairly as a kind of forced acculturation. But I advocate greater control by parents over choosing their kids’ schools.”Would school choice really help? “Elite cognitive culture” doesn’t mean windsurfing or organic food or whatever stereotype someone slaps on the blue states this week. It means *using your brain* in certain ways. It means taking intellectual pursuits seriously. It means embracing the written word as a mode of communication. It means respecting other people enough to keep your mouth shut and let them finish explaining something. It means being self-controlled enough not to have random violent outbursts whenever someone displeases you or says something you disagree with.

    Without those things you are never going to grow up to succeed in a complicated world- at best you will play second fiddle to the people who’ve got them. At worst you become a marginalized outlaw or pseudo-outlaw.

    That is the shared legacy of “elite cognitive culture.” It has very little to do with the details- “elite cognitive culture” hasn’t really changed much in a hundred years, while cultural fads have changed every decade.

    This cognitive culture is a powerful thing- I like the term. But if we want to spread it and strengthen our civilization with it, I don’t think school choice actually helps much. Not compared to promoting a healthy culture of schooling overall.

    Arguably we used to be better at that- there are a lot of ways to do schooling wrong, and we’ve discovered some new ones over the past few decades. But that’s a whole different topic…

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