Jason Brennan – Bleeding Heart Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com Free Markets and Social Justice Wed, 21 Feb 2018 18:00:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.3 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/cropped-site-icon-BHL-32x32.png Jason Brennan – Bleeding Heart Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com 32 32 22756168 Hooligans at Play: Trump the Worst President? http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2018/02/hooligans-play-trump-worst-president/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2018/02/hooligans-play-trump-worst-president/#comments Wed, 21 Feb 2018 17:13:23 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=12172 Trump is the worst president ever? So say an important subset of political scientists: That was the finding of the 2018 Presidents & Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey, released Monday...

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Trump is the worst president ever?

So say an important subset of political scientists:

That was the finding of the 2018 Presidents & Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey, released Monday by professors Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston and Justin S. Vaughn of Boise State University. The survey results, ranking American presidents from best to worst, were based on responses from 170 current and recent members of the Presidents and Executive Politics section of the American Political Science Association.

I would have hoped political scientists could put aside their current partisan resentment and answer this question somewhat objectively.

Sure, I despise Trump too. But the worst president ever?

Worse than McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, who oversaw the straightforwardly evil US-Phillipine war, which left 200,000 civilians dead? Worse than Hoover, who greatly exacerbated the Great Depression with stupid interventions? Worse than Wilson, who put Americans needlessly into the unjustifiable Great War and then so screwed up post-war negotiations that World War II became close to inevitable? Worse than the long string of presidents who oversaw the extermination, forced relocation, and genocide of Native Americans? Worse than FDR, who put Japanese Americans in concentration camps? Worse than Nixon, who had to resign because of his corruption? Worse than Bill Clinton, whose sanctions of Iraq may have killed around 500,000 Iraqi children? (Note, that this number is controversial. HT: Dan Bier) Worse than Ulysses Grant, whose administration had a cartoonish degree of corruption? Worse than Polk, who unjustly seized massive amounts of land from Mexico?

Now, we don’t know what their criteria are for “greatness”. Great men are often, perhaps usually, bad men. Genghis Khan, Hitler, Mao, and Mehmed V were great men, but also bad men. However, it’s pretty clear the rankings are not simply or primarily about “impact” or “bigness”. If they were, Trump would be middle of the road, not dead last, and many of the other presidents would be ranked differently.

This kind of nonsense makes political science look bad. The message a casual reader might get is that political scientists are just partisan players who apparently believe brown, red, and yellow lives don’t matter.

 

 

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National Sovereignty and Immigration http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2018/02/national-sovereignty-immigration/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2018/02/national-sovereignty-immigration/#comments Wed, 14 Feb 2018 16:59:04 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=12166 Jay: “I advocate open borders.” Lots of people Left and Right: “What, you don’t believe in national sovereignty?” Jay: “Well, no, but even if I did, invoking national sovereignty doesn’t...

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Jay: “I advocate open borders.”
Lots of people Left and Right: “What, you don’t believe in national sovereignty?”
Jay: “Well, no, but even if I did, invoking national sovereignty doesn’t resolve the issue.”

Many people think something like the following argument is sound:
1. States have a right to national sovereignty.
2. National sovereignty includes a right to determine who may pass borders.
3. Therefore, national sovereignty precludes open borders.

In this argument, premise 2 does all the work. Most laypeople will just present premise 1 and immediately jump to the conclusion, 3: “Nations have a right to national sovereignty; therefore, they have a right to close or restrict their borders to immigrants.”

However, the problem with this argument, which proponents rarely notice, is that it doesn’t specify why national sovereignty includes this right to restrict freedom but not others. The restrictionist’s argument can be parodied as follows:

Jay: “I advocate free speech, freedom of lifestyle, sexual freedom, free trade, pharmaceutical freedom, and freedom of conscience.”
Illiberal respondent: “What, you don’t believe in national sovereignty?”
Jay: “Well, again, no, I don’t, but even if I did, invoking national sovereignty doesn’t resolve the issue.”

As this dialogue illustrates, it would seem to be a non-starter, or at least not very illuminating, to argue against other liberal freedoms on the grounds that nations or states enjoy national sovereignty. After all, the liberal could just say, “I believe in national sovereignty, but nations have sovereignty over only a limited range of issues. They do not have legitimacy or authority to eliminate free speech, sexual freedom, and so on. The dispute between you (the illiberal) and me isn’t over whether nations have sovereignty, but over what they have sovereignty. So let’s hear your real argument. Please stop pounding the table.”

The defender of open borders can say the same thing. “Sure, nations have sovereignty, within certain limits set by justice. I presume you agree. So, now let’s move on to the actual dispute, which is over whether people have a right to emigrate/immigrate and to what degree nations may restrict that. Please stop invoking sovereignty as if you were making an independent argument rather than just begging the question.”

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Two Genetic Arguments http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2018/02/two-genetic-arguments/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2018/02/two-genetic-arguments/#comments Wed, 07 Feb 2018 17:22:12 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=12150 Some people think this is a good argument against school vouchers: Vouchers Are Racist 1. Many the people who originally defended school vouchers decades ago did so because they wanted...

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Some people think this is a good argument against school vouchers:

Vouchers Are Racist
1. Many the people who originally defended school vouchers decades ago did so because they wanted to reinforce racial segregation/prevent racial integration. [Corrupt semi-historian Nancy MacLean continually lies to the public that James Buchanan had this motive, but presumably some people actually did, even if historical documents show that Buchanan in fact supported integration.]

2. If some of the original supporters of school vouchers did so because they believed vouchers would reinforce racial segregation, then supporting vouchers is racist.

3. Therefore, supporting vouchers is racist.

On its face, this is a silly argument–after all, it could turn out that the original supporters were wrong. Perhaps vouchers turn out to actually reduce segregation. If we care about segregation, we’d want to check; we wouldn’t just assume the original supporters got the facts right.

But no matter. What I find odd is that certain people on the Left find the Vouchers Are Racist argument sound, but then at the same time do not accept this parallel argument:

Minimum Wage Laws Are Classist, Racist, and Eugenicist

1. The economists who first proposed minimum wage laws did so because they believed these laws would cause mass unemployment among whom they regarded as the dregs of society. They wanted to starve them out and thus improve the gene pool. [Unlike MacLean’s fictions about Buchanan, this is actually true. See  here and here.]

2. If the economists who first proposed minimum wage laws did so because they believed these laws would starve the poor, then supporting minimum wage laws is classist, racist, and eugenicist.

3. Therefore, supporting minimum wage laws is classist, racist, and eugenicist.

This second argument has the same structure as the first. The main difference is that premise 1 is clearly true in the second argument but not in the first. Still, many on the Left find the first compelling but the second argument not compelling. They can’t have it both ways. “Genetic arguments for me but not for thee!”

In fact, neither argument is any good, even if we suppose that premise 1 of the first argument is true. I wouldn’t use the second argument against current supporters of the minimum wage. Obviously, most current supporters of the minimum wage aren’t eugenicists who want to starve the poor and prevent them from reproducing; they just believe the early economists were mistaken about what minimum wage laws will do. Similarly, economists and philosophers who today support vouchers dispute whether vouchers increase racial segregation.

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You Should Read Simler and Hanson’s *Elephant in the Brain* http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2018/01/read-simler-hansons-elephant-brain/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2018/01/read-simler-hansons-elephant-brain/#comments Thu, 18 Jan 2018 16:52:11 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=12132 In case you haven’t heard, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson have published a remarkable book with Oxford University Press: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.  Here...

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In case you haven’t heard, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson have published a remarkable book with Oxford University Press: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. 

Here is my blurb on the back cover:

“If you want to know what makes people tick, read The Elephant in the Brain. Simler and Hanson have created the most comprehensive, powerful, unified explanation of human nature and behavior to date.” —Jason Brennan, Professor of Business, Georgetown University

I was one of the referees for the book for Oxford, and I’ll share some of my referee comments now:

This is without a doubt the most fascinating and interesting of the 30 or so books I’ve refereed in my career.

Bottom line: This is a fantastic book and I highly recommend publication. It  manages to do what an academic book needs to do, but is written in way that can be understood by a wide audience, and further, thanks to both the style and content, is likely to be widely read.

What makes people tick? If you want to know the answer, this is the book. The authors give us the best, most comprehensive, most powerful theory of human nature so far, an account that rigorously explains almost everything.

What’s especially powerful about this is how well it integrates everything we know in psychology. A major problem with psychology, as a field, is that while psychologists sometimes replicate certain findings and thus discover certain quirks and biases, they don’t have anything like a unified theory of human behavior. While economists can ultimately put everything in terms of supply and demand curves, or chemists can describe bonding and chemistry in terms of electron potentials, psychologists just seem to have a mess of disparate phenomena. This book provides a unifying theory. What’s more, it does so by making sense of biological pressures and thus integrates psychology with biology.

Style-wise, this book is fantastic, and I expect it will be a big seller. It has the level of argumentative rigor needed to satisfy most academics, though one might imagine the authors including technical appendices and the like if that were their primary concern. It reminds me a great deal of Dan Ariely’s and Jonathan Haidt’s books (and to a lesser extent, Ridley, or the Freakonomics books), in that it does a great job of introducing a wide range of background ideas to a popular audience. It’s eminently readable. But while Ariely, Haidt, and the others I mentioned are just popularizing previously existing academic research (including their own), this book does more; it’s adding to our knowledge because it integrates this research to produce a compelling theory of human nature. It’s making a new argument, or, more precisely, making the argument better. It’s not just explaining what the authors already know but adding to our knowledge.

 

Phil Magness and I summarize one of their chapters in our forthcoming book on higher education. (We have a chapter on how academics use moral language as a cover for the pursuit of their self interest, e.g., the adjuncts’ right movement, professors’ arguments for tenure, and the new wave of campus protests):

Our brains are funny. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson show, in their fascinating book The Elephant in the Brain, we humans are evolved to engage in self-deception about our own motivations. Our brains trick us into believing we have better motives than we in fact have.

The reason behind this is simple: We all benefit from living with people who generally play by public-spirited moral rules. We’ve evolved in general to play along with such rules. But we also can benefit from cheating those rules on the margins and taking advantage of others’ generosity, fair play, and good will. However, other people are at the same time have evolved to punish rule-breakers. Further, they’ve evolved to read our minds; people are good at discerning our conscious motives. Accordingly, our brains have evolved a defense mechanism: we often subconsciously pursue our self-interest, but at the same time consciously and sincerely believe we are motivated by altruism. Your brain pursues selfish behaviors but hides your own motives from you. You think you mean well, so others think you mean well, but really you’re out for number one.

This is true even of charity. Even charity isn’t about helping. Rather, charity is about conspicuous caring. It’s about signaling to other people—potential business partners, co-workers, neighbors, and mates—that we are successful, have a pro-social orientation, are trustworthy, and have empathy. Just as wearing a Rolex screams, “I’ve made it!,” altruistic giving is mostly about signaling to others, “Deal with me! Partner with me! Have sex with me! I’m good!”[i]

How do we know that? Simler and Hanson suggest we look for the best explanation of their behavior. For instance, it turns out that when people give away money to charity, almost none of them do any homework to determine how much good they’re doing. The amount and rates at which they give turns out to be insensitive to the amount of good the charity does. Fewer than 3% of people will actually change their intended donations in order to do measurably more good. Instead, numerous experiments and studies find that the following factors determine when and how much we give:

 

  • Visibility. We give more when we’re being watched or when others will know how much we give.
  • Peer pressure. We give more when pressured to give, especially by people we know, or who have high status, or who are in our network.
  • Mating motive. We’re give more when we are primed to think about sex or mating opportunities; we give more if the solicitor is sexually attractive.[ii]

In short, giving is explained more by status-seeking and coalition-building, and not so much by the good charity does. But of course, they say, it doesn’t feel like that’s what we’re aiming for; we genuinely believe we want to help.

            Simler and Hanson aren’t saying we’re perfectly selfish. If we were all sociopaths, none of this signaling would work. Rather, a better way to think of it is that we’re mostly selfish, but most of us (except sociopaths) have some genuinely moral motives. We can benefit from tricking others into thinking we have stronger moral motives that we in fact have, but in order to trick them, we first trick ourselves.

If even charitable behavior—that is, giving to others—is better explained by self-interest than by genuine attempts to help others, it sure would be surprising if politics—contests for monopoly rights on coercive and redistributive power—were any different. If charity’s this bad, it’s not surprising politics would be worse.

 

[i] Simler and Hanson 2018, pp. xxx-xxx.

[ii] Simler and Hanson 2018, xxx.

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Aikin and Talisse on Hooligans in Epistocracy; Somin on Dictators and Criticism of Democracy http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/12/aiken-talisse-hooligans-epistocracy-somin-dictators-criticism-democracy/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/12/aiken-talisse-hooligans-epistocracy-somin-dictators-criticism-democracy/#comments Mon, 04 Dec 2017 14:11:11 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=12096 Two links for ya: Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse discuss the problem of hooliganism inside epistocracy, and the problem of political stability. Ilya Somin follows up on my earlier post...

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Two links for ya:

  1. Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse discuss the problem of hooliganism inside epistocracy, and the problem of political stability.
  2. Ilya Somin follows up on my earlier post and asks, “Does criticism of democracy play into the hands of dictators?”

 

By the way, Scott Aikin’s recent book on the will to believe is fascinating, and Aikin and Talisse together have a fascinating book about the ethics and value of argument.  Here is Talisse on moral conflict in democracy; Bob is a pragmatist and has written a number of strong defenses of democracy which do not suffer from being starry-eyed or overly hopeful about what democracy can accomplish.

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Tu Quoque: The Dictators Might Misuse You Objection to Against Democracy http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/12/tu-quoque-dictators-might-misuse-objection-democracy/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/12/tu-quoque-dictators-might-misuse-objection-democracy/#comments Sat, 02 Dec 2017 16:16:46 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=12093 A few times, political theorists—most recently Jeff Isaac at Indiana’s Ostrom Workshop—have raised a particular objection to Against Democracy. (I mention political theorists because I think it’s interesting that theorists,...

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A few times, political theorists—most recently Jeff Isaac at Indiana’s Ostrom Workshop—have raised a particular objection to Against Democracy. (I mention political theorists because I think it’s interesting that theorists, rather than philosophers, are the ones who always make this objection. I think it reflects differences in attitudes about what theorists and philosopher see themselves as doing.)

The objection goes roughly as follows:

The Dictators Might Misuse You Objection

In Against Democracy, you document at great length the pathological behaviors of voters. You argue voters are mostly ignorant and misinformed about basic political facts, about the social science needed to evaluate those facts, that they vote for non-cognitive reasons, that political participation exacerbates our biases, and that all this has a negative effect on the quality of government and policy.

But dictator, oligarchs, the Chinese Communist party, cronies, elites, and others are gonna salivate over such arguments. They’re going to use them to consolidate their power and justify excluding their enemies.

Sure, you, Brennan, aren’t arguing for such exclusions. (In fact, your preferred form of epistocracy—Government-by-Simulated-Oracle—might not even qualify as epistocratic, as it actually allows everyone, even children, to vote, and doesn’t really give any individual extra weight.) But nevertheless, if your ideas became popular, people are going to use your language to justify their abusive, cronyist, oligarchical, or authoritarian behavior. You can’t ignore the context you find yourself in. You aren’t just writing this stuff for other philosophers, but are getting read and interviewed by the mass media and laypeople around the world.

Let’s write this out in premise-conclusion form. The objection contains both an empirical claim and a normative claim:

The Dictators Might Misuse You Objection

 

  1. Empirical premise: Bad people will use your rhetoric to justify their bad behavior.

  2. Normative premise: If bad people will misuse your rhetoric to justify their bad behavior, then it’s wrong to write what you wrote.

  3. Normative conclusion: Therefore, it’s wrong to write what you wrote.

 

Don’t get this objection confused with two closely related objections:

 

  1. Reductio ad absurdum: In fact, Against Democracy implies that the Chinese Communist Party is just, so therefore it’s false.

  2. Government failure: In the real world, the institutions you recommend we investigate and experiment with would lead to massive abuse and government failure, and so would be even worse than democracy. (I bring that objection up myself and it’s why the book ends up being so cautious and modest in the end.)

 

A is just wrong. B is an important worry, but I’ve already covered B in the book.

 

The Dictators Might Misuse You Objection doesn’t say that AD in fact justifies dictatorship or authoritarianism, or that in practice the institutions I recommend would unfortunately decay into that. Rather, it just says that the anti-democratic stuff about voter pathologies, etc., will be used by dictators to justify themselves.

Premise 1 of the objection is probably true. What about premise 2?

I don’t buy it. Two major problems:

First, this seems to suggest that there is a heckler’s veto in philosophy. Nietzsche didn’t defend fascism—on the contrary, he sort of anticipated it and critiqued it before it came about—but fascists and Nazis nevertheless misused his rhetoric to defend themselves. Does that mean Nietzsche, had he known that, should have shut his trap?

In general, it’s implausible that just because other people react badly to what you write or say, you therefore have a duty not to write it or say it. Otherwise, we’re saying that other people get to veto our permission to write and speak because they misbehave.

Second, and this I think is fatal to the objection, is tu quoque! All around the world, for well over a hundred years, dictators, fascists, communist totalitarian states, oligarchs, rent-seekers, and others have already been misusing democratic theory to justify their abuses. They hold sham elections. They name their countries the Democratic People’s Republic of this and that. They claim to represent true democracy. They quote liberally from democratic theorists to justify their anti-democratic activity. They sometimes even pay democratic theorists (hi, Ben Barber) to consult for them, and sometimes even get those theorists (still here, Ben?) to shill for them. Sometimes the theorists even do it for free, as they celebrate a Mugabe as a democratic revolutionary for a while, until it becomes too obvious that the democratic revolutionary is actually just another dictator.

 

So, in short, my basic response to the objection is:

Okay, what you’re saying is that if the ideas in Against Democracy become really popular, then dictators will start using my language the way they currently use yours. According to your objection, in the future, my rhetoric might be as dangerous as yours actually is right now. My book and rhetoric could be evil because it could, if I get popular enough, suffer from all the same problems your books and your rhetoric already suffer from. I might become the unwitting and unintentional and unwitting handmaiden of evil, just like you people currently are.

 

In short: the democratic political theorists are unwittingly my ideas are dangerous because dictators might do to epistocratic theorists what they currently do to democratic theorists. So, their objection is radically self-effacing. (Maybe that’s why many of them are such bad writers—They want to avoid dictators quoting them?)

Look, we all face this problem. If an economist explains that trade barriers might be efficient under unusual conditions C, then cronyist politicians will lie and say C obtains all the time. If just war theorists say that defensive war is permitted under conditions D, then George W will claim we’re in D when it suits him. If environmentalists say that certain regulations will help the environment, then John Deere will misuse their arguments to get a rent that forces their competitors to license a John Deere patent. Etc.

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What Kneeling Athletes Reveal about Political Psychology http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/09/kneeling-athletes-reveal-political-psychology/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/09/kneeling-athletes-reveal-political-psychology/#comments Tue, 26 Sep 2017 18:37:43 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=12045 Today at the Princeton University Press blog, I have a post on the current controversy and what it tells us about how people “think” about politics.   Some excerpts:  ...

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Today at the Princeton University Press blog, I have a post on the current controversy and what it tells us about how people “think” about politics.

 

Some excerpts:

 

Both sides accuse the other side of hypocrisy and bad faith. And both sides are mostly right. Hypocrisy and bad faith are the self-driving cars of politics. They get us where we want, without our having to drive.

 

…Instead, as economist Robin Hanson likes to say, politics is not about policy. The hidden, unconscious reason we form political beliefs is to help us form coalitions with other people. Most of us choose our particular political affiliations because people like us vote that way. We then join together with other supposedly like-minded people, creating an us versus a them. We are good and noble and can be trusted. They are stupid and evil and at fault for everything. We loudly denounce the other side in order to prove, in public, that we are especially good and pure, and so our fellow coalition members should reward us with praise and high status.

 

 

….Now back to football players kneeling. My friends on the Right refuse to take the players at their word. The players say they’re protesting police brutality and other ways the U.S. mistreats its black populace. My friends on the Right scoff and say, no, really they just hate America and hate the troops. This reaction is wrong, but not surprising. Imputing evil motives to the other side is essential to politics. The Left does it all the time too. If, for example, some economists on the Right says they favor school vouchers as a means of improving school quality, the Left will just accuse them of hating the poor.

It’s worth noting that since 2009, the Pentagon has paid the NFL over $6 million to stage patriotic displays before games to help drive recruiting.[i] The pre-game flag shows are literally propaganda in the narrowest sense of the word. Personally, I think participating in government-funded propaganda exercises is profoundly anti-American, while taking a knee and refusing to dance on command shows real respect for what the country supposedly stands for.

Read the whole thing here.

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What James Buchanan Actually Thought http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/09/james-buchanan-actually-thought/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/09/james-buchanan-actually-thought/#comments Sat, 02 Sep 2017 18:43:06 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=12013     One might expect a historian going through Buchanan’s works trying to find his views on this subject to discover this letter, but no, it’s much easier I guess...

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One might expect a historian going through Buchanan’s works trying to find his views on this subject to discover this letter, but no, it’s much easier I guess just to insinuate stuff and provide literally no evidence for it.

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Immigration Points and the Fatal Conceit of Central Planning http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/08/immigration-points-fatal-conceit-central-planning/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/08/immigration-points-fatal-conceit-central-planning/#comments Thu, 10 Aug 2017 15:02:50 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11991 (Please excuse the improper spacing in this piece. Weird glitch. Don’t know how to fix it.) If you think Trump’s (or Canada’s or whatnot’s) points system for immigration is a...

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(Please excuse the improper spacing in this piece. Weird glitch. Don’t know how to fix it.)

If you think Trump’s (or Canada’s or whatnot’s) points system for immigration is a good idea, you seem awfully confident in the government’s ability to engage in central planning.

 

Now, Trump is a mercantilist with little understanding of economics. But to my surprise, quite a few libertarians and supposed “free market economic conservatives” seem on board with his points plan. But here’s the problem:
Most of you recognize government is too stupid to plan shoe production. You need price signals and competitive mechanisms to tell you what, where, and how to produce. You can’t make a five-year plan for the whole economy because the economic problem constantly changes.

But many people who recognize that flip around say, “Oh, but no worries. We can figure out exactly how many and what kind of laborers the economy needs for the next five years using this artificial points scale.”

 

The best way to know whether “the economy needs an immigrant” is simple: If we allow people to hire the immigrant, do they choose to do so? If we allow people to rent houses or apartments to the immigrant, do they choose to do so? Let them do it, sit back, and let the market do its thing.

Now, granted, the government may have a legitimate worry about being able to afford certain kinds of welfare programs and publicly provided goods which immigrants might consume. But if that’s a worry, then find a keyhole solution. We don’t nationalize guitar production just because we worry about affording public schools for luthiers’ kids; similarly, we shouldn’t nationalize laborer production because of that worry.
Now, if you think the system improves upon the status quo, that’s fine. That’s not an argument that the system is good, just that’s better than what we had before.

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Chris Freiman’s Unequivocal Justice http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/08/chris-freimans-unequivocal-justice/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/08/chris-freimans-unequivocal-justice/#comments Wed, 02 Aug 2017 15:19:00 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11965 Christopher Freiman  has just published a fabulous book, Unequivocal Justice, the first book in Routledge Press’s new “Political Philosophy for the Real World” series. It is a tour de force of philosophical...

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Christopher Freiman  has just published a fabulous book, Unequivocal Justice, the first book in Routledge Press’s new “Political Philosophy for the Real World” series.

It is a tour de force of philosophical excellence. It may well be the best book of political philosophy published in 2017. I certainly haven’t read anything this year that comes close to competing with it.

Imagine a person said, “I have a solution to the problem of drunk driving. However, my solution works only in a world where alcohol hadn’t been invented.” There’s something deeply silly and incoherent about that.

Well, it turns out that the mainstream of political philosophy over the past 50 years has precisely this problem. The mainline of political philosophy, when it tries to defend or critique various institutions, has largely been a joke, Freiman shows us, though he’s too polite to put it that bluntly.

What Freiman shows is that Rawls, Freeman, Ackerman, Dworkin, and a number of other left-liberal philosophers are making this kind of mistake over and over. His critique is so devastating that you might as well take Rawls’s writings about institutions and throw them in the trash; they are now, thanks to Chris, nothing more than artifacts of historical interest.

Chris starts by saying,

A perfect state is a pointless state.

The point of a state is to mitigate injustice. If Rich would donate his 40% to the poor, the state wouldn’t need to tax his income. If Mimi would buy a hybrid instead of a Hummer, the state wouldn’t need to cap her emissions. But since virtue alone won’t do the job, the state needs to redistribute equitably and regulate efficiently.

…But here’s the problem: the very reasons why the state is needed are reasons why the state won’t work.

 

Rawls writes mostly at the level of ideal theory. But, Freiman shows, an ideal theory of the state is incoherent. (Yes, he responds to Kavka’s argument otherwise.) Under ideal conditions–in which people are stipulated to comply fully with the requirements of morality and justice–there simply is no need for a state, period. There is no need to create an institution which claims a monopoly on violence and which enforces rules through threats of violence. Ideal theory must be anarchist.

Coercion is needed to defend justice only when society is less than fully just. But when society is less than fully just, we cannot stipulate the ideal justness of the state itself. So we arrive at the dilemma for ideal theories of the state: either (i) society is fully just, in which case there is no need for a state, or (ii) society is not fully just, in which we case we may not stipulate the state itself is just.

In order to create a need for a state, Rawls (and his followers) equivocate. They posit bad behavior in the private sector. But then, in order to defend their favored regime and in order to avoid the criticism that the regime itself might be corrupt and make things worse, they imagine away all bad behavior in the public sphere.

For example, Rawls claims that we need to equalize incomes in order to prevent the rich from buying power for themselves. (Freiman thinks that’s a weird argument to begin with; in order to stop people from polluting, we don’t equalize income; rather we regulate pollution.) But here’s the dilemma.

…The only way to ground both (i) the need for regulation and (ii) the stipulation of the regulation’s success is to equivocate in precisely the way Rawls does.

So, to restore consistency, Rawls needs to resolve a dilemma: Either (i) the rich aren’t buying up state power, in which case equalization isn’t necessary, or (ii) the rich are buying up state power, in which case they can subvert equalization by buying up the state power unleashed to do the equalizing. Neither option justifies an a priori demand for equalization.

A few other philosophers, including G. A. Cohen and me, have pointed out that Rawls makes cartoonishly bad arguments like this here and there. But Freiman methodically goes through Rawls and a few others, and finds they make such arguments constantly. Rawls’s version of the public goods argument, his argument for redistribution taxation, his argument for the existence of the state, and so on, all have the same form: He’s giving us a theory about how to solve drunk driving, but his solution can only be stipulated to work in a world where alcohol had never been invented.

In the end, the mistake is that Rawls is trying to make a priori arguments for institutions, regime-types, and rules. These arguments all fail. They are no substitute for doing careful PPE-style empirical institutional analysis. Freiman closes by warning left-liberals not just to presume that empirical analysis will vindicate the exact institutions they were defending on entirely a priori grounds.

Again, the book is a tour-de-force. You should read it. It will make you a better thinker.

Here’s my blurb for the book:

Unequivocal Justice, with its delightful and engaging prose, is a devastating critique of the dominant arguments and methods in political philosophy. It shows that almost everything Rawls and other left-liberals have said about institutions over the past 50 years is not merely wrong, but incoherent. It should–if philosophers have an intellectual integrity–change the field forever.

Strong words, but entirely deserved.

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