Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A Quick Link

For the tiny fraction of my readers who don't necessarily read Crooked Timber, they have one of their periodic seminar things, doing Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell'. The one on China Mieville was excellent, and encouraged me to read all of his novels, which were similarly excellent.

Skepticism, Utopias, Politics And Justice

Conservatives have, for a long time, been arguing that skepticism, usually focusing on the transcendent powers of reason, buttresses their view against the utopian hopes of ever-optimistic radicalism, because radical utopias tend to draw much of their motivation from a belief in the powers of reason. Shuggy expresses the view that this goes a long way to explaining why it is that the truism that people become more conservative with age is a truism, because lived experience tends to breed skepticism, both about the plausibility of grand schemes of social reform and the perfectibility of human beings, and that kind of skepticism is closely allied to conservatism. I think that this is actually anti-utopian, rather than conservative, and that that points to a genuine distinction.

Utopias, as I am sure Shuggy is aware, are the dream of the end of politics, the shining city on the hill in which all conflict and loss is not just amielorated or compensated for, but simply eliminated, a vision of perfection that is beyond the reach of the corrupted and corrupting world. Utopias collapse the distinction between politics and ethics: they make the question of how we should live together, which presupposes that there is something that we do which requires regulation because our conduct will neither be the same nor beyond reproach, into the question of how I should live, which has none of the implications of plurality or difference that needs to be accomodated, made accountable, controlled. It is this, the possibility of a collective withdrawal into the space beyond the horizons of human life, that the kind of skepticism that Shuggy expresses undermines, since it presents social life as permanently vulnerable to change, and so incapable of remaining fixed in the way utopias require, and humans as always open to the temptations of power and its exercise, and so never able to renounce violence in some form.

Hume, as Shuggy implies, is good on this kind of thing, although not for his vastly over-rated kneejerk epistemological skepticism, but because of his views about what constitutes justice. Hume's view of justice is resolutely anti-utopian, because for Hume, justice requires the possibility of conflict, admittedly, conflict that can be resolved, but still, disagreement, plurality and compromise. It requires conflict, because, as Hume notes, where either there is such abundance that nothing has any special value, or where everyone has the same regard for their fellows as for themselves, rules of justice would not be required, because there would be nothing for them to adjudicate over. No-one would rely on anyone else for anything if there were perfect abundance, whilst if we were all perfectly moral beings, then we presumably could not have any complaint against them, and then, in either case, rules regulating the distribution of property and the like would be rather otiose. Justice is a political and non-utopian virtue, dependent on the possibility of conflict, as otherwise, it would not have any problems to resolve.

In this then, contra Chris Dillow, he is right to single out Marxists, since Marxists are, necessarily, utopians, as in fact Chris points out when he quotes Gerald Cohen on Marx. Marxists are not the only utopians: anarchists are as well, as is pointed out by their sharing with Marxists a belief in the withering away of the state, but that still leaves rather a lot of the political spectrum for conservatism to occupy if the claim that these anti-utopian thoughts are strongly linked to conservatism is to be made good. Indeed, liberalism, with its strong identification with pluralism and the individual, in a way has a stronger claim to the anti-utopian thoughts than conservatism, which places a high value on communal unity and the maintenance of social order, both of which can cut against the thought that social life is unpredictable and cannot be perfectly controlled. Neither do socialists, with their emphasis on the mielorization of the class struggle, rather than its elimination, have to fall victim to the warnings against the unanticipated consequences of social engineering.

Likewise, the anti-utopian thoughts shouldn't blind us to the importance of quasi-utopian thinking. If the kind of skepticism that Shuggy expresses is well-grounded, then the complexity of social life and the manifest imperfection of human beings ought to make it impossible to form true utopias: there will always be a cost, a hidden conflict, which retains the potential to drag the prelapsarian paradise, kicking and screaming, back into the Fallen world. A true utopia cannot then ever be reached, or even thought: such a thing is genuinely beyond the realms of possibility, at least for us. But that leaves them with a role as a spur, a vision hanging hazily above the inevitable imperfections of the world, taunting, drawing us on, whispering sweet nothings, making impossible promises. Such a role in a way connects with the pragmatist epistemology conservatives often endorse, because whilst the standard being offered is other-worldly in that it cannot be achieved, it is of this world in the sense that it is constructed from the materials of our present concerns: Neurath's boat requires a conception of a boat to be rebuilt. Conservatives sometimes come across like they would rather the boat had sunk, which is of course giving into a perverse kind of utopianism all of their own.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Responsibility And Luck Egalitarianism

For some time, I've been making rather a lot of the 'all social arrangements are coercive' line, particularly as a stick to beat libertarians with, with what's probably the clearest exposition here. Partly because of this comment, which points to what I must admit is something of a standing problem with the claim - that the generally pejorative nature of coercion doesn't seem to necessarily apply to social arrangements simply in virtue of being social arrangements - I'd like to give something of a genealogy of the idea, at least so far as I am concerned, which hopefully should illuminate what motivates it.

The idea comes from one way of running a critique of one of the dominant developments of post-Rawlsian political theory, luck egalitarianism, which holds that unequal outcomes are justified so long as they originate from choice, but that equality is required of outcomes which do not have their causal roots in choice, or, to make it clear why it is so named, that outcomes associated with brute luck must be equalized. Now, there are obviously a number of different ways of cashing out precisely what is meant by choice and brute luck, but the core of any view claiming to be luck egalitarian is the thought that when an agent is responsible for a particular outcome, interference with that outcome would be wrong, whereas when an outcome occurs through no fault of the agent, equalization is mandated. There may well be very serious problems in finding adequate accounts of responsibility, as the rather extensive literatures on both the freedom of the will and luck egalitarianism itself suggest, to provide anything like a sharp line between brute luck and choice that the luck egalitarians need, but I'm fairly sure that that is not the most serious problem with luck egalitarianism.

The fatal difficulty for luck egalitarianism is that it refuses to take its concern with responsibility anything like seriously enough, since in any society containing more than one individual, let alone incredibly complex ones containing millions of people, the idea that anyone is responsible for whatever costs happen to attach to any particular action is under exceptional high levels of strain. On any reasonable account of brute luck, it must surely be brute luck that the employment market values someone's labour at the level that it does, or even that there is something that we can sensibly call an employment market, since both depend on the actions of any number of others, over whom any one individual rarely has more than tangential control. If luck egalitarians are genuinely concerned with responsibility, they are stymied, because in saying that agents should bear the costs and gain the benefits that they are responsible for, they forget the surely incontestable fact that, whilst agents are often responsible for acts which have costs and benefits attached, they are not individually responsible for the particular costs and benefits that are attached. This stymies them, because it prevents them from taking a position on the legitimacy of any outcomes: if the actual value of an action is always a matter of brute luck, then the luck egalitarian claim that outcomes that are a result of brute luck are illegitimate and should be equalized does no work, because any outcome, including equalization, would be the result of brute luck.

To illustrate by example, think of a state which institutes luck egalitarianism, and compensates those who suffer and taxes those who gain as the result of brute luck. Presumably, anyone who disagreed with this situation would be entitled to complain to the relevant authorities that it was, for them, a matter of brute luck that they live in a state which has decided that it should adopt luck egalitarianism as a distributive principle. Say, moved by the force of this complaint, the authorities altered their policy to whatever distributive principle or principles that the complainant preferred. Yet, then, equally, wouldn't anybody who for some reason disapproved of that principle or principles be able to make the same complaint? No any one distribution can be justified by luck egalitarianism, because living under any one distributional principle is itself a matter of brute luck, something which agents are not generally responsible for, requiring redress.

This is where the 'all social arrangements are coercive' line comes in. The thought that no distribution is something which any one person can be responsible for, given the complexity of social interaction, leads, I think, relatively quickly, when coupled with the thought that others having control over the costs and benefits associated with a particular action is coercive, to the thought that all social arrangements are, simply because they are social arrangements, coercive. As I said in reply to Ben here, that doesn't imply an all-things-considered moral judgement, but it does mean that justification of them, to all of those who live under them, is required.

A Series Of Coincidences

By coincidence, I happened to have read this, this and this today. The LRB article, in the course of tracing "how a rebellion by a minority of a minority took on such symbolic significance", claims that "the most important actors in the drama were the British forces in Ireland", and points out that

The post-rebellion crackdown meant that people's experience came into line with separatist ideologies. (The contemporary significance of all this need hardly be spelled out).

The post at Lenin's Tomb is essentially concerned to amass evidence to substantiate the claim that the military is an instrument of brutality and brutalization on a vast scale, a claim which the BBC's report of apparently institutionalized humiliation of new recruits, if hardly conclusive, would have undoubtedly supported. None of this particularly surprises me, I have to say. Power is its own aphrodisiac, and the immediacy of the power of inflicting physical violence, the visceralness of the domination it grants, felt by both those who exercise it and who are subject to it, only heightens that. So, a series of coincidences. It may be an axiom of scientific enquiry that correlation is not causation, but there comes a time when it becomes difficult to explain how it is that particular actions and outcomes seem so intimately connected, and questions need to be asked, questions like, 'how is it that that the leader of a democratic state can be unwilling to voice an absolute prohibition on torture?'

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Inevitability Of Disappointment

Wolves were on Sky this lunchtime, and since that's about the only way I really ever get to see them, I watched them draw, 0-0, with Southampton. Admittedly, Wolves are missing their two first-choice centre-forwards, and both sides have had problems turning draws into wins - since the end of August, Southampton have drawn nine out of thirteen league games, while Wolves had the most draws of any league club last season and have drawn eight of fifteen since the end of August - but it was still a really disappointing match. For the first five minutes, it was like the idea that there's a reason football pitches resemble well-manicured lawns had never occured to the two sets of centre-halves, who were the only players who ever seemed to have the ball as they alternated in the apparently routinised tasks of heading down, and then producing a replica of, a hopeful punt upfield. Then the referee got niggly, handing out unnecessary yellow cards and insisting that the ball was perfectly stationary before free kicks were taken, which served as further disincentive to the game developing any flow. It was not a great spectacle.

On the rare occasions the defence thought better of planting the ball squarely on the heads of their Southampton counterparts, Wolves did manage to string four or five passes together a couple of times in the first half, but then tended to waste what space they were generally able to work themselves into with either over-ambitious or simply uninspired approach play. Southampton seemed to be relying on the fact that Wolves were defending quite far up the pitch, and so they could release Walcott in particular, who looked quick and skillful if somewhat isolated for much of the game, in behind direct from the back, which is hardly the most entertaining football to watch. It did however create a couple of half chances, which is more than can really be said of Wolves' play: Ndah drilled a low cross, after a nice turn chasing a lost cause on the left, into a box with six or seven Southampton defenders, and two Wolves attackers, which was predictably cleared, and Cameron had a maybe-maybe-not shout for a penalty which wasn't given after chasing down Ndah's knockdown and colliding simultaneously with keeper and defender. That was about it.

The second half was a bit better, but not much. Postma made a good save from, and Lescott stayed on his feet well when one-on-one with, Walcott, while Wolves managed to sustain a period of pressure during which a shot was deflected onto the bar from a corner and forced Niemi into a couple of impressive, if not spectacular, saves. The referee continued to niggle unnecessarily though, and there was a marked tendency for passes to either go astray or be so telegraphed as to be easily intercepted. If either side had to win, I think Wolves had probably had the better of it, but a draw was really a fair result. As a Wolves fan, you get used to the inability of an apparently talented set of players to either all be fit together or be able to gel in such a way as to do justice to themselves, so the disappointment of the result was not particularly unexpected. What was more disheartening was the inability and unwillingness of either side to collectively play, other than in fits and starts, particularly attractive football, especially since they were billed as two of the more technically capable sides in the Championship. I suppose, though, there is a reason that it is disappointing that Wolves continue to be unable to extricate themselves from this division: presumably it is that most of the games they play are even worse than this one, and unfortunately, because of that, they are likely to remain so.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Some Links

First, this. Not that I have any money to give right now, but...

Melanie Phillips is mad (via). Not just a little bit mad, but totally bonkers. Basically, she would like to shackle all women to some bizarre combination of the kitchen sink, the baby's crib and the marital bed, forever. Or at least, that's the implication of the claim that no-one has any right to any support for their children, from anyone, unless they live with them.

On a markedly more sane note, Andrew Bartlett drew my attention to this piece by Norm Geras. I'm not necessarily in favour of withdrawing Coalition troops from Iraq: indeed, if I had any faith or confidence in the ability of those who have thus far spectacularly mismanaged - at least we assess their achievements as if they were interested in a stable, democratic Iraq - the occupation to do any good whatsoever, I think the Coalition would have a very powerful obligation to remain and sort it out. That's by the by though. What's interesting is that Norm seems to have a 'will of the people' criterion for the justification of the invasion

Anyone arguing for a withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq, whether tomorrow, in six months, or at any date determined in advance rather than set by the demands of the situation and the democratically expressed will of the Iraqi people

I was under the impression that it was fairly clear that the Iraqis weren't best pleased about having thousands of foreign troops occupying their country.

Finally, Blood and Treasure reminds us that there is a certain pleasure, a sense of independence, of distinctiveness, in vice, and urges that we not lose sight of that.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Libertarians And Efficiency

A while ago, in a comment thread on Stumbling and Mumbling, whilst arguing against someone who was using it as a point in favour of free markets, I asked what the value of economic efficiency was. Generally, efficiency, of itself, has no value, because it is purely instrumental, merely picking out the rate at which resources are converted into achievement of some end, meaning that the moral weight gets shifted mostly on to the end itself. Of course, because there are a plurality of morally important ends and a shortage of resources to achieve them with, it is important to be efficient, because we want to achieve as many of the morally important ends as much as possible given the resources available. That, however, is to do with the achievement of the ends themselves, not efficiency in and of itself, so efficiency per se does not have any intrinsic moral value.

There is however a sense in which efficiency is used by economists, if I remember first-year undergraduate economics with any accuracy, which does seem to have some independent moral weight to it. Economists call a distribution allocatively efficient when cost of the last unit sold is the same to the consumer and to the producer, when the marginal revenue of possessing whatever it is that was sold is equal to the marginal cost of producing it. Assuming - which I'll let slide for the time being - that marginal returns are diminishing and marginal costs increasing, at this point, neither party would benefit from any further trades, because neither would be prepared to meet the conditions necessary to make the trade beneficial to the other side. This is because for the producer, the price has to go up in order to meet costs, whereas for the consumer, the price has to go down in order to compensate for the loss of marginal revenue. For any additional trade to occur would be to make one party better off at the expense of the other, and that seems to have moral weight.

If I take some of your possessions, the mere fact that it makes me in some sense better off does not seem to mitigate or justify it. Granted, most people think that stealing in order to survive, at least at little cost and from those who are under no similar threat, is usually acceptable, but this is not that case. If redistributions were justified on the simple grounds that they made some people in some sense better off, then anyone stealing from anyone would presumably be acceptable, as long as the thief was in some sense better off afterwards, and usually, until they get caught, thieves are better off, or else they wouldn't steal. So, allocative efficiency looks like it points to a situation which redistributions from would be generally morally bad, because they would make one party better off at the expense of the other, and that's generally morally bad.

Allocative efficiency is a property, it is argued, of perfect markets. This, libertarians believe, stands as a moral argument in favour of laissez-faire economics. There are at least two problems here, the first being that there are no perfect markets, which constitute a kind of constraint-less fantasy world in which everyone has identically perfect information, there are no transaction costs, and all goods are undifferentiated. That's not totally decisive though, because some other markets might approximate pretty well to perfect markets, and be, in this respect, morally superior to anything else on offer. What is really decisive is to realise that the costs and benefits in question are dependent on the initial bundles that actors have, and what can be and is done with those bundles. Allocative efficiency can be achieved in a situation where one party has all the resources and the other starves to death, as long as the worse-off party has nothing the better-off party is prepared to exchange any of their resources for. The fact that under such a distribution it is never to both's advantage to make some kind of exchange does not obviously tell us anything about the moral properties of that distribution.

Granted, it's unlikely that there are many situations in which there are no mutually advantageous trades to be made, but many situations in which there are quite clearly lack moral respectability. It is presumably possible to rationally prefer slavery to starvation, so it is presumably possible to achieve allocative efficiency by enslaving the starving, as long as the party doing the enslaving prefers to have slaves over any other outcome. Initial bundles thus matter. Ronald Dworkin has reasonably convincingly argued that at least most, if not all, of the moral force of the idea of allocative efficiency comes from the thought that the costs to the two parties genuinely are equal, that is, represent equal commitments from each, which they could only do under, in a gross simplification, conditions of initial equality. This is because, proverbially, the worth of the ten pounds that keeps the starving man alive for another couple of days and the worth of the ten pounds which pays for my evening in the pub are not the same: the cost of the starving man losing the ten pounds is much greater than the cost to me of losing my ten pounds, because what they get converted into is of hugely different value.

Dworkin not only notes that costs, as comprehended by the market, are relative to initial bundles but to what can be and is done with resources. This is true not only in the simple sense that restricting the use of a particular resource means that is has less value to those who would have used it in that way, a loss which cannot be reflected in the costs to others, but also in the sense that the use of resources by others can increase or decrease the value to me of my resources. Planning regulations are one obvious example: building a skyscraper in the middle of a low-rise residential block imposes a number of costs on those living around it, and if we're interested in making sure that no costs are imposed without compensatory benefits, then that has to be taken into consideration, just as the costs to those who want to build skyscrapers should be. Because of collective action problems, it is often difficult to ensure that these costs are not ignored through the market: where costs are spread across a large group of people, they may find it difficult to coordinate action so as to recover their costs, the obvious solution to which, for Dworkin, is to buy insurance against such costs in the form of regulation.

So, the moral force of the idea of allocative efficiency depends on resources representing equal commitments from both parties to the bargain, and on all the costs, in the full moral sense, of uses on property being included in the assessment of the bargain. It is, politely, far from clear, given that a decent argument for the closed shop can be mounted from this position, that allocative efficiency then actually does tell in favour of laissez-faire economics.

Links added and slight editing, 22/11/055

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Internet And The Marketplace Of Ideas

In the course of a discussion of the relationship of truth to politics, and in particular liberalism, in his book, Truth and Truthfulness, Bernard Williams discusses what kinds of institutions tend towards truth the most. The discussion is generally quite interesting, but for the time being I just want to draw attention to, and relatively briefly comment on, a passage about the internet (the book was published in 2002):

[T]he Internet shows signs of creating for the first time what Marshall McLuhan prophesied as a consequence of television, a global village, something that has the disadvantages both of globalization and of a village. Certainly it does offer some reliable sources of information for those who want it and know what they are looking for, but equally it supports that mainstay of all villages, gossip. It constructs proliferating meeting places for a free and unstructured exchange of messages which bear a variety of claims, fancies and suspicions, entertaining, supersitious, scandalous, or malign. The chances that many of these messages will be true are low, and the probability that the system itself will help anyone to pick out the true ones is even lower... [T]he global nature of these conversations makes the situation worse than in a village, where at least you might encounter and perhaps be forced to listen to some people who had different opinions and obsessions. As critics concerned for the future of democratic discussion have pointed out, the Internet makes it easy for large numbers of previously isolated extremists to find each other and only talk amongst themselves.

As elsewhere in the discussion, Williams' concern here is to undermine the idea that the best understanding of the marketplace of ideas as an approximation of an economic marketplace, to motivate the idea that restrictions on freedom to participate in a discussion can improve the tendency of a set of institutions towards truth. In this cause, he also points out that academic institutions, which one would think are at least both designed substanially with the intention of coming to the truth and generally more successful at doing so than society at large, do not generally resemble the market in that they have, amongst other things, significant barriers to entry and tend to reward truth or at least good arguments without too much regard for its instrumental value.

Given these points, that as a matter of design, institutions which have barriers to entry and tend to place an intrinsic value on truth tend to be better at coming to the truth than those which lack those features, I wonder whether Williams' critique of the Internet, undeniably familiar as it may be, is, as a generalization, overly pessimistic. Linking and the fact that at least recreational bloggers are interested, at least in part, in the truth, may provide to some degree the institutional features that he notes that the market can often lack. Maybe I'm too attached to the Habermasian ideas of deliberative democracy to gain the kind of detachment that would be needed to assess the institutional features of the Internet, and in particular, the *sigh* Blogosphere. On the other hand, in a phrase of R.H. Tawney which Williams quotes, we're not generally trying to sell pieces of paper with nonsense printed on one side and advertisements on the other.

Sarky comments about either the recent addition of adsense to this blog or the vague, rambling and often nonsensical nature of its content will not be appreciated, by the way (not that that's necessarily a reason not to make them).

Pragmatism And The Question Of Truth

In Our Time on Radio Four was about pragmatism yesterday. Although I am more or less totally unfamiliar with the work of any of the three philosophers discussed on the programme, I think that there was something of a mistake in the discussion. It claimed that pragmatism was a kind of reductionism about truth, specifically that truth is to be understood as 'what works', and insofar as later philosophers like Quine are representative of the school as a whole, their position about truth shouldn't really be understood as a form of reductionism. Reductionism is a kind of 'nothing but' reflex, aiming at a kind of unmasking, a denigration. It means to expose something as more base, where base is to be understood as an evaluative term, and I don't think that that is what is meant by the pragmatist insistence on giving up on the myth of the a priori.

Bourdieu, the French sociologist, has been said to have affinities with the pragmatists, and in particular Mead, who wasn't mentioned yesterday. Bourdieu holds a kind of holist Wittgensteinian position, which claims that both objectivist and subjectivist approaches misunderstand linguistic practices. Objectivists - who for Bourdieu are the French structuralists, beginning with Saussure - mistake regularities, behaviour according to rules, for determined behaviour, yet as any one with passing familarity with Wittgenstein on rules should understand that rules are not deterministic: the infamous example of the person counting who adds two before two thousand and four afterwards comes to mind particularly. Subjectivists - rational choice theorists would be the obvious example - on the contrary can't explain that there are rules governing linguistic and so social practice. In the counting example, on their account, it is supposed to be unclear why we should find it surprising at all that after two thousand, the counter starts adding four instead of two.

To adopt this kind of position is to give up on the idea of a series of sharp oppositions which structure thought - the objective and the subjective, and associated with it, the synthetic and the analytic, for example. If it really is the kind of position that the pragmatists discussed yesterday were holding, then it isn't a kind of reductionism about truth, in the sense of a 'nothing but' reflex, because it does away with the idea of a 'nothing but' reflex by getting rid of the oppositions on which that reflex rests, in particular the opposition of the objective and the subjective where the reduction depends for its denigration on the possibility of some higher form or type. To put it another way, once we give up on the idea of the Platonic Forms, the claim that something isn't a Platonic Form no longer looks like the same kind of problem any more. This is one of the reasons that I have always been rather suspicious of Richard Rorty, since he seems to think, with his irony about truth, that it is a problem that it isn't a Platonic Form.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

False Sincerity, Geekiness, And A Half-Promise

Timothy Burke finds five examples of those, in the grand scheme of things, individually generally pointlessly trivial irritants which collectively add up to being really, really annoying. Thank God that the disgustingly unctuous American habit of assuming that the strip-lit grubby altar to the cheapness of consumer capitalism where I buy my loo-roll from has a valued and meaningful relationship with me has not yet arrived here. Really. Thank God.

Jim Bliss points out this, a web-based thingumy that'll suggest other music you might like on the basis of the stuff you currently listen to (on your computer). If you care, here is the list of the things I've been listening to recently. I'll probably add it to the sidebar in a bit.

On the topic of the sidebar, sharp-eyed readers may have noticed adverts in the sidebar. Hopefully, now readers who aren't sharp-eyed will also notice them. I figure, no-one has to click on them, they're not excessively intrusive, and I might make tuppence hapenny off them, so...

Finally, on a really cheering note, I'm planning to write another piece on libertarianism. I just want explain why I am apparently so obsessed with libertarianism, briefly. Libertarianism matters to political philosophy in the same way that skepticism matters to epistemology: it serves as a challenge to the existence of the discipline at all, since libertarians, at least on the right, deny the legitimacy of anything more than the minimal state, just as skeptics deny the legitimacy of the vast majority of claims to knowledge. To put it another way, if you can't deal with the libertarians, you can't get the enterprise of normative political theorising off the ground at all. That said, I'm only planning, so God knows when it'll actually happen.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Accountability

In the style of Brad De Long:

Make Rupert Murdoch pay tax. Make Rupert Murdoch pay tax now.

Failing that, report him to the Press Complaints Commission, or alternatively, the police.

How All Libertarians Are Really Authoritarians, Or, A Freedom-Based Justification For The Closed Shop

I said, a while ago, in the course of one of my periodic rants against libertarians, that I think that right-libertarians, rather than being the steely-eyed guardians of freedom they imagine themselves, systematically underestimate the amount of coercion that exists in any world. I now think this is true of left-libertarians as well. In particular, the freedom that neither kind of libertarian takes into account is the freedom that is lost, or perhaps better, never gained, by virtue of living with others, whose actions effect the costs and benefits of one's own actions. For example, the loss of freedom that I outlined here follows from the fact that there are millions of people seeking jobs, many of whom potential employers can rely on to undercut each other, thus driving or holding wages and other benefits down, and hours up. In fact, one could go further and say that all the costs and benefits are assigned to particular actions - how much I get paid, how high the price is for the goods or services that I provide, anything which involves any social interaction whatsoever - are significantly determined by the actions of other agents. That surely is a form of unfreedom: what I receive for my labour, or pay for my food and housing, is dependent on the actions of others over which I have no control.

Think of this another way. Say there is a religious community, where people are generally inclined to take seriously and act upon anything the priests say. Say further that the priests decide that anyone who does not attend their churches and live as they demand should be driven out of the community, not by violence but by a refusal by the other members of the community to interact with them at all - to speak to them in the street, to employ them, to buy from or sell to them. The cost of not going to church is now being driven out of the community, for it is more or less impossible, unless you can produce everything you need yourself, to live amongst people who refuse to interact with you at all. That is surely coercion, and hence a loss of freedom.

Notice though that it is coercion by the community as a whole, and does not depend on all those doing the coercing have the intention to coerce, for whilst what produces the result which is coercive is the coordinated action of the members of the community - that they all refuse to interact with those who do not live as the priests demand - it is not necessary that they all are aiming at the result of having to live as the priest demands, since they may only be trying to avoid being driven out of the community themselves. Indeed, it could well be the case that none of them aim at the coercive result, that they are all operating on the basis that everyone else takes seriously the demands of the priests, without that result being any less coercive. That shows that coercion can result from a set of actions none of which aim at coercion and which individually would not be coercive, when those actions, taken together, determine the costs and benefits which attach to certain actions. Social interaction, including social interaction through the market, is a set of actions, most of which usually aren't coercive, and which individually would usually not be coercive. It is thus at least possible that social interaction is, as a category, coercive, and any argument that it is not would depend on being able to show a relevant difference between the case of the religious community and social interaction more generally.

I do not think there is any relevant difference. The difference would have to be something to do with the role of the priests or with the outcome itself, because it cannot be to do with the intentions of those who take the actions which, individually, are not coercive, but collectively are, since that possibility has already been dismissed. Yet, say there are no priests, merely a generally held belief that something terrible will happen if all the members of the community do not behave as the priests would want. Regardless of whether this belief is true or not, the results would surely still be coercive. It does not even matter whether the belief is generally held, as long as there is a generally held belief that the belief is generally held. This suggests that what causes social interaction to be structured in whatever way it is structured is irrelevant to whether it is coercive or not, because if meta-meta level beliefs can perform the same role as a priest making demands of their parishoners, the crucial point about the priest's role must not be their intentions, but rather the effects that they had. If there is a difference, it must rest in the features of the outcome itself.

Notice what the outcome is though. It is the creation of a particular cost for a particular action, through the not-necessarily intended outcomes of a set of actions which individually would not have those outcomes. What makes it so stark is the disproportionality and unjustifiability of the cost to the action, but it is simply the attaching, as a result of a particular set of social practices, of a particular cost to a particular action, rather than some other cost or none at all. Coercion is the creation of one option set rather than any of the other available ones, the attaching of one set of costs and benefits to action rather than the others that would have resulted from other actions. It does not require the use of powers one does not have a right to, since clearly the parishoners all, individually at least, have the right to choose whom to employ, whom to buy and sell goods from and to, and certainly whom to speak to, yet the result of them all making the same choices about whom to do these things with results in coercion. All they have done is created, not even necessarily deliberately, one particular option set rather than any of the others that could have been created by different actions. The details of the outcome don't matter: what matters is that it is an outcome in particular, rather than any of the other outcomes. Social interaction is thus coercive.

Libertarians don't think so though. Both are inclined to ignore the way in which freedom is lost, or rather, never gained, by the simple fact of living in society, and hence being dependent on the actions of others for the value of one's own actions. This is what I have already elsewhere called the Democrat's Insight, that the imposition of any set of rules is coercive, and that it is morally troubling to the extent that it distributes goods and bads in an unreasonable or unfair way. Libertarians, because they only care about access to a mythical free market or to property, ignore this insight because they fail to see either how the market can coerce, in the case of right-libertarians, or how institutions other than an unequal distribution of property can, in the case of left-libertarians. Both are authoritarian because they do not care about the losses of freedom elsewhere in society.

Both, for example, would oppose closed shop legislation, which requires that management in a particular workplace negotiate only with one union, simply on the principle that it is a violation of rights of association. I have reservations about closed shop legislation, many, but not all of which, are about the violation of rights of association, but the libertarian answer to whether or not closed shop legislation is justified misses the point that allowing unions to underbid each other reduces the freedom of the members of those unions by forcing them to accept worse terms and conditions, and hence more restricted option-sets in the rest of their lives. That loss of freedom is a real one, and libertarians cannot dismiss it simply by handwaving in the direction of another, equally real, freedom, because to do so is to fail to think of it as a loss of freedom, and it is a loss of freedom. Admittedly, it may be a loss of freedom which comes about through the free action of others, but we have already seen that is no barrier to something being a loss of freedom through the case of the priests and their parishoners. Libertarians don't think it is, and thus they are, by virtue of being in favour of restrictions of liberty, authoritarians.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Historical Accidents And Political Parties

It seems that a number of people find it rather strange to think that

the Labour Party is the best vehicle for the achievement of a progressive politics in this country, and that battles over what counts as progressive politics ought to be fought within it.

Sadly, I can well see why. The Labour government over the past eight years has hardly met the heights of the Attlee administration, which in terms of its dominance of the Parliamentary scene it has significantly outstripped. A national minimum wage has been introduced, at a level which working full-time on it would lead to virtual penury, and unemployment has fallen, but without, it would seem, increasing job security or reducing hours; large increases in public spending have been made, and in some cases have made substanial differences, but have so often been crippled by a bizarre insistence on using public money to line the pockets of the shareholders of large construction firms; some effort, not wholly unsuccessful, to remove children from poverty has been made. These are bitter-sweet, limited achievements, so much less than could have been done, and yet, I'm struggling to lengthen the list. It's hardly the foundation of the National Health Service, the introduction of free secondary education, the establishing of child benefit, and the nationalisation of swathes of industry, all of which the Attlee government achieved in six years, two less than Blair has already been in power. This is of course without mentioning the adoption of all kinds of mendacious, reactionary rhetoric on law and order well before the war on abstract nouns apparently justified greater restrictions on civil liberties than at any other time than in living memory, or foreign policy at all. It would be fair to say I don't really like the current Labour government.

So, why did I join the Labour Party? Because the Labour Party is not the current Labour government. The Labour Party is a group of people, the majority of whom affirm, in the one of the usual senses, the first sentence of Clause Four: 'The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party'. The distinction between this organisation and the current Labour government could hardly be clearer, since it is neither, on any plausible reading of either, democratic nor socialist. It is a government of the Daily Mail, not of the typical Labour voter, or of the typical Labour member. It's like it's an odd historical accident, a kind of cruel joke, that it is formed by members of the Labour Party, since they and the Labour Party seem to share so little. I joined because I believe in the party, and in its capacity to regenerate and reinvigorate itself, to find leaders other than those it currently has, and to then return to the values of social justice and mutual tolerance it once stood for. This may be a leap of faith, but as a broad coalition of progressive interests since the collapse of the Liberals in the twenties and thirties, the Labour Party has been reasonably successful, and it would be unwise to assume that Blair et al have done permanent damage to it, or that what is to be gained by abandoning it will be a huge improvement. Phil mentioned in his comments on the previous post the formation of the Labour Party, taking it that it is a given that the fracture of the progressive movement and ushering in of three decades of conservative dominance was a good. I'm less sure.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The Politics Of Deception

I recently decided to join the Labour Party. Obviously, I disagree with the Labour Party about rather a lot of things, but, as some kind of social democrat, I feel, much like so many of the backbenchers prepared to reduce a majority of 66 to 1, I suppose, that the Labour Party is the best vehicle for the achievement of a progressive politics in this country, and that battles over what counts as progressive politics ought to be fought within it. I didn't vote Labour at the last election - when, I hasten to add, I wasn't a party member - but in a way, my refusal to vote in favour of appallingly mismanaged, deceitfully presented and suspiciously neo-imperialist Middle-Eastern adventures and the more or less total absence of any coherent plan to lift millions out of social exclusion, deprivation and, in many cases, poverty, except where it could be made to fit the over-riding desire to pander to the wildly misleading agenda of rabid dogs of the Tory Right, was for much the same reason as I joined: I want to do whatever I can to drag the Labour Party away from the centre-right, which is where it now is, and back to the centre-left, if not further.

So, for example, you'd think I'd welcome the chance to give, as an email I recieved today offered, '[my] views on fighting terrorism'. Unfortunately, I'm not really being offered a chance to give 'my views on fighting terrorism', I'm being asked to participate in a shameless publicity exercise which will then be used as the basis of beating recalcitrant backbenchers into line on the grounds that 'the party in country supports our unquenchable desire to lock up the innocent and criminalise those who think that there are circumstances under which political violence is acceptable'.

It links to a questionaire. Let's take it question by question:

Do you think that our laws should be updated to cope with the current security threat?

OK, now maybe there's a case for changing the law to cope with the current security threat. The use of wiretaps as evidence in court, which the government apparently now opposes, might be one step. Perhaps there are others: I'm not sure. The point is, there are, plausibly at least, questions to be asked about that, a debate to be had. That's not what the question seeking to do though, because the possible answers are 'yes', 'no', and 'don't know'. If the aim was to initiate a discussion, there'd be some presentation of the alternatives, an explanation of the current situation some means by which to actually have a discussion, rather than just exhaust my opinion on the matter by an aye, a nay, or an abstention on the rather vague question of whether we should change the laws, the details of which could be anything, in some utterly unspecified way.

The problem is what the meaning of 'updated' is, because if we knew what the update was, then there'd be something concrete we could refer to, and then we'd have some basis for making a decision. I have this sneaking suspicion that what 'updated' is means here is 'updated in the manner which we, when scribbling on the back of an envelope and thinking about ways to please the Daily Mail and the Police Federation, decided to try and foist on the country by appealing to their baser instincts'. I think this because, well, using 'updated' instead of saying that sounds so much better, and that'd be really helpful when it's what you're trying to do, despite people telling you it's not a good idea and doing their level best to stop you. So, with that meaning of 'updated', what the question is asking is, 'do you think that our laws should be changed so that the state can more or less arbitrarily imprison people for three months and prosecute them for thinking there are occassions where those, other than agents of the American or British states, are entitled to use political violence?' If you didn't know that though, you could be confused: you could think that it actually meant 'do you think that, in some circumstances, laws might need to be changed to meet new challenges?'

The next one:

Do you think police should have the time and opportunity to complete their investigations into suspected terrorists?

Now, the thing here is, there's a problem with what 'time and opportunity' means. I do think the police should have time and opportunity to complete their investigations into suspected terrorists. Fourteen days is plenty of time and opportunity. I'd say, you can find a lot of things about someone out in fourteen days, if you try, especially if you've already got grounds for suspecting them of being a terrorist. I'm not sure that that's what the question's asking though, because, well, no-one thinks that the police shouldn't have the time and opportunity to complete their investigations into suspected terrorists, but lots of people disagree about what is enough time and opportunity, given that imprisoning people who have not been charged with any crime, let alone convicted of one, is generally thought to be a bit morally suspect. Given that it's not really very interesting to ask questions when everyone will give the same answer, I think that, just maybe, the point is to impose one, rather contentious, reading of 'time and opportunity' on the question, say 'however long and with whatever abrogations of rights the police, those noted guardians of the rights of the accused, feel they might be able to screw out of a government so desperate not to be outflanked on the right on law and order they are undergoing a kind of permanent revolution where drawing cries of amazement from every sane individual is the standard by which proposals gain consideration'.

The final one:

Do you think the government should make sure there are new safeguards to protect innocent people?

The problem here is that if you want proper answers to a question, it needs to actually ask something, not just offer up totally banal sentiments for approval: amazingly, I'm confident that most people think that additional protection for the innocent is a good thing, although I find it difficult to see what that has to do with terrorism policy, since the point of that is that we take for granted we aim protect innocents, and ask about how we do that, making affirmations of the morally unquestionable aim of the policy fairly f*cking pointless.

Granted, I shouldn't be surprised by this. Dressing your violations of civil liberties up in the language of uncontroversial moral or political truths is surely one of the oldest and most used tricks in the book. I just have this attachment to the obviously insufficiently shiny and new idea that if you're honest with people, if you can explain yourself clearly and simply, without equivocation, without vagueness, some of the time you can lift some of the scales from some of their eyes and if you persist, in end, you should be able to lift most of the scales from most of their eyes. You might call it an Enlightenment faith in truth and reason. You might think it was central to the mission of any progressive party, any party which has roots, however deep, in the Enlightenment vision of a better world made better by the people who live in it. Apparently not.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

If Income Taxation Is Slavery...

One of the things that right-libertarians like to drag out to attempt to justify their 'my third merc is more morally important than whether you have enough to live a minimally decent life' schtick is the claim that taxes on labour are, by virtue of the products of your labour going to someone other than yourself without your consent, slavery. This is bollocks: mere coercive appropriation of the products of labour does not slavery make, as, for example, cursory consideration of a case where someone steals something from me, where I worked either to make that thing or to gain the money to buy it, indicates. What is morally troubling about slavery, I think, is not the loss of the products of labour, but the loss of autonomy, of the slave's total lack of control over their own lives.

Slaves are compelled to do as their master pleases, and admittedly, often what their master pleases includes giving up the products of their labour so the master can sell them on, but that is not the core of the problem: it falls under the broader category of being compelled to do as their master pleases. Income tax would presumably be like slavery if, rather than taking a statutorily limited part product of labour, the state had a totally unaccountable power to take as much of the product of labour as it pleased, to direct your labour utterly as it desired and to do absolutely anything it liked should you fail to do any of these things. Under these conditions, it would replicate the relationship of total dominance between master and slaves, but it doesn't, so...

What's interesting though, is that there are a set of possible institutions which would exercise slaveowner-like power over at least some of those who lived within them - the right-libertarian vision of a free society, where if I don't work, passing control over a substanial part of my waking hours to an effectively unlimited despot, unless I have assets, friends or family on whom I can rely for support, or some beneficent magnate feels pity for me, I'd starve to death. I'd say the requirement to do as the market and its associated institutions pleases, in the absence of an adequate safety net, or else risk death is fairly bloody coercive, so coercive in fact that I feel justified in saying, 'if income tax is slavery, all right-libertarians are aspirant slaveowners'.