Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Arbitrary Choices

I have been watching cartoons with my son recently and was rather amused at some of the cartoons which depicted sports, either in the future or in imaginary worlds. From the creature battles of Pokemon to the top wars of Beyblade to the futuristic slot cars of Scan2Go, I initially found it strange to picture a world in which such games would be held in such high esteem. But then I happened to walk into the living room while my mother was watching a dog show, and it struck me that we can turn almost anything into a competition, and not just a competition, but a serious competition, and, after a bit of thought, it struck me that looking back over the history of even relatively familiar cultures, not to mention those more remote from the west, we could find all manner of games elevated to quite lofty positions1.

Let us look, with the eyes of an outsider, at our own culture. We have any number of sports, yet only a certain number are taken seriously. For example, until very recently, soccer was not prominent in the US, and even now is still something of a second class game, as are, despite strenuous efforts by the media, most women's sports. On the other hand, in most other countries, soccer is the preeminent game, with American football either unknown, or at best a curiosity. Baseball is a little more widespread about the world, being played and followed in most of the Americas, as well as Japan, but the rest of the world seems to have little interest.

Then there are other activities, such as running, swimming, skating, skiing and the like, which are followed avidly by many during the Olympics, but largely ignored by all except a hardcore group of fans -- mostly those who participate in the same activity -- between Olympic games. And then we have other sports or games, such as auto racing, which is popular in many nations. However, differing nations seem to have different ideas of what is proper racing and what is not, so while NASCAR is a massive industry in the US, that particular form of stock car racing is almost unknown, and certainly not followed, elsewhere. Similarly, rally racing, or formula one racing, or any other variety, seems to have partisans, often based upon geography, who avidly follow their particular version fo racing, and yet have little or no interest in other varieties.

If we widen the definition even more, to include games which are not precisely sports, we can move into pool, poker and a host of other forms of gambling, which, until relatively recently, were not considered spectator sports. Well, pool was watched for some time, but poker has only recently become something to watch rather than play. In fact, until relatively recently, I can't imagine anyone believing that televised poker would not only be watched, but popular enough to be sold as pay per view.

 Which brings me to my point. What is worth watching, or worth playing, or what can be taken seriously and what cannot, is a largely arbitrary choice. While it seems obvious to us that people would pay to watch football, and would not pay to watch, say, a spelling bee, it is actually far from obvious, but is instead an imposition of our own biases on reality.  For, if we were to put ourselves in the mind of, say, your average Roman living in the late republic, the very idea that someone would pay to watch men kick a ball is absurd, though to us it is not. What is and is not a valid sport is little more than a cultural norm, combined with some degree of personal bias.

Why I bother mentioning this, the reason I wrote this at all, is because of how easy it is to forget that simple point, as exemplified by my amusement at the thought of a culture which would lionize men who can win combat between metal tops (Beyblade) or fights between animals (Pokemon). Of course to us these seem absurd, but to men in other nations, or in other times, watching other people play cards, or drive fast in a circle would seem equally absurd. But because we are so trapped in our own cultural assumptions this is very hard to remember, and we have a tendency to imagine that what we consider proper is the only possible choice.

I can already hear conservatives beginning to cringe, and a number of traditionalist warning bells going off, so let me set some minds to rest. While I am an iconoclast in many regards2, I am not about to begin shouting about cultural relativism, or the need for multicultural understanding. I have a fairly strong regard for cultural traditions, and though I may argue about what tools we should use to advance those traditions3 I am not about to say they should be abandoned.

No, what point I am going to make is a much more basic one, and one we forget even more frequently. And that is, cultural assumptions are not the only ones we often find hard to overcome. Our own personal assumptions can be every bit as deeply ingrained, and can just as easily, or even more easily, confused with truth. Oh, we recognize that our tastes in food, in clothing, in music, in art4, all of what we choose to call "preference" is arbitrary, or at least somewhat subjective. However, there are a whole host of other values, just as arbitrary that we often call "reason", and we fail to recognize as just as subjective. And because of this, we often fall into the trap of confusing our individual values with universal constants, and with dire results.

It is a point I have made repeatedly, though most clearly in "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", what many consider an objective choice is all too often nothing but their own subjective preference, and to impose it on others is not to help, but to harm them. And, sadly, it is a flaw that is hardly confined to the left wing5.

For example, one of the supposed benefits of the FairTax is that it discourages spending and encourages savings. This is hardly unique in a plan supported by conservatives, we often hear from the right that we save too little and spend too much. And, perhaps that i fair in one sense, in that our inflationary currency does create incentives favoring consumption and borrowing. However, that is the environment in which we live, and the solution is not to coerce people into saving, as that will not create a better world, but simply reduce overall satisfaction. No, if we want to remedy the problems of inflation, then end our fiat currency, don't institute another system designed to impose your values upon others, thus making them less happy.

Similarly, many on both right and left have few objections to government funded research. They may differ on the types and the amount of money, but I have found frighteningly few on the right who would end all such funding. However, the idea that such research is more beneficial than whatever the tax payers would choose to buy is, once again, an example of applying the arbitrary values of a single individual, or a group, upon everyone, reducing overall happiness in order to achieve a goal valuable to some select few.

But perhaps the best example is my most controversial, that is the idea that there is no "right" education. In "Reforming Education" -- and later in  "Why Vouchers are not the Answer" -- I discussed the idea that vouchers would be a problem, as the state would have to intervene to make sure students received a "proper" education, and I argued that, truthfully, there is no "right" education. We imagine that an education which paves the way to college, or a job, is proper, but parents may disagree. If I believe serving God is paramount, then perhaps an education stressing religious dogma is more important, as it will instill in my children ideas and knowledge I consider more important. Or, perhaps I believe a job is more important than abstract knowledge, and so I stress manual skills over general academic education. Is that right? Or wrong? The fact is, it is neither. What is important in education is as arbitrary a belief as any other. It all depends on what your goal is (cf "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity") We might believe there is a single right way to educate, or a range or right choices, but that is because of our assumptions, because we do not recognize our own arbitrary choices for what they are. (Cf "The Right Way")

There is a lot of argument to take us from this realization to the final conclusions, and I lack the time to make them all. Fortunately, I don't need to do so, as I have made them all before6. However, for those who have not read my earlier writing, let me at least point out the most fundamental points. If we value individual satisfaction, then what we should learn from this realization is that the state should be limited, and should confine itself to the simple task of protecting individual rights. In order to make this most likely, it is best to keep its power small and local, and thus I favor a minimal, local federalist state. And in terms of economics, the conclusion we must draw is that the state should keep to itself and allow the market to run itself, with the state limited to enforcing contracts and protecting against force, theft and fraud. Obviously, there is much more to be said, and I have said only a part of it in all my writing, but for now that will have to do.

Of course, some will argue with my conclusions, and will try to make a case for some position being rational or proven and not arbitrary, but if we look at those points, and trace them back to their foundations, I guarantee somewhere, at some point, they rest upon some arbitrary personal choice. And thus, for anyone who holds a different view, those rational arguments are all invalid. It is often ahrd to recognize, but once we do come to realize it, the conclusion is irrefutable. Which is why, despite all the many arguments for any imaginable intervention, in the end, I simply cannot find any reason to move beyond the minimal government I have so long endorsed. There simply isn't anything to be gained by embracing any additions.


1. Perhaps the best example of a behavior that is both familiar and strange is the fairly well know prominence held by the chariot racing factions in Constantinople. Or, rather, by the blue and greens, as the other two factions seemed to be much less prominent. Through a number of riots, there two factions not only brought about a considerable amount of social unrest, but actually began to play a part in Byzantine politics. In the past, this was usually held forth as an example of the decadence of Roman culture, but then we started seeing our own basketball fans -- college and pro --burning down their own home towns to celebrate wins, or mourn losses, an found we could not longer look down upon the excesses of the Romans. True, we have yet to see various franchises associating themselves with political factions, but that is about the only way in which we have not managed to reproduce the chariot factions.

2. For those curious about my most recent forays in this area, I recommend "In Loco Parentis", Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "The "Liberal Bubble" Becomes Universal" and "Guns and Drugs".

3. My arguments for tradition can be found in "Hoist By Your Own Petard", "Pushing the Envelope", "Uniqueness", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Pushing the Envelope", "Trophy Spouses", "Cranky Old Man?",  "An Interesting Article", "In Defense of Standards" and "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"". However, unlike many social conservatives, I firmly believe these beliefs should be advanced, not by government in any form, but through persuasion, education and other non-coercive, private means. See "Government Versus Culture - A Forgotten Distinction", "Shame and Understanding", "In Defense of Civil Debate", "A Small Digression" and "The "Liberal Bubble" Becomes Universal".

4. It is ironic that Ayn Rand, whose writing brought von Mises to my attention, and thus allowed me to come to see the arbitrary nature of so many values, herself tended to confuse her personal biases with the one single, rational choice, and thus elevate her taste to a universal constant. It was this blindness that started me along the path to disillusionment with Rand and Objectivism, though it was far from the only objection I had.

5. There are a host of questions on which some conservatives, if not all, seem to forget the arbitrary nature of decisions. For example, whether or not the state should force us to save for retirement. ("Social Security is Not Insurance") Or workplace safety laws. ("Who Is Safer?", "Worker Safety") Or many others. In case after case, supposed conservatives make choices that suggest they believe the values they choose should be applied to all, which is precisely what they object to in most liberal plans.

6. See "A New Look At Intervention", "Competition", "The Basics", "The Case for Small Government", "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Negative and Positive Rights", "Minimal Reforms",  "Tools", "The Price of Equality", "Greed Versus Evil", "In Praise of Contracts", "Bar Fights, Riots and Drug Markets - The Limits of Law", "Who Will Decide", "Volunteer Fireman, Barn Raisings and Government" and "Arguing In Hindsight".

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