Saturday, August 17, 2013

Inconsistent Understanding

It always amazes me when people can completely grasp a philosophical or political concept, often even a very complex one, in one context, and yet completely fail to understand it in another. For example, many conservative understand that regulating wages and prices does nothing to help the market and has nothing but harmful results, however a number forget that in certain contexts, such as, say, stock market regulations, where they think the government needs to prevent "abuses", though they would never accept the same reasoning if applied to another part of the market. Or, let us look at those on the left who are so ardent about protecting freedom of speech that they have even expanded the concept beyond traditional limits into "freedom of expression", prohibiting the state from preventing not just words, written or spoken, but actions as well. However, these same individuals have no problem with quite draconian laws covering commercial speech, or regulating what is said in elections, or even by those just discussing elections. Or, as I discussed elsewhere ("Guns and Drugs"), those who oppose gun laws, because we do not need to be protected from ourselves, because we can handle potentially dangerous objects in an adult manner, and yet have no problem saying exactly the opposite when it comes to drug laws intended to protect us from ourselves. (Both sets of laws have even more similarities, such as treating objects as demons that somehow corrupt the innocent, be it guns creating violence or drugs forcing people to use them.)

I mention all this because I have met so much resistance whenever I suggest that the government, in a properly run state, MUST be limited to the protection of rights, and that alone*. So many agree with me to a point, agreeing that the state is too large, that it should not be used for social engineering, and so on, yet when I speak of ending government roads (a view I shared with President Madison, so not so outrageous), or public education, ending the criminalization of drugs or prostitution,  the ending of all laws relating to money an banking, all regulation of the stock market, or many other changes, I am called radical and told it will not work. And yet, when I look at the situation rationally, I can see only the opposite argument, unless we go that far, then it will not work, over time we will return to precisely where we are now.

What is funny about this argument is that two places I found examples making my point are both cartoons, neither of which was noted for a rabidly conservative or libertarian slant. However, I think both examples are interesting, as they not only make my point about the need for consistency, or the dangers of exceptions, but the creators of both cartoons also show quite well what I said at the start, that many people seem to grasp certain principles in one context, but cannot apply it elsewhere.

The first example comes from a quite old episode of The Simpsons. In this one, Marge is shocked by the violence of the Itchy and Scratchy cartoons and campaigns against them. However, later, when Michelangelo's David is to visit Springfield, others claims to be following her example in prohibiting such smut from coming to town. The rest of the episode is not important, what matters here is that the episode shows exactly what I have so often argued, once you open the door, once you provide a justification, no matter where you try to draw the line, someone else will come along, apply the rule more consistently, and by being more consistent, win every argument. Thus, in this example, once the principle of banning something "for your own good" is allowed, where can we draw the line? Who is to say what definition of your own good is to be used? The law, by its very nature, assumes the average citizen is incompetent to know his own self-interest, and thus requires an educated, superior elite to decide for him. Thus, how can we oppose anyone who grasps that mantle? Since the assumption is the majority is incompetent, there is no real way to appeal. And thus, whoever has the clout to become the authority on what is and is not allowed can do so, and the more draconian the better, as such laws exist to be used. Anyone who argues for more lenient use will seem to be fighting against the law, and thus, in the end, political connections, popular support and over-reaching ambition will determine who says what is and is not allowed.

The second example comes from King of the Hill. In this episode, shocked at the poor quality of low-flow toilets, Hank asks who made the laws requiring them. Finding out it was the Board of Zoning and Resources, he expresses his surprise, saying he was a fan of their previous rules**. In a very subtle way, this shows something many of us forget, even the most innocuous of agencies, even the most "common sense" and "practical" of rules establish both a precedent and a power base. The people regulating electrical rates today may not abuse their power, but as many states are discovering, they can, and do, initiate mandatory reductions in usages, planned outages and "voluntary" outages. What started as a minimal and pragmatic board found the right circumstance and began to flex its muscles. Similarly, if we allow that an agency is needed to "fix" the free market, and then give them power, any power, why are we surprised when they move beyond rules we like to those we don't? Do we assume our own will is the same as everyone else's? Well, if not, then why grant arbitrary power to others who might use it in ways we find wrong? Because they say they will only use it in ways we like? Are we truly that gullible***?

The simple fact is, everyone, from the most pro-intervention down to the least, believes their ideas represent "common sense", and thus imagines that everyone will institute regulations in accord with their beliefs, and so, thinking thus, they can't imagine why anyone would oppose these "common sense" and "minimal" regulations. ("The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism") But the truth, recognized by some of us, is that everyone has different ideas, and once you grant the state power to do something, someone with a different idea will see that grant of power, draw an analogy to their pet project, and try to get the same power for their end. And so will another, and another. And once you justify your own pet project, the logic is established to justify everyone else's as well. And before too long, those who advocated for those first few "common sense"**** measures will come to discover "common sense" means a lot of different things to different people. Unfortunately, by then it is too late. once the grant is given, and the precedent established, the arguments made, there is very little we can do to turn back the clock. And so, like it or not, things just continue to grow and grow, and the state eventually consumes all. ("Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything""With Good Intentions", "In The Most Favorable Light", "Skewed Perspective , or, How Big Government Becomes Inevitable""The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises")

Sadly, people seem to grasp this in some cases, the ones that matter to them, but not in others. Either they have their own authoritarian solutions they want to try, or they just can't see the same problems exist whether banning artists or realtors, outlawing guns or drugs. And so, in the end, we end up being our own worst enemies. ("Tyranny Without Tyrants""Don't Blame the Politicians", "You Lose When You Think You Win", "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Volunteer Fireman, Barn Raisings and Government",  ""...Then Who Would Do it?"", "Collective Action and Government", "Why Must The Government Do It? Part I""The Single Greatest Weakness""Bar Fights, Riots and Drug Markets - The Limits of Law")


* While I argue this is the ideal, I also do not think it best to impose this ideal from the top down. Instead, it seems best to approach this via a distributed system, where individuals can come to see the benefits of various approaches and come tot his conclusion themselves. See "Reforms, Ideal and Real", "The Case for Small Government" and "Minimal Reforms".

** Oddly, while trying to look up the specific name of the agency in this episode, I found a libertarian essay using this episode in a somewhat different context.

*** I am sure some of my neo-anarhcists will argue the same applies to any government, but I would disagree. The minimal government which protects rights, and does that alone, is actually an optimal situation for individuals, as I proved in  "Learning From Crows""The State of Nature and Man's Rights", "A Beast's Life", "Civilization and the Fear of Death" and "The Benefit of Society". It is only when we go beyond protecting rights that such issues arise. (Cf  "Slippery Slopes""No Dividing Line", "Harming Society", "You've Come a Long Way, Baby!", "In Loco Parentis", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Some Thoughts on "Summerhill"", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, And Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency",  "With Good Intentions", "In The Most Favorable Light", "Inescapable Logic", "Recipe For Disaster", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention",  "The Cycle of Compassion", "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything" and "Inspections, Regulations and Bans")

**** For a list of my problems with pragmatism and common sense see  "The Lunacy of "Common Sense"", ""Seems About Right", Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revistied, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "Impractical Pragmatists", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "No Dividing Line", "The Consequences of Bad Laws" and "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact".


  1. >>…when I speak of ending government roads [etc., etc., etc.,]… I am called radical and told it will not work.”

    This type of discussion always raises the question of whether this form of ultra-limited gov’t won’t work because people won’t accept it, or whether people won’t accept it because it won’t work. Either way you have a problem. Personally I would be satisfied to simply stick to the Constitution, but that too is considered radical to a lot of folks these days.

    1. Though, according to Madison, the Constitution did not allow for the federal funding of roads, so he too would have never allowed the national highways.

      But some will defend this by saying "but that was long ago.." as if somehow people in the 18th and 19th centuries did not care about transportation or need roads.

    2. I will gladly bow to Madison’s greater understanding of the Constitution, but I don’t think making the case for federal highways under the provisions of national defense and general welfare was such a stretch. If ever there was an appropriate task for gov’t, roads are it.

      I argued the case for gov’t roads ad nauseum with the anarchist until at one point he conceded that roads were not exactly the best case for an anti-government argument. The construction of roads presents at least two major challenges that the free market typically doesn’t have to deal with. In order to be useful, roads require that they be connected to one another, which means not only are there massive logistical considerations, but the assertion of private property rights at any point along the path can threaten the entire project. The second problem is that the free market works as well as it does because of competition, but competition is not a realistic expectation when it comes to roads. Due to land requirements, private property rights, inevitable building construction around roadways, topographical roadblocks like lakes and mountains, and the massive amounts of money required, it simply is not realistic to expect that the private sector is going to construct multiple roads competing for the same traffic.

      For a year or more I challenged the anarchist to explain the step by step process of constructing roads exclusively by the private sector. He couldn’t do it. I am told that without gov’t interference the private sector would have taken care of it, but the reality is that it never happened despite the technology being readily available and the entrepreneurial spirit being alive and well. And that’s true all around the world. Someone once sent me a list of “private” roads that have been built (was it you?), but it represented an infinitesimal fraction of the existing roadways and nearly every project actually involved the gov’t during some step of the process. If the argument against green energy is that the private sector, left to its own, rejects it, then can’t a similar case can be made for the notion of private roads as a the major source for our transportation system?

      The neoanarchist gave a link to an anti-gov’t-road article in which the writer suggested we could all be zipping around in vacuum tubes and other high technology modes if it weren’t for gov’t stealing all our money to build roads. I’m not a scientist (nor have I played on TV), so I won’t presume to debate the merits of the technology but the market is pretty good at finding ways to produce viable products if it’s feasible. The fact is vacuum tubes and similar ideas present some of the very same logistical problems that roads do for the private sector. Otherwise there’s nothing preventing the private sector from making such ideas a reality, as far as I know.

      So right about now you’re probably wishing I’d stayed in Colorado. :)

    3. To counter your argument, both phones and the internet present exactly the same problem and yet one was created almost entirely through free market (excluding the very early DARPA steps), and the other is currently managed largely in a free market.

      For that matter, you overlook the logistical requirements of every job. I am sure you have seen the oft cited essay about everything that goes into making a pencil. Or, to put forth another example, tourist resorts are often served by independent airports, and the traffic between the two is handled by private buses and taxis, and yet all coordinate quite well without government.

      Thus, I think the complexity and the need to coordinate exists in just as many private ventures and is solved quite well, so I don't see it as a particularly strong argument for requiring government involvement in road building.

      (Not that this is my first choice of argument against government expansion, but along with public education I find it provides a convenient means of showing just how far we have gone in accepting that somehow private enterprise "cannot" do what the government can, as if the government is some form of magical cooperation that private individuals cannot emulate.)

    4. Well look, we can argue about the comparative logistics of building phone lines or pencils which entail some pretty significant differences IMO; but the bottom line as I see it is that the private sector DID develop phone systems and pencils while it did not develop a road system. I can’t think of a better argument than that.

      I used to work as credit analyst for a major bank. If someone came to me and said they wanted to borrow money to build a road from Baltimore to Dallas, one of the first questions that would come to mind is how could the client possibly know how much it would cost? First you would have to acquire the land along a carefully mapped out route. What do you suppose happens to the cost of land when landowners realize that their land is critical to your project? And once the first few parcels are purchased and the route becomes harder and harder to change, the price for each connecting section of land would go higher and higher. That’s how the free market works. And what happens if some of the landholders along the route simply refuse to sell?

      When I argued with the anarchist, he would just ignore those pesky questions. And don't get me wrong, I don't prefer gov't involvemnt.