Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Free Market Solution

It is a common criticism of libertarians, economic conservatives and their ilk that they naively believe the market will solve all problems, while quite clearly situations have existed in the past where problems persisted despite a free market, making it clear the market is not the panacea they claim1. To be fair, there are some who do hold such a simplistic faith in the free market, and, unfortunately, at times, the rest of us often write or speak in such a way as to give the impression that we have similar beliefs. So, perhaps, to some degree it is a valid criticism -- though those offering it normally hold equally, or even more, naive beliefs based on faith in the curative power of omnipotent government -- but only to some degree.

For the most part, those who argue for minimal government, for a non-intrusive state and for leaving as many decisions as possible in the hands of the concerned individuals, rather than elected or appointed officials, do not believe the "free market" will magically produce the perfect solution. We simply believe no system will. There is no perfection to be found in this life. And that applies to government and economics as well. As we can see today,  solutions implemented supposedly to cure the imperfections of the free market have almost inevitably failed to cure those problems, or where they did, they did so by introducing different problems2. Similarly, laws intended to curb the abuses of liberty, or enforce more orderly and seemly behavior have, without fail, simply driven such behavior -- very slightly -- underground, usually creating additional problems in the process3. Thus, we do not argue that the free market will solve all problems, but rather that there is nothing that will.

If that is so, then why do we argue for minimal government? Why oppose government intervention into the economy and other matters where the rights of individuals are not concerned and so on? What is the harm of trying other solutions4, if we admit the "free market" is not perfect?

We argue against government involvement for three reasons.

First, though the free market may not be perfect, and may not solve all problems, all evidence, both empirical and theoretical, does say it produces the best possible outcome5. In terms of individual satisfaction, there is no comparison.  Whatever problems may persist, the market also does tend toward removing those things that most individuals find displeasing. It may not always eliminate them, nor will it do so in a way pleasing to everyone, but for the most part, the market does produce solutions which maximize overall satisfaction6.

Second, the alternate solutions, those involving more intervention, have a tendency, as we noted earlier, to produce outcomes which are harmful both from the perspective of those promoting the change, and in terms of overall public satisfaction. Many times, the outcome is, in fact, the exact opposite of the goal desired. For example, while trying to raise the wages of the lowest paid, the government mandates minimum wages, causing many low paid workers to lose their jobs, thus reducing their wages, rather than raising them. Or the introduction of rent control to assure affordable housing, which normally produces, instead, a shortage of rental units of all types. Even in cases where the outcome is not of such a paradoxical nature, it still tends to generate negative consequences which offset, in part or in whole, the anticipated benefits.

Finally, the least intrusive solution ensures greater individual liberty. Every intrusion, in some way, reduces individual freedoms, and increases the risk of greater losses in the future. In some cases, this is obvious, such as drug forfeiture laws, which introduced the novel premise that individuals needed to prove innocence to recover their property, a change clearly fraught with potential for abuse and greater losses of freedom if it becomes more widespread. But even in the case of laws which introduce very minor losses of individual freedoms, where the intrusion is trivial, the fact that it is agreed the government has the right to limit our freedoms to "help us", to do something other than protect our rights against the assaults of others, provides a justification for ever greater intrusions, and, as I have argued repeatedly, the most consistent side wins in any argument, meaning any violation of rights, any justification of government intrusion, might as well be an acceptance of all such intrusions7.

For these three reasons, we accept that, while not perfect8, the government which does nothing more than protect individual rights -- what some insist on simplifying as the "free market" solution -- in the best possible choice. It is not a panacea, but it cannot be. First, because no system of government is without flaws, all of them will have imperfections. Second, and more important, because government is not the means for solving all problems, even societal ones, and so it is wrong to seek a system of government which will resolve every issue we face. Free market, socialist, communist, liberal, conservative or other, no government is suited to resolving every problem faced by society, and thus, no system ever will. Where we differ from those promoting other systems is that we admit this, and recognize that some problems are better solved without the involvement of government.

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1. We will ignore for the purposes of this essay whether or not the ills blamed on the free market are truly such, or rather the outcome of earlier government intervention into the economy, such as economic dislocations in many countries resulting from earlier government monopolies, private ownership of central state banks, dislocations brought about by economic regulations and so on.

2. My constant example being the Federal Reserve, intended to cure the "boom-bust cycle" -- supposedly inherent in the free market (though I believe otherwise) -- which instead brought about a massive worldwide depression less than a decade and a half after it was founded, and has since overseen a continual, and accelerating, series of such boom-bust cycles. Oddly, in this case, the public has failed to notice this fact, and accepts very passionately the arguments that gold based money, and private banks, are anachronisms that would ruin a modern economy, despite a total lack of evidence for such arguments, and fairly strong evidence to the contrary. See "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part I", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part II", "Inflation and Uncertainty", "Bad Economics Part 7", "Bad Economics Part 8", "What Is Money? ", "What Is A Dollar?", "The Gold Question, Not "Why?" But "When?"", "Bad Economics Part 19","Fiscal Discipline", "Putting the Bull in Bull Market" and "Why Gold?".

3. I know most do not agree with me about legalizing prostitution, but, having visited countries where prostitution is legal, and others where it is tacitly tolerated while remaining nominally illegal, there does not appear to be much difference in the number of prostitutes in cities where it is legal versus those where it is not. What does seem to be missing are the used contraceptives in public parking lots and stairwells, the large numbers of streetwalkers, and, to the degree it is possible to legally enforce agreements to exchange sex for money, the abuses brought about by the requirement to use a pimp to get payment from reluctant customers (and provide protection against others). In short, as with drugs, many of the problems we associate with prostitution, are more the result of making it illegal, rather than prostitution itself.  See "Another Look At Exploitation", "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "The Problem of Established Perspectives", "De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est", "Guns and Drugs", "Common Sense, Guns and Regulations", "Consumer Protection", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "Consumer Protection, Cartels and the Failure of Regulation", "Consolidation and Diffusion", "For Your Own Good", "Business Licensing and Regulation", "Inspections, Regulations and Bans", "Why "Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst" is Bad Policy", "GMO Revisited - As Well as Hormones, Soy, Phytoestrogens, and a Host of Other Food Scares", "Gun Control, The FDA and Regulating the Law Abiding", ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe", "A Misleading "Right to Know"", "Oven Mitts and Safety Regulation", "In Loco Parentis" and "Harming Society".

4. I will not bother arguing against the many problems with such "pragmatic" experimentation here, but I have written many other times about the problems with adopting an approach which discounts consistent theoretical approaches in favor of random experimentation. See "Common Sense, Guns and Regulations" , "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 Revisited, Again", "On Extremists, Moderates and Polarization", "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", "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact", "The Rarity of 'Common Sense'", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship" and "The Problem with Common Sense Solutions".

5. See "The Basics".

6. See "The Case for Small Government" and "Competition".

7. See "Inescapable Logic", "Recipe For Disaster" and "Hard Cases Make Bad Law".

8. See "Third Best Economy", "The Gadarene Swine Fallacy", "Denying Reality", "The Threat of Perfection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "Government Quackery", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Two Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism", "Misunderstanding the Market", "The Secret of Success, or, Why Government Fails", "Imperfect Competition, Abstraction and Anti-Trust", "Technology and 'Natural Monopolies'", "Unfair Advantage and Foreign Trade", "The Importance of Error", "Adaptability and Government" and "Redundancy as a Protective Measure".

Thursday, September 24, 2015

I Am Stumped

I need to stop reading left wing websites, as I always end up more confused.

One site I read was talking about his confusion over why people supposedly drift right as they age. I will probably discuss this topic myself later, but for now I want to mention one specific item.

In his list of experiences that come with age is that you meet people of many races and nationalities and learn they are pretty much like you.

And I grant, in general that is true. Most humans are similar, regardless of race or nationality.*

But what puzzles me is, while understanding this, those of the left embrace two other errors.

First, that there is some great unwashed mass out there that needs protection, made up of countless anonymous, foolish people who can't decide anything on their own. In short, a lot of people just like us are also completely different, and incompetent.

Second, the left also believes, while race and nationality does not make a difference, wealth does. The moment you become a business owner, or a manager, or a police officer (mentioned as being "cut off from their class identity" in another essay on this site), you suddenly become evil. Somehow, the balance in one's bank account varies inversely with virtue.

So, race and nationality are irrelevant, but class is everything. And most people are like us, except that great nebulous mass of incompetents which we knowledgeable citizens need to tell how to live.

I don't get it.

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* Oddly, while the left espouses that race does not matter, at the same time they embrace racial identity politics, arguing some things are unique to "the black experience" and the like and empathy is impossible. So, race is irrelevant, and it is also an irreducible primary factor in political thought, both at the same time. Again, I don't get it.

Way Off Topic - One or Two Dimensional

I am not willing to concede the argument of those simpletons who think frequent usage makes "I could care less" a proper statement, but I am in a bit of a quandary concerning one or two dimensional, as used when describing characters.

Perhaps a bit of explanation. In reading a review on Amazon (book or movie, I can't recall), I saw someone describe characters as "one dimensional" and saw someone argue it was "two dimensional", meaning flat. It sounded wrong at first, but as I thought about it more, both made some sense.

I always used the "one dimensional" argument, intending it to mean they had but a single dimension to their character, they were a construct with but one trait. However, I have also seen well rounded characters described as "three dimensional" and thought nothing of it, which implies "two dimensional" would also be a valid criticism.

I really have no preference here, though I doubtless will continue to use one dimensional in the sense described above. But please, let me know your preference if you read this, as I am curious what the consensus is.

The Campaign to Save Me from Myself

I am puzzled by a strange policy decision. Without fail, not just laws, but also private policies established by hotels, businesses, restaurants and so on, decide to treat "e cigarettes" the same as tobacco products when it comes to bans. This one confuses me. After all, the cigarette ban was not justified as a public health measure intended to stop individuals from choosing to smoke, but was sold entirely on the premise that by smoking my "second hand smoke" would unduly harm others. Isn't that why we were chased outdoors, and are banned within x feet of many doors? Isn't that the argument for fining those who smoke in cars with children? And for the failed attempts to ban smoking in "conjoined dwellings"? Or even outdoors in some towns? So, if the risk is second hand smoke, and that justifies the law, then why include e cigarettes? Is "second hand steam" a health issue as well?

Why not just admit it and come clean? The laws about smoking are all about forcing others to stop making a decision the majority finds offensive. As I said before, if the goal was to keep smoke away from others, indoor, enclosed smoking areas expose others to less smoke than making us cluster outside and blow smoke over every passerby. Similarly, there is no logic to laws banning smoking in hotel rooms, as presumably those staying with a smoker can decide whether or not to do so. For that matter, why not allow restaurants and bars to decide whether to allow smoking, and customers can then choose whether or not to patronize them*? The idea of driving smokers outside was not about the health of others, but about inconveniencing smokers to show the majority did not approve and, hopefully, make them conform.

I don't get why the anti-smoking lobby does not admit it. After all, the government already intrudes in many areas to save me from myself. Laws about drugs, about prescription drugs, safety laws, all sorts of regulations are premised on the idea that I am too stupid to judge things for myself and must be told what to do by the omniscient government, so why hide this when it comes to smoking? I don't know whether to take this as a hopeful sign -- that people are finally tired of being treated as inmates in an asylum where the state knows best and controls our every move -- or a depressing one -- that the people pushing the "nanny state" have found a way to overcome whatever backlash may have arisen, and we can look forward to nothing but more and more regulation.

Sadly, I think it is more of the latter than the former.

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* Obviously, this could not be allowed, as such a sensible market solution would undercut endless regulatory efforts. For example, why not allow employers to offer a wage and employees decide whether to take it or not, rather than enforce minimum wage laws? See, such obvious answers would be far too liberating and reduce government scope, so I don't seriously expect to see them embraced.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Religious Double Standards

I recently heard some individuals making fun of the idea that it would be demanded of a Moslem presidential candidate that he renounce sharia law. My question is, why is this such an unreasonable request? After all, when Kennedy ran, there were countless questions about the Catholic demand for obedience to the Pope and insistence Kennedy denounce such a belief. And, even more recently, when Romney ran there were questions about Mormon beliefs such as polygamy (a bit more peculiar, since the mainstream church itself has abandoned the practice). So, why would it be so unreasonable for people to make the same demands of Moslem candidates? Why can Catholics and Mormons be questioned about religious beliefs, but those of Moslems are off limits? I know we have been bending over backwards since September 11, 2001 to show we are not prejudiced against Islam, but it seems a bit absurd to completely disallow any questioning of the religion at all, especially on matters which have been addressed with candidates of other religions.

In a way, the whole issue is a bit silly, as no president will have the power to impose his religion upon the nation. Obviously, his religious beliefs will color his decision making, but would it really have changed Kennedy's behavior if he was simply a Catholic making decisions or a Catholic making decisions based upon the primacy of papal decisions? The outcome would be the same, so where is the issue? Similarly, even if Romney distanced himself from unpopular Mormon positions, he was still shaped by Mormon beliefs, so it is unlikely he would behave any differently after separating himself than before. And, in the case of a Moslem candidate, it seems unlikely merely stating one is not bound by an orthodox interpretation would change the decisions one would make. So, as I said, all of it seems a bit silly.

However, silly or not, it does seem a bit bizarre to not allow the same wrong headed questions on religion for Moslem candidates as one would for Christian candidates from less mainstream denominations. Unless it is our position that nonconformist Christian religions are acceptable targets for such "abuse" but Islam is not, which seems a rather untenable position for those claiming to be defending religious freedom.


POSTSCRIPT

Before someone tries to correct me by pointing out the number of Catholics or Mormons, or the rate of growth of either denomination, my designation of "non-mainstream" and "nonconforming" does not relate to absolute numbers or current popularity, but rather to the popular perception that a "normal American" is a member of some established protestant denomination (or, more recently, of a few evangelical/charismatic denominations). Whether or not this represents the true "average American", it remains the popular perception of what is the American mainstream, and so anyone deviating from it is seen as "nonconformist", be it Judaism or Islam or Mormonism or Catholicism or even Unitarianism. Even some relatively mainstream sects, such as Quakers are far enough form the norm to seem worthy of note in presidential elections, though in the case of Nixon, his long time as vice president kind of lessened this issue for him. But, as I was saying, the perception of "mainstream" has little to do with actual demographics, and much more to do with popular perception and media images of what the average American, especially the average American president, is.

UPDATE

I imagine what I am saying is not exactly clear, so let me simplify. Throughout our history, we have asked questions about those holding religious beliefs outside of the mainstream, which makes me think concern over Moslem beliefs is not anything out of the ordinary or a sign of anything other than the fact that Islam is now mainstream enough to possibly have a Moslem presidential candidate.  Personally, I find such questions absurd, as individuals may clearly deviate from the beliefs of their faith, after all, there are countless pro-choice Catholics, to offer just one example. And, as I said above, in any event, a public statement one does not embrace this bit of the creed or that is silly, as, if they are a true believer, then how much will such a denunciation mean?

As far as people objecting to current questions about Islam, I find it a bit unfair. Yes, most of those objecting to questions about Islam are also troubled by the questions once raised about Kennedy's Catholicism, but I don't recall them making much of a noise about questions raised over Romney's Mormonism. In addition, those arguing we should not question Islamic candidates are often the same people who loved to associate any religious conservative with Phelps and others likely to produce a negative public image, so it seems they have no problem with religious criticism, so long as it is not about Islam. And that is what troubles me here.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Blame America First -- Hiroshima and Nagasaki

I was reading a -- self described -- socialist website which was bemoaning the supposedly unethical decision of the US to drop atomic bombs on Japan. Of course, their viewpoint is not mine. For example, they think the desire of the US to keep the USSR out of Japan and the rest of Asia is an invalid consideration, where I think many Japanese and others are probably quite happy such considerations were made. But, even ignoring their blatant fondness for the USSR, I believe their argument is nonsense -- and the same nonsense I have heard many times from others.

The claim is made that the US did not need to drop the bomb, Japan was on the verge of surrender, and Russia's entry would only speed the fall. Unfortunately, history does not bear this out. Immediately prior to the dropping of the bombs, the US fought Japan in some of the most brutally contested conflicts, with Japan fighting to the last man. Japan may have lost most of its navy, but the home islands were well fortified, intelligence said Japan had stockpiled chemical and conventional weapons, and experience showed guerilla conflicts take little industrial support, but can be quite lengthy and bloody.

Even if you doubt these arguments, the fact remains the US at the time thought the invasion would be costly. Operation Olympic estimated a best case of a half million US casualties, with the possibility of several times that. So, whether or not their beliefs were accurate, US planners were concerned about considerable casualties.

And US behavior shows they were using the bombs basically as one bomb substitutes for traditional massive bombardments. They did not hit Tokyo or Kyoto or go for other "terror" targets, they hit targets they would normally saturation bomb, industrial cities providing possible landing zones on each major island.

Some doubt that last point, arguing the radiation would make for poor landing zones, but recall how imperfect our understanding of long term low level exposure was, and how little we knew at the time about the time it took for radiation from a bomb to dissipate. Not to mention that, even if they did, some limited exposure while establishing a beachhead might have been considered acceptable, just as once were friendly fire, exposure of friendly troops to gas attacks, loss of POWs in bombings and so on. Do not make the mistake of confusing modern viewpoints with those of the past. Instead, look at a map and ask why each city was located on the southern end of each island. Granted, it makes for easy bombing, but it also makes the most obvious landing point were surrender not forthcoming.

Some respond by arguing, even if this is true, was it right to kill all those Japanese to save American lives. But that shows a remarkably anachronistic view. At the time, why until the 1990s or later, we viewed war simply. War was meant to keep our citizens alive and kill enemy combatants. If enemy civilians died, it was of no consequence. We did not intentionally target civilians, but if civilians were killed in striking valid targets, there was no regret. It is only in modern times we have come to believe we can somehow fight a "combatants only" war, and lament so loudly over the death of enemy civilians*.

Finally, let us close by asking, even if the US did, to some degree, drop the bomb to either intimidate the USSR, or keep them out of Asia, was that wrong? After all, this is Stalin's Russia we are discussing, the land of purges, planned famines, massive executions in Eastern Europe during overly broad "de-Nazification" trials and purges of supposed collaborators, and so on. Stalin was not exactly the peaceful, gentle man of communist dogma, he was a murdering imperialist, bent on rapid expansion and elimination of any supposed rival. Was it such a bad thing to limit his expansion? And if that limitation also helped win the war, then where is the harm?

So, though I know it is currently fashionable to apologize for the bomb, I just don't get it. We won the war in a way that minimized our casualties. What is wrong in that? Then again, I also don't get contemporary "combatants only" -- or even "casualty free" -- views of war, so maybe I am just out of touch. Still, it seems to me terribly anachronistic to apologize because men over half a century ago behaved based on the values of their time and not of today. (I am still waiting for Italy to apologize for Rome's guilt in subjugating the Mediterranean and western Europe, or Israel for the cultural imperialism of spreading Judeo-Christian religions around the world. Makes just as much sense.)

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* Oddly, the one group which lamented enemy dead in the past was the communist movement, whose internationalist doctrine declare they would rather commit treason than kill fellow workers in bourgeois war. Strangely, our modern perspective seems to be driven by a very similar belief, one that was once viewed by most as reprehensible.

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POSTSCRIPT

I realize the idea that the bomb sites may have been selected with an eye to landing zones is not a common one, perhaps solely my own, but every time I look at a map, the position of both cities on the southeastern edge of the two largest islands forces me to imagine them as potential points of entry. I may be wrong, in fact it is likely I am, but that does not make much of a difference for my argument. The cities bombed were still those likely to have been saturation bombed with conventional weapons had we invaded, which makes me think the nuclear bomb was used, not as a "terror weapon" but just as a very efficient substitute for conventional bombs.

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UPDATE (2015/09/24): I just saw some excerpts from a group's report (I think it may have been Human Rights Watch) about civilian casualties during NATO's actions in Kosovo and elsewhere. It is an interesting companion piece to this essay, especially since most of the civilian deaths complained about died during strikes on valid targets. It clearly shows how our view of what is allowable in warfare has changed dramatically since the 1940s. Then again, our "unacceptable losses" in either Afghanistan or Iraq were not even one day of fatalities during the Normandy invasion, so that has changed as well. Not that any death is a good thing, but in the past we had a more realistic understanding of the fact that war involved deaths, both ours and theirs. Having found some other materials, I will probably return to this topic soon, as it is an interesting one, and gives some perspective on the differences between the modern mindset -- at least among popular culture opinion makers -- and that which existed fifty or sixty years ago.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Dark Fairy Tales

I was thinking today about recent trends in popular entertainment. First, I considered the recent trend of "mature" superhero stories. And then, the earlier trend for intellectuals (self-described) to find "dark fairy tales" in all sorts of stories, which later evolved into the more explicit form of actual fairy tales rewritten for an adult audience. Not to mention the fascination of many adults with "young adult" fiction, with its overly trite plots and generally low quality writing.

What is it that makes us insist on taking material meant for children and rewriting it to be "dark" and thus, supposedly, more mature? Is it that we hope in so doing we will not have to face the fact that so many of us simply refuse to grow up? That perpetual adolescence seems to be the normal state for far too many adults?

I don't have an answer, I just wanted to ask the question and see what replies I might receive. Perhaps after some thought I will find more to say.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Social Darwinism, Teleology and Simplistic History

I have noticed that many people seem to make a single mistake when viewing history, and they make it in many different contexts. That is the mistake of seeing the course that history took and mistaking it for an inevitability, the course history MUST have taken. It occurs in so many contexts that, without giving specific examples it is rather hard to define. So, let us look at a few. On a very frivolous level, it is seen in those science fiction programs where science is used to "evolve" beings, revealing their future form, which assumes their eventual evolutionary path is inherent in their present form, one version of this mistake. It is also seen in theories of "the course of history", such as Marx's supposedly inevitable phases of social evolution, or theories which speak of "young", "mature" and "dying" civilizations, both of which assume there is some inevitable course all cultures follow. Or, a weaker version can be heard in the old "for the want of a nail..." statement, which, in its own way, takes the present as a given, as the inevitable endpoint, and assumes any changes would lead to some unwanted deviation from the current ideal. Or even in those supposedly clever little aphorisms that speak about how statistically improbable it is your parents met and gave birth, and how even less probable each of their parent did, and so on, trying to demonstrate how remarkably improbable the present is, ignoring the simple fact that, any specific set of all details may be quite improbable, but at the same time one MUST exist, and thus that one such improbable circumstance came to pass is not a surprise, but simply a demonstration of how many different ways history might have unfolded.

Perhaps it would help to explain myself if I started from a more basic statement of my objections to this constellation of views. Maybe if I started with a single objectionable view, and expanded from there, to take in the rest of the related errors.

So, let us start with a simple statement: at a given moment in time, no future outcome is inevitable. Granted, viewing it as history, all outcomes are inevitable, as they are what did happen, but as they were taking place, there was nothing inevitable about a specific outcome, history could have taken an infinite number of different courses, people could have made an infinite number of different decisions, the course it took may seem obvious in retrospect, may seem inevitable, but in truth, it was nothing of the sort. The event only became inevitable after it happened.

A great example of this mistake is found in the analysis of the situation leading up to the first world war. According to most conventional history, the series of alliances, forming two large power blocks, made conflict inevitable. Well, no. Throughout history, alliances in a given region almost always devolve, over time, into two competing blocks. Why this is, is a matter for another discussion, as are the few exceptions. And, yes, most such alliances eventually ended in wars, but that does not mean such alliances make wars inevitable. First, it ignores the many decades, even centuries, such alliances stood before the war broke out, which argue that such alliances can exist a long time in relative peace. Second, it ignores the simple fact that, once such alliances are formed, they usually persist until there is a radical change in geopolitical circumstance. Given that wars are the most common causes of such change, it is truism that wars would be the end of most such alliances, and thus, these alliances do not so much cause such wars, as wars are the cause of the failure of most such alliances. In short, they do not themselves make wars inevitable, but rather it is very probable that when such alliances end, it will be due to war, and, without a war, such alliances are likely to persist. If you doubt this, look at the remarkably stable half century of the cold war era, or the fluid, but largely stable, situation when the kings of England held extensive territory in France. Despite constantly shifting alliances between the lesser lords, and periodic shifts due to military action, the situation, despite periodic conflict, remained stable enough that it did not fully drain the resources of either kingdom.

Or, to look at another popular example, there is often a tendency to describe the regional tensions between north and south in the US prior to the Civil War, and argue such tensions made the war inevitable. However, again, that ignores the lengthy period when such tensions existed, yet war was avoided. For example, many northern states threatened to secede when Texas was admitted, quite a few years before the war, clearly showing high tension between regions, yet war was avoided for quite some time beyond that point. Nor do other historical examples show any proof that such regional tensions make war inevitable. Any number of nations have strong regional rivalries, even hostility, from Italy to India to China and many others, the division into regions does not necessarily mean the outbreak of a violent conflict. Granted, the addition of slavery made the issue somewhat more heated, at least for some, but other nations have even more divisive pressures separating regions -- everything from race to religion -- and yet avoid such conflict. Thus, it is difficult to say the Civil War was in any way inevitable. It is so in retrospect, as it did happen, decisions were made such that war came about, but prior to those decisions, nothing about it was unavoidable.

I mention this error because it feeds into an even worse error, that of misplaced teleology, the belief that somehow there is a plan or pattern to history, that something is unavoidable, that history has a prearranged destination, and that we can see history as a process of reaching this goal.

As I mentioned earlier, a somewhat silly version of this can be seen in a number of science fiction films and television programs where an individual somehow "evolves", turning into some future version of his species. The flip side of this, the episodes where people "devolve" into earlier forms, that makes sense, as it is conceivable one's genetic code could contain information about earlier forms. However, the other end of the spectrum, the idea that individuals contain genetic information about their future forms, is simply absurd. Evolution, whatever else may be true about it, is not a goal drive process. The "survival of the fittest", though a useful description, does not mean there is some ideal future form pre-encoded in genetics. The changes that occur over time are purely random, the result of natural variation in genetic code -- or perhaps externally induced mutations -- but in either case, the random changes either prove themselves or they fail, with the result being the eventual future form of the species. But none of this implies some goal oriented function in evolution. Apes were not created with the end goal of evolving into men, nor is it sensible to speak of men as "higher" than apes or monkeys, in any evolutionary sense. Men are, in terms of evolution, simply better adapted to certain niches and this thrive where other variations on the species did not. We are the most successful existing version in our ecological niches. But that does not mean we are some ideal end goal, or that we will always prove most successful, simply that, at present we have proven ourselves the best fit for our environment.

Similarly, the outcomes of historical events do not have any inevitability about them, nor are they the end result of some preordained process. The renaissance was not an inevitable cure to the dark ages, nor liberalism or communism some inevitable consequence of capitalism and laissez-faire. So many theories exist which state or imply such beliefs that it is hard to refute them all, so let us speak in generalities for the moment. History, for lack of a better description, is nothing more than the record of decisions made by a multitude of humans. Now, yes, there are certain regularities to human behavior. For example, all other things being equal, humans will tend to make decisions which optimize their own satisfaction. Or, all other things being equal, price controls which hold prices below that which the market would set, tend to produce shortages. But as should be obvious form how I worded those rules, they are generalities, not absolutes. I can say "at sea level -- ignoring wind resistance -- objects will tend to accelerate at 9.8 m/s^2 when dropped", and know that is true, but while in general price fixing below market will produce shortages, there are circumstances where such rules do not apply. For example, despite the allure of below market prices, the object may not be appealing enough to attract the buyers required for a shortage. Or, sellers, despite suffering a loss, may decide, for various reasons, to continue to fulfill all orders. Or, for any number of reasons, people may choose to behave in a variety of ways which contradict the general principles of economics and other human behaviors.

I mention this because it is essential to understand that the laws of economics, or of political science, or psychology or any other discipline dealing with human behavior, may apply in the vast majority of cases, but there is always a possibility humans will decide to behave in ways contrary to the general principle. And, because humans are volitional beings, there is no way one can extrapolate from these general rules of behavior to an absolute prediction of the future. This is the error made by positivists, technocrats and others, the belief that the general rules of human behavior are identical to the impersonal and absolute rules of science, which leads them to believe history, and thus the future, must follow a predictable course, one which can be seen and perhaps even controlled.

Which brings me back to my more specific mistake. Seeing this regularity, and these rules, it is tempting for many to detect not only a regularity, but an intent in history, to see what happened as not just a given, but as inevitable, as the necessary consequence of what came before, and to imagine history has a set course, a fixed goal, that it follows a preordained course*. History is, for lack of a better description, simply a record of what was. Any patterns we find are simply there because there is a continuity of actors, or beliefs, and some general rules governing human behavior. But, were such patterns absent (and in many cases patterns found in one part of history vanish from another), it would mean nothing, as the presence of patterns does. Simply put, history may have regularities, but that does not make those regularities inevitable, or mean they will always exist. History does not follow a preplanned course, nor is there any inevitability to what happens, things simply occur.

A related mistake is found in various doctrines of social Darwinism and other schools which attempt to argue that the success or failure of various cultures is inevitable. One need only look at history, at the long survival of societies which sacrificed their own citizens, which imposed self-defeating laws, which enacted rules contrary to all sense, to see that such beliefs are more wishful thinking than a description of historical truth. (Or sometimes special pleading that one's favorite culture must be "special" due to its survival.) Cultures take the forms they do because, at some time, it suits some members of the culture to behave in a given way. And they retain various behaviors because those behaviors continue to suit the culture. Thus, taken literally, culture itself is a Darwinian artifact, the remnants of various cultural choices that proved the best fit for that society. And thus, viewed in one way, any existing culture should have no advantage over another. Likewise, there is no real way in which to measure which culture is "more fit' than any other. In the end social Darwinists end up making one of two dishonest decisions. Either they assume the aspects of the culture which survives are the best course to take and thus beg the question, assuming the fittest cultures are those that have the traits of the cultures which survive, making their theory a tautology -- the cultures that survive have the traits of the cultures that survive. Or else they posit a set of behaviors they find appealing and then cherry pick historical periods and locales that prove their beliefs, ignoring the other times and places where the rivals of their favorite cultures rose to prominence, as they obviously must have done, if they were around to fall to the favored cultures. Thus, in the end, social Darwinism is a choice between tautology and cherry picking evidence and tells us little or nothing about historical necessity.

Finally, there are those who use historical necessity to bolster their own political prejudices. Most often these take the form of arguments that it was inevitable that "mature economies" would adopt a welfare state, or embrace trade unions or adopt whatever other cause is dear to the heart of the individual making the argument. Not that it is always a dishonest argument, many may sincerely believe their beliefs represent inevitable historical outcomes, but it is still a terrible distortion of history. Granted, throughout the 20th century, much of the western world moved toward welfare states and trade unions and central banks and so on, but not because of any historical inevitability, rather because such ideas were spread from one culture to the next, put forth as the "proper" beliefs by leading intellects, and adopted by the majority of those entrusted with political decision making. Thus, far from being inevitable, they were simply the consequence of contemporary thinking on politics. There could have been another history, with completely different outcomes, nothing made the particular situation inevitable, nor was the drift toward a more liberal, interventionist welfare state inevitable.

Doubtless I have forgotten several examples, and just as certain some will object that I am arguing here from faith, not fact. And I admit, I cannot prove with absolute certainty what I say is true. However, I can make my case pretty well. I ask each reader whether or not he makes decisions for himself or is simply an expression of the "spirit of the times" or of his conditioning or his class consciousness or what have you? If you think you are a volitional being, then I ask a farther, by what logic do you then deny the rest of us are possessed of equally free will? And if you confess that the lot of us can make decisions freely, based on nothing but our own wills, then I think my case is made. Certain situations, certain popular beliefs, certain political institutions and the like may make certain outcomes more likely, may make some events more probable, but the truth is, we are volitional beings, and as such, history is, until the event has passed, a blank slate, with any outcome possible, and there is nothing that makes history deterministic, or makes inevitable specific outcomes. The future is unknown, it is what we decide to make of it, nothing is inevitable. And thus, history, though now fixed in time, was at that moment, equally indeterminate.

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* I do not intend here to discuss religious theories of preordained events, mostly because that topic is so distant from the mistakes I am discussing. Even if one accepts religious prophecy, for the most part, mainstream religion includes prophecies which describe little more than minute fraction of a percent of the future, usually just a few years before the end comes, a thousandth of human experience, if that, and then describes only a few large events, not the minute outcomes of every actions taken by each individual. Thus, it seems foolish to lump such narrow predictions in with beliefs that imagine the whole of history is in some way predictable, or that hundreds of years of events, or more, are the outcome of some preordained pattern. Granted, some more extreme advocates of prophecy may fall into this latter description, but they are relatively few in number. For the most part, religious claims about preordained futures deal with very small amounts of time and paint even those days with a very broad brush.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Question About Extinction

I was watching an older television show, and, in the course of the story, some statement was made about the "accelerating rate of extinction", which raised a few questions for me. It is a statement we hear made with great regularity, but, as far as I can tell, it is one which lacks much in the way of foundation.

Now, there are a number of issues with this statement, some I have mentioned before, and some new, so please bear with me if you heard some of this before.

First, there is the question of what constitutes a species. In recent times there seems to be a tendency, at least in the circles which define endangered species status, to redefine what were once simply subspecies, or even coloring variations or regionally isolated populations of the same species, as whole new species. And this is important, as have we truly "lost a species" if an otherwise absolutely identical creature exists, differing only in color scheme, tail length or mating call? Even if the two populations cannot interbreed any longer due to isolation from one another, if that is the sole difference, does that mean we have suffered a tragedy if one population or the other disappears?

Second, what about species that "disappear" because they evolved into something else? Are we to fight against evolution in the name of conservation? Often, when a species is undergoing changes due to altered environmental factors, or even because of the emergence of a mutation which makes the descendants more effective in exploiting a niche, some of the first species will linger on, but they are slowly being forced to die out. Is this to be seen as a bad thing? Is nature to be condemned for not retaining "backup copies" of every species that ever was?

Third, how do we know precisely how many species exist, much less go extinct? As far as I can tell, most such figures, such a "we lose 100 species a day" or "a week" or whatever, are largely based upon guesses as to how many species are assumed to exist in unexamined regions,  coupled with equally nebulous guesses as to how many are lost. If you were to ask for a list of which 100 species were lost last Tuesday, no one could provide it, or even a partial list. The number is, as far as I can tell, mere guesswork, and largely unfounded guesswork at that.

Which brings me to the big question, how do we know this number is growing? Our knowledge of historical species is spotty at best, based on quite imperfect records, such as fossils, historical writings, preserved pelts and bones, some few examples preserved in amber, peat and other unusual circumstances, and educated assumptions of the likely evolutionary history of living species. I admit, it is amazing how much we have discovered about the past, but as anyone who works in the field will tell you, the record is very incomplete, and some parts are highly speculative. So, given that, how can we possibly know the rate at which species went extinct in the past? We have a few estimates for large extinction events, and certain very common fossils are conspicuous enough we notice when they disappear, but for more recent times, we really lack any numbers about how many species went extinct and when. So, it seems pretty absurd to argue the rate is increasing, when not only do we not really know the present rate, but we don't know the past either.

None of this is meant to argue that wiping out species without reason is a good thing (and yes, there are good reasons to wipe out species, the spirochete causing syphilis, the worms causing river blindness, and a few others come to mind as species I would not mind seeing vanish), but we should be careful before bemoaning a crisis whose existence we cannot prove. Yes, species are going extinct, but that has been true of every moment since life emerged. Nature is not static, it does not have the mind of a taxonomist or a comic book collector, sealing each species in a plastic bag, or hanging on to a small sample of each new life form. Nature is a struggle, and species constantly arise, change, vanish, die out and otherwise alter themselves. Thus, it makes little sense to fret over the simple fact that species are not static, that life changes. It would be much more beneficial to find out, first, whether or not species are vanishing at some faster rate at all, and then, if that change has any meaningful consequence. Only then can we begin to realistically decide whether we should worry about such things.