Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Few Notes on Government

Recently on one of the web sites I frequent, there was a discussion of Trump's political inclinations, and in the course of this debate a number of terms were tossed about. Now, in general, I find conservatives have a pretty good grasp of these terms (eg understanding fascism is not that different from communism), but it still might be useful to look at some of the mroe common bits of terminology and discuss what they mean*.

Communism is one of the terms most people understand pretty well simply by intuition. Communism is a form of government where all production is owned and controlled by the state, as is the distribution of all goods. Which only makes sense as, technically, the state continues to own all goods, only allowing individuals the use of them. Where some people fall into trouble is assuming that Marxist communism is the sole form, and thus arguing all communists are internationalist, atheist and so on. While it is true Marxism is the most common today, along with its off-shoots such as Trotskyites, there have been many communist theories and some were nationalist, some even religious, so, while modern communism often is atheist and internationalist, those are not essential traits.

Socialism is a term that cannot help but confuse. Originally it was a synonym for communism, and was used as such by Marx and Engels. However, modern speakers tend to use it differently. The most common use, that adopted by many newscasters and mainstream political commentators, is to use it to describe a mixed system of private and government ownership, specifically any such mixed economy where the proportion of state ownership is greater than our own. Basically, since most choose to describe our mixed economy as "the free market", any economy with our level of public involvement or less is "capitalist" and anything with more public involvement, but less than total control is called "socialism". (There is often a fuzzy zone of states with just a little more public ownership which are often called capitalist in some contexts and socialist in others, but that is just more confusion, created by an already poorly defined term.)

The other use of socialism is by people who call themselves libertarian, but who tend to adopt many conspiracy theories and have an overall fear of government. These people will often use "socialist" as a pejorative for anyone who does not agree with their specific beliefs**. If one disagrees with the specific limits they want to place on government, he will be called a socialist, is he does not "really" believe in freedom.

Fascism is another term which causes endless confusion.Fortunately in recent years a a number of conservative writers have been at pains to correct them, but there are still many in the general public who hold odd ideas. Fascism is, for lack of a better description, communism without ownership. That is, the government exercises all the same power over businesses and the distribution of goods, but retains the appearance of private enterprise. In all other respects, economically it is identical to communism. In fact Ludwig von Mises called communism "socialism of the Russian type" and fascism/Nazism "socialism of the German type".

So, what are the misconceptions? Well, first of all, fascism is not a "right wing" philosophy. The old "political spectrum" theory that communism was the extreme version of liberalism and fascism/Nazism the extreme form of conservatism is absurd. In part, it comes from one fact and one poorly defined term. In our time, most fascist theories have been nationalist***. There is no requirement it be so, but that has been the case in the 20th century. Unfortunately, the term "conservative" has been defined in different ways in different places and eras. In the 19th century in Europe, and even in many European countries in the 20th century, "conservative" was used, not for small government proponents, but for nationalists, royalists and protectionists****. In the US, it was used at one time to describe protectionists and nationalists, but by mid-20th century was beginning to change to mean small government proponents. However, because of this dual meaning, fascism was called "conservative" because of its nationalist aspects, and, because of the confusion of terms, the theory arose that fascism was an extreme form of free market and small government beliefs. Obviously, this is nonsense, as an all-encompassing state such as fascism creates is hardly consistent with free markets or small government. It is clearly much more similar to big government beliefs.

A slightly less confused term, though still poorly defined, is the free market, or capitalism. Capitalism is not really that badly used, as it really means little more than an economy where private individuals own the assets used to produce wealth. Thus it is technically not incompatible with mixed economies where the state owns part of the economy. Only once one reaches the total control of fascism or communism would it be inappropriate.

But the "free market' is horribly ill used by most political commentators. Taken literally, a free market would be one where the government intervenes only to settle contractual disputes, and to prevent force, theft and fraud. Some might argue that it could still be sued with some degree of government regulation, but that creates its own problems, as when does regulation become great enough that it is no longer a "free market"? However, that is a minor dispute compared to the way in which the term is regularly used. In most cases, mixed economies with partial government ownership, as well as intrusive regulation, is dubbed "the free market", just as long as the amount of public ownership is not much greater than that in our own economy. In other words, it is simply assumed we are a "free market" no matter what we do, and others are judged relative to us. The problems with this usage should be obvious.

Which brings me to the final term I want to discuss. This one is a bit different as rather than one misused by the mainstream and liberals, I want to discuss a term where I end up arguing with conservatives. And that term is "democracy".

How many times have you seen someone call the US a democracy only to have someone state "no, we are a republic!" Well, I want to say, this is wrong, or at least not entirely correct.

The problem is, the people making this claim are using a single definition. They are accept the terms as established by Aristotle and used by the Founders (though even they were not as doctrinaire as some think, as I shall show). Aristotle set up pairs of government, one each for single man rule, rule of an elite and mass rule, and had a good and bad version of each. (Eg tyranny and monarchy.) In the case of mass rule, he contrasted "democracy" with "republic", using "democracy" to mean what political science would call "direct democracy", where matters are decided by direct vote, and majority rule is absolute.

However, that is not the only way in which "democracy" can be used, and even the founders, in many cases, recognized this, using the term "pure democracy" in many cases when describing this sort of direct democracy. Why? Because they recognized that "democracy" literally means nothing more than "rule of the people" and, using it in another sense, republics can be described as democratic, or as democracies. These are not direct democracies of the Aristotle sense, but what political scientists call indirect democracies, where representatives elected by popular vote, or in other ways, vote on decisions and majority rule is moderated by the procedure. You can see this in the writings of many politicians of the era who often are critical of "pure democracy" or "rule of the masses" (and sometimes just "democracy"), but at the same time will call our government "democratic", will describe it as a "democracy" at times, and even create a party called the "Democratic Republicans". From this, it is clear to me they did not think "democracy" had only a singular meaning as in Aristotle, but that "democracy" could be used in both the Aristotelian sense, and in a more general sense of any state wherein popular vote played a role, whether deciding directly or electing representatives to decide.

So, having gone through all of this, I suppose there is little left for me to do except to finally talk about Trump and his beliefs. As that was what inspired this entire essay, it seems silly not to at least give a brief synopsis of my thoughts.

I do not believe Trump is a fan of democracy or other popular rule. Obviously, he will use the forms of democracy to gain office, and like all seeking office will pay lip service to the "will of the voters" and the like. He is simply too clearly in love with the idea of exercising unfettered power for him to desire anything which might limit it.

Nor do I think he is a conservative in the small government, federalist sense for the same reasons. He obviously wants power, and he does not want to pass it back tot he states or the people. He may fit the nationalist, protectionist, nativist sense of "conservative" -- the one more common int he 19th century and later in some European nations -- and that would make it tempting to see him as a fascist, but I would argue that is not entirely accurate as well.

I grant that Trump has some protectionist ideas, and some nationalist ones, but he is too inconsistent, not enough of a systematic thinker, and, though he wants power, he does not seem to have an organized plan to nationalize the economy. Thus, I would think calling him a fascist is to ascribe to him too coherent a political philosophy.

My thought is that Trump is a simple despot. He seems to believe his every thought is brilliant and should be acted upon, his every whim is a great insight. And because he believes he is the smartest man ever, he wants unlimited power to allow him to put his brilliance into action. That is the philosophy of a simple dictator, a despot, what once was an absolute monarch, or what Aristotle would call a tyrant.

Which is actually a little more troubling than were he a fascist, or any other consistent philosophy. As I wrote elsewhere*****, consistency is essential for almost anything we want to do> Even the worst government, if consistent in its actions, is easier to handle than arbitrary actions, even if managed by the most well meaning individual. Trump's tendency to change course, his unpredictability and his lack of a driving philosophy mean under a Trump regime it would simply be impossible to know what would be coming in the next week, the next day, the next hour. And that is a recipe for complete inactivity, a collapse of the economy, and general chaos.

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* Some of these topics were discussed earlier in "The Political Spectrum".

** This is akin tot he way many use the term "neocon" to mean anyone with whom they disagree, or the way the Trump fans used "GOP establishment" to describe any opponent regardless of actual degree of influence with the GOP, or even for those who are not GOP members at all. (I was called GOPe once when telling how I left the GOP after it became clear Trump was the nominee, which should make obvious how little meaning the term has.)

*** here is no necessity that fascism be racist either. Italian fascism was devoid of racist elements for the most part. As with fascism's nationalist history, any association with racism is historical accident and not a necessary trait of fascism.

**** The Republicans, and American conservatives in general, continue to suffer from this mixed definition. We can see it today in the Trump campaign ("The Problem With the Big Tent", "What Does Not Kill You...", "Misunderstanding Conservatives"). In that case, the nationalist, protectionist, populist, even racist elements of the GOP are trying to seize power from the small government, free market, free trade, federalist conservatives, to allow them to redefine the term "conservative" to fit their beliefs. A similar struggle has taken place from time to time with more activist social conservatives who object to too strict a small government position as it prevents laws they consider important. Because conservatism is so poorly defined, this has been a recurring struggle.

***** See "Predictability and Pragmatism - Why I Oppose Trump", "The Myths and Realities of Strict Construction", "Predictability", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Traffic Lights, Predictability and Conservatism", "Inflation and Uncertainty", "In Praise of Contracts", "Contracts and Freedom" and "Juvenile Culture and Totalitarianism".

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Short Discussion of Money

I have written before about money*, not in the sense of macroeconomic policy or economic policy, not even in the sense of monetary theory, but simply discussing money as money, that is asking what money is, why we use money and how it works. Despite the seeming simplicity of the topic, it is one that, because it is fundamental, must be resolved if we are to understand many other economic questions, especially those related to banking, inflation and other topics where money itself plays a crucial role. And it is not as simple a topic as many assume, it is, if anything, deceptively complex, and prone to a number of common misunderstandings, most of which lead to dangerously wrong conclusions. If anything, the questions of "what is money?" and "how does money work?"are at the root of many of the most common economic fallacies.

Thus, though I have discussed the topic before, I hope you will be patient as we examine it one more time, this time not in such great details, but rather, looking at a few common mistakes. Normally, I would not bother addressing these errors, as it is so much easier to simply explain how things work in some detail, and in the process demonstrate the mistaken beliefs behind any number of common mistaken perceptions, but in this case, these beliefs are so common, so frequently espoused, that is seems worthwhile to dissect them, and to demonstrate why a few bits of "conventional wisdom" are simply wrong.

There are three common errors made in discussions of money, errors that we hear repeated from elementary school all the way through graduate school classes. For some reason they are both incredibly popular and equally mistaken. And, not coincidentally, all three deal with the issue of value. First, there is the claim that money has value simply because we agree it does. Second, there is the statement that money is a substitute, or some sort of evolutionary step away from, for barter. That is that money is, in one way or another, sui generis, something completely separate and apart from barter and other direct exchange.  Finally, there is the statement made about specie --gold, silver and other commodities once used as money -- that its value also rests upon arbitrary agreement.

Now, before we begin, let me clarify one thing. If you want to be absolutely pedantic, the three statements are technically correct, since valuation is a human concept and all value assigned to any good is arbitrary. If I say I want food more than bits of lint from the drier, that is an arbitrary valuation in one sense, as, divorced from human beliefs about utility and desirability, there is no way to say one is of more value than another. On the other hand, I do not believe that is what these arguments are intended to mean. Almost always, for example, in discussions of gold, the conversation mentions the lack of a "need"** for gold, proposing its worth is arbitrary as gold has no "practical" uses. Thus, I believe they are not arguing that these values are arbitrary in any absolute sense, but rather that, unlike the values we assign to goods we consume or use, the values assigned to money are based in imaginary worth, not upon any utility we find in satisfying wants. Thus, I will not mention again the fact that all value is subjective and arbitrary in this sense, and limit myself to discussing it in terms of utility in satisfying wants.

I could probably offer a few more such caveats, as valuation and subjectivity are tricky concepts, especially when used in economics, but I am afraid if I did so I would fill several dozen paragraphs with preliminaries before we reached the argument proper, and so, rather than allowing ourselves to get lost in prelude, let us jump into the main body of the essay, and begin examining our three errors. Should any particularly vexing conceptual issues arise, we can deal with them along the way.

Actually, I may have spoken a bit too soon, as our very first error actually requires a bit of clarification if we are to examine it properly. That is the claim that the value assigned to money, the worth it has, is rooted in nothing more than collective agreement, that it is an entirely arbitrary construct.

This claim is, in one way, clearly of modern provenance. Until the birth of fiat currency, fully divorced from any commodity, in the 20th century, this claim would have been seen as absurd. Money had worth, at least in part, because it was convertible. Granted, what commodity backed the currency was often somewhat arbitrary, from Chinese warehouse receipts to tobacco receipts to gold, or silver or copper, countries varied in what they used to back their paper currency, but until very recent times that paper currency was convertible***. And, it was made even more clear in those nations which used specie, as gold and silver coins often traded alongside the paper notes, making it clear money was not an arbitrary construct, but was a certain quantity of precious metal, whether in the form of a gold coin or of a paper note convertible into the same.

Some might agree with this claim, but then ask whether, because of changes in the modern era, it is not right to say, while past currencies were commodity currency, with their value imparted, at least in part, by the commodity into which they were convertible, is not the present fiat currency, no longer redeemable in anything****, not accurately described as a system where value is defined by arbitrary agreement?

The answer is, sort of.  On paper the system does fit that description perfectly. National currencies are not convertible into anything, their value is not defined in terms of any commodity, they are valued only because people are willing to exchange them for goods, and because the government accepts them as payment (and deems those refusing them as payment to have forfeited a debt).

But that is on paper, without any of the context.

In truth, money is still sort of valued in gold. Why else would currency have varying exchange rates? Why else would countries maintain massive gold reserves? Why else would nations continue to fret over the price of gold in terms of the national currency?

The fact is, when the gold window began to close in 1934, people expected it might open again, or at least, because some people could still convert money to gold, they imagined they could get gold if they wished. And even as the window closed more and more, finally shutting entirely between 1971 and 1973, people still thought gold redemption may one day return, and so money still traded as it were redeemable in gold. (And when the holding of monetary gold was made legal in the US once again in 1977, people became even more optimistic about this, for a time.) Even now, when there is little hope that money will ever be convertible into gold, it is still valued, at least in part, based on national reserves.

Thus, while on paper money may appear to be arbitrary, in truth the value of money continues to persist based upon its history as a commodity currency, with a value based on that commodity, not an arbitrary value at all.

Which brings us logically to the third error (we shall skip the second for a moment), the claim that precious metals are, themselves, valued on an arbitrary basis, and that their worth is entirely based upon a collective decision, that, but for their use as money, they would be considered much differently.

The arguments against this are many, and should be obvious, but I have heard this argument frequently enough I can tell they must not be as obvious as I think. So, allow me to off er a few of the most convincing, in hopes of dispelling this mistaken belief.

I suppose the first argument is the most obvious, that being that claims these metals have no uses are simply wrong. Silver, because it is toxic to most organism, has a long medicinal history continuing through the present. Likewise, because it both resists corrosion and is easily shaped, gold has found uses throughout history, even bore the discovery of many modern applications in electronics. And that completely ignores the widespread use of both in decorative functions, even in lands that never used them for currency, even lands that never developed a currency. Gold, because it is so soft and easily shaped, does not tarnish and is a bright and attractive metal, was used in many civilizations for jewelry, objects d'art and other functions. Silver, being less easily shaped and more prone to tarnishing, was not adopted quite as early in our history, but it too was a popular decorative metal.

Thus the value assigned was hardly simply an arbitrary choice made by those seeking to create a currency. In fact, it is certain these metals were valuable before they became currency, as their value is what made them attractive as money.

Allow me to explain.

A good money must have several traits. First, it must be durable, which is why most agricultural products are unpopular (though tobacco receipts were used at one time in the colonies, and the more impoverished among the ancient Egyptians sometimes used loaves of bread). Second, it must be easily divisible, but not only that, it must retain its value when divided. The reason for the first should be obvious. If I am to make change, or join together smaller amounts, it is useful to have a currency which can be split or joined with ease. Things that must be kept in discreet units (such as the goods represented by Chinese warehouse receipts) are not as attractive, as one must constantly deal with the full value, being unable to split it apart. The second bit of that argument, that it must retain its value, is less obvious, but becomes clear if we think of an example. Gems, for instance, are a good possibility for a currency, except that they cannot be subdivided. Oh, they can be cut apart, but their value changes greatly. A 1 carat diamond is not worth twice as much as two half carat ones. Thus, gems are not a good choice since subdivision alters the value. The third rule is also one that demonstrates a shortcoming of gems. A good currency must be uniform. If each unit has a different value (as is the case with gems) it becomes too difficult to appraise the worth of each unit, and exchange becomes cumbersome, more like barter than currency.

It is the final rule that demonstrates why gold and silver were thought valuable before they were used as money. To be useful, money must have a high value per unit volume and weight. Since currency needs to be transported, especially in eras before bank notes, the commodity chosen must have a fairly high value per weight and volume, or else it becomes difficult or impossible to carry large sums. Thus, when gold and silver were selected to be used as currency, they must already have been considered quite valuable, as otherwise there would be no sense in selecting them, since until their value rose from being used as currency, one would need to carry massive quantities.

Thus I would argue gold and silver were not simply arbitrarily selected as currency and thus assigned a high value by popular acclaim. No, they were already valuable because of their uses, both practical and decorative, as well as their relative scarcity. It was this high value, along with uniformity, divisibility and durability that made them good choices for becoming the basis of a monetary system. All of which demonstrates they were not valued arbitrarily, but were in demand already, making them a good fit for use as money.

Which brings me to the final mistaken belief, the idea that there is some dividing line distinguishing the use of money from barter.

Before going ahead, let us agree on a few points. Yes, once money is well established, and banking and bank notes and all the rest are in regular use, there are manipulations possible with currency that would be difficult in a system of direct exchange. Fractional reserve banking, inflationary expansion of money supplies and other practices do rely upon money, and would not be available in a purely barter economy were it not for the acceptance of a single currency. However, I would argue that does not prove money is in any way separate from barter. After all, those particular aspects apply only if we have both money and the use of bank notes with reserve backed banking. Were we to use currency but never develop banking those practices would be impossible as well. Thus, while they seem to distinguish money from barter, in truth they simply demonstrate one specific type of money economy allows a number of  unsound economic policies.

So, what is it that distinguishes money from barter? Supposedly money casts a "veil" over transactions, abstracting from direct exchange, but, in truth, monetary exchanges are nothing but barter. Granted, they are a barter system where everyone sues the same intermediate step of converting goods into a single commodity, but they are still barter.

If you doubt this, stop thinking of money as something special and look at how the market reacts to various changes. If money increases, be it from an influx of precious metal or the printing of currency, how does the market respond? As it would to a glut of any good, that good trades at a discount against other goods. Likewise, when a shortage of a good arises, it trades at a premium. Money, especially when commodity money, trades like any other good. There is no real distinction from barter, monetary exchange is just a barter system where everyone trades for the same good.

So, what does all this tell us? Why is it important to keep these ideas in mind?

Well, first because they provide a good remedy against silly monetarist beliefs. There is, for instance, no way we can have "too little" money. Nor is there any need to keep increasing the amount of currency, as some claim. If currency is in short supply, it will be revalued, and things will proceed. There is no need for "managed money" or continued government inflation. Do you need someone to keep adding goats to a barter economy for it to work? Then we do not need an influx of new currency either.

Secondly, it should eliminate the idea that adding money is beneficial. Increasing the money supply lowers the value of currency already in hand, that is it erodes the value of savings, of fixed incomes and other possessions valued in cash. In short, it is a drain on the economy. Nor does it help increase wealth or end unemployment or any of that other nonsense. All it does is making accounting inaccurate and savings a dangerous folly.

There are many other follies justified by mistaken views of currency, more than I could reasonably list. So, rather than continuing to go on drawing out this essay to absurd lengths, I will leave it here and let my readers discover how many absurd claims can be demolished simply by recalling money is just a form of barter, and the value of money comes from the value of a commodity. It really does make it difficult to believe in many of the concepts of macroeconomics.

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* 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?"", "Counter-Strike and Currency", "Bad Economics Part 19","Fiscal Discipline", "Putting the Bull in Bull Market" and "Why Gold?".

** I have many problems with the use of the word "need", but this is not a good place to discuss such topics. Those interested can read about my arguments against that word and similar, largely meaningless terms in "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "A Question of Fairness", "Protean Terminology", "One More Meaningless Word and Its Consequences", "Confucius, Aedes Aegypti, Pluto, Sub-Species, Conservatives and Republicans", "Misunderstanding Arbitrary Definitions", "Weasel Words and Hollow Words", "Semantic Games", "Misleading Terminology", "Smoking Versus Sex -- Want and Need Take Two", "Can We Ban the Word 'Scarce'?", "Government by Emotion" and "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions".

*** The colonial experiments with land banks in some ways presaged modern fiat currency. The money was nominally backed by land of a certain value, and note issue was limited by the quantity of land, but since money was not directly convertible into land, and oversight was weak or nonexistent, these banks became sources of uncontrolled inflation and routinely resulted in economic chaos. Some states even recognized this fact and used land banks to effectively inflate their way out of debt, by using land bank notes to export debt and consequent inflation to other colonies. Since notes were not really convertible, they did not have to worry about out of state holders trying to redeem them, as did the "wild cat" banks used for the same purpose.But that was the only real example of nonconvertible currency before modern times.

**** In "What Is Money? " and "What Is A Dollar?" I point out that at present a dollar is defined as the amount of money that is worth a dollar, normally in the form of paper notes or metallic token coinage which is convertible into more paper notes or token coinage having the same dollar value. In other words, a dollar is defined in terms of a dollar, making it a meaningless term, and because it is only convertible into more paper currency, it cannot even be expressed in terms of other commodities, it is truly a meaningless term since 1973. (Well, almost, as we shall see very shortly.)


Monday, September 19, 2016

Upcoming Posts (September 19, 2016)

I must apologize to whatever readers I may have for my lack of recent posts. It has simply been a rather busy time and I have been unable to get around to completing any work recently. Oddly enough, I have actually been doing some writing, and have almost a dozen partially finished posts, but none completed. And, in some ways, that is even worse. When I have a half finished post, before I can pick up again, I need to read it through, review the notes I always leave at the end and try to figure out what I intended to write, as well as make sure when I go back and complete it I don't end up repeating myself. And, very often, I also end up having to rewrite at least part of the introduction, as many are related to events current when I started which may no longer be relevant. Thus, in a way, I may be better off starting over from scratch.

But I hate to waste anything, and partial essays are no exception, and so, in the next few days, I hope to finish at least one or two. Currently, the five most likely to be completed are "A Summary of Approaches to Taxation", "The Melting Post and Other Thoughts on Immigration", "The Death Penalty Revisited", "A Short Discussion of Money" and "A Comprehensive Refutation of Protectionism". Though I cannot promise which will be finished, and I am sure it will not be all of them. (There are five or six more that are less far long which may eventually be completed as well, but as I am less certain of their eventual fate, I won't bother giving their titles.)

I also hope to begin work on one new essay. I am not sure what it shall be entitled, but I want to look at a topic that often raises hackles in conservative circles, the question of the attitude of conservatives toward Islam, as well as the common conservative belief that no moderate Moslems exist, and the idea held by some that belief in Islam is inherently contrary to our constitutional government. I will look at the many claims made about sharia, taqqiya and a few other subjects that seem to arise on conservative sites with some regularity. I have a feeling it is not an essay that will win me a lot of friends -- at least among conservatives -- but I feel I need to examine these claims and, to be fair, to compare them to the similar claims often made by atheists and others against Christians and Jews. But, I don't want to go into too much detail. We will wait and see how it goes.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

An Interesting Distortion

Recently, I ran across an interesting claim. It was from a few months ago, when the primaries were still in full swing, and Trump supporters were eager to slam Ted Cruz. (Well, actually, even now it seems Trump is interested in slamming Cruz, much more than Hillary Clinton. I don't know why.) The claim was put forth by a few different Trump supporters, and was clearly an attempt to make Cruz look foolish, but the original source, not surprisingly, was the very liberal Mother Jones*.

And what was this claim? That Ted Cruz once tried to ban um... "marital aids", as the once called them**.

For those interested, the entire story can be found (in a somewhat biased form) in the Mother Jones article. The facts, as presented, are mostly accurate, with a few exceptions. But those exceptions are what makes this story interesting. For, while factually accurate, the spin it gives to those facts, is seriously misleading.

Let us start with the title. You see, from the title, and the claims, one would think that Cruz, as a legislator, had introduced a ban of said items. Or, maybe, while working in the attorney general's office had come up with a novel theory to prosecute users or sellers of such devices using an existing law. Or, even, had simply spoken out in public calling for making these items illegal.

Well, did he?

No.

The fact is, while working in the attorney general's office, not as attorney general, but simply as a legal underling, an existing law making the sale of such items illegal, had faced legal challenge and Cruz had been assigned the task of defending the law. That's it. No signs he asked for the case. Nothing. Just a case he was assigned by his boss. In short, he did his job, and undertook a defense decided upon by someone else.

But the distortion does not stop there. When there is mention of any decision, such as to appeal the ruling, the article, rather than rightly laying responsibility on attorney general Abbot, instead insists on attributing it to "Abbott and Cruz". Now, that sounds good if you want to malign Cruz, but the truth is, that is kind of like blaming the meter maid for placing the parking meter. Cruz was a staffer, he was not attorney general. he certainly had some input on whether or not to appeal, but in the end, it was not his call. Abbott, yes, he was the top man, he decided when cases were appealed to federal court, and especially to the Supreme Court. Cruz might have had input, but in the end, he did what his boss decided.

All of which misses a second point, of only slightly smaller importance. Even if Cruz were making these decisions, it is rather absurd to act as if he were fully personally invested in each case. Many people working in the attorney general's office have dedicated tremendous energy to cases about which they were indifferent, or maybe even opposed. Why? Because that is how one rises through the ranks. And, if one has other political aspirations, the way one makes a name. It is absolutely certain Cruz was not a champion for each and every case on which he worked. I am sure in more than one cases, he was not particularly interested in which way the decision went, at least as far as the law was concerned. But as a staff member, I bet he was invested in winning.

And that is what makes this article, and the claim, so absurd. Cruz was not fighting to ban marital aids. He was not even making the decision whether to fight. He was a staffer working under an attorney general who decided Cruz should defend an existing law. That's it. To make this sound like a personal crusade on the part of Cruz is dishonest in the extreme.

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* Not exactly surprising. As I pointed out many times, Trump's followers seem much more left than right. From worrying about globalists and slandering bankers, to their policies of protectionism and other anti-trade measures, they sound more the Occupy protestors on anti-WTO activists. Then again, I have always found the paleocon, nationalist wing of the GOP a strange match to small government and free trade conservatism. (See "What Does Not Kill You...", "The Problem With the Big Tent", "Predictability and Pragmatism - Why I Oppose Trump", "Not Sour Grapes, Rather a Matter of Principle", "A Brief Thought on Trump", "Trump and the Myth of the Outsider", "A Thought on Trump" and "The Trump Cult".)

** I try to keep my site as family friendly as possible. And while the more common term (the d-word), has a noble history, even appearing in the poetry of John Donne (fittingly, in his satire of lawyers -- who he accuses of striving to "outdo" said device), I find it more comfortable to resort to euphemisms in this case.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Strange Bed Fellows, or, Why I Stopped Being an Objectivist

It is interesting what you find if you read enough web pages. Especially if you venture out of your political comfort zone and delve into the thoughts of those holding radically different political and economic views. Granted, I often do this solely to amuse myself with the bizarre beliefs of conspiracy theorists of the fringe -- or sometimes to indulge my love of science fiction, since it seems most sci fi criticism has been monopolized by the militant social justice set -- but I also do find it is informative to look into what the mainstream left is saying as well. As you can see in my essay "Both Sides Now" it sometimes reveals some very interesting aspects of our current political climate.

So it should come as no surprise that I found myself reading some thoughts about literary trends on an avowedly communist site. In this case, it was actually the second interest I was indulging, my love of science fiction, though once I found the author's political bias, my interest began to become more political and less literary.

The writer in question was given to rather wordy musings, clearly modeled on a combination of literary criticism and communist polemic. (If you visit enough of these sites, you get a feel for the most common inspirations.) It was a little unusual in that the literary inspirations seemed less deconstuctivist and more mainstream (I swear the fellow was aping Borges in a few places.) but other than that, it was pretty much what you find on a dozen sites, and would not have been worth mention, and certainly not worth a whole essay, were it not for a single argument.

The author, it seems, is less than pleased with the modern fascination with dark, depressing themes, with the modern fascination with "downbeat" endings, and with the modern love of antiheroes*. In his thinking, "utopian fiction" is a lost art, and one he laments at great length. His argument is pretty simple, and yet strangely familiar. That utopian fiction, by painting a picture of a world which is better than this, or which is made better through the actions of its protagonists, inspires readers with the belief that this world can be better, or, even more important, that their actions can help to make this world better.

There was more, some of it pretty silly. He seemed convinced the powers that be were manipulating modern literature to suppress utopian writers, lest there be a challenge to the status quo, and put forth a few other, equally loopy beliefs, but his main premise, that fiction should be written to inspire action, seemed oddly familiar.

Then it struck me, the same argument, couched in very different terms, had been one of the main reasons I had rejected Objectivism. Rand, in her writing on art, had posited that art existed for purely functional reasons, that it was designed only to inspire man to higher goals, and thus fiction, and all representative art, should serve an essentially propaganda purpose (not her words, but mine), motivating him to greater achievements, and thus should be centered on a heroic ideal, with the good always triumphant.

As I said, this argument was one of the first ones that turned me against Objectivism. Not just because I disagreed with the premise -- as a fan of Greek tragedies, I can see value in more than the simplistic exultation of heroes -- but also in that it pointed out to me just how much of Objectivist philosophy was far from objective. That a good deal of it amounted to Rand taking her own personal prejudices (eg her fondness for tap dance) and making them into supposedly objective truths, which her believers accepted without question.

I admit, I have my own objections to the modern style of fiction, I find a lot of it quite puerile and believe much of it amounts to little more than the output of over-aged adolescents. But that does not mean Rand is right. To my mind, it is telling that she and a communist reach the same conclusion, that art is supposed to serve, not as any sort of inquiry, or explication, but rather should have a purely propaganda purpose, that it must serve solely as a means to inspire those actions they find suitable. It is another sign of just what I find troubling about Objectivism. While their economic theories are largely correct (there are a few border cases where Rand confuses her values with truth there as well**), once we move out of economics (and to a lesser degree epistemology) her whole school of philosophy begins to resemble more and more precisely what is wrong with most authoritarian beliefs, the tendency to confuse personal values with absolute truths. (See "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism".)

It is a bit ironic, that the woman who inspired me to reject my youthful belief in communism, and inspired any number of people to faith in freedom and the free market, was herself prone tot he same errors as those authoritarians she refuted, yet it is quite true. I suppose there is a lesson there, though. No matter how clever one may be, how many points one may get right, even the most clever can still make mistakes, and we should be careful lest we confuse genius in one area with infallibility***.

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* I discussed this in "Chasing a Receding Goal", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Pushing the Envelope", "Hoist By Your Own Petard", "Faux "Realism"", "Faux "Maturity"", "Disturbing Entertainment, Ethnic Quotas and Distorted Views of Pop Culture - A Potpourri of Post Topics", "Reflexive Medium Goes Mainstream", "Cranky Old Man?", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "Chasing a Receding Goal", "Mapping the Changes in Hollywood", and "Inversion of Traditional Values".

** I discussed one such example in "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions" and "Arbitrary Choices".

*** This is what I call the Linus Pauling mistake. It is not as common a belief as it once was, but there are still a number who think vitamin C will help cure colds and other ailments. The fact is, no science supports this, but rather it came from a personal belief of Linus Pauling. As I said, it is completely baseless, but since Pauling was such a brilliant man, many believed his claims for vitamin C, even without evidence, and thus, for decades afterward, people continued to think it was a cure, despite science completely denying it. See "Intellect and Politics", "Prestige and Truth" and "Stupid Quote of the Day (February 22, 2015)".