Month: June 2016

2016 American Politics and Globalized Power

It appears to me that the United States offers a good illustration of why it is often much better to have political power somewhat restricted in scope – at least when it comes to civil political power. There are actually two reasons I believe this to be the case. The first reason is because I think having a lot of independent militaries provides a good system of checks and balances. Assuming there are 10 nations each of which is committed to freedom and human rights, then if a single nation starts to betray those principles, they will quickly be overwhelmed from rebels from within who can count upon strong military support from the other nine nations. However, in a single nation, corruption can move more invisibly until it has consolidated power, and should a single nation become corrupt and start attacking the rights of its citizens, it will be much harder to put an end to this.

The second reason is one which my wife firmly holds, namely, that people spread across so much area, from so many different cultural backgrounds (because the United States does not even remotely have a monolithic culture), are almost never going to agree on anything. The result is that any democratic centralized authority – perhaps any centralized authority in general – will always be highly dissatisfying to almost everyone. The fact that over half of Republicans are unhappy with their party’s nominee, and that half of democrats are unhappy with their party’s likely nominee, is symptomatic of this phenomenon.

Consider how much better off we might all be, at least in terms of getting the political system which we wish, if we could be split into four or five different nations. A Republican southeast, a neoliberal northwest, a social democrat pacific northwest, perhaps a libertarian New Hampshire, and so on. Granted, the people in the southeast would have horrible health care and be driven into the ground for the benefit of the ultrawealthy. Granted, this would happen to the neoliberal parts too. But then, right now it is happening to everyone.

For this reason, when people speak of wanting to globalize politics, I become quite concerned. The only aspects of politics which I believe should be globalized are human rights standards, which should be enforced everywhere, through imperialistic conquest if necessary. Otherwise, having more localized political power, and having independent political powers that can hold one another in check, is highly desirable.

I look at the recent Brexit referendum through a similar lens.

Democracy and the automobile

There are two aspects to democracy, and I believe they can be illustrated by considering an automobile. Or perhaps some other situation, like the electrical wiring of an house.

But in short, they can be summarized by the questions of the goal and the method.

Suppose we want to design a car. There is a large group of us which are going to create this car, which will carry us all. There are two general kinds of questions to answer.

The first is, do we want to have a vehicle that is fast? Fuel efficient? Safe? Environmentally efficient? Long-lasting?

The second question is, how do we achieve those things?

Now, how do we decide the first question? Well, I am not going to even try to answer that question at the moment. Even if a person thinks they have given the answer that would satisfy them, it might not satisfy them permanently. But…

Let us suppose for a moment that we have 100% consensus upon our priorities for the vehicle. We want the same relative priority given to speed, to fuel efficiency, to safety, to efficiency. Suppose we agree upon all these aspects. How do we decide how to implement them?

Well, obviously, the best way, is to appoint the best engineer, and tell them to design and develop the car accordingly. But supposing a bunch of engineers are competing… would it not make the most sense to let the best engineer do the design, without showing us the design first? Provided of course, that this design were really guaranteed to be designed around our requirements.

If instead, we let everyone vote upon the design, we could easily end up with a design that was completely broken. And if we let everyone vote upon an engineer, even if we all want the same result out of the final design, we could easily select an engineer with no real knowledge.

My point is, in government, there are two distinct aspects: goals and means. Now, democracy has issues, because firstly, many people have very distinct goals. But even supposing we all had the same goal (let us say, maximizing the happiness of individual citizens), the method would still be in question. And, should we say everyone gets a vote? Really, if we all had the same goals, we should let those who are most trained in how to get results, figure out how to get the desired results. And why on earth would we think that we should all have a relevant input, in deciding upon an expert for achieving a specific result?

Of course, the issue in politics is, we have both the problem of how to achieve a given result, as well as choosing which result we want. There are many people who want a given result which is, perhaps, incompatible with another result that they want. I will not answer that problem here. But my point is, even if we were all agreed upon the outcome we wanted, we would not all agree upon the means – and we would not all be qualified to give input upon that means.

Think about this: if you had to repair your house’s plumbing, would you ask all your friends to vote upon the solution, or would you choose a qualified expert plumber, and go with their suggestion? Yet, in politics, we go with the democratic option.

Now of course, almost everyone agrees upon what plumbing should do, so in this case, the only question is the means. Dealing with the question of the goal in politics, is much more difficult.

However, dealing with the how is, most definitively, dealt with best by experts, not by democratic means.

What is ownership?

It is easy to come to the conclusion that ownership is a concept which is often taken for granted, as though it were something self-obvious; however, if one considers this matter for some time, it is in fact not by any means straightforward.

Before we consider what a person deserves to own (which is an essential question for the philosophy of economics), we must determine what ownership itself is. To that end, let us consider an individual on an island by themselves. Such a person would not have any need for ‘ownership.’ They would simply do what they chose with any item that they had to hand.

But now suppose that there are two people, A and B, on the island. What does person A mean when they say ‘That stick belongs to B?’ Is it not simply that they will let B do whatever they please with that stick, and not try to hinder them, and also that they will not use the stick themselves without asking B’s permission first? Of course, there may be some limits on this. For example, if the stick is essential for the survival of the two people, person A may grant that it belongs to B, but deny person B the right to destroy the stick. So, ‘ownership’ can sometimes not mean granting the owner total control over the item.

Now suppose that we have an entire community upon the island. What do they mean if they agree that a given object belongs to person B? Well, they mean that B can do what they want with that item (again, perhaps with some exceptions, if that item is essential to survival), and that the others agree not to use the item without B’s permission. Furthermore, they agree that should someone dissent from this agreement, and try to prevent B from using the object, or try to use the object without B’s permission, then the rest of the community will protect B’s control over the object.

Therefore, ownership is a grant to a certain authority, given to an individual or group by the community at large. It is not a simply personal matter, as for example some libertarians may claim. I will detail just a few consequences of this thesis:

  1. Ownership, being a grant of authority made by the community, is something in which the community as an whole has an interest.
  2. Other types of authority are not necessarily transferable. If the community grants a certain person the authority of town mayor, that person cannot arbitrarily decide to give this authority to someone else. By analogy, it is perfectly valid for the community to make rules regarding when one person can transfer ownership to another person, since a transfer of possession is a transfer of community-granted authority. For example, it may be that the community chooses to permit such transfers provided that certain taxes are paid. By this same token, why should children necessarily get all their parents’ goods upon the death of the latter? That is akin to the familial descent of power, which is generally frowned upon.
  3. It is agreed about most types of authority that too much authority should never be permitted to reside under the control of any single individual or small group. For example, in the United States, a person cannot simultaneously hold too many political offices, and no single political office has overly extensive authority. Making such rules to limit the total ownership that a single individual can obtain is not, in principle, any different. Such limitations are even consistent with many libertarian principles, from this perspective upon ownership (as an aside, this view of ownership should be compared to certain libertarian perspectives upon land ownership, which reject permanent land ownership and refer to the latter as ‘royal libertarians’ or something like that).*
  4. Taxation is definitively not theft, because, again, ownership is a grant of authority by the community. This includes, of course, ownership of money.
  5. Investors are rather akin to moochers upon society, since they do nothing except allow others to use something over which they have authority, but of which they make no use, and in exchange expect an increase in their own authority.
  6. Wealth is power; not in the sense of a complete equality between these concepts, but in the sense that wealth is a type of power granted by the community.
  7. An economic system is a system for distributing power, and like any other system for distributing power, it should be built upon the twin principles of individual self-autonomy and the benefit and opportunity for maximal cultural and intellectual development of all individuals in the community.

Note: Deliberately, there are no arguments for these points. The reader should consider this an outline, whose intent is in large part to stimulate critical thought upon the nature of ownership, although the author does hold all the points stated herein. However, a full argument of these points could be the topic of an entire book. Such a book would also benefit from extensively expanding upon point 7 above, and discussing how best to maximize the potential of all individuals through the distribution of power.


*The author does not actually hold that there should be a specific wealth limit, at least not until we reach the level of, say, today’s billionaires, but does hold that a tax rate should be implemented which increases towards 100% as income increases to infinity, with the property that the post-tax income still will increase towards infinity. Such a tax rate should be constructable. For example, after the first million, the post-tax income could be 1000000/n for the n-th million (thus 500000 for the 2nd million, and so on). This sum diverges, as is well known. It may be possible to let the overall tax rate be a smooth function, perhaps even analytic, but this is not essential.

Choice and Responsibility, Free Will

This will be a very philosophical post. You have been forewarned. But, as is perhaps usual for a blog, I am not going to provide citations, except one (Pink’s A Very Short Introduction to Free Will).

In philosophy, there are, usually, three points of view, when it comes to choices. There is the deterministic view (either strong or compatibilistic): a person’s choice is the necessary result of the past of that choice. Or, the libetertarian free will view (not to be confused with the similar libertarian politics, which have the same name, but have nothing to do with the philosophy of choice that we are considering): a person’s choice is not the necessary result of the chronological past of that action, but at the same time, a person’s actions are not arbitrary. Finally, there is the (rarely taken, philosophically) view that a person’s choice is totally random.

Now, if a choice is the result of the chronological past of that choice, we might argue, that person bears no responsibility for their action. After all, a person bears no responsibility for the actions of their ancestors, but their very existence is a consequence of their ancestors! How should they be held responsible for their action, since that is as necessary as the actions of their ancestors, or any other action?

On the other hand, if a person’s actions are totally arbitrary or random, then, how can we hold them responsible? If they are completely random, then surely, their actions are merely chaotic, and therefore, they are just as innocent of those actions, as if they were totally the result of past actions.

Finally, there is the libertarian free will view: a person’s actions are not independent of the past events, nor are they totally arbitrary, but they are something else entirely. What is this other? Well, it cannot be reduced to the concepts of determinism or randomness, any more than the concept of ‘blue’ can be reduced to the concepts of ‘high pitch’ and ‘soft.’ It is a concept that must be understood directly. Libertarian free will cannot be reduced to determinism, nor can it be reduced to any other collection of concepts. I invite readers to consult T. Pink’s A Very Short Introduction to Free Will, for a description and defense of how it is possible to conceive of libertarian free will.

Now, it may surprise you, but, although I am an atheist, I believe libertarian free will is a distinct possibility for humans. After all, there is a chance that quantum mechanics (which appears to be random, under certain probability distributions) may be key for brain function. And that could well be a matter of choice, which would give a probability distribution, not simply a ‘totally arbitrary’ result.

However, I want to ask the following question: should a person, at this moment, be held responsible for their previous actions?

Well, I would answer, if determinism is true, or true for a person’s actions, then no (although, as William James pointed out, even if a person bears no responsibility for their actions, society would continue to punish people for their actions to act as a deterrent, etc.).

Also, if total arbitrariness rules over human choices, then no.

Now, the supporters of libertarian free will usually say that one of the key points of libertarian free will is that it lets an agent be responsible, in the future, for the choice that they made at this moment in time. So, ten years ago, person X chose to do action Y, and they made that choice freely, and now they can be held responsible for that choice. I will not here debate the definition of a libertarian free choice. No, what I will ask is, supposing person X has made a libertarian free choice, at some point. Are they, now, in the future of that choice, responsible?

My answer is no. And not because I believe such a choice is deterministic, nor because it is random or arbitrary. Rather because of the following reason. We hold a person responsible for what they can control. But even if a person freely chose to do something in the past, they can no longer control the past. Therefore, they can no longer control that past action, and therefore cannot be held responsible for their past action in the present. We are solely responsible for our present actions, including our present attitudes.

In other words, a choice is made by person x. Does x, later, have responsibility? No, because the later x no longer controls that choice. This x no longer has control of their past, any more than x has control over the actions of their great-great-great-grandfather, before they were born. Yet, we no longer hold a person responsible for their great-great-great-grandfather’s actions. That choice was made. It was free, but now, no longer. This is also true of the actions of x in the past. Therefore, x is now no longer responsible for x‘s past choices. This holds regardless of how we view choices: whether we are determinists, randomists, libertarian free will philosophers, etc. Even in this last case, we cannot hold a person now responsible for their past actions.

Does that mean I condemn holding people responsible? Yes. But does it mean we should not punish people or reward them? Well, perhaps not. We should, perhaps, hold people responsible, in order to pragmatically encourage certain actions and discourage other actions: good actions should be rewarded, others punished, to encourage or discourage.

However, on a moral level, this means that a person who celebrates an action can equally morally be granted celebration or punishment for that action: a person who celebrated the Islamic terrorist actions of ISIS in Paris is just just as worthy of punishment as the people who conducted those acts.

So, if this is so, how do we prevent punishing people for thought crime? Well, a person who conducts an action shows that they have the courage to carry it out, whereas those who merely praise the action lack that courage. So, we punish those with the courage to both suggest and perform an action, and do not punish those who merely approve of the deed, without the courage to do it. Is this a good thing? In terms of manipulating future behavior, perhaps. As in the case of determinism, we are punishing and rewarding in order to mold future behavior. But a detailed study of the interrelation between thought and action, under this view of guilt, would be very lengthy.

I mention this, as a philosophical analysis of responsibility. I also mention it in terms of constructing future moral ideals. Holding people responsible for past actions only makes sense if we also hold those who ‘would have done’ those actions responsible. And a person who did something terrible should (from the perspective of responsibility) be entirely let off, ‘forgiven’ if you will, if they now reject their former deed, abjure it, reject it.

PS I have chosen not to delve into the issue of whether causal order and chronological order agree with one another here. Where it matters, ‘past’ here refers to ‘causal past.’ Obviously, for something to now be known, it is likely to be in the causal past. However, I do not rule out the possibility that time and causation have a more complicated relationship, such as is suggested by the Transactional interpretation of quantum theory (developed by Cramer if I recall correctly, although I do not think his specific formulation is very likely – but that is a matter for another time).

Also, William James has written good stuff on our ability to conceive of choice and causal power. I am too lazy to look up the exact essays, however.

Good vs. bad multiculturalism

My views upon multiculturalism are rooted in my belief in individual autonomy and in my agreement with Nietzsche that life is an experiment (ein Versuch). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a culture that I thought was all good, and it is probable that there are no cultures that are (or have been) all bad.

In general, I think that each person should appropriate the parts of each culture which that person happens to enjoy. That, to my mind, is the good form of multiculturalism. My Italian-German-Ukrainian wife loves Irish music, and in the good kind of multiculturalism, she can enjoy it and learn to play it. An Australian might enjoy traditional Indian music; they can listen to it and enjoy playing it. A Japanese person living in Canada might enjoy dressing in fashions from France. An Englishman might like wearing his hair in dreadlocks like the ancient Spartans or like some Africans. A black man can become a virtuoso of European violin (Chevalier de Saint-Georges), or a white woman might become a rapper.

But the line must be drawn when a cultural choice ceases to be a personal choice and begins to affect the choices of others – and this, again, is a consequence of individual autonomy. A good example of this is the import of Arabic rape culture, in which women who are dressed in modern European fashion are considered ‘slutty’ and ‘deserve to be raped.’ Even those who defend the rapists among the Islamic migrants to Europe tend to admit that they commit these rapes because of their culture (except these defenders, rather than admitting that this means we have here an aspect of Arabic culture that is bollocks, try to instead use it as some kind of an excuse). Another example would be forced marriages. In some cultures, these are traditional, but they are not personal choices; they are forced upon children by their parents. Forcing women (but not men) to wear hijabs or cover their nipples are other examples of negative aspects of culture that interfere with personal choices.

Of course, not every aspect of Arabic culture is bad (and needless to say, there are many Islamic migrants who have not committed rape in Europe). For example, I personally feel like merely using toilet paper after relieving oneself does seem a tad inadequate. Ideally, a mix of first wiping with toilet paper, then using soap and water to get rid of any invisible remaining residue, would be ideal. Also admittedly, that is the only aspect of Arabic culture that strikes me as desirable, and only in combination with toilet paper. However, if someone else feels there is an aspect of Arabic culture that is desirable, then by all means, they should live that way – provided that their choice is a personal one, not one which they impose on others.

In the good kind of multiculturalism, a person can choose aspects of many different cultures and use them in their personal life, but nobody else around them has to conform to these choices. The bad kind of multiculturalism, and the kind promoted by the many regressive leftists, is the kind where everyone else is expected to conform to [insert any non-European culture here]. To put it succinctly, I should not have to conform to society, but neither should anyone else have to conform to me.

This is because I believe in multiculturalism as a result of individual autonomy and not because of ‘cultural relativity.’ We should be free to choose to enjoy any cultural tradition we want because we should be free to choose for ourselves in general. But by the same token, no culture has the right to impose itself upon any individual in their personal lives. Individual autonomy trumps culture, regardless of where or which culture we are considering. This results in multiculturalism, but it is the antithesis of cultural relativism. Individual autonomy leads to the positive form of multiculturalism, while cultural relativism leads to the bad form of it. Unfortunately, the left has slid from the former, positive form, to the latter, negative, regressive, form, particularly in recent years.

In particular, I accept that societies function according to their own, potentially different, social mores as a sociological explanation for various human phenomena, but – and this is the key point – I utterly reject cultural relativism as an ethical ideal, nor will I consider all sets of social mores as being of equal value. As an analogy, I accept that humans evolved as omnivores as an explanation for our history, but I am a vegan out of ethical ideals. A factual explanation should not be necessarily translated into a moral imperative.

In addition to simply being a consequence of individual autonomy, there is a great practical benefit to this positive kind of multiculturalism, in that it allows people to experiment with many different lifestyles and see which ones work best for themselves. We can thus continue to refine our personal lives in ways that we might not have thought of by ourselves (for example, I recently took, from the Germans, the idea of male armpit-shaving, and it is brilliant).

The other odd thing to note is that these ‘multiculturalists’ frequently simultaneously condemn real multiculturalism, by calling it ‘cultural appropriation’ (and saying this is a bad thing) whenever a white person chooses to enjoy any aspect of a non-European culture. That is ridiculous and I would not even call that multiculturalism.


PS Thank you to Zena O’Brien, @ZenaMOBrien on twitter, for pointing out I had originally erred in my use of the term ‘cultural relativism.’