Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Wirkman VirkkalaReasoned Out, Reasoned In
Posted at 11:31 am on October 8, 2013, by Wirkman Virkkala

This weekend, Justin Stoddard brought up Arthur Koestler’s views on faith, in the context of Mises on human action. The discussion at first struck me as tangential to the main thrust of the first chapter of Human Action, which we both read as part of an attempt at a tandem, co-ordinated reading. But considering that in that first chapter Mises tries to mark the differences between praxeology, the theory of action, and other domains of thought, such as psychology, epistemology, metaphysics, etc., and that faith would normally be thought to reside somewhere in these other domains, perhaps it is not so tangential. Perhaps it is a good prefatory discussion.

Like Justin, I see that the common maxim that warns us that you “cannot reason a person out of a position that person did not reason himself into” is obviously false. It may be that I did not “reason myself into” the religion of my family; it was “in the air,” a part of my heritage as much as the house I lived in the and the forest nearby: I did reason myself out of it, though.

Most people never accomplish any task of a similar nature. They fall into a religion, or an ideology, like they fall into love: the object of adoration was near at hand, and quite serviceable, and seemed willing to reciprocate and meet some basic needs of the psyche. Most people become liberals or conservatives in this way, and I’m sure some libertarians are born this way, too.

It was Justin, also, who brought up matters of belief as an element of reason, rationality. This is not the primary object of Mises’ interest, in Human Action. But, to clear the way for future commentary, I’ll consider, briefly, the doctrine of the minimum wage legislation, which Justin mentioned as if a stand-in for the many positions of libertarianism (a social philosophy Justin and I both hold to). And I’ll do this in frank autobiography.

When I was a teen, and extricating myself from the faith of my mother and my aunts, et aliae, I was also beginning the process of settling on a political ideology. I considered myself a liberal. I deemed my basic attitudes liberal, and on some important issues I favored liberty over regulation. But I had been taught in school and from the TV (and in part from my encyclopedia set) that concern for the poor had led to laws like those establishing a minimum wage, and I was basically accepting of the practice, and many others of our society and its government.

But I had the wit enough to see that minimum wage laws were comparable to laws about marriage and sex (say, the prohibition of prostitution) that I objected to. So I thought the only rational thing to do was consider the case against the minimum wage, as made by some economists and most libertarians.

That case involved scarcity, wealth production, supplies and demands, etcetera, and I became convinced that minimum wage laws didn’t have the univocally good results hoped for and trusted in — as, I could see, a matter of faith — by proponents of the dirigiste state. I knew some folks who, without blinking, supported minimum wage laws and legal prostitution, both, without blinking an eye. And yet it was obvious that laws against prostitution were of a similar nature to minimum wage laws. Both prohibited certain contracts at certain rates. Both had seemingly plausible arguments in their favor, but neither worked as their proponents thought.

The “faith” element, here, is the belief in the advisability of a program while refusing to believe in the negative effects of the program in question, or of judging the program on the general results, or with reference to those results. Some evidence must not be not considered.

And the world is a complicated enough place that one can easily shield one’s eyes from things one doesn’t want to see. There’s always something else to look at.

In the case of the political opponent of prostitution, it’s the inherent vileness of the activity as it is when the practice is illegal, and the pure morality of sexual activity confined to pure barter in bilateral monopoly. The negative effects of anti-prostitution laws are just a “cost of promoting the good.” Or, it is asserted, though without much careful thought, “the cost of ameliorating a great evil.”

Mutatis mutandis, it is just so with the opponents of low wage contracts. The suffering of the people who must endure low-paid work gets concentrated on, as does, even more so, the imagined alternative: higher wages — hooray! The idea that the actual alternative under minimum wage laws is that at least some segment of the low-skill labor force will suffer no employment? Blankout. Not addressed.

I noticed this at the time. I was the only liberal I knew who had looked squarely at the arguments made against minimum wage laws. And when I would relate these arguments back to fellow liberals, they dismissed them, not merely with lack of interest, but derision. These people who made them did not care about the poor!

And I have heard this reaction many times since.

My own take was that a person who wishes to help the poor, upon hearing that one’s chosen means to do the work would not work, instead of rejecting the news, would be concerned, and look into it. Why? Because of the ostensible aim, helping the poor. If one did not look closely at the challenge, then it was obvious that helping the poor was not the real aim. The real aim might be something more like “seeming to help the poor” or “appearing moral.”

And this is where my commonality with Mises becomes clear. He aims to provide reason to the processes of causation from human choice, to clear up the confusions, and to find the regularities in social causation. His science, that of a rather formal ends and means structure, he calls praxeology. It is the underlying principle to much of the work done by economists up to his time.

As Mises saw it, the main opponents of the development of such a science have been those whose approach to social life and public policy relied too heavily on faith and defensive inattention. And so Human Action, in the course of developing the principles of praxeology, also elaborates quite a few critiques of the dominant faiths of the age — many of which remain dominant after all the years since Mises first published his great book.

Praxeology does not itself require faith. It requires careful reasoning to figure out. One reasons one’s way into an understanding of economics.

But it is possible to sloppily approach a doctrine of laissez-faire, and proceed on faith. I know many libertarians who rely entirely on their bets about the world, and do little actual investigation into the reality of the underlying claims. That’s only natural. Human beings have limited time. Not everyone can be an economist, or philosopher.

But I don’t think we should equate those libertarians whose approach is almost entirely intuitive with those who have engaged in deep study. The libertarian faith and the libertarian wisdom have at least some differences. Much of it relies on what we bring to the issues. A deep prejudice for freedom is a great thing in a person, and it often leads to the full flower of a libertarian individual. But it’s not enough. Not if you really want to understand the world.

I am not sure that I’ve addressed what Justin was broaching. I’m pretty sure I have not in any way summarized the first chapter of Human Action.

But perhaps now we can proceed to a discussion of the book? We can return to the issue of faith — and, in general, of non-rational approaches to belief and action — as we proceed.


Filed under: Economic Theory, Philosophy
Comments: None
 

Wirkman VirkkalaRepurposing Capital: Human Action
Posted at 8:54 pm on September 23, 2013, by Wirkman Virkkala

In an economic downturn, when massive business failures appear simultaneously, owners of the means of production need to find new uses for their discarded capital-intensive production processes, and investors need to find new forward-looking enterprises to place their funds, in hopes of some future return.

This is part of the recalculation necessary during the cluster of business errors called a depression.

The terminology I’m using is that of the Austrian school, of its capital theory as well as its theory of the business cycle.

And I’m applying it to this very blog.

Which has been comatose for some time.

I invite the former participants in The Lesson Applied to give Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, a careful reading. Or re-reading, as your case may be. Writers, contact me on Facebook and I’ll sign you up for Reading Matters, a Facebook group that will handle some of the technical matters of our co-ordinated reading. I propose to read this long treatise chapter by chapter, moving on when a consensus of active readers agree.

This blog will be location for our ruminations. That is, we will discuss the book and its ideas here.

Perhaps after we’ve read Human Action, the blog will revive back to its original purpose, of exploring the ramifications of policy upon market society, beyond stage one, as Thomas Sowell so neatly put it, in a Hazlittian spirit.

Always, lingering in our thoughts, will be Bastiat’s insight: where in Mises’ work does it fit?


Filed under: Economic Theory, Education, Philosophy
Comments: None
 

Brian McCallIt Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means
Posted at 12:38 am on January 28, 2012, by Brian McCall

In the It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means category, I’m having to add the terribly abused No True Scotsman fallacy. I’m starting to see this unfortunate abuse with ever increasing frequency.

Here is a short version of it [I know this isn’t the full version, but for the sake of brevity…]:

Person A: No Scotsman dislikes haggis.
Person B: My uncle is Scottish and he doesn’t like haggis.
Person A: No true Scotsman dislikes haggis.

Now consider this:

Person A: All fruit is edible
Person B: Plastic fruit isn’t edible.
Person A: All real fruit is edible. [or substitute true if you prefer]

What is the difference between the two?

In the first, a sweeping generalization is confronted with a counterexample. The response is to change the definition of the term. At first, a Scotsman is merely a native inhabitant of Scotland. Then when confronted with the counterexample, the term Scotsman mutates to become bound up definitionally with the practice of eating haggis, such that the very meaning of Scotsman is “one who eats haggis and is a native inhabitant of Scotland,” and only became so for the purpose of excluding that specific case.

What about the second? Why does it not suffer the same deficiency? Aren’t we changing the definition of fruit just to exclude fake fruit?

No, because edibility is intrinsic to the definition of the term fruit. (I am of course only speaking of the common literal use of the term. Not metaphorical uses like “the fruits of one’s exertions,” or scientific terms like fruiting body.) That’s why it must there be preceded by the qualifier “fake.” Eating haggis is not an intrinsic characteristic of the term “Scotsman.” When Person A says that all real fruit is edible, it is not the same as saying all fruit is red. To be fruit is to be edible.

I’ve noticed this tendency lately. Someone will make a strawman characterization of an opposing political view. Another will respond, asserting a correct or more complete definition. The first will then claim the second is committing the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Some clown with a website says, “libertarianism is always bound up in the continuation of systems of oppression such as racism, misogyny, christianism, nativism, and the like.” It is such an absurd caricature that anyone with even a modest acquaintance with its principles can see that those are not necessary and intrinsic characteristics of the philosophy. Not only that, but they are incompatible.

Someone responded by providing a list of libertarian writers who forcefully oppose those, and he is accused of committing the No True Scotsman fallacy, as if he is engaging in some ad hoc refinement of the scope of the term to include ONLY those writers.

If anything, it appears the converse is taking place. Instead of No True Scotsman, it is All True Scotsmen.

Person A: All libertarians are crazy fruitcakes who believe horrible things I find morally repugnat.
Person B: These libertarians don’t believe those things.
Person A: Well, all True libertarians do, even if they don’t know it.


Filed under: Internet, Philosophy, Politics
Comments: None
 

Wirkman VirkkalaThe Method of Sachs
Posted at 1:43 am on January 20, 2012, by Wirkman Virkkala

There exist trenchant criticisms of the libertarian idea. Henry Sidgwick, in his The Methods of Ethics (seven editions, 1874-1907), provided a concise set of challenges to the doctrine as he understood it. Each of his points is well worth addressing. And yet when today’s major thinkers muster up their inner dialectician to rail against the freedom philosophy, they usually fall flat, get caught up in inessentials and absurdities.

Take Jeffrey Sachs. In “Libertarian Illusions” he attempts to unveil and discredit the ism behind the Ron Paul phenomenon. It’s a pretty lame attempt. Here’s his basic characterization of his target:

Libertarianism is the single-minded defense of liberty. Many young people flock to libertarianism out of the thrill of defending such a valiant cause. They also like the moral freedom that libertarianism seems to offer: it’s okay to follow one’s one desires, even to embrace selfishness and self-interest, as long as it doesn’t directly harm someone else.

Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable — all are to take a back seat.

A well-educated liberal-leaning friend of mine gave the exact same rap years ago. He also referred to “liberty as a value,” so I’ve long pondered that odd phrasing. I think of liberty as a condition dependent on relationships (with other people). I don’t primarily think of it as “a value.”

I value liberty, yes, and will agree with Sachs that it is not my only value; I have many others. Nearly all freedom-lovers do. They have lives. Personal lives, communal lives, careers, hobbies, interests . . .

Yet, I do value liberty highest in the political and legal context(more…)


Filed under: Philosophy
Comments: None
 

Justin M. StoddardSteve Jobs: A Man of Good Works — Part I
Posted at 10:30 am on November 6, 2011, by Justin M. Stoddard

First, allow me to clarify a few points about the video below before I start into the meat of the matter.

The video is obviously edited — for what purpose, I do not know. It could have been to cut down its length or to stitch together a narrative that puts the person being interviewed in the worst possible light. Though, admittedly, given his statements, I don’t know how that’s possible.

I understand that people who are put on the spot with a camera in front of their face are going to stammer and search for words. After seeing thousands of these kinds of videos, I’m convinced that people generally do not do well when confronted with on-the-spot interviews.

  • The sentiments expressed seem to be endemic to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
  • The easiest way for me to address this is to take it point by point with a wrap-up at the end.
  • This is going to be a long post.

Man on the street: “The top one percent don’t produce anything.”

There are some awkward questions that need to be asked in response to this assertion.

Besides the obvious catchy “one percent of the people own 43 percent of the wealth” trope, why not move that arbitrary line to the top five percent? If the top one percent own 43 percent of the wealth, wouldn’t it follow that the top five percent own even more of the wealth? How about the top ten percent? The top 25 percent?

The arbitrary line is chosen because it fits nicely into the idea of the proletariat struggling against the bourgeois. What is being insinuated here is the top one percent own the means of production while the 99% are the factors of production.

How is the “1 percent” being defined here? One percent of the population of the United States or of the population of the world?

The question matters a great deal, for a couple of reasons:

One percent of the population of the United States is a little more than 3 million people (approximately the population of Mississippi). Just playing the numbers game, it strains all credulity to accept the assertion that the more than 3 million people being referenced here don’t produce anything.

One percent of the world’s population is about 70 million people (approximately the population of California, New York, and Ohio combined). Of course, this takes credulity to the breaking point.

The question hardly needed to be asked. The only population statistic being used here is the population of the United States. The OWS crowd skirts over the fact that if they were to count the entire population of world, the majority of them would end up in the top 1 percent of people who control wealth. That’s simply an argument they dare not broach. I’ve addressed this briefly here, but I’ll expound on it just a bit.

Even adjusting for purchasing power parity, if you make $34,000 or more per year, you are in the top 1 percent of world income earners. Income disparity between someone who makes $34,000 and someone who makes $500,000 per year in the United States seems pretty significant, but not nearly as significant as the income disparity between someone who makes $34,000 per year in the United States and someone who makes $7,000 dollars per year in India, or $1,000 per year in Africa.

The standard argument against this line of reasoning goes like this:

“Living off of $1,000 a year in sub-Saharan Africa is a lot easier than living off of $1,000 a year in the United States. In order for the comparison to actually have any meaning we need to adjust income for the cost of living in these various countries. In some places it is possible to live off of a dollar a day, and in some places you can’t live off of a hundred dollars a day.”

Lest I be accused of making up my own argument to refute, that’s a response I got on a recent Reddit thread addressing what I said above.

At first blush, this makes quite a bit of sense. Commodities do seem to be more expensive in the United States than they are in the Sub-Sahara (unless you are living in a country with hyper-inflation). Earning $1,000 per year will certianly not give you the purchasing power to buy or rent a house or an apartment. You may or may not be able to afford transportation. Food and clothing would also be difficult to acquire.

But, one is tempted to ask; would you rather live in the United States with an income of $1,000 per year or in Sub-Saharan Africa with an income of $1,000 per year?

Here are the two main problems I see:

First: The United States (and other First World countries) have many orders of magnitude more consumer goods and commodities to choose from than all of the Sub-Sahara put together. In the United States, $1,000 goes much further because there is so much more you can do with it. You must also consider basic welfare entitlements to every poor citizen in the United States to be used for food, shelter and clothing, along with other factors of income like child support payments and not being required to pay taxes.

It further discounts the ability to barter for goods, rely on charity, and utilize the cast-offs of the rich and middle class. Our country is awash with high-class “junk.” It is very easy to acquire clothes, furniture, gadgets (TVs, microwaves, phones, radios, etc.) just by asking for it. It’s unbelievable how much stuff the well-off just leave on the curb for others to pick up. Whole virtual communities like Freecycle and Craigslist thrive around the concept of either exchanging these types of goods or just giving them away. If you are savvy enough, it is possible to get hundreds of dollars worth of name brand products for free through the practice of extreme couponing. There are literally hundreds of blogs dedicated to the concept of extreme frugality, meaning there are people in this country who choose to live well below the poverty line by recycling, reusing, budgeting, couponing, growing their own food, bartering, etc. From all accounts, they have healthy and happy lives.

Second: If you take all other factors into consideration, even for those at the very bottom of the socio-economic scale, life is comparatively much better here. On average, people in the United States live 20–35 years longer than those in the Sub-Sahara. In America, there is an infant mortality rate of eight out of every 1,000. In Mali, the rate is 191 out of 1,000.

While millions have perished in Africa because of famine, I have not been able to find any account of a single person starving to death in America because of an inability to acquire food. There are rare cases in which people are starved through abuse or neglect, but the issue of general access to food was not a factor. On the contrary, we are constantly reminded that we have an epidemic of obesity in our country. Looking at population statistics, this is a problem that affects the poor almost exclusively.

Millions more have been butchered in war, slavery, and genocide in Africa during these past 20 years. With the exception of 9/11, war, slavery, and genocide have killed exactly nobody in America — unless you count the “War on Drugs.” (I’m excluding here our military adventures overseas — which both liberals and conservatives love — and focusing on civilian deaths within our borders.

More than 1 million people die from AIDS/HIV in the Sub-Sahara each year. Nearly 2 million more contract the disease yearly. The region accounts for about 14 percent of the world’s population and 67 percent of all people living with HIV and 72 percent of all AIDS deaths in 2009.

Contrast that to the United States, where there are approximately 1 million people infected with HIV. About 56,000 new people become infected each year, while roughly 18,000 per year die from AIDS.

Even the poorest of poor in America have the means and ability to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases that ravish other populations.

This represents just a cursory look over publicly available data, of course, but many inferences can be drawn. Living off $1,000 per year in the United States is actually a lot easier than living off of $1,000 per year in the Sub-Sahara.

In the United States, $1,000 per year still makes you pretty well off compared to a huge majority of the world’s population. Instead of the OWS asking why this is the case (different economic and political policies have different economic and political outcomes), they are insisting that it’s not the case, in the face of all empirical evidence. It’s a complete break with reality.

All of this begs a basic question. We know that there are millions of people living in Africa on $1,000 per year or less, but are there people living on $1,000 per year in America?

Maybe. According to the 2008 United States Census, the number of individuals living on $2,500 or less is 12,945. If you count households instead of individuals, that number drops to about 3,000.

Looking at demographics, we find that many of those either live on Indian reservations or in closed off religious communities. The vast majority live in very rural areas, with the exception of some communities in Texas and California.

This brings up another awkward question. Can we differentiate between the worthy and the unworthy poor? Is it safe to say that those living on an Indian reservation are most likely the victims of centuries of oppression, paternalism, and other factors beyond their control, and deserve our sympathies, while those whose religious doctrines call for unsustainable familial and community growth (though still collecting welfare entitlements) don’t?

Back to the original point. Taking this all into consideration, the speaker (along with 70 million of his fellow human beings) is more than likely in the top 1 percent of income earners in the world. Does he produce nothing? Do the other 70 million people produce nothing?

If he had a shred of intellectual honesty, he would advocate taxing anyone who makes $34,000 per year or more at a very high rate so that money can be redistributed to the absolute poor in Africa, India, China, Afghanistan, etc. If you’re going to advocate forced redistribution, what’s the more moral course of action? Paying off student loan debt and making secondary education free for those who are extraordinarily rich in comparison to world standards, therefore giving them further opportunities to collect more wealth, or giving that money to someone who will quite literally starve to death without it?

Interviewer: “Steve Jobs didn’t produce anything?”

Man on the street: “Steve Jobs took in the wealth that others produced. No, he didn’t.”

Even though you can tell he’s searching for the concept, what he’s attempting to recall is the Labor Theory of Value, which suggests that the value of goods derives from their labor inputs. Some take it a step further and suggest that goods should therefore be priced according to those labor inputs rather than in response to the demand for those products.

This murderous idea has been refuted too many times to count and isn’t taken seriously by mainstream economists. As with the devastating yet simple argument against Pascal’s Wager, this is a case of rudimentary logic pitted against religious thinking.

If a laborer labors all day making mud pies instead of pumpkin pies, he may well have put in a great deal of work, but still produces absolutely nothing of value. Not understanding why someone would do that, I come along with a novel idea. Why not hire that labor (which is obviously motivated to work) and have him make pumpkin pies instead? Which is more valuable, the labor or the idea that moved the labor in a profitable direction?

Given time, one of my workers gets a workable idea that it will actually make it more time- and cost-efficient to divide the labor and go into business for himself making ready-made pie crusts to sell back to me. In turn, he hires 10 more people.

Another person figures out that growing local pumpkins for production is not sustainable or efficient, so he saves his capital and starts an import business to buy pumpkins to sell back to me. In turn, he hires 10 more people. Of course, that import company creates demand from pumpkin farmers halfway across the country, signaling to them that they need to hire more people. But what about packaging? How will I wrap all those pies? Where will I get the metal for pie tins? How do I even make a pie tin? What if I want to branch off into cherry pies or apple pies? What if I want to sell coffee with those pies?

The Labor Theory of Value is an epic failure of imagination. At any given moment, there are two types of birds on the face of the earth, those that are airborne and those that are not. Do you know what the number of birds in each group will be, say, 10 seconds from now? The answer may well be impossible to ever figure out, but there is an answer as concrete and real as the computer screen you’re looking at. It will take a great deal of dispersed observation, knowledge, and computer power to ever figure out the answer to that question, but it takes an even greater amount of imagination to think of a use for the question in the first place.

On the labor side of the equation, how many people per day, independent of each other, not even knowing of each other’s existence, were involved in making Steve Jobs’s ideas a reality?

Can you imagine it? Can you even begin to try to imagine it? When you do, dig deeper. When you do that, dig deeper still. You will find yourself trying to comprehend a voluntary network of a number beyond your comprehension all working independently but in concert with each other in order to make that idea a reality. The vast majority have no earthly idea that they are working toward a common goal.

If you’ve read the essay “I, Pencil,” you can start to grasp the amazing complexity of what goes into creating one simple product. Once you’ve started to grasp that concept, you realize that an iPhone or a Macbook is nearly infinitely more complex than a pencil.

When you think you have a grasp on all of that, add into the mix all the competition that Steve Jobs inspired in the economy. Microsoft, Google, Android, Unix, Linux, smart phones, laptops, programming, software and hardware development, battery efficiency — the list goes on and on.

Multiply everything above by factors unimaginable when you add in each new facet of competition.

How many people were involved in making Steve Jobs’s ideas a reality? Like I said, there is a concrete answer to this question. I don’t doubt that computers will some day be able to figure it out. I’m not confident that it will ever happen in my lifetime. However, if you are able to imagine the several billion neurons in your brain exchanging countless bits of information each second, culminating in what we call human consciousness, then you are getting close to the complexity involved in the network of voluntary exchange Steve Jobs helped put into motion.

Now think of the consumer side of the equation. For the purpose of this example, let’s limit ourselves to the latest model iPhone. For about $199, plus a two year contract with a cellular phone company, you can walk out the door with an iPhone 4S.

Putting aside for a moment all the apps you can use, these are the features that come built in, off the shelf:

  • Two cameras, front and back. Rear camera is capable of HD, low light photography, f2/4 lens with face detection, and photo editing software.
  • 1080p HD motion stabilized video camera, accompanied by an editing suite and the ability to share videos instantly with anyone on the Internet.
  • Facetime video teleconferencing over a WiFi connection using either the front or rear camera.
  • Unlimited texting to other iPhone, iPad, or iPod users, with the ability to exchange videos or photos.
  • A digital assistant that is able to help efficiently organize your daily life. It syncs with any other device you use on iCloud.
  • A phone. Pretty standard, but it lets you talk to any other human being on the face of the earth who also has a phone. It’s ridiculously portable, so you can use it anywhere there is cell phone coverage, which is pretty much 90 percent of the United States.
  • Email. Check your Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, or any other industry-standard IMAP and POP mail systems. Access multiple accounts at once. Write and send email without ever touching your keyboard by using its voice recognition software, Siri.
  • Internet. You have a virtual world of information at your fingertips, accessible to you any time and anywhere.
  • An iPod allows you to access your complete music library, with instant access to many thousands of songs.
  • The video player allows you to rent or buy movies from iTunes, and either stream them or download them to your device.
  • The photo organizer will store all your photos and organize them by location, date, or face. Take a photo and it will automatically share with all other devices hooked up to iCloud. Share photos by text, Twitter, Flickr, or Facebook. Print wirelessly through AirPrint.
  • App Store with access to over 500,000 paid and free apps.
  • iTunes to buy music, movies, TV shows, and ringtones. Download whole college courses and thousands of podcasts.
  • Maps+Compass, with an automatically updated GPS displayed on up-to-date maps. Search for a location. Zoom in and out, view live traffic information, and receive point-by-point travel directions.
  • Game Center allows you to play games against others over the web.
  • Calendar.
  • Contacts allows you to organize everything you want to know about a person — address, all phone numbers, email addresses, birthdays, notes, websites, and anniversaries. Make a change on one device and it is updated on all others through iCloud.
  • Find My iPhone assists you in finding a lost or stolen iPhone by viewing its location on a map. Remotely wipe all info, remotely send a message to your phone to tell others it’s yours, and lock remotely.
  • Newsstand to read magazines, newspapers, etc.
  • An up-to-the-minute stock ticker.
  • Extended weather forecasts for multiple cities and locations.
  • A notebook.
  • Access to YouTube.
  • Voice Memos.
  • Calculator (scientific).

Another exercise in imagination, if you will: Consider every bit of technology listed above (we will ignore the wonderful advances in lithium battery, sensor, and storage technology for the purposes of this exercise) and the infrastructure needed for it to work. Now take it back in time just 20 years, to 1991. Keep in mind, all of this wonderful technology is crammed into 4.5 by 3.11 by 0.37 inches, with a total weight of 4.9 ounces.

How much would something with comparable functionality cost back then?

The logical answer would be that the technology did not exist 20 years ago, so it would be priceless. But this is a thought exercise, so we can at least break down some of the components and price them individually.

In 1991, the most common portable analog phone (cell phone technology was still in its nascent stages) was a Motorola MicroTac 9800X. It was lauded for its compact size, and for being the first flip phone on the market. It was an inch thick and nine inches long (when opened), and weighed close to a pound. The only thing it did was make phone calls. The quality of the calls were reportedly pretty bad. You couldn’t use the phone while traveling outside your metropolitan area, and it was pricey to make any phone call.

It sold for anywhere between $4,153 and $5,822 in current dollars (adjusted for inflation).

The first digital camera was released in 1991. It was a Kodak Digital Camera System, and had a resolution of 1.3 megapixels. It also came with a 200 MB hard drive that could store about 160 uncompressed images. The hard drive and batteries had to be tethered to the camera by a cable.

Cost in current dollars, adjusted for inflation: $33,317.

This is where I stopped. At just two laughingly inefficient components (according to today’s standards; back then, they were miracles of technology) in comparison to what comes standard on any iPhone available for $199, I was already hovering around an overall price of $40,000.

Extrapolate all of that out, including all the infrastructure required to make it work, and you can easily conclude that literally all the money in the world in 1991 could not buy you an iPhone.

Today, I can walk into a store conveniently located near me and get a device that makes it nearly impossible for me to get lost, lets me communicate with people I’ve known my whole life who are scattered all over the globe, allows me to take wonderful pictures and record moments of my life, provides access to all the information available on the Internet, streams any number of movies or TV shows directly to me, tells me an extended forcast, lets me video chat with my daughters and phone anyone I wish, along with any number of other things — all for the paltry sum of $199 and the price of a two-year contract.

A product that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Queen of England, and any royal prince would be unable to purchase 20 years ago is now as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. That’s what Steve Jobs produced. And, as a bonus, the wealth created by his idea provided the means to countless other people around the world to purchase what he produced.

Interviewer: “The system you’re interested in is one in which somehow that voluntary web of association is no longer allowed.”

Man on the street: “Correct.”

This pretty much speaks for itself. In this guy’s preferred system that disallows voluntary economic association, in order to get from point A to point B, a whole lot of murder, mayhem, theft, and rape will have to occur first with an end result of abject poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

Interviewer: “So, instead of those voluntary associations, what would you put in its place? Who would make all those decisions?”

Man on the street: “All decisions would be made democratically.”

There’s quite a bit of political philosophy that can be addressed here, but the next question pretty much sums it up for me.

Interviewer: “Like, for instance, when Athens democratically decided to kill Socrates?”

Man on the street:

This is a brilliant rejoinder. Popular democracy is nothing more than mob action. If everything is up for a vote and decidable by the “will of the people,” then there can be no individual rights, ever. The individual will always lose.

The argument I often hear in support of popular democracy goes a little something like this: Wouldn’t you vote against Hitler to keep him out of power? Well, the very fact that someone like Hitler can run for an election tells me that the system is completely invalid. If the election is deemed valid and workable because he weren’t voted in, it would be just as valid and workable if he were voted in.

That’s the long answer. The short answer is, “No, but I’d gladly shoot him in the face.”

Even the OWS crowd seems to understand that popular democracy is basically the rule of the mob, because they have set up rules in their assemblies dictating that 100 percent consensus must be reached before anything passes. But that just makes the mob smaller.

Man on the street: “I don’t believe there’s any need for individuals like Steve Jobs in this system to flourish based on their particular talents or particular genius.”

An argument from belief is a religious argument.

Also, framing an argument based on what you think that other people “need” is highly paternalistic. At worst, if carried out to its logical conclusion, this line of thought is murderous, if not genocidal.

What is not acknowledged or understood here is the notion that a person’s talents and particular genius are priceless. A person’s talent and particular genius is nearly the whole sum of a person. Disallow a person to use his talents or genius in voluntary association with others, and you’ve essentially murdered his spirit. You’ve destroyed the greatest resource on the face of the earth, and it can never be replaced. Ever.

Man on the street: “I don’t believe it’s possible to continue this kind of system. It’s a retrograde system. It’s a system that no longer works. It creates war. It creates mass unemployment. It creates poverty.”

I’ve already eviscerated this notion above. It obviously does work. It obviously does not create mass unemployment or poverty. It obviously does not create war.

In three minutes time, this person said he would do the following if he were in power:

  • Disallow voluntary association.
  • Steal money (and everything money represents) that doesn’t belong to him.
  • Impose mob rule.
  • Hobble those with talent.
  • Impose poverty on the masses.

None of this can be done without a whole lot of guns and a whole lot of cold-blooded murder. And in his mind, Steve Jobs creates war, poverty, and unemployment?

I’ll just put these few examples here.

  • Deaths in the Soviet Union from communism: 20 million
  • Deaths in Communist China from communism: 65 million
  • Deaths in Cambodia from communism: 2 million
  • Deaths in North Korea from communism: 2 million
  • Deaths in Africa from communism: 1.7 million
  • Deaths in Afghanistan from communism: 1.5 million (and climbing)
  • Deaths in Eastern Europe from communism: 1 million
  • Deaths in Vietnam from communism: 1 million
  • Deaths in Latin America from communism: 150,000
  • Deaths caused by Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan:  60 million

Combined with all other genocides, wars, famine and repression caused by national governments, the death toll for the 20th century is approximately 160 million.

If you took half of the population of the United States (every other man, woman, and child) and shot them in the head, you would have the number of people murdered by governments, the majority of whom were killed by their own governments.

  • Communism, socialism, Nazism, imperialism, theocracy, statism: 160 million dead.
  • Steve Jobs: Zero dead.

Of those 160 million murdered, how many may have turned out to be like Norman Borlaug, the man credited with saving up to 1 billion people worldwide from starvation? For those of you counting, that’s one seventh of the world’s current population. Can one honestly confront that number and still insist that talent and genius are not important? That free association should be done away with? That mob rule should prevail?

Man on the street: “You know, to hell with Steve Jobs.”

As Billy Beck brilliantly said when he linked to this video on Facebook, “Have you ever seen a man cut his own throat with philosophy?”

Well, dear reader, you just have.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Corporatism, Economic Theory, Efficiency, Gains From Trade, Labor, Market Efficiency, Philosophy, Property Rights, Regulation, Rhetoric, Taxes, Trade, Unintended Consequences
Comments: 1 Comment
 

David M. BrownWhat if there were deficit thinking, thinking deficit, on a desert island?
Posted at 1:43 am on August 9, 2011, by David M. Brown

Let’s attempt the program of “economic stimulus” on a desert island. Five persons have survived the shipwreck. Joe is good at gathering berries and reeds, and dressing wounds; Al is good at fishing, hunting and basket-weaving; Bob is good at making huts and gourd-bowls; and Sam, who wants to spend all his time sharpening sticks, and who regards any other kind of employment as beneath him, cannot produce a tool of any usefulness.

Let more and more of the resources that would have been exchanged in life-fostering and productivity-fostering trade between Joe, Al and Bob be confiscated by a fifth person, the king (who happens to have the only gun, a Kalashnikov that he grabbed from the ship before it crashed; elsewise no one would listen to him). And let this confiscated wealth (after a suitably large finder’s fee for the king has been deducted) be given to Sam to subsidize his slow and pointless blunt-stick production, since it would allegedly be unacceptable for Sam to have to accept alms in accordance with the sympathies and judgments of his fellows. And let the king perpetually demand more and more “revenue” to distribute and perpetually bray that criticism of his taxing and spending policies by “economic terrorists” is undermining confidence in the island’s economy.

What are the effects of this confiscatory and redistributive process on the prospects for the islanders’ survival? Discuss.

[Cross-posted to Davidmbrowndotcom.]


Filed under: Culture, Economic Theory, Efficiency, Finance, Food Policy, Gains From Trade, Government Spending, Health Care, Labor, Law Enforcement, Local Government, Market Efficiency, Nanny State, Philosophy, Politics, Property Rights, Taxes, Trade, Unintended Consequences
Comments: None
 

John W. PayneNot Even Close
Posted at 1:25 am on June 21, 2011, by John W. Payne

Sometimes an article comes along that is so blindingly stupid and misinformed that the mind reels in a vain attempt to understand how such a thing could be published by any semi-reputable organization. In my personal experience, these articles often discuss the history of the libertarian movement or libertarian ideas. I’m certainly not contending that this is the only subject that attracts wildly inaccurate commentary like a picnic attracts ants, but it’s the one where I can spot these stories most easily.

Today’s entry is this deeply confused article on the supposedly baleful influence of philosopher Robert Nozick and his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The only proper response to a piece this nonsensical is something like this:

Nonetheless, I am going to attempt to correct some of author Stephen Metcalf’s more glaring errors.

First, the central conceit of the article–or at least the subtitle–is flat out wrong. Nozick did write that “The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate.” Metcalf assumes that this statement is a renunciation of libertarianism, but that’s not what Nozick meant, as Nozick himself explained in an interview shortly before his death:

What I was really saying in The Examined Life was that I was no longer as hardcore a libertarian as I had been before. But the rumors of my deviation (or apostasy!) from libertarianism were much exaggerated. I think this book makes clear the extent to which I still am within the general framework of libertarianism, especially the ethics chapter and its section on the “Core Principle of Ethics.”

Sadly, it doesn’t get any better from there. Metcalf quotes Keynes as highly critical of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, claiming that Keynes scribbled in the margins of his copy, “An extraordinary example of how, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in Bedlam.” Again, Keynes did write that and about Hayek no less, but the line appeared in his review of the dense economic tome Prices and Production. Liberal economist Brad Delong first blogged this error and goes on to note that Keynes was actually quite found of The Road to Serfdom, calling it ” a grand book….Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement.”

Even more importantly, Metcalf drastically overstates Nozick’s importance:

I like to think that when Nozick published Anarchy, the levee broke, the polite Fabian consensus collapsed, and hence, in rapid succession: Hayek won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, followed by Milton Friedman in ’75, the same year Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition, followed by the California and Massachusetts tax revolts, culminating in the election of Reagan, and … well, where it stops, nobody knows.

Metcalf may like to think that, but that doesn’t make it true. Don’t get me wrong–Nozick was one of the intellectual giants of libertarianism and made the philosophy a somewhat respectable position among academic philosophers. That’s a very insular group, however, and Metcalf presents no evidence that it was Nozick’s popularity that propelled Hayek and Friedman to their Nobel Prizes. Probably because that evidence doesn’t exist.

A more plausible explanation for the Sveriges Riksbank’s recognition of Hayek and Friedman is that the Keynesian consensus was collapsing in the mid-1970s, and Hayek and Friedman offered alternative theories. The combination of slow economic growth and high inflation known as stagflation is essentially impossible under classic Keynesian models, but both the British and American economies seemed cursed with it in the 1970s. Contrary to Metcalf’s nostalgia, the 1970s were a terrible decade economically, and Keynesian economics proved inadequate to address the problems we faced. I don’t deny that Nozick was a powerful advocate for libertarianism, but the economic crisis did more to shift people’s views on economic policy in a more market oriented direction than any single thinker.

Furthermore, although Nozick played an important role in the history of libertarian ideas, I believe he has been less influential than any of the other big names, by which I mean Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard. I’ve been active in libertarian circles for nearly a decade now. I work for a free market think tank. I probably know around 1,000 libertarians personally. Yet I have not heard even a single person credit Robert Nozick for making them a libertarian. I’ve heard all the others–more times than I can count–but Nozick comes up only occasionally as an influence and never as the decisive one. I readily concede that this is not a scientific measure of Nozick’s influence among libertarians, but this is not a huge movement, and after working within it for this long, I think I have a pretty good sense of who the big influences are…or at least a better sense than Stephen Metcalf.

All this might be forgivable if Metcalf’s assault on Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment–which occupies a huge chunk of the article–was accurate and interesting. Unfortunately, Metcalf only engages with a strawman version of Nozick’s argument. Metcalf seems to think that Nozick intended for the Wilt Chamberlain example to be some kind of allegory for the economy as a whole. Instead, Nozick was simply showing why a specific pattern of wealth distribution is impossible to maintain without constant government intervention. As Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long explained in a 2002 article commemorating Nozick’s life and work:

ASU‘s most famous argument–the “Wilt Chamberlain example”–is also its most misunderstood. Criticizing “patterned” theories of justice–that is, those that regard the distribution of resources in society as just only if it fits some preconceived pattern (say, equality)–Nozick asked us to imagine a society that in fact realizes the desired pattern. He pointed out that if people are free to transfer their resources as they wish, the society will quickly deviate from the established pattern, as some individuals, like basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, become wealthy as a result of the voluntary decisions of other members of society who are willing to purchase the exercise of their talents.

If the original pattern is to be maintained at all costs, then the government must “continually interfere to stop people from transferring resources as they wish”; hence no patterned theory of justice can be implemented without “continuous interference in people’s lives” (p. 163). Nozick thus rejected patterned theories in favor of a “historical” theory, according to which a given distribution of resources, regardless of what pattern it fits, is legitimate so long as it arose through a process involving no violations of anybody’s rights.

Metcalf’s abuse of the facts are by no means limited to those detailed here, but going through all of them would require an article far longer than his original. In fact, if Slate removed everything that is incorrect or misleading in the article, they’d soon be left with nothing but prepositions. For that reason, I believe Slate’s editors should retract this piece. Not because I disagree with many of Metcalf’s philosophical principles, although that does appear to be the case, but because even with heavy editing and correction, this article is so fallacious that it detracts from public discourse.


Filed under: Philosophy, Property Rights
Comments: 13 Comments
 

Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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