Sunday, February 17, 2013

Freedom vs. Utopia

I've been continuing on with The Moral Foundations of Politics presented by Professor Ian Shapiro at Yale as part of their Open Yale courses and have now gotten into the post-Classical views on politics, leaving the 19th century behind as such propositions as Utilitarianism and Marxism are both seen as so flawed as to not offer a complete nor satisfactory means to remove politics from society.  Indeed, that singular goal of turning science into a means of replacing politics proved to be ill-founded, ill-thought out and when the scientific method is rigorously applied to either they both fall short of their goals of removing politics from the affairs of Man.  Simply put, you can't get rid of it due to the complexities of societies and individuals and the fact that valuations on such affairs cannot be rendered objectively but subjectively.  Both the maximization of social utility and the creation of the bureaucratic self-ending State prove to have so many problems as they are both a threat to human liberty because of the underlying principles involved.  Thus in the 20th century, while adherents to both ideals try to find a way forward with them, their ability to have good outcomes in the world lead to problems that show philosophies of Man that are unable to deal with Man as he is.

From that point Professor Shapiro moves to a late 20th century thinker called Robert Nozick, who proposed the utilization of subjectivity and Man's freedom to analyze just what sort of political system and results one gets starting from just about any point in the political spectrum.  Instead of trying to work through a mechanical system, like both Utilitarianism and Marxism that assert a methodology of approach to render objective means, Nozick proposes a subjective approach utilizing post-Newtonian conceptions in the way of Einstein's 'thought experiments'.  His goal is not to step outside of society and politics but to temporarily put it aside and ask a fundamental question: what is the purpose of the State?

The thought experiment entails having you, the individual, ask yourself what sort of situation you would be in if no State government existed.  Yes, it is an impossible situation but this is a thought experiment, not a real world goal to reach.  If every politician, judge, lawyer and political activist suddenly disappeared in a puff of smoke along with every bureaucrat and every tome of laws and regulations they created, why would you need them?  What is their purpose?  And what would your reaction be in this case where the State, as we know it and as has been known to every generation of mankind, suddenly evaporated?  It is a profound question and the answers you get start to show major lines of thought in the 1980's and forward to today, but not in the mainstream of political thought until just recently.

In that Stateless state you would be back to your Natural Rights and Liberties and must rely on self-governance.  But that is no assurance against Man in that State of Nature (red of tooth and claw) and to protect yourself you must actually do that and also protect those things you create that allow you to survive.  Otherwise you would fall prey to Savage Man because that is the state of being you have entered into.  To protect yourself you might band together with others who are like minded with you to help, but then the burden of protecting all of those things you own as individuals and each of your individual lives falls to you, and you have more and better things to do with your liberty than that, don't you?  Thus you may find others who have decided on a division of labor as a means to achieve this end (remember how Marx hated that?) so that they can protect your belongings as you went about doing other things.  You form a Stateless contract with such a group as there is no one to enforce it other than each other, but you can work on a principle of accountability and of one's word being their bond, with proof of that only coming over time.  From that the basis of protective organizations starts and we could liken this to Mafia families or bands of Warlords and their personal followers.

What happens in this state of being without a State?  This is, perhaps, the Anarchist dream Utopia but it has a problem: there is no one to really enforce the contract.  Worse still is that to gain market and expand, as any organization must due to internal needs and requirements of administration and covering ever more people as they become popular, such bands then start to compete for market space.  What happens when rival protection rackets start to go after the same territory?  Conflict.  And that is what happens with these protection organizations, as they may start at a low-level of threats and intimidation to gain market (or go out of existence as stronger organizations prevail) until open conflict ensues.  In this way the more capable organizations will expand and flourish to cover more and more population until they cover a society.  At that point there is a power dynamic change as the legitimizing power to enforce protection can be used against a population, but that population also has some capability to withhold funding the organization at large to hold it accountable.  In either case you get the State. 

From a start of pure Statelessness you get the State and yet it is just that one power and function that has been granted to it: to protect one's life and property from others harming them.  This is a Utilitarian conception of John Stewart Mill and this is the State that protects it: The Night Watchman State.  And who watches these Watchmen?  All members of society.

Such a minimalist State allows maximum freedom to exercise individual liberty, protects all members of society and their property (although you never lose the responsibility, duty and right of self-protection), but otherwise does nothing else and is held in check from expansion by the population at large.  While not a new conception of such a State, it comes with a far different set of underpinnings than Enlightenment or Classical or even Ancient views of it since it is a State in thought experiment only, not a goal nor objective to achieve: this is not a rigorous methodology to create a new realm of morality in politics, but an analytical tool to analyze what is or is not moral in politics.

If one steps away, mentally, from their current society and asks if any idea is good or bad to each individual in society, then they must look at the greatest harm done as well as the greatest good generated on any political question.  This is not a means with an end, but a pure tool to wield in cutting away questions of their normal externalities and get to the actual propositions involved.  Thus something like, say, 'should there be a minimum wage?' or 'should there be unemployment benefits?' can be asked not by pointing out to the 'good' that can be done but also to looking at the harm it can do, and no political proposition or law is harmless.  Passing legislation to say that rabbits are cute is not the same as enforcing a taking of wages to fund the unemployed or to require redirection of resources directly to a minimum wage as a forced part of any contract: there is harm done and to a large number of people and then only to benefit a minority of the population by removing liberty or the fruits of liberty at the direction of government.  That is a moral question and an ethical one that brings home the actual question: is it right to take away money that represents a person's time spent in productive labor to give it to someone who has lost their job?  That is actually not a simple question to ask as it entails lost productivity of not only individuals and a society in an attempt to give temporary recompense to those who have lost a job.  That is a harm.  Anything done to an individual that removes their liberty or its creations is a harm as it is those very things that the State is supposed to PROTECT.  Why?  You just went through that thought experiment and can see that the best and most minimal thing a State is supposed to do is PROTECT your life and the artifacts of time spent with your liberty, not take them and give them to others.

As you are now outside the actual system (with thought experiments) and are not contained within it you also get to ask: how does this effect me without my knowing where I will be in the economic scale once I step back into the active society?  Remember this is a thought experiment and while performing it you have no attributes of the society involved: you have no class, you have no social standing, you have no religion, you own nothing and you are detached in all ways from that society that you can manage so as to try and render a moral judgment on a political activity from all parts of society.  Yes you will have difficulty doing that detachment, which is why such an analytical tool requires rigor in its use and you must self-analyze any bias you bring to the table.  It is a tool that cuts into not just political morality but into your own moral basis as an individual, and when it cuts it can cut deeply.

Now consider a real world example of a famous professional athlete who has put into his contract that every person coming to a home game puts a quarter into a box for the player to watch the game.  This contract is negotiated between the player and the team (as it is a team sport) and they are agreeable to it.  You, as a fan, get to decide if you want to go to those games and see a world famous athlete play in full knowledge that you'll be paying that athlete 25 cents.  This is a Pareto Perfect situation in which everyone gets to decide if this additional cost is worth the result.  It is also a form of promise from the player to play well as if he can get enough people excited with his play to fill the arena every night, then he makes more money over his career.  There is no force to enter into the contract, and yet it is agreeable to the player and the team.  You have a choice as to paying what amounts to a private tax that is a very small cost compared to the ticket price, and 25 cents isn't all that much.  The player makes millions of dollars in this method.  It also has the benefit of being a real-world example as this is what Wilt Chamberlain had in his contract, so you can't say that it isn't possible.

That player gains wealth beyond what he is guaranteed to get from his salary or wages from people just showing up to watch him play home games.  The team makes far more money from the increase in ticket sales and has a strange form of personal commitment from the player to continue playing at top form or even improve.  The fan gets better on-court play that is more entertaining to them from the player.  Does Wilt Chamberlain deserve all that money?  He did earn it after all, by utilizing a freely negotiated part of a contract acceptable to all involved.  Does anyone think that he isn't entitled to that and to be protected from its being seized in order to, say, give it to the poor?

This example is a powerful one as it demonstrates a principle of freedom allowing for the unequal distribution of wealth via freely negotiated contracts.  It is, perhaps, the largest game-changer in the approach to morality in politics that anyone has developed and is one of the keenest tools to pull apart redistributive systems.  Those on the Left would criticize Wilt Chamberlain and say that he did not deserve to have such accumulated wealth and that the State should have some say in how it is used (through taxation, say) even though these are negotiated payments to see an ephemeral activity for the temporary enjoyment of those watching a game.  It is a price paid for enjoyment and the social experience of a game, not productive activity which irks the social moralists even more.  The goal of those moralists is to reach a Utopian end-state (usually a Marxist one as it involves forcible redistribution of wealth) and they have just run into the worst kind of roadblock that can be put in front of them: the death of the Utopian end-state ideal.

With this tool a different Einsteinian 'thought experiment' can progress and it is one that can be used against a Utopian end-state.  Lets make that a State where everyone is exactly equal in material wealth, have all their needs met and contribute accordingly. 

Now put in place the freedom of contract. 

What do you get? 

Unequal results, the accumulation of wealth and the end of the level end-state which disappears in relatively short order as everyone makes subjective decisions on what to do with their freedom to exercise their liberty. 

The great thing is that Mr. Nozick lived to see this come about in the fall of the Eastern Bloc in such places as Poland and Czechoslovakia where State owned businesses were apportioned out by one-share per citizen.  Each citizen had equal ownership in these businesses to do with as they pleased with the shares.  Some put them under mattresses, others burned them, others used them as toilet paper and others started purchasing them.  Within 5 years those firms that actually had any productive capability had gained majority owners, and not through an original wealth imbalance (as was the case in Russia) but through the free play of a free market starting out in an egalitarian starting condition.  It didn't last long.  Nor does any equal distribution system of wealth as human freedom is its death knell when liberty is allowed to be freely exercised.

Any State that violates its minimalist being to redistribute wealth is thus in conflict with human liberty and freedom.  And even if it reaches some desired form of 'equality' across all of mankind, the moment that freedom is allowed back in, then the entire thing will evaporate in short order without the force of the State to back it.

You really can learn a lot just by wanting to find out about abstruse areas of thought like the moral basis of politics.

And, yes, this is also the death knell for any attempt at 'collective' humanity that isn't coercive and authoritarian, despotic in all ways to the individual.  The greatest tool to wield against it?  Individual liberty.

It was once a revolutionary idea.

And it still is.

Friday, February 01, 2013

A purely aha! moment

I've been watching a few different classes at the Lecture Kings site on my Roku Box, and of particular interest has been ones from Yale.  One series that I finished just a week or so ago was on Ancient Greece and it was full of all sorts of interesting information on era of the pre-Polis Greek civilization and then the rise of the Polis and then its fall.  A very good series of lectures that were both entertaining and enlightening, both.

After going through a number of course titles and brief overviews from various institutions, I wound up back at Yale for a series on the moral underpinnings of political thought.  This course starts just at the end of the Enlightenment and during the Classical period and after a brief intro utilizing the Eichmann trial to illuminate what the role of a citizen is in a State and what are the moral boundaries of a State with regards to its citizens.  That, in itself, is a thought provoking set of classes and it will be used as a touchstone to examine how the Classical and Post-Classical formulations of modern political theory play out over time.  This starts out with Jeremy Bentham and the concept of utilitarianism which he pushed as not just a legal formulation (which is to say laws based on a concept) but a moral formulation for society.  Utilitarianism has a core tenet that is called 'the greatest happiness principle' in that man, for any action or decision, will make decisions to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  For a State, then, the goal is to maximize happiness for the majority of its members and that is a standard that follows for all decisions of government.  He put forward that nature gives us these two masters, pleasure and pain, and that we are driven in all decisions by them.

It is fascinating that for a man who declaimed that there was no 'natural law' or 'natural rights' that he has put forward both a natural law (that nature inflicts pleasure and pain) and a natural right (man to choose between them so as to maximize pleasure).  Yes there are some problems with utilitarianism, but it does serves as a basis for other political thought (such as libertarianism) although not through Bentham but through his friend James Mill and particularly through his son John Stuart Mill.  If Bentham would put forward raw utility (which is to say the maximizing of pleasure for the majority in society) to its limits, then John Stuart Mill would shift that towards the maximization of liberty for the individual and out of State control.  Neither Bentham nor Mill saw much from government as being necessary, and Mill shifted the conception from government utilizing laws so that individuals could maximize pleasure to a set based on the harm principle, where so long as someone is not harming others or property, they should be free to live their lives without interference.  Mill also adds in a community principle in that harming oneself or one's property may put the community at disadvantage as a form of intervention particularly for those incapable of self-government.  Otherwise freedom, particularly freedom to discourse, is a necessary precondition in society amongst individuals.

If libertarianism can trace its roots to a strong foundation point, that point is laid by John Stewart Mill.  It is a utilitarian point, however, and one that rests on legal not natural rights.

After utilitarianism under Bentham, Mill and others, comes Karl Marx as the next of the Classical political philosophers and it is in watching the first lecture on him that I received an aha! moment and it is because of the context of the time that Marx lived in that I had not fully considered before.  Marx lived at a time when science was coming to the forefront of industry in that items that had only empirical meaning in the 17th and 18th century were now getting practical application.  Going from theories of pressure to utilizing steam as a motive source of power and a replacement for stationary power sources, was seen as a liberating concept for mankind.  Being able to place real values based upon empirical equations (and through that also note other things going on that were outside of theoretical concerns) meant that areas of learning in the natural sciences of physics, chemistry and astronomy were all moving into practical concerns for industrial design. 

Adam Smith had done a good job in describing how divided labor in a pin factory (one man to move a wire reel to a cart, another to start the unspooling process, another to run the cutting machine, etc.) meant that production for all of the workers involved jumped by orders of magnitude by concentrating on single tasks.  Smith calculated that 18 men could turn out something on the order of 48,000 pins a day (all put into paper, boxed and then put into a shipping crate) while if they all did the entire production of each pin themselves, their production might be in the dozen per person.  Labor reduced to a task process created efficiency, in other words.

Now if you are able to place real valuation on labor, you should then have a Labor Theory of Value in which value is meant as exchange value (a commodity).  There is a lot to go into on the LTV but its setting due to time and place puts it in an era when science was moving to engineering, which is to say that the lovely empirical stuff was getting real nuts and bolts put to it to see if it could work.  The work force of, say, steam pressure was once just an empirical thing, which meant you had so much steam in so much volume at a certain temperature and it could be said to have a force behind it that could be calculated from those parameters.  Hydraulic power would utilize similar equations (pressure, volume, fluid density) which are applied to pneumatics, and those equations (and even some of the meanings of terms) are applied to electricity (the pressure or volume of electricity as an example).  So it should be obvious that if natural laws pertain to such things then it is perfectly natural that man and his activities conform to similar laws for labor and production.

Setting aside the rest of Marx for a moment, the late Classical and Neo-Classical thoughts on political morality (and economics as well) had something else to deal with: it was understood that profits were declining.


Any school of thought either had to incorporate that as part of its basis or explain it in some way by its process.  This had been an understood phenomena seen across economies.  Profits were declining.  And since that really sounds like a natural function of an economic system, which is to say industrial capitalism, anyone wanting to put forward any sort of theory on politics and the economy had to take this into account.  Utilitarian thought put it at a nexus of individual response and freedom of discourse so as to maximize pleasure... yes, difficult to comprehend in those terms, but you can see at least some glimmer of how that works.  Marx puts it as the centerpiece of the overall analysis of capitalism and how it has the seeds of its own destruction buried within it.  Further there is a natural value of a commodity that is different from its market value and that is the intrinsic value of that commodity.

Given the pre-condition it is impossible not to get an aha! moment out of this sort of thing.  If declining profits are a natural function of industrial capitalism, then there must be something driving that function.  Just as heat creates steam which in a confined vessel raises pressure, so there must be some natural force behind capitalism which causes declining profits.  This is the 19th century, after all!  Why soon man would have everything explained...

As the formulation of socialism that results from this is scientific socialism, isn't the very first place to see if it is well founded is upon its preconditions?  Really, if the decline in profits is due to some other function not directly related to labor or value in a direct and immediately corresponding way, then a LTV will have problems standing.  That is to say that if profits are declining for other reasons outside those of the given system of analysis, then the system of analysis must be revised, re-done or just scrapped... just like scientists do.

Off-hand I can think of a number of analytical basis known in the 19th century and used by scientists and engineers to test out declining profits.  First is to have exactly the same test and experimental baselines and to control the unknowns in an experiment.  This is known as 'repeatability' and if you can't find equivalent conditions or ones with known differences that can be described, then your chances of actually describing a phenomena in a precise way is nil.  You will get different vapor pressures if water has different soluble compounds in it, therefore you test with pure water to find vapor pressure and the amount of energy to move from water to vapor.  Similarly if profits are declining in multiple industries, they must be comparable on an unadulterated basis: changes to composition mix will give you different and non-conforming results.

An observable phenomena is only of note if you can verify the circumstances of each observation and compare the differences between them, especially if you are examining the exact, same phenomena.

After that there are variables to each experimental arrangement, which is to say some of the differences involved in each experiment.  This is related to the first, but in a slightly different way, in that the measurement of profits is one that is performed slightly differently for different parts of the economy.  Within each sector profits will vary on a number of axes based not just on traditional supply and demand curves, but also things like the number of competitors and the efficiency (and productive capacity) of each one.  Profits will tend to maximize when there are few competitors in a given sector or when market share is seen as 'captured' by certain firms.  With that said the ability to open new markets within a sector or expand markets means increased opportunity to build competition which will effect the bottom line.  While one large firm (A) will have maximal profits, when it gains two competitors (B & C) profits for (A) will suffer due to competition and pricing will be changed to reflect that.  The two competitors (B & C) will go from zero profits to the potential of some profits and perhaps even positive profits, which will still be less than (A) alone.  Taken as a whole amongst all three firms (A, B & C) profits have declined and production of goods has increased and prices have adjusted for that.

What is fun is that the amount of labor per object or commodity may have actually increased due to lack of initial experience of the competitors unless they have a way of increasing productivity that the first firm could not implement.  Suddenly declining profits is not a problem of capitalism, per se, but a function of competition, new entrants, expanding markets, market share, and a whole host of other vectors that each must be considered separately for each sector of the economy.  But if you consider declining profits as a principle and guiding effect (like the energy garnered when water flows downhill over a certain grade or the amount of work energy it takes to haul something uphill or hoist it up into a building) then you get a wholly different viewpoint on what sort of economic theory is possible.  When it is made a constant, which is to say a natural invariable, and not something amenable to other functions but part of the guiding of how a system works, you get very different results.

That was the aha! moment of seeing how the confluence of the natural sciences and industry were moving into economic and political thought and morality.

All it took was one sentence about the requirement to explain declining profits and all the rest just followed.  It is that one minor piece that, once added, suddenly makes so much so very clear.