Showing posts from July, 2014

How will Clark work in "The Old Man and the Sea"?

My review of Gregory Clark's The Son Also Risesis online at The American Conservative.

(Clark is obviously a Hemingway fan and likes to make his book titles puns of Hemingway's, thus my question in the post title.)

The idealist understanding of "natural rights"

Hoping to answer Bob Murphy's puzzlement over my remarks about rights:

"Society is able to justify the possession of powers, or capabilities, by individuals and those it exercises over them because they are a necessary prerequisite to fulfilling 'man's vocation as a moral being'. We understand rights in this way, not because they are natural, but because the individual has the capacity to imagine a good that is common, which is the same for others as for himself, or herself, and is inspired to act on that conception. Rights are what enable our capacities to be realized, and serve to define the moral person. Despite the fact that a person is not born with the rights or powers necessary for fulfilling such a conception of the moral person, and does not possess them outside of society, they... are not arbitrary creations of law or custom. They are natural in a different sense from that required in the natural law and natural rights traditions... David Ritchie understo…

Green on revolt

At the request of commentator "Mr":

"No precise rule, therefore, can be laid down as to the conditions under which resistance to a despotic government becomes a duty. But the general questions which the good citizen should ask himself in contemplating such resistance will be, (a) What prospect is there of resistance to the sovereign power leading to a modification of its character or improvement in its exercise without its subversion? (b) If it is overthrown, is the temper of the people such--are the influences on which the general maintenance of social order and the fabric of recognized rights depend so far separable from it--that its overthrow will not mean anarchy? (c) If its overthrow does lead to anarchy, is the whole system of law and government so perverted by private interests hostile to the public, that there has ceased to be any common interest in maintaining it?" -- Principles of Political Obligation, p. 86

Gus DiZerega on the incoherence of the libertarian view of property


Collateral Damage in War

As someone said recently, there are always going to be gray areas when it comes to moral questions like "How great a risk of harm to innocents am I allowed to impose when defending myself against an attack?" But we can set out obvious cases to act as boundary markers, and then ask which of them a real situation more closely resembles. So: If someone is shooting at me out of the window of an occupied apartment building, I can shoot back at that window. If I hit his hostage inside, that is very unfortunate but I am not culpable. However, I cannot launch a rocket at the building that will take down the whole edifice. In the latter case, I am culpable.

Why in romance movies the beloved must be conventionally beautiful

I was watching Winter's Tale the other day and thinking about this: Why not show average-looking people falling in love in a romantic movie? (Not that it is never done, but it is rare, and tough to pull off, I think for the reasons discussed below.)

Here's the thing: If someone is really in love, the person they are in love with is the most beautiful person in the world... to them. They recognize that the person may not be conventionally beautiful. But the very ways in which the beloved differs from the convention are apt, in fact, to be objects of special affection: his crooked smile, the gap in her teeth, his odd posture, her slightly crooked nose.

But the audience for a romance movie is not in love with the lead actors. And so the audience will not see these characteristics as endearing, but simply as blemishes. The easiest way to convey the beauty that the lover sees in the beloved is simply to cast an actor possessing conventional beauty in the role. It takes true cinemati…

Historical documents, detached from life

"La storia, staccata dal documento vivo e resa cronaca, non è più un atto spirituale, ma una cosa, un complesso di suoni o di altri segni. Ma anche il documento, staccato dalla vita, è nient'altro che una cosa, simile all'altra, un complesso di suoni e di altri segni: per esempio, i suoni e le lettere nelle quali fu già comunicata una legge, le linee intagliate nel marmo e che manifestarono un sentimento religioso mercé la figura del dio, un mucchio di ossa con le quali si attuò un tempo l'organismo di un uomo o di un animale." -- Benedetto Croce, Teoria e storia della storiografia, p. 23

"History, detached from the living document and made into chronicle, is no longer a spiritual act, but a thing, a complex of sounds or of other signs. But the document also, detached from life, is nothing other than a thing, similar to the other, a complex of sounds and other signs: for example, the sounds and the letters in which there was once communicated a law, the lin…

Heartwarming news from the right

National Review has just run a piece decrying the wave of police brutality and violation of rights that we have seen of late.

This is great news, and may signal the rise of a broad movement that could check such abuses.

Two notes:

1) Efforts to demonize every police officer as a brutal thug are going to be counterproductive. There are many good cops who do a lot of good work, and the average citizen knows this, and may even know some of these good cops personally: if this movement is to succeed, it will have to be made clear that it is not anti-police, but anti-police abuses. To the extent it seems to be merely anti-police, it will only cause average citizens to rally behind police forces.

2) The effort is inherently political, and must use political means to achieve its ends. Anyone whose misguided understanding of politics leads them to view it as inherently immoral is going to have a tough time contributing to its success. It is precisely because political life in the United States sti…

Croce: First history, then chronicle

Croce discusses the idea that history is formed out of the more elementary material of chronicle. He rejects this, concluding:

"Ma dall'indagine sul carrattere, e perciò sulla genesi, delle due operazioni o dei due atteggiamenti, consegue invece proprio l'opposto: prima la Storia, poi la Cronaca. Prima il vivente, poi il cadavere; e far nascere la storia dalla cronaca tanto varrebbe quanto far nascere il vivente dal cadavere, che è invece il residuo della vita, come la cronaca e il residuo della storia." -- Teoria e storia della storiografia, pp. 22-23

"But from the investigation of the character, and therefore of the genesis, of the two operations of the two engagements, there follows instead the opposite result:
first History, then Chronicle. First the living body, then the corpse; and for history to be born from chronicle would be as though a living body were born from a corpse, which is instead the residue of life, as chronicle is the residue of history."

Why should one submit to the power of the state?

"To ask why I am to submit to the power of the state, is to ask why I am to allow my life to be regulated by that complex of institutions without which I literally should not have a life to call my own, nor should be able to ask for a justification of what I am called on to do." -- T. H. Green, The Principles of Political Obligation, p. 90

Green on social contract theory

"In fact, the condition of society in which it could properly be said to be governed by a law of nature, i.e. by an obligation of which there is no imponent but the consciousness of man, an obligation of which the breach is not punished by a political superior, is not antecedent to political society but one which it gradually tends to produce. It is the radical fault of the theory which finds the origin of political society in compact that it has to reverse the true process." -- The Principles of Political Obligation, p. 48

In other words, it is politics itself which produces our recognition of each other as rights-bearing individuals.

Late capitalism

When I hear Marxists use the above phrase, I always imagine the subtext "late (let's hope we got it right this time) capitalism."

Kant and the universalization of a rule of conduct

Kant famously held that the criterion for an action being moral is that the agent should be able to rationally will a universal rule under which his particular action falls. So, if I am generous to a homeless person, I can comprehend that action falling under the universal rule, "Those who have more than enough should be generous to the destitute." But if I steal from my neighbor, I cannot do similarly: "Everyone should steal from their neighbor" is irrational as a rule, since the very goal of thievery is to take lasting possession of the stolen object, not to have it stolen back immediately.

So far so good. Kant was a very smart man, and was certainly on to something here. But there is a well-known problem with the permissiveness of this guideline: it is too easy to generate a universal rule that will justify almost any action. So, imagine Immanuel confronting Alexander the Great with his principle. Alexander could respond, "Immanuel, I am down with your ide…

Did Berkeley have a "radically subjective" view of experience?

I am reading an excellent introduction to British Idealism: British Idealism: A Guide for the Perplexed. If you are at all interested in this subject, I highly recommend this book.

But I do have a minor complaint: the authors repeat the common misperception of Berkeley as having had a "radically subjective view of experience." (The book only treats Berkeley peripherally, as a forerunner of 19th and 20th-century idealism, which is what makes this a minor quibble.) I am writing a paper at present tracing the history of this error, as well as that of the repeated attempts to correct it. (Collingwood is among those who sought to rectify this mistake.) The key oversight behind this misperception, from Hegel onward, has been to ignore the role of the mind of God in Berkeley's metaphysics.

I don't intend to summarize the historical work from that paper here. Instead, I offer a metaphor intended to clarify the objective nature of reality as Berkeley sees it: Berkeley's …

How Bad Is Dan Brown as a Writer?

The worst writer ever among best-selling authors? Quite possibly.

The First Touch of Berkeley's Finger

"Here [in Galileo] the character of the mind-dependent or merely phenomenal character of secondary qualities, as taught by Locke, is already full-grown. English students of philosophy, finding this doctrine in Locke, do not always realize that it is by no means an invention of his, but had been long ago taught by Galileo as an important truth, and was in fact one of the leading principles of the whole scientific movement of the preceding two centuries; and that by the time it reaches Locke it is already somewhat out of date, and ready to collapse at the first touch of Berkeley's finger." -- R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature, p. 102

History and Chronicle

"La verità è, che cronaca e storia non sono distinguibili come due forme di storia, che si compiano a vicenda o che siano l'una subordinata all'altra, ma come due diversi atteggiamenti spirituale. La storia è la storia viva, la cronaca la storia morta; la storia, la storia contemporanea, e la cronaca, la storia passata..." -- Benedetto Croce, Teoria e storia della storiografia, p. 21

"The truth is, that chronicle and history are not distinguishable as two forms of history, that complete each other or are one subordinate to the other, but as two different spiritual attitudes. History is living history, chronicle dead history; history, contemporary history, and chronicle, past history."

Clearly this is from where Collingwood drew his central understanding of history. And Oakeshott differs starkly from both Croce and Collingwood on this point.

Green on Social Contract Theory

"If political society is supposed to have originated in a pact at all, the difference between it and the preceding state of nature cannot with any plausibility be held to have been much more than a difference between a society regulated by written law and officers with defined power and one regulated by  customs and tacitly recognized authority." -- Principles of Political Obligation, p. 46

This is an important point contra those who fantasize about "doing away with politics": there is no evidence of people anywhere ever having lived in a society without politics. Today, we just have more formally organized politics extending over wider domains than in the past.

Julian Sanchez on "Taxation is theft"


Like one of those situations where, when your dad tells you something it's in one ear and out the other, but when a stranger tells you the same thing you listen, I'm thinking that now Bob will get it.

Capital goods: The produced means of production?

One of the few times I recall disagreeing with Israel Kirzner was when we discussed what should be considered a capital good. I took Lachmann's view: "When capital is defined, with Boehm-Bawerk, as the 'produced means of production' land is, of course, excluded. But to us the question which matters is not which resources are man-made but which are man-used. Historical origin is of no concern of ours." -- Capital and Its Structure, p. 11

For a general theory of capital, this seems to me exactly right. (I put it this way because I don't wish to deny that for special purposes, we might need to distinguish between produced and non-produced goods.)

Consider: I have a pile of fieldstones that I am using to build a stone wall. I pick one stone from the pile and carefully chip away at it with my stone hammer and chisel until it is the perfect shape I need for my wall. I put it in place and turn back to my pile.

To my pleasant surprise, the next rock I spy just happe…

Rawls Redux

Here I wondered about Rawls's use of maximin reasoning: why, despite not knowing my own preferences, wouldn't I just do expected utility maximization?

Guided by David Gordon, Kevin Vallier, and Danny Shahar, I have discovered that Rawls's protects himself against my objection. But after reading section 26 of A Theory of Justice, I am perhaps even more perplexed: it seems to me that the way Rawls's fends off this criticism is that he denies the agents choosing behind the veil of ignorance any knowledge of possible political regimes.

So Rawls has set things up this way. You are an eating contest. He says to you, "How would you like to choose your meal?"

You respond, "Hmm, I can't remember what I like to eat..."

He says, "That's right: we wiped out your memory of your tastes on the way in."

"Hmm... OK, then, what can you tell me about what is available?"

"Absolutely nothing."

Yes, I suppose at that point you might …

Deontological ethics versus utilitarian ethics

It is not difficult to explain both the lasting appeal of these two theories of ethics, and at the same time why the dispute between them will never be resolved on the field where the moral philosophers of the two camps attempt to fight their way to victory.

Our ethical life is practical life, and to think through an ethical problem is an exercise in practical, and not theoretical, reason. As Hegel might have put it, it is a matter of Sittlichkeit, of pursuing the intimations of a concrete tradition of moral activity, and not of abstract moral reasoning.

Both deontological and utilitarian ethics are exercises in just such abstract reasoning. Each have (correctly) espied an aspect of our moral lives. This is what makes them plausible. But each have placed a one-sided emphasis on that aspect, at the expense of ignoring the concrete reality of how our moral lives are actually lived. Each sees what the other school is missing, and that is why, so long as these theorists fail to recogniz…

Maximin principle

Rawls's maximin principle does not seem at all obvious to me. (As stated in A Theory of Justice, this principle holds that rational actors choosing from behind the veil of ignorance will choose social arrangements that maximize the welfare of the least well off.)

Imagine I have a choice between two societies, Society One, in which I have 99 chances to be very wealthy, and one chance of being quite poor, versus Society Two, where I have one chance of being very wealthy, and 99 chances of being somewhat less poor than the unfortunate loser in Society One. Why in the world would anyone choose Society Two from behind the veil of ignorance? Rawls posits that people are risk averse: fine, I accept that. But risk aversion is surely a matter of degree: is anyone really that risk averse that they would choose to avoid the minimal risk they face of being the worst off in Society One at the cost of giving up the huge potential upside of that choice?

Or consider a somewhat more realistic exa…

Good one from Megan McCardle


"The first is that while the religious right views religion as a fundamental, and indeed essential, part of the human experience, the secular left views it as something more like a hobby, so for them it’s as if a major administrative rule was struck down because it unduly burdened model-train enthusiasts."

Is It Better to Be Terrible Than Average?

The Sports Illustrated web site was always just OK: perfectly usable, but nothing to get excited about. So, it was natural they might want to re-design it.

They did, and are certainly no longer middle-of-the-road. Indeed, they may have the worst site I have ever seen from a major media outlet. It really looks as though stuff is just tossed out randomly across the screen with no design at all. And I'm far from the only person who thinks so.

What's is amazing is that Sports Illustrated no doubt paid someone lots of money to do this. I'm sure I could have trashed their web site for far less.

Theorizing human action

People who want to attack Mises's use of "praxeology" as some bizarre, idiosyncratic move on his part often fail to realize how common this sort of analysis was among philosophers in the early 20th century. Bradley, Bosanquet, Green, Croce, Collingwood, and Oakeshott all perform analyses similar to Mises, sometimes described as examining the presuppositions of human action. For instance, here is Green:

"without intention there is no action... In saying then that the proper, because the only possible, function of law is to enforce performance of or abstinence from external actions, it is implied that its function is to produce or prevent certain intentions, for without intention on the part of someone there is no act." -- Principles of Political Obligation, pp. 18-19

I do think that Mises made two mistakes in this area:

1) There was no need for him to use the term "praxeology": this made what he was doing seem stranger than it needed to. (In fact, Oak…

Authority is not rule

Libertarians often make the mistake of confusing authority with rule. The referee of a basketball game is not the ruler of the game. But he does have the authority to decide when someone has committed a foul and when they should be thrown out of the game.

Furthermore, what makes the referee an authority is not some "magical" power he possesses that allows him special insight into the sport of basketball, or some sterling virtues that make him a better person than the players. No, he is an authority because he has been designated as one in an authorized procedure: the league has appointed him. And if some referee abuses his authority and attempts to act like a ruler, that does not discredit the office of referee, but only the person of this referee.

And note: the fact that he makes mistakes in these calls does not diminish his authority. Players and coaches may not remove him even if both teams believe he has made a series of bad calls. For an authority to be removed prop…

A Crowning Achievement


The State Is the Flywheel of Our Life

"The State is the flywheel of our life. Its system is constantly reminding us duties, from sanitation to the incidents of trusteeship, which we have not the least desire to neglect, but which we are either too ignorant or too indolent to carry out apart from instruction and authoritative suggestion. We profit at every turn institutions, rules, traditions, researches, made by minds at their best, which, through State action, are now in the form to operate as extensions of our own minds." -- Bernard Bosanquet, The Philosophical Theory of the State, p. 152

Austrians chose an unfortunate term in choosing "subjectivity"

I understand what Austrian economists were getting at in talking about "subjectivism." But this was a bad choice of a term. (And one place I think Rothbard had it over Mises was his criticism of Mises's subjective understanding of morality.) Why was this a bad choice?

'As he did in Experience and its Modes, [Oakeshott] argues here that nothing in experience is "merely subjective," subjectivity or "mineness" being only an abstract aspect of experience. Because an agent's diagnosis of his situation is an understanding and not a mere "feeling" or "organic tension," it cannot be simply subjective. An agent's understanding of his situation is an "objective" conclusion which may be questioned by himself or others. If upon examination this understanding reveals itself to be a misunderstanding, it does not thereby cease to be "objective."' -- Paul Franco, The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, p. …

Oxbridge Indeed

Does anyone else find it strange that the Cambridge Journal of Economics is published by Oxford University Press?

Why should we expect someone to suddenly drop their self interest when elected to office?

This is a question one often hears asked by libertarians. It exhibits a confusion. It is like asking, "Why should we expect someone to suddenly drop their self interest when he is appointed coach of a basketball team?"

In the Misesian sense of self interest, we do not expect them to, because it is not possible. No one ever drops their Misesian self interest, because for Mises, "self interest" simply means "what ever one's self is interested in." And Mises is (rightly) contemptuous of the view that this means that everyone is only interested in personal gain in a narrow, materialistic sense. For Mises, St. Francis was acting in his self interest in trying to aid the poor in the sense that doing so was what interested him, just like Warren Buffett was acting in his self interest in trying to become very wealthy, as that was what interested him.

In the narrower sense in which "self interest" is often used, as meaning exclusive concern with person…

Bosanquet explains the use of torture

"Cruelty, it has been said, is a good deal owing to laziness. It is more comfortable to sit in the shade rubbing red pepper into a man's eyes to make him confess than to run about in the sun collecting evidence." -- The Philosophical Theory of the State, p. 326n


On Facebook, Andy Stow comments:

"Dear everyone on Facebook: the only reason I've seen the photos of a blonde posing with African animals she has shot, is because people who don't want other people to be able to see the photos have shared them on Facebook."

I think this should be dubbed "self-trolling": when one's self is the very cause of the spreading of material one objects to.

The political economy of the British Idealists

I am working on putting together an edited volume with the above title. Once again, I find that Paul Franco has preceded me:

"The question of economic organization is not considered by itself [by Oakeshott], apart from politics and social organization; the economic is set in the wider context of an entire concrete manner of living." -- The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, p. 147

This nicely anticipates the theme of this proposed work. Damn you, Franco, will I find your footprints before me in every supposedly virgin territory I go to explore?

A plausible and I think important political reform

Most of my writing on actual policy issues is merely critical: let's not try anything too radical, at least all in one step (e.g., abolish the state or abolish capitalists), but every once in a while, I hit upon a positive suggestion that I think is worth forwarding. One from a while back was the idea that we might introduce some form of sortition in our political system as a very effective means of reducing the influence of money in our political life.

Here is another: We ought to try to make our political districts reflect real-world "localities," rather than simply dividing the population up into even-sized chunks, or worse yet, setting district boundaries based on partisan considerations.

Here is Bernard Bosanquet on the importance of "the neighborhood" in political life:

"The total disregard of an ethical purpose connecting us with the surroundings nearest to us in bodily presence, tends to deprive the general life of its vitality, its sensuous health, s…

Kant on the state

"Man in the State... has totally abandoned his wild lawless freedom in order to find his entire freedom again undiminished in a lawful dependence... because this dependence springs from his own legislative will." -- Immanuel Kant, Philosophy of Right

Storia e cronaca

"'Storia non contemporanea', 'storia passata', sarebbe invece quella che trova già innanzi a sé una storia formata, e che nasce perciò come critica di essa storia, non importa di millenni o remota di un'ora appena." -- Benedetto Croce, Teoria e storia della storiografia, p. 13

"'Non-contemporary history', 'past history', would be instead when one finds already formed before one a story, and therefore it arises as a critique of that story, no matter if it is a millennium or just an hour in the past."

In this Croce agrees with Collingwood: It is not the temporal distance that is important for doing real history, but the critical distance.

The Hobby Lobby Mess

Is anyone allowed to say anything sane and calm about Hobby Lobby? If so, may I note: if we had just created universal insurance vouchers and divorced insurance completely from employment, we wouldn't have this mess at all. (Plus we'd have a lot more job mobility!) But our legislative process is so disfunctional that instead 10,000 lobbyists get together and create legislation that seems to have the goal of being as complex and hard to implement as possible. Ugh.

Bosanquet anticipates and answers the public choice critique of government actors as necessarily self-interested

"We may approach the matter in this way. The paradox is, that if you scrutinise the acts which have made States, and which carry them on, or which go on under and within them, you will every where be able to urge that they spring from self- interest and ambition not from a desire for the common good. How then can we say that the State exists for a common good? Hegel's large conception of a social fabric and the temper of mind which maintains it should have done some thing to meet this problem. But we may come a little closer to the precise difficulty.

"Nothing is so fallacious as mere psychological analysis applied to the estimation of the purposes which rule a mind. In every act there is necessarily an aspect of the agent's particular self. One way or another he is satisfied in it. So the pessimistic or superficial psychologist can always -- not in some acts merely, but in all -- discover a form of self-seeking. Life is a whole made up of particula…