Why Banning Learn To Code Bootcamps Is A Modern Atrocity

Over the past week, my Twitter feed has shown me at least two or three stories out of California on the state banning learn to code bootcamps. As someone who last year discovered had a natural talent for web coding and actually enjoyed it, leading to a career shift, this story dismays the hell out of me.

From VentureBeat, “California regulator seeks to shut down ‘learn to code’ bootcamps”:

BPPE, a unit in the California Department of Consumer Affairs, is arguing that the bootcamps fall under its jurisdiction and are subject to regulation. BPPE is charged with licensing and regulating postsecondary education in California, including academic as well as vocational training programs. It was created in 2010 by the California Private Postsecondary Education Act of 2009, a bill aimed at providing greater oversight of the more than 1,500 postsecondary schools operating in the state.

These bootcamps have not yet been approved by the BPPE and are therefore being classified as unlicensed postsecondary educational institutions that must seek compliance or be forcibly shut down.

“Our primary goal is not to collect a fine. It is to drive them to comply with the law,” said Russ Heimerich, a spokesperson for BPPE. Heimerich is confident that these companies would lose in court if they attempt to fight BPPE.

Heimerich stressed that these bootcamps merely need to show that they are making steps toward compliance: “As long as they are making a good effort to come into compliance with the law, they fall down low on our triage of problem children. We will work with them to get them licensed and focus on more urgent matters,” Heimerich said.

The question, really, is why there needs to be such burdensome regulation in the first place.

What happens at these bootcamps is that students come, they learn to code, they gain a valuable skill, and they can later turn that into a job. While the bootcamps cost between $10,000 – $20,000, they only last about 10-12 weeks, much less than the minimum $40k a year parents must shell out for 4-5 years of college. These bootcamps are a great opportunity: not only do the students get training in an actual, real world skill, but they do it for a lot less than a traditional college and they don’t waste 4-5 years unable to collect a paycheck, but can get right into the coding world with a job.

California regulators are citing “fraud prevention and safety concerns” as their reason for barging in and imposing themselves, but let’s be honest: that is not the case whatsoever. I would bet dollars to donuts that what’s really behind the regulators’ push is some market incumbent–some college, school, provider, whatever–that sees these bootcamps as a threat to its market share and wants them to be regulated so hard they go out of business, or at least until they stop being a threat. This is how the vast bulk of regulation in the United States comes about.

And here, because we are talking about education, knowledge, and individual empowerment, it’s especially atrocious. Any time someone steps in to prevent another from learning, well, mere words cannot describe how horrific such a thing is. I would never say it’s as bad as, say, the Holocaust, but it is truly a terrible thing. Knowledge is what empowers people to take control of their lives, better themselves, and in turn better all of the world. Knowledge knows no boundaries, no limits–except those imposed by the jealous and short-sighted. And even then, it will get out. You don’t need the bootcamps to learn how to code and get a job as a programmer, but it helps. A lot.

I myself was working in PR and media relations until the end of 2012. In 2013 I was very fortunate to have a friend recommend me to take a job in web programming, as he knew I had studied it a long time ago with my father. I was initially nervous, as I hadn’t done it in a long time…but before I knew it, I was becoming an expert on a completely new (to me, anyways) content management system, and was becoming an ace at HTML5, CSS3, and working my way into new forms of JavaScript. I became intimately familiar with responsive web design (taking one online course to help) which is a huge boon with the rapid growth of mobile web usage. This has opened all sorts of doors for me, and moreover, I actually enjoy it tremendously. It has turned me away from a period in my life where I was struggling to find what I was good at and could do for a day job, and was banging my head against the proverbial wall to do so, and into a life where I see possibilities and growth and a future and something I can do. Will it be easy? Of course not. It’s life. Life will never be easy. But now that I have this knowledge I have gained and taught myself, there is at least a path forward. That’s all anyone can ask for.

Why on Earth would regulators deny students this same empowerment? This is a modern atrocity.

Employment & Free Speech

So A&E (apparently) suspended Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the Robertson clan from Duck Dynasty, for homophobic & racist statements he gave in an interview. Naturally, there’s been a lot of outrage on all sides.

Let’s get something clear: this is not the First Amendment. That applies to the government, not private employers. Don’t even think of making it a First Amendment issue. Matt Yglesias is completely right on this. (And I disagree with him on a lot of things.) So let’s just get that out of the way: First Amendment applies to government, not to private employers.

However, be that as it may, is it still right for companies to terminate or suspend employees over voicing opinions and views, no matter how backward or detestable they may be? Sure, companies may have a right to do so, but it does not make it right. It may also be completely legal, but again, not right. It’s very clear it is legal, but it is not at all clear that it is right to me.

Libertarians frequently talk about the chilling effect on speech whenever government censors. What libertarians don’t talk about is the chilling effect when companies censor. Now, to a large degree, this is because employment is a largely voluntary activity. If you don’t like your company, you can leave. You can even blow the whistle and enjoy certain legal protections.

But you still have to deal with the consequences of those actions. And one of those consequences is losing your paycheck. In a world that is the end result of a century of rampant inflation, losing your paycheck means a lot of struggle and hardship. (Okay, it did before the rampant inflation too, but not nearly as much. With things costing less, I think it was easier to compensate.) To speak your mind and possibly lose your source of income that pays for your housing, food, clothing, transportation–everything–is one hell of a chilling effect.

Now that doesn’t really apply to Phil Robertson. He’s clearly well off and will not be harmed by this whatsoever. But most of us are not Phil Robertson. We don’t have those resources to fall back on. Even if we may have some resources, we may be facing hardship we are not ready to face.

The problem with then saying “Nobody should be fired for voicing their opinions” is that you have a free association issue. People should not be forced to associate themselves with people they don’t want to. That includes corporate management that wants nothing to do with a person who vocally articulates hateful or otherwise harmful rhetoric. I wouldn’t want to be around a gay-bashing homophobe, and I suspect most A&E employees don’t either. So by mandating some sort of “don’t fire” principle, you’re effectively forcing people to pal around with people they really don’t want to.

And that creates a whole heaping load of problems on its own. I mean, hello: hostile work environment lawsuits.

I want to make it clear that I don’t support homophobic or racist rhetoric. However, if that’s the content of Robertson’s speech, I’m still not sure that suspending him was the right thing for A&E to do. I also want to make it clear that I think that employers should not terminate employees based on voicing their opinions outside the office, so long as they are not bashing the company, the company’s clients, or even possibly the company’s vendors. I also want to make it clear that any resolution towards these problems should not involve new legislation; we know how that creates a horrible, unmitigated mess.

In short, I am very conflicted. I think good, sensible employers will realize they cannot punish employees for voicing their opinions and will not do so. Bad employers will, and they will lose talent and suffer. But at the same time, I hate what the guy has said and I wouldn’t want to work at a company if such speech was allowed to run rampant in the office. Yet if companies start punishing employees for speaking their mind, what kind of a world would we be living in?

And this is the real world, unfortunately, where nothing is easy and you get your dilemmas for free.

Image: By Njallis (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Scrapping The Welfare State, Giving Out Cash, & A New Future for Liberarianism

Man, that title sounds hella-pretentious, but it’s immediately what came to my mind reading this article by Matthew Feeney on Reason.com, Scrap the Welfare State and Give People Free Money. It is a fine argument for replacing our current welfare system with a form of basic income, which I have come around to over the past two years (roughly) living in Washington DC. After leading in with the recent news that Switzerland has created a basic income (on top of their preexisting welfare system, which is dumb) he gives this key passage (emphasis mine):

Without the Swiss proposal being attached to drastic welfare reforms the plan is, I think, unfeasible. However, that the particular proposal in Switzerland is not ideal does not mean that libertarians should shy away from proposing something similar. Being morally comfortable with some degree of government wealth redistribution might be contrary to anarchism, but it is not contrary to libertarianism, and were libertarians to argue for replacing the current welfare system with a basic national income we would be better positioned to not only highlight the fact that libertarianism is not the heartless and selfish philosophy it is commonly portrayed as, it would allow for a more humane and effective way to deliver welfare than the current system on offer.

I’m sure that will greatly offend the Rothbardians in the audience, but I really don’t care about those guys anymore.

Matthew also makes this other key point, which is that the welfare system actually hurts and dehumanizes people:

In discussions about welfare it is astonishing how often the current system is portrayed as humane, just, or charitable. However, one of the tragedies of the current welfare system is that it strips welfare recipients of their dignity while treating many of them like children, and functions on the underlying assumption that somehow being poor means you are incapable of making good decisions.

Many welfare recipients are required to undergo drug tests, despite the fact that many Americans take illegal drugs while still being good parents and holding down a job. If employed professionals are able to fulfil their duties at work while also maintaining a recreational drug habit, why should welfare recipients be treated differently? In fact, in the last year welfare recipients in Utah were found to test positive for illegal drugs at rates less than the national average, and in Arizona 87,000 screenings between 2009 and 2012 yielded one positive test result.

Perhaps the best example of the demeaning nature of the current welfare system is the SNAP program, otherwise known as food stamps, which works by giving recipients a card that can only be used to buy a selection of government-approved goods. Alcohol, tobacco, pet food, and vitamins are only some of the products that those on food stamps cannot buy because the powers that be have determined that they know what is the best lifestyle for food stamp recipients.

Since I moved to DC, and “enjoyed” it’s sky-high prices for rent, food, utilities, clothing–well, everything–I’ve started to abandon my old view that we shouldn’t have welfare, period. As much as I do not like the idea of welfare itself, or the idea of wealth redistribution whatsoever, I now realize a couple of things:

  1. The American public will never buy a political system completely lacking in wealth redistribution, period. You can call this stupidity, you can call this a decline in American virtues, you can call this the bandwagon fallacy, you can call it whatever you wish–but it is reality. No matter how much I would prefer a more Nozickian (or heck, more Randian) government, the majority of Americans will consistently vote against such an idea. Trying to push that view is just a waste of time, energy, and resources.
  2. As much as I would like  a more Nozickian state, and a completely free market economy, the current welfare system has so thoroughly ruined poor Americans there is no way to abruptly transition to a welfare free society. There are millions of Americans trapped in a cycle of poverty, a cycle partially perpetuated by the government (at all levels), and we’re going to be able to just switch and leave them behind. We have to light a path out of that and into the next stage. To us the words of philosophy professor Michael Munger, it’s not so much a libertarian destination as it is a libertarian direction–and I’m okay with that.

Considering that, the only real alternative available is a negative income tax. I’ve come to champion this proposal of Milton Friedman’s, for multiple reasons.

  1. It combines both welfare reform and tax reform in one package, making it more likely to get libertarians and conservatives onboard.
  2. It is more effective at helping the poor, so it should (in theory, anyways) be attractive to leftists.
  3. Unlike other universal basic income schemes, it is actually sustainable.
  4. It does not trap anyone in poverty, but instead lifts them out; poverty trap problems are neatly dealt with.
  5. I believe that it also avoids the problem of disincentivizing work; while those under the threshold do get money, they still have an opportunity to gain even more money past that threshold instead of receiving nothing. Also, many would appreciate a safety net to fall back on should their business attempts go awry, which may encourage them to go out and be more productive, rather than sit back and do nothing out of fear.

About a week ago, on Bleeding heart Libertarians, philosopher Fernando Teson laid out the basics of a philosophical school he called “sufficientarian liberalism.” I don’t want to quote the entire thing, because it’s brilliant, but it’s essentially where I have come to be. Teson notes that most libertarians readily acknowledge that free markets and (classically) liberal societies generate tremendous wealth and are the best tool for bringing people out of poverty. He then adds:

Here I take a different tack. Classical liberals should endorse a political system that includes a safety-net for the poor while simultaneously abolishing virtually all other barriers to market entry. This means no more subsidies, no more tariffs, no more licencing of professions, no more burdensome regulations, no more state-run education, no more barriers to immigration, no more unproductive public spending, and no more bloated bureaucracies (you can add an appropriate public-goods proviso.) Call this view sufficientarian liberalism. The view is sufficientarian, not egalitarian: it advocates state redistribution of resources only toward those who cannot provide for themselves.

Sufficientarian liberalism can be philosophically justified. In the Doctrine of Right Kant argues that to sustain the civil condition the state must provide means to those incapable of providing for themselves. But the state cannot legitimately redistribute resources beyond this, because doing so would encroach on people’s protected freedoms. The only legitimate reason for coercion is the establishment and maintenance of the civil condition. That is why the state can punish criminals: the state hinders the freedom of someone, the criminal, who has hindered the freedom of his victim. Now property-less persons cannot act autonomously because they are subject to the permissions and wishes of others. Therefore, the state must provide them with the material means of acting autonomously, as required by the civil condition. If you are charmed by this view, then you have a first-order, ideal justification of the sufficientarian liberal state.

But suppose that Robert Nozick is right and no redistribution, not even to the poor, is justified. In that case we can no longer justify sufficientarian liberalism on first-order principles. However,  we can still defend it as a second-bestnonideal political arrangement. If the Nozickian utopia is unattainable, then classical-liberals’ best strategy might well be to support institutions that frontally address the plight of the poor. Now imagine a society where the only redistributive job of the state was to help the poor. That society would be an immense improvement over the crony-capitalist systems we endure today. If we couple a safety-net with vast deregulation of markets, and we add the fact that freer markets help the poor more than known alternatives, then the classical-liberal has the upper hand, because the defender of the welfare state has lost her main argument for big government.  If the poor are provided for, all that remains of the welfare state are subsidies, privileges, rent-seeking, and various other inefficiencies. I doubt honest egalitarians can defend that.

Although the comments section is rife with diehard libertarians and anarcho-capitalists flinging barbs, nothing here sounds too controversial to mainstream Americans. I wrote earlier about “market democracy” being a true American centrism; that was a more abstract view of things, while this is a bit more concrete (though still not a specific policy platform.) People really don’t give that much of a damn about income inequality; they only care that there are people starving and want them to be not-starving. Even the poor, I think, don’t really care if they’re making less than a Wall Street banker, they just want enough to get by. (And if they have political power, that definition can be “Let’s get the government to get us plasma TVs and a Cadillac too. I still think that would be easily dealt with in a negative income tax system.) Teson also makes the necessary point that this system would have to be combined with a deregulation wave; I don’t think an NIT on its own, without a dramatically freer market, would really help people all that much. There are a great number of government actions–such as the Dairy Price Support Program making milk more expensive, to monetary idiocy at the Federal Reserve killing the buying power of the individual dollar bill, to various regulations propping up barriers to entry and killing the competition that brings prices down–that artificially raise prices and make things more expensive, especially for the poor. Unless those things are done away with–and thus, in the process, making there a lot less poor to go around–anything else will have a blunted impact on poverty. (And though it shouldn’t be mentioned, such a plan should also include reducing the military budget by half–at least–and enacting serious entitlement reform, which may actually end up being scrapped if such a system was implemented.)

That’s a pretty damn good view of centrism to me.

I think what Feeney is writing about here is actually the future of libertarianism. He’s right that this isn’t ipso facto against libertarianism, just anarchism, which I don’t think libertarianism really is (no matter how much undead Murray Rothbard stamps his feet about it.) And while I suspect both of us are going to get a lot of flack from more hardcore libertarians who will claim we are sanctioning state theft, that has been going on for well over a century in America and centuries elsewhere; we are advocating lessening it greatly, and ultimately such a thing is going to be seen as a cost of living in society. Should there be a cost? That’s a philosophical discussion for another day.

TL;DR: I think a basic income of sorts can be justified on broadly libertarian grounds; it is clear that such a system is superior to our current welfare state; and I think that libertarians should stop beating their heads against the immovable rock they’ve been killing themselves with for decades, adopt this plan, and actually move the ball down the field beyond our 30-yard line, because it is getting to be really, really ridiculous at this point.

And I’m very, very thankful it is beginning to get a wider audience.

3 Big Thoughts on Libertarianism

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stereotypical libertarian and conservative (and libertarian conservative, and conservative libertarian) approach to various topics in modern American politics. It’s pretty weird, and this will be somewhat longish, but I have to get it out of my head. [WARNING: Words ahead. Lots and lots and lots of words.]

First off, there is a huge focus on taxes, mostly accentuated by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, their leader, Grover Norquist, and his little “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” (whereby signatories refuse to vote for any tax increases. Ever. Or something.) The end result is we pontificate endlessly about marginal tax rates and the Laffer Curve, and how we should cut taxes to boost the economy and employment, and yadda yadda yadda.

The problem with this approach, though, is that it’s misplacing the blame. The real problem with the government is not taxation. While I agree that taxation is an issue, and there can and should be significant tax reform (flat tax, anybody?), government spending and command and control regulation are way more important and far more serious. Government spending creates huge distortions in the market by moving money around in the private sector that wouldn’t have been if we left decisions up to private citizens, thus negating their power of choice in the market as producers scramble to lap up the government money that is spread around. Meanwhile, government regulation prohibits Americans from doing sensible things every day, not just by changing incentives as taxation does, but by literally saying “No, you can’t do that.”

What is really stopping American business from hiring more workers and reigniting the nation’s economic engine? It is corporate income taxes, or is it a bewildering and byzantine system of government regulations at the federal, state, and local level, that make it a nightmare to hire anyone or even to do business itself? You can get around taxation through creative accounting, and indeed, many major companies have done it so effectively they never paid corporate income taxes for years. So clearly, taxation is not the biggest problem. Government spending and regulation, which breeds cronyism, lobbying, and corruption (talk about being redundant), and prevents people from pulling themselves up on the social ladder (what eggheads call “income mobility”), is–or, at least, is bigger.

There are three more considerations to think of when it comes to taxation. The first is the debt and deficit, which are massive problems today. Would cutting taxes do anything to fix them? Au contraire–they would only exacerbate the problem! Cutting revenue would only make the debt grow larger, because you can guarantee there would be no corresponding cut in spending. So that’s a big no-no. Second, by and large the American populace accepts taxes as the cost of living in America. Sure, they want that cost to be lower, but they’ve accepted it as just the way things are. It’s like grocery shopping; you’re going to shop around the lowest price, or maybe even try to haggle for a lower one, but at the end of the day, you’re still going to buy your food. At the end of the day, Americans are going to pay their taxes because they like America, with all of its flaws and blemishes, and they want it. Running a messaging campaign that myopically focuses on taxes may gin up some support on the passionate right, but it doesn’t quite reach out to middle America and makes you look like a fool in debate with leftists, who can rightly point out that the tax rate was much higher back in the day, but millionaires and billionaires still stayed in America and made things.

The third issue is much more severe. There are many other issues out there which are far more serious and injurious to your liberty than taxes. I happen to think that being thrown in jail for unlocking your smartphone, shot and imprisoned for smoking a joint, spied on by domestic intelligence agencies through drones and wiretapping, living under the cloud of indefinite detention by the military, or potentially even being assassinated by your government, are much bigger problems than having to pay a 25% marginal tax rate. In comparison, the tax problem seems fairly mundane and just simply pales compared to the decimations of civil liberties going on today.

These thoughts started percolating in my head after reading this comment to a really long Popehat post on right-libertarianism vs left-libertarianism. As I kept thinking about it, it made more and more sense. I’m not the only one, though. Reading this page at Libertarianism.com, I’m struck by how many libertarians say “Ignore taxes; spending is the real problem.” Jeffrey Miron, who I admire for a multitude of reasons, says “Slash expenditures; then lower taxes will follow.” Congressman Ron Paul, who has his issues, notes that the real discussion is the proper role of government, not taxation; on that I completely agree. And finally, Lawrence Reed of FEE states that the “real problem is spending. We tax because we spend and if government spends too much, no resulting tax system could be called remotely ‘fair.'” Right on, Mr. Reed, right on.

In summary, we libertarians (and conservatives) focus far too intensively on taxation. We’re missing the forests for the trees, in some sense. That’s not good.

This indirectly also leads into my second topic I’ve been thinking about, which is a basic income and libertarian justifications for it. Basically, a basic income (see what I did there?) is a minimum income, or floor, provided by the state to keep people from becoming too poor. Naturally, libertarians are against this, because it consists of the state taking money from some people to give to others. Normally, I would agree…except for a few things.

One, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, two of the greatest libertarians of the 20th century, were both in favor of a universal basic income. (Hayek especially. Milton Friedman a bit less so.) So is Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, though he supports it only as a “second-best” system to no welfare at all, and a far superior model to the bloated mess we have today. Matt Zwolinski, of BHL fame, also makes a strong argument for a small basic income. That’s fair, and definitely one reason why I’m becoming attracted to it.

The second thing is that, while libertarians emphasis “negative liberty” and “negative rights,” if you can’t feed and clothe yourself, they don’t mean much. As one libertarian philosopher puts it:

Most, if not nearly all, libertarians emphasize negative liberties. These rights, for the most part, mean the ability to pursue an activity that does not cause harm to other parties. Thus, the right to vote, to earn a living, to read, to pursue an education, to speak freely, to enter a contract with another agent, and other similar rights are rights that may be pursued without the enslavement of others by means of force and or coercion.

One of the most common criticisms of negative liberties is ‘so what?’ Indeed, it is easy to see the dismal of the negative right to free speech when one is hungry, poor and unemployed. Negative rights for agents in those derelict conditions mean not that much, if any bit at all.[9] For those in the said conditions the offer of positive rights, the right to be free from hunger, to an education, to a home, and to a job are understandable preferences. So of what relevance is the libertarian with his mantra of negative rights to the person in desperate need?[10]

Most right-libertarians take the standard of self-ownership, which most declare to be an axiom, as the sole foundational pillar of libertarian thought and political philosophy. As long as you own yourself and your property, that’s all that matters. But as Matt Zwolinski has been pointing out lately at Libertarianism.org (different site than the one cited above), that’s really far too simplistic and isn’t really adequate.

Also, I recently read John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness, examining a “middle way” between libertarians and classical liberals on one side, and Rawlsian “high liberals” on the other. Tomasi notes that a better basis for a libertarian polity, with free markets and a “thick” conception of economic liberties, is not the self-ownership principle. Rather, it is the ability of each citizen to be a “responsible self-author,” able to write his own story and lead his own life. (I don’t have my copy with me, unfortunately, having lent it to a friend, so I can’t give you a page number, but it’s there.)

The way I see it is this: you’re on the street, homeless, starving, and begging for food. Nobody will give any to you, though, and you won’t steal from anyone because you have principles. You end up starving to death. Now, the self-ownership principle was followed, but were you really free? Of course most libertarians would argue that yes, you were, and that is is a horribly over-simplified scenario–which they’re right about, it is over-simplified–and that “positive rights” serve only to enslave others because for that to work you must force someone to provide you with food…but if we have a society where people are starving like this, is that justifiable? Can libertarians really accept such a thing? And if your number one need is survival, if you’re living hand to mouth and living on a subsistence diet, are you really free?

I myself am torn on this, in terms of moral issues. I don’t know the answers to the above questions. I certainly don’t think, though, that targeted economic interventions and wealth redistribution as the left always promotes is the answer. We’ve seen what that has done over the past century, and it’s nothing good. Therefore, in terms of consequentialist issues, I’m totally onboard; it may be “second-best,” as Murray puts it, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what we have today. I’m also in favor of it from a purely PR perspective; Americans do indeed care about the poor, and a movement and/or political party that seems to just want to let the poor starve on the streets is going to be ignored at best, and vilified at worst. A basic income would remove that weakness.

As for how to actually implement…hell if I know. The standard basic income system is simply not feasible, ever. Even if we replaced all other government spending, giving $15,000 to every American, at a population of 300 million, would cost $4,500,000,000,000–that’s $4.5 trillion a year. I don’t think that’s something we can afford, even with a rapidly growing economy (which, as it turns out, we don’t have right now.) Probably the only way we can do this is through a form of the negative income tax. Originally proposed by Milton Friedman, I think Jeffrey Miron has come up with a slightly better version. That one might actually be doable.

At the very least, though, this is something that libertarians and conservatives should be taking seriously. As Mike Munger notes in the abstract of his article on basic income, “A distinction is made between libertarian destinations and libertarian directions.” Basic income may not be–and probably isn’t–a libertarian destination. But to me it seems it sure as hell is a libertarian direction.

Finally, one last thing, again from the left-libertarian playbook, are some thoughts about our environment and natural resources. I’m not what Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear would call an “eco-mentalist.” I don’t think increased government regulation over the environment is going to solve anything. I don’t think global warming or climate change is a serious problem (and even if it were a problem, I don’t think government would be the answer.) I’m not a vegetarian or a vegan, and I don’t go into any of that crap. I like my big engines and my big burgers just like any other red-blooded American. But I am very sympathetic to an idea amongst left-libertarians that the world is common property.

The basic gist is that left-libertarians are totally free market libertarians, like everyone else, at least until we get to natural resources and the environment. This kind of left-libertarianism is known as “Steiner-Vallentyne libertarianism”–at least on Wikipedia–after it’s two major proponents, Hillel Steiner and Peter Vallentyne. This turns into a strong defense of self-ownership, but holding an egalitarian view on natural resources. I remember reading about this a long time ago when I first researched Henry George and the “Georgist” school (which also has led to geolibertarianism.)

To break it down, wilderness and natural resources are, in their “initial state,” unowned. They become owned when, as John Locke and Robert Nozick put it, someone “mixes their labor” with it. Henry George disagreed with this analysis, pointing out that we own something when we make it, but nobody “makes” or “creates” land; it is just there. How then could we own it? Although he was writing in the late 19th century, before automation and global industrialization, his viewpoint is very appealing to me. It makes a lot of sense.
I should also note that I’ve always considered myself to be a “green-libertarian.” While I’m definitely a libertarian first and foremost, I also care a lot about the environment. That’s why I don’t want to entrust it to the government. That’s probably why I’m feeling sympathetic to this view of “common ownership” of the Earth.

But while the view that we can’t own land–we can merely “rent” it from the rest of the community–because we don’t create it is appealing, it also has significant flaws. First, what’s to say that one must create something in order to own it? Why not mixing your labor with something that is unowned? If someone discards something in the trash and another person claims it, does anyone care? I don’t think so, and I think you would be hard-pressed to say that the latter person doesn’t “own” it because it took it and it had no owner.

But a more fatal argument is the tragedy of the commons argument: that without a clearly defined, individual (or a very small group) owner, the whole ecosystem will go to pot as people overexploit the area. You must have some incentive for people to take care of the land.

Of the three points presented here, this is the weakest and the faintest one. I’m just not sold on it like I’m sold on a pivot away from tax obsession and the idea of a basic income. It is merely an interest. We’re stuck in a rut right now between global warming eco-mentalists on one hand who think we should all go into “deep ecology” and hard-headed conservative types who can’t even dream that the environment may be having problems on the other. There has got to be another way to break out of this. I’m just not sure what at the moment.

I definitely think that we, as a liberty movement, can use some strategic adjustment. I think the vehement opposition to any sort of income redistribution is going to stop us in our tracks; sure, it works fine from a high philosophy standpoint, but nobody on the ground really cares, and anyways, you can make a case for libertarianism with a bit of that as the crowd over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians have shown. (Heck, even Adam Smith, godfather of capitalism, was not as market-dogmatic as modern libertarians.)

Well, those are my two cents, anyways.

Two Strains of Libertarianism, and My Objections to Both

This is the quintessential random post. This thought just flew into my head and I feel the need to write it down. There’s another one coming too, but that’s more about categorization.

There are two major schools of thought that influence modern libertarianism. They are not the sole schools of thought for libertarianism, nor even the leaders, necessarily–though their impact is gigantic. The two schools of thought I am writing about are Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, and Austrian Economics.

Objectivism

Don’t get me wrong. I actually like Objectivism quite a lot. I like a philosophy that not only puts individual freedom, but reason too, at the top. There is far too little reason and rationality in the human race today, which is why we’re embroiled in so many problems today. If we join reason and individual freedom hand in hand, it will lead to eudaimonia, the ancient Greek concept of “human flourishing.” To do this, Objectivists believe that the best way to organize human society and the economy is through laissez-faire capitalism, and let each individual human develop him or herself without threats of force (or the use of force) from others. It’s a pretty good philosophy.

But Objectivism has one glaring flaw in it that I think undermines the entire philosophy, an Achilles Heel that threatens to topple it utterly.  That is, the rejection of what is called “subjective value” (and is one of the big ideas of the other school of thought I’ll talk about, Austrian Economics). Subjective value, in a nutshell, is the idea that everyone values things differently. Here is Don Boudreax of George Mason University explaining the concept:

Objectivism rejects all of that. Here is what Leonard Peikoff, founder of the Ayn Rand Institute, has to say about value:

Objectivism holds that value is objective (not intrinsic or subjective); value is based on and derives from the facts of reality (it does not derive from mystic authority or from whim, personal or social). Reality, we hold—along with the decision to remain in it, i.e., to stay alive—dictates and demands an entire code of values. Unlike the lower species, man does not pursue the proper values automatically; he must discover and choose them; but this does not imply subjectivism. Every proper value-judgment is the identification of a fact: a given object or action advances man’s life (it is good): or it threatens man’s life (it is bad or an evil). The good, therefore, is a species of the true; it is a form of recognizing reality. The evil is a species of the false; it is a form of contradicting reality. Or: values are a type of facts; they are facts considered in relation to the choice to live.

In the objective approach, since every fact bears on the choice to live, every truth necessarily entails a value-judgment, and every value-judgment necessarily presupposes a truth. As Ayn Rand states the point in “The Objectivist Ethics”: “Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every ‘is’ implies an ‘ought.’” Evaluation, accordingly, is not a compartmentalized function applicable only to some aspects of man’s life or of reality; if one chooses to live and to be objective, a process of evaluation is coextensive with and implicit in every act of cognition.

Here is another rebuttal of subjective value, which also quotes Rand, by Per-Olof Samuelsson:

There are two false theories of value. The first one says that value is in the object, and the second one says it is in the subject. Furthermore, those two theories are regarded as mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. It is either the first falsehood or the second one — tertium non datur.

On the first view, there is (so to speak) a little “package” of value in the valuable object. How did this package get there? On the religious view, it is put there by God. This view plays no role in economics; but a secularized version does: the idea, propounded by Karl Marx, that human labor is packaged into the object, and that an object is therefore more valuable, the more work has gone into its production. (The contradictions involved in this view are not the subject of this essay; read some good critic of Marx, such as Böhm-Bawerk.)

On the second view, value is not in the things; it is in the mind (“in the eye of the beholder”). On this view, an object is valuable merely because we think or feel it is valuable. As one proponent of the theory puts it, value is an attitude we take toward an object; and an attitude is certainly not in the object itself, but in the mind of the subject.

This false alternative was blasted by Ayn Rand.

In her essay “What is Capitalism” (in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal) she writes:

There are, in essence, three schools of thought on the nature of the good: the intrinsic, the subjective, and the objective. The intrinsic theory holds that the good is inherent in certain things or actions as such, regardless of their context and consequences, regardless of any benefit or injury they may cause to the actors and subjects involved. […] The subjective theory holds that the good bears no relation to the facts of reality, that it is the product of a man’s consciousness, created by his feelings, desires, “intuitions,” or whims, and that it is merely an “arbitrary postulate” or an “emotional commitment”. […] The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of “things in themselves” nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value. […] The objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in relation to man, and that is must be discovered, not invented, by man. Fundamental to an objective theory of values is the question: Of value to whom and for what?

The intrinsic and subjective theories are of course the two false alternatives presented above. (Adherents of the subjective school insist on calling the intrinsic theory “objective”, but this is false all the same and merely introduces terminological confusion.)

Ayn Rand’s objective theory of values recognizes the very objective fact that there are both objects and subjects in the world, and that the question of value is a question of a relation between an object and a subject. “Value”, according to Ayn Rand’s fundamental definition, is “that which on acts to gain and/or keep”. A value, on this definition, might certainly be an emotional state (such as happiness or joy), but it is fully as much (or perhaps more) a thing that one acts to gain (or, if one is already in possession of it, acts to keep). The “thing” here could be anything, from a toothbrush to a spouse to a fortune. The point I want to make here is that this thing exists out there, in the world, not merely in one’s mind.

Both writers (and their intellectual godmother, Ayn Rand) reject subjective value, and determine that value does not depend on the person and what he or she wants, but it is simply “out there,” waiting to be discovered.

The problem with that theory, though, is that it completely destroys their argument for laissez-faire capitalism. If it were true that value was objective, just waiting to be discovered, then we could not only very easily have a command economy, we should have a command economy. The government would conduct research to determine what the value of everything in the world is, and a central authority would then keep prices at those values. In fact, said authority would also probably run every producing business, to provide for every consumer. It would simply be far more efficient and easier.

Thing is, though, that value just doesn’t exist out there. If that were the case, then why do people value things differently? Why do we always bitch about things being so expensive? Why am I thinking of cutting the cable and replacing my Comcast service with Roku? If value was truly subjective, we would never go bargain hunting. Ever.

That alone disproves objective value theory in one blow. It knocks the legs out from underneath Rand’s argument for laissez-faire capitalism. There would be no reason to trade if both sides didn’t get something they wanted out of it.

Of course, there are other issues with Objectivism, but they’re relatively minor compared to this. There’s the cult of personality surrounding Rand herself, and then there’s “dog-eat-dog” mentality that arises around Objectivism. I think the latter is merely a projection by anticapitalists, though; while Objectivism is about each person’s rational self-interest, I think it’s a tad overstated.

Austrian Economics

Austrian Economics is a great way of examining how people interact (which is what economics is really about.) It is certainly more on the ball than Keynesianism, whose central premise is that, to get economics started, a government must “prime the pump” by injecting stimulus into the economy–even though the government must first get that money by either taking it out of the already ailing economy, borrowing, or simply inflating the currency, none of which help anybody.

Austrian Economics recognizes as a central tenet that there is a cycle to business, a series of ups and downs, which is certainly more realistic than the “Everything will always be okay!” nonsense that is peddled by some neoclassical and Keynesian economists and by most politicians. It is also for hard money (i.e., the gold standard) and believes that because people can’t know everything in an economy, due to the “knowledge problem,” that central planning is impossible. All good things.

But there is one glaring problem with Austrian economics. It is not shared by all “Austrians,” but its shared by enough, and that’s the idea of “praxeology.” Taken literally, it’s the science of human action. But, if you take it the way that Ludwig von Mises, patron saint of the Austrian school of economics (and the namesake of its largest proponent in the US, the Mises Institute) meant it, praxeology also disregards empiricism and relies almost entirely on a priori reasoning. Summarized by a friend of mine who works at Cato, it’s “sitting around and thinking and ‘discovering’ new things in economics by such thinking.”

In that light, Austrian economics discounts the scientific method. It discounts data collection, it discounts econometrics, it discounts all of that stuff. Now, I agree with the Austrians–particularly Hayek–that it can go too far, and ignore the simple fact that people are people and do things that don’t match up in a model. Fine. But to ignore what is out there, in the world, the real-world evidence–that’s just idiotic. And that’s not where libertarians should be going.

If you need an example of this, look to this post from the Mises Institute:

Why do we accept that when we place a yardstick alongside one object, finding that the object stretches across half the length of the yardstick, and then place it alongside another object, which only stretches to a quarter its length, that this means the first object is longer than the second? Certainly not by empirical testing, for any such tests would be meaningless unless we already grant the principle in question. In mathematics we don’t come to know that 2 + 2 always equals 4 by repeatedly grouping two items with two others and counting the resulting collection. That would only show that our answer was correct in the instances we examined — given the assumption that counting works! — but we believe it is universally true. Biology pre-supposes that there is a significant difference between living things and inert matter, and if it denied that difference it would also be denying its own validity as a special science.

Really.

This is the great flaw in Austrian economics, and its rather terrible. I’ll be honest, any sane individual should reject it immediately. Just to “think” about it (see what I did there?) if we were just to sit around and think about things without collecting data, we could very well conclude that not only is socialism the right thing for the world, but unicorns are also very plentiful on the Earth.

Sure, Austrians will fire back that socialism violates many a priori deduced principles (I’m certain they would bring up the economic calculation problem) but that really doesn’t deal with my point. That is, we can’t have solely a priori reasonings for what we do, nor should we be entirely, 100% empirical. However, I lean more towards empiricism, since that is at least rational.

There is also, of course, another problem with Austrians, and that is the sub-strain of anarcho-capitalism, championed by Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell. I’ve already written about that before elsewhere, and I’m not in the mood to repeat myself for the umpteenth time. Suffice to say, while anarcho-capitalist works in theory, I don’t see it functioning very well in the real world, and libertarians would be wise not to bring it up in conversation outside the libertarian happy hours.

Conclusion

So there you have it. Two of the major schools of thought that influence American libertarianism, and my problems with both explained. I think that if Objectivism can drop the objective theory of value, and Austrian economics can get over praxeology, they will work well together. I also think, though, that Austrian economics is not the be-all end-all of libertarianism as some think; I’m concerned about maximizing individual liberty, not advancing one set of particular economic theory over another. Do I agree with some Austrian points? Yes, of course, but they’re not the end goal for me.

Anyways, just a random post.

Why I’m Not Afraid of China

Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis: Screeching Halt in China; Weak Trade Data; Imports and Exports Fall Way Short of Expectations; Credit Crunch Underway; Feeble Forecasts From Pimco, Others.

Mish Shedlock, a renowned macroeconomist, bets that economic growth in China over the next decade will average 3.5%. This is known, in the advanced, academic jargon of economics, as “pitiful.”

I’m not scared of China. Neither should you.

Thomas Friedman Is An Enormous (Stupid) Mustache

It seems that no matter what your ideological position is…you hate Thomas Friedman.

Not that it’s hard. I blogged about him last year and how much of a pompous moron he was (and still is today.) My only question now is: why do so many people take him seriously? Or do none of us take him seriously, and this is all one big in-joke? No, the New York Times isn’t that smart.