Saturday, April 21, 2018

Socialized healthcare ate my baby!

the stupid! it burns! April Joy cranks the stupid up to 11 in By a thousand cuts. Ordinary Times hasn't published anything interesting in months, and then they publish this drivel. I'm done with them: even the "best" conservatives just can't escape the stupid.

For the occasional conservative who might stumble here and has has difficulty seeing obvious stupidity, let me explain.

I'm sorry Ms. Joy lost her child. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, however despicable they might be. And I'm sorry for Alfie Evans and his parents. But Joy turns this tragedy into a condemnation of... socialized medicine? Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick! What does socialized medicine have to do with it?

Alfie is going to die. But he's not going to die because the British have allowed "government to control who lives and dies outside of the criminal justice system." Alfie is not going to die because anyone has "[c]ed[ed] control of the well-being of one’s children to the government." Alfie is not going to die because a "faceless bureaucracy [has] unfettered access to your most intimate information, with which they can then do anything, including decide whether you live or die." Alfie is going to die because he has an incurable disease. He is going to die in Britain instead of Italy because even according to the obviously biased source Joy cites, a court of law — not any bureaucracy — has decided it is in the child's best interests to stay in Britain.

There is no connection whatsoever between Alfie and his parents' tragedy and Britain's health care system. Joy does not even allege that Alfie has received substandard care, or is being allowed to die because of resource constraints. His special snowflake parents don't get to do whatever they want with their dying boy, so socialism is bad?

This is beyond wrong. It's burningly stupid. And it's despicable. Shame on Joy for writing it, and shame on Ordinary Times for publishing it. I thought they had standards.

Monday, January 15, 2018

On conservatism

In A Conservative Manifesto, Holly A. Case laments the divergence between modern "conservatism" and the Peter Viereck's 1940 vision of conservatism, But—I'm a Conservative!. Case argues that Viereck espoused a "spiritual" vision of conservatism, as opposed to the crass materialism of the "conservatism" of the 1940s and 1950s. Case quotes Viereck's review of William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale to highlight the rupture:
Is it not humorless, or else blasphemous, for this eloquent advocate of Christianity, an unworldly and anti-economic religion, to enshrine jointly as equally sacrosanct: ‘Adam Smith and Ricardo, Jesus and St. Paul?' And why is this veritable Eagle Scout of moral sternness silent on the moral implications of McCarthyism in his own camp?
As quoted by Case, Viereck accused the "conservatives of the pocketbook" as divorcing property from moral responsibility and of suborning revolution instead of maintaining stability. If his chief complaint against Marxism had been against "its materialistic assault on all our non-economic values of the spirit," then how could he have seen the nascent conservatism of the 1950s — or what passes for "conservatism" in the first decades of the 21st century — as anything different?

But even Viereck's supposedly more "humanistic" conservatism is absurd and self-contradictory. His conservatism hinges on Law.
The conservative's principle of principles is the necessity and supremacy of Law and of absolute standards of conduct. I capitalize 'Law,' and I mean it. Suppose it were proved that the eternal absolutes do not really exist. Instinctively we should say: So much the worse for them. But now we must learn to say: So much the worse for existence! We have learned that from sad experience of centuries. Paradoxically, we have learned that man can only maintain his material existence by guiding it by the materially nonexistent: by the absolute moral laws of the spirit.
This old atheist's hackles rise when I hear the words, "So much the worse for existence!" For if these "eternal absolutes do not really exist," then they must come from human beings in historically contingent social, political, and economic circumstances. Specifically, those human beings who happen to have the power to enforce "eternal absolutes", and whose first concern must always be the preservation of their power at all costs. Like most self-described conservatives, Viereck suffers from a failure of the imagination. There is a vast middle ground between anarchism and mob rule on the one hand and eternal absolutes (that we must contingently imagine) on the other.

I would agree with Viereck that liberty is as much or more about discipline and restraint than it is about freedom. And I would also agree with Viereck that at least little-ell law is important to maintain discipline and restraint in a society. As an individual who depends on others for my very life, and whose lives depend on me, I want to know what other people believe I and they must and must not do (discipline) and what we may do (freedom). I want these norms to be about the same tomorrow as they are today. A body of little-ell laws, enforced by at least some violence, and subject to a deliberative process of change seems a workable way of establishing, maintaining, and, most importantly, legitimizing these norms. I can assent to the good laws not because they are Law, but because they are good. I can, in theory, tolerate the few bad laws knowing that they are susceptible to change. I do not need to believe the laws are or pretend to be "eternal absolutes"; I need to believe they are good enough for now, and can be made better.

There are excellent objective reasons why we should consider how we do things today one reasonable justification to do things the same way tomorrow, and to go beyond immediate expediency in our social institutions: bounded rationality and rational ignorance, the prisoner's dilemma, asymmetric and imperfect information, not to mention any number of cognitive biases and our abysmal lack of statistical intuition. As the saying goes, it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future*, so we have to rely — at least to some extent — on history and tradition.

*Misattributed to Yogi Berra.

But to say that law is useful is not to say that it is transcendent, even in our social imagination. The law is a tool, and however useful a tool, it is not an end in itself. When we allow law to become Law, when we think of the compromises and negotiations we have made to live together in a little more peace today than yesterday as some sort of eternal verities, we limit our legitimate growth as much as we prevent decay. Viereck is clear: "You weaken the magic of all good laws every time you break a bad one, every time you allow mob lynching of even the guiltiest criminal." What can Viereck mean but to condemn the hiding of Jews from the Nazis, the transportation of black slaves to Canada, and the execution of tyrants. The charge that Law itself is an end is nothing but a dishonest tactic to defend the privilege and power of self-appointed Lawgivers.


Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and I've been reminded of King's remarks from Letter from a Birmingham Jail rebuking "the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice." This is my overwhelming sense when I read conservatives such as Viereck, who talk about Law rather than Justice. If there's anything that I can even imagine as an eternal absolute, it is Justice, not Law. Justice is about more than rules, more than just discipline and restraint. Even the most unjust can be disciplined and — at least in some things — restrained. It is possible that discipline and restraint are necessary for Justice, but unlike Law, they cannot be sufficient. In endorsing mere Law, conservatives at best set themselves too low a bar, and at worst argue that the rules matter more than the justice they should serve.


Administrators - a parable after Kafkaby Emrys Westacott
In the beginning, there were only professors and students, and relations between them were very simple. A student would give the professor half of the fee for a course at the first class, and the remainder after the last class. A few poorer students, who could not pay the full amount in cash, would sometimes bring vegetables they had grown, or a fish they had caught, and the professors accepted these graciously. The widow of a former mathematics professor pickled the vegetables and salted the fish before distributing them among the faculty.

As the college grew, so did its reputation, and as more classes were needed, more professors came to teach. To make things easier for the professors, the widow began collecting the fees and depositing them at the local bank. She also began keeping simple records. At some point, no-one could remember exactly when, the professors agreed among themselves to pay her a stipend for the services she provided.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Hard work and luck

In Communist China, I was taught that hard work would bring success. In the land of the American dream, I learned that success comes through good luck, the right slogans, and monitoring your own—and others’—emotions.

Puzhong Yao. The Western Elite from a Chinese Perspective

Monday, January 01, 2018

Black Mirror Season 4

Don't get me wrong: if season 4 had been Black Mirror's first, I would have called it one of the greatest science fiction shows ever. It's very very good. With the exception of "Crocodile" (a hot mess, with nothing to redeem it, and should, like "National Anthem", simply be skipped), the remaining episodes live with the best of The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits.

And yet...

The first three seasons of Black Mirror had a theme: some tech — usually something we think we might like now — made the world a horrible place, and some ordinary person was crushed by this technology. Only Season 1's "National Anthem" (terrible) and Season 2's "The Waldo Moment" (funny, but not horrifying) depart from this trope.

Season 4 completely abandons that theme for more conventional science fiction plots. Instead of a technological dystopia, three episodes, "USS Callister", "Arkangel", and "Black Museum", feature some one-off technology with unfortunate consequences for its early adopters. "Metalhead" is a post-apocalyptic chase thriller, but with little if any commentary on the present. "Hang the DJ" is a cute romantic comedy in an unusual setting, despite brushing the enslavement and murder of 2000 sentient beings under the carpet.

I don't know that Charlie Booker could have sustained the first three seasons' dystopian trope. Although still excellent overall, season 4 feels like a retreat into conventional science fiction.

Black Mirror is dead. Long live Black Mirror!

Crush the Republicans? Sure, but...

In How to crush Trump, Ryan Cooper observes that
[I]n 2020, Trump must be crushed at the ballot box. His corrupt administration must be thoroughly investigated, and any criminal acts punished.
That could happen.
More importantly, the economic base of Republican plutocracy — Wall Street, monopolist corporations, and idle rich heirs and heiresses — must also be crushed. Monopolies must be broken up, taxes on the rich and corporations dramatically increased, and the size, profitability, and power of Wall Street sharply reduced with cricket bat regulations.
Not gonna happen, or at least the Democratic party won't do it. Where do you think the Democrats' money comes from? The Democrats are just as beholden to Wall Street as the Republicans.

More importantly, politics is class struggle. The capitalist class was checked in the 20th century by the professional-managerial class, but this class is barely a class (they have lost a lot of class consciousness), and even as a class, they are cowardly and weak. Even as a coherent class, the PMC is just as afraid of the workers having any power, and they know that the firm, not the government, can best restrain the power of the working class.

The chief difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats are less racist and sexist than the Republicans. The Democrats are the party of and for the 1 and 0.1 percent of women and people of color; they are not the party of working people.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Why choose socialism?

If socialism is so great and capitalism is so terrible, should we dismantle capitalism and implement socialism?


We cannot. A social system such as capitalism is not like a building that can be torn down, cleaned up, and something new built in its place. It's not even like the ship we must rebuild a piece at a time as we are sailing. Capitalism isn't something that we live under, it is what we are. You, her, I, we are capitalism. We have jobs, bank accounts, homes we rent or pay a mortgage for, superiors, subordinates: capitalism is that web of social and economic relationships.

The argument for socialism is not that we (who?) should replace socialism with capitalism. The argument for socialism is that capitalism will eventually fall of its own accord (with perhaps the occasional nudge here and there), and we should fill the resulting void with socialism.

So long as capitalism does not fall of (mostly) its own accord, we will have a capitalist society. However, we know that at the technological level of the railroad or higher, the capitalist class is unable to reproduce capitalism. The only reason that capitalism limped into the 21st century is that the professional-managerial class ran it for four decades. The capitalist class couldn't stand it, took back state power in 1980, and today we have Donald Trump. 'Nuff said. In the next decade (perhaps as soon as next year) everything is going to collapse 1929-style, and the PMC will be unable to save capitalism yet again.

After capitalism, we have two choices: fascism (or something very much like it) and socialism. I prefer socialism.

If you like capitalism, if it works for you, and you want to try and save it, by all means, try to save it. But I argue you should hedge your bets. If you do lose, which way do you want capitalism to fail? I urge the supporters of capitalism (who are not themselves fascists) to really see that they are doing worse by holding up socialism, not fascism, as the chief threat to capitalism.

What is socialism?

Although I am speaking generally, what follows is, and can be, only my opinion. There is no ISO committee for the definition of socialism. No matter what anyone says about socialism, a thousand other socialists will agree, and a thousand vehemently disagree.

Socialism is, first and foremost, about the working class taking and exercising political power.

Capitalism is about the capitalist class taking and exercising political power. Because the capitalist class is limited, it is, depending on how one feels about capitalists, an aristocracy or an oligarchy. How capitalism actually works is a complicated and subtle topic; its fundamental goal, however, seems clear: all power to the owners!

Economics is political: the development of capitalism opened up a new sphere of political power: the firm or factory and the manufacture of goods. Before capitalism, the land and agricultural production was the sphere of political power. Thus, socialists attend not only to the "ordinary" political sphere of individuals interacting with each other, but also to the political economy, the organization of firms and workplaces. Socialists hold that while the former is important, the latter is more important.

The parallel is not exact, but by and large capitalist firms are organized in the mode of feudal authoritarianism. There are greater and lesser individuals (CEOs) each atop a hierarchy of authority. Those below must comply absolutely* with the authority of those above; if they fail to comply, they will be punished (sacked). These feudal fiefdoms compete with one another, not on the battlefield but in the "market". For many decades, the parallel between feudalism and capitalism was even closer: firms used considerable coercion to prevent workers from leaving, rendering them the moral equivalent of serfs. The key comparison is that under feudalism, individuals owned political power; under capitalism, individuals own economic power.

*A subordinate may legitimately disagree with a superior only with the superior's permission.

There are a lot of differences between capitalism and feudalism, and no one should try to understand how capitalism works by studying feudalism. I introduce the comparison only to note that socialism rejects any form of individual power: under socialism, no individual has power; only the working class as a class has power. Socialism does not distinguish between state power (the power to directly arrest, imprison, or execute individuals) and economic power (the power to withdraw social permission to obtain the material necessities of life). Economic power rests on police power anyway: If I lose my job, have no money, and try to take the food I need to live, I will experience the pointy end of police power.

Socialism has two final goals: for workers to control firms and for workers to control the state. The workers in a firm will have democratic power over each other, and the workers in a country will have democratic power over each other, but no individual or select group will have state or economic power over other individuals.

A lot of people ask, how would this actually work? While I have some advice, the fundamental answer is that the working class must first take power; then it is they, not I, who must build socialist institutions.

What about non-workers? There are only five fundamental economic classes: owners, workers, administrators, students, and the non-productive (young children, retirees, and disabled people). Socialism proposes to eliminate only the owning class. Administrators (the civil service, the police, the army, etc.) must be politically subordinate to the working class; the rest, well, the workers will have to figure out the role of students and non-productive people; regardless of what they decide, they would have to work hard to do worse than the capitalist class.

That's really it. What the workers do with their power is up to them, not to me. As a socialist I just want to help them take power.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Friedman on Libertarianism

In his critique of libertarianism [PDF; link fixed], Jeffrey Friedman (1997) argues that libertarianism can be justified either morally or consequentially and that libertarian advocates fail to do either. I don't want to summarize Friedman's argument except to say that he uses almost 60 pages to fault the logical arguments for libertarianism as circular and the empirical arguments as unevidenced. I agree with both of Friedman's points, and I've written on them extensively myself. Rather, I want to examine two essays critical of Friedman's arguments.

Tom G. Palmer (1998) spends several pages establishing that libertarianism must be justified consequentially; he denies that libertarianism is an a priori truth or categorical imperative. However, he does not, as the alert reader might expect, then turn to making an actual consequentialist or utilitarian argument for libertarianism. Palmer asserts (mistakenly, I think) that Friedman demands an impossibly high standard of proof. But in rebuttal, Palmer fails to offer any sort of evidence. If an author argues for an alternative standard of proof — and his standard is reasonable — then I expect evidence meeting the alternative standard. Palmer fails to even cite any empirical justification for libertarianism. I'm not saying such evidence does not exist, but I have degrees in both political science and economics, and I know the empirical case for libertarianism is not common knowledge in these disciplines; if the evidence is there, show me.

Instead, Palmer focuses on Friedman's supposed errors of logic. Palmer first faults Friedman's definition of "freedom". But Palmer does not seem to understand Friedman's argument, that by definition, all rules of behavior coercively take away some rights. Palmer's counterexample does not address Friedman's argument:
If that were true, then using force to prevent another person from having sexual congress with yourself . . . would be just as much a use of force as is using force to have sexual congress with another person. Therefore there must be no difference between the two, at least with respect to whether one approach is more or less coercive or free than the other.
But this is true. Both rape and resisting (or punishing) rape are equally coercive. It is just that socially, we have constructed the standard that coercion is justified in the former case and not justified in the second case. I will reiterate the point I've made many times before: the libertarian's moral case always seems to be that coercion for things they don't like is wrong because it is coercive, and coercion for things they do like is not coercion because it is for what they like.

Palmer quotes Algernon Sidney's (1990) definition of liberty, which "solely consists of in an independency upon the will of another" (p. 346; emphasis added) and quotes Locke at greater length in the same vein. Even if we are to accept that there is no "natural" right for one person to impose their will on another by violence, for a person to do whatever else they like seems to be identical with being independent of another's will. Alas, Palmer does not make any explicit connection between this rather banal definition to libertarian philosophy. The quoted passage of Locke seems to suborn some degree of interventionism: Locke asserts that disposing of one's property "within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is" (qtd. in Palmer 1998, p. 346) does not compromise liberty. Thus, it is unclear how Palmer would differentiate libertarianism from ordinary liberalism.

Palmer continues with a disquisition on morality in which I can see neither a substantive criticism of Friedman nor illumination of libertarianism, and closes with a few trivial quibbles. Nowhere in his response does he engage with either of Friedman's claims, regarding the circularity of the libertarian moral argument or the lack of evidence for the empirical argument.

J. C. Lester at least admits that many libertarians make deficient a priori arguments. He makes an argument similar to Palmer's for a reasonable empirical standard of evidence. And then, like Palmer, fails to offer any, handwaving vaguely that "libertarians have read of research and economic theory that appear to refute all the assertions that the state is the solution, rather than the problem" (p. 2; emphasis added). Again, this research and economic theory is not common knowledge in academia, and the lack of specifics fails to persuade. (There is evidence and theory that some kinds of state interventions do more harm than good, but there's a lot of evidence and theory that other kinds of state intervention are not only useful but seem indispensable.) And, like Palmer, Lester immediately switches to arguments that are meaningful only in an a priori context.

Lester argues that the true essence of libertarianism is "the absence of proactive impositions," which he claims is "what libertarians intuitively grasp" (p. 3). In addition to the question of whether this absence is morally or empirically justified, Lester's formulation suffers from the defect that not only do I not understand it at all, Lester himself does not understand it clearly: he admits that he cannot say it is "perspicuously clear and without philosophical problems" (p. 3). Indeed.

If you're going to make an a priori case, make it. If a person criticizes the a priori case, it is not enough to simply say they have misunderstood or made a logical error, even if such an assertion is true. You still have to go over the original argument and show me not that the criticism is bad but that the original argument survives the criticism.

As to the evidentiary case, when evidence is common knowledge (as with evolution or anthropogenic climate change), it is not unjustified to say so, and direct readers to the appropriate evidence. But the empirical evidence for libertarianism is not common knowledge, even in academia. So show me. I'm happy to apply an ordinarily scientific interpretation of the evidence: I do not expect perfection, but I insist on good enough.


Friedman, Jeffrey (1997). What's wrong with libertarianism. Critical Review 11.3: 407-467. doi: 10.1080/08913819708443469

Lester. J. C. (2012). What's wrong with "What's wrong with libertarianism": A reply to Jeffrey Friedman.

Palmer, Tom G. (1998). What's not wrong with libertarianism: Reply to Friedman. Critical Review 12.3: 337-358. doi: 10.1080/08913819808443507

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Classes as social relations

A class in the Marxian sense consists of people who are embedded in certain kinds of social relations. Briefly, capitalists are those who engage in M-C-M* economic relationships, turning money into commodities into more money; Marx holds that the M*, more money after commodity relations, consists of the surplus value of labor expropriated from the workers. Workers engage in C-M-C economic relationships. They sell a commodity (their labor power) to the capitalists, receive money, which they then use to buy the stuff they need to live.

But there are other social relations necessary to maintain a society. These relations are not productive, they are reproductive. (There are also parasitic social relations, which are neither productive nor reproductive.) The modern (19th and early 20th century) academic system was not productive. Knowledge and culture are not something produced in the Marxian sense because knowledge and culture are not consumed in the sense that an ordinary television show is consumed, i.e. used up. People get tired of even classics like M*A*S*H or a magazine article about bees (so this is ordinary production), but people will never get tired of the Iliad nor the Theory of General Relativity. More importantly, reproduction needs to happen regardless of whether it can be made even temporarily profitable.

Hence I define the professional-managerial class not in terms of the tools it uses, but in terms of their social relations of reproduction.

Hence I view the class analysis of the 20th century broadly thus: during the Great Depression, the PMC as a reproductive class seizes state power in 1933. Any economic ruling class must have a countervailing reproductive class to both legitimize the authority of the ruling class and to prevent the ruling class from destroying society. Such was the role of the Church in the Middle Ages. (Both Augustine and Aquinas, for example, have much to say about secular state legitimacy.)

The capitalist class, as soon the immediate crisis has stabilized, began its project to retake state power. The capitalist class directly undermined the legitimacy of the PMC as elitist*, effeminate**, and race traitors. They co-opt the institutions (academic science and humanities, journalism, "high" culture, primary and secondary education) the PMC used to reproduce capitalist society, turning them into productive rather than reproductive institutions. They co-opted the leaders of the PMC, turning them directly into capitalists or ensuring they slavishly submitted to the capitalist class (e.g. most academic economists), abandoning the second half of their role as critics and moderators

*Never mind that the capitalist class is far more elitist than the PMC ever was or could be.
**<sarcasm> Women can't rule,
n'est ce pas?, except in the exceptional case where they almost perfectly imitate men. </sarcasm>

In 1980, the capitalist class retook state power, but they were not content. Unlike the PMC, the capitalists understood that the capitalists and the PMC were enemies, and reading Machiavelli, they knew that one's enemies must be utterly destroyed. So the capitalists have continued to undermine the PMC; they will not stop until there is no such thing as a professional-managerial class as a class, only individual professionals and managers directly subordinate to individual capitalists and completely subservient to the capitalist class.

One of my main themes has been criticism of the Democratic party. I see the Democratic party not as the party of those who control information, but as the party that still tries to restore the PMC to state power. Or, more precisely, Democratic voters — aside from middle-class white women who (justly) want to preserve their access to legal abortion and minorities who (justly) fear that the Republican party will enslave or just murder them all — are those who want to return to the days when the PMC as a class held and exercised state power. I believe these voters are fundamentally mistaken. The PMC cannot regain state power; the best they can do is operate a fighting retreat, slowing the capitalists' destruction of society.

Dustin makes an important point in his comment:
My theory as a whole is that some time in the early 20th century, control over information and its dissemination actually "passed up" control over capital in being the determinant of who holds the power. Improvements in print press technology combined with the invention/improvements of radio and eventually even early forms of television in the late 1800s & early 1900s enabled for the first time in history the creation of a true mass-media and other organs of true mass-dissemination of information (and misinformation).

I think that this is what actually led to the PMC wresting of power from the capitalists in the early 20th century. The PMC were always the traditional "dealers" in media, journalism, etc., so the elite of the PMC were uniquely seated to benefit from this vast technological shift.

I agree completely that information has become the critical basis of power. However, the way that those who control information have used it fundamentally shifted only in the early 21st century, decades after the capitalists regained state power. The key is to make all information Marxian commodities, and place all of information production under capitalist commodity relations (M-C-M*), with knowledge producers as workers, not a separate reproductive class.

I really want to stress that what capitalists own (factories, money and financial flows, information) is less important than how they own it, i.e. the social relations.