The Two One Kinds of Libertarians

Matt BruenigMatt Bruenig wrote a very interesting article a few years ago, Two Different Kinds of Libertarians. The two kinds of libertarians are “procedural justice” and “consequentialist.” It is easier to just call them “theoretical” and “practical,” and so I will. Supposedly, the practical libertarians are just looking to maximize utility and they just look out at the big bad world of ideas and find that libertarian ideas are the ones that make everyone best off. The theoretical ones start from the theory that no one has the right to take another’s property, and work out from there.

I think this is a false dichotomy. No one reading this blog can question but that I think that people decide and then rationalize. It doesn’t work the other way around in most cases. There is lots of science to back me up on this. In fact, this is why I believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. I greatly value my reasoning ability. I hate the idea that my beliefs just bubble up from deep in my brain and then my higher brain functions set about justifying why they are right.

As a result of this, I know that libertarians are generally libertarians because it feels right. So I think the libertarians who justify their beliefs on theoretical arguments are no different than libertarians who justify them on practical arguments. And it just so happens that I have experience with this. If you can talk seriously with a practical libertarian and convince him that, for example, the minimum wage does not cost jobs and will actually stimulate economic growth, he will not stop being a libertarian. He will just change his arguments from practical to theoretical.

Bruenig says that he has seen a shift from practical to theoretical libertarianism. But this is just because he hangs out with far smarter people than most of us do. I mean — Good God! — he mentioned Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. I assure you that people are not standing around at Libertarian Party conventions discussing Democracy: The God That Failed. All you really have to do is listen to Majority Report, where libertarians call in all the time. And they always make practical arguments, although when losing, they will sometimes back up into theoretical arguments.

So really, all that has happened is that the high end thinkers of libertarianism have had to retreat into theory. That alone speaks incredibly poorly of libertarianism. The truth is that most people are not theory-based when it comes to governance. They aren’t going to pick a political ideology on the basis that it has a good theoretical foundation. They what practical results. So the fact that the best thinkers in the movement have abandoned it as a means of enriching everyone means it will never be adopted in a free country. This may be why Hoppe has argued so strongly against democracy.

But as Bruenig has pointed out in a different article, even the theory of libertarianism is filled with holes, Non-Aggression Never Does Any Argumentative Work at Any Time. This is a response to what is by far the most common theoretical libertarian argument. The non-aggression principle (NAP) holds that it is always wrong to commit aggression against another. Libertarians use this as an excuse for saying no one should have the right to their person or property. There are very many problems with this, but here is Bruenig’s take:

Suppose I come on to some piece of ground that you call your land. Suppose I don’t believe people can own land since nobody makes land. So obviously I don’t recognize your claim that this is yours. You then violently attack me and push me off.

What just happened? I say that you just used aggressive violence against me. You say that actually you just used defensive violence against me. So how do we know which kind of violence it is?

You say it is defensive violence because under your theory of entitlement, the land belongs to you. I say it is aggressive violence because under my theory of entitlement, the land does not belong to you. So which is it?

If you have half a brain, you see what is going on. The word “aggression” is just defined as violence used contrary to some theory of entitlement. The word “defense” is just defined as violence used consistent with some theory of entitlement. If there is an underlying dispute about entitlement, talking about aggression versus defense literally tells you nothing.

In other words: the argument is about our approach to property rights. It has nothing to do with “aggression.” The truth is that the government uses aggression to enforce property rights. Of course, it is also true that all land currently owned was, at some point, stolen either from the commons or from other individuals. So it is hard to make the argument from non-aggression when the current state of property rights depends upon aggression. Libertarians, therefore, must argue in favor of property rights. I think most don’t do this because it doesn’t even occur to them that property rights are anything but God given. And those who get beyond that find that the issue gets incredibly murky.

Take, for example, Ayn Rand and her ignorant and racist claim that the founders of the United States were justified in stealing land from the native peoples. As I discussed in Ayn Rand and Indians, this is simply the claim that “might makes right.” She decided that what the native peoples were doing with their land was not valid and so that justified the European settlers taking it. This is very much like my arguing that I ought to be able to use a gun to steal cars from old people, because I drive better and can make better use of their cars.

The bottom line of all of this is that libertarians are hung up on an infantile notion that no one has a right to take their stuff. And then they justify it based upon whatever kind of arguments make sense to them. For most people, those would be the practical arguments. Very few people find the theoretical arguments very compelling. But libertarians will use whatever arguments are needed. And if even the theoretical arguments fail them, they can fall back on the real argument that animates all the higher level nonsense, “Mine!”

Uber, Lyft, and the Micro-Businessman

UberAs a micro-businessman, I can tell you: I hate a lot of government regulation and taxes. In particular, I hate certain zoning requirements and I hate inventory taxes. Maybe it is just that I am selfish, but I think the society has a vested interest in not making the bureaucracy too much of a burden on very small businesses. On the other hand, it isn’t people like me who are out there complaining. It is always quite large and wealthy companies who can not only afford to pay their taxes, but who can hire accountants and lawyers to deal with regulatory requirements.

What really burns me is how the “largest bookstore in the world” has managed for years not to pay taxes that I have always had to pay. Why them? Well, there are some historical reasons for this, but mostly it is because Amazon is so large. (Please buy your Amazon Stuff from the links of my pages; it goes a very small way to pay for the hosting of his site.) But big companies getting sweetheart deals from the government isn’t anything new. We need to do something about it, but I don’t think I need to tell you about it.

LyftBut the issue of Uber and Lyft are rather different. In case you don’t know, these are basically freelance taxicab companies. There is much nice to say about them. In most cities, the taxicab system is terribly corrupt and unjust. But are these companies really the answer? A couple of weeks ago, Dean Baker brought up a few questions, Economists and Uber. He wondered if these firms were really competing on an equal footing with the traditional cab services. Do they really have the same safety and insurance requirements? Do they provide handicapped service the way that traditional series do according to federal law?

More important to me is what this does to workers. In the old days, “freelance” was just another word for, “Pay me three times what you pay your salaried workers.” But that isn’t true anymore. Our economy has become so messed up the last three decades that “freelance” is now another word for, “A better way for companies to screw the worker.” Baker noted:

Some economists might also like to see some rules on labor conditions applied to Uber and Lyft. For example, should their drivers be able to organize unions like employees? Also, should there be a guarantee that drivers earn at least the minimum wage after covering expenses? It seems rather foolish to have minimum wage laws if companies can just evade them by setting up their employees as independent contractors.

There is another aspect of this. It is the old “creative destruction” aspect of it all. The “pure” economic take on the situation is that the extra taxis on the road will drive down prices, that extra money saved by consumers will go into other areas of the economy, and everyone will end up richer. But if the last thirty years have taught us anything it is that this “free market” narrative is nonsense. Most of the savings will go to the richest people and they will just sit on it.

I’m not against Uber and Lyft. But I think any enthusiasm for these companies should be moderated with our understanding of how these things go. I’m sure a lot of what is making these companies successful is that they have managed to push off a lot of the costs of the business onto their freelancers. And what we will see in the long run is that customers get a slightly better system with slightly lower prices, the drivers see their already poor paying jobs pay even less, and the owners make more money than ever. I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.

But my biggest concern is the way that Uber and Lyft create yet more micro-businessmen. They must have their own late model car of a specific level of attractiveness, “Car needs to be free of body damage and dents… Air conditioning and heat need to be fully functional.” They must have their own insurance. (Lyft, at least, adds extra liability to this, although that doesn’t cost much to add to the mandated base.) So the major start-up costs of these companies are all placed on the freelancers. And there is basically no way Uber or Lyft can lose money, unlike their drivers.

Again, and for the last time, these companies may work out great. But I’m not expecting great things from them. They are just another step in our journey to turn all workers into freelancers who have no stability, no benefits, and ultimately, no rights. This has been and continues to be the wrong direction for our society to go. But there can be marginal improvements in our current bad status quo. Maybe Uber and Lyft will provide that. But they aren’t some great new approach to capitalism; they are just another step in the path we’ve taken for the last four decades.

Well Crafted Comedy from Key & Peele

Key & PeeleI watched a bit of Key & Peele over the weekend. I was vaguely aware of them, and knew that they were funny. But I wasn’t quite prepared for just how good they are. As you may know, I have a generally low opinion of American sketch comedy. Too much of it is dependent upon a single unusual character who acts bizarrely for a while before the sketch simply stops. Although I admire Julia Sweeney, the best example of this is “Pat.” Key & Peele does a good job of ending sketches — not always, but with for more regularity than I’m used to.

The first sketch I ever saw was “Substitute Teacher,” which is about a black teacher who has taught school for twenty years in the inner city. Today, he is teaching in an affluent, apparently all white class. As he’s taking roll, he uses unusual pronunciations for each name and believes that the students are playing games with him when they correct him. For example, he pronounces “Aaron” as “A-A-Ron.” I believe the joke here is primarily about the unusual names and pronunciations in the African American community.

The point of the sketch is not that the teacher is stupid — far from it. He uses the somewhat obscure word “churlish” and pronounces it perfectly. It is just a clash of cultures. But what most works is the ending. The teacher calls out the name, “Tim-oh-thee.” At this point, the only black student in the class sticks his head out from behind a row of white students and says, “Pree-sent.” To which the teacher is grateful, “Thank you!” Comedy is never more finely crafted than in this sketch:

But the sketch that got me going on this Key & Peele jag was “Text Message Confusion.” It is about two friends texting each other and mis-communicating more and more. The best part of this is where Key can’t believe how rude Peele seems to be and so texts, “You are fking priceless.” Peele takes this as a compliment and texts back, “You’re the one who’s fking priceless.” I love this because it shows just how hard it is to communicate intentions clearly in written form — especially in short bursts of text.

This reminds me of an old coworker I had who developed an approach to email. She said one must always assume the very best intentions of the sender. This is true because it is rarely the case that someone intends to be a jerk. And if they do intend to be a jerk, they will eventually make it completely clear. Of course, in this sketch, it shows how minor irritation can quickly lead to a violent confrontation. Again, in this sketch, we get a very nice denouement.

And finally, here is “Pizza Order.” It is remarkably sweet. In fact, Key’s monologue in the middle of it is almost heartbreaking. Of course, it is Peele’s character who is ultimately tragic and who is responsible for the comedy:

What’s interesting in all of these is that they are all about miscommunication. And in no instance does anyone intend to miscommunicate. Peele in “Pizza Order” is lying, of course — but just to hide his sad and lonely life. It is a distinctly higher level of comedy than one normally sees in the United States. I don’t think that these more academic observations explain its appeal to a wide audience. And Key & Peele has a fair share of silliness. But it does show there is nothing about finely crafted comedy that stops it from being popular.

Mariotto Albertinelli

Visitation - Mariotto AlbertinelliOn this day in 1474, the great High Renaissance painter Mariotto Albertinelli was born. He was a colleague of Fra Bartolomeo, who I also quite admire. There was a time that I didn’t much care for these early perspective painters. But I don’t really know what I was thinking. It was a wonderful time for art. I think in the past I’ve gotten bogged down in seeing different periods of art relative to other periods. This caused me to focus on what one period didn’t have that another did.

Although he worked closely with Bartolomeo, Albertinelli reminds me more of Leonardo da Vinci. Consider this untitled painting, and see if you don’t agree. But over time, I’ve come to see Leonardo as the Orson Welles of his day: brilliant but never finishing a work that completely satisfies, or at least lives up to the transcendence of parts of his work. At his best, Albertinelli is preferable. I don’t think that Leonardo ever created a work that is as stunning as The Virgin and Child with the Infant Baptist:

The Virgin and Child with the Infant Baptist - Mariotto Albertinelli

Albertinelli was known for his lively personal life — in stark contrast to his religious painting. Being more interested in living than creating, he found much of the details of painting taxing. In addition, he did not like the criticism that his work got from fellow painters. So at one point, despite his success as a painter, he gave it up and opened a tavern. But he only stuck with this for a short time before going back to painting. I find this charming; I love restless people.

Albertinelli died at the age of 41. The only explanation I can find is that he worked himself to death. He was working away from home, and it seems more likely that he simply got sick. He did manage to have himself delivered back to Florence, just in time to die.

Happy birthday Mariotto Albertinelli!