Can Good Be Accomplished Through Evil?

virgin_sacrificeA common attack on libertarianism is that it prohibits certain behaviors that seem to make sense from a utilitarian point of view. For example, if you could save your village from King Kong just by giving the beast one of the young women who live there, that might seem like a good idea, especially if the alternative is that everyone dies. So, while it might be evil to sacrifice her to the monster, maybe it is a good thing to do since you end up saving everyone else.

To fully appreciate this kind of argument, it is necessary to understand that the idea of evil is an objective quality of human interaction, while the idea of good is a subjective quality of any kind of behavior. Whether something is evil or not-evil can be defined in such a way that everyone can agree on what is evil and what is not. So the town saviour in our example could recognize that it is evil to sacrifice a young woman, but he might think that it is a good thing to do. There is no contradiction here because evil does not mean “very bad”. In fact, whether behavior is evil is totally independent of whether it is good or bad.

Just as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard might disagree on whether it is good or bad to smoke cigarettes, they would both agree that it is not evil. In the same way, anarchists and minarchists agree that stealing is evil, but anarchists believe that all taxes are bad and minarchists think that some low level of taxation is good. Continue reading

What is Freedom?

freedom_girlFreedom is the ability to live your life how you want. Unfortunately, there are many things that might prevent you from doing this. Gravity prevents you from jumping over buildings like an old-school superman. Poverty could prevent you from travelling to southern Australia to see the little penguins that live there. Your love interest might prevent you from sleeping over even though you sent all of those romantic selfies.

With so many constraints on how you can live, it is hard to imagine what it would be like if one were truly free. You could go anywhere and do anything. You would know everything, if you wanted to. These god-like powers would let you live your life exactly how you want. That is the ideal, so what is the reality?

Humans are nowhere near total freedom, but we have made great progress in improving freedom in some respects. Most prominently, new technology has continually pushed back the limits of nature. Access has improved to food, water, travel, information, and many other things that enable us to live more how we want. Science and technology free us in a very real sense, but they are not the only engines of progress. They are just part of a more general term for this type of freedom called capital. When most people talk about capital, they mean physical goods that allow people to do things: hammers, horses, and houses. Yet, capital can be other things too, like the knowledge of how to build a car, or the organizational structure that allows everyone in town to play soccer together, or the supply chains that keep cities fed every day without a farm in sight.

The relatively pleasant lives that people enjoy today, compared to five hundred years ago, is due primarily to the huge amounts of capital accumulated since then. Continue reading

I, Robot and the NAP

I_robotAs machines begin to take on more executive functions, the question of ethics has appropriately been raised. Who is responsible if a self-driving car runs over a mailbox? In the 1940s, Isaac Asimov conceived of a solution where machines would be imbued with rules to prevent them from behaving badly. Those rules were known as the Three Laws of Robotics and are as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These rules form a plausible ethical system for robots, but even Asimov knew they would be insufficient. He wrote a number of stories showing how the laws could break down in his book, I, Robot. The problems with the rules are ambiguity and the possibility of internal contradictions. In the stories, poorly constructed rules for guiding behavior led to robots to commit all manner of misdeeds.

Inconsistent rules not only plague Asimov’s fictional world, but the real world as well. Continue reading

Button Pushers and Apologists

push_buttonIn his recent article “Don’t Smash the StateSteven Horwitz warns that thinking about government as something that should be wiped out of existence is a diversion, and libertarians could better spend their time and effort with a more appropriate mental model.

Specifically, he views the state as a bomb that must be defused carefully or bad things will happen. He urges libertarians to reconsider radical notions like, “smash the state” and gives both a moral argument and a practical argument for picking it apart in an orderly manner.

The moral argument is that getting rid of state activities in the wrong order could cause unnecessary problems for innocent people who are dependent on the state. The practical argument is that trying to get rid of government all at once will not work. Both of these points are superficially compelling, so it is important to show their shortcomings before libertarians get the wrong idea about the state.

The moral argument says that if someone is dependent on the government and that dependence is solely due to government action, for example the minimum wage, then it would be good to remove the minimum wage laws before removing the wealth transfers that support these people. Here Horwitz says that, “Our analysis of the all the damage the state does should carry with it a deep concern about the victims of that damage.” However, there are an even greater number of victims who are totally discounted in his analysis, namely victims of taxation. Continue reading

The Ultimate Resource 2

The Ultimate Resource 2

The Ultimate Resource 2

Many works on economics are depressing. This is because economic analysis properly starts with the ideal economy: a free market of individuals producing all the wonders one can imagine. It then analyzes the ways in which government prevents these good things from happening in the real world. The reader is then left to contemplate his own dismal existence in comparison to what might have been. Notable exceptions include I, Pencil and Julian Simon’s book The Ultimate Resource 2.

Simon’s book is uplifting because instead of comparing reality to an anarcho-capitalist society, it compares the real world to popular, but imaginary, dystopias. He dismantles the alarm around overpopulation, resource depletion, and other doomsday scenarios with solid economic analysis and historical evidence. Furthermore, he explains how all of these supposed problems are solved efficiently and elegantly by the free market.

This book is ultimately a happy tale of human progress. Despite the seemingly limited supply of natural resources and the counter-productive efforts of government, people continue to have more access to food, water, clean air, and other things that make their lives better. Every resource that people desire has been on a trend towards greater abundance. This is not in spite of population growth, but because of it. As Simon says:

“More people, and increased income, cause resources to become more scarce in the short run. Heightened scarcity causes prices to rise. The higher prices present opportunity and prompt inventors and entrepreneurs to search for solutions. Many fail in this search, at cost to themselves. But in a free society, solutions are eventually found. And in the long run the new developments leave us better off than if the problems had not arisen. That is, prices eventually become lower than before the increased scarcity occurred.”

Simon cautions that although this trend is prominent in historical surveys, it is not inevitable. Continue reading

Pompeii

pompeiiPompeii was a wealthy city in Southern Italy until its population was destroyed by the eruption of a neighboring volcano in the year 79 CE. However, the eruption left much of the city intact, and preserved it under several meters of ash. It is slowly being dug out and has become a tourist attraction where people go to see what life was like at the beginning of the common era.

Pompeii was impressive for its orderly neighborhoods, metal water pipes, and some clever civil engineering. It was much smaller, and much less grand, than the city of Rome located a short distance to the north. Yet, in comparison, Pompeii seems to shine as a city that never lived past its prime. Rome, on the other hand, is a shadow of its former glory.

The interesting question, however, is not whether Pompeii would have suffered the same decline as Rome, but why so many civilizations seem to rise and fall with the historical tide. Is it part of human nature that societies must decay? Continue reading

Theory and History

Theory and History

Theory and History

Ludwig von Mises’ last book is an examination of social sciences as they are and as they should be. Mises characteristically spends time excoriating historians who pretend to be economists. His main effort, however, is on the proper delineation between psychology, economics, thymology, and, of course, history.

For those who have read Human Action, the distinction between historical science and economic science is well known. When a so-called economist models the price of onions in Venice in the 1850s, he is not furthering economic knowledge, but simply using mathematics to relate what happened in the past. That this work provides no economic insight and has no predictive power is a central theme of Theory and History.

Furthermore, Mises attacks supposed economic theories that are actually theories of history, and bad ones at that. He embarrasses Marxism for its foundational beliefs that technology determines the social state of affairs and that history is on an inevitable trend towards a final state of socialism. With his typical dry humor, Mises tears apart collectivist ideologies, though some may seem obscure to a modern reader.

On the other hand, his work on thymology is immortal. Continue reading