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Month: January, 2015

On Libertare

[Epistemic status: sounds vastly more confident than I actually am.]

“I have your answer. But I will have to make something clear before I deliver it. If you will permit me?”

Lord Iron opened his hand in motion of deference. Olaf cleared his throat.

“Wealth,” he said, “is not a measure of money. It is a measure of well-being. Of happiness, if you will. Wealth is not traded, but rather is generated by trade. If you have a piece of art that I wish to own and I have money that you would prefer to the artwork, we trade. Each of us has something he prefers to the thing he gave away; otherwise, we would not have agreed on the trade. We are both better off. You see? Wealth is generated.”

-Daniel Abraham, “The Cambist and Lord Iron”

I’m far from the first to notice that Libertarians, as a group, seem to have very different view on the world to other people.
As a political movement, of course, they don’t quite seem to fit onto the familiar spectrum. We all know there’s the radical Left, the moderate Left, the moderate Right, and of course the radical Right – with possibly some room for “centrists” in the middle – but where Libertarians fall on this scale is unclear. These “classical liberals” believe in relaxing our restrictions on sexuality, drugs, and even such unquantifiables as “freedom of speech” and “freedom of movement” – yet their attitude, to liberals, is baffling. They side with the rich, the upper-class, the system; they battle hardest for the freedom, not of peasants, but of kings. In short, they vote Republican.

But it is in arguments that these deep-rooted disagreements truly reveal themselves.Libertarians see the world through a different paradigm than other people; yet this paradigm uses familiar words to express itself. In conversations and debates involving libertarians, people often talk past each other, sometimes without noticing. They draw on different assumptions, and people often find themselves stymied by the other side’s apparent inanity or simple evil. “Wealth creation”, “initiation of force”, “market inefficiencies”; terms that are at once commonplace, and frustratingly idiosyncratic in the encoded assumptions they bear for both sides.

But, of course, the central thesis of libertarianism is simple. Any libertarian can explain it to you, and usually will, when your point of disagreement becomes clear. And yet, it seems that most people cannot see it’s obviousness, it’s intuitive appeal once understood.

Why?

II

The central thesis of libertarianism, as an ideology – and I can say this, for once, without fear of contradiction; for it really is extraordinarily simple – is this:

Imagine a world in which there is no such thing as force. There is no violence, no coercion.

But neither is this world perfect; there is inequality, and want, just as in our own. Different people have different resources, different skills.

Now; suppose a rich woman, in this universe, possesses something that a poor man desires dearly. Let us say that it is food; and without it, he shall starve. But the only thing he has that the rich woman desires is his own back-breaking labor; the metaphorical sweat of his brow.

She offers him the food, barely enough to scrape by, in exchange for toiling painfully in her food mines. He accepts.

What just happened?

From a traditional liberal perspective – now there’s an oxymoron for you, politics fans; aren’t liberals supposed to be the great innovators? – the woman has just exploited her advantage over the man to force him into helping her, at great cost to him.

But how can this be? We specified that there was no force in this world, no coercion. He agreed to the contract of his own free will; no force on this earth could have compelled him otherwise, by definition. Indeed, even now, he is free to walk away from the deal.

So why did he agree?

The answer, of course, is simple: he valued the food more than the pain of the labor. Indeed, the rich woman has helped this man out; she exchanged her food for something worthless to him, an act which saved him from starvation. There is no conceivable way she has harmed him; if she were to disappear, he would die for want of her help.

(The man doesn’t have the right equipment to refine food ore into edible food himself.)

The utility calculation is simple:

Poor: death costs 100, work costs 50
Rich: workers add 10, food costs 1
(This is just an example)
Trade: -50, +10, -1 = 41 sadness
No Trade: -100 = -100 sadness

Restricting trade is evil; free trade both saves an improves lives. How could it not? Both parties will only agree to a deal if it benefits them, so every deal made must benefit both parties.

This is a very persuasive argument.

And, of course, the conclusion naturally follows:

The reason the real world is so unhappy, so unlike the model, is obvious: some people are using force, which upsets the model. We imagined a make-believe world where everyone played nice; but this simply isn’t so. By forcing people to take “deals” they don’t want, or preventing them from making deals that would benefit everybody, we have allowed sin to enter into the world.

III

This is a very persuasive argument.

Seriously. It’s just unintuitive enough to be insightful; and it explains everything. Best of all, it’s essentially airtight; what I just presented was a crude sketch, an example of something that has been proven mathematically. It’s a damn theorem. Free trade is always, always better than preventing trade.

Yet I don’t buy it.

Here’s a question for the non-libertarians in the audience: what should the woman do?

… well, she should just give him the food, if he needs it that badly. It barely costs her anything.

Now, hang on a second. I’m getting at something important here.

This is the utility calculation for charity:

Poor: death costs 100, work costs 50
Rich: miners add 10, food costs 1
(This is just an example)
Trade: -50, +10, -1 = – 41 sadness
No Trade: -100 = -100 sadness
Unbalanced Trade, -1 = 1 sadness

That’s pretty damn good, no?

That’s a tiny fraction of the downsides in our trade; and it’s a hundred times smaller than the downside of the baseline situation. (It is, in fact, the optimal situation.)

In fact, this is something like what mathematicians call the Ultimatum Game. In the Ultimatum Game, one player offers the other a sum of money; no more than $100. If the other accepts, they keep the remainder. If they refuse, both players get nothing. The rich woman holds all the cards; the poor man has only the option of refusing her offer. In the Ultimatum game, as in our deal, the incentives converge on a single solution: the rich woman gets almost everything, the poor man gets a pittance.

Yet in reality, people refuse to act that way in the Ultimatum Game. When offered an “unfair” deal, they would rather everyone suffered than allow that sort of thing to continue.

This is, from a traditional perspective, irrational. It can be proved mathematically. No money is strictly worse than only a small amount of money.

Why do they do it?

Incentives.

When the Ultimatum Game is iterated – when the same people play it against each other over and over – then it becomes rational to refuse poor deals. By showing the other player that you demand fairness, you force them to take your own happiness into account; not merely their own. In the end, the risk of refusal is too great to risk anything but a roughly 50/50 split.

In a way, refusing the money in the iterated Ultimatum Game is a form of implicit threat – “do as I want, or I will damage your profits”. It’s a way of introducing force into the forceless, abstract world of the game, in a way. (And, of course, because people behave in this manner, real players in the Ultimatum Game know to propose a reasonably fair deal.)

In the real world, however, we have other means. We have governments, and laws. We have morals. And, yes, we have force.

Coda

https://twitter.com/robertskmiles/status/550990465366249472

So what does this mean for libertarianism?

I lied, earlier. Libertarianism is about more than this one argument; about more than just free trade. They also have a great appreciation for the effect of incentives on human behavior, and of corruption in governments and other institutions where pay is not determined by results. Those things are important, and we need people who pay attention to them.

But … no. There are other flaws in the idea that markets lead to ideal outcomes; tragedies of the commons, externalizes, and simple irreconcilable differences between the model and reality. But ultimately, these were all caveats; you can add epicycles, ways to allow the model to account for only most of reality. But it doesn’t. At all.

Markets are useful things. Incentives are important. But the incentives of markets do not align with ours. Markets force people to innovate and actually perform, yes, but they also force them to charge whatever the market will bear.

Our example earlier was unrealistic; in truth, the rich person would have demanded almost twice as much work, only slightly better than dying. Markets grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine, and who among us can resist them?

Bringing a free market into existence really doesn’t usher in utopia. Utopia is possible (I hope.) But that particular way of organizing things doesn’t summon it. The invisible hand of the markets reallyisn’t friendly (or Friendly), no matter how much it’s direction is derived from your own wishes.

All it summons is a vast, omnipresent demon, to drain away our last vestiges of morality with tempting bargains that spiral us all ever downward.

Hail, Libertare, god of the markets.

A Meditation on Mutually Assured Destruction

I

From The Sixth Meditation on Superweapons, by Scott Alexander:

Suppose you were a Jew in old-timey Eastern Europe. The big news story is about a Jewish man who killed a Christian child. As far as you can tell the story is true. It’s just disappointing that everyone who tells it is describing it as “A Jew killed a Christian kid today”. You don’t want to make a big deal over this, because no one is saying anything objectionable like “And so all Jews are evil”. Besides you’d hate to inject identity politics into this obvious tragedy. It just sort of makes you uncomfortable.

I know a guy who feels uncomfortable with Scott’s writing.

He enjoys, and agrees with, most of Scott’s essays. They’re both useful, and informative. We often discuss things Scott has written on, and make use of concepts Scott has invented or popularized.

And yet.

The other day, we were discussing feminism, and men’s attitudes toward it. We had been looking at a survey that suggested many men – an alarmingly high number – both gave the “correct” definition of feminism (“equality”) and endorsed the statement “men cannot be feminists”. Almost as many men believed “feminism” meant “equality, agreed men could be feminists, and yet were not feminists themselves.

(This was a local, informal study, BTW.)

I mentioned something useful Scott wrote that seemed relevant. But my friend, I learned, had grown somewhat uneasy with Scott’s arguments.

When he read Scott’s recent essay, Untitled – which I rather liked, and said so – something didn’t seem right to my friend. Something, in fact, which he’d noticed a great deal in Scott’s writing.

But also, there was this:

Some Jews are rich, therefore all Jews are rich, therefore all Jews are privileged, therefore no Jew could be oppressed in any way, therefore Jews are the oppressors.

And much the same is true of nerds. In fact, have you noticed actual nerds and actual Jews tend to be the same people?

[…]

And this is why it’s distressing to see the same things people have always said about Jews get applied to nerds. They’re this weird separate group with their own culture who don’t join in the reindeer games of normal society. They dress weird and talk weird. They’re conventionally unattractive and have too much facial hair. But worst of all, they have thechutzpah to do all that and also be successful. Having been excluded from all of the popular jobs, they end up in the unpopular but lucrative jobs, for which they get called greedy parasites in the Jews’ case, and “the most useless and deficient individuals in society” in the case of the feminist article on nerds I referenced earlier.

[…]

So let me specify what I am obviously not saying. I am not saying nerds have it “just as bad as Jews in WWII Germany” or any nonsense like that. I am not saying that prejudice against nerds is literally motivated by occult anti-Semitism, or accusing anyone of being anti-Semitic.

I am saying that whatever structural oppression means, it should be about structure. And the structure society uses to marginalize and belittle nerds is very similar to a multi-purpose structure society has used to belittle weird groups in the past with catastrophic results.

Now, my friend knows Scott wasn’t saying saying nerds have it “just as bad as Jews in WWII Germany” or any nonsense like that. In fact, look above:

… let me specify what I am obviously not saying. I am not saying nerds have it “just as bad as Jews in WWII Germany” or any nonsense like that.

And yet, he seems to be going out of his way to include “Feminism” and “Nazi Germany” together in his sentences.

Why?

It’s not because they’re a good counterexample for “nerds are rich Silicon valley CEOs, you think they’re not privileged?” It’s an actual argument, not just the kind of “your argument proves too much” one-liner Scott is famous for. What is he saying?

the same things people have always said about Jews get applied to nerds. They’re this weird separate group with their own culture who don’t join in the reindeer games of normal society. They dress weird and talk weird. They’re conventionally unattractive and have too much facial hair. But worst of all, they have thechutzpah to do all that and also be successful. Having been excluded from all of the popular jobs, they end up in the unpopular but lucrative jobs, for which they get called greedy parasites in the Jews’ case, and “the most useless and deficient individuals in society” in the case of the feminist article on nerds I referenced earlier.

[…]

There is a well-known, dangerous form of oppression that works just fine when the group involved have the same skin color as the rest of society, the same sex as the rest of society, and in many cases are totally indistinguishable from the rest of society except to themselves. It works by taking a group of unattractive, socially excluded people, mocking them, accusing them of being out to violate women, then denying that there could possibly be any problem with these attacks because they include rich people who dominate a specific industry.

… he’s constructing a reference class.

This is a reference class – a category, a handy box to place things in – that includes two examples: “these feminists I quoted” and “these Nazis I quoted”.

It includes something definitely bad, and your oppenant’s arguments. But what use is this category? What predictions does it make, beyond “badness”?

There’s a name for this. Scott named it. It’s called the Worst Argument in the World.

My friend called it “Godwinning“, and he stopped reading the article.

II

Still, the Jew thing is beside the point, right?

The actual point of the article stands? The other arguments, and the point that Jews are an important counterexample to the idea that “Some nerds are rich, therefore all nerds are rich, therefore all nerds are privileged, therefore no nerd could be oppressed in any way, therefore nerds are the oppressors.”

Even if Scott, understandably frustrated, devoted a little more space than necessary to comparing his opponents to Nazis; shouldn’t we steelman it, pay attention to the strongest version of his argument?

Maybe.

Let’s talk about the correct definition of Feminism.

Feminism doesn’t mean “equality”, except when used between feminists, discussing what would be the “feminist” response to something. Feminism is a movement, and a political ideology. Feminism is a thing people identify as.

It is, in fact, a tribe.

Now: suppose you’re a feminist on the internet. The big news story is about a group of SJWs who said they hated men. As far as you can tell the story is true. It’s just disappointing that everyone who tells it is describing it as “These crazy feminists”. You don’t want to make a big deal over this, because no one is saying anything objectionable like “And so all Feminists are evil” – sure, the people who hate feminists are, but they’re no more credible than conspiracy theorists who think the latest news story proves the government caused 9/11. Besides, it’s important to make sure people know this person is wrong and completely beyond the pale.

The next day you see a popular blogger has written a post on how feminists were awful to him, and sent him death threats, and made vaguely racist and ableist comments. This sort of thing happens a lot on the internet, and you certainly feel for him. It seems kind of pedantic to interrupt every conversation with “But also a lot of feminists have been receiving death threats, and even though a disproportionate number of the people who sent them to you were feminists, that doesn’t mean the feminists are disproportionately active in sending these messages compared to their numbers.” So again you stay uncomfortable.

The next day you hear people complain about the awful SJWs who are ruining politics and oppressing free speech. You understand that really, free speech and and discourse are important topics. On the other hand, when people start talking about “Political Correctness” and “the need to protect men from Feminists” and “rules to stop SJWs from interfering here”, you just feel worried, even though you personally are not doing any horrible stuff and maybe they even have good reasons for phrasing it that way.

Then the next day, you get in an argument with your co-worker. It’s the sort of thing that happens a lot – he was rude to you, and when you complained he started going on about his “rights” and “freedom” and other high-minded things you know he wouldn’t give a damn about at any other time.  He takes you aside and tells you you’d better just give up, admit he is in the right, and apologize to him – because if the conflict escalated everyone would take his side because you’re well-known for being a feminist (and a woman, I guess, in this scenario, because Stereotypes.) And everyone knows that Feminists hate men and are basically bullying self-absorbed conversation-ruining free-speech-silencing scum.

Is he right?

Well, that depends on where you’re having the conversation.

III

Scott would argue that feminists are building a superweapon to attack him. And he’s right, actually. But this isn’t the superweapon.

Pick any attempt to shame people into conforming with gender roles, and you’ll find self-identified feminists leading the way. Transgender people? Feminists led the effort to stigmatize them and often still do. Discrimination against sex workers? Led by feminists. Against kinky people? Feminists again. People who have too much sex, or the wrong kind of sex? Feminists are among the jeering crowd, telling them they’re self-objectifying or reinforcing the patriarchy or whatever else they want to say. Male victims of domestic violence? It’s feminists fighting against acknowledging and helping them.

Yes, many feminists have been on both sides of these issues, and there have been good feminists tirelessly working against the bad feminists. Indeed, right now there are feminists who are telling the other feminists to lay off the nerd-shaming. My girlfriend is one of them. But that’s kind of my point. There are feminists on both sides of a lot of issues, including the important ones.

You know what transgender people, sex workers; people who have too much sex, or the wrong kind of sex, or kinky sex; victims of domestic violence, and nerds … well, you know what they all have in common?

They were unpopular before feminism.

And that’s the problem, really. That’s what my friend pointed out, and what I realized had been bothering me the whole time. Scott mentions how everyone who posts about this topic gets a lot of messages from people saying “that’s ME!”, and he’s clearly correct, because many of these comments are visible to the public. I’ve seen them. But you know what the most common type seems to be?

“Yes, I experienced this, but it had nothing to do with feminism.”

Let’s look at the insults Scott shows us, that exemplify “feminist shaming tactics”:

Whether we’re “mouth-breathers”, “pimpled”, “scrawny”, “blubbery”, “sperglord”, “neckbeard”, “virgins”, “living in our parents’ basements”, “man-children” or whatever the insult du jour is, it’s always, always, ALWAYS a self-identified feminist saying it. Sometimes they say it obliquely, referring to a subgroup like “bronies” or “atheists” or “fedoras” while making sure everyone else in nerddom knows it’s about them too.

Do any of these strike you as particularly feminist terms?

Because I hang out with a lot of feminists, but I also read a lot of anti-feminist things. And I seem to see a heck of theses terms there. These are not feminist terms; they’re just terms.

But hey, it’s still important, right? Even if it’s not just feminists doing this, they need to stop, right? Shouldn’t feminism be fighting gendered stereotyping and policing, wherever it may be found?

Well, yeah, actually.

But … well, Scott is a better writer than I am:

Sometimes I read feminist blogs. A common experience is that by the end of the article I am enraged and want to make a snarky comment, so I re-read the essay to pick out the juiciest quotes to tear apart. I re-read it and I re-read it again and eventually I find that everything it says is both factually true and morally unobjectionable. They very rarely say anything silly like “And therefore all men, even the ones who aren’t actively committing this offense I’m arguing against, are evil”, and it’s usually not even particularly implied. I feel like the Jew in the story above, who admits that it’s really bad the Jewish guy killed the Christian child, and would hate to say, like a jerk, that Christians aren’t allowed to talk about it.

Scott put it right at the top of the post: this is a ten-thousand word rant about feminism. Not about nerds. Not about bullying. About feminism.

And Scott writes a lot of those.

IV

Is this justified?

I said earlier that Scott is right when he worries feminists are building a superweapon to attack him, and I meant it, too. Modern social justice is increasingly defined, not by their compassion for the victims, but by their rejection of the “oppressors” – and the oppressors don’t exist.

Sexism exists. Racism exists. Many, many other forms of discrimination and stereotyping exist – among them all those attacks on transgender people, sex workers; people who have too much sex, or the wrong kind of sex, or kinky sex; victims of domestic violence, and nerds we mentioned earlier.

It’s easy to demonstrate that women and minorities are, for example, turned down far more often when they submit identical resumes … by both men and women, of all races.

And that’s the problem. Sexism, racism; homophobia and transphobia and every other horrible little stereotype … these are all real problems, real “oppression”. But this oppression is mediated by society, not a separate class of “oppressors” But by attacking the “oppressors”; the “privileged” (and yes, privilege is real); those who aren’t members of those oppressed groups – in short, people like the Scotts and me and the friend who started this essay, white straight cismales – we are not solving the problem. We’re just creating a class of people who think that feminism means “equality”, yet men can’t be feminists, because “equality” means fighting men.

And then Scott and I look around and find we’re the “bad guy”, and everyone knows people like you are racist misogynistic scumbags.

(Although, actually, you know, I’ve never had serious or indeed mild trouble with people telling me to shut up because I’m one of Them … but Scott Alexander has. Serious trouble, quite beyond internet arguments. These things happen. I’m a lucky, lucky guy.)

So if you find yourself looking down the barrel of a superweapon, what do you do? What do you do, when one tribe is gathering strength to attack you, and you’re looking defenceless? Are we justified in building anti-feminist, anti-social-justice superweapons?

V

This rule of “never let anyone build a conceptual superweapon that might get used against you” seems to be the impetus behind a lot of social justice movements. For example, it’s eye-rollingly annoying whenever the Council on American – Islamic Relations condemns a news report on the latest terrorist atrocity for making too big a deal that the terrorists were Islamic (what? this bombing just killed however many people, and all you can think of to get upset about is that the newspaper mentioned the guy screamed ‘Allahu akbar’ first?), but I interpret their actions as trying to prevent the construction of a conceptual superweapon against Islam (or possibly to dismantle one that already exists). Like the Jew whose best option would have been to attack potentially anti-Jewish statements even when they were reasonable in context, CAIR can’t just trust that no one will use the anti-Muslim sentiment against non-threatening Muslims. As long as there are stupid little trivial disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims over anything at all, that giant anti-Muslim superweapon sitting in the corner is just too tempting to refuse.

Scott is not the only anti-feminist (believe it or not.)

So … yeah. It’s late and I’m tired. You just get a bullet point. Scott is not the only anti-feminist in existence, and they have access to anti-feminist superweapons too. Them man-hating lesbians tryin’ to pretend sex you regret in the morning is “rape”, and all that.

Scott is not the only person out there who objects to something he calls “feminism”.

Even if you are going to use – let’s be clear here: a glaring generalization about how Feminists sure do [thing that everyone does] a lot, huh? – in order to fight Bad Things present in feminism; even if it’s only used to target unfair generalizations about other groups; it can be and, empirically, is used to attack feminism of every kind.

(In other news, I only ever hear people mention Nice Guys in the same breath as complaints about feminism. I Wonder Why. Yes, feminists do talk about it, but not nearly as much as anti-feminists do. And … *sigh* … yes, the same goes for Dworkin, no need to point that out in the comments every damn time, people.)

Now the feminists would say that I too have a superweapon called “patriarchy”, and that they’re just continuing the arms race. This is true, but it doesn’t lead to a stable state like what the guns rights advocates claim would happen if everyone had guns where we would all be super-polite because nobody wants to offend a guy who’s probably packing heat. It leads to something more like a postapocalyptic anarchy where everyone has guns and we’re all shooting each other. If there’s a conflict between a man and a woman, and the people involved happen to be old-fashioned patriarchalist types, then the man will automatically win and everyone will hate the woman for being a slut or a bitch or whatever. If there’s a conflict between a man and a woman, and the people involved happen to be feminists who are familiar with the memeplex and all its pattern-matching suggests, then the woman will probably win and everyone will hate the man for being a creep or a bigot or whatever. At no point does everyone become respectful and say “Hey, we’re all reasonable people with superweapons, let’s judge this case on its merits instead of pattern-matching to the closest atrocity committed by someone of the same gender”.

It also seems to me that the patriarchy is sort of an accident, where men ruled because they were big and strong and couldn’t imagine doing otherwise and their values just sort of coalesced over time, and the struggle seems to be getting them to realize it’s there. Whereas the feminists know all about discourse and power relations and so on and are quite gung ho about it and they’re staying up late at night reading books with titles like How To Build A Much Deadlier Superweapon (I assume this book exists and is written by Nikola Tesla).

I’m all for mutual superweapon disarmament, but I’m not sure I like the whole mutually assured destruction thing as much. My history, and I think the history of a lot of people who are liberal and pro-choice and so on and so forth but really wary of feminism and social justice – is that we spent our college years totally supporting social justice and helping out in the superweapon factories because it’s our duty to fight rape and racism and so on and since we were nice respectful people obviously the superweapon would never be used on us. Then we got in some kind of trivial disagreement with a woman or a minority or someone, or we didn’t want to go far enough. Then they turned the superweapon on us, and it was kind of a moment of “wait, this was sort of the plan all along, wasn’t it?”