Paradox, Shmaradox: A clearly amateur but hopefully compelling debunking of Schrödinger’s Ballot Box

schenectady_libertyToday put out a post about something called “Schrödinger’s Ballot” which posits that there is an inherent contradiction, a paradox, in the concept of democracy. Here is the link. I’ll briefly sum it up and then address where I believe that the contradictions really are.

Philosopher Richard Wollheim published an article call “A Paradox in the Theory of Democracy” in 1962. He sets up the scenario something like this:

A committed democrat (note: lower case “d”) sincerely believes that social policy should be decided by a democratic process.

This person expresses his personal belief on the issue by voting for or against. In this case, let’s say he votes against a policy.

After to votes are counted, imagine we find that the measure passes. This is the opposite of what the committed democrat wanted to have happen. Here is the paradox:

The committed democrat has to believe both that the policy should be adopted because the democratic process produced the result, and he has to also believe that it should not be adopted because of his personal belief concerning the matter.

Now I’m not sure if that constitutes a paradox at all, but there sure is an argument, well…at least half of an argument that I hear all the time. Democrats said for the eight years of the Obama presidency that Republicans were mean spirited racists any time they disagreed with an Obama policy. They said that Republicans needed to stop complaining and accept the “will of the people” and a “mandate” that Obama was doing what the people wanted. In other words the democratic process did what it was supposed to do, damn the hard feelings on the other side.

These days Trump supporters gleefully remind the Democrats (and democrats: small “d”) of the same. And D(d)emocrats aren’t walking all that talk any better than their R(r)epublican counterparts did while they (we) were getting Obamacare shoved down our throats. So I’m wondering if there is a paradox at all, frankly, concerning how people rectify the complications of a democratic process for accomplishing ANYTHING.

You see, here’s the thing: both sides of this wrangling are lying when they say that they believe that a democratic process ought to decide policy. Both sides only say that when their guy wins, or the policy they support is decided in their favor. When they lose, all Hell breaks loose like it was a waste of time anyway.

Democrats, and to a lesser extent Republicans like to pretend that their positions are reasonable, and the other guys’ positions are the wacky ones. They both paint the other side as advocating a violation of their rights, and that they are just trying to protect “religious liberty” or “the right to choose.”But the truth is that both would rather use violence to get their way than to accept not getting their way at all. I know, I know what you are thinking. “There he goes with all that talk about violence again. I bet he’ll remind us that ‘taxation is theft’ before he is done as well.” Hey, I’m sorry but face it: if it was such a good idea, and if “the American people have sent a mandate to the President” then WE WOULDN’T NEED A LAW IN THE FIRST PLACE. Really. People would just do it. Or not do it. Or whatever. The mere fact that you want a law against marijuana use, or for a Constitutional amendment that bans flag burning means you think people will disagree with you and do it anyway. And you are willing to use government to stop people. (Those who know me are wondering why I didn’t use the hyperbolic phrase, “men with guns and badges” right there instead of “government.” Hey, I’m trying to lighten up a little! Sorry, inside joke I guess.)

Anyway, I think that explains all the crazy reactions we have seen from both sides in recent history concerning elections, executive orders, regulations, etc. If people really believed that some democratic process was good for anything except a car load of kids deciding what fast food place to hit on their way out on a Friday night, people would live with the results of said election(s).

Nope. Democrats and republicans use the democratic system as a facade that gives legitimacy forcing people to do what they want them to do. I don’t think there is a paradox at all. A paradox would mean that people really believed that the democratic process is the way to resolve these things. None of them really do.

Hey, thanks for reading today. Tell your friends if you think this is worth other people reading. I’m not very good at it yet but who knows, maybe with a little practice and some constructive criticism I’ll get better.


ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FORMAL AND EFFECTIVE FREEDOM: Why libertarians and progressives don’t communicate about freedom.

schenectady_libertyI’ve touched on this before. I blamed semantics for my inability to communicate the message of individual liberty to progressives and conservatives. “Surely,” I thought “if we can just agree on what liberty is, we can come to some agreement on how to get there.” A recent, short Facebook exchange with a very smart progressive online acquaintance prompted me to dig a little deeper into this divide. I’m glad I did.

What I’m about to write about will be inadequate. I have skimmed a number of scholarly articles about this but I have barely scraped the surface, so if any of this grabs you I encourage you to do your own research.

Bottom Line Up Front: Instead of accepting my own definition for freedom, I’m going to use the term “formal freedom” for the standard libertarian term, and “effective freedom” for what progressives use. I didnt’ make these terms up by the way. Smarter people did. I’ve been trying to argue that there is only one freedom and prove that my version is the real one. I now accept that there is two ways to define freedom. And here’s the rub: both are legitimate. Libertarians and progressives just need to work together to encourage effective freedom in ways that we can both live with.

Libertarians see liberty from a “freedom-from” position. To a libertarian, a person is free when he no one is forcing him to do something he doesn’t want to, or using force to keep him from doing something he wants to do. Of course, all bets are off if what he wants to do includes using force on someone else. That would be logically inconsistent.

Progressives see liberty from a “freedom-to” position. To a progressive, a person is not free if he doesn’t have the means to do that thing that he is otherwise free to do. Progressives and libertarians agree on a lot of things that a person is free to do/ not do. Where we part ways is how we go about empowering people to do what they want, but don’t have the necessary tools to actually do it.

For example, contrary to some of the progressive rhetoric about libertarians wanting to see poor people starving on the street, sacrificed on some kind of “free market alter,” nothing could be further from the truth. We love people just as much as progressives do. That’s why we encourage free market capitalism so strongly: we really belive that it is the best way to ensure the least amount of people end up in that condition as possible. We really do, progressives. Really. And there is science to back that assertion up. So bear with us a little.

Alternatively, I’ve been convinced that the progressive agenda was really about “soaking The Rich” and that issues like poverty or access to necessities are really just excuses. But the vast majority of progressives just want hungry people to have food, and they see market capitalism as the reason they don’t have it. What I am starting to realize is that they look out into the economy and examples of market capitalism failing to do what libertarians (and conservatives) say it should do. Further, if government is supposed to secure liberty, progressives expect government to intervene in order to end the disparity. When resources are moved from where they aren’t being used to the betterment of society toward where they are being used that way, the mission of “securing the blessing of liberty” is clearly made evident. The evidence is right before everyones’ eyes.

Libertarians are quick to point out that what we are talking about when we say “market capitalism” is a far cry from what we have now. What we have now is a far cry from true free markets. But where libertarians advocate moving toward free markets, progressives advocate more central management of the economy instead. I get it: more of the same gets more of the same. When progressives advocate more central management of the economy, libertarians see more of what keeps the system from working. More of the same gets more of the same, again. And we stare at each other incredulously wondering why we would be willing to sacrifice people over “politics.”

Here’s the rub: both of us want a different system in place to allocate resources fairly and equitably. Both of us want it because we want people to be prosperous. Both of us want people to be free. Both of us believe that it is the proper role for government to ensure we are all free. So why the arguing?

Back to the different versions of freedom we espouse. How is a person free to eat if he can’t get any food? How is a person free to own a home if he can’t get a mortgage? How is a person free to go to college if he is too poor to pay the tuition? To a progressive, the answer is simple: government exists to ensure people are free. Government should ensure that people have the resources they need to do the things that they have a right to do. Effective freedom.

Libertarians on the other hand believe that formal freedom, freedom from coercion is the best way to ensure effective freedom. That is because we believe that the greatest enemy to freedom is the government itself. Government has a necessary monopoly on the initiation of force, and when it uses that force in ways that restrict our freedom, even if it is to provide the resources that proponents of effective freedom advocate, we see a reduction of liberty, not an increase in freedom. At best what we see is a transfer of “freedom” from one group to another. And I can see where that might seem “fair” to some people, it comes with enormous moral hazards. I submit that those moral hazards tend to make the problems worse rather than better. I wish libertarians and progressives could get past the yelling and investigate these occurences together. Conservatives are unwilling to do it at all.

We libertarians get a little carried away with rhetoric sometimes. “Taxation is theft!” isn’t helping our image with progressives, for sure. As I have said, there is a certain shock value we hope to gain when we say it, but let’s face it: there has been too much shock and not enough value, so I hope libertarians reign that in a bit. I’m trying to myself.

So here’s what I hope we can do, we libertarians and progressives. I hope we can come together and balance our approaches to government involvement in the betterment of people’s’ lives. I’m willing to meet you in the middle. Let’s start by understanding that we really want the same goals accomplished: human and civil rights protected. Economic prosperity made available to everyone. Then let’s respect each others’ concerns about the second and third order consequences to possible solutions to the problems we face. We have a lot of work to do and we’ll never get it done if we can’t talk to each other.

A Libertarian States His Case for Immigration:Not to say it is ALL libertarians case, by any means.

schenectady_libertySo I’m libertarian. That means I believe it is immoral to initiate violence against someone. Even if a bunch of people agree that they should. Even if that bunch of people become organized through a democratic process and call themselves government. Let’s call that the Non-Aggression Principle, or NAP.

Juan is in Mexico walking north. John is in the US and is looking south, anticipating Juan’s arrival. Juan is looking forward to getting to work on John’s chicken farm. John is looking forward to someone willing to work on the farm. Work on a chicken farm sucks, and profits aren’t so hot, so pay will be pretty low. Most of the kids in town like big diesel trucks that blow white smoke, and those things are hard to buy on chicken farm pay. Plus their parents make sure they have video games to play.

John and Juan worked out an agreement. They agreed on a wage and the conditions of employment. Both are satisfied with the arrangement. Juan looks forward to working at about 7 times the wages he an get in his village. John looks forward to making enough profit that he can build more coops in a few years. With money from that coop, John might be able to pay someone to run the whole deal so he can spend more time in Ormond Beach, Fl with his family. He won’t have to keep doing that second job in town that is wearing him out, either. With the higher salary, Juan looks forward to saving enough money that he can get his kids out of the village and closer to nicer schools. Who knows, maybe someday his son can do something like run a chicken farm for an American who wants to spend more time at the beach.

When government is used to stop this transaction, both Juan’s and John’s rights are violated. It is no different than if you were to point a gun at either one of them and threaten to shoot them if Juan didn’t head back south. Using a man with a badge to do the gun-pointing changes nothing. Neither does backing the act up with a law that says it’s okay. That’s because government only legitimately exist to protect rights, not to infringe on them. And it makes no difference whose government we are talking about or where it happens to be located. But it especially needs no special pleadings in the US, where our country is young enough to actually be founded on that principle. Go read the first few paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence…I’ll still be here when you get back.

Welcome back! So, we should be able to agree on two things right now. First, that if you stop Juan from working for John you have used force to accomplish it. Second, our government protects rights, it doesn’t infringe on them. All we have to do now is agree that Juan and John have a right to enter into this contract. That part should be easy, since clearly neither one is violating anyone else’s rights with their arrangement. So they should be left alone. But it isn’t so easy to agree on that. Is it? Can we at least agree that using force to stop someone from exercising a right sucks?

Getting around to agreeing that keeping Juan and John from associating through a contract that both of them consented to honor will have to be for another post on another day. This post isn’t about convincing you I’m right. It’s about explaining my case for immigration. There are economic reasons as well. National security reasons. Other reasons you probably don’t agree with about immigration as I’ve laid it out. I just wanted you to know this guy’s (me, that is) reason: because it’s none of your business what other people do as long as it doesn’t violate your rights. And that is good enough for me.

Think about it, and let me know what you come up with, will you? I hammered it out pretty quickly so there bounds to be spelling, grammar and/or logical consistency errors. Let me know. Thanks for reading.


Should Public Policy Support Abundance or Scarcity?: Frederic Bastiat knew, we should, but we apparently don’t.

schenectady_libertyWith sincere apologies to Frederic Bastiat…

Are we better off with more options or less? More food, water, clothing, housing or less of  those things?

The answer is obvious: abundance is in the interest of people. But there is some confusion about how we accomplish the goal of abundance. The public policies being promoted by the Trump administration and supported by the people at large lead to scarcity instead. Why would we do that? Frederic Bastiat had the answer more than 200 years ago and it is as applicable today as it was then.

In the first chapter of his work, Economic Sophisms, Bastiat poses the question, “Which is preferable for man and for society, abundance or scarcity?” Anyone but a Luddite would agree that society is better off with more, rather than less food, water, clothing, housing, etc. Choices, even beyond the necessities of life are synonymous with a growing, successful society. No one could sensibly argue that it is in the interest of a man or of society that he struggle against shortages and high costs to achieve the things that make life better as long as the opposite is possible.

Bastiat contrasts two theories for satisfying the interest of society, the theory of scarcity and the theory of abundance.

The most popular then, and I suggest now as well is the theory of scarcity: a worker becomes richer in proportion as he sells his labor more expensively. He sells his labor more expensively as the commodity he produces is scarce. Scarcity enriches him.

Applied generally to all workers, we can deduce that all workers will be enriched by artificially inducing more scarcity in what they produce. This scarcity is the result of higher prices. This will enrich all workers. You can apply the same theory to producers of any kind, not just laborers. What you are left with is the theory of scarcity logically acceptable.

Just how do we go about creating this scarcity in what is produced? In Bastiat’s time, people were known to destroy tools that were invented to increase efficiency. The increase in efficiency meant fewer people were needed to get the same amount of work done. Or, more production occurred in the same amount of time-and increase in goods available for sale. Tariffs were placed on imported goods in order to protect domestic jobs. Pleas that “they will dump their goods on our shores and ship all of our money back to their ports” was common. Deliberate interference in markets either by the State or by the workers themselves with the goal of limiting or reducing the amount of goods produced was (and is) the accepted method for enriching society.

But what of abundance? Did we not agree that abundance of goods is what is in the interest of society? The most sensible, but unfortunately least popular theory, the theory of abundance posits that the consumer becomes richer in proportion as the amount of goods available increases and is made available more cheaply. Abundance enriches him. Applied generally, society is more enriched as all goods are made more abundant and purchased at a lower cost.

How do we go about creating this abundance? By doing just the opposite of what we do to create scarcity: we encourage innovation so that tools are developed and used that increase efficiency in production. By opening up the borders to as much trade as markets will bear. By realizing that men eat food, and use goods to enrich their lives. Abundance is created by lowering prices. If a good can be imported and sold at a lower cost than it can be produced domestically, we are fools to keep people from buying it. No one can eat the money that leaves our shores anyway.

Both syllogisms are logically correct in as far as what is stated, but they are self-contradicting. They proscribe opposite means to reach the same end. Only one can truly lead us to an enriched individual or society. We can only deduce which one if we understand how exchange works in markets.

If the entirety of society were only Robinson Crusoe, alone on an island, an understanding of exchange would not be necessary. Crusoe could consume only what he produced. If gathering water to drink for a day took two hours, he could not gather water for one hour and expect to have enough to drink. A plank needed would have to be carved from a tree in order to exist. Unless one were to wash up on shore. Would any reasonable person believe that the best way for Crusoe to enrich himself would be to kick it back into the ocean in order to protect his valuable labor? Of course not, we can all see immediately that abundance benefits Crusoe, and that the means to the end of the benefiting of society must necessarily bring abundance as well.

But none of us are Crusoe. We live in together in society. Because of the gains of the distribution of labor, each member of society is both a producer and a consumer at the same time. In fact, we produce in order to consume. But few us spend most of our productive time producing WHAT we consume. We all produce all or part of what ANOTHER consumes.  Both production and consumption must be encouraged but if we are to generate public policy that encourages a means that results in the general enrichment of society, we must look to the secret desires of those who would benefit from each of the two theories before we pick one.

The secret desires of the producer are anti-social: taken to the fullest extent, what benefits the producer would lead to no goods at all (after extreme scarcity at extremely high prices). If the producer of the world were to have complete power to make laws that promoted the theory of scarcity there would eventually be no goods produced. Producers would follow their secret desires that less and less was produced at higher and higher prices. Does that sound like the foundation of an enriched society? No goods at all?

But the secret desires of the consumer are vast amounts of goods at the lowest possible price. The secret desires of the consumer are obviously social: taken to the fullest, even if only theoretically possible completion, there would be unlimited goods available at zero cost. Who could complain about that?

Bastiat’s message to the people of France so long ago, and to us today is that it is easy to fall for the syllogisms that public policy that benefits the producers like tariffs, minimum wages, limits on technological innovation, and deliberate shortages caused by policies that pay people to not produce in order to keep supply low and prices high are not in the self-interest of the members of society. Even as we seek what would be an initial, if impermanent benefit as individuals, the end would be poverty and scarcity instead of abundance.

Thanks for reading.

Freedom Defined

Yesterday, I lamented that conversation is difficult when people don’t share common definitions for words. This should go without saying. The problem is exasperated when people become emotionally attached to their definition.

I’m guilty of this. I have a definition for freedom that I’m emotionally attached to. I spend much of my time convincing…okay, attempting to convince people that my definition is the correct one. Here is my definition:

Freedom is that state of existence where the individual does not experience coercion from another person or group of people unless he attempts to use coercion against another person.

Here’s another definition that floats around out there: “Freedom means being able to do what you want to do unless you hurt someone”. Or, “Freedom means having maximum choices”. I disagree with these definitions, and here’s why.

First, I don’t like limiting freedom to what a person can or cannot do. Freedom means refusing to do things you don’t want to do as well. I think that European models for freedom fall into this trap. People feel free as long as they aren’t kept from doing things that are on a sort of list of acceptable things. Since what they are not allowed to do is reasonably listed, they avoid those things and generally get to stay out of a cage. But what happens when something we like to do gets put on the list because someone else just doesn’t like it?

Further, without a firm definition for “hurt”, you can see we have another problem. Is hurt feelings enough reason to limit someone’s freedom to do something? Is it enough for one person in an entire population to be “hurt” in order to enact a new law?

What about the “maximum choice” argument? Does more freedom necessarily mean more choices? It seems like it would. Surely where there is less freedom, people have less choices. People in North Korea have less choice for dinner than people in South Korea, generally speaking. But should we define freedom that way?

How does one make these choices? One way, and I would argue one very important way is through economic exchange. If we limit our definition for freedom to our relative ability to make choices we find that one way to increase freedom is to provide a way to economically enable people to make choices. Now, I agree that limiting a person’s ability to trade what he has for what he wants can be a violation of his freedom, but can we say that advocating for freedom means necessarily enabling that person to get what he wants?

Does making people more free mean providing healthcare? A living wage? A college education? Any good idea we all agree helps people be “better off”?

No. Because in order to provide these things, another person’s choices must be limited. To provide free healthcare to one person, other people must pay for it either with their money, their property, or their time. Same with all scarce (finite) goods. So while freedom tends to result in greater choice, we can’t say that we can increase freedom for the whole by giving more choice to the individual. Choices don’t create freedom, freedom results in choices if that makes sense.

I’ve given you my definition for freedom. I’ve explained why I disagree with definitions submitted by people I end up arguing with. What I have not done is to propose a way to get past this disagreement so we can find common ground. I’ll get into that stuff in the next post.

Thanks for reading. Share with a friend if you think it is worth it.