Applied Philosophy – 5 – Conclusion

In the 1st post of this series, I argued that philosophy is difficult. In the 2nd post I illustrated this with the example of Raymond Niles’ article on the poor application of property rights to the electric grid in America. In my 3rd post I argued that the phenomenon of specialization makes the world ever more complex. In my 4th post, I argued that capitalism is politically unstable and that even preserving it (let alone establishing it) requires sustained effort. In this post I want to draw on these observations (and some others) to determine the course of my future blogging efforts.

First, I should clarify that the purpose of this blog is primarily political. While I am interested in understanding philosophy for my own sake, I am not particularly interested in blogging about it. I blog because I consider it the only medium to reach other interested individuals. As an attempt at expanding the audience of this blog beyond Objectivists, I recently joined the desicritics.org portal. Two of my three posts there so far, have generated lengthy comment threads. This has convinced me that it is possible to engage in meaninful debate via the blog-comments medium. It has also convinced me that while the real world has started resembling the fictional world of Atlas Shrugged in many ways, people have not yet started asking “Who is John Galt?” – i.e, they have not resigned to fate yet (The same conclusion could be drawn from the success of Obama’s campaign about hope and change). People are still interested in debating fundamentals. The pragmatism on display everywhere is not total.

The bad state of the world today is primarily a result of the difficulty of philosophy and the failure to apply it properly. It is certainly possible and necessary to find the right answers and convince enough people of them. It is easy to look at the world and become a cynic, to believe that improving it is impossible. But inaction will mean a loss of several things that one takes for granted today. The phenomenon of specialization is not reversible. The incredible complexity in the world economy cannot be unraveled. There is no escape from this enormously entangled world. It is not practical to pursue one’s own interests and remain unconcerned about the direction the world is heading in, especially for those who are young today. If the trend continues, there will be no opportunity left to practise those interests. For all their wrong ideas, the collectivists have one fact right – we are all in this together.

Considering the above, I intend to start two series of posts on this blog. One that addresses some of the most common misconceptions and mischaracterizations of Objectivism and another that explores intellectual property rights.

This left me speechless

Just look at the comment on this post.

Poverty

What is poverty? What are its causes? Is it a personal problem or a social problem or a political problem? Whose responsibility is it? What actions are needed to eradicate it?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines poverty as

1 a: the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions b: renunciation as a member of a religious order of the right as an individual to own property

2: scarcity , dearth

3 a: debility due to malnutrition b: lack of fertility

Note the difference in definitions ‘1 a’ and ‘2’. The perspective of ‘1 a’ is social, egalitarian and materialistic. It emphasizes a comparison between the material possessions of people. It equates self respect with prestige and prestige with the possession of material values.  It seeks to identify people in terms of class. By this definition, a worker in an industrial society who owns a car and is able to provide for his daily needs is nevertheless in poverty, simply because there are a large number of people who have bigger, better or more material possessions than him. If this definition is accepted, then it is in the nature of society for some of its members to be in poverty. Any attempt to eradicate poverty would then be a (necessarily futile) revolt against the nature of society. The nature of society cannot be a problem in itself and no further analysis of this definition is necessary (The fact that ‘1a’ ranks above ‘2′ is quite interesting but it is not the topic of this post).

This post will therefore be concerned with definition ‘2′ – poverty is scarcity. But scarcity of what? Scarcity of the values and conditions necessary for a proper human life. What are these values and conditions? Food, shelter and clothing are often considered to be the basic values necessary for life. But man needs to earn these values (and all others) by conscious, wilful and sustained effort and by the application of knowledge. Neither the effort nor the knowledge is automatic. Both are affected (to some extent atleast) by social and cultural conditions. In the absence of proper conditions, the lack of the basic values for life becomes endemic. This sort of poverty is a social and political problem and it is this that is the concern of this post – poverty as the lack of the social and cultural conditions necessary for man to flourish.

What are these conditions? The primary condition for a flourishing society is a respect for the mind. Man’s mind is his only tool of knowledge, his only judge of truth, and his only means of survival. All the values he needs to live, from basic material values like food, to abstract intellectual values like art, are a product of his mind. A respect for the mind has three aspects – rationality in ideas, egoism in ethics, and liberalism in politics. Rationality is the recognition that the mind is capable of understanding and dealing with reality. Egoism is the recognition that the mind (or self, or ego) is one’s greatest value. Liberalism is the recognition that the mind cannot coexist with force.

The primary cause for endemic poverty is a lack of respect for the mind, most commonly in the form of supernatural and religious beliefs. Supernatural beliefs destroy all three aspects of respect for the mind. By claiming that the truth is beyond the reach of the mind, they destroy rationality. By claiming that man’s ultimate purpose is something greater than his life (whether an after-life in heaven or a cosmic consciousness), they destroy egoism. By claiming that the truth is revealed only to certain prophets, they create figures of authority and destroy liberalism. Societies flourish only when some of their members are able to shake off these beliefs. Shaking off supernatural beliefs is not enough however. The many experiments in all kinds of socialism in the last century are a good illustration of this. The advocates and leaders of these experiments claimed to be rational and scientific even as they rejected egoism and liberalism. They only succeeded in plunging their societies into poverty and economic collapse. Rationality, egoism and liberalism are merely different aspects of the same philosophical outlook and it is not possible to practise them selectively. The only solution to endemic poverty is a culture of reason and the social and political institutions that are necessary to maintain it.

The crucial thing that must be understood is that endemic poverty is not just a lack of wealth but the lack of the conditions that make the creation of wealth possible. Unless these conditions are established, no amount of wealth redistribution will have any positive effect. Unearned wealth is not a solution to poverty but a catalyst for corruption and violence. It allows the unscrupulous powers that invariably rule irrational cultures to maintain their stranglehold on people by preventing their collapse. Over the past few years, there have been vigorous calls for action to end poverty by a certain date, mostly focusing on Africa. The proposed action consists of writing off loans and granting new ones to the corrupt and tyrannical regimes that rule most of Africa, the loans to be funded by tax payers in the developed world who are not responsible in any way for the irrational and primitive cultures in Africa. These calls for action are extremely repugnant – morally, practically, politically and economically. Morally repugnant, because they are attempts to achieve a sense of altruistic greatness, to be paid for by the forced redistribution of unearned wealth by selling unearned guilt to the people who produce that wealth. Practically repugnant, because a century of such attempts has shown that forced redistribution of wealth results in economic collapse and a loss of all individual rights. Politically repugnant, because such action can only be carried out by the further enslavement of productive individuals in a global welfare state, and because the beneficiaries of such action are corrupt and tyrannical governments. Economically repugnant, because such action consists of punishing success and rewarding failure.

This post is a call for action – not the action of donating to charities that help to sustain corruption and violence – but the intellectual action to discover, understand and apply the moral, political and economic principles that govern man’s life. An examination of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is a good place to begin.

Note: This post was written for Blog Action Day 08. It is also available on desicritics.org with an independent comment section

Freedom of Speech

Paul McKeever has a post on Freedom and the Proper Regulation of Speech in which he claims that it is the role of government to outlaw speech that denies individuals control over their life, liberty and property. The object of this post is to argue that freedom of speech is indeed absolute.

The right to freedom of speech is a special case of the right to freedom of action – the only right that man has (Look at the first five paragraphs of this post for a detailed argument on why man has the right to freedom of action). It is considered specially by most constitutions because of its importance in maintaining a free society. Given this importance, it is worth considering the concepts underlying the right to free speech.

Speech as a form of action:
Speech is just a form of action. There is nothing about speech that does not apply to other actions. Speech may involve the initiation of physical force. Shouting “Fire!” in a theatre is just as much of an initiation of force as is the breaking of a chair in the same theatre. Both are actions that are not permitted by the owner of the theatre and thus are an initiation of force.

Initiation of force:
Initiation of physical force is the only thing that can curtail man’s freedom of action, and consequently, the only thing that a government must protect. Any “regulation” of speech that does not involve the initiation of force is a violation of  the right to freedom of action.

Responsibility of judgement:
Judging the statements or claims made by others is a necessary part of living in a society. Since no one can think for another person, this judgement and its consequences are the sole responsibility of the individual. A liar is morally responsible for his lies but that does not absolve his victims from the responsibility of judgements. Nor does the fact that man is infallible absolve him of that responsibility. It is a fact of nature that man must think, judge and act even though he is neither omniscient nor omnipotent.

Fraud as distinct from lies:
Fraud is the violation of a contract and thus an initiation of force. Not every statement is made within the context of a contract. In fact the vast majority of conversations do not involve any contract at all.

Role of government:
The proper role of government is limited to protecting the right to freedom of action. Ensuring any other form of justice is not its role. Notably, ensuring that rational men do not suffer because of the wrong judgements of others is not the role of government. Governments are instituted because of the necessity of placing the retalliatory use of force under objective control. Any other function that a government performs necessarily involves the initiation of force and is a perversion of the concept of a government.

Impossibility of outlawing lies:
The initiation of physical force (whether direct or the violation of a contract) is an objective standard. There can be no honest disagreement about whether a particular case involves the initiation of physical force in the presence of witnesses or evidence. Truth is often not an objective standard legally nor does it apply to all statements. A statement such as “X is incompetent to complete project Y on time.” is a matter of individual judgement and a prediction about the future. Truth does not apply to it. (Update: Look at the comments below for more on this) A statement such as “Candidate X believes in sorcery” cannot be judged objectively as there is no way to either prove or disprove it. A legal system that allows laws without objective standards will soon disintegrate into an arbitrary rule of men.

It should be clear from the above points that freedom of speech is an absolute right just like the right to life and the right to property and may not be violated by a proper government. For the sake of completeness however, I will analyze the flaw in McKeever’s argument and consider his examples.

McKeever writes:

Freedom is control. Specifically, it is control over ones own liberty and property; over the pursuit of ones own survival and happiness. The role of government is to ensure that no other person causes you to lose that control; that no other person deprives you of your freedom.

This is the primary flaw in his argument. Freedom is not control. Man is free by nature. He does not control his own life in the same sense. For example, I do not control whether I get to keep my job. If my employer decides to fire me, is he causing me to lose my control? I do not control my immediate emotions. If a stranger abuses me verbally and I get angry, is he causing me to lose my control? In both these cases I retain my freedom but do I lose my control or did I never have it?

Consider his examples:

By selling you a can of highly corrosive acid labeled “Soda Pop”, a person can deprive you of your life.

This is fraud and has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

By framing you for a crime you did not commit, or by bearing false witness against you, you can be deprived of your liberty.

If he frames me for a crime I did not commit and escapes detection completely so that he is not even required to testify, this has nothing to do with freedom of speech. If he bears false witness, he is lying intentionally on oath, which is a violation of an explicit contract with the legal system itself. Again it has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

By selling you an ineffective substance as “a new, 100% effective cure for strep throat”, you can be deprived of your property (i.e., the money you paid for the substance).

Fraud again.

Common to each example is the making of false or arbitrary assertions upon which you or others found decisions concerning your life, liberty, or property.

No. Common to each example is the initiation of force.

The financial crisis and pragmatism

Following the recent financial crisis, there have been three kinds of reactions in general

The socialists are on a rampage denouncing capitalism, free enterprise, greed and the profit motive. It is difficult to miss a note of glee in their screams. It is almost as if the financial crisis and the alleged role of capitalism in causing it helps them get over the failures of socialism. However loud their screams may be, socialism is so completely discredited today that their screams are irrelevant.

A small number of free market advocates are using principled arguments about the working of the free market and the nature of government interference in the economy to interpret the crisis as a failure of the unfree market. However well reasoned and sound their arguments may be, these are not the men who run things today and the immediate impact of their ideas is going to be small.

The most interesting reaction is the one by the pragmatists. They claim that the financial crisis demonstrates the failure of deregulation and that what is needed is better regulation, more in line with the modern realities of today’s markets. They claim that the focus of the debate should be not whether regulation is needed or not, but what sort of regulation is required. They reject any principled arguments as “just theory”. What is interesting about their reaction is that they are the ones who were in charge of the situation the whole time. These are the people who “believe” in free markets and the gold standard and fiscal discipline and claim to be protecting capitalism. By doing what? By chairing the federal reserve. The blatant contradictions do not bother them. After all Bernanke is supposed to have said “There are no atheists in foxholes and no ideologues in financial crises”. Even after a century of failed attempts at regulation, these pragmatists are still searching for better ways of regulating the economy. There is an old saying that goes “When you find you have dug yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging”. But perhaps that too is “just theory” for these pragmatists.

Sadly, more regulation and more crises is what we are going to get, atleast until pragmatism gets discredited. For that to happen however, we need to learn that the way to get out of a crisis is not to renounce principles, but to discover, understand and practise them. Understanding the ideas in these piecies would be a good beginning.

Book Review: The Future of Freedom

Summary

Fareed Zakaria’s book “The Future of Freedom – Illiberal Democracy at Home & Abroad” is a critique of democracy. Zakaria notes that democracy is not the same thing as constitutional liberty. He notes that democracy is a process of selecting governments whereas constitutional liberalism is about selecting government’s goals and refers to the Western tradition of seeking to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion. Drawing examples from history and from around the world, he argues that societies that had liberal institutions, the rule of law and protection of property rights were able to turn into liberal democracies, whereas in societies that did not have such institutions, democracy allowed tyrants, demagogues, dictators and autocrats to cement their power. He argues that the presence of the church as an independent authority from the state helped in preventing concentration of power and allowed liberal institutions to develop. Similarly he argues that the political strength of the landed aristocracy in England was good for liberty as it helped to institutionalize property rights and kept the monarchy weak, while the political strength of the state in France was bad for liberty as it kept society dependent on the state.

Zakaria picks several examples of countries around the world that tried to democratize too early – before developing the necessary social institutions, or before becoming sufficently wealthy – and failed. He also notes that the wealth necessary for a liberal democracy must be earned wealth and not the wealth obtained from taxing a canal or exporting oil.

Regarding the Middle East, Zakaria denies that there is anything specific about Islam that makes its followers more susceptible to authoritarian rule. He also rejects the idea that Islamic terrorism has anything to do with poverty in the Muslim world. He notes that until the 1940s and 1950s, Arab countries seemed to be doing better than several other newly democratizing ones. Instead he blames the total failure of politics in the Arab region for the rise of radical Islam. He writes that with no free press and no political parties, mosques became the place to discuss politics, and the language of opposition became the language of religion. He also notes that the Arab states have allowed free reign to the most extreme clerics to give themselves legitimacy.

Regarding the American political system, Zakaria writes that since the 1960s all of America’s political institutions have democratized. He cites several examples – the selection of candidates by primaries instead of party decisions, the campaign finance laws that made candidates dependent on fundraisers, the expanded number of sub-committees, the changing of rules to allow unlimited number of bills, the open committee meetings and recorded votes and the system of referendums and initiatives. He describes how all these changes have opened up politics to the influence of special interest groups and lobbyists and how democracy has defeated itself with all its institutions being controlled not by a majority but by a variety of highly motivated minorities and special interest groups.

Zakaria goes on to describe the deep changes that democratization has caused even outside politics. He describes how religious figures like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell have toned down religion to make it appeal to the masses. Zakaria writes that in general, members of professions such as law, medicine and accounting were public spirited individuals who operated on high standards and these standards have deteriorated with time. He blames this on the changes made to make these industries more open and competitive such as the decision to allow lawyers to advertise and to allow accountants to charge contingency fees. He writes that the internet frenzy destroyed the separation between the bankers and the researchers in the banking and brokerage industries, opening up conflicts of interest and perverse incentives. He writes that the central shift underlying these changes is the role of the elites. He writes that while elites in the earlier days saw themselves as elites and recognized their responsibilities, today’s elites are a bunch of smart college graduates, who are not conscious of their elite status and thus enjoy power without exercising responsibility. He writes how a school such as Groton which once emphasized character over achievement in its students now focuses only on achievement. He describes how in the movie “Titanic”, the first class passengers are shown to scramble into the small number of lifeboats, whereas in the actual accounts of survivors, the “women and children first” convention was observed almost without exception among the upper classes. He writes “The movie-makers altered the story for good reason: no one would believe it today.”

In his concluding chapter Zakaria writes that the 20th century was marked by the regulation of capitalism and the deregulation of democracy and that both experiments overreached. He writes that whenever a problem arose, the solution was more democracy and more regulations. He writes that the way out of the problems is to delegate democracy to mostly autonomous entities, that are limited by democracy but shielded from political pressures. He writes that the institutions and attitudes that preserved liberal democratic capitalism, built up over centuries are being destroyed in decades and if these trends continue, democracy will face a crisis of legitimacy. He finishes with “Eighty years ago, Woodrow Wilson took America into the twentieth century with a challenge to make the world safe for democracy. As we enter the twenty-first century, our task is to make democracy safe for the world.”

Comments

Zakaria’s critique is very welcome today in an age where democracy is often seen as unquestionably good and historically inevitable. The numerous examples he draws clearly show that it is neither. His description of the state of American politics and the role of democracy in causing it is well presented with concrete examples. He makes a number of good points in this book. And yet, there is something missing in his analysis. There are atleast three distinct phenomena that he refers to as democratization – the way people select their government and the increased amount of power that elected representatives have, the way people make economic decisions and the increased importance these decisions have in shaping the economy, and the shift from “high culture” to “popular culture”. While these phenomena are certainly related, they should not be lumped together under a single concept, especially considering that the purpose of the book is to examine the problems with democracy. It is only the first phenomenon that can accurately be called democratization. Including the other two phenomena under the same concept makes the concept useless for analytical purposes – something that Zakaria himself warns about at the start of the book.

Consider these phenomena in more detail.

Political democracy:
All over the world, government powers and policies are increasingly being determined by popular opinion (or atleast what is seen as popular opinion). Politics is increasingly seen as a struggle for inclusion and representation and not as a means to achieve a proper social organization. The focus is increasingly on ‘who gets to make decisions‘ and not on ‘what decisions are made and whether they are legitimate‘. In the absence or weakening of any limits on political power, government necessarily become corrupt, illiberal and dysfuncional. Special interest groups take over such a system and dominate all policy making. This is a problem inherent in democracy and Zakaria does well to illustrate this.

Economic changes (“consumerism”): 
In the last few decades the bargaining power that “consumers” enjoy has risen steadily. We have come a long way from Henry Ford’s times (“You can have any color as long as it’s black”). This is a result of technological progress and has almost nothing to do with democracy. The only connection it has with (political) democracy is that it makes democracy more dangerous and its ill effects more catastrophic. It is impossible for people today to know about the workings of the global economy in any sort of detail. Which makes it impossible for the government (whether democratic or not) to control or regulate the economy effectively. Zakaria does not discuss these issues much and incorrectly labels this phenomenon as part of a process of democratization.

Rise of popular culture and the decline of values:
In the last few decades, high culture has declined and popular culture has risen. Zakaria uses a quote by Seabrook to describe this process “The old cultural arbiters, whose job was to decide what was ‘good’ in the sense of ‘valuable’ were being replaced by a new type of arbiter, whose skill was to define ‘good’ in terms of ‘popular’…” This decline of high culture goes hand in hand with a general decline in values – people no longer have rigid standards for judging behavior, the word ‘judgemental’ has become a perjorative and a good number of people would assert that there are no objective values. Zakaria does a good job of describing the symptoms of this trend. However he does not even attempt to examine its causes. But without an understanding of these causes, there is no way to reverse the ill-effects of democracy. Consider Zakaria’s proposed solution – the creation of autonomous regulatory bodies such as the US Federal Reserve (which he considers a success and seems to hold in high esteem). Today we see that the Federal Reserve has not been able to prevent a catastrophe and there is strong evidence to suggest that the catastrophe was in fact its own creation.

It is clear from the book that Zakaria is troubled by the general decline of values and that he respects the older value system, atleast in a general sense. He writes

It is easy to mock the Anglo-American elite, with its striking air of high-minded paternalism, born of a cultural sense of superiority. But it also embodied certain values – fair play, decency, liberty, and a Protestant sense of mission – that helped set standards for society…When powerful people acknowledge that there are certain standards for behavior, they limit their own power, however indirectly, and signal to society, “This is what we strive for.”

and a couple of pages earlier describing the decline of the elite status of the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants)

As America became more diverse, open, and inclusive over the twentieth century, the WASP establishment faced a dilemna: it could maintain its power and refuse to allow new entrants into its sanctuaries, or it could open up to the new rising non-WASP members of society…But in the end the WASPs opened the doors to their club… Therein lay the seeds of the establishment’s own destruction… The WASPs made this move partly because they were pushed, but also because they knew it was the right thing to do. Confronted with a choice between their privilege and their values, they chose the latter.

If this description is correct, there is a paradox. The elite chose their values over privilege and yet this choice helped in the decline of their values. This paradox is at the heart of all of man’s problems. It has plagued people throughout the ages. The way out of this paradox is a code of ethics that is geared to man’s life, here on earth, by which the moral is also the practical and which when practised results in both material and spiritual reward – the code of rational egoism.

The complete expression of the constitutional liberal democracy that Zakaria wants to protect is a system of capitalism and it can only be protected with an explicit moral base. Although Zakaria presents a quite insightful analysis of the workings of democracy and its problems, he does not discuss the foundations of politics at all, and without it, his book is incomplete.

Note: This post can also be found on desicritics.org with an independent comments section.

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