They Can Dine With Me

The bleeding heart libertarian starts out with some moral ends in mind. That forces that sort of libertarianism into a politically activist position with regard to reform. I eschew that approach, considering all reform to be destined to failure. Feel free to disagree, but keep in mind that the victims of successful reforms are unobservable.

They are Bastiat’s Unseen. We really like to apply Bastiat to reforms that we consider interventionist, or from our point of view on net harmful, or not fitting with our sympathies. But Bastiat must also be applied to those reforms that do activate our sympathies. We must always check to be sure that it is not a factional sympathy that is aroused, nor a telescopic sympathy, but a general sympathy.

Andrew Cohen thinks a parenting license is a good idea, justified on the basis that it will reduce the amount of other sorts of regulations required, and on the moral premise of Mill’s harm principle. Brilliant on the basis of calculus. Cohen pre-empts two sorts of objections: (1) a presumption against regulation of all sorts, and (2) a belief that we do not have the means of testing parental competence.

To rebut the first objection Cohen suggest that the new license would allow for the repeal of various other regulations, hence, on a Kaldor/Hicks basis, we have less net regulation. But Cohen fails to explain how the special interests that maintain the existing regulations could be appeased into accepting repeal of their rents. Who will pay off the teachers’ lobby and the consumer protection agency? Those entities are political powerhouses.

The second objection Cohen addresses is akin to Hayek’s knowledge problem. How can we know who will be a good parent? Cohen suggests that we only try to weed out those who would obviously be bad parents, perhaps by administering an exam or two. He also implies that the cost of licensing would deter bad potential parents from entering into the endeavor.

Very well, but this would also weed out many good parents, unless one simply defines good as wealthy.

It further ignores one point that strikes incredibly close to home. Any honest and good parent would immediately confess to sometimes being a bad parent. Perhaps not an awful parent, but certainly at times emotionally harmful, occasionally guilty of placing children in harm’s way, and despite all best attempts to the contrary often negligent.

But all this should be swept aside. Cohen’s real fault is assigning to a centralized bureaucracy that which each of has a better probability of deterring individually. How can we really deter bad parenting? Here’s a crazy idea: how about inviting the neighbor family over for dinner?

In isolation, sympathy does not discipline the behavior of weak parents. But when we get together with other families good habits are caught. If we form a strong bond, the threat of being rejected from that group serves as a powerful deterrent against bad behavior. Morality is what we share.

My kids were out playing in the neighborhood one summer’s day when I decided to take the dog for a walk and to see what they were up to. Not finding them in the likely places I did a more extensive search through the neighborhood. One of the neighbor boys had been climbing a sign-post when the sign fell off the top and landed on the lad’s head. My kids had been with him at the time, and were in front of his house when they explained what happened.

Finding no parent at home I intruded the premises (willing to assume full liability for whatever followed) and found the boy with a 6 inch long gash down the middle of the scalp and a lot of blood in a bathroom. We called the mom, and asked if we should take him to the hospital nearby, but she said she was on the way. But all that blood. I got him cleaned up so that the mom did not pass out when she saw him.

Since then (and before) I’ve known the neighborhood kids pretty well. I’m involved. Most of them are boys and I’ve got girls, so there’s a good reason to know each of them personally. And we regularly welcome the other kids (and parents) into our home.

When I worked at an inner-city boarding school I was often responsible for taking kids to the pool at the local YMCA. Sometimes other kids were there, misbehaving. I often crossed a line with a simple “NO” and saw behavior improve. Maybe it’s because I look like a narc, but I would hope someone would do the same for my child.

This isn’t just “it takes a village.” It is more. And it is practiced more than it is the product of theory. It takes concentric realms of responsibility, and a willingness to cross some lines when the situation demands it.

I suggest Mr. Cohen’s have dinner with the neighbors sometime. As usual, if he lacks an opportunity, they can dine with me.

I Won’t Take Your Stuff, Here’s Some of Mine

I know who the Christian Libertarians are. I’ve been to their luncheons. I’ve read their books. They have paid for bits and pieces of my education. And Elizabeth Bruenig is right. There is a logic problem.

Bruenig says most Christian Libertarians would support these two Propositions:

  1. Property rights are pre-political.
  2. It is the role of the state to recognize and protect rights.

But how can property exist pre-politically apart from mechanisms of allocating property that can only exist within the context of political institutions?

This set of Christian Libertarians, whom Bruenig identifies as being among the Rothbard, Hoppe, and Von Mises league (a bit unfairly, I’d say, but not so far as the public conscience is concerned), are certainly more likely to say “I should suffer no interference with my property, either by state or individual” than to say “They can live with me.”

Bruenig’s main line of attack is that Christian Libertarians are not consistent with Christian tradition, and as a Christian Ethicist she is much more familiar with that than I am.

That tradition does say, “They can live with me.”

Bruenig’s argument then says that Christian Libertarians are not really Christian. Agreed.

Complement her argument with this: Christian Libertarians desire a minimalist state that enforces property, but provide no redress for those who have suffered loss of property prior to a given particular institutional iteration. That is, they conveniently ignore the transitional gains trap, and the need to address historical injustices.

That’s a problem with Libertarianism, writ large.

The solution is to be really Libertarian and really Christian.

That is, advocate rules that protect property generally, but then unilaterally work to correct injustice. I won’t take your property, but you can have mine. That’s a better Christian Libertarianism.

It starts from the anarchist premise that the system itself is irredeemable. It also assumes that exchange is pre-political. The best folks can do is catallaxy. But if anyone were to want to do better they have to resist the urge to make a general rule out of it. Instead, unilateral sacrificial altruism sees itself as always subverting whatever system it happens to find itself within, illuminating the illegitimacy of that system, and providing the catalyst for peace.

They Are But Men Like Us

Sam reminds us that lies and violence are the system, and suggests that the worst get on top.

I had the pleasure of dining with Richard Wagner, Gerald O’Driscoll, and Dan Hammond two summers ago at the illustrious, but now-on-hiatus Adam Smith Summer Institute that David Levy and Sandra Peart organize at the University of Richmond. The other gentlemen were gracious enough to not split the check evenly amongst us that evening.

In conversation I discussed my work on William Wilburforce for abolition in Great Britain. My model argues that reform came at a great cost, and that the same results could have been achieved if the abolitionists had directed their resources toward purchasing manumission directly, in order to generate sympathy between slaveowner and slave. My general premise is that reform that does not redeem the oppressor in situations of systematic injustice will inevitably give rise to new injustices.

I was leaning hard on Wilburforce, suggesting that ambitions in Parliament drove his efforts toward abolition. Creation of a dedicated set of Baptists (evangelicals) makes it easier to identify Bootleggers from whom to collect tidy rents.

But O’Driscoll urged me to give Wilberforce the benefit of the doubt, in order to make my case more robust. T’was not the ambition nor the latent self-interest that drove Wilberforce’s efforts toward a second-best solution. Rather, the nature of the beast that is representative democracy is the root source of the emergence of special interest groups. Evangelicals became an internally cycling loose coalition that effectively captured the median voter for most of the 19th and 20th centuries in Great Britain and the United States.

The lesson is that we can assume the very best of intentions by the agents within our models of government, but where there is occasion for faction, it will emerge, with negative consequences for the whole.

Justice Ain’t Fairness & Some Redneck Economics

Let’s start here:

I want justice to mean Pareto-only not Kaldor/Hicks. That obviously does not work, because there are all kinds of Transitional Gains Traps out there. I usually go to the extreme of slavery. If you want to end slavery, then pay to free the slave. I’m focused on the idea of doing justice, as an individual, because I’m extremely skeptical about any political process’s ability to effect reforms that don’t create new injustices.


But I’m cool with Creative Destruction.

There lies an inconsistency.

Creative Destruction allows for new ideas to displace market incumbents without compensation for capitalized assets. That is, it is Kaldor/Hicks.

So I invent a new idea: “fairness.” (I probably picked this up from David Levy’s classes in Constitutional Political Economy and History of Economic Thought at GMU. That said, any errors or instances of “redneck economics” are my own.)

I define fairness as “that which will pass muster at the fair.” How convenient. How bourgeoisie. The fair, or the marketplace, can only survive and expand if new ideas are permitted to displace old ideas.

When one enters the fair one has to set one’s Pareto intuition about justice aside, and then pick up Kaldor/Hicks Creative Destruction fairness. There are different ethics for different settings.

Rawls tried to blend fairness and justice and just muddled both. The use of compensation to achieve abolition in Great Britain is hailed as a triumph of fairness applied to a circumstance of injustice. (But large chunks of the compensation went to the MP’s that approved it.) Behind a veil of ignorance I think most of us would approve different rules for the two settings.

Utilitarians and armchair philosopher-economists like to apply fairness as justice. My main concern with fairness as justice is that it perpetuates cycles of injustices. Perhaps we don’t see the cycle spinning so much because the Kaldor/Hicks losers from this approach don’t survive.

How would I have achieved abolition? I suggest that anyone who sympathized with a slave could pay out of his own pocket to free a slave. Many did this. Many slave-owners who came to sympathize with their slaves gave them writs of manumission. Often the state prohibited this, introducing a systematic collusive injustice.

But this creates a moral hazard. Buy a slave from a slave owner, and he will just buy another slave. Probably. Unless the slave-owner, who shares some sympathy with the manumitter, catches the sympathy for the slave from the manumitter. Is sympathy contagious? Can we close social distances through acts of sacrificial altruism? What happens in immigration debates when I self-righteously tout “They can live with me!”?

Exchange as Conversation

Sam, John, and Adam have been discussing the distinction between exchange and transaction. I say the difference has to do with conversation.

Enter either a grocery store or a farmer’s market. Which of these more closely resembles the Walrasian auction-house? In which context do we observe what Veblen called, “lightning fast calculators of pleasure and pain?”

Grocery shopping, I contend, is transactional. In many grocery stores the shopper can select, check, bag, and pay for the groceries without ever having to speak to another person. Where is the catallaxy in that? You do not make friends with your celery and dog food. Grocery shopping is about cost primarily, because your choices have already been laid out for you. We may trade off a store with a better selection for one with lower prices, but in that context we have already made our choice in choosing where to shop, and all that is left is cost. The transactional context contains risk that can be managed, but is devoid of uncertainty.

A transaction does not require humans, nor necessarily the generation of surpluses. The result of grocery stores is competition that results in the very smallest producer surplus, at a price already anticipated by the shopper who, when considering the opportunity costs of shopping elsewhere, experiences very little surplus. The transaction most closely resembles the Aristotelian transfer of goods of equal value. Grocery shopping is a chore, not an outing.

The farmer’s market is about exchange. In exchange there is possibility of alteration of preferences. You go to the farmer’s market for the experience, and fresh tomatoes. But you never know what else might show up at the farmer’s market. It is fraught with uncertainty. It is also steeped in conversation. The very context suggests that one approaches it wanting to have her preferences shaped by the experience. Sellers get intimately involved in each sale, talking with every customer and potential customer. Advice is given and recipes are shared.

At the farmer’s market, the conversation required puts constrains on our behavior within an exchange. Levy and Peart, in On “Strongly Fortified Minds”: Discussion, Self Restraint, and Cooperation (forthcoming) look into J.S. Mill and report that “the exchange of words, discussion, constitutes the means by which we come to moderate our selfish impulses and, increasingly, to cooperate.” We don’t want to talk about the prohibited paraphernalia we are buying, we’d rather get that anonymously, online if possible. We become moral persons, to Smith at least, through the exchange of approbation. Without that discussion, there really is no trade, or exchange.

No conversation was ever fondly described as a transaction, but an exchange of words is common. An exchange of ideas is better.

Insomuch as they make it possible to concentrate our humanity on more important relationships, transactions are a good replacement for exchanges. I’d rather buy my staple goods at a grocery store and save time to have more exchanges of ideas with friends.

I’m not advocating that we all shop at the farmer’s market from now on. But it is a good idea to take the kids to one once in a while for a good lesson in exchange, mystery, friendship, and morality.