Who Do I Say That I Am?

I don’t agree with Adam that individual responsibility emerged within a tradition, or only ever existed within a space framed by groups. Individual responsibility may be a relic of the state of nature, if one ever existed.

The Durkheim and Foucault schools seem to rightly identify that the individual is shaped by structures and institutions, wherever the individual does not practice volition. But the individual retains volition over the shaping of self in every respect. The individual can only exercise that volition selectively. And the individual should be careful about rejecting the formative structures without extensive deliberation, per Hayek.

The teleological consequence that Durkheim and Foucault aim at (and here I must beg the reader to contradict me if they understand better, because my familiarity with these writers is strictly third-hand) is that certain structures shape the individual badly, in particular “capitalism,” which I put into scare quotes because theirs is a stylized capitalism, but so is mine.

Adam’s thesis fizzled in the examples. But what I understand is that he would warn libertarians not to presume volitional action on the part of those agents that seldom act volitionally. I think a more robust model would first compare the marginal benefit to marginal cost to the individual of thinking volitionally about a particular habit.

How much instruction in virtue is needed? Most pedagogies of virtue guide the individual through a program of deliberation over habits. But we are short on instruction in virtue.

Perhaps the best lesson to learn about virtues is concentrated in the problem of faction, as rightly identified by Adam Smith and Richard Whately. Where deliberation over a habit is discouraged, or completely blocked, we should suspect that the habit is supportive of faction, rather than sympathy. Mill thus placed a great emphasis on liberty of conversation. Precisely those habits that structures discourage individuals from deliberating on are those habits that are most suspect of forming vice in the individual to the benefit of some in-group sympathy.

Finally, virtue is best exemplified and then caught, rather than taught. But who will take the initiative to demonstrate? Particularly when the students might be few, and might not absorb the lesson apart from repeated demonstrations? Those who subjectively value the increase in virtue should expect to have to shoulder that burden personally. The only true route to reform, whether of society or the individual, is through personal expense.


Adam alerted me to Vulgar Morality’s piece “Freedom and Community” last night.

My thoughts:

The Vulgar Moralist points out the theory of clubs, which is really just an extension of contractarian political philosophy. In order to get into a club I have to give up some liberties. I must pay dues, or demonstrate some credible commitment to the group. Perhaps I have to go through some rite of passage. Perhaps I have to be baptized, or get circumcised, or post a bond.

But community that exists for positive purposes must first protect itself against the collectivist’s problem of free riders, and the methodological individualist’s problem of collective decision making. Those problems are symmetric. Methodological individualism is mathematically tractable, so economists prefer that approach.

Collectivism works particularly well at destroying things, as VM points out through various examples. Apart from the formation of a club, groups are better at breaking than building.

James C. Scott illustrates this well in “Two Cheers For Anarchism.” Scott shows that wildcat strikes and unorganized protests are the most threatening to incumbent powers. Organized movements have particular decision makers whose self interest can be bought. Politics is exchange. A collectivist movement with no decision makers is not doing politics. It is destroying the existing order.

The Freiburg Circle in Germany during WWII, out of which the Ordoliberals emerged, consisted of individuals who had made a credible commitment. If discovered, each of them faced certain punishment, possibly death. They were working to circumvent an absolute surrender that would cripple Germany sufficiently to motivate a WWIII in the next generation. They were trying to build a shadow government to replace the Naziis when the time came. They succeeded in part.

That positive collective was sustained by an externally enforced credible commitment. One could say that the early Christians, who faced persecution at the hands of the state, also “enjoyed” that sort of external enforcement. But the identities of those committed were well known, or easy to monitor. Circumcision is easily detected. Baptism was designed as a public act.

The problem with collectivist movements that can only destroy is that they are anonymous. There is a desire for a changed world that begins by looking outward with blame. One absolves oneself by virtue of becoming part of such a commitment – free collective. The problem most certainly, says the collectivist, is the system.

So long as the movement remains unorganized, perhaps it can achieve some welfare – enhancing results, at least in the Kaldor / Hicks sense. Destructive movements can produce the equivalent of omnibus repeals of rent -seeker friendly programs, overcoming transitional gains traps. But unless those programs all bequeath the rents on the same concentrated set of interests, a mass destructive movement will be difficult to sustain. Witness the inability of the occupy movement to come to real agreement about positive action.

An organized movement will almost certainly compromise its most cherished ideologies. Witness political parties. The politics of exchange is relatively peaceful and constructive, compared to the mob. But it cannot bring itself to omnibus repeals. It privileges the status quo.

Gordon Tullock showed us that most rebellions result in the same middle management of the state, under a new executive. VM corroborates with the example of the Egyptian rebellion. The institutions that made America relatively successful were in place long before 1776, or 1789. Those institutions largely survived the American Revolution, with many of the same individuals in the decision-maker’s positions.

I’m an utter pessimist with respect to reform. I don’t like the destructive results of the riot. I’m not a fan of omnibus repeal. Many of those who receive benefits of existing programs are fully capitalized into those programs, and I don’t like the idea of not compensating them.

So I fall back into a position of sacrificial altruism as the only legitimate route for reform. If a group wants to reform a program, let them compensate the capitalized interests. Morality, misapplied, takes the mob’s attitude. Burn it with fire. It is outward facing with its blame and absolved of all responsibility. Anonymity is unaccountable. It cannot peacefully overcome the status quo, so it moves outside the exchange of politics, and demands something for nothing.

Morality, correctly applied, subverts politics. It uses exchange to take responsibility, even where it bears no guilt, and pays from its own resources, honestly earned, to effect reform. It is like the good Samaritan. It is like the Muslims protecting Christians from violence during the rebellions. It is like the volunteer visiting the elementary school to read with the kids who are behind.

It is quaint. It is mundane. It is constructive. It is what sustains us.

Raving Bully Model of Property

Property is theft, some say. And this could be true. Suppose there were an idyllic community sharing all things in common, peacefully. In a model akin to Olson’s roving bandit, a raving bully


within the community begins appropriating things unto himself, and property is born, through theft. Most often this is the story told about enclosure laws. Whoever had the ability to manipulate the institutions of law and power could capture rents. Once in place, a raving bully would be hard to displace, thanks to transitional gains traps.

All property is understood to have emerged from this process.

But suppose property emerged not from appropriation, but through allocation. Suppose a community has only one bow-and-arrow (or whatever specialized asset) among them. The community then allocates that bow-and-arrow to the person most talented in its use.


The archer no longer is understood to have taken the property unto herself, rather, she is understood to have been allocated the tools of her trade for the benefit of the community. She is a steward of the assets, not a tyrant or a miser. Should the archer abuse the use of the bow-and-arrow they would be taken from her and given to someone else. Should someone more talented in the use of the tool be discovered, then the tools would be re-allocated to that individual.

Now suppose that the comparative advantages of each individual in the community were discovered and that each individual were allocated the capital best suited to them to steward for the sake of the community. Each person would be a steward over some set of assets, and would be accountable to the whole community for the appropriate use of those assets. Suppose also that one individual were discovered to have an uncanny ability to correctly identify the comparative advantage of all other individuals. To this wise and (let us assume) benevolent one is allocated the responsibility of allocating all other community assets. The community prospers through the wisdom of the Allocator, who appoints stewardship over assets.

Students of economics will recognize Hayek’s Use of Knowledge in Society within this parable. It turns out that the invisible-hand mechanism of the market is the benevolent and wise Allocator. Property is only held, in the long run, by the person who stewards it best, that is, who operates as the least-cost producer of goods desired by others because the property holder has a comparative advantage in employing that asset.

Of course there are all sorts of qualifiers that involve the theory of the firm and whatnot, and economics has been working out these details off and on for quite some time now, though not much was done between the early political economists and the 1950s when Alchian, Buchanan, Coase, and Demsetz (ABCD, with a nod to Epstein and Fama, please feel free to add to the list, new Twitter game) began to work out the economics of property rights.

Bruenig argues that all income could be reallocated according to any from among an infinite set of possible institutionally based distributions, without unjustly taking from some a claim to future income. He is theoretically correct in this I believe. But he has started from the wrong premise, that property is theft, and that the current distribution of property is therefore the consequence of injustice. I’m trying to be charitable, but Bruenig it seems may be perilously close to assuming himself the wisdom and benevolence of the Allocator.

Step back, surely the present allocation of property does reflect some injustices. Agreed. There are a great many appropriators, raving bullies, that fleece the community and enjoy luxury at the cost of others’ poverty. Many of those bullies are in Congress, or in Town Hall, or on the School Board, or on the local HOA, I would argue. Why would Bruenig entrust these institutions with the responsibility of enacting his preferred policies?

I think he is too romantic about those institutions. I think he sees top-down as an efficient approach to changing the world for the good. I think he means quite well.

But I think there is a pattern of thought that at once assumes that property is the consequence of top-down appropriation by a raving bully and that finds the solution to problems through top-down channels. It is the worldview that takes anarchic cooperation as its starting point, that then can understand the invisible-hand mechanism’s function in allocating resources efficiently (and peacefully!), that also is very suspicious of the top-down approach.

It is the combination of the Virginia School’s robust political economy that combines Hayek’s insights of the Knowledge Problem, The Coasian insights about property, the Public Choice understanding of politics and rent seeking, and now also the Bloomington Workshop’s insights about concentric orders, all seen from the perspective of a positive research program in anarchy that leads me to most of my ethical conclusions. That and a hefty dose of pacifism, with a shot of grace.

Bruenig is wrong about property. Workers are not atomistically interchangeable. We have specific talents. The only way to get rich, apart from political abuse, is by making other people better off. The right way to deal with injustices is not by overturning the whole system. Rather, the right approach is to work under the system, to subvert it, to be an agent of grace and mercy. Be the exogenous shock you want to see in the world. Stop blaming other people. Yeah, they are wicked, but so am I, if I’m honest with myself.

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!”?