A Taxonomy of Power

leviathanI have lately found the question of power asserting itself to me with increasingly insistence. This is unfortunate, as I don’t feel any special qualification to answer it.

As a one-time (and still in the eyes of many) libertarian, my understanding of power went from sharply defined (or so I thought) to rather muddled. I read Foucault recently, thinking I might find one of the canonical takes on power of our times, but I was disappointed. As the ignoramus in that particular hermeneutic encounter, it was no doubt more my fault than his. Either way, I didn’t feel like I took too terribly much away that I hadn’t already encountered in conversations beforehand.

As usual, I find I cannot think properly without writing. Since wisdom is to be found in making distinctions, I’ll put together a taxonomy of power as I currently understand it.

The radical incompleteness of human understanding gives all arguments a speculative quality to them, no matter the confidence or competence of the author. In this case, I’ve neither confidence nor competence, so my taxonomy is very speculative indeed. I offer it as part of my own process of thinking this question through, but also in the hope that more knowledgeable people than I will find it, read it, and critique it.

Continue reading “A Taxonomy of Power”


A Calculus for Human Existence

I think we’ve got a basic mathematics for existence; probably also an algebra. I would imagine that the last few centuries have developed a healthy trigonometry for existence; wherefore I posit that most of the debate and paper writing today is working out the finer points of bodies in stasis. Bodies in state, if you will: how a society functions within a state, how individuals function within institutions, usw. Here’s angle x, here’s cosine a, solve for marriage.

Doesn’t it just want to make you give up, though? No one else is depressed by all the charts and misapplied time series, as though human and societal processes are linear on an x/y graph? Oh, I suppose there’s logarithms ‘n such: they curve infinitely.

A euvoluntary exchange, however, with the express goals of arete and eudaimonia, requires exchange. When it comes to growth and progress, euvoluntary puts the change in exchange (heh: nice one, Dave, but don’t quit any of your day jobs).

We are bodies in motion, with elements of life we consider stasis going out of its way to demonstrate the same. Even if there were such a thing as stasis, it would be The Void, which speaks loudly, in fact, that all the charting and graphing is doomed to revolutionary forces, if not the sun blinking out.

I wonder: is storytelling the calculus for human existence? I don’t think so, not unless storytelling can somehow be described as a mathematical application seeking to predict where bodies in motion might be, given certain infinitesimals, and where they are right now, seeing as how we are never right here right now, except in one or two certain cases, battle being the one.

Not Just For the Jock

in impassioned defense of sports talk radio

When Terry Pegula bought the Buffalo Bills NFL football franchise, grown men called the local sports talk radio station, weeping. My first inclination, not being native to Buffalo, was to mock and deride, but the parade of phone calls yielded one emotion-choked, sob-filled laudation to the Pegula family after another. It was striking.

Terry Pegula was vetted by the NFL and found worthy to own a franchise. His billions were earned in the nefarious practice of fracking. I think his rags-to-riches story runs along the lines that he started twenty years ago with a used garden hose, a shovel, and a broken bicycle pump, and now he says, “I’m keeping ticket prices as low as allowable. If I need more money, I’ll drill another well.” Beautiful. Fracking, by the way, is illegal in New York. People protest it and everything. The casual observer of New York state politics agrees with the hardened cynic that, as soon as the pols can figure out an equitable way to distribute the fracking money amongst themselves, fracking will become safe, legal, and rare.

The Erie County Executive is an infrequent guest on the afternoon show, not as a fanboy politician trying to score easy votes with a very special guest appearance doing homage to the local sports team, but as a representative answering the beck and call of sports talk radio show hosts who are demanding answers in behalf of their listeners, his constituency, concerning the economic impact of necessary infrastructure changes to accommodate the inevitable downtown temple stadium. The name Robert Moses is occasionally mentioned. The entire region erupts into boos and hisses, which summons our only United States Senator, who is a Munchkin, to pad into the region to eat chicken wings and to talk about the state’s only professional football franchise and the blue-collar work ethic, not knowing, apparently, that the blue-collar work ethic caused Bethlehem Steel to sail over the western horizon of Lake Erie about forty years ago. Times have changed. Sports talk radio has changed.

No longer is sports talk radio limited to endless griping about player performance by wannabe jock hosts named Bulldog. I say that ironically: our number one radio show is “Mike Schopp and The Bulldog;” Mike is the intellectually curious ex-sort-of-jock (I think he played tennis), while The Bulldog is the sensitive cultural observer whose twitter feed @bulldogwgr is far more likely to include a paean to a favorite alt-country rock band than it is to include a mention of a sporting event. His moniker was given to him, I think, because he is a gigantic, scary-looking biker dude. Mike is excruciatingly deliberate in his attention to detail, to the delight of listeners, and to the fury of wannabe jock callers; he is a disciplined arguer, a student of forensic debate, listening carefully to his interlocutor before agreeing or disagreeing based on evidence. I say, no longer is sports talk radio limited to endless griping about player performance by wannabe jock hosts and wannabe jock callers; instead, it has become all-inclusive, a kind-of crucible for many things theoretical, e.g., philosophical, economical, political, cultural, et. al., even familial–many things theoretical put into practice.

For example, the accusation that the football team from Boston cheated by deflating its footballs to give them some sort of advantage sparked much discussion on sports talk radio about authority and consequence: how it should be meted out and who should direct it. Also discussed were issues of human character, that is, how it comes to pass that honorable men cheat, which leads back to the question of authority (an important question in a free society), revealing a wisdom that honorable men cheat as much as they can, behaving virtuously only as much as they have to. What is, finally, the enforcing authority in this social microcosm known as athletics? It is, finally, money. The commissioner’s job is to submit a product to the market that makes his billionaire employers more billions. This is true for amateur athletics and professional athletics. How, then, shall fans affect for good the teams and players they love?

Have you ever wondered how a union contract with a multi-national corporation works? How the negotiations actually proceed, legally? How they play out, publicly? What is the purpose of this leaked information? And who leaked it? Cui bono, O Representative, cui bono? We pore over every detail for days, weeks, months, as long as it takes to get the contract made.

Thus sports talk radio.

It is a vibrant salon, taking all comers, so long as you can make a reasoned argument for the passion you feel for your position. Pluralism, including old-school fans, casual fans, metrics fans (oh, the nerds!), and even trolls, expands the market, which fulfills the sports talk radio show host’s vocation. Pluralism has made talking about sports better, more informative, and more interesting. Sports talk radio has learned that substantial argumentation which includes the many facets of life which sports fandom touches is a euvoluntary exchange, much more pleasurable than the old model, which was a close communion of frustrated fans screaming at each other about archaic statistics and about the greatest team/player/coach ever. A sports talk radio show host cannot experience market growth if he condescends in this way to his audience, except when empathy for his general audience demands that he do so to an audience in specific.

Really, empathy for the audience drives sports talk radio.



Is character a public good?

Character is certainly a private good. A lady, gentleman, or other of good character is a blessing to the home; a stalwart friend in times of need; a charitable neighbor upon whom to lean when the waves crash and the wind slashes. Persons of good character are felicitous, virtuous, splendid folk, a boon to the community.

But unless extremely unlikely events collude to test the very fabric of the nation, it is challenging to admit of circumstances in which distant people can reap the benefits of character from afar. My eudaimonia is greater for the character of my neighbors, but hardly budges at all for the character of the citizens of Cincinnati.

To a point anyway. Truly bad character that spills into wide-reaching vice, into broadly-distributed criminal enterprises saps and impurifies my precious peaceful existence, corrodes the tranquility of my domicile. At a minimum level, to an obvious (if not entirely easy to define) point, there is a public interest in sowing and tending the public garden from which character blossoms.

There is a public element to primary education. But it is likely that this element is grossly oversold. Good manners, good citizenship can be learned on the playground, and the case for the public funding (to say nothing of the public provision) of education weakens the closer the student gets to the conditions needed to achieve the self-sufficient pursuit of eudaimonia.

If you are a parent, consider carefully how you help your children achieve greatness of character.

Action, Transaction, and Exchange

Twitterward, Double-D asks “Can you recommend, SVP, a primer on “transaction” for such as I? And please pronounce it rhymes with trimmer. Thx.” & clarifies “not costs: the concept, definitions, et. al. ‘What is ‘transaction’?'” I assume SVP stands for s’il vous plaît, and not for senior vice president. I won’t stake my reputation on it though.

Let’s work backwards. As many of you know, I blog extensively at Euvoluntary Exchange. As such, I spend more than my fair share of time mulling the nature of exchange, including questions of consent and coercion. Most of what Munger, Horn, and I discuss at EE deals with exchange proper: the voluntary meeting of the minds that results in two parties transferring trade objects to their highest valued use. We’ve more or less settled (to my satisfaction, anyway) on something of a spectrum, with fully just euvoluntary exchange at one end and all-out coercion at the other end.

Reminder, the 6 conditions of EE are:
(1) conventional ownership
(2) conventional capacity to buy/sell
(3) absence of regret
(4) no uncompensated externalities
(5) neither party coerced by human agency
(6) neither party coerced by circumstance; the disparity in BATNAs is not “too large”

Sure, every now and again, we run across questions that don’t exactly fit into the bilateral exchange space (eg, Jeff asked me once if autocannibalism is euvoluntary. My answer is a hearty “it depends”), but I usually dodge questions like this by invoking the convenient fiction of the ersatz self: “you” can trade with “other you”, a mental fiction distant in time or space. This is usually good enough to get at the main moral intuitions, but it’s ontologically unsatisfying, at least to me.

Luckily, that’s not the question Double-D asked. Instead, I’d like to see how this question of the nature of transaction overlaps and maybe slops over the exchange spectrum.

So here’s what sort of makes sense to me. An “exchange” is de minimis voluntary: both parties to an exchange expect to be made better off, even if one or more EE condition is violated (except #5—coercion is not voluntary… unless it is, in which case, it may only look like coercion to third parties). So a robbery is not an exchange. But it is a transaction. A violent, unwanted transaction to be sure, but a transaction nonetheless. To me, the chief characteristic of a transaction is that it involves (at least) two people. Exchanges are therefore transactions, but not all transactions are exchanges. When your boss gives you a project, that’s a transaction, but not an exchange. When you withdraw deposits at the bank, that’s a transaction; when you agree to the terms of a loan at the same bank, that’s an exchange. Exchange (particularly euvoluntary exchange) is felicitous. Transactions needn’t be.

And then there’s action. Action subsumes the other two, but also includes “transactions” where one party is nature. Carting field stones all by your lonesome to build a fence for your sheep is action. Picking your nose is action. Writing blog posts no one will read is action.

I encourage you, O dearest reader, to consider justice to be an additional salient dimension here. There is nothing that inheres to any of these three a particular notion of justice. There are just, unjust, and injust actions, transactions, and exchanges (though, admittedly, Munger crafted the euvoluntary exchange construction specifically that it’d conform to basic justice norms). This matryoshka is intended in no way a shortcut around the very serious business of #phronesis.

Whence Irrationality?

Spivonomist acknowledges our ship is overcome by a fogbank, declaring, “I irrationally want people to act well of their own accord, to work towards developing excellence in themselves and within their communities without having to be bribed.” We battle-weary sailors are grateful to find our feet upon terra firma, and as soon as our sea-legs can carry us to the saloon, we commence the battle to forget our misery.

One of our crew stumbles to his next stop, and she snares him, saying, “Hello, sailor, I will love you a long time.” She is appealing to his strength, namely that a man who has been, until moments ago, interminably upon the swells, and is now soused, should need a long time for love, that is, if he can, indeed, love. They agree upon a contract for the archetypical euvoluntary exchange, and he goes into her home, emerging after ten minutes of ecstasy, now short a few drachmas and the last few fragments of his soul.

Virtue Ethics is seductive because it appeals to our strength. We sailors heady for the fray damn the torpedoes and the raging seas for a time, but soon we find ourselves under the command of a mysterious captain who is searching, ever searching, ever pursuing eudaimonia, when, all along, she is found ashore, near the saloon. If, indeed, we can love, we cannot love for a long time because we have participated in evil against our best desires, which torments us to exhaustion. A sailor can then acquire eudaimonia for a price, but makarismos is bestowed upon the weak. Not upon the evil-doers, to be sure, but to those whose battle against the seas has overcome them to the extent that they cannot even mutiny against the evil they so much despise. A wise man waits quietly for the wheel of justice to do its grinding.

The logic works, doesn’t it? Even if it’s irrational: with the bestowal of makarismos we are strengthened to raise up our heads, renewed to pursue eudaimonia into the darkest seas and in the darkness of the seashore.

We Should, Obv.

Adam asks, “Is a “no” from a private property owner truly different in kind than a “no” from a government official? Why?”

The facile answer is that a private property owner cannot deprive you of life or liberty except perhaps by dint of prior circumstances. Those of you who follow me at Euvoluntary Exchange will recognize the distinction between coercion by force and coercion by circumstance. The government official who says “no” is directly responsible for any bad outcome. The shopkeeper isn’t. 

But that’s facile, since as Bruenig via Gurri correctly notes, it hardly matters to the customer.

The question, at least to me, is one of comparative institutional analysis. Under which system is our hypothetical customer more likely to starve or be beaten: one in which the state retains all veto power, or one in which buyers and sellers are jointly accountable to each other?

The virtue ethicist in me suspects that eudaimonia is at best an unlikely accident that just barely might occur in a totalitarian regime. More likely, if the state is the only entity that is able to say “no”, oppression by scarcely-accountable political elites governing in far mode conforms to both theoretical political economy and the empirical judgement of history. Private dignity isn’t a free lunch, but it is a prerequisite for human flourishing.

But I thank you for the softball question nonetheless, Adam. It’s nice to be fondled with kid gloves once in a while.