Tuesday, July 29, 2014

War is never good for prosperity

The following was intended to be a letter to the New York Times, but I came across the article in question too late to send my response to them.
I am typically a fan of Tyler Cowen’s work, so I was disappointed to read his piece, "The Lack of Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth." (June 13, 2014) 
In an era without the existential threat of total war, it’s true that powerful economic interests can take precedence over “the national interest” driving government decision making. The politically connected are invested in the economic status quo that produced their success and privileged status. The policies that they favour will be geared toward slowing changes that could endanger their relative positions if they cannot stop them completely. Rapid economic growth has never happened without changing that status quo.

War is not the only – and should not be anyone’s – preferred strategy for countering the powerful economic interests that push policies that slow growth. We need not choose between peace and prosperity, but we must choose between prosperity and planned predictability.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ontario, it's OK to not vote.

OK, enthusiastic voting advocates, here's the deal:

Your "right to complain" and participate as part of civil society is most certainly not handed out as a prize for voting. There are more meaningful ways that you can contribute to the world than by sticking a piece of paper in a cardboard box once every few years.

If you want to vote, vote well. If you don't think you can vote well with the time you have available today, it's ok! There are a lot of ways that you can make the world a better place. Today isn't your only chance.

How to vote well:
If you're going to vote, you should do it responsibly. Reading the platforms written by the advertisers for each party is not informing yourself. You should, at a minimum, have read some basic economics. Understood the trade-offs that each policy stand that you take are likely to have, and decided that those trade-offs *are worth it* - not that they don't matter or don't exist. You should try to identify your own cognitive biases and do your best to overcome them before making a decision. You need to be comfortable with the idea that any policy that you're approving for your own benefit can be used by someone you disagree with in the future.

The idea that everybody ought to vote comes from the idea that so long as enough of us vote, we cancel out each others' mistakes and come up with the best solution. But if voters don't overcome their policy misconceptions, the more people vote, the more wrong the outcome will be.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Read for ideas, not identity.

Attending a conference by The Libertia Society, "Write-Hers for Liberty," last weekend got me thinking about why it's good to read more female authors. I don't think it's because they're women. Nothing about women, or the way they think or experience the world, is fundamentally different. Their work should be judged on its merits, not by its source.

Someone looking for a balanced understanding may feel they ought to read something written from "a woman's perspective" because women are more likely to have had certain experiences. But experiential knowledge is important because of the experience, not because the person writing about it falls into the right category.

The reason to seek out women in the liberal tradition is that they are poorly represented in the popular canon in spite of having made valuable contributions. Those who haven't read Rose Wilder Lane's Credo miss the insights of an intellectual journey from communism to liberalism. Failing to read Voltairine de Cleyre's Anarchism means missing a passionate, rather than analytical, defense of radical individualism. And those who don't read passages like this one from Isabel Paterson's The Golden Vanity might neglect the importance of choosing one's own way in life as a search for truth and meaning. The Libertia Society is helping to correct one deficiency in the material that liberals read, not basing its mission on a belief about the value of female authors as female authors.

People interested in ideas should resist the urge to read someone because they are a woman or a man, because they are trans, gay, bisexual, monogamous, polyamorous, Jewish, Buddhist, black, white, Burmese, or anything else. To do so comes uncomfortably close to not reading them because they fall into any particular category.

Read about things you don't understand until you do. Find good work. Think about it. Share and support it. Don't worry about where it comes from.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Inclusive liberty or no liberty at all

Inclusive liberal democratic societies face a challenge: What happens if the people we allow to participate don't want to be free? Do loose immigration policies and multiculturalism endanger freedom?

The concern of the day (though historically I doubt it's exceptional) is about Muslims. The argument goes like this: "Muslims have a higher birth rate than other groups in Western countries, and many of them want something like Sharia law and an Islamic state. Islam lacks an appreciation for the civic virtues that support liberal democracies in primarily Judeo-Christian countries. If we admit Muslims freely and allow them to vote, they will become too powerful and we will end up less free - or not free at all."

I don't believe any part of that is true, but let's suppose that all of it was. What's a liberal democracy to do?

I argued earlier that the way to promote the virtues that support a free society is to practice (and test and defend) them, and that practicing them is done by standing up for one another. If it is to be meaningful and robust, liberalism must be a fundamentally cooperative and inclusive exercise.

If we make concessions that allow infringements on the liberties of others, however targeted they may be, we erode support for the values we claim we're trying to save. If our liberal institutions are in danger, we are making them more vulnerable by allowing targeted concessions.

If the laws and values of a liberal society are not robust to the challenges presented by a specific group, they are not robust at all. Those who are willing to make exceptions because of one perceived threat open the door to others. They should not be surprised if they are blindsided - perhaps by those they empowered to make their exceptions.

There is no quick and easy solution. Liberty is a collaborative exercise, not a free-for-all. If we want to preserve the foundations of a liberal society, we must enforce them. The best, maybe the only, way to do that is to insist they are upheld consistently and for everyone.

What are the virtues of a free society?

What role does virtue play in establishing or maintaining a liberal polity? What virtues play that role? How can we best foster those virtues?

Ask a group of economists and a group of philosophers the first question and you may see them split down the middle: Economists tell you that you need to get the incentives right, while philosophers insist that it's all about virtue. Incentives are definitely important - but what do we do when the rules, and the incentives to fix them, are wrong? That's where virtue, or something like it, comes in.

I'm convinced the relevant virtues must include humility (we don't know all the answers to complex problems or what's best for others), respect (because we don't know what's best), patience (fostering prudence), vigilance for and tenacity in the face of adversity, and creativity (problem solving). They are built through habit, but must be justified by results and through discussion.

As liberals, nothing should upset us more than when the state forces us to act worse than we are. When laws prohibit us from feeding the homeless, or paying for someone else's parking, we need to stand up for one another. Tenacious insistence on not only our own ability, but the ability of others to act decently - to be free! - emboldens us to stand against further injustice. It builds relationships with those we defend. It teaches us the cooperative skills (bolstered by humility and respect) that are needed to find meaningful solutions to complex societal problems that are otherwise tossed to the government and forgotten.

The virtues that support a liberal society are not what we think of as heroic virtues. They are built on small acts that lie within reach for each and every one of us.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

So much for trigger warnings

Radical feminists and progressives, this is why you can't have nice things.

It's true: I've used "trigger warning" in the past to give people a heads up about potentially upsetting information. I did this because I know my audience, and I know people for whom the issues I'm flagging are potential triggers. But, as much as I understand (and will defend) its reasonable use, it really has gone too far, and I will avoid using it in the future.

When you apply a warning to everything, it becomes meaningless even when it's applied reasonably. The rationale for applying a trigger warning to everything that could potentially be upsetting to someone seems a lot like helping people avoid issues that upset them, not treating them like empowered individuals.
"Oberlin College recommends that its faculty “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals”. When material is simply too important to take out entirely, the college recommends trigger warnings."
And for what? Talk to someone who has (or has a friend who has) gone through exposure therapy and they will tell you that helping a trauma survivor avoid everything upsetting is not doing them any favours. If you care about education, you know that censorship doesn't do it any favours, either. I'm certain the people suggesting this have good intentions, but I wonder how well informed they are, and if they're aware of what's motivating them.

A personal story: I was in a non-abusive (don't worry, Mom and Dad!), but emotionally unhealthy friendship for years. It became unbearable, and I cut ties for the better part of a year to sort myself out. This meant taking a hard look at how I was reacting to things that set me off. That meant dealing with those things. It was, I'm certain, nothing compared to what an assault survivor has to go through, but I can tell you a few things that I learned: First, I was upset and angry all the time. It was easy to explain being upset and angry all the time with any example of injustice, pigheadedness, or anything else I normally find merely irritating. If I had wanted to avoid sorting myself, I could have asked my friends to avoid sending me all kinds of things.

I don't want to say that my experience is generalizable or comparable to what someone with PTSD has to put themselves through to heal. But I can see how this got out of hand. It's time to rein it in.

The person who got me through tackling my issues, by the way, is one of the people I'm giving a heads up to when I write "trigger warning." You guys, she can handle it. And the ones for whom it's more useful can get there. Anyone getting really indignant about slapping a trigger warning on everything has no idea how strong the people they're trying to protect have the potential to be.

I'm certain of one thing: they don't need, and they won't be helped by, a bubble-wrapped world.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

When conspiracy theories go from sad to evil.

(Trigger warning*: This post involves violence against a small child and an infuriating lack of humility. You should not continue if you don't want to read about violence against children.)
*(Edit: Sigh. I know. See my post on "trigger warning.")

I try very hard to have a sympathetic view of conspiracy theorists. I understand that the people who look for patterns, for "the real story," for "what they're not telling us," etc. are trying to deal with feelings of helplessness and self-doubt. I understand just wanting to have someone agree with you, the rose-coloured glasses that can follow when it finally happens, and a tendency to accept what you might normally turn away from. I understand how skepticism can run amok. Normally conspiracy theories, while sad for those who believe them, are harmless to others - a feeling of "knowing" that the Olympics, or a political scandal on the front page is really a cover-up, for instance, doesn't do much more than support the idea of a pattern where there isn't one.

But sometimes conspiracy theorists go beyond simple narcissism, turning tragedies away from victims and recovery toward self-serving stories about the world. Examples are the crying of "false flag" at the Boston Marathon bombings and Sandy Hook shooting.

Founded on personal tragedy, a misunderstanding of medical science, and a story that sounds an awful lot like the cover-ups conspiracy theorists pride themselves on busting, the anti-vaccination movement is probably the conspiracy theory that's done the most widespread harm. Its proponents actively work to convince parents to boycott childhood vaccines with devastating results. Frightened people looking for patterns inflict the cost of their beliefs on their kids and other medically vulnerable people. Pairing this malignant movement with new tragedy is a recipe for disaster.

In their intervention in the case of the murder of 12-week old Ja'Nayjah Sanders by her non-custodial father, the anti-vaccination movement has crossed a new line.

Ja'Nayjah was beaten to death by her father, who was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder. Ja'Navjah's mother, Shamarrie Kittle, in her grief, was vulnerable to activists the anti-vaccination site VacTruth, who claim that Ja'Navjah's skull fractures were the result of routine two-month vaccinations. Kittle became convinced of VacTruth's claims and is now lobbying to have the murderer of her daughter acquitted and freed.

You can read the details of the case, compiled here. They're horrifying. Her surgeons have no doubt that John Sanders beat his daughter with or against something to inflict the brain injuries she sustained. That anyone would try to pardon someone who would act like this goes beyond the boundaries of what's acceptable. To convince her mother to pardon him is horrifying. To do it in order to prop up, knowingly or not, a self-serving belief system is simply evil.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The curious case of the Copenhagen giraffe

In case you missed it, this week a zoo in Copenhagen killed a healthy, young giraffe named Marius, dissected him in front of children, and then fed him to lions. The outcry was pretty bad.

Why Marius wasn't given a new home? The Copenhagen zoo has voluntarily subscribed to association standards that prohibit the sale of their animals outside of the association and manages the genetic population of their giraffes to prevent inbreeding. Allowing him to join a new herd could put the future population in danger.

Why was he cut up in front of children? His dissection represented an educational experience - which is great, not only for the biology but also because he was being prepared as food. Shielding children from frank education about where meat comes from contributes to squeamishness about using the whole animal and indifference about the conditions animals endure on factory farms.

Why was Marius fed to the lions? Because the alternative was to throw away his body and kill another animal (a cow) to take his place.

There are reasons for all of it. But when we talk about beautiful animals like giraffes, we get emotional. The reporter interviewing the head of the Copenhagen zoo is not unusual (and the interview gives a lot of back story about what happened and why):

Marius may be meat in the wild, but he was born in a zoo, and so he should have been safe so long as he was healthy - or so the argument goes. But Marius was also born in the real world, and not a fairy tale, and so things are not quite so simple.

Zoos come under attack because they exist for entertainment and profit and not solely for preservation of species. Zoos cannot make their decisions based on conservation alone or they will lose the resources that pay for it, and they are the most significant organizations who can own and preserve wild animals. A general prohibition on private ownership takes a broader incentive (and more diverse models) to breed and care for them off the table.

I'm a big fan of legalizing the ownership of wild animals. Not just as pets, but also for farming (especially in the case of Chinese medicine - rhinos can have their horns harvested without killing them, and the biggest threat to tigers is the destruction of the wild population). In addition to creating an incentive to breed them in captivity and spare wild populations, this would shift resources away from enforcing rules against ownership to those aimed at preventing cruelty and negligence.

People may not like the idea of raising (some*) animals for money, but there's no way around the fact that they will be killed for it. We can't wish away poaching and smuggling any more than we can drug use.

We might feel good about refusing to tie (some*) animals to profit, but it's at their expense, not ours. When we make emotional policy decisions about species preservation, we take important options with serious benefits off the table because we don't want to weigh them against the costs.

It is easy to say that we want to save animals. It is harder to bear the cost and actually do it.

*Dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, cows, chickens, ducks, guinea pigs, hamsters, parrots, fish, turtles, geckos, etc. There are lots of exceptions.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Forbes: Everything you know (about the minimum wage) is wrong

This piece in Forbes is pretty well done. The main points:
  • There are certainly working poor people supporting families on the minimum wage, but they are the minority of minimum wage workers. If the point is to help these people, increasing the minimum wage is a poorly targeted and expensive way of doing it, even if there weren't adverse effects (and there's a lot to suggest that there would be).
  • You can't talk about general labour productivity to draw insights about the appropriateness of specific wage rates. Average labour productivity has gone up, but there's evidence that the productivity of minimum wage workers has actually been dragging down that average - the minimum wage may have risen five or six times faster than minimum wage-earners' productivity, not so slowly that it's nearly $15 lower than it should be.
The author takes a rather dim view of minimum wage proponents, which is too bad. I don't think that this is a sneaky way to get at class warfare hatched in the mind of left-wing conspirators, I think that minimum wage proponents genuinely believe that raising it would be helpful, and that the statistics they're presenting are sufficient evidence of that. It's unfortunate that policy makers are not demanding better information before starting the debate.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The minimum wage and poverty reduction: What if we're wrong?

Assume that we have decided that we ought to institute a policy to increase the disposable income of the least well off. Here are a few options from the real world:

  1. We can try to improve the business climate to increase overall employment,
  2. We can pay money directly to the poor, or
  3. We can increase the minimum wage.

For the sake of this exercise, accept that economists agree that raising the minimum wage will have negligible effects on employment among unskilled workers (in the real world that's not obvious), and that a better business environment or direct subsidies would also make the poor better off.

But let's make a crazy assumption: that economists are sometimes wrong when they make predictions.

So. What if they're wrong? Who pays for the mistake?

If an improved business climate fails to lead to a better lot for the poor, any cost will be spread fairly evenly. One could argue that those at the top benefit disproportionately from a better business climate, but if that's a problem it's one that can be dealt with through progressive taxation and redistribution or program spending.

If a program designed to pay money to the poor directly (or through a working income tax benefit) doesn't increase their incomes, they will not be hurt if the program is scaled back or reformed. The cost will fall on taxpayers in proportion to what they pay, so in Canada, disproportionately on the rich.

If economists are wrong in the case of the minimum wage, the cost will fall on the most vulnerable unskilled workers with the least income mobility. Those from well-to-do households can build experience through volunteering and unpaid internships. The working poor can't afford to work for free.

A minimum wage's costs are also relatively higher for small and start-up businesses. Large, established businesses can absorb the cost of higher compensation, while small businesses feel the sting. Businesses who don't hire unskilled workers pay nothing at all.

The bottom line: If we're wrong about some poverty-reduction policies, the burden of our mistake lies fairly equally. But if we're wrong about the minimum wage, it's the most vulnerable who pay the price. Tossing around grand ideas on poverty reduction means less than nothing if we're not willing to bear the cost.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Quick and dirty thoughts on slut shaming and libertarianism.

Here's the latest appeal to libertarians to oppose slut shaming, which claims that because libertarians are generally on board with something like the non-aggression principle (NAP, in liber-talk), they ought to oppose slut shaming because it is aggressive in nature. Here's the thing about aggression - it's not one thing. There's a difference between aggressive language, which, unprovoked, might make you a jerk, and the type of aggression that we believe legitimizes preventative, coercive action.

Some libertarians worry that if we identify too many things as aggression/coercion, we create justifications for all sorts of state action. On the other end of the spectrum, there's the trap of believing that everything that's bad or harmful is coercion of the sort that libertarians are concerned by, and take a stand against all aggression. Instead, let's distinguish types of aggression from one another. A presumption against all aggression seems smart, but a blanket condemnation of aggression in all its forms takes many avenues for social change (criticism, argument) off the table for libertarians. 

Look. I'm on board with changing the culture we have around sex. Even if it weren't responsible for rape victims choosing more abuse over facing the shame this culture encourages, the norms we've built around sex and love lead to preventable unhappiness. That's bad.

I also believe that a culture of tolerance is important for a sustainably free world - FEE's work on character is compelling for this reason. But that's true or not is an empirical question - it could be that a free society has lots of room for even costly judgement. That's why it isn't necessarily libertarian (or not) to oppose slut shaming, even if we ought to. Not everything that's bad for human dignity and flourishing is un-libertarian. 

There's a lot of common ground in the reasons that many of us would like to end racism, sexism, slut shaming, etc. and the reasons we support libertarianism. But if we try to explain both for everyone through a single political philosophy, we're going to have a hard time. 

There is much more to the world than libertarianism. And thank goodness. We're richer for it. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why do women hate freedom? They don't.

I've been turning over the latest controversial article from Thoughts on Liberty, trying to figure out what bothers me about it.

The essay is rooted in truth. As a few people have pointed out (or, sigh, demonstrated) being told that we're over-sensitive or biologically predisposed to oppose liberty is something that really happens to women exploring and advocating the ideas of liberty. If you don't think that has an effect on the margins then I really don't know what to say. Being flippant or dismissive of anyone's concerns is not a recipe for bringing them into the discussion.

But something about the essay is off.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A question for libertarians opposing same-sex marriage

Many libertarians are supportive extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, but not all of us are. Some libertarians see the legalization of same-sex marriage as detrimental to the quest for liberty because extending the institution of state marriage to more couples enfranchises them, making them less likely to oppose state intervention in marriage and to see the state as an opponent.

The libertarian position is almost universally that marriage is not the business of the state. It is the business of couples, their families, and, where applicable, their churches - but not of the government. If the state gets involved at all it should be through providing marriage contract enforcement.

But the world isn't binary - there are many different positions that can be taken by the state in marriage - some are better and some are worst. Anyone who expects government to abide by the rule of law ought to see same-sex marriage as an improvement, even though it does not represent the best possible outcome.

I had the privilege of discussing this with Jeffrey Tucker this summer and he raised an interesting question - if the problem with same-sex marriage is that it enfranchises more people and gives them a vested interest in the state, what makes it different than, say, legalizing (and taxing) drugs? Ending the war on drugs would certainly make a lot of people less likely to oppose the state.

Ending the war on drugs would let innocent people out of cages. It would reduce infringements on privacy and property by the government. It would drastically curb violence and crime. And it would, very likely, stabilize the government in a more restrained role. This could make progression towards the elimination and/or drastic reduction of the state more difficult. If the government taxes drugs (which it almost certainly will as they become legal) then it is unlikely that it will ever stop. We can expect rent-seeking and other outcomes of government involvement. Should the alternative, in the interest of achieving a stateless or minarchist world, be to carry on the war on drugs to keep skepticism toward and opposition to the state high? I consulted a friend who opposes same-sex marriage and he conceded that it might be the case.

Libertarians are justifiably skeptical of claims that anyone ought to give up their well-being, money, labour, or liberty for the "good of society." How can opposition to same-sex marriage or (in the more extreme case) to ending the drug war - that is, requiring that some continue to suffer so that all can be better off in the long run - be substantively different than the many demands and legal obligations that people put on one another through the state?  What makes libertarians better judges of who ought to suffer for the greater good than the state?

Opposing equal treatment under the law treats people as means, not as ends. Refusing to allow suffering might not be the fastest way to a libertarian society, but it ought to be the position of any individual-centric ideology.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

An individualist case for considering privilege

Julie Borowski has jumped into the fray with her post "The Problem with "Check your Privilege,"" that seems representative of how many libertarians think of the phrase - not as a plea for humility but as a tool "used to stop meaningful discussion and silence the alleged privileged person." The result is they've dismissed privilege as a legitimate concern. Perhaps "check your privilege" has been misused too often to save it - that's a conversation we can have - but she overstates the libertarian problem with privilege generally. From the post:
"The worst part about the concept of privilege is that it creates preconceived judgments about strangers. You cannot know someone’s full story by simply looking at their physical characteristics. As a woman, it would be presumptuous to conclude that a straight white male acquaintance has it easier than me, or is inherently privileged. Perhaps I should check my prejudice and acknowledge that I do not have enough personal information about this individual to make that claim. Perhaps he grew up poor? He has a learning disability? He is physically unattractive? He is battling a life threatening disease?

We probably all know the old phrase about what happens when you assume, and what it makes out of you and me."
Ms. Borowski approaches this with the best intentions, but she gets the nuances of privilege wrong when she opposes its use in our conversations about government and society. The context-specific nature of privilege is important to remember. In fact she talks about it here:
"A woman in the United States has likely never experienced discrimination like a woman in Saudi Arabia. An American woman may find cat-calling on the street to be sexist, but a Saudi woman cannot legally drive a car or leave her house without a male guardian." 
but falls short of grasping the implications when she continues:
"The concept of privilege is Eurocentric and becomes inconsistent when applied to different locations."
There are degrees of disadvantage. People who have experienced the worst forms of discrimination are not the only ones subject to it. This is the same trap that those who use "Check your privilege" to shut down a conversation fall into. There are situations in which being a white male puts one at a disadvantage, and refusing to discuss them because generally being a white male is "thoroughly good" [nsfw] requires ignoring the importance of context and consequently a poor understanding of privilege. And ignoring all privilege because others ignore some privilege doesn't help anyone.

In The Facts of the Social Sciences, Hayek`s observations offer insight into how limited experiences will tend to contribute to the knowledge problem of privilege:
"We thus always supplement what we actually see of another person's action by projecting into that person a system of classification of objects which we know, not from observing other people, but because it is in terms of these classes that we think ourselves. If, for example, we watch a person cross a square full of traffic, dodging some cars and pausing to let others pass, we know (or we believe we know) much more than we actually perceive with our eyes. This would be equally true if we saw a man behave in a physical environment quite unlike anything we have ever seen before. If I see for the first time a big boulder or an avalanche coming down the side of a mountain toward a man and see him run for his life, I know the meaning of his action because I know what I would or might have done in similar circumstances."
(p. 63-64 Individualism and Economic Order.)
Failure to recognize privilege may be rooted in a natural but mistaken assumption that our experiences are generalizable given the facts we're presented. After all, it's how we understand the world. Properly understood, privilege does not treat us as members of a group with pre-defined strengths and weaknesses. Acknowledging privilege is fundamentally respectful of individuals. To overlook the possibility of privilege is to overlook the possibility that we don't fully understand others' experiences. The knowledge problem we face in the economy is insurmountable and acknowledging that should help to keep us humble, but when the range of experiences we aren't party to is taken into account it becomes simply staggering. Borowski gets that!
We can and should show empathy for others, while understanding that we do not truly know what other people go through on a daily basis. I do not know what it is like to live as a gay man or a black woman. But here’s the thing: I will never know what it is like to be another individual. Period. No one on the face of the earth has lived a life identical to mine... It’s important to take into consideration that your background differs from others, but keep an open mind and recognize that communication is a two way street. And remember to always keep your prejudice in check.
If you lack experience in discrimination but make strong statements about how and if it's a problem, odds are you'll reveal that you face an "experience gap" in your understanding. This doesn't make you racist, sexist, or anything-else-ist, but it's going to be obvious to those with intimate knowledge of the problem that you don't really understand it, and it's going to be harder to take your input seriously, to assume goodwill, and to keep a level head - in other words, to have a productive conversation.

None of this implies that someone without first-hand experience can't make valuable contributions. It implies only that in the absence of experience the conversation ought to be approached with, as Borowski suggests, curiosity and an open mind. And, to get Smithy, there's an important role for impartial spectators. Experiences are often emotional, and this type of input can help those who carry them to keep a level head.

If Borowski's post is representative of libertarian opposition to privilege then "The Problem with "Check your Privilege"" is a rhetorical one. We need only to remember that our knowledge is incomplete to consider the role of privilege and engage more people in respectful and productive conversations about liberty.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hayek and privilege.

In response to my last post on the topic, a Facebook friend offered the following;
Following Hayek... I take "privilege" to mean legal discrimination in some form - deliberately advantaging some at the expense of others - and don't think of it in (the normative) terms of "desirable" or "successful" at all. But aside from this, I still have trouble getting what you're saying.

Obviously, we should be wary of arguments for rent-seeking whatever form they may take. But beyond that, are you saying that we should be sensitive to social differences that may be privileged (in Hayek's sense) by laws that, say, protect or establish private-property rights? If so, what can be done about that? Even laws that follow the Rule of Law will advantage some and disadvantage others - but ideally no one should be able to predict who they might be.
I've been turning this over in my head and think that it deserves a two-part response. So first: he's quite right that Hayek uses a narrow definition of privilege. However, my intention was to include in the broader concept of "privilege" something that is (I've learned) referred to as "silent" privilege, and also Hayekian in nature.

To expand upon what started here as the concept of "privilege as a knowledge problem" here is a rather lengthy excerpt from The Constitution of Liberty:
It may be an exaggeration to assert, as a modern anthropologist has done, that "it is not man who controls culture but the other way around"; but it is useful to be reminded by him that "it is only our profound and comprehensive ignorance of the nature of culture that makes it possible for us to believe that we direct and control it." He suggests at least an important corrective to the intellectualist conception. His reminder will help us to achieve a truer image of the incessant interaction between our conscious striving for what our intellect pictures as achievable and the operations of the institutions, traditions, and habits which jointly often produce something very different from what we have aimed at.

There are two important respects in which the conscious knowledge which guides the individual's actions constitutes only part of the conditions which enable him to achieve his ends. There is the fact that man's mind itself is a product of the civilization in which he has grown up and that it is unaware of much of the experience which has shaped it - experience that assists it by being embodied in the habits, conventions, language, and moral beliefs which are part of that makeup. There is the further consideration that the knowledge which any individual mind consciously manipulates is only a small part of the knowledge which at any one time contributes to the success of his action. When we reflect on how much knowledge possessed by other people is an essential condition for the successful pursuit of our individual aims, the magnitude of our ignorance of the circumstances on which the results of our action depend appears simply staggering. Knowledge exists only as the knowledge of individuals. It is not much better than a metaphor to speak of the knowledge of society as a whole. The sum of the knowledge of all the individuals exists nowhere as an integrated whole. The great problem is how we can all profit from this knowledge, which exists only dispersed as the separate, partial, and sometimes conflicting beliefs of all men.

In other words, it is largely because civilization enables us constantly to profit from knowledge which we individually do not possess and because each individual's use of his particular knowledge may serve to assist others unknown to him in achieving their ends that men as members of civilized society can pursue their individual ends so much more successfully than they could alone. We know little of the particular facts to which the whole of social activity continuously adjusts itself in order to provide what we have learned to expect. We know even less of the forces which bring about this adjustment by appropriately co-ordinating individual activity. And our attitude, when we discover how little we know of what makes us co-operate, is, on the whole, one of resentment rather than of wonder or curiosity. Much of our occasional impetuous desire to smash the whole entangling machinery of civilization is due to this inability of man to understand what he is doing.

(End of section 1 of chapter 2.)
The concept of silent privilege is grounded in our inability to understand all of the ways in which the attitudes and norms in our society affect not just concrete outcomes, but how we interpret (and shape) the world.* We can be advantaged in ways beyond those granted to us explicitly by the state, but it's hard to see them unless we experience the uglier consequences of our institutions. We ought to be troubled not only by privilege awarded by the state, but also by that which is unintended and undesigned.

Deliberately granted privilege is low-hanging fruit, but it's not the only way that we hold back one another's potential.  Humility when it comes to understanding how different individuals experience and are impacted by the complex web of institutions we've built (legal and otherwise) is key if we want to avoid overstepping our bounds when creating a society where our sense of justice doesn't stir within us a willingness to allow the state to intervene.

Which brings me to the second part of my response: If this form of privilege might be partly to blame for allowing the expansion of the predatory state, what can we do about it? Designing a solution, after all, is not very Hayekian. More importantly, a wholesale redesign of our interactions with one another is doomed to fail. But that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do.

How the world changes is important. Established morals and norms evolve slowly in a process we can't understand or predict the outcomes of by competing with new ideas. Contradictory as it seems, pushing for the changes we believe to be beneficial is part of that unplanned evolution.

The most important thing we can do to achieve a freer world is to build institutions grounded in civil society rather than the government and let them out-compete antisocial and cynical planned government "solutions." Maybe those of us who believe this is important have pushed too far where we've suggested silent privilege might have implications for libertarianism. But that doesn't mean it's not important for liberty.

We don't have to wait for someone to start building this, we just have to start living it. "Checking our privileges" is another way of saying "Remembering that our knowledge is incomplete." We can do it, and if we do it's a step in the right direction.

*I wonder: How much is the anger felt by so many libertarians when it's suggested they consider their privilege part of our natural tendency to push back against that lack of understanding that Hayek references?