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polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Saturday, July 12, 2003
     
    Conservatives - enemies of free expression
    Tim Blair and his readers are at it again - while continuing their love affair with the corrupt Berlusconi, a man the estimable libertarian-leaning Economist magazine rightly regards as dodgy, they are now smearing opponents of the Ken Park ban as 'kiddieporn promoters'. While these words were used by a reader rather than Tim himself, there is no sign that Tim disapproves of the ban or that particular characterisation. So depiction of acts of sexual intercourse by (|15? 16 year old?) teenagers, played by adult actors is now regarded as 'Kiddieporn' regardless of what particular moral stance the work of art takes?

    Now I'd even go so far as to reject the notion that art has to be moral at all but even taking that into account, one wonders what would be safe from the censors from the attitude expressed by supporters of the Ken Park ban (I do not believe there should be any censorship board at all, but that is beside the point (1)- if there are to be censors, then at least reasonable criteria should apply). If mere depiction of teen sex (and sex which would not technically be in breach of Australian law in most states where the age of consent is 16 anyway assuming the characters are 16) is now regarded as 'kiddieporn' and cannot ever be legitimate art, regardless of the legal implications this leads to very weird conclusions. So now Lolita is to be similarly condemned, as are any number of novels I can name by various authors? Literature would be much impoverished but then conservatives have not much use for that it would seem, judging by the sorts of philistines who inhabit various blogs- they would rather be shooting beer bottles in the back yard. Funny attitude incidentally - guns don't kill, movies do. Or is the problem the graphic nature of the depiction? But why? What if the filmmaker has a purpose in aiming for a strong dose of realism. One always wonders if people driven to fits of paroxysms by such depictions have various personal issues of self-control. Perhaps some conservatives are just to immature to handle these things?

    (1) Before people jump in with the tiresome claim that this attitude would be open slather for real child porn, I hasten to add that child porn should be illegal because a crime was already committed in its production.
     
    PowerPoint plague

    I’m glad to see that I am not alone in objecting to PowerPoint. When it is used for diagrams or tables it’s a useful tool, but so many people now put the text of their speech on screen, as if the audience were hard of hearing and needed subtitles. For any half-decent speaker, their voice adds meaning beyond the words, in their tone and what they choose to emphasise. And lots of jokes that work when told flop when read. If speakers are just going to be PowerPoint drones they may as well just hand out the notes, and everyone can go home early.
     
    Libertarianism
    As noted I missed some hot debates in the blogosphere while I was occupied settling down in London. I have a paper to write and some studying to do but here are some short thoughts on the debate on libertarianism initiated by Ken Parish and continued by John Quiggin.

    Firstly John is right to acknowledge that his knock-down of Nozick isn't a great achievement as Nozick's justification of libertarianism is essentially foundationless. What Nozick was better at doing was at sketching what a libertarian society based on a process-oriented conception of justice would look like. Ken thinks otherwise because he argues that lots of libertarians invoke Nozickian concepts and therefore libertarians can't distance themselves from Nozick. I think Ken should do a bit more research before characterising others views - Nozick's arguments are as old as Locke and Nozick came around late, long after natural rights libertarians had already established their creed. I'm not a natural rights libertarian so I won't spend too long defending them but there were already other theorists long before Nozick which they could have used - in particular the neo-Thomist arguments for natural rights devised by Rand (if you strip away her counterproductively idiosyncratic use of words like 'selfishness' that#s essentially what her argument boils down to) and Rothbard whom Ken cites as a critic of Nozick.

    Secondly John nonetheless argues that the libertarian tendency to conjoin economic and social concepts of freedom are misguided since


    The libertarian position seems to rely either on linguistic confusion about the meaning of 'free' or on the adoption of the factual hypothesis that free-market economic policies maximise income, and therefore the economic choice set, for all or most people. The views of economists regarding this hypothesis have varied over time. More importantly, as JS Mill was the first to point out clearly, acceptance or rejection of this hypothesis has nothing to do with the arguments for freedom of speech and religion.


    Unfortunately what John writes is wrong because what he seems to be saying is that it is impossible to be both a social liberal and an economic liberal (in the sense of someone who favours market-oriented means of producing and distributing goods where possible) at the same time using logically related arguments - that arguments for one are independent of the other.

    Not being a natural rights libertarian I am inclined to believe that the 'arguments by linguistics' for libertarianism as described by John is indeed flawed because the arguments really boils down to an argument about 'maximising choice sets' and this in the end cannot be reduced to simply arguing in an a prior manner from free speech to free markets. This is particularly true of those libertarians who take an absolutist line on what I call the 'holy trinity' of purist libertarianism - property, tort and contract. One way of characteristising purist libertarians whether they arrive at their libertarianism through natural rights or other means is that they believe society should be ideally organised around these three elements and no others. To put things these way is to reveal what is wrong with purist libertarianism - these legal institutions evolved because they were useful in ordering societies - the sole test of whether they should always be employed is how useful they are. Anything else is pure assertion or arguing in Platonic categories.

    Thus a libertarianism that makes sense to those other than the converted must be firmly grounded in historical, economic and broadly speaking, consequentialist considerations. This much I agree with John - but then he simply goes on to assert
    (i) the only other sensible justification for libertarianism left is a particular consequentialist argument about maximising choice sets
    (ii) that because there is 'diminishing marginal utility of income' egalitarian income distribution should be prioritised by people concerned about 'maximising choice sets' and because libertarians really should be about maximising choice sets they can no longer be libertarians because of this magical idea of diminishing marginal utility of income.
    Notice the great leaps of logic involved here. Remember - what John seems to be saying is that it's impossible to derive both social and economically libertarian policy conclusions from related premises.

    Firstly it's not at all clear that a consequentialism that leads to libertarian prescriptions in both the social and economic realm have to involve 'maximising choice sets'. For instance, the libertarianism that can be derived from the writings of Oakeshott and Hayek could be said to be based on a common fallibilist viewpoint (though there is also clearly an element of choice maximisation in Hayek, less so in Oakeshott). The libertarianism of James Buchanan on the other hand seems to flow out of a Wicksellian-inspired contractarianism. Secondly even assuming that 'maximising choice sets' is the only consequentialism that can lead to libertarian prescriptions on both the social and economic fronts, it's not clear that, unlike other goods (say, beer), there necessarily is diminishing marginal utility of income and I don't think I even have to invoke the concept of 'utility monsters' to justify this.

    Thirdly even if there is a diminishing marginal utility of income, it's unclear that this should be a definitive rather than merely *a relevant* policy factor in going about maximising choice. For instance, the policy prescription of 'equalising distribution' may give away to other weighted considerations such as public choice considerations of giving that sort of discretionary power to government. For instance, it's quite possible that Hayek and Friedman would have written the books they wrote for the same reasons they wrote those books even if they conceded that there was diminishing marginal utility of income.

    Fourthly, John's contention, which I said can be boiled down to the contention that it's impossible to arrive at socially and economically liberal (in the sense of pro-market) opinions at the same time using logically related concepts is simply falsified by the sheer number of people who do hold such opinions coming from common utilitarian/consequentialist perspectives. One obvious example are the Chicago school economists who use the same sorts of pro-market arguments to arrive at views on, say, drug legalisation and immigration which are considerably more liberal and leftish than those of Ken Parish that they use in more conventionally 'economic' areas. Another example are the 18th century and 19th century English liberals and classical economists who were broadly speaking pro-market as well as being anti-imperialist, anti-slavery and pro-Home Rule for Ireland, etc (see for instance this interesting history). Now perhaps John would argue these libertarians aren't really purist libertarians of the ilk of Rand and Nozick but if so he should make this clear. If so, then he would have to deny that myself, Sam Ward or anyone in the blogosphere identified by Ken Parish as libertarian-leaning other than perhaps 24601 is a libertarian. As it is, his contention that it's impossible to arrive at a position that is sceptical of government intervention in both the 'social' and 'economic' spheres is clearly nonsensical given the wealth of examples and caveats to his original arguments discussed so far.

    I could go on but I'd rather stop by making this one simple point - the non-purist libertarians can be seen simply as a species of utilitarians/consequentialist who have arrived at different results from their fellow utilitarians/consequentialists who end up as left-liberals or social democrats because of different interpretation of history/policy/economic paradigms (e.g. economists who are influenced by New Institutional Economics and public choice/constitutional political economy seem to be tugged in a libertarian direction whatever their underlying ideologies) - the utilitarianism/consequentialism is a common framework and therefore the libertarian conclusions on social and economic issues they reach are related. Unless John wishes to deny that these people are either
    (i) not 'really' libertarians
    (ii) not 'really' utilitarians
    then his argument is wrong. Of course he may wish to argue that they are mistaken in their utilitarian analysis but that's a different issue altogether.

    Another more personal point - I am broadly speaking extremely socially liberal on the basis that it is not the role of government to decide what is the 'good society' and that as many 'experiments in living' as possible should be allowed in a society; and at the same time, someone who begins with a presumption towards market or quasi-market -based delivery of a wider range of goods and services than currently exists precisely on the basis of maximising consumer choice and capturing efficiencies; and leery of granting too much discretion in taxing and spending to the State because of the problem of a 'reverse invisible hand' in the political market (diffuse costs, concentrated benefits). I do see these positions as logically related - all except the 'reverse invisible hand' argument are directly related to some implicit 'maximising choice set' argument while the 'reverse invisible hand' concern is arguably indirectly related to this anyway because it's a concern for the underlying framework not creating distortions on the choices that would be manifested by people in voluntary trades. So my own example is another (alberit simple sketch) refutation of John's 'prediction'. Furthermore I adopt the term libertarian, as ahistorical and ugly as it sounds, because none of the other labels fit. My attempts to revive 'Whig' have been unsuccessful. It may be useful to think of things in the old Tory vs Whig enmity. I think Tories and the more sentimental socialists/Luddites like the alliance of the same who opposed the Industrial Revolution are the traditional and worst enemies of the values and normative positions I hold dear - namely Progress with a capital P and Enlightenment with a capital E - the expansion of society from a society of Status where everyone knew their place to a society of Contract where individuals flitted in and out of overlapping circles based on impersonal, abstract rules
     
    LSE
    It's been a long while since I've blogged so it's good that Andrew is keeping the traffic flowing. I've been in London for almost a week now (flew in on Sunday) and have finally settled in and am sort of over my jet lag. I see I've missed some intense debates on the blogosphere recently but the summer school course I'm doing is fairly intense. It's been only a week and I already have a paper (on health insurance) due on Monday and mid-course exams on Wednesday.

    What's impressed me most about London is the pervasiveness of history in the place. I know that sounds banal but no more vivid illustration of this is more apparent than the circumstances of my writing this. This blogging is coming to you from the university library which is in the Lionel Robbins building in the LSE, an institution founded by the grandparents of Fabian Socialism, Sidney and Beatrice Webb (though ironically the LSE became a stronghold of resistance to Keynesianism when both Lionel Robbins and FA Hayek taught here).

    Wednesday, July 09, 2003
     
    The battle of Sydney Uni

    Earlier this week student leftists stopped the University of Sydney’s Senate from discussing an increase in fees under Dr Nelson’s university reform plan. The Senate met in secret the following day and approved fee increases anyway.

    It’s difficult to say which side has the worst tactics. Is it the students, who successfully made the issue not fee increases but their own thuggish behaviour? Or is it the University, which made a decision based on legislation which has not even been introduced in Parliament yet, much less passed, and by approving maximum increases gave a propaganda gift to Labor’s Jenny Macklin, who is running a scare campaign on fees?

    Common sense has been a rare commodity at Australia’s oldest university this week.

    Tuesday, July 08, 2003
     
    Full stop fiasco

    While putting apostrophes into plurals is a vice of the young, a punctuation peccadillo that afflicts all age groups is putting the footnote number before instead of after the full stop. There are plenty of full professors who clearly haven’t read the style guide given to undergraduates, and I’ve found this mistake in documents from the Department of Education, Science and Training and the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee. It’s hardly surprising that students mimic this mistake.

    I blame the author-date system of reference, aka the Harvard system, for this particular failing. This annoying system (I’ll save my critique for another post) does place the reference inside the full stop, eg (Smith 1989: 78). When people used to the Harvard system have to footnote, habit leads them astray. But like the no apostrophe to create a plural rule, it should not be that hard to remember where the number goes.


    Monday, July 07, 2003
     
    Apostrophe Catastrophe

    The Australian Association for the Teaching of English is meeting at the University of Melbourne, and I’m thinking of gatecrashing to tell them what a terrible job they are doing.

    When I was growing up, only Italian greengrocers thought that plurals required apostrophes (banana’s 50c, etc). Even when I was teaching uni students 10 years ago plurals weren’t a problem. Sure, there were some apostrophe problems, with its/it’s causing confusion. But nobody thought plural’s (sic) required apostrophe’s (sic again).

    Now correctly creating plurals baffles a very large number of the under 30s. A couple of months ago a journalism student from one of Australia’s better universities e-mailed me seeking comment on ‘university fee’s’. I gave him the comment, explanation of why it was ‘fees’, and facetiously offered to give him quotes for an article on apostrophes as well. He said he may take me up on the offer, since the other journalism students were confused about apostrophes as well. This is just stunning – people who want to be professional writers don’t know a simple rule they should have learnt in primary school. They don’t even notice Microsoft Word’s little green line.

     

     
       
       

     

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