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A Pox On All Their Houses

Friday, April 28, 2006

Issues And Problems with Objectivism Part I

I'd like to talk about it without being snarky or dismissive. This of course could be interpreted as giving it too much credit, and thus an implicit sanction. But this kind of "meta-argument", often used by Objectivists themselves, is one of the issues I have. By not engaging something except dismissively, you leave a "back door" open for the ideas to persist and resist correction. This is why people still haven't buried "Intelligent Design" or, rather why it took so long. I think that door is pretty much closed now. A good, thoughtful satire can do the trick. But satire is more than mere snark. A good satire gets close enough to the roots of the thing it satirizes that the analogy can regress back to the original argument. Making fun of conclusions, in a "that's crazy talk!" kind of way, doesn't help, and often hurts. It just reinforces the adherents and allows them to circle the wagons, using the snark against itself.

First off, the Objectivist concept of "objectivity" leaves some things to be desired. I definitely believe that existence exists. Reality is real. But that's a vast oversimplification. The reality that comes to me through my senses is "real", in fact its the only thing I can possibly define as real without going into metaphysical speculations. However, science has shown us that the reality in my brain has been filtered and altered by my sense organs and brain. A man with myopia lives in a blurry reality. A color-blind person lives in a reality where "red" and "green" are the same thing.
To get to the bottom of what's going on between all our reality tunnels, we've developed science, to discover testable and replicable "truths" that can withstand the highest levels of scepticism. These do however rely on our perceptions of experimental data as well, but the idea is that if enough people examine the data, they'll come up with something reasonably "objective". The idea of gravity? Pretty fucking objective, if you ask me.
Outside of this kind of objectivity the only other kind is objectivity of necessity. This is the realm of say... Austrian economics. Predicated on ontological necessities, and logically valid, the foundations of austrian economics are, IMO, pretty much unassailable and objective.
I think that many Objectivists get these two kinds of objectivity confused. (For that matter so do some Austrian economists) Now deriving a philosophical base from ontological necessities, requires that you have some. The ones that Austrian Economics derives from are pretty solid: "there is scarcity" and "people act to reduce this scarcity".
One of the mistakes Objectivists make in their ontology relates to the confusion I spoke of above. Not only does existence exist (and therefore, being as well), but they believe that the naive empirical reality they see is an objective perspective.
(now the more sophisticated ones might claim that only a perfectly functioning person will perceive Objective Reality, but I have some problems with that too)
This is almost a variation of Anselm's ontological proof, except with Objectivist man as the self-grounding causa sui. Maybe if the Objectivists studied Existential ontology, they could shape up their philosophy a bit.
But it gets worse. They claim that things have "natures" and that everything acts according to its nature. Well, in a definitional sense that's true. An orange is an orange because it's a round orange citrus fruit. But here, I see a lot of them making the mistake of swapping Identity for Definition. In other words they slip into a sort of pseudo-platonism, in which an orange is a round citrus fruit because that is the nature of an "orange".
This is how they can separate themselves from being "Libertarians" (and the weird claim that libertarians are worse than communists, etc... is that on the grounds that "libertarians" make liberty look bad by trying to justify it with bad reasoning?).
But definitionally, "Libertarian" means someone who supports Liberty. So by definition all objectivists are libertarians. In fact, if they were right about having the one true justification for liberty, they'd be the only real libertarians.
Of course, most 'libertarians' make the same identity vs. definition error, and are not libertarians at all, no matter what they say.
You can call a cantaloupe "an orange" all you like, but that doesn't make it one.
In general, the pattern I get from reading them, is that Objectivists make a lot of oversimplifications, extend their arguments beyond their proper scope, and think that they are hooked into Objective Reason.
There's also a very strange tendency because of this to have very skewed political/social/economic views. Usually, their logic might well be very tight, but their premises are almost always based on variations of the identity error and oversimplifications. They tend to use the "lesser of two evils" argument way beyond any reasonable scope. (thus the ridiculous blood-thirsty republicanism of some Objectivists) One might wonder, if they were living in Germany in 1927, for whom they would vote. (I'm not casting aspersions about crypto-nazism, btw. They might well vote for the communists as the lesser of two evils. But after they did so would they promote communism as a force for good in Germany?)

One question that I've never heard of an Objectivist giving a good answer to is why we should have a government. Now, I'm not arguing that we don't know the objective limits to when force should or shouldn't be used. We do. Defending self-ownership, is a pretty good, albeit short way of putting it.
The problem is this:
I am self-owning. This is where my rights come from, including my right to self-defence. I may, if I wish, hire an agent to better protect my rights, to delegate that task to them, so to speak. However, I am not obligated to (nor do I have a positive right to get defense services for free). And there certainly can be no one pre-determined agent that has a claim on this job (what makes them so special?).
Now, as I've said, if a minimal self-defense state were maintained by robots, or maybe REALLY integral, intelligent people, it could be morally permissible to have one. But it still doesn't seem mandatory or necessary to have one.

There's more on all of this, and I might need to flesh some of it out, but this is a good starting point.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Unbundle the Zaxlebax!

As I mentioned in my previous post, Roderick Long is one of my favorite people at the Mises Institute.

Recently, he gave the Rothbard Memorial Lecture at the Austrian Scholars Conference.

The whole thing is wonderful of course, but the part that struck the hardest for me was when he spoke of anti-concepts and package-deal terms. This is an enormously important thing for everyone to understand, and not only in the context of socio-political thought. I think this is one of the patterns that trips people up all too frequently. It is a fundamental building block of critical reasoning.
Of course, I would say (and I think Prof. Long would agree) that this thing of ours, is essentially critical reasoning properly applied to the socio-political sphere.
In that realm, I find that the biggest stumbling block to speaking clearly with anyone about politics seriously, are these package deal terms.
Most of my real life friends would, if anything, call themselves socialists. A few consider themselves capitalists. But almost all of them end up endorsing positions that are, if they could think about them clearly, terrible and inhumane. But they can't think about them clearly, because they've already absorbed a metric ton of presuppositions about how the universe works that clearly aren't possible. Yet unfortunately, cognitive dissonance and social pressure keep them frozen in their boxes. If you point out the contradictions, they become uncomfortable, and you seem like a "crazy idealist" or something like that.
Public schooling is largely to blame for this, and of course that's why it's one of the really unassailable institutions in our society. I mean, you can criticize it all you like, but if you talk about abolishing public schools, people freak out.
As I've said before, I think that hard reality is the only ally we really have. Underneath it all, people's desire to survive and thrive is stronger than their ideology. Only when statism becomes untenable will it be demolished. And in that post-collapse gap, that's when we have a chance to keep it from reviving.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Theories of Value, Part I

Recently, Kevin Carson's Studies In Mutualist Political Economy was featured in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, edited by Roderick Long, one of my favorite thinkers among the Mises Crew. The JLS was the Austrian response to the Studies.
Though some of the responses (notably Reisman's and to some extent, Block's) were a bit silly, most of them focused on his revised Labor Theory of Value. This is the biggest theoretical difference of opinion between Austrian and Mutualist economics, most likely. (the other being discussed by Prof. Long, the difference between usufruct and lockean homesteading approaches. It's not that big a difference that a non-economist would likely notice it.)

As you may have guessed, either from the title of this blog, or by reading enough of it, I don't exactly agree with either approach. Yet, I believe that they have more in common than one might think. (I certainly don't wish a pox on either the Neo-Austrian economists nor the Carsonian Mutualists, btw. I think between them, there is an almost complete reconstruction of a general social science, in fact.)

I think the roots of all production cost are time, energy, natural resources and luck*. A "good" that requires very little of any of these to produce will not be as scarce, and in general its marginal value will be lower, than a "good" that requires more of any of these to produce, given the same desire for it. Now desire is the most subjective factor in all of this. No matter how hard it is to make a feces-covered brick, I don't want one. And things that are more desirable, will command a higher price, given the same difficulty of production.
Value, or marginal scarcity, is a very complex factor depending on raw expenditure of production and desire, and comes from both. Both of these are "subjective" but bound each other. I'd love a supercomputer, but I don't want to break my ass too much for one.

* chemistry and cooking are two fields where luck comes into play in successful production.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A new ally

"I could also point out that if libertarianism were to try to dismantle the state while selectively attacking social benefits for the poor while ignoring the structural advantages of the rich, the result would be that the working class would make one great rush for the local state socialist party's recruiting office while classical liberalism remained the party of a few intellectuals and middle-class eccentrics out of touch with social reality. I rather submit that this is what has been happening for the last 150 years or so." (emphasis mine)

- Lady Aster

Exactly! And so well put.
One interesting pattern that I bring up when speaking with state socialists of the Euro-phile variety is "liberate the worst first". Because the blindness I see in them is that they make the same mental error of the conservatives, which is the belief that the poor are actually objectively inferior to the rich. Their answer is to paternalistically care for them rather than kill them off. The libertarian rejoinder should be to liberate them first, and see what they can do for themselves. Then we'll be in a position to liberate the next stratum. Of course it would be best if we all woke up free and peaceful tomorrow, but if we have to make a trade off, let's liberate the worst first.
And more specifically, let's focus on bringing liberty to the third world, and the pockets of the third world which have blossomed in the first world. (when I heard those terms for the first time, I always wondered "what's the second world?" )
If through inflation and licensing and "petty" tyranny, the worst off among us are kept down, we'll never really be free. Unless you advocate starving them out or killing them off in wars, in which case you're an Archon and my objective enemy, plain and simple.