Friday, May 20, 2011

"Pre-Existing Revolutionary Practices"

Jeff Shantz's Constructive Anarchy: Building Infrastructures of Resistance:

"The Leviathan is stronger than ever..."

From Daniel Singer's 1970 book, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968:
“Anarchy” is one of the most fashionable words of our time. It was flogged in France during the May crisis, though clearly not to death, since it lives on in every newspaper and flourishes in conservative conversation. This abuse of the word should not be confused with any renewed interest in the doctrine of anarchism, in the controversies between Marx and Bakunin, between socialists and anarchists, over the way to get rid of the state. The Leviathan is stronger than ever, the problem of its “withering away” is still very much with us and will emerge later in the story. But the censorious defenders of the established order are not concerned with such theoretical issues. “Anarchy” is for them a synonym for “disorder” and is used with its traditional companions—“nihilism,” “mob,” “social envy”—as a verbal first line of defense against the challenge to authority. Its current fashion is an obvious symptom. Those in power do feel challenged.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lowenthal: Hodgskin not a socialist

In her 1911 dissertation, The Ricardian Socialists, Esther Lowenthal wrote the following of Thomas Hodgskin, arguing that he was “not wholly a socialist,” and that socialism per se stresses “social control.” Benjamin Tucker would have disagreed:
It may be said that the economic element in socialism is not exhausted until the machinery of distribution has been dealt with. Competition is the mechanism on which the economist of the individualist school relies to award to each man his just product. The socialist distrusts this method, and would substitute for it a consciously designed system of wages. Hodgskin would then be, even in his economics, not wholly a socialist. For he would trust, as we have pointed out, the distribution of wealth, without reserve, to the higgling of the market.
In that larger theory, whether one call it political or sociological, which concerns the relation of the individual to society, the difference between Hodgskin’s view and the socialists, is very wide. Hodgskin, as has been shown, would reduce to a minimum just short of anarchy the social control of the individual. He rejects the possibility of a purposive human shaping of progress. He stands, on the contrary, for an extreme statement of the individualist platform: self-interest, competition, laissez-faire, natural rights and natural law. With Hodgskin then the socialist, whether of the earlier idealistic type or the opportunist state socialist of to-day, could find few points of sympathy. There is an impassable gulf between those who put all faith and those who put no faith in the emergence of social harmony from the unrestricted play of human activities; between those who believe in social and those who believe in private judgment.
It is obviously necessary for the socialist, since he would stress social control, to emphasize at the same time social responsibility. He tends to seek in environment, both natural and social, for the causes of human good or ill. His method of reform, therefore, is to perfect environment. Here again Hodgskin is opposed to the socialist. He minimizes the importance of natural environment, and finds social environment so far as it consists in legislation or the conscious formation of standards as detrimental to progress. His method of reform is to repeal all restrictions on the free play of individual activity and to trust to innate laws of human nature to produce civilization and human happiness.

Woodcock on Proudhon and "industrial gigantism"

In the introduction to his celebrated biography of Proudhon, George Woodcock remarks upon some of the pitfalls of largeness and capital accumulation that have become so pronounced in the world today. That so many today should be so sure that hierarchy and rigidity develop naturally from a free markets is evidence of how deeply free markets are misunderstood. Proudhon, says Woodcock, understood the economics of freedom, of contract excluding government, as naturally disposed to “decentralization” and a kind of “federalism.” Having also witnessed the problems of hierarchy, many of Marx’s early followers (and still many more today) sought, unlike Proudhon to replace it still more “centralized authority.” In the following passage, Woodcock’s claims anticipate much of the work of Kevin Carson, particularly his analysis of economies of scale:
But history has turned on its axis, and now, in a post-industrial age, we are beginning to look again at our economic and social relationships, and to realize that the mass structures of the recent past have themselves become obsolete. In such a situation Proudhon seems to be transformed from a retrograde into a progressive thinker. I am not admitting that he was ever out of place, for I think that in their day both the Marxists and the revolutionary syndicalists were wrong in accepting so uncritically the phenomenon of large-scale and centralized industrial organization. But I think that today, now that we know all the social, economic, and ecological evils of industrial gigantism (and of political gigantism as well), Proudhon, even more than the other great anarchists, is our man, his voice speaking as clearly to the problems of our day as it did to the problems of his own time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hoppe on Austrian and Marxist class analyses

In the following passage, Hans-Hermann Hoppe notes a similitude as it exists between Marxist and Austrian class analyses, an intersection that has long gripped me and directed my own reading. Before the passage I’ve set forth, Hoppe argues that exploitation inheres in the “nonrecognition of the homesteading principle” alone, whether applied to tangible materials such as land or to the “homesteaded body.” Hoppe’s argument therefore tracks, on some level, that of Thomas Hodgskin when he differentiated natural and artificial claims to property. It is not “private property” in and of itself, contends Hoppe, that creates the necessary conditions for exploitation, but rather its violation, at least when the nature of property rights is properly understood.

The important question embedded in Hoppe’s narrative, then, is what defines homesteading, for, if exploitation is postulated as hinging on its parameters, we ought to be worried about “deviation” from them (using Hoppe’s word). The answer to that question, of course, has been the subject of the most inflamed disagreement among anarchists, ostensibly dividing “propertarians” from social anarchists. I’ve noted before that I consider the gulf very bridgeable in that it is no clean split at all, but is instead something like a sliding scale. There will be more on that to come. Hoppe:
History, then, correctly told, is essentially the history of the victories and defeats of the rulers in their attempt to maximize exploitatively appropriated income and of the ruled in their attempts to resist and reverse this tendency. It is in this assessment of history that Austrians and Marxists agree, and it is why a notable intellectual affinity between Austrian and Marxist historical investigation exists. Both oppose a historiography which recognizes only action or interaction, economically and morally all on a par; and both oppose a historiography that instead of adopting such a value-neutral stand thinks that one’s own arbitrarily introduced subjective value judgments have to provide the foil for one’s historical narratives.
While productive enterprises come into or go out of existence because of voluntary support or its absence, a ruling class never comes to power because there is a demand for it, nor does it abdicate when abdication is demonstrably demanded. . . . Rather, what makes the rise of an exploitation firm possible, and what alone can in turn bring it down is a specific state of public opinion or, in Marxist terminology, a specific state of class consciousness.

Voltairine de Cleyre on "the extreme Individualists"

Left-Libertarians: "Free Market Laborists"

In The Pillars of Economic Understanding: Ideas and Traditions, Mark Perlman and Charles Robert McCann give us an accurate appellation for left-libertarians in their description of Thomas Hodgskin:
Hodgskin may properly be termed, within his own restrictive Natural Law framework, as a free-market laborist for whom capital and labor were seen as inextricably connected.

Karl Polanyi on the planning of the "free market"

A passage from Kenneth McRobbie and Kari Polanyi Levitt's Karl Polanyi in Vienna: The Contemporary Significance of The Great Transformation that will be of interest to left-libertarians:
The point of departure for understanding the complexity of the process of the making of a market society might be the following three thoughts which are central to [Karl] Polanyi’s argument in The Great Transformation. The first thought is that “a market economy can exist only in a market society”; the second, that market societies are not natural, they are made; the third, that they are made by states. The “free” market, Polanyi argues, is an “institutional structure” which does not emerge spontaneously from our proclivity to “trade and truck” but is planned and state-sponsored, hence the paradoxical observation: “Laissez-fair was planned; planning was not.”

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rand and Marx: Ontological Bedfellows

Reading the following passage from Chris Matthew Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, I was struck by the quote from Marx, reflecting that it could have been written by Rand herself. When I talk to people about philosophical ideas outside of political theory, I'm often struck by how differently two people with the same or similar ideas about politics think about metaphysics and epistemology. Conversely, people with very similar holdings as to metaphysical and epistemological ideas often reach very different conclusions as they proceed from those building blocks into other areas of philosophy:
By articulating the axioms of existence and consciousness, Rand did not embrace a dualistic perspective on reality. She merely identified the foundations that lie at the base of all philosophical inquiry. As Peikoff explains, these axioms "cannot be sundered. There is no consciousness without existence and no knowledge of existence without consciousness." And yet, as a philosophical realist, Rand emphasized the primary axiom of existence. She affirms the primacy of existence. In a sense, existence and consciousness are internally, but asymmetrically related. Existence exists; it does not depend upon consciousness and would continue to exist if every last form of conscious life were obliterated from the universe. The universe simply is; there is nothing outside, prior to, or at the culmination of existence. Existence cannot be derived from any prior certainty of consciousness, nor is it the product of divine will. There is no first cause or teleological design. There is only existence as such.
By contrast, consciousness is radically dependent on existence for its contents. It is metaphysically passive and, as [David] Kelley explains, "radically noncreative." This metaphysical passivity does not imply epistemological passivity. People are capable of creativity; they are able to selectively reorganize the mind's contents and to project imagination. The radical noncreativity of consciousness refers to the fact that the mind does not create or constitute the objects it perceives. They exist independent of consciousness. Consciousness as such is purely relational, and what it relates to is objective reality. In Rand's view, "A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something." . . .
Rand's emphasis on the primacy of existence is equally a recognition of the fundamentality of ontology in the hierarchy of philosophy. In this regard, Rand may have learned much from her Marxist professors at Petrograd University, who emphasized the primacy of existence over consciousness. The "objectivist" strain in Marxism was particularly apparent in the Leninist worldview, which dominated early Soviet intellectual life. Rand's metaphysic echoes the Marxist preoccupation with "the world as it is," what Scott Meikle has described as "the recognition of the primacy of ontology over epistemology."
Marx also rejected cosmology and endorsed the ontological view of logic. He writes:
Who begot the first man, and nature as a whole? I can only answer you: Your question is itself a product of abstraction. Ask yourself how you arrived at that question. Ask yourself whether your question is not posed from a standpoint to which I cannot reply, because it's wrongly put. . . . When you ask about the creation of nature and man, you are abstracting, in doing so, from man and nature. You postulate them as non-existent, and yet you want me to prove them to you as existing. Now I say to you: give up your abstraction and you will also give up your question. Or if you want to hold on to your abstraction, then be consistent, and if you think of man and nature as non-existent, then think of yourself as non-existent, for you too are surely nature and man. Don't think, don't ask me, for as soon as you think and ask, your abstraction from the existence of nature and man has no meaning. Or are you such an egoist that you conceive everything as nothing, and yet want yourself to exist?
Rand would certainly have taken issue with Marx's solipsistic characterization of egoism. But she too rejected "creation" questions as vestiges of a cosmological perspective. Rand would have greatly appreciated Marx's reaffirmation of the primacy of existence through denial. Indeed, Rand argued vociferously against those who attempted to disprove the existence of something for which there was no evidence. As Peikoff explains: "The onus of proof is on him who asserts the positive." Objectivists rely heavily on this polemical style of argumentation, utilizing variations of the "boomerang" principle. This is apparent in Rand's critique of the "stolen concept fallacy" and the "reification of the zero."
It was Aristotle who first employed the technique of reaffirmation through denial when he asserted that nobody could reject the laws of logic without relying on them in the process. Aristotle viewed these laws at the base of all human activity, reasoning, and language. For Aristotle, such principles were both ontological and logical, grasped intuitively and without need of proof.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sciabarra on dialectics and visions of the state in Marx

From Chris Matthew Sciabarra's Marx, Hayek, and Utopia:
Marx emphasizes a dialectical relationship between the state and civil society. In Marx’s theory, the state serves many contradictory purposes. It provides the illusion of community, even while it serves as the executive committee of the capitalist class. It is a class instrument that also provides for communal needs in class-distorted ways.
Yet Marx views the state—and all extra-economic institutions—as profoundly dependent on material factors, that is, social production. The state is founded on expropriation; “for pillage to be possible, there must be something to be pillaged, hence production.” Though Marx recognizes social reality as an intricate, organic totality, his materialist approach acknowledges that production precedes predation—both logically and historically.
Despite this asymmetry between economic and extra-economic factors, Marx opposes strictly deterministic models of social evolution. For instance, in his discussion of the primitive accumulation process, Marx argues “that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part.” The “disgraceful action of the State” accelerates the accumulation of capital by methods of brute force. The state hastens the capitalist transformation process by crushing outmoded feudal social formations. As Marx writes: “Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.”
Marx’s perspective is not based on historical generalizations. Marx offers an empirical, class analysis. He explains that public debt is “one of the most powerful levers of primitive accumulation.” At the dawn of the modern capitalist era, banks, the recipients of political privilege and national titles, advanced money to the state. Aided by a wide network of taxation, the state expropriated the masses. Gradually, self-earned private property was supplanted by capitalist private property that depended on a form of exploitation immanent to the capitalist production process.
Marx views state involvement in capitalist accumulation as a means of facilitating the inevitable. The state is also a profound source of social and political instability. State involvement in the building of national railways for instance, became a “new source of unbearable state indebtedness and grinding of the masses.” In a display of promarket sentiment, Marx suggests on several occasions that a fully free and mobile market with “complete freedom of trade” offers the masses the best possibility of revolutionary transformation in the production process. Based on this transformation, socialism becomes conceivable. In this regard, Marx lamented that Germany, for instance, suffered “from the development of capitalist production [and] from the incompleteness of that development.” The survival of “antiquated modes of production” proved to Marx that the German people suffered “not only from the living, but from the dead.”

"The reign of contract" in Proudhon

Excerpted from Andrew Vincent's Modern Political Ideologies, containing yet another comparison between Proudhon and Sir Henry Maine:
The first self-conscious anarchist to deploy the concept of justice robustly in his discussion of society was Proudhon. However, it should be mentioned that, despite any prima facie radical reputation, his understanding is economistic and comparable to some forms of classical liberalism. Proudhon, paralleling something of Sir Henry Maine’s ‘status to contract’ argument and Spencer’s ‘militant to industrial society’ idea, argued that societies as they developed towards anarchy moved from government to contract. This was not a contract with any government. Proudhon was deeply critical of ‘contract of government’ theorists such as Locke and Rousseau. For Proudhon, contract replaced government. Contract, he maintained, is opposed to authority and denotes mutuality. People would take the responsibility for their own lives and interact via contract and exchange. The contract is a totally self-assumed obligation. For Proudhon, therefore, it is an ideal vehicle for anarchy. The only exception to this contractarian vision was the family, which Proudhon still conceived of, inexplicably, in hierarchical and wholly patriarchal terms. In general, Proudhon was adamant that there must be substantive equality of contract, and it is this substantive equality that differentiates him from later individualist anarchists.
Contract served two functions: first, it entailed the guarantee of equivalent economic exchange; second, it guaranteed liberty, since relations were purely voluntary and free from coercion. Contract was to characterize the new form of society, something that Proudhon also called a ‘guaranteeist society’. Proudhon came to speak of this society in almost mystical and religious terms. What is unsurprising, and yet puzzling, is the notion of justice that he deployed. Justice is concerned with equal contracts. Proudhon calls this ‘commutative justice’. In the present era we are more used to Hayek and his acolytes deploying this idea, which only reinforces Proudhon’s more market-oriented appearance. Proudhon notes: ‘Commutative justice, the reign of contract, the industrial or economic system, such are the different synonyms for the idea.’ Of significance here is the fact that in arguing for in arguing for this procedural and commutative idea, Proudhon poured scorn on the distributive senses of justice, which we might now tend to associate with reformist socialism and social liberalism. Distributive justice, he argued, relates to authority, law and government. It implied that someone was planning and patterning. Like Herbert Spencer, Proudhon saw distributive justice as feudal in character. It is important, however, to grasp that despite his dislike of communism and distributive justice, he had no love for the idea of an unregulated market.

"Meanings of the Market"

In Meanings of the Market: The Free Market in Western Culture, edited by James G. Carrier, Susan Love Brown had some interesting things to say about socialism, communism and the individualism of Liberty:
But as an individualist anarchist, Tucker disagreed with the anarcho-communists, who had been mostly foreign-born. According to William Kline, ‘the groups could not reconcile their differences, the Communist Anarchists dedicated to a community of property and the Individualist Anarchists deeply committed to private property and individual effort. They never again found any basis for an attempt at rapprochement’.
In his ‘State Socialism and Anarchism’ Tucker made the distinction between the two forms of socialism on the grounds that state socialism was based on the principle of authority, while anarchism was based on the principle of liberty. The common basis for the two, said Tucker, was the labour theory of value. Tucker thought that Marx had followed the path of authority in which ‘the remedy for monopolies is Monopoly’. By this he meant government, the greater monopoly of all. On the other hand, for individualist anarchists the remedy for monopoly was individual liberty and private ownership established through labour.

Who is a Libertarian?

An interesting excerpt on conceptions of the left-right paradigm (nonetheless containing quite a bit of confusion) from Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, published in 1987:
Adherents of both the constrained and the unconstrained visions each see fascism as the logical extension of the adversary’s vision. To those on the political left, fascism is “the far right.” Conversely, to Hayek, Hitler’s “national socialism” (Nazism) was indeed socialist in concept and execution. 
Inconsistent and hybrid visions make it impossible to equate constrained and unconstrained visions simply with the political left and right. Marxism epitomizes the political left, but not the unconstrained vision which is dominant among the non-Marxist left. Groups such as the libertarians also defy easy categorization, either on a left-right continuum or in terms of the constrained and unconstrained visions. While contemporary libertarians are identified with the tradition exemplified by F. A. Hayek and going back to Adam Smith, they are in another sense closer to William Godwin’s atomistic vision of society and of decision-making dominated by rationalistic individual conscience than to the more organic conceptions of society found in Smith and Hayek. Godwin’s views on war (see Chapter 7) also put him much closer to the pacifist tendency in libertarianism than to Smith or Hayek. These conflicting elements in libertarianism are very revealing as to the difference made by small shifts of assumptions.
Godwin’s profound sense of moral obligation to take care of one’s fellow man never led him to conclude that the government was the instrumentality for discharging this obligation. He therefore had no desire to destroy private property or to have the government manage the economy or redistribute income. In supporting private property and a free market, Godwin was at one with Smith, with Hayek, and with modern libertarianism. But in his sense of a pervasive moral responsibility to one’s fellow man, he was clearly at the opposite pole from those libertarians who follow Ayn Rand, for example. It was the power of reason which made it unnecessary for government to take on the task of redistribution, in Godwin’s vision, for individuals were capable, eventually, of voluntarily sharing on their own. But were reason considered just a little less potent, or selfishness just a little more recalcitrant, the arguments and vision of Godwin could be used to support socialism or other radically redistributionist political philosophies. Historically, the general kind of vision found in Godwin has been common on the political left, among those skeptical of the free market and advocating more government intervention.
Logically, one can be a thorough libertarian, in the sense of rejecting government control, and yet believe that private decision-making should, as a matter of morality, be directed toward altruistic purposes. It is equally consistent to see this atomistic freedom as the means to pursue purely personal well-being. In these senses, both William Godwin and Ayn Rand could be included among the contributors to libertarianism.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

"Karl Marx and the Anarchists" - Namely Proudhon

From Paul Thomas’s Karl Marx and the Anarchists:
With respect to contract, Marx, as we shall see, was to pounce with some glee on Proudhon’s notion that free and equal exchange, of a synallagmatic and commutative kind, could become the economic and moral basis of a new and better society, and we shall examine his criticisms in due course. What concerns us more immediately is the contractual basis of Proudhonian mutualism. Proudhon’s in some respects curious contractualism might be taken as an ironical footnote to the long and distinguished history of ‘social contract’ theories of the state, since according to Proudhon’s version the outcome of the free imposition of mutual, equally and reciprocally binding obligations and engagements was to be not the state but its disappearance. Proudhon believed that if contract, of a simple and direct kind, between two parties, were made the paradigm of human relationships in general, this move would be both cause and effect of the removal of illegitimate political, as well as property, relationships. Free mutual exchange—of goods that are free and equal in value, by people who are free and equal in value, would secure a balance of interests in society so long as neither the state nor monopoly interfered. It has been pointed out that many passages in Proudhon’s writings are hymns to contract excluding government, that ‘not even Sir Henry Maine had a more lyrical conception of contract than had Proudhon’; he believed that contract by its very nature excluded government, just as government by its very nature—a factitious and implicitly feudal nature—was the denial of order in society. To Proudhon, who ‘whole programme was contained in the search for the union of anarchy and order’, justice and mutualism in society could be made manifest only by contractual means, only by means that would undercut and render superfluous the state, and would provide a genuinely moral as well as socially generative principle that would owe nothing to the state.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

C4SS's Sheldon Richman on "Capitalism" vs. "Free Markets"

Nineteenth century free market anarchists like Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker never thought that "capitalism" meant "free markets," instead identifying the former with state-created privilege insulating elites from competition. Sheldon Richman expands on the differentiation here:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Paul Fussell's "Class"

In the interest of the promised broadening of First Truth's commentary scope, here are a few passages from Paul Fussell's 1983 disquisition on class, appropriately titled Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. The class system is of interest to me as an anarchist, but beyond that Fussell's is an absorbing and enjoyable book, filled with thoughtful observations and interesting anecdotes. The most weighty qualification of my endorsement is the undertone of contempt for the working class that pervades the book, and—its natural companion—an assumption that everyone in the upper social strata is there as a result of the fact that she's smarter, more diligent, etc. Still, the book is worth reading for its accuracy alone, its ability to capture the subtleties of each class's distinctive characteristics. These passages are not necessarily in order:
If you reveal your class by your outrage at the very topic, you reveal it also by the way you define the thing that’s outraging you. At the bottom, people tend to believe that class is defined by the amount of money you have. In the middle, people grant that money has something to do with it, but think education and the kind of work you do almost equally important. Nearer the top, people perceive that taste, values, ideas, style, and behavior are indispensible criteria of class, regardless of money or occupation or education.
The upper-class person caught slumming is as worthy of the scorn of proles for not dropping his g’s as the prole among the upper classes betrayed by revealing that he has no idea how to eat an artichoke.
Prole drift seems an inevitable attendant of mass production, mass selling, mass communication, and mass education, and some of its symptoms are best-seller lists, films that must appeal to virtually everyone (except the intelligent, sensitive, and subtle), shopping malls, and the lemming flight to the intellectual and cultural emptiness of the Sun Belt.
These two novelties, the new bookstore practice with "special orders" and the commercialization of the book awards, may seem small things, but intellectually they are close to a national disaster, an illustration right around the corner from where you live of Ortega’s gloomy finding that "the mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified, and select."
The excerpts quoting José Ortega y Gasset and lamenting "prole drift" remind of Kevin Carson's work, showing that the mass-production, waste economy is not the product of bottom-up demand, but is rather imposed on society from above by capitalist gatekeepers forcing us into a system of state-privilege and rent-seeking. But Fussell's book is enjoyable for what it is, and that is definitely not a work of political economy.

The Remedy: Worse than the Disease?

In his seminal work Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the late philosopher Robert Nozick attempts to offer an account of a minarchism that could or would arise naturally out of a stateless “original position.” In the first chapter, Why State-of-Nature Theory?, Nozick attempts to briefly adumbrate the reasons why “resuscitating this archaic notion” is a fruitful endeavor:
A theory of a state of nature that begins with fundamental general descriptions of morally permissible and impermissible actions, and of deeply based reasons why some persons in any society would violate these moral constraints, and goes on to describe how a state would arise from that state of nature will serve our explanatory purposes, even if no actual state ever arose that way. 
Fair enough. So Nozick is not attempting to trace the origin of the state from the original position as a historical matter, but in order to arrive at a fundamental explanation of the distinctly political, that is, to understand the nature of the state by considering its birth in a vacuum, apart from history. “The more fundamental the starting point . . . ,” he says, “the better.” Just a few pages later, Nozick is ready to consider the “inconveniences of the state of nature” enumerated by Locke (Nozick also gives a nod to Proudhon), which were thought by Locke to justify “civil government”:
To understand precisely what civil government remedies, we must do more than repeat Locke’s list of the inconveniences of the state of nature. We also must consider what arrangements might be made within a state of nature to deal with these inconveniences—to avoid them or to make them less likely to arise or to make them less serious on the occasions when they do arise. Only after the full resources of the state of nature are brought into play, namely all those voluntary arrangements and agreements persons might reach acting within their rights, and only after the effects of these are estimated, will we be in a position to see how serious are the inconveniences that yet remain to be remedied by the state, and to estimate whether the remedy is worse than the disease (emphasis added). 
The arguments for anarchy can be divided roughly into three kinds, though not without considerable overlap: (1) historical; (2) empirical; and (3) logical. In Chapter 1, Nozick asks us to assume ourselves out of considering states as they have appeared or emerged throughout history, but he does—as the above passage sets out—want us to balance the benefits that we might derive from Locke’s “civil government” against the merits of strictly voluntary society; this, I would suggest, is the empirical realm, not strictly speaking—since there is no evidence or observation apart from history—but in the sense that we’re considering something other than just what individuals rights' demand in and of themselves.

To my mind, that the remedy is, in fact, worse than the disease is among the most potent arguments anarchists have at their disposal in dealing with those who are disinclined to entertain philosophical abstractions about moral rights. If a statist is sincerely worried that a society without the state would necessarily mean a rampancy of arbitrary theft, murder and general rights violations, then he is worried about the very conditions within society that the state guarantees; the “remedy” he has chosen has ensured all of those affronts to justice that political theory is designed to solve or at least address. William Godwin asked:
Is this the genuine state of man? Is this a condition so desirable, that we should be anxious to entail it upon posterity for ever? Is it high treason to enquire whether it may be meliorated? Are we sure, that every change from such a situation of things, is severely to be deprecated? Is it not worth while, to suffer that experiment, which shall consist in a gradual, and almost insensible, abolition of such mischievous institutions?

Goodman on War and Crime in the Total State

The following is a favorite passage of mine from Paul Goodman's On Treason Against Natural Societies, one that includes a powerful, enlightening characterization of modern warfare:
Many (I believe most) of the so-called crimes are really free acts whose repression causes our timidity; natural society has a far shorter list of crimes. But on the contrary, there is now an important class of acts that are really crimes and yet are judged differently or with approval by law and morals both. Acts which lead to unconcerned behavior are crimes. The separation of natural concern and institutional behavior is not only the sign of coercion, but is positively destructive of natural societies. Let me give an obvious example.
Describing a bombed area and a horror hospital in Germany, a sergeant writes: "In modern war there are crimes, not criminals. In modern society there is evil, but there is no devil. Murder has been mechanized and rendered impersonal. The foul deed of bloody hands belongs to a bygone era when man could commit his own sins . . . Here, as in many cases, the guilt belonged to the machine. Somewhere in the apparatus of bureaucracy, memoranda, and clean efficient directives, a crime has been committed."
The crime that these persons—we all, in our degree—are committing happens to be the most heinous in jurisprudence: it is a crime worse than murder. It is Treason. Treason against our natural societies so far as they exist.

More of Tucker on Communism, &c.

I was thinking more about Tucker's view of communism and the social anarchists generally, and I came across the following passage from a volume of Liberty in February of 1887, where Tucker criticizes Lucy Parsons and Johann Most:
Proudhon never fought any particular State; he fought the institution itself, as necessarily negative of individual sovereignty, whatever form it may take. His use of the word Anarchism shows that he considered it coextensive with individual sovereignty. If his applications of it were directed against political government, it was because he considered political government the only invader of individual sovereignty worth talking about, having no knowledge of Mr. Appleton’s “comprehensive philosophy,” which thinks it takes cognizance of a “vast mountain of government outside of the organized State.” The reason why Most and Parsons are not Anarchists, while I am one, is because their Communism is another State, while my voluntary cooperation is not a State at all. It is a very easy matter to tell who is an Anarchist and who is not. One question will always readily decide it. Do you believe in any form of imposition upon the human will by force? If you do, you are not an Anarchist. If you do not, you are an Anarchist. What can any one ask more reliable, more scientific, than this?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tucker on Proudhon on Communism

For whatever it's worth (and we all know how Tucker was in debates):
Communism was rejected and despised by the original Anarchist, Proudhon, as it has been by his followers to this day.
It probably will surprise many who know nothing of Proudhon save his declaration that "property is robbery" to learn that he was perhaps the most vigorous hater of Communism that ever lived on this planet. But the apparent inconsistency vanishes when you read his book and find that by property he means simply legally-privileged wealth or the power of usury, and not at all the possession by the laborer of his products. Of such possession he was a stanch defender.

More on "property" and "possession"

The aversion to “private property” within anarchism finds its origin, of course, in Proudhon, but he understood well the difference between terminology and underlying substance. From What Is Property?:
There are different kinds of property: I. Property pure and simple, the dominant and seigniorial power over a thing; or, as they term it, naked property. 2. Possession. “Possession,” says Duranton, “is a matter of fact, not of right.” Toullier: “Property is a right, a legal power; possession is a fact.” . . .
This double definition of property—domain and possession—is of the highest importance; and it must be clearly understood in order to comprehend what is to follow.
Now, as it is proper to call different things by different names, if we keep the name “property” for the former, we must call the latter robbery, rapine, brigandage. If, on the contrary, we reserve the name “property” for the latter, we must designate the former by the term possession, or some other equivalent; otherwise we should be troubled with an unpleasant synonymy.
What a blessing it would be if philosophers, daring for once to say all that they think, would speak the language of ordinary mortals! Nations and rulers would derive much greater profit from lecturers, and, applying the same names to the same ideas, would come, perhaps, to understand each other. 
Just as there is dissension within libertarianism regarding the meaning of the word “capitalism” (leading to a situation where two libertarians can advocate for substantively the same thing yet respectively oppose and champion “capitalism”), anarchists can disagree as to what defines “private property” and to whether it ought to have a place within anarchism.

Further, it is seldom noted or understood about libertarians that, strictly speaking, we don’t believe in a separate, distinct right to private property in the sense of a positive right. As explained by Roderick Long, “[S]ince rights are, by definition, legitimately enforceable claims, it . . . follows that there can be no rights in addition to self-ownership. . . . [W]hatever property rights there are cannot be rights in addition to self-ownership, but must instead be specific applications of the self-ownership right itself.” Elsewhere, Long unravels the implications of this reasoning:
Only if imposing your will on my stuff counts as (indirectly) imposing your will on me will I, or my agent, be justified in using force to stop you. But by the same token, if external property rights are an extension of self-ownership, then they will have to be much harder to override (assuming self-ownership is hard to override) than if they derived from some less sacred source. Hence libertarianism has to endorse either very strong property rights claims or no property rights claims at all.

"possession" or "private property"?

I have long argued that the “possession”/”private property” divide represents a false choice, that these ideas exist on a continuum that doesn’t lend itself very readily to drawing a line that would bifurcate it into two distinct camps. Rather than preoccupying ourselves with these terms, then, anarchists would do better to focus on the substance of claims about ownership, on their degrees of variation. Benjamin Tucker, for instance, while he advocated for a land tenure system based on use and occupancy, had no objection to the phrase “private property” itself. Where many anarchists and socialists insist that private property is statist and capitalistic per se, Tucker found private property perfectly reconcilable with socialism, going as far as saying, “Whoever denies private property is of necessity an Archist.” Anyone who examines the question will find fairly quickly that knee-jerk reactions on both sides of the supposed divide are red herrings; they seldom reflect the nuances that exist even within their own camp. The blog A Division by Zer0 explains some of the common misperceptions:
One of the most sticky points in explaining Communism to people is the concept of property. This is especially tricky because all socialists renounce the concept of Private Property as wrong and something to be abolished, which in turn created vast confusion to those not familiar with the theory. This is even more accentuated by deliberate (ie propaganda) or accidental misunderstanding of Communism as it espousing that people won’t own stuff. 
But it is an obvious truth that people like to own items for various reasons. From the most simple of not wanting to share a toothbrush, to the more complex of feeling psychological attachments to various items that we would like to consider ours (say a car or a toy). This is understandable and it is obvious that it would be unnatural if any social theory proposed that this is undesirable.
Which is why Socialism doesn’t demand it either.
Now this might seem contradicting but it is only because we are missing part of the puzzle. The fact that one can define two different types of ownership.
The first type of ownership is the common one that everyone is familiar in our current society. It is the type of ownership based on a legal claim to something, ie it is based simply on what the law will recognise based on previous contracts. In this system of ownership, one can consider to own anything and it will remain his until he trades it away. Private Property (PP).
But this is not the only system of ownership that can exist. There is another one that not only comes naturally to humans but it also avoids all the pitfalls of PP. Possession or ownership based on use. To put it simply, one can only ever lay claim to things that they use personally. . . .
Now there is an immediate straw man that people who hear of this system immediately jump to. It goes something like this:
“Under Possession, as soon as you left your car unattended, someone could take it legally. Or someone could get in your house and lay claim to it.”
If this sounds as an absurdity, it’s because it is. Of course socialists do not mean something like this when we talk about Possession. Of course the claim to anything is more solid than this. The basic difference from PP is that it is anchored on the use of the item in question rather than an arbitrary claim that goes back to the original forceful appropriation of land.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Subjective Value, Objective Truth

In Truth in Economic Subjectivism, Gloria Gloria L. Zúñiga writes of “the subject dependent status of economic phenomena”:
It should be clear by now that the way in which the term subjective is employed in economics is not as a predicate of judgments that are produced by a particular state of mind, such as feelings or attitudes, which have little or nothing to do with facts, real objects or states of affairs in the world. This kind of subjectivism is more akin to cognitive relativism: the view that the world has no objective properties but just different ways of interpreting it. By contrast, economic subjectivism is consistent with philosophical realism.
Furthermore, economic judgments are not arbitrary in the sense that an economic agent can arbitrarily designate any object to be whatever he believes it to be. Let us recall from the earlier discussion of exact laws that the economic categories to which genuine instances of these categories belong are not determinable by the wishing or believing of agents. According to economic theory, economic categories obey exact laws that are intrinsically intelligible.
Elsewhere, answering the question of whether “Austrian economics [is] committed to rejecting any kind of objective morality,” Roderick Long writes:
We can distinguish between two kinds of value-subjectivism. You can have explanatory value-subjectivism, which simply means that in explaining someone's actions, you appeal to their evaluations, not yours—just as in explaining someone's actions you appeal to their beliefs and not yours. If you see someone walking out on a bridge, and you know the bridge is unsafe and is likely to collapse, but they don't know that, then in interpreting why they're doing what they're doing you shouldn't attribute to them your belief that the bridge is unsafe if they don't have that belief. If you try to explain their action by appealing to your belief that the bridge is unsafe, your explanation isn't going to be any good.
So explanatory value-subjectivism doesn't say anything one way or the other about whether there is such a thing as objective value; it just says that if you're going to explain people's actions, you explain them in terms of their desires, not yours.
Normative value-subjectivism, on the other hand, means that there are no objective values, that there is nothing to value over and above just whatever any person happens to want. There's no right or wrong way to want things; you can't be right or wrong about your ultimate desires.
So these are two different things, and you can see that at least it's not obvious that explanatory value-subjectivism entails normative value-subjectivism.
I post these passages because, when presenting Austrian School ideas to people who are unfamiliar with the School's subjective theory of value or with economic terminology more generally, I’m constantly confronted with misunderstanding of what Austrians mean by subjective. On the other hand, when I present the idea of objective reality or objective moral truth, I’m routinely presented with the argument that, because people do—as a matter of fact—have different values, truth itself must be subjective.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

On "The Justice Gap"

The following is an excerpt from the Commission on Social Justice’s 1993 paper, The Justice Gap:
Some people (particularly of the libertarian Right) deny that there is a worthwhile idea of social justice at all. They say that justice is an idea confined to the law, with regard to crime, punishment, and the settling of disputes before the courts. They claim that it is nonsense to talk about resources in society being fairly or unfairly distributed. The free market theorist, F.A. Hayek, for example, argued that the process of allocating wealth and property "can be neither just nor unjust, because the results are not intended or foreseen, and depend on a multitude of circumstances not known in their totality to anybody." 
This above passage is a fairly obviously careless caricature of those who advocate for genuine free markets, especially inasmuch as the fact that whether “resources in society [are] being fairly or unfairly distributed” is at the center of libertarian thought. Rather than dismissing the question as “nonsense,” libertarians are very concerned with allocations of wealth and poverty. In contradiction to the suggestion of the author, Hayek was not at all of the belief that an allocation process was per se to be regarded as “neither just nor unjust.” Rather he thought that voluntarily undertaken exchanges on a true free market, as mutually beneficial trades, fit that description.

The idea that libertarians, insofar as we regard the individual as the natural and proper object of the notion of justice, “deny that there is a worthwhile concept of social justice at all” is a false choice. Justice as an idea embraces any number of different frames of reference, and these can vary in their emphases and levels of specificity without necessarily contradicting one another. Since justice for each and every individual will, as a matter of course, be “social justice,” that phrase is no more inconsistent with concepts of individual rights and free markets than the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll band” is inconsistent with the concept of bassist. “Social justice,” in one libertarian sense, might signify a condition where justice is distributed evenly over all of society; that sense of the phrase corresponds with what Roderick Long has called equality in authority—no one enjoying special privileges instituted through the coercion of the state.

And that’s the sense implied in the Hayek quote above, that—in a genuinely voluntary exchange—neither party profits in the exploitative meaning of that word because the parties trade value for value, reckoning their respective values differently. That Hayek regarded the free market as a neutral method of voluntary interaction (“neither just nor unjust”) should not be taken as some kind of hint that free markets are in any way irreconcilable with social justice. Instead, that fact arguably conveys simply that where the free market is a means, social justice is an end (social justice as an equitable result is a second libertarian sense perfectly compatible with—and indeed following from—the first). Contra the Commission, then, free market libertarians, historically, empirically and logically, are champions of social justice. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

the servile state or the seraphic state?

In one of the first pages of The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein says that “whenever governments have imposed free-market programs, the all-at-once shock treatment, or ‘shock therapy,’ has been the method of choice.” From there on, throughout the book, Klein can’t seem to settle on what she means by “free markets,” vacillating between “pure” markets, free from all state intervention, and a tightly controlled corporatism, where resources are monopolized for a tiny elite. Despite Klein’s confusion about what it is she’s actually diagnosing as the problem, she seems at least to understand that there is a difference between the two senses of “free markets” she draws on. She writes:
[Milton] Friedman framed his movement as an attempt to free the market from the state, but the real-world track record of what happens when his purist vision is realized is rather different. In every country where Chicago School policies have been applied over the past three decades, what has emerged is a powerful ruling alliance between a few very large corporations and a class of mostly wealthy politicians—with hazy and ever-shifting lines between the two groups. . . . Far from freeing the market from the state, these political and corporate elites have simply merged, trading favors to secure the right to appropriate precious resources . . . .
A more accurate term for a system that erases the boundaries between Big Government and Big Business is not liberal, conservative or capitalist but corporatist. . . . For those inside the bubble of extreme wealth created by such an arrangement, there can be no more profitable way to organize a society. But because of the obvious drawbacks for the vast majority of the population left outside the bubble, other features of the corporatist state tend to include aggressive surveillance (once again, with government and large corporations trading favors and contracts), mass incarceration, shrinking civil liberties and often, though not always, torture
Elsewhere, Klein admits:
It’s clear that Chile never was the laboratory of “pure” free markets that its cheerleaders claimed. Instead, it was a country where a small elite leapt from wealthy to super-rich in extremely short order—a highly profitable formula bankrolled by debt and heavily subsidized (then bailed out) with public funds. When the hype and salesmanship behind the miracle are stripped away, Chile under Pinochet and the Chicago Boys was not a capitalist state featuring a liberated market but a corporatist one. Corporatism, or “corporativism,” originally referred to Mussolini’s model of a police state run as an alliance of the three major power sources in society—government, business and trade unions—all collaborating to guarantee order in the name of nationalism. What Chile pioneered under Pinochet was an evolution of corporatism: a mutually supporting alliance between a police state and large corporations, joining forces to wage all-out war on the third power sector—the workers—thereby drastically increasing the alliance’s share of the national wealth.
In their willingness to accept the state as an institution likely to restrict or limit the power of commercial interests, statist progressives like Klein contradict others among their own assumptions about power. The above passages seem to demonstrate that Klein appreciates what she calls the “mass corruption and corporatist collusion between security states and large corporations,” yet she would trust the same state to frustrate such corruption and refrain from collusion. Why are some states run by “oligarchs” and “princelings” for the exclusive benefit of the rich, while others are the bulwarks for “economic and social justice”? The same progressives that are forever (and rightly) worried about the state “shrinking civil liberties” and “us[ing] torture as a weapon of policy” see no contradiction in the claim that the state is “needed to intervene in the economy.” Why is the same institution regarded on the one hand as a benevolent protector of the weak against the powerful, and on the other as an avaricious and savage demon in the service of the wealthy?

We are left to wonder why and how Klein’s kind of government is so capable of and so disposed to redistributing wealth in just the right way. All of the rules just postulated about the nature of the state in one paragraph are suspended without any reflection in the next. So when the state actually does redistribute wealth, it is redistributed upward, but we should nonetheless trust the state to aid the needy. What we’re ultimately left with is some version of the fallacy that if only the right people were in charge, everything would be an Arcadian paradise. But it is anarchists who are the utopians, who so hopelessly misunderstand the simplest lessons about human nature.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

the myth of "laissez-faire"

The following is excerpted from Cass R. Sunstein's Free Markets and Social Justice:
The myth of laissez-faire. The notion of “laissez-faire” is a grotesque misdescription of what free markets actually require and entail. Free markets depend for their existence on law. We cannot have a system of private property without legal rules, telling people who owns what, imposing penalties for trespass, and saying who can do what to whom. Without the law of contract, freedom of contract, as we know and live it, would be impossible. . . . Moreover, the law that underlies free markets is coercive in the sense that in addition to facilitating individual transactions, it stops people from doing many things that they would like to do. This point is not by any means a critique of free markets. But it suggests that markets should be understood as a legal construct, to be evaluated on the basis of whether they promote human interests, rather than as a part of nature and the natural order, or as a simple way of promoting voluntary interactions. 
There are at least a few things wrong with Sunstein’s set of claims, all of which are of particular importance to those of us who self-identify as left-libertarians and/or market anarchists. Perhaps the first observation I’d like to make as one representative of those groups is that “laissez-faire” is indeed “a grotesque misdescription” of what free markets have, as a matter of historical fact, entailed. That is to say, the sort of economic system that has been called “laissez-faire” in reality has been nothing at all like a true free market, involving, as the work of Kevin Carson has shown, enormous levels of state intervention. Whether such intervention is “required,” though, turns very heavily on whether we think of the law necessarily as an artificial “construct” imposed from without, or as something that at least can be “a part of nature and the natural order.” Arguably, a system of legal rules need not be something separate and apart from free markets, and, further, arbitrary coercion need not be the source of such a system. Sure, every legal prohibition is coercive in some sense, just as all of possession or property is monopolistic in some sense.

Still, the important question for market anarchists is how and when coercion ought to be used (i.e., what are the legitimate, defensive uses for coercion?), not whether coercive legal rules are ever tenable. Sunstein is right enough that any attempt to define what’s “voluntary” ends up defining what’s “coercive” per se. Nonetheless, he still has to explain why the law is incapable of being “a simple way of promoting voluntary interactions,” at least once we define the parameters of “voluntary interactions.” While it’s convenient for statists to conflate law with the state and to say, “Even freedom is coercive,” it’s important to note the differences in what we would “stop[] people from doing,” respectively. “Laissez-faire,” then, is a myth, but it certainly doesn’t have to be.

Difficulty of discovery

Perusing the Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy earlier, I happened upon its entry detailing philosophical realism, defined as "the view that reality exists independent of our representations of it." This has, as a general matter, long been my own view, and one that I find listeners often take to mean a whole lot of things that—by itself—it doesn't. The entry, in relevant part, goes on:
Relevant to international political economy (IPE) in so far as IPE largely prizes empirical testing of its theories, philosophical realism bears a close connection to POSITIVISM. However, the two should not be confused, especially since philosophical realism is intrinsically an ontological, rather than an epistemological, stance. Realism says nothing about our ability to capture truth through intentional representations, but only that there exists an external reality independent of any attempt to measure or otherwise represent it.
Realism only claims that there is an objective truth to be captured, whether or not we are successful in doing so through any given statement.
I just happen to think that, as an epistemological matter, we can know truth, but, as the entry explains, philosophical realism in and of itself is confined to a metaphysical claim about the nature of reality. Once we have accepted that reality is objective (if indeed we do), we're no less confronted with the question of whether it is knowable as an empirical matter; and even if it is, the discoverability of a fact leaves the discovering to be undertaken. So upon stating that I'm a philosophical realist, I'm often confronted with ethical hypotheticals, and my frequent response to them—"I don't know"—is taken as some kind of proof that there is no "right answer." The "right answer," though, exists whether I know it or not, just as the room doesn't disappear when you close your eyes, and the subatomic particle existed for all of the millennia before it was known.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Health care: costing us far more than it's worth

In 1992, the Congressional Budget Office published a study, Economic Implications of Rising Health Care Costs, from which the following is excerpted:
Limited entry and control over demand are the key elements that allow a provider to earn more than necessary to attract talented, well-trained people into the profession. Economists use the term "rents" to describe a situation in which the returns to labor or capital are above the returns needed to attract the appropriate supply of resources to an activity.
Insofar as the economics of health care costs are, as seems to be evidenced by the above passage, fairly unambiguous, we have little reason to wonder why all of the above-mentioned "rents" remain. Once more, it's not that "the system doesn't work," but that it works a bit too well for the ruling class.

The free market and distributive justice

In summarizing the relationship between the United States health care system and "wealth as a distributive mechanism," in The Law of Health Care Organization and Finance, law professor Barry R. Furrow, et al., argues that "the libertarian approach" "accept[s] the current distribution of resources as a general matter." Furrow goes on to place the "egalitarian" approach "at the other extreme from the libertarian marketeers," summarily concluding that such an approach necessarily requires the state to ration and allocate resources. The left-conflationism in the text is so thick that it largely spoils any useful insights that Furrow and company might have stumbled upon; they could benefit from reading Kevin Carson's study on health care costs in the United States.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

From theory to practice and back

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Professor (and fellow lawyer) Fernando Tesón made the following observations with regard to, inter alia, the insufficiency of abstract moral principles for "the design of institutions" and "the anti-utilitarian bias of modern political philosophy":
Yet many philosophers think that if they can just make the right conceptual distinctions and identify the right political principles they can select the best institutions, laws, and policies. Not so. Abstract moral principles are insufficient to explain the differences between good and bad laws. An adequate theory requires an appeal to consequences in terms of human welfare.  A couple of examples will show what I mean. From Rawls’s difference principle (institutions should be arranged for the benefit of the worst-off) it does not follow that the state should force transfer payments to the poor:  if a free market improves the poor as a class, then the free market is superior to transfer payments. From Ronald Dworkin’s principle of equal concern and respect it does not follow that we should have government-run universal healthcare:  if a different system better realizes equal concern and respect, then that system would be superior. Yet many philosophers illegitimately jump from abstract principles to concrete institutional proposals.
While I think I agree with the basic claim that "[a]n adequate theory requires an appeal to consequences," it's not clear to me that it then follows that we could possibly "overestimate the importance of abstract principles" (emphasis added). Indeed, taking Prof. Tesón's example re Rawls' difference principle, the problem we find is not that the principle is insufficient in and of itself, but that today's political philosophers seem to misunderstand its implications. Prof. Tesón seems to admit as much in his juxtaposition of the free market and forced transfer payments as two different ways of applying the difference principle, as competing accounts of what the abstract principle calls for or signifies. When "philosophers illegitimately jump from abstract principles to concrete institutional proposals," then, it just may be that they're misunderstanding the abstract principles that they're attempting to bring to bear in practice. Maybe that's a semantic quibble, but I think it's more than that. I'm reminded of the following passage from Jean-Baptiste Say's Treatise on Political Economy:
Nothing can be more idle than the opposition of theory to practice! What is theory, if it be not a knowledge of the laws which connect effects with their causes, or facts with facts? And who can be better acquainted with facts than the theorist who surveys them under all their aspects, and comprehends their relation to each other? And what is practice without theory, but the employment of means without knowing how or why they act?
And Murray Rothbard on the supposed divide between abstract moral principles and utility:
[W]e must challenge the very idea of a radical separation between something that is "true in theory" but "not valid in practice." If a theory is correct, then it does work in practice; if it does not work in practice, then it is a bad theory. The common separation between theory and practice is an artificial and fallacious one. But this is true in ethics as well as anything else. If an ethical ideal is inherently "impractical," that is, if it cannot work in practice, then it is a poor ideal and should be discarded forthwith.
I'd suggest that where principles seem to "underdetermine results," what has been uncovered—rather than any supposed irrelevancy or insufficiency of abstract principles—is the inherent difficulty of applying those principles rigorously and accurately.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Shifting the burden

In both law and philosophy, the question of who has the burden of adducing evidence regarding a particular factual claim is often central to a given analysis. Beyond who has the burden, philosophers and legal scholars also wonder how much evidence is sufficient for the demonstration of a truth claim, that is, what does "proof" mean as a practical matter. It is frequently requested of atheists, for example, that they present evidence for the assertion that God doesn't exist, a demand that they find some tangible indication—some footprint in physical reality—for something we have no material reason to believe exists in the first instance. Advocates of religion, of course, seldom find a problem with the idea that a claim for which there is no substantiation whatever is as likely to be true as it is untrue. A passage from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is instructive:
"All right," said Hermione, disconcerted. "Say the Cloak existed . . . what about the stone, Mr. Lovegood? The thing you call the Resurrection Stone?"
"What of it?"
"Well, how can that be real?"
"Prove that it is not," said Xenophilius.
Hermione looked outraged.
"But that's — I'm sorry, but that's completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn't exist? Do you expect me to get hold of — of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything's real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody proved it doesn't exist!"
Smart kid.