Flame On!

The background:

  1. My wife is a feminist.
  2. I hate comments. I mean, I hate flame-wars in comments... and more often than not, that's what happens in comments. So, I tend to just ignore them entirely.
  3. Except here, of course. ; )
  4. As I have stated before, I consider the abuse of power the "ultimate evil".
  5. I love questions. Particularly questions that make one introspect.
Apparently, my love of good questions out-weighs my hatred of comments. Recently, I have taken to participating in the Skeptics "inquisition of the day", where they ask a question of the skeptical community. One of the questions was... let's just say... biased. Despite that, and knowing full well that it would lead to flaming, I was in the habit of replying, so I did.

And then I got sucked in. To a flame-war, I mean. Specifically, about libertarianism and liberalism. I have learned several things from this:
  1. I was goaded into it by the "safe" environment--more people held my point of view.
  2. I don't know that much about supporting evidence for libertarianism.
  3. The root cause of my distaste of libertarianism is fear that it facilitates the abuse of power.
  4. I feel dirty.
It's been an interesting few days. Eeesh.

I'm done there. If you feel I made a complete ass of myself, feel free to comment here. Unless you're Shanek, in which case you should feel free to piss off.

UPDATE: I mean, I'm done with the politics there. I'm continuing to argue against prejudice, but I'm being very careful to comment on that and not libertarianism...


SteveT said...

Actually, I have been very impressed with your comments on the "Great Libertarian Flame War of 2008" thread. Yours comments to Shanek have been calm, well-reasoned, and good natured. Shanek, as usual, seems to be unable to separate himself personally from this argument. In fact, I think he fails the skepticism test completely on this subject. While he may be a skeptic in other areas of his life, on the subject of Libertarianism, he is drowning in the Kool-Aid.

Jeremy Rice said...


Were you aware that he's running for election as a Libertarian? ...So I can understand why he has stock in the company, so to speak. And he clearly has a grasp of economics. And he's moderately well-spoken (even if he chooses to completely ignore the fact that his all-caps are bugging the hell out of everyone).

So it's not all bad... but, yeah, you put it right: he has trouble separating himself from the argument. [nod]

As for the Kool-Aid... I believe there's merit to libertarianism. I just think it's... cold and calculated. Politics needs to have a--dare I say it?--"holistic", integrative approach, so to speak. And for my money, it just seems Libs focus too much on... err... my money.

But I'm willing to investigate it further, just to try and see things from the other side of the fence. So I put a call into my old best friend from college, who has some Lib leanings. We'll see where that leads.

Victor said...

Shanek? The same uber-libertarian shanek I sparred with in JREF forum a few years back, I presume?..

He is an easy trick, dude, if you know some philosophy and economics. Otherwise he will just dazzle you with bullshit.

Right off the bat, he hit with free-market principle (on arts and somesuch) while ignoring externalities, which are a part of real-world economy and which distort the market behavior. Arts are in fact positive externalities (the artists never reap full renumeration for the benefits enjoyed by the consumers of the arts), which is why the free market will never provide the economically efficient amount of arts (or foundational sciences).

Pollution falls into the same category -- it's a negative externality (i.e. the producers never pay the full cost for production, pollution ends up being their way to foist the costs on the society), so in a free market, there will always be more pollution that is economically efficient. Judicious government regulation -- my fave is a cap-n-trade system -- is the answer.

He does make some sound arguments (he is right about child labor and elephants for example), but his understanding of economics is completely, painfully one-sided.

You did make a very good point about privilege. Since it falls outside Shanek's sack of prepared BS, he naturally ignored it at first. Instead, you gave it to him on economics undeservedly. Libertarians don't generally know their shit on economics. They just know some of it, enough to dazzle the random passers-by. They are more like creationists, ready with cookie-cutter arguments which are all flash and no boom.

IMO you really should learn at least the core principles of economics. I know it's not a subject which excites you, but though you may hate economics, economics loves you. It's everywhere.

Victor said...


You write: As for the Kool-Aid... I believe there's merit to libertarianism. I just think it's... cold and calculated. Politics needs to have a--dare I say it?--"holistic", integrative approach, so to speak. And for my money, it just seems Libs focus too much on... err... my money.

You are completely wrong, I am sorry to say. The problem with libertarianism is not that they calculate too much, it's that they don't calculate enough. Real economists recognize the value of leisure and family life (and yes, count it in their calculations), environment, even social inequality. Don't cede the field to libertarians -- they aren't too economical, they are not economical enough! They are completely one-sided and myopic in their economic views, which is the real problem.

Jeremy Rice said...

You know I love you, man, so it's without hesitation that I say: you love mathematics too much. ; ) For you, everything boils down to this one perfect notion, this elixir of life, these numbers without flaw, perfect in their ability to resolve themselves, limits notwithstanding!

While I think it's laudable to factor family and fashion and taste into one's equations--to better approximate truth--there are complexities mathematics will not capture for decades if not centuries. Morality and the shifts therein leap to mind.

Of course, I know you know this, and I know you'll tell me it's the best thing we've got, the most elegant solution, the most logical solution, the only quantifiable solution (begging the question as that may be). But some part of me just goes limp when you say that. [ahem: perhaps I should re-phrase...] I have this illusion, a gut-feeling though it may be, that mathematics is subject to some infernal epistemology (so to speak) that will lead to disaster if perused too far.

The movie Pi comes to mind. Remove any power-drills in your home. : )

That said, pushing my pre-judgments aside for a month or two... I agree. It is time to learn some economics.

So learn me.

And, yes, that is Shanek of JREF. The topic came up. And, of course, he claims it was all falsifiable ad hominem.

Victor said...

Uhhh... 'learn me'? I can't. There's too much. You will really have to read some books.

However, i can give you a bare-bones primer on the ideas which most often come up in debates.

1) Free market. Yes, it does work efficiently -- when certain basic assumptions hold. This is a mathematical fact, but the devil is in the details. Those assumptions typically include information symmetry (both buyer and seller must be able to have the same amount of information about the product), large market size (a single entity must not be large enough to be able to influence prices in the market), absence of externalities (see my post above on positive and negative externalities) and diminishing return to scale. When these assumptions are critically violated, the market becomes inefficient, or might even collapse. judicious government intervention can make the market work right.

For example, the telecomm act of 1996 made it possible for competitive telecomm industry to exist, by legally requiring the backbone providers to sell backbone access to other companies. Were it not so, the telecomm industry would be subject to a market failure mode known as network effect -- that's when the value of each node in the network grows as the size of the network grows, e.g. with telephones it's more valuable to be able to call 100 million people who have telephones than just a hundred people who have telephones.

Every single basic -free-market assumption, when violated enough, leads to some form of market failure.

Information symmetry -- lose it, and the market can collapse completely. For a good example, see "Why you can never buy a decent used car". Information asymmetry is also one reason why a free-market health insurance system cannot exist. it's because the insurance consumer (us) will always know more about their own health risks than the insurance producer (the company) can. So when the company charges average premiums, the people who buy the insurance will largely be the ones who know that their risk is high and for whom therefore insurance will be a great deal. The ones who know their risk is low, but can't prove it to the insurance company, will opt out, because for them it's a loss to buy insurance -- but of course then the insurance company must raise its premiums, so next the not-so-healthy people peel off and the more sick ones remain, etc. A death spiral. This is an insurance-specific market failure mode known as adverse selection.

Market size -- self-evident.

Externalities -- if they are positive (the producer doesn't get all the benefit), the goods in question (such as arts, foundational research, good governance, etc.) will be underproduced. if they are negative (the producer doesn't pay the full cost), the good in question will be overconsumed. A perfect positive externality is called public good, e.g. national defense. A public good is a good which is non-rival (me using it doesn't diminish your ability to use it) and non-exclusive (i cannot deny its use to you). This is the economic reason why things like national defense, legislature, judiciary, etc. must be provided by the government -- because, being perfect positive externalities, they would never get provided by the free market at all. Economics underlies political theory.

Returns to scale -- if they are increasing, such as with the network effect I mentioned above, then the result will be something called natural monopoly. A natural monopoly can change inefficiently high prices, yet because it has a much fatter profit margin due to its size, it can kill any new entrants into the markets by temporarily lowering its prices. look up natural monopolies in Wiki.

Victor said...


2) Cost considerations. Specifically, opportunity cost -- i.e. the cost of foregone opportunities, what could be done instead if you weren't doing this thing. Full cost or benefit of something must always include opportunity cost. See the next point.

3) Pity factor. Child labor and sweatshops are a good thing. That's because in societies which practice them, people take up those horrible jobs because the alternatives are even worse. Ban child labor in a poor third-world country to appease squeamish first-worlders, and the children end up starving, on the street, or forced into prostitution (yes, that actually happened). Ban sweatshops, and the people who used to make $2/day in a sweatshop will now make $1/day in subsistence farming or something.

Once societies get richer, it stops being profitable for child labor and sweatshops to exist. Environment, good working conditions, etc. are all luxury goods -- the goods which are more consumed as income grows. The best way to kill sweatshops and child labor is to help those countries become richer faster. otherwise, you are simply condemning their people to needless suffering to appease your conscience.

4) Pollution. Shane was right when he spoke about elephants, but wrong about everything else. The subject matter is something called Coase Theorem -- it proves that pollution question can be resolved with maximal efficiently if all property rights are fully allocated. Well, guess what? You can allocate property rights on elephants, you might even be able to allocate property rights on a rive, but you can't do the same for air.

5) Free trade. it's always a good thing. If you want to look it up, look up 'comparative advantage'. Wilfredo Pareto proved that free trade is always better than restricted trade. Of course, a crucial aspect of it is that free trade in goods and capital must go hand in hand with the free trade in labor. Impose immigration restrictions, and there's no real free trade, but a distorted situation which favors the corporations and disadvantages the workers.

These should be enough hooks to get you started.

Victor said...

BTW, another interesting fact about free trade. It's been proven that in its total economic effects, an import tariff is actually exactly like an export tax. So people who want to impose tariffs on imports, but who would never dream of taxing our own exports, are idiots.

Jeremy Rice said...

Hey, ma! I done been learned!

Thank you, sir. That was a lot of work, and I recognize and appreciate it. I will no go forth and eduply.

Victor said...

Feel free to ask me any specific questions on libertarianism or economics if they come up down the road.

r_b_bergstrom said...

Wow. Lots to learn here. I'll be reading it again next week, I think.