BT et C

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Libraries, Lotteries, and again with the Libertarians - Longest Post Ever!

I. Introductory Remarks on the Work of Philosophy

There are, admittedly, just as many bad philosophers as bad anything-else. I recall the early days of the web, when every nouveau-cyperpunk had a "Philosophy" tab at the top of hisher home page, and that this invariably linked to half-page free-verse poems about how damn mysterious this cup of coffee is if you really think about it, and how nothing is true but Everything is One Great Truth, etc.

Philosophers are not good at finding more absolute truths, or truths more absolute, than other people. And they do not necessarily investigate truths more abstract (less practical) than the other sciences. What good philosophers are good at is quite simple: Showing how truths lead to other truths. When this is done deductively, it can give the impression that philosophy is very abstract/disconeected from the real world. But there is also good inductive philosophy; physics in fact was formerly called natural philosophy, and through Newton's time consisted largely of thinking. When reliable laws of mechanics were in place, the foundation existed for hard and separate experimental study of the world, and natural philosophy began to be called the philosophy of science. This is repeated over and over again with various disciplines: philosophy of mind->psychology, political philosophy->social sciences, logic->mathematics->computer science.

If many philosophers are in the habit of telling you what truths you should hold, I apologize on their behalf. They ought to be showing how truths that you do hold lead to other truths that perhaps you don't realize you hold. Or at least lead to a discussion of other truths you hadn't entertained. A far cry from "philosophical banter which makes discourse completely useless (which seems to be the ultimate goal of all philosophical discussions)"

So when I speak about the "right" definition of property, or of coercion, or anything else, it's not to say everyone must submit to it. Mostly I'm describing what definition ought to be employed by the State, because of its power (established in a social contract) to abridge its citizens' rights under certain circumstances.

II. Libraries
The question of public libraries came up in email. I'm in favor of them, and do not think they constitute a forced purchase of Enlightenment. I think that is what they provide, but not through forced purchase, because enlightenment is not a commodity. Enlightenment is just a normal, public, freely-duplicatable good (like software (: ). There isn't much profit to be had from such goods, except under special, unjust situations: suppose a fascist regime where reading/learning are banned in the case of enlightenment, or an IP regime with artificially high barriers to entry in the case of software. A profit-driven free market isn't the most efficient provider of public goods. That isn't an absolute truth derived from a theory of justice; it's a demonstrable fact of history, analytically explained by the free-rider problem.

Anyway, I think the ideal government is basically a firm, democratically organized, for producing such goods: defense, education, networking infrastructure (in this I include roads as well as broadband). This accords, in part, with libertarian principles, and I am more or less on a quest to see how much so. Perhaps I am a minarchist though I'm not terribly fond of some of the names on their list.

Like libertarians, I distrust state power. I think states -- as authority -- have a mandate ONLY to secure people's rights -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the first few that come to mind. But states are not simply authorities. They enter into the economic picture as market agents, like it or not, and the difficulty is in defining their role carefully: what can/should the state purchase, and what can/should it produce? How should it do these things?

The public goods mentioned above are examples of things I feel the state should produce -- not because that's the only way to get them produced, but because evidence so far suggests that's the most efficient way, just as well-defined property rights have proven to be the most efficient way to allocate physical property (btw Allocation should be the name of that class we're trying to name).

All this can change. Information and search costs could be reduced so dramatically that barter again becomes the most efficient way to allocate physical property. Taking it further: suppose teleportation becomes feasible. This would support the libertarian-socialist theory of physical property -- i.e. what I am not presently using can by natural right be appropriated and used by someone else. Why not? I can zap whatever right over here whenever I need it, unless it's something really unusual like a fusion reactor, in which case I'll have to join a waiting list maybe.

III. Lotteries
So people should be free to enter into whatever sort of transactions they want to. I agree. When I say this or that property law -- physical or intellectual -- is "right" I don't mean that's the only mode by which people should be allowed to interact. Only that the nature of things -- which is a subject of philosophy -- determines the natural rights that accrue to them. So physical things because they are physical, imply a property right on the principle that something I'm holding onto and using cannot be taken from me without physical violence being done to me. Because I am human, physical violence cannot be done to me unless I started it.

Hence the right of the state to put you in jail if you cold-cock me and take my trophy. But I can freely sell it to you for $1 (if I'm stupid) or $100,000,000 (if you're stupid). Libertarian principles don't care about that -- but they care very much about what the state can do.

Now if I write a song or a blog, and you copy/sell/distribute it, should the state have the power to jail you? We agree that it does not, because no physical coercion is necessary. We also agree that I can sell you a CD with that song on it for $10 (if you're stupid) or $100 (if you're really stupid). As you suggest, the definition of property is irrelevant, as long as the two agents agree. This is pluralism.

Let's see... what was this section called again... oh yeah

Lotteries are big, complex transactions entered into freely by all agents. They are also, in aggregate, a rotten deal for purchasers. Empirically, they end up being basically a voluntary tax on the poor. As voluntary, they are perfectly permissible on libertarian grounds. But from an ethical standpoint they're pretty awful.

Suppose I decide I don't want to work anymore, and instead I set myself up as a lottery, sell tickets, and take 30% off the top. People who buy my tickets are being screwed. In an individual person (me) these actions would ellicit assorted judgments: "he's a bad person," "that's not nice," "wow, he's crafty," "nice job figuring out a way to take advantage of people's wealth-fantasies for your own gain instead of doing any productive work". I'm free, everyone's free, and I might or might not care about any of these judgments about me.

The problem is that the State is the only agent with whom you are compelled to do business as long as you reside there. A "voluntary tax" is oxymoronic if you think about it. The state has a mandate to accomplish X (disagree all you want on what X includes) and permission to impose the compulsory taxes required to accomplish that. If the state is incompetent to balance its budget, it doesn't get to tromp into the marketplace and set up a business (a lottery, a hardware store, or anything else), because it also serves as an authority over that marketplace, and its presence alongside other businesses is inherently anti-competitive.

This is an objection to state-run lotteries on libertarian principles. I'm curious about your reaction, because there are implications beyond the lottery.


  • First, I will confess to being more thoroughly educated on, and appreciative of, philosophical work. Its pursuit is not for me, but it is obviously productive. I think, however, I can enjoy deductive philosophy, and I resent inductive philosophy because an inductive philosopher could observe my particular application of my own principle, but may work backwards to a different principle than the one I hold.

    A perfect example is your perspective on libraries, and I have to thank you for providing the philosophical perspective from which I can structure my clarification. Previously, I would have been "sucked in" to debating the efficiency of free markets in providing "public, freely-duplicatable good[s]." But now, I can demonstrate how you have erroneously mis-identified the principle I hold to support my perspectives.

    So let's get started...

    Although I fancy myself an amateur economist (as probably everyone with an internet connection does), I put heaviest stock on principled rights, and stock->0 in "efficiency." If efficiency is the solid rule by which we choose what powers government enjoys (utilitarianism), we enable truly barbaric violations of human rights in the name of efficiency (Liquidate all invalids, conquer other peoples for resources, etc).

    So, what is the principle by which I oppose libraries? It is the principle of negative rights superseding positive rights. my take on the rights-duties duality of each...

    I have a right proscribing the action of killing me. The idea supporting this right is it requires nothing of myself nor other people. we exist in separate physical entities, so my natural state is a state of non-killing. From the perspective of the other person, their duty (to not kill me) is the equally natural reciprocal state - requiring no activity on their part. A major congruent right, and the anthem of libertarianism, is the right of free will of action in all cases where it does not violate the same right of others.

    The right proscribing the taking of my property is not a result of some "efficiency" level, but rather the result of another natural state. In physical existence, when I am in exclusive possession of a thing, nothing is required by myself or the reciprocal duty of others to maintain this state.

    If we are in agreement on these rights (negative) as results of nature, then we can continue. Else, I will only contend that I believe (but will not attempt to prove) them to be true, and that all of my perspectives are deduced from these principles *as beliefs*.

    But moving along...(Libraries)

    Education/Enlightenment are not natural states. Enlightenment must be produced thru some action. Thus, a right to enlightenment is a positive right. But looking at the corresponding duty, it is clear that positive rights cannot exist with negative rights. The corresponding duty of others when a person has a right to enlightenment, presribes activity on the part of others to provide that enlightenment. This prescription mandates a violation of a person's negative right to free will of their own actions (if they are un-willing to provide), or their negative right to their property being under their sole control (if they are forced to pay for the provision).

    At the risk of descending into a different argument, this characteristic revokes the "freely-duplicatable" nature of enlightenment. Not because the abstract ideal good is alienable, but because the physical interfaces, thru which humans (being physical) must acquire those goods, are alienable. more on this "Later..."

    this disregard of physical interfaces seems common in philosophically-based arguments, which is another cause for my resentment of them.

    We see then, that by asserting positive rights, we must violate negative rights. At this point, we should stop to consider the libertarian approach to this dilemma - allow persons to establish their definitions of rights as necessary for interactions. If you and I disagree as to what rights we enjoy, we must either cut off our interaction, or come to an agreement to interact. History is the result of the various agreements people have made in the past.


    From this perspective of positive rights then, we see that a government acting as a market agent in producing "public goods" is violating negative rights of at least some people. This is one of the Big Deals for Libertarians, as the government cannot hold any special power above and beyond what any single person can hold. This being the case, we assert that the government cannot violate negative rights, just as other people cannot violate negative rights. Just as the case with every other person, should a government and a single person hold conflicting notions of rights, they must either come to an agreement, or cease to interact. This flows counter to your assertion that the state carries any intrinsic justified power that people do not carry - namely, to violate peoples' rights.

    so, you can see that I do not oppose public libraries on the grounds that free-market activities would provide the same good (enlightenment) more efficiently. I oppose public libraries because the provision of them is a violation of individual rights. Government uses its monopoly on the power of taxation and coercion to extract property from individuals and produce something they may not have otherwise demanded. "A forced purchase of Enlightenment."

    This represents the summary of my principles and their application towards the specific subject - libraries. and we can lead well into my next line of thinking, by asking the question: If enlightenment is "just a normal, public, freely-duplicatable good," why is it costly to produce? And costly to the point that individual rights must be violated for its production?

    Later...(not lotteries)

    Interestingly, and strikingly pertinent, is the idea of teleportation expressed (inevitably?) in abstract, ideal form - with no mention of its physical interface. What are the prescriptions of activities required to initiate a teleportation interaction. Only by ignoring the physical realities is it possible to use teleportation as an argument against the need for private property definitions of physical objects.

    And only by ignoring physical realities is it possible to dismiss the applicability of property definitions to digital objects, which seems to be what you're doing, and seem to think I now agree with?

    Songs and blogs are not ethereal - they require physical interfaces like composers, writers, instruments, and computer hardware. If peoples' interactions involve these things, they are subject to agreements between the people. If they cannot agree, they cannot interact. physicalities are subject to agreements, contracts. example:

    the idea of a certain melody is certainly not the subject of contracts. the building in which the musician communicates this idea certainly is. as such, it may be agreed that he will play only in a sound-proof, secure building, such that no person will hear him unless they pay $5 to enter. (PRM?) disregarding the efficiency of such a system, is it not logical?

    If we must interact, and physical property rights are agreed on, and software is impossible without some physical form, then the hardware that I own certainly IS subject to a contract stating you are not allowed to initiate the scraping of that little metal needle across my magnetic filaments without my consent. And that consent will cost you $2 thank you very much. If you do not pay, you are in an act of physical coercion (sorry), and subject to the penalties we have agreed will apply to physical coercion. in this interaction, our definition of property is not only relevant, but of ultimate importance. the absolute philosophically true definition of property is irrelevant.

    To take this to my logical conclusion, since I have established by what reasoning I hold software to be the subject of contracts, it is possible that a piece of software be subject to a contract outlining and defining the following terms:

    1) for the purposes of the agreement, property is defined to include at least the software code in question, and including ability to copy the code
    2) the recipient of the code agrees to pay $x to receive a copy of the code
    3) the recipient will agree not to copy the code to any 3rd party

    I am merely saying that this mix of property/rights definitions, and resulting contract are possible, permissable, and just if 2 people willingly agree to all the terms. I have not said anything as to the efficiency of this system, whether or not I think this system is optimal, or if I would myself interact on these terms.

    I'm amused at your proposal of substituting "well-defined property rights" with "barter." Since barter is not a rescindment of property rights, but only a system of exchanging established property without the use of an separate medium of exchange - which does increase efficiency by diminishing the cost of information and search, but does nothing with regard to defining property. Indeed, a barter system is as impossible as a monetary system without well-defined property rights governing the objects that are bartered.

    Now Lotteries...

    Continuing in the style of the previous arguments. I will avoid going into an argument over a principle which is NOT the principle I use to support my view.

    First of all and, in light of all above, not surprisingly, I disagree that people are compelled to interact with the state. This is an idea the state would love for people to believe, but is demonstrated false by the fact that "the state" does not exist - only people do.

    Prior to the invention of any official state, people could and did interact with each other on terms mutually defined and agreed upon. Suppose a tribe of Incans and a tribe of Aztecs interact with no official state governing the interactions between them. so there is no "United Nations of Incans and Aztecs." The only forces holding "bad" interactions (those that violate human rights) in check is the likes or dislikes, by the involved parties, of discontinued interactions, or escalated bad interactions. let's call this force "public opinion." it is well documented that all governments ultimately exist only on the support of public opinion. if public opinion changes, the government can be destroyed and another created.

    so, ultimately, public opinion, not government is the compeling force. since public opinion is the result of the preferences of the people in a society, its obvious that government IS the people in the society, it is not its own legitimate entity. and since libertarians believe that no person has legitimate power to violate the rights of other people, libertarians assert the state carries no legitimate power of coercion because no person carries that power legitimately. I am equally happy to denounce the substantiation of corporations as legitimate entities separate from their owners.

    Secondly, we do not disagree on "what X includes," because I say it does not exist, or if it does exist, each mandate can only apply to those individuals who have willingly agreed to it. rather than say "the state" let's say "a government" because there can exist many governments simultaneously to govern different things for different groups of people. what's important is that each of those governments only exists as a manifestation of the agreements of the people who created the government in question.

    let us say a group of people, county A, exist. and the residents of this county all agree that they will each provide $X/year to fund a school on the condition that their children attend for "free." this is fine. let's say all residents of another county agree they will not have a "tax" pay for schools, but rather they will have a lottery system for payment. this would basically be gambling amongst the invidiuals on the 70%, with the ancillary benefit of paying for a school with the 30% off the top. this is fine. not as efficient, but fine.

    lotteries are permissable, just as gambling is, because all parties to the activity are willing participants. government-run lotteries are not objectionable because they are "anti-competitive," or because a government is incompetent, though both of these statements are true. government-run lotteries are objectionable IF they are run by a government without the agreement of all parties, just as every government program should be.

    I'm not sure why you think your objection is based on libertarian principles. you've constructed an objection to state-run lotteries on utilitarian grounds, and assumed competition is a libertarian principle, which it is not. it is a nice side-effect of libertarian principles in an economy. Libertarians should/do not base their perspectives on policy on utilitarian grounds. I do not. I'm not disagreeing that lotteries are "pretty awful," as I think they are. our disagreement is largely about the nature of what the state is. and so I've tried to lay out my perspectives on that, and then show their application to the issue in question - lotteries.

    the vast summation of my arguments are:

    individuals are free to act and interact in whatever ways they want, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others to do the same.

    government-financed (forced) libraries violate the rights of some to provide certain goods to others.

    software, as a physical object, is subject to contractual agreements willingly entered into by parties involved.

    lotteries are permissable if and only if all parties to the lottery are voluntary participants.

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