January 9, 2008

5 Common Libertarian Arguments Debunked: Part V – “The Value of Freedom”

Posted in Economics, Politics tagged , , , at 3:35 am by Travis Bedford

Here’s the fifth and final installation of the “5 Libertarian Arguments Debunked” series. Today’s topic, argument number five:

5. The argument from liberty, which claims that freedom per se is intrinsically valuable – valuable for its own sake – and that the best political system is therefore the one that maximizes freedom.

Never let a libertarian be your banker. This one is attempting to limit how we can take our freedom. I like mine gently stirred, with cream, and a bit of sugar. Libertarians prefer their coffee freedom plain because they deny the existence of cream and sugar.

While I agree that “freedom” is valuable to a degree, there are other valuable things. You can have all the freedom in the world while living in a mud hut in the middle of Africa and be completely unhappy. Non – insane people do not want this.

If we should try to allow people to live the best lives they can, there are some cases where some rights may need to be taken away for the greater good. While this sounds a lot like something from 1984 (big brother IS watching you, after all), it’s really not that bad when you get down to it, and is something most people agree with.

People like their right to live well, and even if this means they give up their right to live horribly (they don’t), they don’t have a problem with it. let’s take a look at this as a list:

  1. People like living in a nice way
  2. The easiest way to live in a nice way is to have a government make things nice for you
  3. To do this, governments need to regulate some things
  4. People consent to having some things regulated in exchange for the good parts of society
  5. Therefore, the government can morally have sex with regulate to the degree that the citizenship grants

Freedom is a good thing, but it needs to be combined with other good things in order to be part of the best political system.

January 4, 2008

5 Common Libertarian Arguments Debunked: Part IV – “The Social Contract”

Posted in Economics, Politics tagged , , , , , at 8:45 pm by Travis Bedford

On to part four of the series. Anyone who has read the prior entries is probably familiar with the way I’ve used the term “social contract”. Libertarians take the argument, and, as usual, come to an insane conclusion based on it.

The argument can be summarized by this:

4. The contractarian argument, which (greatly to oversimplify) argues in general that all moral claims rest on a (hypothetical) “social contract” between the individuals comprising society, and in particular that a libertarian society is what rational individuals would contract for. This sort of argument is represented by such libertarian theorists as Jan Narveson and James Buchanan.

As the author acknowledges, this has been simplified, but the core of the argument remains. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article “The Definition of Morality”,

The term “morality” can be used either

1. descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forth by a society or,

  • a. some group, such as a religion, or
  • b. accepted by an individual for her own behaviour or

2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forth by all rational persons

The libertarian social contract argument seems to be using the second definition. What’s left to be argued is what is rational for a society.

Governments are supposed to serve the people. That is their purpose, after all. Therefore, the best system of government is the one which best serves the people. With a bit of modification, the argument I am about to present could be used to present socialism. Don’t worry, though. In Soviet Russia, argument makes you.


Laid out semi – formally, my argument is this:

a) The best system of government (or lack of) is the one which does the most good for its citizens.

b) Organized governments do the most good for their people.

c) A regulated capitalist economy does the most good for those who use it.

d) Therefore, if a, b, c is true, it is true that the best system of government is an organized government with a regulated capitalist economy.

Pretty straight forward, but that’s logic for you. It’s not a dump truck you can just pile assertions on. You need to keep the tubes clean. Premises b) was proved in Part II – “Inviolable Rights”. Premise c) was proved in Part I – “The Free Market”. Premise a) requires a bit more thought.

If a government (or non government) is supposed to be a moral body, it should try to do good, or at least try to prevent bad. An immoral government is something nobody (bar the occasional masochist) wants. Their purpose is to take care of the citizens, and you can’t very well ‘take care” of someone by shooting them in the face. Unless you’re Hitler (I had to mention Hitler, it’s necessary for all arguments to have at least one Hitler reference).

If a rational individual will choose the best government, a rational individual will not choose a libertarian non – government.

Check back soon for part 5, the conclusion of the series.


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5 Common Libertarian Arguments Debunked: Part III – “Cultural Evolution”

Posted in Economics, Politics tagged , , , , at 2:47 am by Travis Bedford

In continuation of this five part series, today I will address the third of the most common libertarian arguments, and that argument is:

3. The argument from cultural evolution, associated with F.A. Hayek, who held that societies embody cultural traditions which compete with one another in a kind of evolutionary process, the most “fit” traditions – those most conducive to human well-being – being the ones that survive and thrive, driving their rivals into extinction, or at least onto the historical sidelines: hence capitalism’s victory over communism, a culture which respects private property, contract, and the rule of law being superior in cultural evolutionary terms to one which does not.

This argument is really quite strange. Please excuse me if I’ve misunderstood it, but I don’t speak gibberish. If what I see here is correct, the author is arguing that capitalism and “freedom” are better because cultures which contained these characteristics have been selected for, and are therefore “better” for its people.

The similarity to biological evolution is clear, but the conclusion is not. With evolution, the replicator (in this case, “Capitalism” or “Communism” are the replicators) which is best able to make copies of itself is the most successful. The comparison holds up to this point, to a degree. When we reach the “conclusion” (note that biological evolution doesn’t have an equivalent), the problem is apparent. TalkOrigins has a more in depth explanation of biological evolution.

The replicator best able to produce is not inherently “better” than another, at least in this case. Capitalism is not better than Communism (not quite opposites, socialism would be a better word for communism) because it reproduces better, it is better because it creates the greatest good for society.

Still, extreme capitalism (the economic side of libertarianism) is not necessarily the best option for society, either. Part I of this series goes into this in more depth. To reiterate, it’s not what’s the best, it’s what reproduces the best.

As with the previous arguments, this one is appealing on the outside, but lacking on the inside.

Part IV of the series will cover the contractarian argument.


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    January 3, 2008

    5 Common Libertarian Arguments Debunked: Part II – “Inviolable Rights”

    Posted in Economics, Politics tagged , , , , , at 9:50 pm by Travis Bedford

    Yesterday, in Part I of 5 Libertarian Arguments Debunked, I debunked the utilitarian argument. Today, I will address the natural rights argument. The natural rights argument is thus:

    2. The natural rights argument, which emphasizes the idea that individuals have inviolable rights to life, liberty, and property that it is morally wrong for anyone, including the state, to violate even for allegedly good reasons (such as taxation for the sake of helping the needy).

    The author of this summary is clearly not a libertarian himself, though his observations seem to hold, and fit with my observations of libertarian debating style.

    This particular argument is dependant on the assumption that there is nothing an individual can do to waive his rights in exchange for others if they so choose. In democratic countries, there exists a sort of unwritten contract between the government and its citizens. The citizens agree to allow the government to control certain aspects of their lives to improve their lives overall. While some government actions may be inconvenient for an individual, as a whole, the actions of democratic governments improve the lives of their citizens.

    The Constitution of the United States is an example of a government's contract with its citizens.

    Looking at countries like the U.S., it can be hard to imagine a system more self serving. Still, it serves (this is not an endorsement of the U.S. government, only a remark on its few benefits). Without government, infrastructure does not develop, or develops very slowly. The industrialization of the U.S. was very much government controlled. While corporations may have done the actual work, the government paid the bills, or at least created opportunities.

    Infrastructure (and government programs, something for which corporate equivalents are almost nonexistent) and scientific development usually go together. Difficult tasks call for easier solutions, and science is the way to find them. Advances in infrastructure and science usually improve the quality of life, and quality of life is what governments are there to improve.

    Add it all together, and government intervention is a good thing in many cases, even if the contract it has with its citizens is unwritten.


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        5 Common Libertarian Arguments Debunked: Part I – “The Free Market”

        Posted in Economics, Politics tagged , , , at 5:03 am by Travis Bedford

        The more conservative the right wing gets, the more liberal the left. Libertarianism is becoming increasingly popular, especially on the Internet. In my opinion, libertarianism takes both liberal and conservative too far.

        Under many forms of the idea, libertarianism is just another word for liberal. A moderate libertarian might argue that people should be left to themselves when their actions do not harm others, and the free market should be maintained. This is generally a good idea.

        Unfortunately, some go too far. “Extremist” libertarians, or – anarcho – capitalists as some have taken to calling themselves – claim that government in any form is “evil” or “immoral”. Here, I present responses to some of their most common arguments for this surprisingly popular viewpoint.

        1. The utilitarian argument, the suggestion that a free market and free society best fulfil the goals – prosperity, alleviation of poverty, technological innovation, and so forth (Edward Feser, “What Libertarianism Isn’t”).

        Superficially, this looks like a good idea, and I partly agree with it. “Free society”, taken to mean free speech and other similar liberties, is a very good idea. What isn’t a good idea is an unregulated free market. Don’t get me wrong – I like capitalism. I like to own stuff.

        With any absolute economic doctrine (absolute socialism or absolute capitalism), there are inherent flaws. With capitalism, people best able to exploit others succeed the most. Needless to say, exploitation is a bad thing. With socialism, motivation is lacking. There are also issues with resources, but we’ll pretend we actually have enough for now. Soviet Russia, notably, overcame this lack of inherent motivation through widespread use of the AK 47.

        Ideal economies aside, absolute capitalism (a fundamental tenet of libertarian thought) tends to lead to heavily unbalanced distributions of wealth. It’s common for libertarians to argue that the “free market will stabilize the economy”. This is a blatant falsehood. There is no magical free market fairy to swish her wand and take back all the money from the naughty corporations, and tiny imbalances in the economy would refill their pockets in short order.

        It’s unlikely that we’ll ever find a perfect economic system, but we can certainly come close. Libertarianism seems to be shooting for the moon, because it’s way out there.

        Check back tomorrow for part two of the series, or subscribe to the RSS feed.


        Go to Part:

          December 30, 2007

          The wonderful world of RSS feeds

          Posted in Technology tagged , , , at 3:58 am by Travis Bedford

          I’ve added an RSS widget today. “RSS feeds” are a way of keeping up to date on frequently changing Internet content, like blogs. By subscribing to a feed, users are able to read updates with dedicated RSS reader software or websites such as Google Reader.

          Icons like this are often links to subscribe to an RSS feed. After registering with a reader service, you will be able to use these to keep yourself posted on updates to your subscriptions. For example: if you would like to subscribe to this blog, register with a reader, then click the RSS icon on the rights side of this page.

          Feeds are much better than bookmarks with frequently updated sites, or sites you prefer to visit only when there is something new. Consider adding them to your daily Internet routine.

          December 5, 2007

          Public education: engine or footwear?

          Posted in Education tagged , , at 8:10 pm by Travis Bedford

          Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk “Do schools kill creativity” has been instrumental in the formation of my opinions on this subject, so I though I’d ought to include it. Here it is, reposted using my handy dandy Firefox addon:

          Vodpod videos no longer available. from www.ted.com posted with vodpod

          That was a worthwhile nineteen minutes and twenty – nine seconds, wasn’t it?

          Note: If the embedded video isn’t working, go to: TED | Talks | Sir Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity?.

          Most people reading this are products of education systems much like the ones described in the video (if you aren’t, please leave a comment describing your education – I’m sure it should be interesting to compare it to the standard), and should be somewhat familiar with their basic workings. The American and Canadian education systems are very much like what he describes: factories designed to produce university professors. This would be a good thing if only everyone ended up as a professor.

          The problem is that very few people have the desire or capacity to become one. Despite this, most people have the impression (rightly so) that they absolutely must go on to university in order to be successful in life. It is true that a mere High School diploma is not worth much to a potential employer, and university attendance rates reflect this.

          Humanities courses are becoming increasingly popular among students who simply need to have a degree in something . What I wonder is this: what good is a degree in “Political Science” if the holder ends up flipping burgers at McDonalds?

          Different school systems have different different goals worded in different ways, but whether your stated goal is to “provide students with sufficient education to maintain an income of median value”, or “inform students of the nature of the Supreme Leader, Allah, and the wonderful Koran”, graduates should be able to live with a reasonable level of happiness (or simply survive at the very least), and be contributing members of society.

          What is a contribution? If we use the simple definition “to add to something”, it is clear that anything which can be added to society – art, maths, science, music, or drama (Hollywood not included out of spite). As with investment, education needs diversity. No, I don’t mean allowing seven year old girls to wear veils. That’s fucking stupid. What I do mean is that graduating students should have the greatest possible ability to succeed and contribute (this is the goal of education, after all).

          Students with natural talents in certain areas will tend to do better than others without talents in those areas, assuming a “peak” is not reached at which point improvement is impossible. Nurturing these talents should help a student go farther than they would if shunted toward other fields. A person who loved math as a child is just as able to grow up to be a brilliant mathematician as a person who loved art is to grow up to be a brilliant artist.

          If natural talents and student interests are taken into account, I believe the education systems would be greatly improved. A system which allows students to choose “majors” at a much younger age (high school level) might lead to increased student success, and may prevent some of the failures associated with the standard “student learns all things equally” approach. People usually need some sort of motivation to learn, but hopefully students would be able to motivate themselves.

          Whatever the answer is, it isn’t rote memorization, and it isn’t cramming.


          December 1, 2007

          Are you atheist enough for the Infidel Challenge?

          Posted in Atheism, General Ignunce at 9:53 pm by Travis Bedford

          Today is National AIDS Day, apparently, and to celebrate I have decided to issue a challenge to all non-Muslims. The challenge is this: create a horribly drawn image of Islam’s prophet Mohammad, and display it in a public area. Yes, the Internet counts. I’ll go first:


          November 24, 2007

          On relevance, circular reasoning, and climbing pigs

          Posted in Philosophy tagged , , , at 1:36 am by Travis Bedford

          Today in the RichardDawkins.net chat, a user whose name began with Spartan (insert obligatory “300” reference here) started something of a discussion. Unfortunately, it was a rather one sided discussion; he repeatedly insisted that math and science are nearly useless because they can give only “estimations”. Before going through this with a fine toothed Comb of Ockham, though, it would help to know where he was coming from.

          His argument is one typical of “New Agers”, or post – modernists. He insisted that it is absolutely impossible to know anything, in terms which would confuse even the best theologian. This makes a bit of sense at first, because it’s logical. If you want to absolutely prove that something is true in all frames in all situations at all times, you need to be omnipresent (to borrow a term), and able to measure the states of these many, many frames all at once, and at all times. We can’t do this at the moment, so for the time being we have to make due with a lack of absolutes.

          Gosh, this is hard. We can’t know anything for sure! Whatever are we to do? Wait a minute. What changed? Absolutely nothing. That’s right – we can go on living without knowing things to 100% certainty. Ninety – nine percent is good enough for me.

          His argument might have made a bit of sense if it weren’t more circular than a twelve dimensional hypersphere on LSD. Often, his speech followed the lines of “how do you know that’s why you know what you know? You don’t know you know that, and neither do I, so we don’t know what we know is actually what we know, you know?”. Yes, he actually said that (paraphrased, but the order of the words doesn’t matter much). The problem with what he’s saying is that it doesn’t matter.

          Whether or not we “know” anything for sure doesn’t matter for the world we live in. What does matter is figuring out how this world works, how we can improve it, and what to do with it. Filling this world of ours with hours of tripe, while potentially good served with sugar coating, is not the way to go about doing anything useful.

          I lost blood today. I suspect my brain is still bleeding. IQ points are seeping out my ears, and various other orifices. Have a very nice day.


          November 23, 2007

          Mutant fish arrive from ocean depths

          Posted in Atheism, Evolution, Science at 1:52 am by Travis Bedford

          No, this isn’t the latest monster movie, and it doesn’t feature Tom Cruise either, though his resemblance to a fish is arguable. Rather, this is about evolution, and the mistreatment it receives in society. What are normally focused on in debates about teaching evolution or creationism are not the consequences (positive or negative) of each, but the place of each with respect to science. The verdict is quite clear: evolution is science, and while creationism makes scientific claims, it is not scientific.

          When creationism is taught, people may tend to take things for granted. After all, God gave us this planet, didn’t he? When much of the population is busy celebrating Earth’s 6 000th birthday, issues like global warming, deforestation, peak oil, and artificially imbalanced ecosystems tend to be ignored. This would be all well and good if the world were ending any time soon. (Un?)fortunately, barring a post – Cold War ending to the Cold War, the world will not be ending any time soon, and certainly not in our lifetimes.

          This is not just an issue of educational rights and wrongs; it’s about consequences. The consequences of religion and religious style thinking affects people everywhere in ways they usually fail to recognize. Stories such as the one seen here pop up because of failures to plan ahead.

          The plight of these fish is due almost entirely due to a failure to apply science – in this case evolution – to real world situations. This has caused the depletion of certain fish stocks, and we will reap the consequences until natural selection manages to sort things out again.

          By teaching evolution, and more importantly, the scientific method, we can prevent at least some of these disasters of – in the eyes of the average citizen – insignificant proportions. As Darwin said, “there is a grandeur in this view of life.” Let’s teach the grandeur.


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