Chad Perrin: SOB

30 December 2007

instameme: policy uncertainty

Filed under: Cognition,Liberty — apotheon @ 09:10

Over at Marginal Revolution, the inimitable Tyler Cowen “praises” uncertainty — or, less ironically, discusses policy of areas of particular uncertainty for him. Coincidentally, I had a rare moment of uncertainty on some very fundamental policy issues this weekend in conversation with Ogre.

Keep in mind, as you read this, that when I speak of certainty and uncertainty, I speak in relative terms. On one hand, all of it is uncertain to some degree, as I am always open to someone bringing up an argument I hadn’t considered before and allowing myself to be swayed to the extent that argument makes sense. On the other hand, I am generally very certain of my position on various policy issues (at least relative to the mainstream), with very rare exceptions. It usually takes one of two types of person to actually catch me in a moment of uncertainty on a policy issue:

  1. someone whose views are close enough to mine that the points of uncertainty are more likely to come up in discussion
  2. someone quite intelligent who thinks deeply about policy issues, getting down to the principles that underlie them as well as the superficial matters that occupy most people, quite often

Ogre is both of these — as is, for another example, Ratha (whose website seems to have vanished as of this writing), who questioned the foundations of my thoughts on copyright law, an act that ultimately led to those views changing drastically to what they are now.

The policy issue that came up, and for which I’ve harbored some uncertainty for quite a while, is that of national defense.

  1. I’m not entirely convinced that centralized management of national defense is necessary, in and of itself.
  2. I’m of the opinion that a constitutional minimal government (far less extensive, and far more restricted, than provided for by the founding of the US of A) can both be ethically constituted and more effective in the long run as a means of safeguarding personal liberties than anarchotopia.
  3. In the presence of a state of any size, it seems extremely difficult to come up with a workable scenario for national defense that does not involve some central management of national defense.
  4. While government can pay for itself without imposing coercive appropriation (taxes) on the citizenry (thus the ability of a constitutional minimal government to be ethically constituted), adding central management of national defense to the mix begins to make that task look difficult.

In high school, I was a (somewhat naive, in many respects) proponent of Ancapistan — of an anarcho-capitalist non-state as the only ethical basis for society. I don’t mean that anarcho-capitalism is necessarily naive; instead, I mean that the manner in which I arrived at that belief was somewhat naive. I have since then become a libertarian minarchist (in other words, someone who believes the only ethical government is one that is truly minimal within the restrictions of a need for an instituted protection of individual liberties).

My libertarian minarchism is grounded in a number of observations. A few are:

  1. Whatever the general run of an-caps say, there is not a necessary monopoly on force in a single body for the existence of a state. Force can be employed by anyone (ethically) under an ethical state. The state would simply exist as an additional, intentionally enduring repository and employer of force — more of a mediator with an enforcement arm than a social authority. Indeed, for a state to be ethical, it cannot monopolize force — as the United States did not for quite a few years back in the early days (though it had its unethical issues nonetheless).
  2. Nature abhors a vacuum. I hope the manner in which this is applicable here is blindingly obvious.
  3. Economic management is not the same as protection of rights even as they pertain to the market economy. One can enforce rules against fraud without imposing prior restraint on businesses in a misguided attempt to forestall fraud.
  4. A system of jurisprudence is only ethical if it takes as its first mandate “First, do no harm,” and as its second that only by guilt of violating rights (through intent or willful negligence) do someone’s rights become subject to restriction in pursuit of protecting liberty (as such acts imply a willful abdication of rights). This is, I believe, achievable via constitutional restriction of a governmental organization, but not so much through the “private security firms” model popular among an-caps — for reasons of longevity, variability of business climate, and intrinsic goals of differing policy environments. Any private security firm that achieves sufficient constitutional limitation to serve the same purpose becomes a state, after all — as does one that otherwise insinuates itself into a position of corporate longevity, though “otherwise” implies that it would not be so benevolent as the constitutional state I describe.
  5. If nothing else, before Ancapistan can ever be viable, I think the Minarchist States of Libertopia would at minimum have to serve an extended term as a stepping-stone.

Despite all this, discussion with Ogre about the (lack of) necessity of a centralized organization of national defense has me revisiting the issue of whether I should, in the future, continue to consider myself a libertarian minarchist, or instead return to anarcho-capitalist sentiments (far better informed and more well-thought-out this time) of old. It’s going to require some consideration in the near future, and may not be fully concluded in the foreseeable future. While national defense issues prompted this, an additional reason for the continuing thought on the matter is that of what exactly differs between the Minarchist States of Libertopia and Ancapistan. All things considered, the difference seems to consist only of a distinction in longevity — and that is not between “fleeting” and “permanent”, but between “slightly less permanent” and “slightly less fleeting”, if you get my drift. As long as things erode, there arise downsides to greater longevity as well as upsides: thus my uncertainty.

I’d love to see this spread to other weblogs, and prompt a widely distributed increase in the honest discussion of what we do and do not know about our own dearly-held principles for public policy. So . . . tell the world:

What are your policy uncertainties?


  1. I have massive amounts of policy uncertainty. I am fairly distrustful at an intellectual level of people who do not. It’s why I won’t discuss them in that thread on TechRepublic. It is extraordinarily difficult for me to 100% commit to any particular view of “correct”. I can get to 90%, even 97% surity, but almost never 100%. That’s why much of the time, I do not really state conclusions per se, but a list of arguments against something else. Then again, I have spent years studying “The Republic” and many of Plato’s other works, and that is how those pieces are argued as well (I am still somewhat of the beleif that they are at least partially satire, to boot).


    Comment by Justin James — 30 December 2007 @ 11:20

  2. I tend to hover around 98% — and if anyone ever asks me point-blank how certain I am, I’ll let ’em know.

    My 98% is built on a lot of thought, though, and it’s obvious that most of the people who just assume I’m an asshole who just wants to “steal” from “the artists” or to give “corporations” a “free pass” to screw the little guy have spent about five minutes actually thinking about any of their views. As such — like I said — I’m very, very certain relative to the mainstream. After all, the mainstream is basically nothing more than soundbite and cliché layered over a deep well of willful ignorance.

    If you give some of my more frustrating debates on TR a close look, you’ll probably notice that I often end up pointing out that the reason I haven’t responded to a given point by the “opposition” is that the point in question is predicated upon something I’ve previously refuted — and despite this, that “opposition” never returns to the earlier point to try to counter my refutation, or otherwise even acknowledge it exists. I’m always looking for a reasonable argument against my points. I very rarely get it. Is it any wonder my points of uncertainty don’t come up much in discussions?

    Comment by apotheon — 30 December 2007 @ 11:38

  3. It’s odd for me… software copyright is a particularly touchy subject for me, since writing software and working within the industry happens to be the source of my income. Adding that level of of personal investment increases my uncertainty even further. Especially after I took an honest look at my past, and realized that many of my beleifs were really a think veneer of ideology slathered over some pretty selfish actions and thoughts, often after-the-fact. It’s one thing, for example, to download a CD because you truly beleive that the copyright laws intend that to be fair use. It’s another thing to do it because you are too cheap to buy the CD, and then the “information demands to be free” argument is just the justification. Next thing you know, the idea that the neighbor’s TV is demanding to be free pops into your head, you know? The last few years have forced a complete re-evaluation of my life and my beleif system. It’s like I work up and discovered that all of the libraries that my life was statically linked to are much more revised, so now I need to recompile myself too, do the unit testing, regression testing, and make sure everything still works again. Bad metaphor. In any event…

    I have found that the beleifs of individuals actually do make a frightening amount of sense, but are often premised on faulty information. Where we really get ourselves into trouble is with a priori and prima facie decisions, when we are really just imagining up “what if?” scenarios and “just so stories”. That’s when folks paint themselves into a corner and end up in the “arguements” that I see go on at TR and other similar venues.

    My personal approach is to try to treat each post that I respond to as a fresh start as much as possible. I know that people are easily confused, particularly with the lack of vocal inflection. There are things which take me thousands of written words to explain… or 30 seconds in person. I also know that people trained in formal symbolic logic, and all of the “reductio ad absurdum” (if I recall the spelling properly, it’s been a while) are fairly rare, so I understand that my nature is much more precise than most. I’ve found that about 50% of the reader disagreement to my posts is caused by a poorly chosen, single word typically, at worst a sentence was bad. I’m getting even more and more precise with my language; it is why you see me write so many sentences in passive voice, but it unfortunately requires the parser to maintain too many backreferences on occassion.

    In any event. :)

    Happy New Year!


    Comment by Justin James — 1 January 2008 @ 12:35

  4. It’s one thing, for example, to download a CD because you truly beleive that the copyright laws intend that to be fair use. It’s another thing to do it because you are too cheap to buy the CD, and then the “information demands to be free” argument is just the justification.

    I agree. A beneficial side-effect of such personal policies as refusing to engage in copyright violation over file-trading networks (which I actually do so I can honestly refute the “you’re just a thief” arguments) is that it also serves as a form of eating my own dog food. In other words, I put my “beliefs” to the test in that sense — and, in the end, I find out just how much of my ideals are based in a real philosophical examination of reality and how much is justification layered over self-centered (as opposed to “selfish”) urges.

    I don’t consider myself 98% certain without one or both of two things:

    1. clear, obvious logical progression from uncontestable (so far) premises to conclusions
    2. a serious test of the principle by “eating my own dog food”, as with my RIAA boycott (I not only don’t buy new CDs from RIAA labels, but don’t even participate in nominally illegal file-trading networks to get my music)

    It’s particularly easy for me to test that with software copyright — more so even than with music copyright — because of my actual selfish (as opposed to self-centered) urges beneath the matter. Those urges are quite clear and conscious for me, and match up perfectly with the ideal: I really believe that, for the most part, programmers are getting screwed by the current copyright-based conditions of the software industry, and we’d do a fuckton better as professionals in a software world without copyright. The key is natural business models.

    . . . and the key to the way we’re getting screwed right now is that unnatural business models (those based on imposing external restrictions on market forces) favor huge, impersonal organizations in their attempts to usurp the value of programmers. Vendors like Microsoft, Adobe, and Oracle get all the credit, both financial and conceptual, for the work the programmers do — and as a cherry on top, they make the work of programming into painful drudgery for the vast majority of programmers that do their work.

    It’s like I work up and discovered that all of the libraries that my life was statically linked to are much more revised, so now I need to recompile myself too, do the unit testing, regression testing, and make sure everything still works again. Bad metaphor.

    Actually, I thought it was brilliant (as long as you’re talking to someone that understands, in at least a general sense, how compilation works).

    My personal approach is to try to treat each post that I respond to as a fresh start as much as possible.

    For the most part, I do the same. I even give rickk a chance every time he pops up to say something — and I’ve been rewarded a couple of times by noticing he actually said something reasonable and didn’t screw it up later by throwing unreasonable stuff at the same topic. In retrospect, it was a huge surprise each time — but while I was reading it and participating in that part of each discussion, I just took it as a comment from “participate B-7”, essentially (or perhaps $participants{b}[7] if you want a Perl-based representation).

    There are, however, cases where past bad behavior definitely affects current judgment. Those are cases where, in the past, I have noticed that giving the benefit of the doubt to certain people has proven, time and time again, to lead to nothing but tears. In that case, I’ll still give the benefit of the doubt as much as I reasonably can — but the term “reasonably” is an important one.

    I’m getting even more and more precise with my language

    I’ve been inclined toward far greater precision in my online discussions than most people for quite some time. I find, ironically, that sometimes that actually leads to more misunderstandings. What’s needed to solve that sometimes is to be not only precise, but exhaustive in my explanations.

    Of course, when things get exhaustive in their completeness, people’s eyes glaze over, and more misunderstandings arise.

    I’m pretty well wedded to saying precisely what I mean, with the exception of usually carefully-chosen and intentional cases, then trying to patch things up later. I’ve been working on precise elegance as a new approach for a while now to see how that would work, but I haven’t made as much progress as I’d like. I tend to devolve into lengthy rambles as I try to cover all the corner cases — kinda like this comment.

    Happy New Year!

    Back atcha.

    Comment by apotheon — 1 January 2008 @ 08:40

  5. I’d say most of my political beliefs are uncertain right now, as it’s only recently I’ve shifted from a generally left leaning orientation to a libertarian one. I don’t devote nearly as much attention to this subject as I’d like to, though that’s true for a lot of other subjects these days. I don’t meet my own standards for certainty on most questions, even if it does seem at times I meet most other people’s standard for it.

    In no particular order though;

    1. Global warming, and more generally, enviornmental policy. Libertarians tend to be pretty hostile to this because it entails the use of government force, but I’m not sure to how integrate this with libertarian ethics in general since I’ve yet to see any proposed definitions for property rights for air or international waters. Libertarians I’ve asked specifically have tended to give one of two answers; a)there’s no right to clean air (carte blanche to pollute) or b)it’s a violation of property rights to release anything harmful into the air (total containment, which seems to me runs into the equally complicated problem of defining what a harmful substance is, as lighting a cigarete can qualify with a strict enough defintion).

    2. Actually it just bothers me I don’t subscribe to any formally defined system of ethics in the first place.

    3. Economics in general, gold (specie) standard in specific. The pro-gold literature is easy enough to understand, but my eyes totally glaze over when I try to read some of the more mainstream stuff on monetary policy.

    4. These days I’m wondering if prisons should exist, and what a sane justice system might look like. All too often I’m not really seeing the virtue of locking someone up, since it doesn’t meet the aim of a)restitution, b)preventing further rights abuses or c)rehabilitation, and I’m not sure rehabilitation should be a concern when meting out justice either. ( I guess this is a subset of uncertainty 2).

    5. Copyright law in general, hah. ( I guess this is also a subset of uncertainty 2).

    I feel silly writing this now, because for the most part I just need to read more so I can be familiar with the subjects. I have difficulty in picking up books, though once I do I tend to dissect them thoroughly. I guess the prospect of the energy I’d spend reading the book acts as a detterant I don’t often find surmountable.

    Also, the auto indentation on the list is pretty nifty.

    I?ve been inclined toward far greater precision in my online discussions than most people for quite some time. I find, ironically, that sometimes that actually leads to more misunderstandings. What?s needed to solve that sometimes is to be not only precise, but exhaustive in my explanations. Of course, when things get exhaustive in their completeness, people?s eyes glaze over, and more misunderstandings arise.

    This has been true for me in real life as well as the Internet. Not being one who communicates well with body language or tone of voice (I was 15 when I realized that the seemingly random modulation in people’s voices wasn’t at all random) I’ve had to rely on being able to convey my mood and anything else I intend to communicate through words. As it turns out, the effort I’ve spent on being able to do just that is rarely appreciated, as it falls too far outside most people’s purview of communication. The Internet is a forum that plays to my communicative strength, but even here I often find that people have difficulty placing your intent if you don’t couch things in emotive terms for them.

    Comment by Mina — 2 January 2008 @ 04:44

  6. You can always hit me up for reading recommendations on various subjects, Mina, if you want to get some direction rather than just picking up something that looks likely and hoping it’s good enough to have bothered. I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but for me the major hurdle to picking up a book has often been the fact that much of the time, a new author and/or a new subject often means that I end up feeling like I wasted a lot of time on that book.

    Hopefully, if you ask for suggestions on a given subject and I have some to offer, you’ll agree with my estimation of what’s worth reading. For instance, Against Intellectual Monopoly strikes me as a pretty good place to get an introduction to arguments against intellectual “property” law.

    Much of my personal objection to copyright comes from a mix of ethical principles and my understanding of market forces. Without going into too much detail right now (see the note at the end), the ethical principles boil down to the statement “initiation of force is wrong” (pay careful attention to the word “initiation” — force is not, in and of itself, wrong). The market forces part of the argument is wrapped up in the complexity of economic markets (which makes it difficult to manipulate a market toward a given goal), the problem of externalities (unintended consequences of outside influences on the market), and the ethical basis for free markets.

    A couple of things that got me started down the road to my current set of opinions about copyright law are:

    1. Thomas Jefferson’s observation that copyright and patent laws are, in fact, a framework for government grants of limited monopoly power, and

    2. the idea that there is an inherent conflict between physical property rights and so-called “intellectual property” rights (consider the idea of owning a CD, but not its content).

    NOTE: As for a formally-defined, self-consistent system of ethics, I basically started with “I think, therefore I am,” and figured out what the least set of assumptions was that I needed to make to get from there to a fundamental ethical statement.

    Comment by apotheon — 2 January 2008 @ 02:45

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