Category Archives: Logic

The Limitations of Thought Experiments

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Steve McQueenThis seems to be a thought experiment that is engaged in quite often at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog: imagine markets result in less preferable outcomes; would you still support them? The answer that they typically arrive at is “No,” and therefore the justification for markets rests at least partially on consequentialist considerations.

But imaginary scenarios presented to discredit some theory of ethics have never really sat well with me, particularly when I find them to be unrealistic. A ready example of this David Friedman’s critique of Murray Rothbard’s theory of natural rights in The Machinery of Freedom. Friedman is a utilitarian and thus attacks natural rights on such grounds.

One scenario he has us imagine is a gunman opening fire on a crowd in the street. However, there is a rifle sitting in the middle of the street with a sign put there by the strangely sadistic owner of the firearm saying that in the event of an emergency to not touch his rifle. Should his property rights be respected? A second scenario is even more ridiculous, where there is an asteroid heading towards the Earth and the only way to save the world is to steal a man’s briefcase which has a button inside that will destroy the asteroid.

I feel that under such wide latitude in creating objections that are extremely unlikely to ever happen, one can discredit any ethical theory whatsoever. This is why Rothbard rightfully has a chapter in his Ethics of Liberty objecting to lifeboat scenario criticisms. The real test is how an ethical system performs under normal conditions that exist the majority of the time. Read the rest of this entry

Should the Government Pay Its Debts?

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I don’t want it to seem like I think of Bleeding Heart Libertarians as a punching bag. I think they often make interesting points and bring challenges to mainstream libertarianism that its adherents need to be able to grapple with. They also often make for interesting discussion.

An article I would like to discuss today is that of Andrew Cohen’s, called “Shutting Down.” Cohen makes the argument that the government should uphold its contracts to pay those it owes. He puts aside the idea that “taxation is theft” and starts with the premise that if harm prevention and rectification are legitimate functions of government, then taxation is necessary.

He compares government to an individual:

Agent A makes a contract with agent B, agreeing to pay B $X. A overspends and has difficulty paying B. A decides not to pay B. In many cases, we would say this is unacceptable and that A must pay B what is owed. At least, we think, A must go through the proper channels to declare bankruptcy if A is to not pay B what A owes B. This would be unfortunate, we are told, but bankruptcy law is needed to allow for the proper running of the economy.

Today, the U.S. government is agent A.

He goes on:

People who were promised paychecks will not get them. Some will get them late. Some will get smaller paychecks (due to furlough time). Some of these people will face tremendous difficulty. I think it fair to say they will be harmed–having planned their lives given the promise of a regular paycheck, they have legitimate expectations that are being set back. Perhaps the government should not have hired those people in the first place (after all, they are “non-essential” personnel!). But the fact is they were hired and treating them this way is wrong and makes a mockery of contract.

Cohen admits that most of what the government considers “essential” and therefore won’t be affected by the shutdown has little to do with harm prevention or rectification. I feel like that fact makes it so that the government is unjustified in taxing people to pay these debts, since the government is going beyond Cohen’s role for government. Clearly, if taxation is not theft if it pays for legitimate government functions, it ought to be considered theft if it pays for something outside legitimate functions.

But, for Cohen, even criminal enterprises ought to honor their contracts:

Put the point this way: a mobster might be wrong to extract protection money from a business, but that does not make it any less wrong for the mobster to fail to protect that business in time of need. We don’t say “wait, the mobster doesn’t have to live up to its agreement because it was wrong to make the agreement in the first place.” I think most of us think 2 things: (a) the mobster should not have extracted the protection money in the first place and (b) the mobster owes the business protection. Similarly, I think the government should not have hired people to do non-essential jobs (by which I mean any jobs not needed for harm prevention and rectification) in the first place but that because it did, the government* owes those people their salaries on the regular pay days.

I find this to be a tragically poor analogy. The protection money is involuntarily coming from a business (analogous to tax revenue) and the mobster ought to protect that business in exchange (but is that really analogous to what the federal government uses its money to do?). What if that tax revenue is to pay a federal employee for something nobody would voluntarily pay for, such as an NSA employee spying on the American people or a drone operator killing children overseas? A more accurate analogy would then be the mobster paying his hitmen for the contracts he made with them. Honestly, I am more than fine with NSA agents and drone operators not being paid.

Most would agree that people should pay their debts, but they wouldn’t approve of someone stealing from others in order to be able to do so. Even if we assume the idea that taxation is not theft, so much of what the federal government does has nothing to do with Cohen’s defined role for government (indeed, if we consider the US Constitution to be the federal government’s contract with the states regarding its role, it must honor that contract before it has any obligation to pay for employees whose jobs explicitly violate it). Thus,  Cohen’s point is rendered moot: in reality, the employees having delayed, reduced, or even no paychecks do not serve Cohen’s role for legitimate government functions. Even if government ought to honor its contracts with them, that does not give it the right to tax others to pay for its debts. Otherwise, the government is not limited in its powers.

Lack of Rational Thought

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Teacher Picket SignsI know it’s hard to convey thought on something the size of a picket sign, but in the case of what’s pictured above, I think it can be done. What the signs above could more accurately say instead are, “I don’t want to have to compete,” and “I want involuntary customers.”

Statements like “vouchers hurt public schools” display a lack of rational thought. What exactly do vouchers do? Well, under typical circumstances in American schooling, a parent choosing to send her child to a private, parochial, or home school must pay twice: once in property taxes for the public school, again in fees for the school the child goes to. What a voucher is intended to do is allow that parent to pay only once for her school of choice. Thus, “vouchers hurt public schools” because they allow someone to forgo paying for something she doesn’t use. If only we all could force others to pay us for nothing in return and then cry foul when they want to stop paying us.

“Kids before corporations” is intended to appeal to people’s knee-jerk and, frankly, dumber sensibilities. “Corporations” is used as a buzz-word meant to conjure images of faceless men in suits whose only desire is to make money. But even if that is the case, what no corporation can do is force you to pay for and use its services and threaten you with jail if you don’t. And yet this us exactly what public schools do. It’s unclear how preventing competition in schooling somehow benefits kids. It is clear, however, how this benefits public school employees.

I’m growing weary of seeing all kinds of illogical and poorly thought out political speech. I can’t help but think that the reason it keeps being produced is that there are large enough groups of people out there who fall for it.

Logic Fail on NPR

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This video is from a couple of years ago, but I think the subject is still quite relevant today. It is a recording of NPR’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” where Neil Siegel (a Duke Law Professor) and Tom Woods (professor of U.S. history) are guests, discussing the subject of nullification in light of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

At first, I was struck by how poor the arguments were by callers. Then, I noticed how bad the arguments by Professor Siegel were. And finally, I began wondering if they were going to let Tom Woods speak. It was quite frustrating to listen to, and what better place to vent my frustration than the Internet?

@01:22 Neil Siegel expresses that he thinks there are legitimate discussions about limits to federal power but doesn’t like the fact that such discussions often involve talking about nullification or secession. This seems strange to me for a couple of reasons: 1) he says the individual mandate is constitutional because of Congress’ taxing power, and agrees with the decision of the Raich case (where SCOTUS ruled that Congress, under the Interstate Commerce clause, has the power to regulate marijuana that has neither been sold nor crossed state lines) which to me implies he believes that there are no limits to federal power; 2) he doesn’t address how limits to federal power will be enforced. He repeatedly says that nullification is not mentioned in the Constitution and is therefore not legitimate, yet does not acknowledge the fact that neither is judicial review by the US Supreme Court. Read the rest of this entry