Libertarians and Taxes

Once upon a time there was a libertarian who wanted to end taxes within his lifetime. It was his mission in life. He goes around telling people taxes are bad and involuntary, and the taxman is taking money backed up by guns, and that's wrong. Suppose he succeeded as far as getting the political debate in America to be significantly about taxes. Would that be good? Who knows. Maybe not. Should he assume it's good on principle? No. In fact my guess is that taxes would not be efficient to reform anywhere near that much, today; once taxes were reduced a bit there'd be plenty of lower hanging fruit, and reducing taxes the last, say, ten percent would be extremely hard and shouldn't be a high priority.

I am doubtful that he's much of a thinker. It's easy to take a naive/simple liberal policy, notice we don't fully implement it in our society, and say we should. What's harder is looking at what concrete steps would improve things, and how to make them happen. He has no idea how much knowledge it would take to do without taxes, and he isn't trying to contribute to creating it; a real reformer ought to work on creating the knowledge needed for reforms to happen.

Should he go ahead anyway? I don't think it can do any harm, and I think he'll have fun and perhaps meet interesting people and learn something. And if he fails, he may learn about a few of the practical difficulties, and perhaps he will react to that by thinking about how to overcome them and end up creating some useful knowledge. He will only get attention if he is persuasive to others. If he's wrong and it's bad, well so are they, so his part in the harm is miniscule. And anyway we have a system for deciding what issues to focus on, and as long as he follows the system who can fault him? The system is to persuade people, and it's the best system we know. To say he shouldn't pursue his ideas within that system is to say you know what's good and bad better than the system -- it's saying you know more than our political institutions, and ought to override them -- which is deeply arrogant and foolhardy.

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Political Perspectives

Suppose I hire someone to make a website for me. He says it will take two weeks. During those two weeks he says everything is fine. At the end he says sorry, he was very busy, and actually he has barely worked on it, and I'd better hire someone else.

He has materially harmed me. He wasted my time. Now my website launch is delayed. So I sue him for damages for the wasted time (never mind that he said he'd make me a website and didn't, so owes me a website, which is a separate issue). Our contract was short and did not mention this outcome or any circumstances under which he would owe me money. Should the law be on my side, or not?

One perspective is that contracts come first, and people are free to live their lives however they want as long as they don't violate a law or a contract. What he did sucks, but such things happen, and I should just find someone else and forget about him. He has a right to spend his time as he chooses unless there is a clear and incontestable reason to the contrary. What he did may have been a mistake, it may have been bad of him, but in America people have freedom; that means they can live badly and make mistakes as long as they don't violate our minimally-intrusive laws.

Another perspective is that people have reasonable expectations in life and it's wrong to violate them. Our society works a certain way, and if you want to change that or go against it then you are the one asking for special treatment and you are the one with the burden to make sure your change does not hurt anyone. In this way of thinking, the contractor has violated his duty to me, and violated my reasonable expectation that the project would be completed. Of course projects sometimes miss deadlines, but he didn't even come close to meeting the deadline. Freedom is good, but it doesn't include the freedom to not to make a good faith effort to meet one's obligations.

I believe that neither of these perspectives is clearly better than the other, as written. People who insist on one, and do not respect the other, are ideologues. Both perspectives make some apparently reasonable points.

I'd now like to offer a third perspective which I think is superior:

The law must be clear so that everyone knows what they must do to follow it. It would be unjust if a reasonable person, who made a good faith effort to follow the law, ended up a criminal. Mistakes happen, as does bad luck, so it may happen sometimes, but it should be a very rare event, and the legal system should have strong safeguards to avoid it. For this reason, we must allow that some bad things will happen with no punishment. The law needs to not only stay out of any grey areas but allow a significant margin for error and only convict people who go well beyond any grey areas into deep black. For this reason, it would be bad for a man to become a criminal by disappointing another man.

People are different and have diverse lifestyles. When the law favors some lifestyles that stifles diversity. Perhaps my conception of what is material harm is mistaken. Perhaps he made a good faith effort as best he knows how to, and he has a different way of making efforts to do things than I do. It would be bad if everyone was under pressure to have the same style of thinking, and same opinions about a wide variety of things, or else they risk becoming a criminal.

It's bad for the law to be intrusive into peoples' private laws, or for it to encourage people to invade each other's privacy. How do I know he did me wrong? Maybe he made a very strong effort to complete the project, but his mother ended up in hospital, then his computer was stolen, and then his car broke down. Or maybe something else happen, somewhat milder, but sufficient to keep him busy. Should I find out the details of his life for the last two weeks and judge his methods of prioritizing and time management? Should bad time management even be a crime?

Did he know the project was urgent? Did he have any reason to expect I would be harmed if it was late? Did I tell him? If so, how clearly? Doesn't everyone say they want their projects done fast? How would he know I wasn't exaggerating? Should he be a criminal depending on exactly how clearly I stated the urgency of the project? Should it be possible to become a criminal over miscommunication? How much of an effort should he have had to make to be certain he understood how urgent the project was or wasn't? It's just a two week project, couldn't he reasonably expect the project to be a little relaxed? Did he ever communicate to me his relaxed attitude in any way? If he did, would that make him not guilty? I don't think these questions should be answered. If the law cares for all these details then it's too hard to follow it, and it's too intrusive into the minute details of our behavior. The law should never tell people the details of how to live their life; it should be tolerant of diverse lifestyles.

I am claiming my business is harmed. But my business is my responsibility, not his. He never agreed to take on the risks inherent in starting a new website business. If I wanted him to take on some of the business risk associated with my site launching late, I should have asked him to, put it on the contract, and paid extra. Imagine if Electronic Arts sued some of its employees for millions of dollars because they were responsible for a product being delayed two weeks, but the advertising for the product had already run. Perhaps the delay the employees caused really did harm the company for millions of dollars, but they are just employees, that isn't their problem, they didn't ever agree to take on that much risk. In a free and rational society, it's important that people don't take on obligations by accident. Obligations and risks need to go to to the people who consent to have them.

The theme here is to encourage the growth of knowledge by allowing for people to make mistakes and live varied lifestyles. Having a large scope of legal behaviors, greatly exceeding what most people consider good behavior, allows for the possibility that somewhere in those possible deviations is an improvement, and does not punish people who try to find it. This is the perspective of the open society where errors are, as much as possible, nonviolently corrected by thought and persuasion, not suppressed by the police.

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Critique of a Style of Libertarian Thinking

Freedom is good. If our Government adopted more voluntary methods, without breaking anything, that would be good.

There are other good things too. Political systems can only do a limited amount of stuff at once. They must prioritize.

Lowering involuntary taxes is one way to make the Government more voluntary and the people more free. It further would benefit the economy. But it can't be established just by wanting it. People have to work out how to change the budget to accommodate it. It takes quite a lot of effort, and in return there is a reward.

Simplifying the tax code is a good which would make it easier to feel good about paying one's taxes -- it helps it be more voluntary. It is also an economic good: it would save people time and effort. But it can't be done just by declaration. Knowledge has to be created about what changes to the tax code would not only simplify it but also retain the good aspects and not break anything.

We could focus on fixing social security. Or on how we fund education and what we ask of public schools. Or we could improve the health care system. Or we could reform welfare. Or we could change the military to use money more efficiently. All of those things would have economic and other benefits. And all of them are difficult. It takes a huge amount of effort to make serious changes to them. One has to plan out what to change, consider the effects it will have in detail, and persuade millions of people it's a good idea, including, generally, people from the other party (especially if, as one should, one hopes for a lasting improvement that can be stable to the other party being elected).

Which of these should be the highest priority? I don't know. But I do accept that there are a lot of factors involved. What we should not do is pick some principle, say freedom, and insist that whichever changes would most increase freedom must be the top priority. That would be thoroughly unreasonable.

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Thomas Paine Confused

he and some of his friends visited burke several years before french rev. separately i think.

when the revolution started, he and a few others wrote to burke.

they thought burke would be on their side!

that's how little they understood any philosophy. they didn't even know he wouldn't agree with them.

the french revolution is reputed to have been all about philosophy and abstract ideas.

but how can that be? those men didn't know anything about ideas. they were incapable of understanding burke's philosophy even enough to see which side he'd be on.

paine's book replying to burke on the french revolution confirms my point. it showed that even after burke explained his position in detail that paine *still* couldn't understand even the main points of it. paine was no thinker.

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nature and nurture misunderstandings

The nature/nurture debate is about two main issues which people mix up.

One issue is: what is the physical mechanism by which some knowledge (like people's personalities) is created and maintained? Is it caused by genes? By education? By a mix of both? Is the knowledge stored in the form of ideas just like the my idea that South Park is a good TV show? Is it still stored in the genes in adults? Or in the brain but in a different way than my TV preferences?

The second issue is: how possible is it to change this knowledge? Is it hard or easy or impossible? Can it be changed just like a TV preference, or more like learning physics, or not at all? Is it a choice, or just something that happens to people which they bear no responsibility for? Or are their parents morally responsible?

Almost everyone on both sides of the debate believes the following:

1) If the nature side is the correct answer to the first issue, that means the answer to the second issue is that it's very hard or impossible to change, not a choice, and parents are not responsible.

2) If the nurture side is correct about the first issue, that means the answer to the second issue is that it's easy to change, people are a blank slate and can choose to be whatever they want at their whim. (Or like that but somewhat milder.)

That's why whenever I tell people that personality is ideas, autism is ideas, sexual orientation is ideas ... nurture is absolutely correct WRT the first issue ... they reply by telling me that they don't have control over those aspects of their life, and don't believe they ever did.

I think if issue two wasn't at stake, people wouldn't really care about issue one. What does it matter where the knowledge is, and the detailed mechanisms of how it gets there? What most people care about is the affect on their lives, and what it means in terms of moral responsibility.

The funny thing is they have it backwards. Nature traits are far easier to change than nurture traits, because genes have less knowledge than memes, and the requirement to change a trait is basically to create more knowledge than whatever is making you the way you are now.

But even if they didn't have it backwards, conflating the issues is senseless. And so is assuming that what traits can be changed, and how, is obvious based on the first issue. In fact how to change knowledge is a hard issue to analyze! Epistemologers know the answer in outline (conjectures and refutations; piecemeal gradual changes; respect for existing knowledge; optimism; rationality; error correction; etc), but working out specific, practical consequences for real life situations is often difficult. Very few contributors to the nature/nurture debate know that outline at all -- they are completely out of their depth, and often don't even know that epistemology is the key field -- yet they still take a large portion of the answer for granted and consider it so obvious it doesn't need serious analysis.

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Bias About Burke

A Genius Reconsidered by Russell Kirk, p 151
[Edmund Burke] was not a man of the enlightenment
The idea here (clearer with context) is that the violent, radical, utopian French Revolution, and associated thought, is the True Enlightenment, and all the other attempts at progress don't get to count as part of The Enlightenment.

So, if you're an avid reformer, a man of reason and thought, but also a man of non-violence who wants to move forward with sufficient error correction rather than without it -- as Burke was -- then you're a stodgy old unEnlightened conservative.

According to Amazon reviews, the book is biased to the right wing and gives a very favorable treatment of Burke. Those Amazon reviews must have double the left-wing bias that Kirk has. Equal bias would make them see it as fair, and then they need to go left again to see it as being slanted right.

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Knowledge Quality

Some people read secondary sources or worse. Others read primary sources. And others read both.

Some people read one book on a topic and assume it is true. Others read ten and compare their stories.

Some people have high standards for what they will accept as scientific evidence, and others low. Some people read newspaper articles about studies. Some read the actual studies. Some just read the conclusions and say science has supported those conclusions. Others evaluate whether a coherent explanation has been presented, and whether the evidence is sufficient for the conclusion.

Some people look for authorities to get knowledge from. Others use their own judgment.

People who could be taken as authorities themselves have varying standards that they subject their own knowledge, and publications, to.

Some people are easily fooled (not that anyone is doing it on purpose). Some make it their mission in life to find truths and avoid being fooled.

Some people think mistakes and rare and don't worry about them very much. Others think mistakes and common and are always vigilant against them.

Some people select, say, a Burke biography based on the dust jackets. Others read 2 chapters from each candidate book to judge the quality for themselves, then read the one with the best author. And some other people insist on reading all the books, even the bad ones, in case they contain a useful tidbit or an astute argument.

Suppose Bob has the highest standards in every regard mentioned and many others, with regard to some topic he likes, say Xenophanes. All his knowledge has about Xenophanes gone through extensive criticism and vetting. He has never assumed that some author correctly read the primary sources; he always reads them himself to check. When he reads a statement saying, "On the issue of X, the best analysis was done by Sarah Parker. And she concluded Y." he is suspicious. That statement does not contain any arguments he can judge. He'll have to read Parker's book or disregard it. Bob is always wondering how an author knows what he claims to know, and whether anyone involved could have made a mistake (the author, a translator, Xenophanes' contemporaries who provided commentary and quotes about him, the editor who must have made at least a few edits the author wasn't pleased with, etc). Bob always compares quotes with the author's statement of what the quote means and decides if he thinks that's accurate. If he's not sure, he won't take the author's word for it. If the author doesn't give enough quotes to allow a comparison so Bob can judge if the author is interpreting the material correctly, then Bob becomes suspicious and guarded.

One day Bob meets Joe and they get into a discussion about Xenophanes. Joe is different than Bob. He only reads primary sources when they are quoted in secondary sources. When an author unequivocally states that X is true, Joe believes X to be true. When an author cites an authority as saying Y is true, Joe figures if it was good enough for the author it's good enough for him too. Joe knows he's not a world class expert. His knowledge is pretty good, and pretty reliable, but better is possible. But better isn't needed; it's good enough; it's reliable; it's accurate; it's genuine knowledge gleaned from serious study. He's looked into things in as much depth as he could, given the other things in his life, and it's a lot more than most people do. Joe knows not to trust everything he reads on the internet, but books are different and more reliable, especially the ones by PhDs. They do some of the work for Joe, and Joe can reasonably accept the help in his own truth seeking. That's what Joe believes.

Bob and Joe debate some issues about Xenophanes. Bob says what he knows on some subject, and Joe says what he knows. It contradicts. Both give their summaries of their recollection of some supporting evidence. Neither convinces the other. Both find the other says things they are quite sure are false based on their existing knowledge.

Bob sees what's going on. He remembers some of the books Joe refers to, and the flaws in them. He tries to say that he's read those books, as well as others. Joe says, "Don't ask me to accept your story on authority. Just because you read more books doesn't mean you're right." Bob pulls out a laptop and finds excerpts from one of the books. He shows Joe some internal contradictions, and then finds another source with a better take on the matter, shows Joe, and notes it does not have any internal contradictions that he can see. Joe says, "Look, I've read several books, and they back up this one. Maybe it made a mistake in this one area. Maybe you remember all the details better than me. That doesn't mean I'm wrong. It's not like you are a world class expert; these authors know more than you, and they sometimes contradict each other. I'm not just going to take your word for stuff. And you say this new source you offer doesn't have mistakes like mine does, but I haven't read it and checked it, and I'll bet I could find some criticisms of it if I googled around."

Bob starts to despair. Joe has no knowledge of sufficient quality for Bob to find it useful; Joe has nothing to offer. Joe doesn't have the appropriate attitudes to create knowledge of the same quality Bob is interested in discussing. And anyway, at low precision, who's to say which side is correct? If you simply ignore all the difficult details, and ignore whether theories can survive the harshest criticisms possible, you can make a perfectly good case for many different views. If you don't ask whether explanations solve the most hardest problems around, and accept ones that simply solve some subset of the easier problems, then you lose the power to differentiate between very good ideas and mediocre ones.

Bob has an idea. He tells Joe about standards of truth seeking and quality of knowledge. He tries to explain that Joe's method of approaching the subject isn't rigorous enough to find the truth. Joe says, "You're holding knowledge up to an impossible standard. No one lives up to this idealized version of truth seeking you speak of. You're giving a generic argument for rejecting the vast majority of existing human knowledge. You're finding tiny faults and then trashing whole enterprises."

Bob says, "It's not an impossible standard. I live up to it. And so do some of the authors I've read. Karl Popper's analysis of Xenophanes, for example, lives up to this standard. I can give you a list of the best authors if you'd like."

Joe says, "I've read about that Popper fellow. High standards? Hardly. His Plato scholarship is very questionable. Maybe he has his merits, but he's no perfect angel. And as to you, I'll overlook your arrogance, but I won't accept that you're some super genius authority without a bit more proof."

Bob says, "What sort of proof would you accept?"

Joe thinks for a while and says, "I guess I'll know it when I see it. Persuade me."

Bob says, "Yes, but how?"

Joe says, "Well, you're the genius. You tell me."

Bob says, "I've told you. You need to consider my statements, and everyone else's, according to this higher more rigorous standard. If you do that, you'll see that mine live up to it. Many of the things you think you know do not live up to it. Please drop your bias in favor of your existing knowledge and open your mind and try to learn. It's hard, but by an effort we can make progress."

Joe says, "Putting down all my existing efforts to learn things isn't friendly or persuasive. And I'm not going to make this huge effort to do as you ask before you've convinced me it's worth doing."

Bob says, "How can I convince you it's worth doing when your standard of judging ideas is wrong, so you can't tell what is worthwhile or not?"

Joe says, "Oh come on. I may not be perfect, but I'm not that bad."

Bob says, "It's not up to you to decide what is too bad, and what is an acceptable level of badness that won't hurt anything. It's not a human choice what is and isn't required to find the truth and correct errors."

Joe says, "Yes, I understand that. But my standards are pretty high. That aren't low. I accept truth finding is hard, and I make a serious effort."

Bob says, "Your standards are low enough you won't listen."

Joe says, "Disagreeing isn't failure to listen. I've been insulted for the last time. Goodbye."

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Is it better to do or receive injustice?

Socrates said it is worse to commit an injustice than be the victim of one. A lot of people wonder how this could possibly be true.

Let's take an example. I live in communist Russia and am accused of a crime I didn't commit. Assume the only options available to me are to be wrongly convicted, or lie and have my friend wrongly convicted instead. This is not an entirely realistic scenario -- in real life one has more options; perhaps in real life my friend and I could both escape to America -- but the slant does not help my defense of Socrates, so it's fine.

Some people proceed to measure the result by years spent in the gulag, and conclude that betraying my friend is clearly better, so Socrates' view is not just wrong but blatantly ridiculous.

But Socrates is commenting on morality, and morality isn't measured in prison years. Prison years are relevant, but also an incomplete metric.

If I am wrongly convicted, I have nothing to feel bad about. I am guilty of no sin and I have nothing to be ashamed of. Just as if a meteor struck and killed me. Such things can happen, but they don't detract from one's life morally. They aren't your fault, they aren't preventable, and they have little bearing on the question, "How should I live?" or "What sort of lifestyle is effective and virtuous?" Because they are unpreventable and random, one can't factor them into any decision making.

Similarly, if I lie and my friend is wrongly convicted, he has nothing to feel bad about. He remains morally pristine. He lived his life as well as he could. No better was available to him.

But if I lie, my own situation is not like that. Now I stay up at nights pondering my guilt. I have a secret shame to hide from my friends and family. I sinned, and I know it; how can I live with that? How can I face another day when I've intentionally done something I consider very bad? It's harder to face myself in this situation than if I am in the gulag through no fault of my own.

One might object that only certain people would feel guilty; others wouldn't care; don't those people, in one way bad people, seem to have the advantage here? But being that kind of person has consequences for one's entire life. It may be convenient as it seems in a limited, artificial situation, but as a lifestyle that has to work in a wide variety of situations, it fairs poorly. Who would want to associate with a man with no conscience? Who would befriend a person who, as a general policy, will betray his friends? And this man of no conscious cannot be much of a philosopher, or he would learn better. He lives an unexamined life; Socrates tells us the unexamined life is not worth living, with good reason.

Which is the better option is still open to debate, but Socrates' position can't be lightly dismissed.

We can take this analysis further by considering the TCS idea of coercion, which is the only kind of suffering. This analysis is very simple. Lying to convict your friend, while wanting not to betray your friend, is coercion. You or your friend being jailed, through no fault of your own, need not be, though it may be. The just life is better because it has the possibility of being non-coercive, whereas the unjust life does not.

As a further issue, how to live a good life is not primarily about what to do in specific, extreme situations. It's primarily about creating a way of life to handle many situations. So a better question is: suppose I fear I may be arrested by the KGB? What are my general plans for how to handle that? Am I really going to plan that whenever I am arrested, for whatever reason, I'll betray my friends and get out of it? Will that even work? My friends might be arrested too, or the KGB might not want to make deals, or might not keep them. Natan Sharansky's way of dealing with it, as described in his book Fear No evil, was a better plan than betraying one's friends, not just for his friends but also for himself.

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