Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Colonialism and Exploitation

At Catallarchy, Matt McIntosh has responded to my response to his initial article on Mill and polycentric law. Matt raises some good points there; go check it out.

But this post isn't really a reply to Matt, but rather to part of the discussion thread in Matt's post. There Dain criticized my arguments as neocolonialist and suggested that colonialism and exploitation are necessarily connected. Actually, to be precise, he suggests that I recall Lord Acton's Dictum ("power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"). I must confess, though, that I'm not sure that I see how Dain's point necessarily follows from Lord Acton's Dictum. Certainly absolute power seems likely to result in exploitation. What I don't see is any reason for thinking that colonialism entails absolute power. I'll come back to that. For now, here's how Dain puts the point:
There is a reason that coercive power and domination has historically resulted in exploitation. It’s because it is exploitative!
I'm going to try to put the point more formally:
E: Necessarily, for all actions A and all persons R and Q, if R's act A is both a use of coercive power and an attempt at dominating Q, then R has exploited Q.
It strikes me right off the bat that E is just simply false on its face. Consider two examples.
  • I tell my three-year-old that he must sleep in his own bed at night and threaten to close and lock his door if he continues to get out of his bed.
  • A warden at a maximum-security prison tells a recalcitrant prisoner that he must either stop throwing food at other prisoners or be sent into solitary confinement.
Now I would submit that both of these cases involve the use of coercive power and that, moreover, both are an attempt at at least a limited sort of domination. I also suggest that neither my son nor the prisoner has been exploited. Indeed, a parent teaching a child to sleep in his own bed or a warden teaching a prisoner to cease assaulting fellow-inmates with peas seem like perfectly legitimate uses of coercive power and domination. Why? Because children and inmates are appropriate targets for coercion and (certain forms of) domination.

To make E true, then, we would need to modify it slightly.
E': Necessarily, for all actions A and all persons R and Q, if R's act A is both a use of coercive power and an attempt at dominating Q, then R has exploited Q, if and only if Q falls into the category of persons who are not properly subject to coercive power and domination.
Now obviously much here would turn on how we cashed out the final caveat. That itself is going to require that we determine what, exactly, is the nature of personhood and to what sorts of things it ought properly to apply. Make the definition too broad and parenting becomes an act of exploitation. Make it too narrow and slavery might creep back in. While I can't possibly answer this question in a blog post, suffice it to say that it's at least arguable that people who are horribly oppressing one another may fall into the same category as the prisoner. You may well disagree, but that disagreement will at least require some argument. Simply asserting E isn't going to be sufficient.

But let's leave that aside for the moment. Suppose that one were to construct an appropriate definition of personhood such that E' applies to subjects of colonial powers. That would give us:
P: For all persons Q, if Q is an ordinary citizen of a nation that is to be subject to a colonial authority, then Q falls into the category of persons who are not properly subject to coercive power and domination.
But even E' and P together do not entail that all colonialism is exploitative. For that to be the case, we would need to add a third claim.
C: For all actions A and all persons R and Q, if R's action A is an instance of colonialism, and if Q is an ordinary citizen of the nation that is to be subject to A, then necessarily R's action A involves coercion of Q and an attempt to dominate Q.
From E', P and C it does follow that all acts of colonialism are also exploitative. But C strikes me as being false, too. Why does it follow that every act of colonialism is exploitative? Consider, say, the eradication of sati (the immolation of widows on their husband's funeral pyres) in India. As General Sir Charles James Napier is reported to have said:
You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.
Napier, and the British more generally, effectively stamped out the practice of sati. This was the act of a colonial power countering an established custom, one that was enforced by communities rather than by the rule of law. Indeed, the practice was supposed to be purely voluntary. And that of course is exactly how it typically worked out. Because a lot of women really like jumping into fire. Note, too, that only widows and not widowers were expected to immolate themselves. Go figure.

At any rate, my point here is that the abolition of sati by the British is clearly an act of colonialism. What's also clear to me (as, I think, it will be to anyone not totally caught up in the grips of ideology) is that the act was not an act of exploitation.

All this is not to say that I think colonialism is just fine and dandy. There are all sorts of reasons to think that it is likely to slide into exploitation and that it therefore ought to be used rarely if at all. Still, it's hard to see where there is any conceptual reason to think that all acts of colonialism are necessarily problematic. But then I'm a consequentialist. We're up for just about anything.

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Pluralism, Polycentrism, the Harm Principle and the Future of Liberalism

Okay, so maybe making claims about the future of liberalism is a bit overblown. But I hate thinking of titles, so just deal with it. Wow, there's a really professional start to a post. It is Memorial Day weekend though, and I'm feeling casual. Or more causal than usual. Didn't think that was possible, did you? Enough of this. Let's get to the serious stuff.

So in my last post, I confessed to finding Matt McIntosh's argument that Mill's defense of experiments in living ought to commit him to a defense of polycentric law to be pretty plausible. I mentioned there that I had some worries about scaling up; the more that I've considered the issue, the stronger those reservations have grown. I think that Matt is on to something, but I'm not fully convinced that the argument Matt offers gets Mill all the way to polycentrism. Since classes are out and I can't force any of this onto my students, I figured that I'd use this space to think out loud a bit. Bear with me.

First a refresher. The gist of Matt's argument is to extend the rationale for experiments in living beyond the individual sphere and into the political one. The initial Millian argument, of course, is that individuals are far and away the best judges of their own happiness. Even if sometimes you might plausibly know better than I what would make me happy, you won't know so very reliably. Indeed, it is unlikely that we will ever really know before the fact that your ideas about what will best serve my interests are better than my ideas. Given the high degree of error, it makes far more sense to allow me to live my own life according to my own ideas. Moreover, it could very well be the case that my own unorthodox way of living my life would actually be better for a lot of people. We won't know that, however, until at least someone gives it a shot. Thus we as a society ought to tolerate--nay, encourage--various experiments in living. If my experiment turns out to be a failure, well, then I've harmed only myself and the rest of society has learned something about how not to live.

Matt then claims that the same rationale can be applied to governments. Political structures do have real world consequences. Sometimes those consequences turn out to be pretty good ones (liberal democracy paired with some form of capitalism has worked out rather nicely in a number of places). Other times those experiments are disastrous (North Korea anyone?). Still, it is hard to know in advance what sorts of structures will work and what sorts won't. So why not allow experiments in, well, governing as well? Federalism already embodies this principle to a limited extent. Polycentrism simply takes the next logical step; rather than making me move to another state if I don't like the policies in this one, why not simply let me cancel my existing contracts with my private legal service and sign up with a competitor?

So far, so good. I think (reluctantly) that Matt is correct. Mill's arguments ought to extend in precisely this way. But that does not entail a full-bore commitment to pluralism, something that Mill, I think, rightly recognizes. Mill does not, as Matt and Brian Doss both note, wholeheartedly embrace pluralism. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that Mill embraces rationalism fully and that the pluralistic elements in Mill's thinking are constrained entirely by his rationalism. Let's consider just the basic argument for experiments in living. Yes, it's true that Mill does defend various experiments. But his arguments for experiments in living, in chapter 3 of OL, already presuppose the basic limitations of the harm principle laid down in chapter 1. That is, I am free to engage in any sort of life that I wish, so long as that sort of life does not itself harm others.

That standard is relatively straightforward when we apply it to individuals. The question, though, is how we ought to scale up that basic restriction when we move from individuals to political structures. What happens when we find some particular political arrangement to be in violation of the harm principle? What, to pick a random example, do we say when one of the private legal services offers sharia law? Fine, one might say. If people voluntarily sign up for a particular view of the law, then what business of mine is it that they do so? And I'll agree to a certain extent. For the first generation of customers, sharia law is a perfectly legitimate option. But what happens in the second generation? What shall we say about the girls who are treated as second-class citizens, who grow into women unable to act in a way that is fully autonomous? When they remain customers of sharia law (because the very law under which they already live does not allow them any independent voice), have they done so freely? Even if they actually claim to prefer sharia law, can we really believe them at this point?

My basic worry here is the same worry that drives the rationalist branch of liberalism. Taking people's preferences as we find them ignores the fact that families, cultures, and institutions can be coercive. Yes, states are a threat to individual freedom. Yes, states can be and often are the biggest threats to individual freedom. But I would venture the claim that in our current (fairly free) society, it isn't the state that is the biggest threat to freedom these days. Indeed, in a democracy, the state merely acts as the instrument that restricts freedom. It is society itself, however, that wields that instrument. Government in a real democracy is not some mysterious bogeyman that sneaks up in the night to steal our freedom. "The Government" consists of a bunch of individuals whom we have elected and whom we can kick out. If our government steals our freedoms, it is only because we ourselves have consented to have it stolen. My freedom to pass the bong during my gay wedding held at the walk-up abortion clinic heated by my own private nuclear reactor and guarded by M-60 wielding Mexicans who can't speak a single fucking word of English isn't threatened by some group of rich white guys who have just decided that they don't like these sorts of things. Rather, the rich white guys vote against all of these sorts of things because the rest of the damn voters don't like those sorts of things. No, it's not government that is restricting my freedom. The only army that is a real threat to me is the army of suburbanites with their well-kept lawns, their soccer practices and piano lessons, and their disdain for anything that's actually, you know, fun.

End of rant.

What all of this means, then, is that Mill's arguments for what we might call individual pluralism are couched in a specific context. Mill creates a large space for individual experiments in living only because he already assumes the existence of a state that will protect individuals from experiments that violate the harm principle. Polycentrism, however, offers no such protection. My private legal system (together with my private defense agency) will provide me with whatever services that I wish to pay for. What it cannot do, however, is to protect me when my family/community/religion coerces me into signing up for services that oppress me.

So will Mill's arguments scale up to something like a federalist liberal democracy? You betcha. There is plenty of room for experiments in governing, but there is still a central set of rules that place limits what kinds of experiments are permitted and there is still a central authority to enforce those limits. Polycentrism offers no such safeguards. So while the arguments for experiments in living, considered in isolation, would seem to entail polycentrism, I think that the basic requirements of Mill's rationalism still commit him to at least some role for a central government. Mill the federalist? Yes. Mill the crazy, drunken anarchist? No, no and no. Well, maybe yes on the first one. He did wait until he was 45 to get laid. And the man called himself a hedonist. Tsk, tsk.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Millian Overload

So I've finally made it through all of the Mill-fest articles from last Friday. There is really a lot of good stuff there; I wish that I had time to comment on everything that I found to be of interest, for there is certainly a lot of it. I do plan to get to at least some of it in the near future, now that my Maymester course is over. Whether that in fact works out remains to be seen, though: there is still a book review to be written (if you're reading this and you work for Social Theory and Practice, I promise you it's on the way. Really. Soon. I swear.) There are also reservations to be made for my trip to Wales later this summer and background research to be completed for the projects I intend to work on there. Plus a whole host of personal stuff: you know, take Matt to the park after school whenever it's not raining; see friends before they disappear for parts unknown (well, not unknown, but at least inaccessible); catch up on old friendships; maybe cultivate some new ones, that sort of thing (y'all know who you are; consider yourselves shouted out to).

In the meantime, I did want to mention one point that really struck home to me. It's a bit embarrassing, really, as this sort of thing probably should have dawned on me earlier. I'm talking about Matt McIntosh's piece, Experiments in Living and Law. Here's a (rather lengthy) sample:
However, in many ways Mill did not apply his own reasoning on this point broadly or consistently enough. It seems not to have seriously occurred to him (in print, at least) to apply this same experimental pluralism to the realm of political order itself. Surely the fallibilism he applies at the level of individual experience should apply just as well at a higher scale.

The original founding philosophy of the United States can be considered a pre-emptive extension of Mill’s pluralism dating long before he formulated it; the notion of smaller political units being left free to shape their own laws, within the constraints of a few basic liberal principles, is a loose analogue of Mill’s principle of leaving individuals to pursue their own goals, subject to the constraint of not harming others. By letting the government of Massacheussetts pass laws very different from those of Texas, we have the advantage of learning from many experiments in governing rather than attempting the unwise task of deducing from our armchairs what would be the best policy for the entire country.

Of course, the analogy is imperfect: Mill’s argument works in a large part because individuals, as a rule, tend to internalize the consequences of their actions in their personal lives. Individuals bear the cost of their experiments, but government experiments as a rule have the character of public goods (or bads, as the case may be) – costs and benefits are not very strongly linked to the same sets of people. This results, predictably, in major infficiencies in the market for laws which seems to get worse as the scale and scope of government jurisdiction increases.

Following this pluralistic line of thought even further, then, it would seem even better to craft institutions that more fully internalize the costs and benefits of legal experiments, and allow for even more diverse experimentations. One way of moving in this direction is by breaking the current states up into smaller chunks and delegating lawmaking to as local a level as possible. A more complete solution, however, is polycentric law – the elimination of geographical monopolies on law, enabling even greater and more vibrant experimentation through competition on an open market.

Go read the whole thing.

Not yet, though. First I want to talk about it some. For starters, I have to ask: why the hell didn't I think of this? I mean, I'm a frickin' Mill scholar, and I've been hanging out at Catallarchy discussing the various merits of polycentrism for well over a year now. I've read any number of utilitarian defenses of libertarianism (hell, I made my students read Hayek last fall in political philosophy). Through all of that, however, I never once made the link from Mill's defense of experiments in living to radical experiments in governance. In my defense, I was maybe groping my way there in my discussion of liberalism after Mill, but I, like Mill, failed to carry my conclusions to their logical end.

This is not to say that I agree entirely with Matt's analysis. I think, for instance, that to describe Mill as a pluralist is to perhaps overlook the pretty considerable rationalist tendencies in his thinking (Brian Doss discusses Mill's rationalism/pluralism tensions at greater length here). And I have some worries about whether the arguments that Mill applies to individuals really will scale up properly. There is a good argument to be made, after all, that governments are other-regarding and hence not fit subjects for Mill's arguments about self-regarding liberty.

That said, however, I'm not really sure that I can see a very good Millian reason to disagree with Matt's analysis. Mill himself might disagree, but I'm not convinced that he could do so consistently. I can't say that I'm fully convinced of the value of this whole polycentrism thing. I'm still deeply suspicious that it would end in disaster. At the same time, I'm also growing more and more certain that as a good Millian liberal, I may have to sign on to the concept. But I'm still signing up for a contract that provides social services. Unless it costs too much. In which case, the hell with all those poor bastards.

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Friday, May 19, 2006


The Catallarchy Mill-fest is now up and running. Included are posts from Rick Clancy on Mill and immigration reform; Brian Doss on consequentialist and axiomatic resoning in On Liberty; Matt McIntosh on experiments in living as an argument for polycentrism; and two by yours truly, one on the proper scope of the Harm Principle and the other on Mill's case for liberal colonialism.

I want to take a moment to thank Jonathan Wilde for all his work in getting things put together. He was up well into the night editing and formatting; writing the posts was far and away the easy part of the whole endeavor. I'm grateful to him for the chance to share some thoughts with a wider audience.

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Mill and the Harm Principle

by Joe Miller

I know that it seems like I'm picking on Tom rather a lot lately. Okay, it's just twice, but still. Anyway, in what I suspect is at least an oblique reply to my discussion of Tom's post on gay marriage, Tom offers his analysis of Mill's Harm Principle:
Many proponents of the harm principle read it narrowly, as if the only harm that one may do to another is immediate or predictable (as in the case of pollution, for example). But there is more to liberty than allowing everyone to do his or her "own thing" as long as it doesn't result in immediate or predictable harm to others.
So far so good. Nothing here is too controversial. But he then follows up with:
We must take account of the harm that might result in the longer run from actions that are likely to strain and sunder the bonds of trust that make it possible for a people to coexist civilly. It is those bonds of trust -- forged by shared customs and moral principles -- that enable the members of society to pursue happiness with little or no fear of -- or the need to prepare for and defend against -- predations by their fellows.
And that, I'm afraid, is where he loses me. This, at the very least, doesn't sound much like the Mill that I know and love. My plan, then, was to write a really long post explaining just how far off this interpretation of the harm principle really is. However. This Saturday (for those of you not aware) is Mill's 200th birthday. So I'm already in the process of writing up a post on Mill which Jonathan has agreed to publish at Catallarchy (hey, they get way more readers than I do). Rather than shoot my entire load here, then, I'm going to hold off on my response. Or rather, I'm going to incorporate my response into my discussion of Mill at Catallarchy. So look for it there on Thursday or Friday of this week.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Gays and the End of Reproduction

by Joe Miller

Many of you know (at least via his writings and comments here), Tom from Liberty Corner. Now I like Tom. I even agree with him on some things once in a while. It's not terribly often, I'll admit. Despite his libertarianism, I'm actually far more liberal than he is on social matters. And despite my respect for markets, I'm far less of a marketist than he. Many of our differences, though, are disagreements in application, not so much in principle. Sometimes, though, I find myself pulled up short by something Tom writes. Take this, for example, from his recent post on gay marriage:
the kind of marriage a free society needs is heterosexual marriage, which . . . is a primary civilizing force. I now therefore reject the unrealistic . . . position that the state ought to keep its mitts off marriage. I embrace, instead, the realistic, consequentialist position that society -- acting through the state -- ought to uphold the special status of heterosexual marriage by refusing legal recognition to other forms of marriage. That is, the state should refuse to treat marriage as if it were mainly (or nothing but) an arrangement to acquire certain economic advantages or to legitimate relationships that society, in the main, finds illegitimate.

The alternative is to advance further down the slippery slope toward societal disintegration and into the morass of ills which accompany that disintegration. (We've seen enough societal disintegration and costly consequences since the advent of the welfare state to know that the two go hand in hand.) The recognition of homosexual marriage by the state -- though innocuous to many, and an article of faith among most libertarians and liberals -- is another step down that slope. When the state, through its power to recognize marriage, bestows equal benefits on homosexual marriage, it will next bestow equal benefits on other domestic arrangements that fall short of traditional, heterosexual marriage. And that surely will weaken heterosexual marriage, which is the axis around which the family revolves.
Okay, so far this is a pretty standard social conservative response to gay marriage. I think that it's wrong, deeply counter to the harm principle, terrifically paternalistic, and fairly arrogant. It says, in effect, that only my preferred way of arranging social institutions can possibly work, and those of you who think that you'll be happy arranging your lives in some other way, well, you're just wrong and so I'm going to prevent you from doing so. Indeed, it's awfully hard for me to see how it is that allowing two (or three or whatever) people who genuinely love one another from making a legal commitment to one another undermines society. I'm with Andrew Sullivan here. Andrew argues that allowing gay marriage is the genuinely conservative position. Surely gay monogamy is more conducive to societal stability than is gay promiscuity. To the extent that marriage encourages monogamy, well, then, someone genuinely concerned with social stability should be all for it.

That, however, isn't the real shocker. Tom follows up the above paragraphs with this:
Moreover, the undermining of heterosexual marriage will cause the fertility rate (number of births per woman per year) to decline, given the high correlation between marriage and reproduction. (In spite of the 1960s and women's "liberation," two-thirds of births in the U.S. are to married women.) Replenishment of the population requires a fertility rate (births per woman in a lifetime) of 2.1.
WTF?! I'm sorry. I meant, with all due respect, Tom...what the bloody fuck? Look, maybe it's the case that marriage and fertility are correlated. But surely it's a stretch to think that we have anything more than a correlation here. If anything, the causal chain runs in the opposite direction. It's hard to imagine many people who say things like, "Well, we're already married, so we might as well have some kids now." It is, however, not all that uncommon for people to say things like, "Well, we want to have kids, so maybe we should get married."

But even leaving this all aside, how exactly is it that gay marriage (or polygamy or marriage between man and goat) is going to undermine fertility rates? Does anyone think that outlawing gay marriage is somehow going to result in fewer gay people? Are there really lots of women out there who say, "Gee, I'd consider becoming a lesbian if only I could get married, but since I can't get married to another woman, I guess I'll have to settle for some dick." Take that last however you'd like.

Look, anyone who wants to have children is going to have them. The desire to have children is a desire that is independent of the desire to marry. The two are correlated, but they aren't logically dependent upon one another. As it happens, in our society, people who want children are often people who want to marry. People who are married are often in a better position to raise a child. What difference it makes who said people are fucking is beyond me. And unless you really do think that legalizing gay marriage will somehow create more gays, the worry that gay marriage will undermine fertility rates is terribly misplaced.

Shorter version: post hoc ergo propter hoc.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

I Wanna Be a Crazy Drunken Minarchist...Well, Anarchist Anyway

by Joe Miller

I had kind of a fifth-grade moment earlier today. While reading Crooked Timber, I came across this post by Belle Waring. She's responding to a bit of lunacy from Eugene Volokh in her usual extremely witty way when, out of nowhere, comes this:
Now, I say this in the full knowledge that Eugene Volokh holds all sorts of views on many topics with which I completely disagree. Furthermore, since some of these views concern matters of serious moral import, I would seem to be pretty well committed to the idea that he is, in some sense, a bad person. But, in real life, we share polite aquaintanceship with all sorts of people who think all kinds of wrong and crazy stuff. We just don’t usually have to hear about those crazy things. At a party we will edge away from the crazy “let me tell you about my views on minarchy RIGHT NOW” guy. Then again, we might have a great time discussing the latest Italian election results, say, or poor draft choices recently made in the NFL, with someone who was, in fact, a crazy minarchist, but who didn’t go out of his way to tell you about it. Unfortunately, the blogosphere is like an extended drunken party in which the probability of you having to hear the crazy minarchist’s theories about government asymptotically approaches 1. But while it’s appropriate to get into high dudgeon if one of the Catallarchy guys (maybe they’re actually anarchists, but never mind) says something you find morally repugnant, it isn’t necessarily a good idea to start picturing him to yourself as some sort of moral monster, slavering away in a basement. (Unless it’s Captain Ed, in which case, go right along.)
So why the fifth-grade (that's grade five for you Canadians out there) moment? That's about the age at which boys and girls kind of start to notice one another but aren't really quite sure what that should entail. So sometimes a girl who likes a boy will demonstrates her affection by teasing him mercilessly. Actually, boys are probably far worse about this sort of thing than girls, but bear with me here. This is all fine and good...when you're the boy that the cute girl is picking on. Hey, at least she's talking to you! But when you're the boy who has to stand by and watch the cute girl pick on someone else while she totally and completely ignores your very existence, well that's less good.

The relevance? Okay, here's my somewhat embarrassing admission: I have a huge crush on Belle. Don't get me wrong; I've never met the woman in my life, have no idea what she looks like, and know that she's happily married to a way better philosopher (and blogger) than I am. (In a strange coincidence, John Holbo is colleagues at National University of Singapore with one of my contemporaries from grad school at UVA. He's also a way better philosopher than I. This is getting depressing.) Anyway, Belle is, well, disgustingly smart, very, very clever and delightfully witty. She's also a philosopher (she studied Greek philosophy at Berkeley). And a poet. And a chef. And, in case you're impressed by this sort of thing, she's also descended from both Peter Stuyvesant and Jay Gould (the railroad guy, not the naturalist).

Look, I'm pretty realistic about this sort of thing. I know that Belle Waring is never, ever going to read my humble little blog. And if she did, she'd just say some super smart thing that would expose the marginalness of my competence to all the rest of the world. But she called the Catallarchy guys crazy drunken minarchists. So now I really want to be a crazy drunken minarchist. At least then I could enjoy having the smart girl pick on me. So how about it, Jonathan? Want to add me to your roster? I'm already an anarchist (of the Simmons rather than the Friedman variety, but still). I know that a number of readers of this blog can readily attest to the drunken part. Given half a chance, I'll drink bourbon like it's going out of style. I promise to work really hard on the crazy bit. Maybe then Belle will point out some of my morally repugnant posts.

Oh, and by the way, Brian Doss responds to Belle's post here. Brian is also pretty smart and pretty witty. That's probably why Belle picked on him. And not me. Bastard.

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Saturday, May 06, 2006


by Joe Miller

Sometime commentator, Catallarch and all-around smart guy (you owe me $20 for that last one, by the way) Matt McIntosh has written a nice defense of exploitation at TCS Daily. I'm going to rather shamelessly quote at length here:

Let us say that I am poor and you are wealthy. I live a harsh life of bare subsistence farming, while you make several thousand dollars per day as a business owner in the widget industry. One day you hire me to make widgets for you at a rate of $1 per widget, which you then sell to make a profit of $2 per widget. Which of us has benefited the most from this exchange?

If you answered that it must be you, this is wrong. It's true that you are still much, much better off than I am in absolute terms, and that in dollars, you have gained more than I have. But considering our relative starting points and the basic fact of diminishing marginal utility, this transaction has benefited me more than it has benefited you. Simply put, the principle of diminishing marginal utility states that each extra unit of a good provides less subjective benefit to an individual than the last one did: an extra dollar means much, much more to a pauper than to a millionaire. Thus I get much more subjective utility from the extra dollars I now have than you do from the extra dollars you have.

This is a straightforward lesson in basic economics, and yet it's constantly overlooked in discussions about trade with people of developing nations.
There is much more, and you should go read the whole thing. I've very little to add to Matt's analysis, other than to say that I think he's exactly right here. Indeed, part of my personal odyssey toward a somewhat more marketist view of the world involved this very point. I had one of those slap-my-forehead-why-didn't-I-think-of-that moments when I read this post by Matt Yglesias. Matt quotes a child labor activist who bemoans that there are people in the world who aspire to "move from misery to poverty." Matt's reply:
That's terrible. But it's also true. And it seems to me that what's terrible about it is precisely that there are people in this world with so little income that they aspire simply to move from misery to poverty. The problem, in other words, is that the people who don't have sweatshop jobs are miserable. So miserable, in fact, that the terrible conditions in sweatshops are better than their best other alternative. Closing down the sweatship option would seem to just force everyone to stick with misery, which doesn't sound very appealing.
Matt's suggestion is that the key to improving economic conditions in the developing world is not forcing American multinational to pay higher wages. Why would a corporation pay higher wages than it has to? Besides, I like cheap consumer goods, and judging by Wal-Mart's success, so do a lot of other people. No, asking Nike to lower its profits voluntarily is silly. A much better solution: make people less miserable to begin with. If your choice is (a) subsistence farming and misery or (b) sweatshops and mere poverty, then, unless you've been cluttered with too much romanticism about noble and free farmers, I suspect you opt for (b).

A lot of the reason that subsistence farming entails so much misery, however, is that we've decided for some reason that it's a really good idea to offer subsidies to farmers in this country (subsidies which, for the record, mostly benefit agribusiness and not the nice folks whose farms I pass every day on my drive to work). By subsidizing relatively rich American farmers, we make it impossible for farmers in developing nations to compete. Thus, rather than exporting cheap food to the United States, and in the process raising the floor such that Nike will need to pay more to convince someone that life in the factory will be better than life on the farm, developing nations instead find themselves filled with miserable subsistence farmers. And the real irony here: we pay twice for this sort of thing, first in taxes to fund the subsidies and then in the check out line in terms of higher prices.

So don't worry so much about the "Made in Cambodia" label on the back of your new shirt. Save your righteous indignation for the next $200,000 Archer Daniels Midland advertisement that seems to play at halftime during every single college football game all season long. Remember that the extra pennies that you paid for that bag of Doritos you've almost finished eating paid for that commercial. And if you wanna think about that whole "misery to poverty" thing, that'd be okay, too.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

For Profit Armed Humanitarian Intervention

by Joe Miller

It's not uncommon in the philosophical literature to find at least a few snarky comments about the tensions inherent in the notion of armed humanitarian intervention. The comments are even snarkier (is that a word?) in some of the referee's comments that I've received from various journals. (Interesting aside: the snarkiest of these comments came from journals that accepted my articles. Go figure.) And all of the above sorts of comments pale in comparison to the comments that I've received at various conferences at which I've presented papers defending a (limited) return to something like colonialism. For the record, presenting a paper defending colonialism in the spring of 2003 at a conference in Europe while employed by the United States Military Academy is not the best way to win friends and influence people.

At any rate, I must confess that even I did something of a doubletake when I read Matt Yglesias' recent defense of the use of private military contractors to combat genocide in various regions of Africa. Armed humanitarian intervention I can live with. For-profit AHI? How many contradictions can we cram into a single phrase?

Okay, I know the arguments. The market. Competition. Matt lays several of these arguments out quite nicely (he got the idea at a CATO seminar, you you'd expect the marketist arguments to be fully on display). I'm sure that my ancap readers (you know who you are) will find Matt's suggestion to be a rare display of good sense.

I have little to add that isn't already stated in the comments on Matt's article. Two points in particular strike me as relevant. First, does anyone really think that the problems in Africa stem from having too few mercenaries running around? Yes, I know, most of those mercenaries are not accountable to anyone at all, or where they are accountable, their paymasters are themselves really bad people. Mercenaries that get their pay from, I don't know, the Red Cross or Amnesty International or some such group are likely to have a lot more incentive to behave themselves. Besides, private military contractors (or PMCs) are usually staffed with former American soldiers who are, by and large, well-trained and well-disciplined. Highly trained, disciplined troops are not usually the type who run around committing atrocities.

The more serious objection, as I see it, is cost. One of Matt's readers points out that the Defense Department has a budget of about $400B and employs about 4 million folks. That means that it costs about $100,000 per employee. Yes, this includes all sorts of exotica--few PMCs will need or want a stealth bomber and I'm sure that no PMC would ever need an aircraft carrier. Still, part of the reason that the Pentagon can get away with such a low number is that national militaries do not pay soldiers their market value. The Army, for instance, makes a big deal of the fact that soldiers are not paid according to their value, claiming that soldiers who are paid what they are worth are mercenaries (and thereby implying that being a mercenary is somehow bad). Rather, soldiers are supposed to fight for duty, honor and country...or something like that. That allows the Army to get away with paying a married E1 a wage that would qualify him for food stamps. Entry-level positions with PMCs, however, reportedly start at $100,000 per year. That's just pay. You'd still have to equip, feed, and transport said soldier and then continue to provide him support in the field.

So we're looking at a pretty substantial chunk of change to put a single soldier on the ground. Then consider that the United Nations Protection Force deployed in Bosnia consisted of 39,000 soldiers. And that Bosnia is about 20K sq. miles. Darfur, to take one random example, is about 197K sq. miles. I suspect that 39,000 soldiers would be hard-pressed to bring any sort of serious order to a region that large, particularly when those same soldiers--as members of a PMC--are unsupported by a navy or an air force or armor or artillery. Even if they could manage to secure all of Darfur, however, we are looking at a price tag of at least $3.9B just for salaries for a single year. For the record, the U.S. still has soldiers deployed in Bosnia...14 years later.

The point here is that we're talking a pretty hefty price tag. That leaves us with three options, as far as I can tell.
  1. Hope that private individuals will kick in enough to make this option work.
  2. Keep AHI the province of nation-states.
  3. Tell all the poor buggers that they'll just have to go it alone.
Personally, I think that (1) is pretty unlikely. That's hardly surprising, I suppose, since that's the same answer I give to my libertarian friends who claim that private charity will be sufficient to alleviate poverty. Option (3) strikes me as pretty much immoral. I have difficulty seeing why it is that the mere fact that I happen to live in this country while you happen to live in another is at all morally relevant. So that leaves us with (2). Unless someone else can think of a (4).

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