Saturday, August 13, 2005

A roundabout discussion of "Culture and Enterprise"

In my opinion, one of the most fascinating Austrian Economists is Don Lavoie. It is a shame that he died so young and that his work is difficult to find. His work is engaging in several ways. Most notably, he lead the "interpretive turn" in Austrian Economics. This is notable simply because he takes the difficult job of defending some of post-modern philosophy--something that most people in modern economic and philosophical discourse are loathe to do. Because I am interested in ideas, I find the defense of unpopular ideas interesting. Furthermore, he has worked a good deal on economics and cultural studies, and perhaps sucessfully worked in a way that merges the two fields. Finally, he tends to write in a way that will appeal, at least somewhat, to the aspirations of the cultural left, by explaining why statist means are ultimately unsuccessful ways to obtain their goals--without spending much time denigrating their sentiments.

It is this last part, the acceptance of some "leftist" goals and sentiment, while trying to explain to that libertaian means are more efficient that interests me. I find it particularly interesting. I also find it possibly futile. The conclusion, if it can be maintained is possibly powerful. If it cannot be maintained it is a lot of waisted effort.

To explain what I am getting at, I would like to deal with the last chapter of what I believe to be his last book, Culture and Enterprise (which he wrote with Emily Chamlee-Wright). In this chapter, he argues that the shareholder model of business ethics is deficient. His argument, relying on previous chapters which discussed the cultural embeddedness of markets and the inaccuracy of the neoclassical model of business decision making is probably sound. He also, very accurately, refuses to accept the full "stakeholder" theory of business ethics as too demanding and impossible for busienss to fullfill. The conclusion that he comes to is that there is room for philanthropic activity in the business world and that there is room for "moral" as well as "economic" choices in the running of a business.

While this is all well and good, and an effort that I support, I have a fear that this will appeal to the "cultural left" (I am not saying that this is his intention, although it does seem to be his intention in some of his work). To understand why, all one has to do is to read this piece by Sheldon Richman. In that story, Richman details the charitable efforts of Wallmart, and how certain leaders of the philanthropic wold have attacked Wallmart's philanthropic efforts. Wallmart is the biggest corporate donor in the country. Even so, the National Committe for Philanthropic Responsability condemns Wallmart for its philanthropic activity. They say that it is just "corporate advertising" and that it is too locally driven (never mind that one of the main criticisms of Wallmart is that it destroys small towns).

The point that I am trying to make is that it may be impossible to appeal to large segments of the left, including the "National Committee for Philanthropic Responsbility". I have to wonder whether anything will satisfy such critics, short of pain and suffering on the part of those who can afford to give. Must philanthropic contrabutions hurt? Is it that the company is so successfull that they can make them without noticing (or that they may even be a revenue producer) the problem?

This is no way a criticism of the work of Lavoie. However, it is a part of his work that I find fascinating and somewhat unsatisfying.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Objectivism and Libertarianism, again

Don Watkins likes to blog about libertarianism and objectivism.

According to Don, good political change only comes through good philosophical change. That is to say that we have a current culture that supports a "mixed economy" and that we cannot get rid of the mixed economy or its components without a philosophical change to reject said "mixed economy". This is incorrect. Political change does not come only through philosophical change. Elections do not produce the political will of the people. Perhaps Don is not read in public choice analysis, but most political outcomes are the result of economic and power games, not to mention the structure of voting process. This goes back to such incontrovertible thinkers such as Aarow, who demonstrated that the difference between various voting procedures (all of which are democratic) can turn out different results, none of which has any clear democratic priority over the others. Anyone vaguely familiar with libertarian theory understands that legislators are bought and sold, and the legislation that is produced is often determined by which interest group has the most money and/or votes, not the national well being.

The point being is that the political philosophy of the nation is not always the same as the outcome of the political process. Changing the policy and laws of this nation is not simply a philosophical endeavor. It is also the result of interest group wrangling, selling to the public, etc, etc....One can come up with short term gains. There are a number of constituencies that would support some aspects of capitalistic freedom as understood by objectivists. Why not support the changes that can be made?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Directions for Cultural Critique

Listening to Allen Charles Kors second lecture on Voltaire (commerically available), I was highly impressed by his explanation of the education of Volataire. He explained that most people don't understand his philosophical education. The popular belief is that when Volataire was growing up, there was a main current of religious and aristocratic orthadoxy that had a straingelhold on France. This was the end of the reign of Louis XIV. Strong censorship laws were in place. The Bastile was the home of political prisoners. Furthermore, Voltaire was educated by Jesuits--that is to say functionaries of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet nevertheless, Voltaire became a prominant enlightenment leader, speaking out against problems with Royal as well as religious authority.

Thinking about it, this seems paradoxical. How can someone brought up in such a pro-royal and pro-Catholic atmosphere become a leader, actually a seminal thinker, for the opposition? Moreover, how can a whole crop of people in a Catholic Aristocratic dominated environment reach out and push forward the enlightenment? To answer this question, Koors pointed out the value of a Jesuit education at the time. Voltaire was studing a curiculum of logic, reason, and debate. The Jesuits taught their students exactly what was necessary in figuring out how to make good arguments pro and con. Rigour and excellence were demanded. It was not good enough to argue against strawmen. Finally, there was exposure to the classics--which included a lot of anti-religious literature, which was taught for its beauty and skill of writing.

This is all a round about way of thinking about and asking what is important in cultural critique. Do the answers matter all that much. Is a culture that appears bad (religiously intolorant, aristocratic, etc...) really all that bad if it has the seeds of change (perhaps burried, as an undercurrent)? Furthermore, what are the seeds of change? How do we move things in the right direction? Should the goal be to push the correct conclusions, or to push the way to arrive at the conclusions?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

"Eternal life" as "anti-life"

Over at SOLO there is an article posted by Marcus Bachler titled "Who wants to live forever".

While the article discusses various issues regarding various opinions on the eternal extension of one's life, it misses some of the most important points. To begin with, it the idea that one could live forever, or even to be 500 years old strikes me at odds with reality. People have always been hoping to find some way to achieve "eternal youth". The idea of medical and health science advances that extend life way beyond what we have today seems more wishful thinking.

It is simply not good philosophy to ignore the constraints of the real world. Everyone will die eventually. To pretend otherwise seems, well, silly. Life implies a begining and an end. It is simply the way of things. To rebell against the reality of one's death is to rebell against the nature of life. While this appears incredibly obvious, it is also something that the world of Objectivism never seems to have gotten around to.

I actually consider this to be somewhat of a defect in Objectivistic ideas of psychology and ethics. Everything seems to be about success and robustness. However, it also is true that a natural part of living on this earth is aging, weakening, and death. To ignore these facts, to pretend they aren't there, or to live a crusade agianst their reality is pointless. It is a shame that Objectivism has so little to say about this.

None of this is meant to disparage the longevity activists. I think they should follow their dreams. I don't want to stop technology or discourage it. However, I do think that to imagine that we will never die is tilting against a windmill, and I have to question a philosophical group that seems to be so focused on it.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Winning with Peace

A recent article by Don Boudreaux has caused some amount of debate about the war on terror. Reading through the track backs, Don Watkins and many others have started accusing Don Boudreaux and various libertarians and peace advocates as supporting "surrender". Of course, they are wrong and Don Boudreaux is right. But I am not even interested in parsing though the arguments.

One of the reasons that objectivists and other assorted "right thinking patriots" can make hard hitting arguments is that there is no real vision of winning or even morality. The common thought is described as "we can't win". Of course that is wrong. We can and will win. However, if "we can't win" is interpreted as "there will probably be more surprise terrorist attacks that we really can't prevent", well that is true. But that is not the point.

Anti-war people need to explain what it means to win. To win means outliving the terrorists. It means not sucombing to the terrorists. To win means that we will find the terrorists and either take them into custody or kill them. It is that simple. It is to fight against terorist organizations and individuals until they are no more. This is a viable win. It may cost some casualties, but it is the best outcome possible. There is more to unpack here. This expressly includes refusing to let our way of life, our system, and our government a reflection of their own brutality.

There is a somewhat different way to determine "winning". Perhaps that would be more congenial to the pro-war people. This vision is the anhilation of vast portions of the middle east. If there is a society that we feel is promoting terror, we must destroy it. My contention is that this won't work, and we will have a never ending cycle of violence, war, and terror. Every time we kill one generation of Islamicists, we will only be creating another.

In any case, my point is that anti-war folks need to present the how and the why of victory over terrorism, as well as why brute force will never achieve that. Otherwise, we can make all of the important rational points we want regarding the inanity of the pro-war folks and why they are wrong, with little avail. We need to keep the big picture in full view.

The anti-anti-conceptual mentality

Another problem that I have begun to see in some quarters of objectivism revolves around the tactic of diagnosing one's opponents errors as malfunctions of thought. I can see the appeal to invigorating epistemology by adding this technology of how to think right. Unfortunately, I also think that there are grave problems with spending much time on the issue.

I didn't think much on the issue until recently reading Don Watkin's website. In a couple of perhaps unrelated articles, he seems to have started relying on psycho-epistemological arguments to explain what is wrong with both libertarians and people who oppose massive use of force in Iraq. In each case his arguments seem to denigrate into a diagnosis of one's opponents--on a large scale--as having massive thought disorders. Libertarians, you see, hate ideas. And those who oppose the massive use of force, well, they don't like concepts. It is as if everyone who disagrees with objectivism just can't think right! I seriously began to wonder if the man ever woke up in the moarning and thought that maybe just maybe those who disagree with him might make some sense.

Perhaps I am being exagerative. And perhaps there is use for thinking of people as "anti-conceptual" or having a "hatred of ideas". But I also think that the whole business has been infected by the Objectivist mindset of being against the world, and fighting the evil doers everywhere. Scratch that. Stupid evil doers.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Proudhone: head in the stars, and other places

Reading Proudhone is absorbing. It is not that all of his arguments are perfect. I actually have all kinds of markings up and down the page. However, one becomes quite sympathetic to the spirit and goal of the work. Perhaps I have just become soft and can see the wonder of living in an anarchistic world where most people are small business men or work in some sort of collective. I can see that this is a marked independance over the state of things as it is. It would be wonderful if people could easily borrow money, start up a business, and not take on the duty of paying the interest. It would be wonderful if people could work together and make profit as a group. It would be wonderful if people felt more economically empowered and had more control over their financial life. And then one gets caught up. It takes a few minutes to realized that these claims seem to be of the same status as "it would be wonderful if we all had our own spaceship".

I have more to say, but I keep erasing and re-writing. It won't be said tonight. However, I want to suggest that interest may be a usefull tool in the social distribution of loans. Furthermore, as I keep stating, money is scarce--even if we printed up lots of it its value would keep going down. I suppose that if a mutualist banking scheme could work that would be one thing. But until I can see a way for interest free banking to work (in the way it would work in a free society, not as some kind of government transfer scheme), then I don't see how mutualism can be kept up.

However, there is hope. In addition to the cooaperative story below, I have recently discovered the Grameen Bank. The idea is to provide micro loans (no more than a couple of hundred dollars) to poor people in Bangladesh. This bank has been successfull as a bank. It makes lots of loans and they get paid back. This small scale movement in a mutualist direction--providing loans to poor people who couldn't get them otherwise seems to be changing things for the better. However, it is important to note that the loans are small, and would have move things very little for the purpose of ending the monopoly of capital ownership. They even charge interest. Grameen loans appear to be a very good thing, putting money into the hands of people who need it. It is apparantly a profitable way to fight poverty. But as I stated, it is not going to be(nor does it improve the likelyhood of having) a mutualist revolution.

There is one side note. The Grameen Bank appears not only to be lending money, but promoting good decision making. It is not clear that the "16 decisions of Grameen Bank" are actually something that they require all people they loan to to follow or not. Some of the decisions seem, well, incredibly politically and morally charged--"we shall have small families" and "we shall not give or take dowry" among them. All of the decisions are prudent ones, in fact, I may call them cultural pre-conditions of economic success. However, requiring people to follow them in order to loan (if that is their practice) seems incredibly coercive. I have to wonder if it is something that mutualists or others would call "contract feudalism". But this may need more working out.

Objectivism & Moralism

I have been recently tuned in to various objectivist and objectivist related internet discussions. I have come to the point of pure frustration. There are some good posts out there. And then there is a multitude of posts not worth reading. I caught myself arguing the issue of libertarianism. And then I found myself incredibly bothered by the typical thoughtless foreign policy work.

In any case, the problem in Objectivism is moralization. Everyone with a serious interest in Objectivism should read this and this.

And I am certain that the problems of justice and criminal law as adderssed by Objectivism are related to this problem.

So the question is, how to find and pull out the good stuff and ignore the bad.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Debating Intelligent Design

On my way to work this morning, I heard a piece on NPR's morning news show regarding the public debates, or rather lack thereof, between supporters of intelligent design and evolution. The basic gist of the story was that scientist supporters of evolution are not really interested in debating supporters of intelligent design. This is for various reasons. To debate intelligent design people in public forums is to actually suggest that intelligent design is something whose claim to validity is good enough to bother debating. Furthermore, supporters of evolution say that public debates are more or less a game and that their ideas are not simplistic or easily sumarizable enough to be presented in a convincing enough way to convey and convince the onlooker that they are correct. Intelligent design on the other hand, is a false but perhaps dangerously convincing when argued for in small doses. Also, there was also the idea that supporters of creationism use wiley debate tricks that confuse the issues.

While I think there may be something to all of these arguments. However, I am also not totally sure that the best strategy is to give up on the debates all together. To begin with, they seem somewhat snobbish. More importantly, they abdicate the field. If this strategy leads to fewer and fewer people hearing the evolution side supported in a debate, they may come to the conclusion that the evolutionists are incorrect. I think people, at least open minded people, want to hear from supporters of evolution. They want to be able to hear both sides. They have a right to hear from both sides. Furthermore, they may draw some negative conclusions from evolution supporters non-interest in presenting their views in a popular format like the debate.

The only important question that should be asked when deciding whether to debate or not should be as to what effects would be caused by appearing and what effects would be caused by not appearing. If more people would be positively influenced by showing up than by not showing up, then you should, and the other way around. And I do understand the beauty of not showing up to make the point that ID is beneath debate. However, I fear that may only leave too many people asking: why?.

Postscript: When I originally heard the radio story, I had thought that there are many parallels with the objectivist issues of sanction and discussion with those dirty libertarians. Of course you can read all you want into my post on that. It is probably true. There are probably some factors that make the equities involved very different such as the esteem and importance that evolutionary supporters have in the scientific and academic world that supporters of objectivism do not. It would seem to make it all the more imperative for the objectivist to appear.