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.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The cooperative Howard Roarke

There is an interesting story about cooperative businesses up at alternet.

I find the article interesting for several reasons. One of them being personal: I lived in a residential co-op for a year while being a full time student at the University of Michigan. I am generally interested in mutualism and varieties of non-traditional free-market business models. Most importantly, I think the topic of cooperatives fit strongly into my interest in how laissez fair capitalist ideologies and some anti-authoritarian strains of socialism and anarchy.

What came across to me was how much working in a cooperative promotes personal responsibility. It is the flip side of not having a boss. Members have to be responsible for themselves. It is almost as if working at a cooperative requires or should induce some sort of improved responsibility at work. Or perhaps it encourages it.

"Then there is the more deeply personal issue of self-motivation. "Everybody thinks they
don't want to have a boss," says Baird of the Oakland Arizmendi. "But what they haven't
thought about is they don't want to be a boss, either. That is maybe the most revolutionary
aspect to what we do here. People have to become in charge of themselves, and not
everybody's equipped to do that."

Assuming that participation in a cooperative business enhances personal responsibility and productivity, perhaps it should be part of the cultural structures that enhance and promote free-markets, despite the fact that currently most co-op types are not free-market types. Also, one would hope that if this is a thriving business, and by many measures it has been by the cooperative pizza provider mentioned in the story, it can gain increased popularity as a successful business practice. The profits appeared high (or at least high enough that last year each employee got a bonus equivalent to a $10 increase in their wages for every hour worked in that year). The business has lasted a good while. This looks like it could be a good business.

Of course, not everything in the cooperative movement is peaches and cream. It is certainly not all Roarke and Galt. Things are decided by consensus (this is not the usual practice in cooperatives, I think). As I recall, Roarke hated committees--and there are good reasons to think that some groups and committee situations are terrible. Everyone gets paid the same amount per hour. While this mode of organization may be suited to a pizza place, I can't see how it can work with, say, designing blue prints or litigating criminal cases. Somebody has to be in charge. Furthermore, I can't imagine a law cooperative. It just makes sense to make some people lawyers and others secretaries (mostly because it doesn't make sense for lawyers to do their own secretarial work, their time is worth too much). It wouldn't even make sense to consider all attorneys at a firm equal--because they don't have equal skill, ability, and importance. It would make more sense for attorneys to work alone, each responsible for his own clients then to have a bunch of attorneys working on consensus basis where those who are the most experienced and able are treated just as those who are right out of law school.

However, it is clear that the cooperative has its function and should definitely be studied and valued by those interested in business, the free-market, worker responsibility/productivity, and culture.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Deskilling: and the problem is?

Reading Kevin Carson's Free-trade Anti-Capitalist blog I have become aware of the idea of deskilling. The idea is that laborers are being dumbed down for profit. As they are being dumbed down they have less and less control over how they do their work. This is a way that they are more easily controlled.

So I decided to do some begining research on the issue. I want to see actual data on the issue. I want to see what is going on and how it works. Maybe I want to see some sign of conspiracy and determine if there is some sort of logic to this in order to verify that there is no better explanation as to what is going on. So far I have been soemwhat dissapointed.

If deskilling is supposed to be a bad thing, the Internet Encyclopedia of Technology and Culture provides pretty lame examples: the carpenter and the physician. As to the carpenter, the complaint was that the production of molding went from something that took a lot of time, effort, and skill, to something that the carpenter bought from a manufacturer that had the machinery required in order to easily and cheaply produce. This seems to be an example of making the carpenter's life easier. It now takes her/him less time to produce good woodwork. Now he can refine his other carpentry skills. Yay!

The second example that is mentioned is physician in the advent of the sphygmomanometer. According to the information provided, the sphygmomanometer (blood pressure thingy) can easily provide information to a physician that previously took a lot of work and experience to detect. When I think of professions that are being dumbed-down, I don't think of doctors. Really, if doctors can more easily measure blood pressure, well then good. Because doctor's have a lot of skilled work to do. And it seems kind of funny to act as if that weren't the case.

Maybe I am looking at this all wrong. With all my thinking on the various ideas that intersect at this rotary (libertarianism, georgism, anarcho-capitalism, mutualism, buddhism, objectivism, etc, etc....) I was hoping for something a little more recognizable. Perhaps I was looking for something that would disturb an objectivist. For all of the intellectual and eliete hard core capitalism of Objectivism, there is great appreciation for a skilled working man. Just read Atlas Shrugged. One of my main goals in understanding deskilling is to provide some sort moral questioning for the libertarian and the objectivist. Perhaps a way to show that some of the main themes of Objectivism can be interpreted in ways that may problemetize Objectivist notions of Capitalism and especially the business-government relationship. However, I have to wonder whether or not the argument for the existence of deskilling is really there and as strong as I was begining to think it may be.

Or maybe I just have to give it a better chance. I would certainly appreciate it if someone could point me out to some better information.

Reading Proudhon

Recently I have taken up reading Proudhon. I have started with his work "What is Property?" Much of the work seems wrong, false, or just somehow off. I may get to that, and I may not. However, because he is really (in my opinion) adding argument after argument after argument as to why property is a bad thing (as opposed to possession, he was most certainly not a communist), it is not necessary that all--or even most-- of his arguments succeed in order for his larger point (that property should be replaced with possession) to be proven.

One of the more curious bits of thought that Proudhon advances regards the division of labor. To explain what I think he is getting at, I would have to start by saying that he thinks that labor should be divided and paid for not by time (as a modern factory 8 hour day works), but by the quantity of production or the accomplishment of a number of chores. He basically asserts that there should be some sort of equitable division of this labor, and each person should only perform his share. For that share, he should be paid. Once he has performed his work, he can do a number of things, of course. He can spend the time in leisure, raise a family, cultivate himself, etc... However, if he should decide that he wants to do more work, he would be interfering in his fellow man's ability to make a living. Of course, he could assist his slower fellow worker. However, he should not demand any kind of payment for this assistance. If I understand him correctly, to do so would violate the equal rights to provide for oneself.

This perhaps seems to be the most frustrating kind of error that Proudhon makes. That is the assumption of a fixed sum of wealth, or in this case, jobs. There seems to be a number of jobs, we all devide them among ourselves, and we split the pay equally. Of course this is wrong. There is no fixed sum total of jobs, wealth, or whatever. The number of jobs to perform, products to make, or wealth to be accumulated is not fixed. It is expanding. If I am super productive, I benefit myself. There is no limit to the number of jobs, so you can probably find something else to do. If I do this better than you, than you should do something else.

Writing this down seems awefully harsh. It feels like I am saying find another job, one that you can do better. But it is not as if there is an infinite number of jobs. And many cannot find a new job because they live in the wrong town, don't have enough experience, etc....

Nevertheless, because the supply of jobs is not fixed, there is no way to just divide them all up and share equally in the work and wages. That would limit the number of jobs. That would limit productivity. It appears to be a mistake.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The deadly silence

Foreign policy and the war on terror should probably be the number one focus for political discussions today. However, they aren't. Whenever the subject of Guantanamo Bay arises, the only condemnation that appears is based toward those who call it a "gulag" or compair it to the terrors of Stalin & Hitler. Call it a debate over very bad wordage, exageration, and insensitivity. Nobody wants to mention torture.

As of this date, the Attorney General of the United States of America has advocated torture. We as Americans don't seem to care. As of this date there are serious allegations of torture at the Guantanamo Bay prison. We Americans don't really care.

I cannot describe how much this bothers me. This is beyond words. Something must be done.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Objectivist Rationalism?

Thinking about the comments to this post at Anger Management (as part of the aforementioned debate) has lead me to wonder if Objectivism is too rationalistic. I had argued that a Friedmanite anarcho-capitalist world would provide a social system where rights (as conceived by objectivism) would be better respected than in a system of minimal government. Don states that the assertion could not be defended as a matter of principle and that is the problem. He elaborates by saying that "If you want to prove that a social system is proper to man, you must do so by reference to principles, particularly moral principles. If you can't do that, then you have not proved your case."

As I see it, philosophy has an important place in politics. It should describe what is good, what is bad, what rights people have, what kind of result should follow if these rights are not respected, etc... However, philosophy cannot always explain the social and political mechanisms necessary to create this. People aren't always rational, and they surely aren't always objective--at least in the sense described by objectivists. Governmental mechanisms simply don't always work the way we would think they will. It takes all kinds of extra-moral theory to explain or predict how people would react to the best prepared constitutional document and laws that philosophy can provide. You can enact the best philosophical and morally backed document that you wish, that does not mean that it will be enforced as you envision. It takes more than moral theory to plan, create, and modify political structures. It takes psychology, economics, etc, etc..... And sometimes all planning is inadequate.

Philosophy and morality should describe what kind of society we want. However, philosophy cannot always tell us how to enact this. If we are looking to enact it, we cannot limit ourselves to moral arguments. Clearly, what we do should be within the bounds of morality. However, to limit the available arguments to those with moral reasoning seems to be overly rationalistic. No philosophic blueprint can plan how society would work. While we certainly can use moral reason to get to a description of what people's rights should be and what principles society should recognize, however morality alone cannot determine the best way to structure constitutional and governmental mechanisms to get society to a place where these rights are properly recognized. For normative principles, look to morality. However, to explain how these normative principles should be enforced, I think we should be looking elsewhere.