Freedom and employment

Anarchopac who is an anarchist/socialist thinks that wage labour is incompatible with freedom. His argument is that workers must work to earn a living. And even if a worker wants to start his own business he must work for a wage to save up money to start the business and so has to work for a wage. Since he has no choice but to work for a wage he isn’t free since he has no alternative. I don’t think it does much good to argue about whether this or that action is compatible with freedom because it frames the debate in a misleading way. If you go along with discussing the issue in this way you’re going to end up talking about the definition of freedom.

Such discussions tend to go nowhere because of a general philosophical problem: discussing definitions is a bad idea. If somebody wants to argue about the definition of a word the best thing to do is just to concede the definition and move on to discussing a substantive issue. A word is just a label for an idea. If you disagree with me about an idea then we need to discuss the idea, not the label. For more criticisms of discussing definitions see Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies Volume 2, Chapter 11, Section II. Specifically when we want to discuss a pattern of behaviour, such as wage labour, we should discuss what problem it solves, whether the pattern is problematic. If it is problematic is there some variant that would be better? Or is the pattern in question so bad it should be abolished, like slavery?

Some people who work for a wage dislike their job and wish they didn’t have to do it. But a person can dislike doing something because he has bad ideas, so this doesn’t tell us much. Nor does disagreement tell us which party to the disagreement, if either, is correct.  So if an employer and employee disagree about what the employee should do we can’t say which of them is right without knowing more.

Socialists say that the way to solve this problem is for the employers to give up their property rights in the plant they own to the workers. The workers are better suited to run the plant because they actually use the machines and know how they perform in practise. But there is a problem with this argument. Why did the employer own the machines in the first place?

The employer had an idea about some good or service. He thought that people would want that good or service and he thought about the best way to provide it. He then got the money to buy the plant, the premises in which to install it and so on. And he makes decisions about how to use the plant for as long he owns it. If not enough people buy his product or service then his business will fail. He pays the employees money in advance of knowing whether their labour will make him a profit or not. Doing anything novel involves risk. The employer takes that risk and the employees don’t. If the employees genuinely have a better idea about what risk should be taken then they could try to raise the money to buy the employer out.

Some socialists might say there isn’t really that much risk. You can just produce stuff that people know they want. This idea is problematic: it presupposes that people know the best way of making stuff and just have to tell other people to go do it. But figuring out how to do stuff well is hard. It requires trial and the correction of error. This is equally true of producing new technology and continuing to produce stuff that was produced before under changing conditions. The way the market does this is that if the good is being supplied badly enough by the lights of the people who might buy it the people supplying it won’t make a profit and will have to stop.

Somebody has to take the risky decisions and those people should get the profit or take the hit. If they don’t then they will not be able to make decisions about whether to continue making a product or service or not. That is, they will not be able to decide whether they prefer to make the product under current conditions or not, nor will they have any guidance on whether other ways of making it might work.

What the socialists propose amounts to saying that nobody should want to make the tradeoff of getting money now, and taking a lot less risk, rather than taking a large risk and getting money later. But what about the worker who needs the money right now and has no choice but to make that tradeoff? If he has no idea how to produce goods and services better then there is no reason for anybody to give him stuff when he doesn’t know how to use it. If he does have a great idea then he should want to put in the time and effort needed to persuade other people to give him money to try it, or he should save the required money. To say anything else entails that people should give him stuff when they don’t think it’s a good idea. It requires people to act irrationally: that is, to ignore criticisms of their actions.

But the worker might be unhappy I hear you cry. If somebody can’t convince other people to give him stuff or money to try some great idea he should be interested in working out why they aren’t convinced. So he has an opportunity to learn. If he doesn’t have good ideas for a business but wants to have good ideas about that then he should be interested in learning about how to have such ideas. And if he wants neither of those things, that’s fine but he shouldn’t want people to give him stuff when he doesn’t know how to use it and has no intention of learning. And when I say it’s fine not to want those things I really mean it. Some people want to do philosophy or poetry or draw or whatever and don’t want to run a business. All I’m saying is that if that’s what you want to do and you’re not willing to persuade other people to sponsor you to do it you shouldn’t expect to get stuff for doing it.

The problems of induction socialist calculation and altruism

The problem of induction is a philosophical problem about how knowledge is created. The socialist calculation problem is a problem in economics: it is impossible to do economic calculation without a free market. They may sound very different but they are actually very closely related to one another.

The problem of induction

Philosophers like to think that scientific knowledge is created by a process called induction that involves doing observations, using them to come up with an idea about how the world works and then showing that idea is true or probable with more observations. The problem is that induction is impossible.

Observations don’t imply any particular idea about how the world works. Any such idea implies a lot about stuff we don’t observe. Our best idea about how the sun works implies stuff about the core of the sun, which we can’t observe. Nobody has ever observed a dinosaur, only a dinosaur skeleton, but those theories are not primarily about skeletons. As a result of this it is impossible to invent an idea or to prove it is true or probably true.

In addition, it is impossible to do an observation without having some explanation of what you want to observe and why. So ideas are required for observations and cannot be created by doing observations.

Rather, knowledge is created by a process that does not resemble induction in any important respect. First, you look for problems with your current ideas. A problem is just anything that seems worth changing. You then propose guesses about how to solve these problems. You look for criticisms of the proposed solutions and eliminate criticised solutions until only one is left. You then look for new problems with your new set of ideas.

Note that there is no step of trying to show your ideas are good or probable. This is just not possible because all of your ideas about how to solve your problems are guesses. And since all of your ideas about how to test stuff are solutions to problems, all of them are guesses too. So all of your knowledge is guesswork. It is not confirmed or shown to be true or anything like that. Rather, you try to get rid of bad ideas through criticism. This means, in particular, that all of your ideas may be flawed and you should be willing to reconsider any idea.

Another important issue is that it could hardly be the case that your proposals for how to solve problems could be anything other than guesses. If you knew in advance how to solve a problem, then you wouldn’t have that problem in the first place. Sometimes people make the right guess about a problem the first time they say something about it but that must be a result of them having tried and discarded ideas before they said anything about it.

There is nothing about this discussion that limits its conclusions to science. Any process that creates any kind of knowledge (useful or explanatory information) has to proceed by variation of current knowledge and selection among those variations.

The socialist calculation problem

Socialists like the idea that people who are able to produce should give stuff to people who are not able to produce. This idea is morally bad for reasons I will explain later, but let’s leave that aside for the moment and think about whether you could actually run the world like this.

Let’s consider the problem of whether we should make flour and if so how we should make it, and how we should distribute it. According to socialism we’re supposed to do this by considering need, so let’s try to do that.

Let’s start with somebody who is hungry: let’s call him Jack. If you give Jack a bag of flour he might eat it. How much flour should you give Jack? If you drive a dump truck up to his house with a ton of flour and dump it in his grade, then he might not like that too much. He might not be able to eat it before it starts going off and it might attract vermin. So you should give him less than a ton and he won’t want you to dump it in his garden. But exactly how much should you give him? And how should the flour be packaged?

And the problem is worse than that. Jack might want to use the flour to make bread. So then he needs to have the other ingredients of bread and without those ingredients he might not want the flour at all.

But there is more complexity to come. If you sent the flour to a baker who makes bread and the baker gave Jack the bread, Jack would also eat the bread. So should you give any flour to Jack? Maybe you should just give him bread.

Another problem: whether we give Jack flour directly or give it to the baker to make bread the flour has to be made somewhere. In the place where you make it you can’t make many other things. You can’t have a factory that makes computer chips and a flour factory in the same place.

Indeed, you might even want to start making a factory for a product that doesn’t exist yet. You might have an idea for something you could invent that lots of people would want and maybe you should get some space to make it now.

This is starting to look very complicated. It looks like you have to take into account lots of knowledge you can’t have. Is this starting to sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound a bit like trying to come up with a scientific idea that covers lots of stuff you haven’t seen? If you want to make stuff for other people then you need to have lots of knowledge about how those other people will respond to what you’re doing, which is an emergent consequence of the laws of physics, biology chemistry, epistemology and other stuff. The solution to this problem has to be created by variation and selection of current knowledge.

So let’s suppose you know how to make flour. To make the flour you need certain items, like corn, say. So if you’re going to keep making flour you have to get a new supply of the stuff required to make if you want to continue. Unless the person who wants the flour happens to have exactly what you need to make it then he has to give me something you can exchange for stuff you can use to make flour. Now you might imagine he could give you stuff that a particular person wants if that person could supply the stuff you need to make the flour. But all sorts of things could go wrong with that. The person who makes the stuff I need might decide to do something else instead. Or he might have a change of circumstances that means he needs slightly different stuff. So what is really needed is something that he can exchange with other people to get what he wants. What is needed, in short, is a good that can be exchanged for anything – a medium of exchange. We have a name for that good: it is called money.

If you get more money by selling your flour to a baker than to Jack you can make more flour. If you make more money by making the flour in a different way, or with a different variety of corn or whatever then you can make more flour. You can also do other stuff with the money, like buying yourself food or an iPhone or whatever. So if different ways of making flour seem equally attractive in other respects you can choose among them by how much money they make. So the free market solves economic problems, not socialism.

Just like when we’re creating scientific knowledge, economic knowledge has to be created by looking for problems, guessing solutions, selecting among those solutions and then looking for more problems.

A moral flaw of socialism

To create knowledge you have to find problems. Socialism recommends looking at problems other people have and then trying to solve those problems. This is a bad idea shared by many other ideologies: let’s call it altruism. To solve a problem you have to try to understand it. So if you are trying to solve Jack’s problems then who is going to work on the problems that you know more about than anyone else? Nobody. So those problems won’t be solved.

And since you have to spend all of your time catching up to the other person’s problems, you are going to be interfering in that other person’s life in a ham fisted way.

The problems you should try to solve are the problems you know about, the problems you are interested in. You shouldn’t be trying to solve another person’s problems. You can help other people when cooperating with them helps you to solve your problems but that is very different from making it your aim to solve their problems.

Similar problems arise with many other political and moral ideologies that aim at solving another person’s problems. Some conservatives like to think they can solve the problems of poor people by encouraging them to get married. Some libertarians like to claim they can solve everybody else’s problems. Walter Block claims that Nazis can be libertarians if only they are willing to use persuasion rather than force to get Jews into gas chambers. Walter Block ought to have realised that gross irrationality like wanting to murder Jews is incompatible with liberty but he was paying too much attention to their problems and not enough to problems with his own knowledge.

To create knowledge about science or how to live better or anything else you have to start with problems you know something about: problems you are interested in. You propose solutions to those problems, select among the solutions by looking for criticisms and then look for new problems with the surviving solution.

Further reading

On induction: Realism and the Aim of Science and Objective Knowledge by Karl Popper. The Beginning of Infinity and The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch.

On the socialist calculation problem: Socialism and Human Action by Ludwig von Mises.

On the moral problems of altruism more generally: Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

No Dash for Gas vs progress and the open society

Recently a group called No Dash for Gas (henceforth NDFG) have been protesting near a site where EDF energy are doing shale gas fracking. I think that when you look closely at what NDFG say and do it becomes clear that they are thugs, wannabe tyrants and an impediment to progress.

In one of their “protests” involved NDFG broke into West Burton power station and camped there on some of the power stations chimneys for a week. NDFG pled guilty to the criminal offence of aggravated trespass. This “protest” cost EDF energy £340,000 in labour and £5 million in delays to finishing the site. Note that this protest doesn’t involve discussing ideas or anything like that. After all, if NDFG wanted a discussion they could have written articles or blog posts instead of committing a criminal offence. Rather, the objective was to deprive EDF of the use of their property, just as a mugger tries to deprive you of the use of your wallet.

NDFG do have a website but looking down the list of what they say about gas they seem a lot fonder of dogmatic assertion than actual argument. They appear to have no interest in understanding their opponents’ position and addressing their problems. For example, they say that gas is bad because burning gas causes carbon dioxide emissions which cause global warming and so we shouldn’t burn gas. They don’t address the argument that the warming might have good effects or that we could adapt to it, or that we could do geo-engineering to stop the warming if it is bad. Even if all of these alternatives are wrong, anybody who thinks they are okay will not be convinced otherwise by NDFG.

NDFG also claim that the price of gas will rise. In and of itself this alleged fact, for which we are given no arguments, doesn’t imply anything about whether EDF should frack for gas or make more gas power stations. More expensive gas may be better than no gas. And I’m not surprised that there are no arguments because the future is not predictable. What we will do in the future depends on the knowledge we have in the future. We don’t know what knowledge we will have in the future and so we don’t know what the price of gas will be in the future.

There is something very odd about NDFG’s actions. Let’s suppose they know of a better alternative to gas. Good for them. They should go out and build a power station. So why haven’t they done this? If they build a power station and provide plentiful, cheap energy then people will buy from NDFG rather than EDF. And if they don’t know how to do that, then why are they protesting? They have nothing better to offer so the protest will achieve nothing.

Then we have EDF’s actions. I don’t know why EDF didn’t throw NDFG out on the first day. They even allowed the protesters to have ropes between the chimneys. EDF then tried to sue NDFG for £5 million in damages, then dropped that suit and got an injunction against NDFG to stop further trespass. Perhaps EDF were hamstrung by bad laws. But that doesn’t quite account for them offering NDFG a dialogue. EDF should not be appeasing NDFG in this way. NDFG are criminals. Nobody should be negotiating with NDFG unless they renounce the use of illegal means of pursuing their agenda. And even then it’s a bit of a puzzle how anybody could have a discussion with people who don’t seem to understand that to change another person’s position you actually have to address the substance of that position.

NDFG’s reply to EDF reveals more about their bad ideas. First, there is this astonishing statement:

Objectors like ourselves have gone to great lengths to point out some crucial facts to EDF: for example, that the CO2 from EDF’s UK coal and gas plants cause £5 million of climate change damage every day; that EDF’s attempts to get a guaranteed price for its nuclear electricity represents a massive multi-billion rip-off public subsidy that could be better spent on energy efficiency and renewables or that EDF’s decision to use its huge wealth and power to lobby against Government renewables targets and in favour of more nuclear power and fossil fuels is anti-democratic and completely disgraceful.

EDF should not be allowed to lobby the government? EDF are a group of people. Anything that is legitimate for people to do is also legitimate for EDF. NDFG don’t have any objection to asking the government for stuff per se because they want the government to give lots of money to people doing stuff with renewables. So what they want is for everybody who disagrees with them to shut up and stop trying to influence the government. So NDFG are opposed to freedom of speech and the existence of an open society.

NDFG also say stuff about £5 million in damage per day caused by fossil fuels but no source or argument is given for this alleged fact. By contrast fossil fuels supplied something like 88% (see p. 12) of the energy consumed in the UK. Since electricity is required for cleaning running water, medicine, food production and just about everything else, it is doing a vast amount of good. If we get rid of 88% of our current energy supply and have nothing to replace it, then we’re fucked. People will die in very large numbers. If NDFG have something to replace it they should start building instead of messing about with protesting. And if they don’t then they’re irresponsible.

NDFG also say that:

The best way for EDF to “ameliorate concerns” and reduce the likelihood of future protest is to take all the above points into account, reduce its prices to a level that people can afford, set a timetable for the closure of all its fossil and nuclear power stations, and release its lobbying stranglehold on Government so that energy efficiency and renewables can be expanded to take their place.

Now I’m puzzled. I thought NDFG were opposed to carbon dioxide emissions, which nuclear power plants don’t produce. So why do they oppose nuclear power?

NDFG might try to excuse their actions by saying that it is urgent that we do something. If that is so, then it is urgent for them to get people on their side, in which case they should be interested in getting good at argument. They should also be trying to build power stations rather than committing criminal acts if they’re serious. Groups like NDFG are a useless impediment to progress.

Against Censorship

Censorship is a bad idea. It is the use of force or confiscation of property or money or threats thereof to stop the expression of an idea.

Censorship is a bad idea regardless of the content of the idea for a couple of reasons.

If the idea is bad, by censoring it you prevent people who know better from answering it. This, too, prevents the improvement of ideas.

Sometimes a person will think an idea is bad even though it is good. If you censor such an idea you prevent the improvement of ideas. There is no infallible way to distinguish when you are right about an idea being bad from when you’re wrong, so this is always possible.

Traditionally, there have been many objections to free speech.

First, there is the question of whether you can shout fire in the crowded theatre when there is no fire and you’re not an actor on stage. If you shout fire in a theatre then you are doing a wrong to the people who came to watch the play, and possibly also to the theatre owner. What you are saying is not the problem, the wrong that you are doing in that context is the problem.

Second, shouldn’t people be able to control the content of their blog or YouTube account? Should they not be able to prevent you from posting comments that they dislike? Yes, they should but that’s not censorship. You can start your own blog or YouTube channel or whatever. And in any case, like the theatre owner the blog or channel owner has no obligation to use his property to support your speech. If you feel bad about this that’s your responsibility, not his.

Third, what if somebody is inciting people to violence, should we not censor him? In this case, the problem isn’t the ideas the speaker is expressing, rather he is participating in a criminal conspiracy to commit assault or murder or something like that. If the police get a tip that somebody is planning an armed robbery and raid the robbers’ hideout and stop them from making further plans, they are not interested in stopping the robbers’ speech per se, but the robbery.

Recently, the British government has proposed a plan to make internet service providers require people to block porn websites unless their customer asks them not to.

Some people have said this is a bad idea, but many of them have given the wrong argument. They say: “We agree that it is laudable to deny children (under 18s) access to porn, but this is a bad way to do it.” These people are wrong, it is not at all laudable to deny children access to porn.

“But people under 18 can’t deal with porn because they don’t have the appropriate context to deal with it,” I hear you cry. This is puzzling. Whatever the appropriate interpretation of porn might be if the child can look for porn when he’s interested in it, that will give parents an opportunity to help the child the appropriate interpretation.

The people who use the “context” excuse for censorship may not understand how porn should be interpreted. They say things like: “porn should be used as a way for people in loving relationships to spice up their sex.” Many people in romantic relationships and marriages end up suffering, so at minimum there is something wrong with the way people enact such relationships. So given that people are bad at relationships perhaps they should question the idea that they’re right about all of the issues concerned, including how to use porn.

“But people under 18 can’t understand porn,” the critic objects. If a child looks at porn and doesn’t have any understanding of what he’s seeing at all then he’ll get bored and go do something else.

But what if more teenagers get pregnant as a result of watching porn? People under the age of 18 can find out about sex in ways other than looking at porn. People under 18 found out about sex even before the internet was invented. Also, people often use porn for masturbation so why would more porn lead to more teen pregnancy?

But porn degrades women doesn’t it? If that is true, that is not just a problem for people under 18 and so can’t be a reason for preventing them specifically from getting access to porn. And in any case, the stuff women do in porn is also done by men and transexuals and midgets. While it might be a good idea to have debates about porn, we should have an open debate featuring serious arguments both for and against porn.

I think an unstated reason for the opposition to people under 18 watching porn is precisely that some of them might enjoy it. They should be working hard in school and becoming badminton champions and stuff like that. In other words, people under 18 should be doing what other people want them to do, not using their own judgement. It is disgraceful that the same adults who often chide children for not using their initiative are so keen to deprive them of opportunities to exercise their own judgement about what they should think. Anybody who wants a more rational world should be appalled by the British government’s attempt at thought control.

Nicholas Maxwell’s bad moral philosophy

Nicholas Maxwell seems to like to think of himself as a great moral thinker, but actually he is has no good insights and seems to want to set himself up as a Platonic philosopher king.

Let’s start with his vision of one supposed problems in current affairs. He talks about a “long-standing problem of the rapid growth of the world’s population” (p. 4 of this paper). In other words, more people = badness. The truth is that high birth rates happen in dirt poor places that have bad institutions such as oppressive and corrupt governments, poor protection of property rights and that sort of thing. (Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist discusses this particular issue well but I don’t endorse it in general.) It is quite revealing that he claims this is a matter of population. He doesn’t see every person as a potential creative problem solver who could make the world a better place in all sorts of major or minor ways. Rather he sees their existence as problematic and acts as an apologist for their oppressors by not even mentioning the existence of said oppression.

On reading a summary of his political agenda it becomes clearer that Maxwell is even worse than this disgraceful stance makes him sound:

Natural science needs to create committees, in the public eye, and manned by scientists and non-scientists alike, concerned to highlight and discuss failures of the priorities of research to respond to the interests of those whose needs are the greatest – the poor of the earth – as a result of the inevitable tendency of research priorities to reflect the interests of those who pay for science, and the interests of scientists themselves.

This is terribly muddled. First, science can’t reflect both what the poor currently want, what scientists currently want and what the rich currently want. For example, many poor people want to use fossil fuels and Maxwell thinks this will cause some sort of catastrophe as a result of global warming. What would be needed is a serious discussion of the political economy of current scientific institutions. Maxwell apparently has no interest in this since he doesn’t discuss it.

Rather, he wants to create a world academic government and a world government:

The world’s universities need to include a virtual world government which seeks to do what an actual elected world government ought to do, if it existed. The virtual world government would also have the task of working out how an actual democratically elected world government might be created.

Democratic institutions are problematic enough in a single country where politicians can be relatively more accountable without engaging in the pretence that such an institution can work for a world government. There is also a lot of disagreement on basic issues like whether it’s a good idea to murder Jews in the world (to judge by propaganda put out by the Palestinian Authority) never mind on complex issues like global warming. Maxwell apparently has nothing to say about any of these problems.

Maxwell is not wise or insightful. He is apparently totally oblivious to many of the most serious problems facing the world and of serious problems in his own worldview.