Freedom is not confusing

Somebody wrote, in the critical rationalism Facebook group, in the context of a discussion about Taking Children Seriously (TCS):

Boundary rules are liberating for children, there are few things more confusing than being left as a free agent.

Bullshit. If you’re free then you can just act on the ideas you understand and decline to act in other situations. So then you’re not confused about what to do. You either do stuff or learn more about what to do before acting.

What is confusing is being dumped in a situation where you are expected to act despite your lack of understanding. This is inevitable in coercive education because the people “educating” you don’t allow you to refuse to do stuff. So you will end up acting in situations where you are confused.

An illustration:

I had some slight experience with this when I worked for some eight years with autistic children and adults. We found behaviour modification techniques were appropriate for helping them gain a grip on their dangerous and confusing umwelts. Freedom has a dark side.

The autistic person behaves in some way other people dislike and they want to force them to learn to behave differently. This person may feel confused, but that’s because somebody is forcing him to do stuff he doesn’t want to do. The rational way to address this would be to tackle their moral disagreement explicitly instead of coming up with some pseudo-medical label for the undesired behaviour. But the people who so label him don’t see any possibility that he might be in the right. They cling, instead, to the idea that some behaviour is so obviously right that those who don’t enact it must be unable to think properly. This is not consistent with the critical open society attitude that sees all institutions and behaviour as conventions that we can reject if they turn out to be flawed, see Chapter 5 of OSE.

UPDATE: I want to explain more about my interpretation of the second passage I quoted. “Behaviour modification techniques” for dealing with children whose behaviour has been labelled autistic basically amount to rewarding children for behaviour you like and imposing “consequences” for behaviour you don’t like.

The consequences are not really consequences they are problems that fall into one of two categories. Either something the child does will have some unpleasant that the adult knows about in advance but the adult doesn’t tell the child about it, or illustrate it or take any measures to prevent it. The adult should not be doing this. His role is to help the child to understand and solve problems not to impose them. Imposing a problem is deliberately making a situation worse not better and so it is irrational.

The rewards aren’t really any better. If the child likes doing something the adult should be helping him to find ways to do more of it, not restricting his ability to do it by imposing deliberate restrictions on such help.

Now, if the adult in question is not the child’s parent and he is aware that the child doesn’t want to participate in the activity he is organising then he shouldn’t be making the child participate. Whether he should do anything else is situation dependent, but the minimal standard of behaviour is not to get the child to do something the child doesn’t want to do. If an adult agrees to participate in behaviour modification then he is breaching this standard.

There is a further notable issue. “Behaviour modification” implicitly treats the child as a machine for producing approved behaviour rather than treating him as a person. The alternative to doing this is when a person does something you dislike is to offer him something you think he will prefer, be willing to explain why you dislike his behaviour and be willing to consider that you might be wrong.

Extreme behaviour is sometimes used as a reason for this kind of treatment. In all cases where a child does something extremely dangerous or bad I consider that you should look at their parents. Most parents want to control their children to an extent that no adult would ever tolerate unless they were in prison and probably not even then. Children can be punished for not washing when the parent tells him to, for having the wrong facial expression, the wrong tone of voice, for not eating food his dislikes, for sleeping or not sleeping at the wrong time, for not being interested in what a parent or teacher wants him to be interested in at a particular time (thought crime) and a whole load of other stuff. If some children act in strange ways when they are treated in this way we should be surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.


George Osborne has decided to increase the state pension age. Unfortunately he hasn’t increased it to infinity yet. Anyway, somebody I know on Facebook said this was bad. He stated that since old people wouldn’t retire there would be no jobs for young people. Also, he claimed we won’t be getting pensions until we’re dead. My reply to is below.

I think this is probably one of the more sensible things Osborne had done, although I am not a fan of the conservatives for various reasons. Your arguments against it don’t make sense.

First, it makes no sense to say that school leavers won’t be able to get jobs because there is not a fixed amount of stuff to do. We are never going to run out of problems that need solving, i.e. – ways in which our lives are less satisfactory than they could be. So to have work to do, what you have to do is pick one of those problems and pick a way to solve it that people will voluntarily support with their time, money and resources.

Second, the world does not owe you money. If you want to spend thirty odd years lounging about at the end of your life, then save for it. I can see no reason why future taxpayers should pay you to do nothing. Are they your slaves?

Third, I’m am a bit puzzled by why you would want your leisure time to be dependent on bureaucrats who have little or nothing to lose from shafting you.

Fourth, average lifespan has been increasing and unless the growth of medical knowledge stops, it will continue to increase, which means the proportion of the population over some fixed retirement age will increase. Even leaving aside the moral bankruptcy of expecting other people to pay for your leisure time, that will at some point lead to financial bankruptcy. Keeping the pension age fixed is a bad idea. It would be more sensible to try to change the world so that people can earn their keep by doing stuff they like doing, by changing the way jobs work or by changing attitudes people have to work or both.

David Nutt and drugs

In 2009, Professor David Nutt was sacked from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after claiming that ecstasy and LSD are less dangerous than alcohol. The government couldn’t have thought much of Nutt if they sacked him. Some people seem to think he is the best thing since sliced bread. He has written a paper on drugs that explains his position. I think the war on drugs is a moral catastrophe in terms of the persecution of drug users and those who sell to them. It is also intellectually bankrupt, and David Nutt has swallowed many of its worst ideas hook, line and sinker. If he ends up making any improvements to drug policy, it will be a matter of pure luck.

Nutt claims that experts can decide how drugs ought to be classified in a “rational” and “scientific” manner by looking at their effects. He divides these effects into three categories. Physical effects: if you drink too much alcohol your liver is damaged, heroin can lead to respiratory arrest and so on. Dependence: some drugs produce withdrawal symptoms and so it can be difficult to stop taking them. Social effects: drugs can break up families and cost the taxpayer money for healthcare of people who are ill as a result of taking drugs. The idea is that you can look at medical evidence and statistics and stuff like that and use them to decide government policy.

However, all of the categories above raise moral issues and he doesn’t address any of those issues. For example, taking heroin, say, may make it more likely that you will die and many people will think this is bad. But some people might want to die and so might value heroin specifically because it will kill them. At present, it is basically illegal to commit suicide. If you’re caught trying to do it you will be locked up. Thomas Szasz argued that this is one of the roots of drug prohibition: the government wants to make it difficult for a person to kill himself. The government is at least more or less explicit about this. Does Nutt favour the persecution of people who want to commit suicide or not? I can’t tell from the paper.

What about dependence? Many people seem to like dependence. Most people prefer to be dependent on a person rather than a chemical. Many people commit suicide after the end of a personal relationship such as a marriage. This is well-known and yet many people choose to get married: many people value being dependent on another person over their life. Now, admittedly this dependence involves a person and not a drug, but is there any relevant difference? I’m not saying there is no relevant difference, just that Nutt hasn’t bothered to address the issue. Should we ban marriage as well as heroin or alcohol or whatever? I think both marriage and heroin are bad ideas. However, the people involved in both marriage and taking heroin want to do those things and the people involved could walk away if they thought they had a better option. I don’t know how to provide people with better options and none of the people involved want anything better so I can’t see that it makes sense to force them to do something else.

What about the social effects? It costs the taxpayer money to look after people who have destroyed their health with drugs. But there is a problem. Most people seem to think that healthcare should be provided for by taxation, not by voluntary subscription. The reason given for this policy is that people who are ill shouldn’t have to pay for healthcare. So if this is a cost that people want to pay, why is anybody bitching about the cost of medical treatment for drug users? After all, the whole reason for the policy is to prevent ill people from having to consider the cost of treatment. There is a deep issue here. The problem goes like this: healthcare is a complex technological and personal service. It’s not like saying that you have a right not to punched in the face because it is easy to refrain from punching people in the face: it requires effort to punch somebody in the face. Curing diseases requires thought and deliberate action. If you deem that people have a right to healthcare, then there is no way to draw a principled line to demarcate what care they can’t have. Are you going to say that some people don’t deserve healthcare because they made a self-destructive choice to take drugs? But then why not say that you can deny this ‘right’ to everybody who makes the self destructive choice not to save or get insurance to cover medical expenses? If you admit one you’ve undermined the rationale for the other.

I can’t see any sign in the paper that Nutt differs from the government on any substantive moral issue. As such, any improvements he make will be tinkering around the edges. More substantial changes in how people think about this issue are needed. First, we should openly admit that this is a moral issue. Taking drugs is behaviour, not disease. Disliking that behaviour for whatever reason, is a moral position about how people ought to behave, not a medical position. Second, people should become much more reluctant to drag the use of force into disputes. If somebody isn’t using violence or fraud against you but you don’t like what they’re doing, then leave. Third, if a drug user fails to hold down a job or whatever that’s his problem and the government should not be using tax money, which is not contributed voluntarily, to support their bad habits, as it does now. And of course this policy should apply to anybody else who fails. It’s very difficult for people to learn competence if they are not allowed to fail.

Answers for a statist moralist

In a blog entry on the New York Time website Amia Srinivasan asks some questions for “free market moralists”. She starts by summarising Rawls:

 In 1971 John Rawls published “A Theory of Justice,” the most significant articulation and defense of political liberalism of the 20th century. Rawls proposed that the structure of a just society was the one that a group of rational actors would come up with if they were operating behind a “veil of ignorance” — that is, provided they had no prior knowledge what their gender, age, wealth, talents, ethnicity and education would be in the imagined society. Since no one would know in advance where in society they would end up, rational agents would select a society in which everyone was guaranteed basic rights, including equality of opportunity. Since genuine (rather than “on paper”) equality of opportunity requires substantial access to resources — shelter, medical care, education — Rawls’s rational actors would also make their society a redistributive one, ensuring a decent standard of life for everyone.

There is a very large assumption in this first paragraph smuggled in under the term “equality of opportunity”. Srinivasan doesn’t explain what it consists of or why anybody should be interested in it. Rawls on p.63 of the book she refers to writes (you can get the book in pdf by searching “rawls theory of justice pdf” it’s the first hit):

More specifically, assuming that there is a distribution of natural assets, those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system.

This is unclear and doesn’t make much sense. Let’s suppose that Jim is born into a poor family and he cleans toilets for a living but yearns to be a poet. Note that the mere fact that Jim wants to be a poet doesn’t imply he would be a good poet. So then Jim should make some effort to persuade people to pay him for poetry. And if he can’t persuade people and he is still unhappy with cleaning toilets then there is a problem. It’s not clear what the problem is exactly or how to solve it because if that was clear, Jim wouldn’t be unhappily cleaning toilets: the problem would have been solved. And if you’re going to force people to pay Jim to write poetry then you have no check on whether the poetry is any good.

What we need is to set up institutions to make it easy for people to change how they spend their time and money. That way, if you want people to spend their time and money on what you’re doing they can choose not to and give you some information about whether you’re doing stuff badly. If you don’t get time and money from people you’re doing something that’s not persuasive.

She then summarises Nozick:

In 1974, Robert Nozick countered with “Anarchy, State, and Utopia.” He argued that a just society was simply one that resulted from an unfettered free market — and that the only legitimate function of the state was to ensure the workings of the free market by enforcing contracts and protecting citizens against violence, theft and fraud. (The seemingly redistributive policy of making people pay for such a “night watchman” state, Nozick argued, was in fact non-redistributive, since such a state would arise naturally through free bargaining.) If one person — Nozick uses the example of Wilt Chamberlain, the great basketball player — is able to produce a good or service that is in high demand, and others freely pay him for that good or service, then he deserves to get rich. And, once rich, he doesn’t owe anyone anything, since his wealth was accumulated through voluntary exchange in return for the goods and services he produced. Any attempt to “redistribute” his wealth, so long as it is earned through free market exchange, is, Nozick says, “forced labor.”

I’m not going to defend Nozick specifically partly because I don’t remember much about him so he might suck.

Wilt Chamberlain “deserves” to get rich? “Deserve” is the moral equivalent of “justify”. That is if Wilt Chamberlain deserves the money that means he can show that it is true he should have it or he should probably have it or something like that. But justification is impossible, so it is impossible to show that somebody deserves something. So if that was the only free market position it would be wrong.

The real reason Wilt Chamberlain should get to keep his money is just that you haven’t offered an alternative other people consider better. A contract n a free market is a means of testing whether a person consents to be legally bound to the terms of a particular exchange. See Randy Barnett’s papers 1 and books on contract law for a detailed discussion. The enforceability of laws required for the operation of a free market has nothing to do with whether they arise through free bargaining. Rather, it has to do with whether the law in question is required to deal with other people consentually. See Randy Barnett’s The Structure of Liberty.

I’m going to skip a bit because there’s a lot of boring stuff and get on to the bit where she demands that free market people answer a load of questions:

 1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

If you say yes, then you think that people can never be coerced into action by circumstances that do not involve the direct physical compulsion of another person. Suppose a woman and her children are starving, and the only way she can feed her family, apart from theft, is to prostitute herself or to sell her organs. Since she undertakes these acts of exchange not because of direct physical coercion by another, but only because she is compelled by hunger and a lack of alternatives, they are free.

We have a welfare state and people do engage in prostitution and sell organs. The welfare state doesn’t solve that problem. So why is Srinivasan brining up flaws in her own position?

If a person doesn’t want to fuck or sell her organs she can ask for charity. That charity should come with strings attached. That is, if you’re going to get a charity’s money they should require you to gain skills of some sort so that you’re not stuck on their roles permanently. And the charity should be free to turn people down who are a bad risk.

Let’s suppose that every charity decides a particular person is a bad risk. She has chosen to have children. That is her responsibility. If she can’t raise them she should offer them up for adoption. The knowledge already exists to get children adopted by people who have better options than selling sex unwillingly.

Would I prefer to see a world in which the only people who engage in the sex trade are people who want to do that? Yes. But that requires the creation of better knowledge to help people avoid that. The government hasn’t done that and I don’t think it can since taxation makes it difficult for people to stop supporting bad government institutions that help create such problems. Also, it’s not my responsibility to do that unless I take on that responsibility and I shouldn’t do that unless I have a really kickass idea about how to do it and can raise money for it voluntarily.

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

If you say yes, then you think that any free exchange can’t be exploitative and thus immoral. Suppose that I inherited from my rich parents a large plot of vacant land, and that you are my poor, landless neighbor. I offer you the following deal. You can work the land, doing all the hard labor of tilling, sowing, irrigating and harvesting. I’ll pay you $1 a day for a year. After that, I’ll sell the crop for $50,000. You decide this is your best available option, and so take the deal. Since you consent to this exchange, there’s nothing morally problematic about it.

If we’re talking about a free market you have other options and can point this out to get a better deal. “Give me more than $1 a day or your crops will rot in the field and you get nothing.”

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

I’ve pointed out the flaw in the idea of desert above but let’s see what she has to say anyway.

If you say yes, you think that what people deserve is largely a matter of luck. Why? First, because only a tiny minority of the population is lucky enough to inherit wealth from their parents. (A fact lost on Mitt Romney, who famously advised America’s youth to “take a shot, go for it, take a risk … borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.”) Since giving money to your kids is just another example of free exchange, there’s nothing wrong with the accumulation of wealth and privilege in the hands of the few.

You don’t have to get money from your parents. If you have a good business idea you can persuade people to loan you the money.

Second, people’s capacities to produce goods and services in demand on the market is largely a function of the lottery of their birth: their genetic predispositions, their parents’ education, the amount of race- and sex-based discrimination to which they’re subjected, their access to health care and good education.

It’s also a function of what the market happens to value at a particular time. Van Gogh, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Vermeer, Melville and Schubert all died broke. If you’re a good Nozickian, you think that’s what they deserved.

If somebody hasn’t produced a good or service in demand on the market all you know is that there is some unsolved problem that prevents them from doing this. Srinivasan hasn’t got anywhere near to producing an explanation of why a monopolistic institution that threatens to imprison people who don’t give it money is a good solution to these problems.

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

If you say yes, then you think the only moral requirements are the ones we freely bring on ourselves — say, by making promises or contracts. Suppose I’m walking to the library and see a man drowning in the river. I decide that the pleasure I would get from saving his life wouldn’t exceed the cost of getting wet and the delay. So I walk on by. Since I made no contract with the man, I am under no obligation to save him.

I’m not entirely sure what obligation means in this context. Does it mean that if I walk past a man drawing in a rive I might be prosecuted for not saving him? That would be a bad idea. Perhaps I don’t know how to swim. Or maybe I have done any swimming for a long time and I think I would drown trying to save him. Or maybe I’m really tired that morning and fear I would drown trying to save him as a result of exhaustion.

If it means people who knew about the drowning would think worse of me that might be fair enough if I could easily have raised the alarm and got somebody else to come save him. Both I and other people are better off having another creative problem-solving person in the world than letting his drown.

If it means that in the case where I couldn’t easily raise the alarm I should take a large risk of killing myself to save him, then you can fuck off. I don’t know much about him so taking a large risk of killing myself trying to save him would be a bad idea since I have no idea whether it’s worth the risk.

Most of us, I suspect, will find it difficult to say yes to all four of these questions.

The rest of us, who know the questions are ill-formed, think that this illustrates the peril of taking bad questions for granted.

Russell Brand

Russell Brand is literally a socialist revolutionary. He wants high taxes on corporations to redistribute money from the rich to the poor, he claims corporations are destroying the environment and he thinks profit is a dirty word.

According to Brand, profit means that somebody has a deficit: see around 4:30ish in the video. This is false. If I give a person or group some money in exchange for a good or service then one of two things must be true. (1) I prefer the good or service to the money, in which case we both end up in a situation we prefer to our original position. (2) I have two or more competing ideas about whether I ought to buy the product or service. If the former is the case I and my trading partner both gain from trade. If the latter, I can’t expect to gain until I sort out my priorities, which is not my trading partner’s responsibility since he doesn’t control my thoughts.

Profit is the result of people trading for mutual benefit. To oppose profit is to say that it is wrong for people to cooperate for mutual benefit. This is the creed of somebody who expects people to sacrifice themselves, and like all ideologies based on human sacrifice it can only result in destruction and death. To quote Ayn Rand:

Such is the secret core of your creed, the other half of your double standard: it is immoral to live by your own effort, but moral to live by the effort of others—it is immoral to consume your own product, but moral to consume the products of others—it is immoral to earn, but moral to mooch—it is the parasites who are the moral justification for the existence of the producers, but the existence of the parasites is an end in itself—it is evil to profit by achievement, but good to profit by sacrifice—it is evil to create your own happiness, but good to enjoy it at the price of the blood of others.

Why are some people poor? Because they practise what Brand preaches. Why did governments bail out banks? Because they don’t a free market in money and banking, which would prevent them from running a welfare state based on the principle of human sacrifice that Brand advocates. If the government can’t print money whenever it wants to then it can’t pay for lots of people who do no productive work. And what about the planet? Won’t somebody please think of the planet? The planet is getting better by the standard of supporting human life thanks to the productivity enabled by industrial progress.

What about Paxman’s dismal performance in this interview? He first asks about Brand’s authority. This is the creed of a man who believes in witch doctors who can relieve him of the responsibility to think for himself. Oh, holy expert, tell me the answer so that I don’t actually have to think. This is a cop out. He has to pick the expert so if he’s not willing to think he will just consider whoever he finds most comforting an expert and discard anybody else as an amateur.

What about voting? Western liberal democracy is better than Russell Brand’s brand of tyranny. It could be improved if people didn’t want the terrible stuff that Russell Brand advocates. We could reform toward more stuff being done by cooperation for mutual benefit, which would be better than what we have now.

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. Bu 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 entails 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.