Dykes on objective law

Nicholas Dykes has written a paper criticising objectivist criticisms of anarcho-capitalism. I’m not going to say much about most of the article in this post, except for one brief comment on note (30):

Peter Saint-Andre chided me for claiming that the Law Merchant and other customary laws are entirely objective without providing a definition of what I mean by ‘objective’ law. Since Rand did not define objective law, other than to contrast it with bureaucratic whim, we cannot turn to her for guidance. I therefore propose this definition: an objective law is a moral principle (and its derivatives) known to all adults of sound mind in a community and accepted by them as a rational and binding guide for dealings with other people.

It follows from this that if one person thinks it is acceptable to murder people when you get angry, then a law against murder wouldn’t be objective. And if all adults accepted a ridiculous principle that can’t be implemented, then that principle and all of its implications would constitute objective law. Dykes’ objective law definition is just the whim of a mob, which is not objective by any reasonable standard.

Dykes’ claim that Rand didn’t define objective law is also wrong. I found her definition of objective law in the Ayn Rand Lexicon:

All laws must be objective (and objectively justifiable): men must know clearly, and in advance of taking an action, what the law forbids them to do (and why), what constitutes a crime and what penalty they will incur if they commit it.

Rand’s definition makes sense unlike Dykes’ definition. (The only part of Rand’s definition that doesn’t make sense is saying the law must be justifiable. Justification is impossible, so no law is justifiable. The rest of the definition is okay.) Rand’s definition highlights an important property a law can have by virtue of its implications, not because people happen to agree with it. Antitrust law is non-objective because it is impossible to tell in advance of taking an action whether that action breaks anti-trust law: see chapters 3 and 4 of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,and for discussion of more recent cases see Antitrust: The Case for Repeal by Dominick Armentano. By contrast, if you commit murder, then you know in advance that you’re breaking the law so that law is objective.

38 degrees vs medical care

There is an organisation called 38 degrees that runs petitions for left wing political causes. They have written a blog post about a proposed US-UK trade deal:

The NHS as we know it is at risk. A group of lobbyists have published a plan for a US -UK trade deal. [1] They want to let American healthcare companies make money off UK patients when we’re sick, vulnerable and in need of care. [2]

They quote from a report by the Cato Institute. The relevant section on p. 228 reads:

With that in mind, what might a realistic U.S.-U.K. FTA look like? First of all, full and fast trade liberalization should be the goal, with exceptions limited to the most sensitive products. Tariffs on all U.S.-U.K. trade should be zero or close to it soon after the agreement enters into force.

On services, there are opportunities for innovations, but also some sensitivities. Both sides have strong financial services sectors, which could thrive when subjected to greater competition. It is proposed that mutual recognition exist across all financial sectors (including banking, investment banking, dealing, broking, fund management, custody, derivatives dealing, clearing, financial infrastructure, and, where possible insurance and reinsurance) from day one. Given the experiences after the 2007–2008 financial crisis, we believe the two regimes are generally already synchronized and seek to achieve the same outcomes.

As for other services areas, health services are an area where both sides would benefit from openness to foreign competition, although we recognize any changes to existing regulations will be extremely controversial. Perhaps, then, for other areas the initial focus should be on other fields such as education or legal services, where negotiators can test the waters and see what is possible. That said, we would envisage a swift, time-tabled implementation of recogni- tion across all areas within 5 years.

Let’s consider what the quote from 38 degrees means first. They don’t want American healthcare companies to make money off NHS patients. Are they just opposed to American healthcare companies? Does the fact that a company is American make it bad? Or is it the case that 38 degrees don’t want anybody making money by providing healthcare to sick patients? If so, shouldn’t nurses and doctors be forced to work for free so they don’t make money by caring for patients? And what about the NHS’s suppliers? They make money by selling stuff to the NHS. Should they be forced to make no profit from such sales? And if nobody is allowed to make any money by caring for sick people, then how are the people who do so going to put food on the table?

What does the Cato document mean? Tariffs are taxes imposed on goods imported from another country. In other words, if you import something and there is a tariff the government is forcing you to pay more for it. The second paragraph talks about the US and UK government having similar goals when it comes to regulating finance and basically sez they should deliberately try to match policy so companies can operate more easily in both countries. So I think we can expect that they have something similar in mind for healthcare companies, although they are kinda vague about it. An American healthcare company would be able to operate more easily in the UK. Likewise UK healthcare companies like BUPA would be able to operate more easily in the US. This is not some enormous change, it’s just allowing people who want to buy healthcare services to do so more easily from more companies.

The Cato report doesn’t mention the NHS, but it’s a bit difficult to see how the NHS could get worse if the people running it have the option of buying healthcare goods and services from the US for their patients. An American company might make some items more cheaply, or make something that isn’t made by a UK company. Should the NHS pay more for the same good from a different source just to avoid buying from the US? That would mean less patients could be treated for the same amount of money so more people would suffer. So 38 degrees is advocating a policy that would lead to more people suffering.

The 38 degrees blogpost is typical of the intellectual level of discussion of healthcare in the UK. Their position is that you shouldn’t be allowed to take any responsibility or make any choices for your own healthcare or for anything else. You are a drone who has a right to standard issue government services and no right to anything else.

Behavioural genetics and the anti-conceptual mentality

A behavioural geneticist called Robert Plomin has written a book called “Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are”, which will be coming out soon. I haven’t read it and I don’t expect I will read it. Human behavioural genetics is bunk. I will explain why it is bunk and say something about why so many people apparently think it is plausible.

Behavioural geneticists like to claim that human behaviour is influenced by genes and by something called “environment”. They claim to be able to tell the influence of genes apart from the influence of environment by clever experiments. For example, identical twins have more genes in common than fraternal twins, who have more genes in common  than unrelated people. So if we look at the behaviour of identical twins compared to fraternal twins and the identical twins are more similar then their behaviour may be more genetically influenced. There are variations on these experiments that involve twins being reared apart and that sort of thing. See Chapter 6 of “Behavioral Genetics”, Sixth Edition by R. C. Plomin, J. C. DeFries, V. S. Knopik and J. M. Neiderhiser. On p.81, the authors write:

If a trait is influenced genetically, identical twins must be more similar than fra­ternal twins. However, it is also possible that the greater similarity of MZ twins is caused environmentally rather than genetically because MZ twins are the same sex and age and they look alike. The equal environments assumption of the twin method assumes that environmentally caused similarity is roughly the same for both types of twins reared in the same family. If the assumption were violated because identi­cal twins experience more similar environments than fraternal twins, this violation would inflate estimates of genetic influence. The equal environments assumption has been tested in several ways and appears reasonable for most traits (Bouchard & Prop­ ping, 1993; Derks, Dolan, & Boomsma, 2006).

A subtle, but important, issue is that identical twins might have more similar experiences than fraternal twins because identical twins are more similar genetically. That is, some experiences may be driven genetically. Such differences between iden­tical and fraternal twins in experience are not a violation of the equal environments assumption because the differences are not caused environmentally (Eaves, Foley, & Silberg, 2003).

They continue to describe studies in which twins were adopted:

The adoption-twin combination involves twins adopted apart and compares them with twins reared together. Two major studies of this type have been conducted, one in Minnesota (Bouchard, Lykken, McGue, Segal, & Tellegen, 1990; Lykken, 2006) and one in Sweden (Kato & Pedersen, 2005; Pedersen, McClearn, Plomin, & Nes- selroade, 1992). These studies have found, for example, that identical twins reared apart from early in life are almost as similar in terms of general cognitive ability as are identical twins reared together, an outcome suggesting strong genetic influence and little environmental influence caused by growing up together in the same family (shared family environmental influence).

Let’s see what they say about tests of the EEA in Derks, Dolan, & Boomsma, 2006:

It has been shown that MZ twins in childhood more often share playmates, share the same room, and dress more alike than same-sex DZ twins (Loehlin & Nichols, 1976). However, this does not necessarily imply that the EEA is violated. First, the greater environmental similarity in MZ than DZ twins does not have to be related to a greater phenotypic similarity. Second, even if a greater environmental similarity is related to a greater phenotypic similarity, this association could be mediated by a greater genetic similarity in MZ than DZ twins (Scarr & Carter-Saltzman, 1979). The EEA is only violated when the correlation between environmental similarity and trait similarity is significantly greater than zero within zygosity groups. Eaves et al. (2003) concluded on the basis of simulation studies that the absence of any association between environmental similarity and trait similarity justifies the claim that environmental similarity is not a factor in twin resemblance. However, the counterclaim that the presence of an association between environmental similarity and trait similarity falsifies the EEA is unfounded.

So the sort of thing that behavioural geneticists have in mind when they discuss the “same environment” is whether they are in the same room and have the same playmates. If the twins are adopted they don’t live in the same room or have the same playmates so they don’t have the same environment.

This line of argument doesn’t work. A person can consider what choice to make in the light of the ideas he has adopted. So all that has to happen for separated children to have a similar “environment” is that the ideas they adopt have something to say about how you should behave based on your appearance or on anything else that can be affected by genetics like eyesight. If you have poor eyesight you may end up wearing glasses, and this may result in you being treated as the kind of person who wears glasses: you may be treated like a geek or whatever. So the relevant similarities in environment are mostly not on the level of concretes like being in the same room. Nor is there any way that intellectual similarities in environment could be removed or accounted for.

Ayn Rand had something to say about the sort of blindness to ideas exhibited above: they have the anti-conceptual mentality. In Philosophy: Who Needs It, Chapter 4, Rand writes:

These cases are examples of the anti-conceptual mentality. The main characteristic of this mentality is a special kind of passivity: not passivity as such and not across-the-board, but passivity beyond a certain limit—i.e., passivity in regard to the process of conceptualization and, therefore, in regard to fundamental principles. It is a mentality which decided, at a certain point of development, that it knows enough and does not care to look further. What does it accept as “enough”? The immediately given, directly perceivable concretes of its background—“the empiric element in experience.”

To grasp and deal with such concretes, a human being needs a certain degree of conceptual development, a process which the brain of an animal cannot perform. But after the initial feat of learning to speak, a child can counterfeit this process, by memorization and imitation. The anti-conceptual mentality stops on this level of development—on the first levels of abstractions, which identify perceptual material consisting predominantly of physical objects—and does not choose to take the next, crucial, fully volitional step: the higher levels of abstraction from abstractions, which cannot be learned by imitation.

The anti-conceptual mentality takes most things as irreducible primaries and regards them as “self-evident.” It treats concepts as if they were (memorized) percepts; it treats abstractions as if they were perceptual concretes. To such a mentality, everything is the given: the passage of time, the four seasons, the institution of marriage, the weather, the breeding of children, a flood, a fire, an earthquake, a revolution, a book are phenomena of the same order. The distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made is not merely unknown to this mentality, it is incommunicable.

To the behavioural geneticist, people don’t have ideas. Anything that isn’t a gene has to be something concrete like a room or a particular playmate. Ideas and choices don’t exist or they are irrelevant.

An article covering Plomin’s new book contains the following paragraph:

He [Plomin] finds that genetic heritability accounts for 50% of the psychological differences between us, from personality to mental abilities. But that leaves 50% that should be accounted for by the environment. However, Plomin argues, research shows that most of that 50% is not attributable to the type of environmental influences that can be planned for or readily affected – ie it’s made up of unpredictable events. And of the environmental influences that can be moderated, much of it, he argues, is really an expression of genetics.

The position attributed to Plomin here doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of being able to think rationally about some event you haven’t predicted and solve any problem it presents. Concepts and explanations don’t exist in this worldview. If, like me, you get a sinking feeling of boredom when you read stuff written by Plomin and other human behavioural geneticists, now you know why – they have no ideas of any substance. They have nothing useful or interesting to say about anything.

Musicians don’t understand economics

The EU’s copyright directive is going to require paying for links and will require the creation of expensive and error prone copyright filters. This means that search engines will have to start charging for searches. Google will either become a subscription service or will charge per search, or they will simply block all access to their services from the EU and exclude any site hosted in the EU from search results.

Most musicians are in favour of this. They imagine that they’re going to make more money. They will be disappointed. The money from the tax will go to politicians, who will spend it on vanity projects, expensive lunches and so on, not on musicians. And since everyone will have to pay for searches they will have less money to spend on music. Also, are people going to be able to find music when they have to pay searches or can’t do them cuz Google has declined to provide its services to EU countries? Anyone who thinks this is a good idea should read Bastiat, or Hazlitt or Reisman.

EU copyright directive

The European Parliament voted in favour of the EU copyright directive, which taxes links and requires sites with user submitted material to have a program to filter copyrighted content. Taxing links will make it more difficult to comment on news. It will drive traffic away from news sites. And a filter for copyrighted material won’t be able to distinguish between using material for commentary and ripping it off wholesale. In addition, once content filters are in wide use politicians will want to use them to suppress content they dislike. An article on this disaster ends with the sentence:

Exactly how the legislation will be interpreted will be up to individual nations, but the shift in the balance of power is clear: the web’s biggest tech companies are losing their grip on the internet.

This claim is wrong. Implementing filters for copyrighted content and paying taxes for links will be a massive expense. A large company may be able to eat the cost of developing the necessary programs and paying the link tax. In general, a small company will not be able to pay such costs. Many small companies won’t be started at all because the EU just massively increased the capital requirements for starting any online business. Increasing regulation favours large businesses over small businesses.

Hoppe’s argumentation ethics

Hoppe’s argumentation ethics are an attempt to justify libertarianism. Hoppe starts by criticising Ludwig von Mises’ approach to ethics:

According to Mises there exists no ultimate justification for ethical propositions in the same sense as there exists one for economic propositions. Economics can inform us whether or not certain means are appropriate for bringing about certain ends, yet whether or not the ends can be regarded as just can neither be decided by economics nor by any other science. There is no justification for choosing one rather than another end. In the last resort, which end is chosen is arbitrary from a scientific point of view and is a matter of subjective whim, incapable of any justification beyond the mere fact of simply being liked.

In the following I outline an argument that demonstrates why this position is untenable, and how the essentially Lockean private property ethic of libertarianism can ultimately be justified. …

The argument then runs as follows:

First, it must be noted that the question of what is just or unjust — or for that matter the even more general question of what is a valid proposition and what is not — only arises insofar as I am, and others are, capable of propositional exchanges, i.e., of argumentation.

Second, it must be noted that argumentation does not consist of free-floating propositions but is a form of action requiring the employment of scarce means; and that the means which a person demonstrates as preferring by engaging in propositional exchanges are those of private property.

Furthermore, it would be equally impossible to sustain argumentation for any length of time and rely on the propositional force of one’s arguments if one were not allowed to appropriate in addition to one’s body other scarce means through homesteading action (by putting them to use before somebody else does), and if such means and the rights of exclusive control regarding them were not defined in objective physical terms. For if no one had the right to control anything at all except his own body, then we would all cease to exist and the problem of justifying norms simply would not exist. Thus, by virtue of the fact of being alive, property rights to other things must be presupposed to be valid. No one who is alive could argue otherwise.

This argument sounds plausible, but it is flawed in ways that will lead those who hold it make serious errors. First, the argument is justificationist – it purports to show that a particular position is true or probably true or something along those lines. All justificationist arguments are false for reasons I have described in previous posts [1,2].

Another problem is that many people don’t agree ethics is about argument. Some people believe it is ethical to beat a person up with a bike lock, or to run people over with a car. Such a person might be willing to take a break from using physical violence to talk, but unless you change his mind all he’s doing is taking a break. Worse, most people think it is necessary to initiate the use of force in some ’emergency’ situations that don’t involve the use of force. For example, people who support the welfare state think it is acceptable to threaten people who don’t want to pay taxes to support the welfare state with prison and to use violence against them if necessary. If you can’t change the minds of those who are taking a break from using physical violence directly or through the state then your argument is pretty useless since almost all people are in that category.

Many people also see ethics as an emotional issue. You’re ethical if you feel the right sort of emotions. For example, many people say that if you feel like the US should have universal health care you’re an ethical person and otherwise you’re a scum bag. Any reasons you might have for thinking universal health care would be disastrous are irrelevant.

Lots of people also won’t concede that private property is necessary for rational argument. They think rich people control the media and can say absolutely anything they want. In reality, the mass media have to stick to a very narrow set of ‘respectable’ opinions or they will lose customers and money. Other people think that some private property is okay, but the government has to set limits on it.

The only people who will buy Hoppe’s argument are those who reject the positions in the previous three paragraphs, i.e. – people who already support unrestricted capitalism. Hoppe might say in reply that the rejection all of those positions have been justified by Misesian economics. Although Mises’ economic ideas are true the epistemological ideas Hoppe advocates as a justification are wrong. Hoppe’s argument solves no problems and can’t reach any target audience other than people who already agree with him.

Hoppe’s argument is a rationalist argument in the sense explained by Peikoff in Understanding Objectivism Lecture Seven. Hoppe focuses on an abstract idea without tying it to reality. Hoppe starts with a premise that differences must be settled by argument and pretends he can prove a conclusion from it. Where does this premise come from? Nowhere. Why should we use argument as opposed to hitting people with bike locks? No reason is given or even referred to. We’re just supposed to accept it with no explanation or context.

A better argument along the same lines would say the following. I think that differences should be settled by argument, not by violence or emotional presuppositions. I also think that free markets are required for people to be able to undertake arguments properly. People have to be able to live to make arguments and to try out ideas to settle arguments and this requires unrestricted capitalism. You could then have a discussion about these points. Instead we get a very brief statement of each of these points and a lot of filler about how this is a justification when it’s not. We can only get moral progress through discussion not by trying to concoct a gotcha argument in a few pages. Moral and political knowledge is created by guesses tempered by criticism, just like other kinds of knowledge, see Elliot Temple’s squirrel essay.

Misunderstandings are common

It is common for people to misunderstand written material, including material that is apparently written in plain English. Consider, for example, this paragraph from Ayn Rand’s essay “The Argument from Intimidation”:

The essential characteristic of the Argument from Intimidation is its appeal to moral self-doubt and its reliance on the fear, guilt or ignorance of the victim. It is used in the form of an ultimatum demanding that the victim renounce a given idea without discussion, under threat of being considered morally unworthy. The pattern is always: “Only those who are evil (dishonest, heartless, insensitive, ignorant, etc.) can hold such an idea.”

And then look at the mess Adam Lockett made of interpreting it:

Having a conscience is about making moral judgements about your thoughts and behaviour. You may sometimes feel bad as a result of judging that your behaviour or ideas suck, but the key idea behind conscience is the judgement not the emotion. You have moral self doubt if you don’t have confidence in your ability to make moral judgements. So not having moral self doubt is not the same as lacking a conscience. Rand was strongly in favour of judging your own conduct and the conduct of others:

The precept: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” . . . is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.

There is no escape from the fact that men have to make choices; so long as men have to make choices, there is no escape from moral values; so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible. To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims.

The moral principle to adopt in this issue, is: “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”

In other words, Rand was in favour of a person having a conscience and standing by his ideas unless they are refuted by argument. Rand was also in favour of selfishness in the sense of having regard for your own interests. Adopting a standard that opposes acting in your own self interest means that you sometimes have to act in a way that is immoral by your own standards. And if you can’t consistently act morally by your own standards, then you will have moral self doubt to some extent. So seeing self interest as legitimate and good will help you avoid moral self doubt and have a strong conscience.

Suppose that you avoid moral self doubt and you engage in an argument. It is possible that your initial position will be refuted and you will adopt a new idea. But since your ideas have improved that’s not a loss in any relevant sense. Looking on it as a loss is a bad idea and will lead you to stick to ideas you ought to discard. If you engage in an argument and your position isn’t refuted that’s okay too. You can still learn something about what kinds of mistakes people make and about how to explain your own position. So a selfish person who engages in an argument without moral self doubt wins regardless of whether his position survives the argument.

A person who tries to win using an argument from intimidation loses an opportunity to engage with a different set of ideas than his own. The loss and the fact that the intimidator sees it as a victory are both kinda sad.