Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

GeoLibertarianism Squares Two Circles

Geolibertarianism solves two problems that no other school of libertarianism claims to solve.

The Wikipedia article on geolibertarianism gets one nuance slightly wrong.  Geolibertarians don't necessarily believe that all land is an unownable commons.  Rather, some of us simply take very literally the Lockean proviso that homesteading an unowned resource (e.g. virgin land) must leave "as much and as good" for others.  So we say there would be zero land value tax on you if there is available to others "as much and as good" land as that which you monopolize -- or if you allow the community to use the land you squat on in the same way that you use it.  The land value tax only kicks in when monopoly rents are earned due to the Lockean proviso being violated.  Such rents are a violation of individual rights under the Lockean analysis, and are thus aggression.  The geolibertarian land value "tax" is not really a "tax", but rather is reparations for this aggression.  (A LVT does not tax site improvements like buildings etc.)

Geolibertarianism thus solves the central conundrum of minarchism: how to finance the protection of life, liberty, and property without initiating force.  Its solution even offers an unanticipated bonus: a non-force-initiating libertarian safety net for the poor.  Geolibertarianism points out that in the state of nature there is always marginal but productive land available for use by the destitute, and that faithful historical observation of the Lockean proviso (leaving "as much and as good") should have always ensured that this remained the case even to this day.  To the extent that it is no longer the case, excluding people from access to the natural productive opportunities on what used to be the commons is unjust -- i.e. is aggression.  Therefore, where land is scarce its "ground rent" should be considered part of the commons, with each individual having an equal claim on it. 

Technically, "ground rent" is is the excess production obtained by using a site in its most productive use, compared to the production obtained by applying equivalent inputs of labor and capital at the most productive site where the application doesn't require (additional) payments for use of the site.  In other words, ground rent is the advantage you get from exclusive use of a site compared to the most productive available site that is not in use.

For more information, see my site

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Vote By Your Principles, Not By Habit

Jeff Dulgar complains in the UC Santa Barbara student paper Daily Nexus that "Unwanted Libertarians Crash the Party".  He admits that the LP "has become that cool new fad", but says to LP members that "you’ve rebelled against conventional politics, but you have effectively tossed your vote aside" because they "choose to vote for a party that will never get elected".
Let's explore the infamous "Wasted Vote Syndrome".  For a vote to be "wasted", it has to be cast in vain, without furthering the purpose for which it was cast.  So what are the reasons for which people vote?  Why do they even vote at all?
This is a surprisingly difficult question -- difficult enough that economists call it the "Paradox of Voting" (or Downs Paradox, after the seminal 1957 paper by Anthony Downs).  They observe that the cost of voting is relatively high compared to its objective benefit to the voter.  To vote you have to invest up to an hour of your precious time -- analyze your choices, travel to a polling place, stand in a line or two, enter your choices, and travel back. (Voting by mail only changes the time calculation a little.)  Your payoff from voting has to be discounted by the probability that your vote will tip the outcome of the election.  Even if you expect the outcome of an election to have a big effect on your life, the odds that your vote will change that outcome are usually vanishingly small.  When you do the math, you see that the net expected personal benefit to you from adding your vote to your candidate's total is far less than the cost of the gas it takes to get to the polls -- or even the cost of the stamp to mail your ballot.
The standard explanation, then, is that voting yields some kind of psychological benefit, apart from any coldly calculated material return on the effort invested.  One component of that psychological benefit is surely the basic primate need to line up with the winning side.  For most of the millions of years of hominid evolutionary history, lining up with the winning faction in the tribe was often potentially a matter of life or death.  Even today we're usually under social pressure not to keep our voting preference a secret.  Humans have enjoyed the secret ballot for only a few centuries, and that's not nearly long enough for us to shake the feeling that we better back somebody with a decent chance of actually taking over our tribe. 
The largest component of voting's psychological benefit, however, has optimistically been posited to be that voters derive "expressive" utility from voting -- they like to feel that they've stood up for their beliefs and principles.  If this is indeed the reason for which you vote, then the truly "wasted" vote is the vote that doesn't accurately express your beliefs.  A vote for one of the two incumbent parties is a vote that says "Take me for granted; I think you're doing a fine job, and keep up the good work."  If that's not the message you want to send, then your vote is in fact "wasted" -- even if the candidate you vote for wins.  That's why we Libertarians say: the only wasted vote is the one that doesn't express your principles.
A new theory was proposed in 2007 by Edlin, Gelman and Kaplan: Voting as a Rational Choice: Why and How People Vote To Improve the Well-Being of Others.  They contend that "for voters with ‘social’ preferences" -- i.e., preferences about how an election will affect people other than themselves -- "the expected utility of voting is approximately independent of the size of the electorate" because bigger elections can affect more people.  For such voters, the expected utility from voting will be roughly the size of the benefit that the election might provide to the average citizen, because the number of  people benefiting (N) is roughly balanced by the 1/N probability of tipping the election.
The problem with this new analysis is that it only considers one election in isolation.  Even on its own terms, voting for the lesser of two evils to somehow maximize your "social preference" is subject to a dizzying regression called a Keynesian Beauty Contest.  The concept was first applied to equity markets, pointing out that the price of a stock will not really be what investors think is its fundamental value, but rather will be what investors think other investors will think is that value.  In the context of voting, that regression may not yield a single sensible equilibrium if voters are very unsure about what candidates have the best chances of winning.
But in fact we have detailed information about the probabilities of victory for various candidates and parties, and that information is the key to recognizing the Wasted Vote fallacy.  First of all, polling data and historical data about "safe" districts can almost always combine to tell you that your one vote has no real chance of tipping the outcome in the district (or electoral college state) where it will be counted.  Rather than depressing you, this should liberate you to vote your conscience.  So even a believer in Wasted Vote logic should only vote for the lesser of two evils when the empirical data show that one evil leads the other only by a nose (or a horn or a hoof).
However, there is a consideration that makes even that strategy suspect.  Again, the way we can anticipate how many votes that a candidate or party will attract in this election is to look at how many votes that (or similar) contestants attracted in past elections.  When you realize this, you understand that in a very real sense your vote in this election will influence the outcome not only of this election, but all future elections run with a similar set of candidates and voters.  So voting for your habitual incumbent party in this election sends the enduring message to future voters -- and to election-watching politicians -- that there is no danger you will stop voting by habit.  You have to balance 1) the alleged benefit of tinkering at the margins of the present status quo with 2) the potential huge benefit of overturning the status quo in favor of the principles you actually believe in.
Thus the only truly wasted vote is to vote by your reflexes, and not by your principles.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The General Welfare Clause

Madison wrote in Federalist 41 that "common defense and general welfare" is a reference to the subsequently enumerated powers:

Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity

The Butler decision that overturned this line of thinking said that the "general welfare" language means that "the powers of taxation and appropriation extend only to matters of national, as distinguished from local, welfare". The very next year in Helvering, the court effectively ceded all jurisdiction on this question:

The line must still be drawn between one welfare and another, between particular and general. Where this shall be placed cannot be known through a formula in advance of the event. There is a middle ground or certainly a penumbra in which discretion is at large. The discretion, however, is not confided to the courts. The discretion belongs to Congress, unless the choice is clearly wrong, a display of arbitrary power, not an exercise of judgment.

Madison held that the phrase "to pay the debts and provide ..." merely qualified the Clause 1 power to tax, and that the "provide" language is just a reference to the subsequently enumerated powers. Like the uniformity restriction that concludes Clause 1, the "provide" language is obviously just a restriction on the power to tax. Hamilton wanted the national government to have broader powers, and in fact at the Constitutional Convention the Hamiltonians tried to convert the comma after "excises" to a semicolon, so that the "to provide" infinitive would become a description of an independent Congressional power.

The Supreme Court agreed with Madison for almost a century and half, until Justice Roberts reversed this position in a passing comment in US v. Butler (1936). For my critique of Roberts' fatefully sloppy analysis, see below.  The next year, a court coerced by FDR's court-packing threat hand-waved toward the Butler decision in order to uphold the Social Security Act. In that decision (Helvering v. Davis), Cordozo repeated Roberts' earlier pretense that the new interpretation of Clause 1 is too obvious to need actual explanation in a Supreme Court opinion.

The Butler Case

The court decided in passing in 1936 (US v. Butler, by Justice Roberts, that Congress can spend for the general welfare:

They can never accomplish the objects for which they were collected, unless the power to appropriate is as broad as the power to tax.

Obviously false. For example, if the federal government wanted to reduce wine  consumption, it could tax wine imports, but use the revenue to help finance e.g. the military.

The necessary implication from the terms of the grant is that the public funds may be appropriated 'to provide for the general welfare of the United States.' These words cannot be meaningless, else they would not have been used. [..]

The reasoning is obviously flawed. If any and all spending for "the general welfare" is already authorized, then much of the rest of Section 8 is redundant. The rest of Section 8 authorizes provision of the postal system, army, navy, and militia -- each of which the framers clearly considered as contributing to "the general welfare".

Here is the core of Roberts' argument:

Since the foundation of the nation, sharp differences of opinion have persisted as to the true interpretation of the phrase. Madison asserted it amounted to no more than a reference to the other powers enumerated in the subsequent clauses of the same section; that, as the United States is a government of limited and enumerated powers, the grant of power to tax and spend for the general national welfare must be confined to the enumerated legislative fields committed to the Congress. In this view the phrase is mere tautology, for taxation and appropriation are or may be necessary incidents of the exercise of any of the enumerated legislative powers. Hamilton, on the other hand, maintained the clause confers a power separate and distinct from those later enumerated is not restricted in meaning by the grant of them, and Congress consequently has a substantive power to tax and to appropriate, limited only by the requirement that it shall be exercised to provide for the general welfare of the United States. Each contention has had the support of those whose views are entitled to weight. This court has noticed the question, but has never found it necessary to decide which is the true construction. Mr. Justice Story, in his Commentaries, espouses the Hamiltonian position. We shall not review the writings of public men and commentators or discuss the legislative practice. Study of all these leads us to conclude that the reading advocated by Mr. Justice Story is the correct one. While, therefore, the power to tax is not unlimited, its confines are set in the clause which confers it, and not in those of section 8 which bestow and define the legislative powers of the Congress. It results that the power of Congress to authorize expenditure of public moneys for public purposes is not limited by the direct grants of legislative power found in the Constitution.

So what is the sum total of Roberts' argument? 1) The general welfare phrase can't be meaningless. 2) Hamilton, Story, and unnamed others argued that it authorizes any spending that one could claim is for the general welfare. 3) The Court has "studied" their arguments, "shall not review" them, but found them "correct".

That's it. That's how the highest court in the land reversed the 147-year assumption that the federal powers of the purse are enumerated in Art. I Sec 8, and decided instead that they are limited only by the ability of politicians to declare expenditures as being for "the general welfare".

Roberts hilariously proceeds to put a fig leaf on his reasoning by pretending it's bold to draw a line against any spending that is not for the "general welfare":

Monroe, an advocate of Hamilton's doctrine, wrote: 'Have Congress a right to raise and appropriate the money to any and to every purpose according to their will and pleasure? They certainly have not.' Story says that if the tax be not proposed for the common defense or general welfare, but for other objects wholly extraneous, it would be wholly indefensible upon constitutional principles. And he makes it clear that the powers of taxation and appropriation extend only to matters of national, as distinguished from local, welfare.

As bad as the above reasoning is, the greater sin is exposed in what follows:

[..] we naturally require a showing that by no reasonable possibility can the challenged legislation fall within the wide range of discretion permitted to the Congress. How great is the extent of that range, when the subject is the promotion of the general welfare of the United States, we need hardly remark. But, despite the breadth of the legislative discretion, our duty to hear and to render judgment remains. If the statute plainly violates the stated principle of the Constitution we must so declare. We are not now required to ascertain the scope of the phrase 'general welfare of the United States' or to determine whether an appropriation in aid of agriculture falls within it. Wholly apart from that question, another principle embedded in our Constitution prohibits the enforcement of the Agricultural adjustment Act. [..]

Here Roberts blatantly violates the sacred principle that the Court should use the narrowest grounds to make its decisions. US v. Butler in fact overturned the Agriculture Adjustment Act on other grounds, and so what Roberts did was throw open the door to "general welfare" socialism merely via obiter dicta (i.e. "an opinion voiced by a judge that has only incidental bearing on the case in question and is therefore not binding.")

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Nolan Space Is Contingent

Nolan Space wasn't created by the 10 questions chosen for the WSPQ or any other quiz.  Nolan Space is created by the objective facts that 1) the policy suites denoted by "Left" and "Right" are the dominant polarity in current and late-20th-century American politics, and 2) the main clusters of dissent from those suites (libertarian and populist) are defined by their disagreement with Left and Right over two sets of issues (viz., personal liberty vs. legislated morality, and economic liberty vs. legislated economic equality/security).
There is indeed nothing Platonic or a priori about the contingent affinities charted by Nolan Space.  If relatively few Americans were populist we might talk instead of a David Nolan Triangle.  If very few Americans were libertarian we might instead talk of a David Duke Triangle.  Or if neither, then the conventional Left/Right 1-D spectrum would finally be apt.  Or if the main kinds of systematic and consistent dissent from Left and Right were over franchise issues (animal rights, fetal rights, immigration, humanitarian intervention) and/or over technophobia/technophilia, we could have a 2-D or 3-D space where none of the axes were defined distinctly by economic liberty or personal liberty and instead the left-right axis invoked both.
At I've collected polling data from Gallup, Zogby, Rasmussen , the Pew Research Center, the American National Election Studies, and the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies.  All these data sources validate the Nolan Chart's model of the American electorate.  Studies using linear regression have confirmed the model for other Western countries, e..g. "Looking at Left and Right the Right Way: Multiple Dimensions and Electoral Outcomes" (Fesnic, 2004)  The model doesn't apply globally, though, as suggested in this look at data from the World Values Survey: "Social Modernization and the End of Ideology Debate: Patterns of Ideological Polarization" (Dalton, 2005).
It was a crystallizing moment of my political/intellectual life when I first laid eyes on David Nolan's chart -- the invention/promotion of which will likely secure his place in history even more firmly than for founding the LP.  I instantly and irrevocably recognized that I wasn't just an enlightened/tolerant Republican, and that I could never settle for being an economics-literate Democrat.  I instantly realized that I would always be a libertarian, and politics just became a question of finding the party whose sweet spot -- or at least circle of tolerance -- was most inclusive of the spot I occupied in Nolan space.
An even stronger epiphany was c. 2001 when I first saw in a macroeconomics textbook the standard 4-cell table that defines public goods, club goods (aka natural monopolies), common goods, and private goods.  (I reproduce the table at   That table forever shrank the space of possible political theories that I could ever advocate.  (The feeling was sort of like hearing for the first time in fifth grade about Special Relativity, and realizing that all the sci-fi about FTL travel and communication were in effect syntax errors if you want to think of this universe as Euclidean.  I'd love to say that there was a promote-able reproducible epiphany involved in my becoming geolibertarian, but that took several years.)

Rand Did Not Solve the Is-Ought Problem

Ayn Rand is quoted:

AR) In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, (AR

The claim isn't that reality has no bearing on what values one should choose or how one should choose them. The claim is that reality does not constitute a completely objective determination of those values. The claim is that ethics is not reducible to biology in the same way that biology is reducible to chemistry. My own approach to the justification of values is summarized at

AR) the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity *is*, determines what it *ought* to do. (AR

This is an instantiation (or at best a denial) of the naturalistic fallacy, not a solution to it. Yes, it's a fact that a certain category of goal-directed behaviors -- notably reproduction and self-preservation, or more generally, maximizing inclusive fitness for the relevant replicator-- tend to get selected for, and lead to phenomena that are far more interesting than any other kinds of behaviors that could be considered goal-directed. But nothing about that fact deterministically creates any truly normative truths for such behavers. Rather, it creates instrumental truths -- e.g. IF I am to increase my genes' inclusive fitness, THEN I need to take the following actions. For any purportedly fundamental goal, it can always be asked why that ought to be a fundamental goal. There of course is some explanatory insight in the answer "because any other goal decreases the inclusive fitness -- and perhaps even is incompatible with the existence of -- the goal-seeker". However, that insight hardly constitutes the universal normative leap from "is" to "ought" that is the holy grail of ethics. Rand's purported solution is refuted -- not confirmed -- by every suicide. The fact that there are more breeders and non-suiciders than there are non-breeders and suiciders is something that biologists can readily explain as the result of an interesting chain of mindless accidents and inexorable consequences. Such mindlessness and inexorableness no more yields normative truths than does the geometric inevitability of the paths of impacting billiard balls.

Rand's purported solution to the Is-Ought problem can be seen to be radically contingent on our universe's harsh laws of thermodynamics. If in our universe there were agents -- like Christianity's legendary Yahweh -- that were not constrained by thermodynamics to have inherited the usual suite of goals common to all living things, then Rand's allegedly objective value system would just be struck dumb, offering no compelling guidance to such an agent. I'm not impressed by an alleged solution to the Is-Ought problem that doesn't also solve the Yes, I'm very sympathetic to the values that the primate Rand endorses, because as her fellow primate I'm pushed by the same evolutionary winds into accepting those values too. If Rand had been an intelligent eusocial insect instead of an intelligent primate, her methodology would have led her to endorse the opposite of her individualist values. She could I suppose claim that a deeper constant value is just being contextualized differently in the two cases. But again, the essence of the Naturalist Fallacy is to take everything that Is and put a Certified Ought sticker on it. That she does so consistently doesn't make it any less fallacious. (And that it's fallacious doesn't justify putting an Ought Not sticker on, either.)