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

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bostrom's Simulation Argument

The only time I've touched on this topic is in the exchange below with Bostrom back in 2002.  I soon learned that the idea I was asking about is called modal realism, which encompasses all of the most interesting philosophical implications of the Simulation Argument.

From more recent reading on quantum physics, I no longer have such a firm intuition that a non-zero Planck Constant makes the universe easier to simulate, especially in light of the hacks and optimizations that Bostrom describes. However, I'm still fond my insight -- perhaps true, perhaps even original -- that classical physics should allow in principle for infinite information density.

As a technologist, I tend to think there isn't an interesting possibility of our sort of physics being able to support a simulation of a universe of our sort of physics. The hacks and optimizations that Bostrom talks about -- monitoring a simulation to see what its inhabitants "notice" -- can be recognized as nigh-impossible by anyone who's tried to debug their own software (let alone the simulated mental operations of minds that nobody programmed).

So I think that element (2) -- simulations won't happen -- of Bostrom's disjunct is the most probable, but as a modal realist I already feel sort of like how I'd feel if I believed we were in a simulation.

-----Original Message-----
From: Brian Holtz []
Sent: Wednesday, March 13, 2002 2:36 PM
Subject: anthropic reasoning re: "why is there something rather than nothing?"

Hi. Two quick questions from someone who's enjoyed for several years your work on anthropic and transhumanist topics:
1. Has anyone ever applied anthropic reasoning to the perennial philosophical question of "why is there something rather than nothing?"?
2. Has anyone ever noticed that Planck's Constant being non-zero (i.e. that our universe is quantum rather than classical) could be construed as evidence that our universe is a simulation?
Some details:
On the latter question, the point would of course be that simulating a classical universe to arbitrary precision would be much more computationally expensive (indeed, perhaps impossible) compared to simulating a quantized universe.
On the former question, I notice of course that it is closely related to anthropic cosmological reasoning like that discussed in Ch. 2 of your upcoming book. I'm just wondering if anyone has ever applied applied anthropic reasoning to the logic-motivated "multiverse" of logically-possible universes, as opposed to the quantum-theory-motivated multiverse of physically parallel "universes".
Here is a relevant excerpt from a book (see I'm writing:
A possibly meaningful (but unparsimonious) answer to the Ultimate Why is that the universe exists (more precisely, is perceived to exist) roughly because it is possible. The reasoning would be as follows. Absolute impossibility -- the state of affairs in which nothing is possible -- is itself not possible, because if nothing truly were possible, then absolute impossibility would not be possible, implying that at least something must be possible. But if at least one thing is possible, then it seems the universe we perceive should be no less possible than anything else. Now, assuming that physicalism is right and that qualia and consciousness are epiphenomena, then the phenomenology of a mind and its perfect simulation are identical. So whether the universe we perceive existed or not, it as a merely possible universe would be perceived by its merely possible inhabitants no differently than our actual universe is perceived by its actual inhabitants. By analogy, the thoughts and perceptions of a particular artificial intelligence in a simulated universe would be the same across identical "runs" of the simulation, regardless of whether we bothered to initiate such a "run" once, twice -- or never.

An earlier exploration of this idea is this:
Consider gliders in Conway's game of Life.  Even if nobody ever wrote
down the rules of Life, gliders would still be a logical consequent of
certain possible configurations of the logically possible game of
Life. It has been proven that Life is rich enough to instantiate a
Turing machine, which are of course known to be able to compute
anything computable. So if mind is computable, consider a
configuration of Life that instantiates a Turing machine that
instantiates some mind.

Consider the particular Life configuration in which that mind
eventually comes to ask itself "why is there something instead of
nothing?".  Even if in our universe no such Life configuration is ever
instantiated, that particular configuration would still be logically
possible, and the asking of the Big Why would still be a virtual event
in the logically possible universe of that Life configuration.  The
epiphenomenal quality of that event for that logically possible mind
would surely be the same, regardless of whether our universe ever
actually ran that Life configuration. So the answer to that mind's Big
Why would be: because your existence is logically possible.

So pop up a level, and consider that you are that mind, and that your
universe too is just a (highly complex) logically possible state
machine.  In that case, the answer to your Big Why would be the same.

Note that, while the Life thought experiment depends on mind being
computable, the logically possible universe (LPU) thought experiment
only assumes that our universe could be considered as a logically
possible sequence of (not necessarily finitely describable)
universe-states.  The LPU hypothesis also depends on the thesis that
physicalism is right and that qualia and consciousness are
epiphenomena. The LPU hypothesis is of course unparsimonious (sort of
like the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory), but parsimony
is perhaps inconsistent with *any* answer to the Big Why.  The LPU
hypothesis is incompatible with strong free will (which itself may be
incoherent), but is compatible with weak free will (perhaps only if we
assume there are rules governing the transitions among

The idea that the world might be a dream is of course not new.  But I
don't recall ever hearing that the world might be just a logically
possible dream for which no dreamer exists.

-----Original Message-----
From: Nick Bostrom []
Sent: Wednesday, March 20, 2002 1:26 PM
To: Brian Holtz
Subject: Re: anthropic reasoning re: "why is there something rather than nothing?"

Hi Brian,

Hi. Two quick questions from someone who's enjoyed for several years your work on anthropic and transhumanist topics:

1. Has anyone ever applied anthropic reasoning to the perennial philosophical question of "why is there something rather than nothing?"?

Derek Parfit touched upon this topic in some lectures he gave in London a few years ago. There is also a mailing list, the everything-list, where this topic has been discussed extensively.

2. Has anyone ever noticed that Planck's Constant being non-zero (i.e. that our universe is quantum rather than classical) could be construed as evidence that our universe is a simulation?

Yes (I think Hans Moravec might have been first, but I'm not sure). My view (see the Simulation Argument paper) is that it is not good evidence for that because the apparent ultimate physics of our universe could easily be an illusion if we are living in a simulation. That is, our simulators could create the appearance that our physics is quantum or classical without actually having to go to the trouble of simulating our world down to such find detail.

All best wishes,

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mark Clark: Libros Virumque Cano

Hi Dr. Clark, I was a student of yours in the University of Southern Mississippi Honors College starting in 1983, and I also took a second year of Latin from you.  You fortified my lifelong love of learning with the way you treated us undergraduates as peers in your intellectual journey.  You literally changed my life walking across campus one day with your casual question about what grad school I was going to attend.  It was only your assumption that I would continue my studies that prompted me to do so.  That resulted in a University of Michigan M.S. degree that launched my software engineering career here in Silicon Valley, where I met my wife and started a wonderful family.

Thank you!

Brian Holtz
Class of 1987

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Appropriating Ground Rent Is Aggression

The standard Libertarian dogma on the needy -- let 'em beg -- is simply wrong.  The best libertarian answer to poverty derives from correcting a standard Libertarian misunderstanding of property rights.  That misunderstanding consists in ignoring Locke's insight that excluding people from the commons -- i.e. enclosing unowned land for exclusive ownership -- is naked aggression if that exclusion does not leave "as much and as good" for others.  Land (i.e. space, locations, sites, sections of the Earth's surface) cannot be created or moved or destroyed by anyone's labor, and so is a different category of property than that created by re-arranging matter.  Land (i.e. spacetime) is the coordinate system, and matter (i.e. mass-energy) is what exists in the coordinate system.  Owning a set of spatial coordinates is fundamentally different from owning the matter that currently exists there.  This seemingly academic distinction turns out to be the key to rescuing libertarianism from self-imposed moral bankruptcy.

In the state of nature there are always marginal but productive sites available for use by the destitute, and 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.  Standard anarcholibertarianism seeks to institutionalize this aggression -- ironically doing so in the name of de-institutionalizing aggression. The aggression that it institutionalizes is a subtle one called the appropriation of ground rent.

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.  In effect, ground rent is the extra income a site earns because of the exclusivity of its location within the community, as compared to what such a site would earn at the edge of the community.  Technically, ground rent is is the extra income obtained by using a site in its most productive use, compared to the income 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. Thus ground rent doesn't include the income from any labor-based site improvements -- buildings, irrigation, swamp drainage, etc.  Instead, ground rent includes just the benefit a site derives from the surrounding community by forcibly excluding them from it.

Geolibertarians say ground rent should be considered part of the commons (like the atmosphere, EM spectrum, etc.), with each individual having an equal right of access to it.  In practice, the way to undo the aggression of site monopolization is through a land value tax.  This allows a government to finance both rights protection and aid to the indigent, all without any force initiation.   The fundamental principle is that each person has full rights to his body, labor, peaceful production, and voluntary exchanges, but he must compensate those whose access he impairs when he monopolizes, consumes, pollutes, or congests a natural commons.  Details and references are available at

Thursday, November 20, 2008

World Philosophy Day

Yo dude, thanks for the link.  I didn't know it was World Philosophy Day. Your BBC article covers four classic questions, each of which I've written about before.

1. This is called the Trolley Problem, and I use it on fellow libertarians a lot. The crucial consideration is how much freedom you have in choosing who is the one who will be sacrificed to save the many.  If circumstances (or a bad guy) picks the one, then the right answer should be clear. Otherwise, you need to set up a lottery, and you need to weight things according to expected lifespans, objective quality of life, impact of the losses on others, risk of setting precedents, etc.  Luckily, these tragic "lifeboat" scenarios pretty much never happen, and that is why we're not used to making the hard choices involved in them.  The choices would be emotionally hard, but they're not philosophically paradoxical.

2. This is called the problem of Theseus' Ship.  The answer I give in my book is: "A given entity is identified through time with its closest close-enough continuous-enough continuer. A continuer is an entity which is similar to a previous entity and exists because of it. A continuer is close enough if it retains enough of the original entity's properties. A continuer is closest if it retains more of the original entity's properties than any other continuer. A continuer is continuous enough if there is no extraordinary discontinuity in its relationship to the original entity."  This whole topic of identity (including forked and joined identities) is covered in one of the best philosophy books I've ever read: The Metaphysics of Star Trek.  If I haven't bought you a copy before, then you're getting one for Xmas.

3. Yep, there is no absolutely certain synthetic (i.e. empirical) knowledge.  We've known this since Hume.  As I say in my book: "All synthetic propositions (including this one) can only be known from experience and are subject to doubt."  The crucial thing is to understand the level of confidence to assign to synthetic propositions, and to understand the ways in which they might be false.

4. The problem with free will is that people think of their mind/soul as something apart from the universe, rather than as a subset of the universe.  I write: "Free will is either of the doctrines that human choices are a) determined internally rather than externally (volitional free will) or b) not pre-determined at all (indeterminate free will).  Determinism is incompatible with indeterminate free will, but is compatible with volitional free will if agents have internal state that influences (and thus helps determines) their actions."

These are great classic problems.  Another really good mind-twister related to free will is  Infinity is also a great mind-bender, such as the way it lurks in  I bet you would like

Yes, I've tivo'd Parallel Universes, can't wait to watch it.  I'm a big fan of modal realism -- the theory that possible universes are just as "real" as this one.  It's related to the biggest of all philosophy questions: why is there something instead of nothing?  My answer: "A merely possible universe would be perceived by its merely possible inhabitants no differently than our actual universe is perceived by its actual inhabitants. [Modal Realism says "actual" just means "in this universe", and so is redundant when talking about our universe.] Thus, our universe might merely be the undreamed possible dream of no particular dreamer."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Market Failure in K-12 Education

The primary market failure I see in K-12 education is that poor minors needing tuition money are not allowed to enter into long-term contracts that surrender a fraction of the alleged increase in earnings that a tuition investment would buy them. If education investments are as wise as we liberals claim, then such contracts should be able to make education for the poor self-financing. In the absence of such contracts, I don't mind the geolibertarian citizen's dividend financing tuition vouchers (or land value tax credits for tuition donations to) for poor families. There is no more need for the government to own and operate schools than to own and operate grocery stores.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ballistic Missile Defense

There are distinct kinds of nuclear threats, such as:
  1. Attempts by nuclear superpowers to win a nuclear war in a first strike
  2. Attempts by nuclear superpowers to immunize themselves from U.S. nuclear coercion by establishing a secure second-strike capability
  3. Attempts by nuclear non-superpowers to immunize themselves from U.S. conventional military coercion by establishing a credible limited first-strike capability
  4. Acts of desperation by actors with either no return address or with good bunkers and no regard for their own citizens
In other words, we have to distinguish between ABM as used in nuclear war-fighting, and ABM as an attempt to undo nuclear arms proliferation. I see the latter as futile. Regarding the former, I'm OK with a porous low-cost ABM effort that offers an alternative to launch-on-warning as a way to restore mutual assured destruction between two adversaries armed to the teeth with heavily-MIRVed ICBMs (10x like the old MX and SS-18). But it is futile to use ABM to 1) prevent China from acquiring effective MAD parity, or 2) neutralize the ability of a North Korea or Iran to threaten anybody with nuclear ballistic missiles. We have to accept that China can incinerate an unacceptable fraction of our West Coast, and that a country like North Korea can (via speedboat if necessary) get a nuke into some city that we don't want to lose.

To get decent coverage for a boost-phase defense would seem to require either a big investment in orbiting assets or almost a cordon around the adversary, who can cheaply increase defense porosity by e.g. spinning his boosters or deploying warheads and penetration aids earlier, perhaps even while the upper atmosphere still degrades directed-energy weapons. Once you get past boost phase, I suspect that the physics and economics are overwhelmingly on the side of offense.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Patent Value Tax

Like all brilliant ideas, this one is infuriatingly obvious in hindsight -- a straightforward application of a hardcore bid-em-off-the-land version of the land value tax. Some quick web searching reveals no prior art; did you make this up just now?

I would consider modifying the bid-em-off-the-property provision in the same way that I would modify it for land (and maybe orbits but not spectrum). People who can't pay their tax can let it accumulate (with interest) as a lien against the eventual sale or transfer of the property, and the lien is capped at the market value of the property. However, market value of patents is harder to assess, and the escalating patent value tax rate would create an incentive to just let the tax accumulate and then abandon the patent when the rate is too high for anyone to want to bid for it. So I might worry that an undercapitalized inventor will not be able to defend a patent if he and a predatory bidder understand its value more than the market does (or else the inventor could get a loan from the understanding market). However again, I'm confident that markets are good enough at valuing patents that this wouldn't be a big problem.

So I don't yet see any problem with this idea. It could be applied to copyrights too, to the extent that one even believes in copyright.

Dan Sullivan wrote at dfc_talk:

Enter the patent value tax. The holder of a patent would be required to self-assess its value, with the stipulation that anyone could purchase the patent at that value. The purchaser would have to honor contracts into which the previous patent holder had entered, to the extent that he could not increase the royalty charge or impose other restrictions.

The contracts themselves would have to be public contracts. That is, if one producer is allowed to apply a patented invention to a particular type of product at a particular royalty rate, then all producers would be allowed to produce the same product at the same royalty rate.

For the first year a patent is granted, the tax rate could well be zero. It would then gradually increase until, at the year of expiration, it consumes nearly the entire amount of the patent's self-assessed value. Naturally, the value of the patent would decrease as the tax rate increases and the expiration date approaches.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Samuelson's Theory of Public Goods

In 1954 Paul Samuelson published his landmark paper The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure, which formalized the concept of public goods (which he called "collective consumption goods") -- i.e. goods that are non-rival and non-excludable. He highlighted the market failure of free-riding when he wrote: "it is in the selfish interest of each person to give false signals, to pretend to have less interest in a given collective consumption activity than he really has". His paper showed that "no decentralized pricing system can serve to determine optimally these levels of collective consumption".

Excludability is the ability of producers to detect and prevent uncompensating consumption of their products. Rivalry is the inability of multiple consumers to consume the same good. A public good is defined as a non-rival non-excludable good, such as national defense. Because public goods are not excludable, they get under-produced. The pricing system cannot force consumers to reveal their demand for purely non-excludable goods, and so cannot force producers to meet that demand.

The evidence for under-production of public goods is so overwhelming that, as anarcholibertarian professor Walter Block admits about the resulting justification for state intervention, "virtually all economists accept this argument. There is not a single mainstream text dealing with the subject which demurs from it." For standard treatments, see e.g.

Underproduction of public goods is inevitable in the presence of 1) the ability to free-ride (i.e. non-excludable goods) and 2) rational self-interest. Samuelson's paper did not fully explicate the modern quadripartite theory of private/public/club/common goods, let alone formalize all the kinds of market failure inherent in that analysis. There was important work related to this both before and after 1954: This nascent thread of work was largely ignored when Rothbard and Rand were setting their (and the future LP's) worldviews in concrete in the 1940s. That's a tragedy, because the mainstream modern libertarian theory of political economy is a far more formidable -- and palatable -- intellectual edifice than the brittle deontological dogma of Rothbardian Austrianism.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Twenty-First Century Political Economy

The only way to remove the corruption from politics is to decrease the amount of the economy that is owned and operated by the government -- agriculture, education, retirement savings, health care, mortgage lending, etc. When any such industrial sector is socialized, the smartest investment in that industry will usually be to invest in lobbying for a (bigger) piece of the government-controlled pie. Campaign finance reform proposals simply dull some the knives for cutting the pie (thus in effect sharpening others, like those wielded by celebrities and the media). As long as the pie is there, people will be doing whatever they can to gouge out big(ger) pieces of it for themselves and those they favor.

It's only lately seeping into the political world, but there actually has been unprecedented theoretical/scientific progress in the discipline of political economy in the latter decades of the 20th century. Thinkers have blathered about politics since before Aristotle without making any fundamental progress, but starting in the late 1950s academic economists have finally laid a sound theoretical foundation for analyzing the proper scope of government. Nobel Prizes have even been awarded for it. The theory is about how the analysis of market failure leads to a taxonomy of four kinds of goods: private, public, common, and club.

There is a joke that some people would do anything for the environment except take a science course. I add: some people would do anything for social progress except take an economics course. The standard liberal prescription is to create a centralized, non-scalable, byzantine mountain of regulations that tries to orchestrate hundreds of millions of people making tens of billions of decisions, and to constantly try to hand-tune the mountain to react to unintended consequences and to decide what groups/technologies/industries/etc. will be winners or losers. This will always be inferior to a decentralized, dynamic, scalable market-based approach that uses the pricing system to aggregate information and communicate incentives. The role of the government should just be to deter and punish force and fraud, and to correct market failure.

It's an open question whether democracy can work after majorities discover they can vote themselves money taken from other people. The theory of government failure is called Public Choice Theory, and while it too was only created in the last half-century, it has not yet given us any firm guidance on how to design institutions to prevent government failure. The findings so far from Public Choice Theory are very depressing. They demonstrate that voters have systematic incentives to deceive/delude themselves and to let politicians assist in the process. The best answer we have so far is to diffuse and decentralize government power as much as practical, so that jurisdictions compete with each other and people can vote with their feet if necessary.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Bailout Hair Of The Moral Hazard Dog That Bit You

[This is the director's cut of today's joint press release from 18 California Libertarian candidates for Congress.]

The current mortgage crisis is the direct and predictable result of the government protecting borrowers and lenders from their own unwise choices. Only one party in America — the Libertarian Party — is willing to say who caused this crisis and to consistently follow the principle of holding such people responsible for their own choices.

This all happened before in the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s, when the government increased the level of deposits it insures from $40K to $100K, and the "Keating 5" senators (including John McCain) were interfering in the fraud investigation of an insolvent S&L whose chairman later ended up in jail for five years. When the resulting real estate bubble burst, the government used $160B of taxpayer money to bail out the borrowers and lenders who had made bad decisions.

When government socializes losses, the resulting incentive for excess risk-taking is called "moral hazard". After the precedent of the 1989 bailout of the S&L industry, the government fed a new real estate bubble with several more kinds of moral hazard. There had always been an implicit government guarantee behind the alleged "independence" of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, allowing them to sell mortgage-backed securities at prices beyond their underlying risk. In 1992, Congress passed a law requiring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to devote part of their lending to support affordable housing. In 1994, Congress gave advocacy groups the power to interfere with mergers among lenders who the groups think aren't lending enough to low-income borrowers. In 1995, the Clinton Administration created rules under the Community Reinvestment Act to further encourage such lending, including letting advocacy groups market such loans and then bill lenders for any marketing costs. In 1999, Fannie Mae created yet another program to encourage banks to extend home mortgages to individuals whose credit was generally not good enough to qualify for conventional loans. The New York Times quoted an economist's reaction: "This is another thrift industry growing up around us. If they fail, the government will have to step up and bail them out the way it stepped up and bailed out the thrift industry." The tech bubble burst in 2001 and the Federal Reserve responded with even easier credit than it had been providing before. Artificially low interest rates fed the bubble in real estate prices, and encouraged the perception that the Fed would protect such asset prices with its interest rate policies. However, the Fed could only delay the day of reckoning, and in so doing made it worse.

Now the Republicans and Democrats have intervened again in the credit markets, by using $700B of taxpayer money to bail out Wall Street firms holding non-performing mortgages. This is a recipe for continuing the cycle of bailouts. If the S&L bailout cost $160B 20 years ago, and the current bailout costs $700B, then what will the next bailout cost?

The Libertarian Party says it's time to stop the insanity. Economic expansion is currently sluggish, but America is nowhere near the 45% contraction and 24% unemployment of the Great Depression. Talk of a general economic "crisis" is fear-mongering designed to justify more looting from current and future American taxpayers. If, as bailout advocates claim, there is potential for the government to profit from buying non-performing mortgages, then let private investors (including bailout advocates!) pursue these opportunities with their own money instead of with your tax dollars.

We already have a mechanism to sort out the assets and liabilities of a troubled company — it's called bankruptcy. Bankruptcy doesn't mean that assets get torched or employees get blacklisted from all future employment. Bankruptcy just means that assets and employees are taken away from those who failed to manage them wisely, and made available for more productive employment.

We already have a mechanism to punish those who deceived borrowers or lenders — it's called prosecution for fraud. The Libertarian Party's presidential nominee Bob Barr, a former federal prosecutor, has called for vigorous prosecution of anybody who practiced deceptive lending or who deliberately overvalued mortgage-backed securities. He says we need to clean up the marketplace, not cover up financial crimes with a deluge of taxpayer money.

Most importantly, we already have a mechanism to punish the politicians who worked so hard to help create this mess — it’s called an election. This November, don’t bail out the incumbents who are using your tax dollars to bail out their irresponsible friends on Wall Street. Instead, vote for the only party in America that believes people should be free to make their own choices in their personal and economic lives — and should bear the responsibility for those choices. Vote Libertarian, and send the message that Washington should be in nobody’s pocket.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Vote Smart Cheat Sheet

Here are the answers I'm submitting today to the Project Vote Smart "Political Courage" test.

Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for other people's abortions, nor should any government or individual force a woman to have an abortion. Most Americans
believe that a fetus starts deserving legal protection sometime after the first trimester but before birth. I support the right to terminate one's pregnancy during the first trimester. I do not oppose requirements that ending a pregnancy in the third trimester must leave a healthy fetus alive if that is feasible.

Budget Priorities
The Tenth Amendment restricts Congress to its Article I Section 8 powers: providing national defense and regulating federal land, immigration, citizenship, bankruptcy, currency, weights and measures, patents, copyrights, and commerce that crosses state or national borders. Such "commerce" includes only responsibilities -- pollution, transportation, flood control, infectious diseases -- whose indivisible scope clearly goes beyond the borders of a single state. Because centralization exaggerates influence by special interests, community services should be provided at the most local and voluntary way possible, so that citizens can have maximum influence on, and maximum choice among, the bundles of services that communities provide.

Defense Spending
The U.S. military budget represents half of the world's military spending -- far more than needed for ensuring our national defense. Major savings can be had by ending our efforts at nation-building in places like Iraq, ending U.S. forward ground defense of allies in Europe and Korea, reducing the size of our strategic nuclear arsenal and blue-water navy, scaling back our weapons modernization programs, and slashing missile defense efforts down to only basic research.

Income Taxes
All persons are entitled to keep the fruits of their labor, and so the Libertarian Party calls for the repeal of the income tax. The federal tax code in 2004 was 3,457 pages (plus 13,458 pages of IRS regulations), compared to 94 pages in 1928. The income tax (and 16th Amendment) should be repealed, and federal financing should come from just 1) taxes on pollution (or pollution-based commerce) that crosses state borders, 2) charges for use of interstate transportation infrastructure, and 3) per-capita taxes levied against state governments.

Other Taxes
There should be no taxation of income (wages, interest, dividends, profits, gifts, and inheritance), production (including value added), transactions (e.g. the sale, import, or export of goods and services), or wealth (e.g. real estate improvements, capital, or other assets). I favor a "green tax shift" to instead tax 1) pollution, 2) consumption of natural resources, 3) congestion of community resources (streets, pipes, wires), and 4) that component of land value deriving from any government services not yet privatized. Economists agree that such taxes impose the least drag (the technical term is "deadweight loss") on the economy.

Tax Preferences
Any tax or tax preference should only be for correcting what economics textbooks call "market failures". The "free rider" problem justifies government financing of national defense and a universal justice system. The "tragedy of the commons" justifies government taxes on pollution or consumption of natural resources. The problem of "natural monopoly" (high fixed costs and vanishing marginal costs) justifies community provision of networks of streets, pipes, and wires. The "holdout" problem justifies eminent domain only if such a network requires a right-of-way. "Adverse selection" justifies incentives for health insurance consumers to join broad risk pools.

Other Principles of Government Finance
Government should tax only land value (reflecting the expense of government services provided in the community) and the pollution, consumption, or congestion of community resources. Revenue to finance services enjoyed in a community should flow up from the landholders and sub-communities benefiting from the service, not down from a central bureaucracy with the dangerous power to tax everyone and then shift revenues and tax preferences among communities or constituencies.

Political Reform
Political parties should be allowed to establish their own rules for nomination procedures, primaries and conventions. Libertarians call for an end to any tax-financed subsidies to candidates or parties and the repeal of all laws which restrict political speech or the voluntary financing of election campaigns. We oppose laws that effectively exclude alternative candidates and parties, deny ballot access, gerrymander districts, or deny the voters their right to consider all legitimate alternatives. The only campaign finance law should be to outlaw fraudulent reporting of campaign financing, thus allowing voters to vote against candidates with corrupt or anonymous financing.

Peaceful honest adults have the right and responsibility to control their own bodies, actions, property, and use of the commons, so long as they use neither force nor fraud to interfere with the same rights of others. Criminal laws should be limited to violation of the rights of others through force or fraud, or deliberate actions that place others involuntarily at significant risk of harm. Individuals retain the right to voluntarily assume risk of harm to themselves. Libertarians support restitution of the victim to the fullest degree possible at the expense of the criminal or the negligent wrongdoer.

Government owning schools to improve our children's education is like government owning supermarkets to improve our children's nutrition. Education is best provided by the free market, achieving greater quality and efficiency with more diversity of choice. Schools should be managed locally to achieve greater accountability and parental involvement. Recognizing that the education of children is inextricably linked to moral values, Libertarians would return authority to parents to determine the education of their children, without interference from government. In particular, parents should have control of and responsibility for all funds expended for their children's education.

Libertarians support repeal of all laws which impede the ability of any person to find employment. We oppose government-fostered forced retirement. We support the right of free persons to associate or not associate in labor unions, and an employer should have the right to recognize or refuse to recognize a union. We oppose government interference in bargaining, such as compulsory arbitration or imposing an obligation to bargain. Government should not deny or abridge any individual's rights based on sex, wealth, race, color, creed, age, national origin, personal habits, political preference or sexual orientation.

Damage to the environment only happens where there is no definition and enforcement of individual rights in resources like land, water, air, wildlife, carbon sinks, and electromagnetic spectrum. Markets are the best mechanism for protecting the environment, because they can factor the consequences of pollution into the cost calculations of each potential polluter, and encourage the owners of a resource to preserve it. Markets also allow consumers to reward and punish producers for their impact on the environment. Green pricing (i.e. pollution taxes) would stimulate the technological innovations and behavioral changes required to protect our environment and ecosystems.

If guns cause murder, do pencils cause misspellings? Every person has the right to defend himself against aggression, and to aid others or seek their aid for such defense, so long as they use no greater force than necessary to prevent or minimize the harm caused by the aggression. Libertarians affirm the right to keep and bear arms, and oppose the prosecution of individuals for exercising their rights of self-defense. Individuals have the right to keep and bear any weapon except those so clearly suited for indiscriminate killing that their mere possession puts the surrounding community at risk.

America has too much health insurance. Huge tax subsidies for corporate health insurance hide costs from the insured, discriminate against those not working for large employers, and make insurance portability a regulatory nightmare. Bloated defined-benefit insurance programs (Medicare and Medicaid) offer an antiquated mix of procedures and the wrong balance between routine care and catastrophic coverage. The government over-regulates private health insurance, stopping insurers and beneficiaries from agreeing on lower-cost (e.g. out-of-state) alternatives. The only role of government in healthcare should be to provide tax incentives for insurance consumers to join broad risk pools independent of their employment.

Migration across borders should be without constraints, provided that migrants do not trespass and are sponsored by someone (perhaps themselves) who can afford to assume the same responsibility for their resource impact and congestion impact and subsistence needs as parents do for native children. Libertarians support control over the entry into our country of foreign nationals who pose a threat to security, health or property.

International Aid
America's unilateral "security" aid has tended to side with foreign governments against their own people and to hurt our national security over the long run. Any international aid should be for people, not governments. Aid from the American government should be mostly confined to disasters and short-term humanitarian crises to which private and international relief are not responding quickly enough.

We long ago achieved our two most important war aims: 1) elimination of any WMD capability or international terrorist infrastructure, and 2) deposing Saddam's regime in favor of a federal democratic constitutional framework designed to protect minorities and fundamental human rights. We would have liked to also successfully transition security responsibility to the new Iraqi government, but Iraq's thirst for sectarian conflict has effectively exhausted the reconstruction and stabilization efforts we owed the Iraqis for having liberated them. We should accept our partial victory and let the Iraqi people take responsibility for their own future.

International Policy
American foreign policy should seek an America at peace with the world and its defense against attack from abroad. Libertarians would end the current U.S. government policy of foreign intervention, including military and economic aid to foreign governments. We recognize the right of all people to resist tyranny and defend themselves and their rights, including their right of secession. We condemn the use of force, and especially the use of terrorism, against the innocent, regardless of whether such acts are committed by governments or by political or revolutionary groups.

International Trade
America should not try to "protect" Americans from foreign competition, or to protect foreign workers from their voluntary choices. Commerce across borders should be without constraints, except for "green pricing" of the measurable costs demonstrably and physically (not psychologically or sociologically) imposed across those borders (e.g. verifiable anthropogenic global warming) by the traded products. Trade is beneficial even for a nation that is not a productivity leader in _any_ industry. Comparative advantage derives from being better at something than you are at other things, not from being better at something than everyone else is.

National Security
The defense of the country requires that we have adequate intelligence to detect and to counter threats to our territory. This requirement must not take priority over maintaining the civil liberties of our citizens. I support pre-emptive military action against governments that pose demonstrable imminent threats to United States territory or to U.S. citizens prudently traveling abroad.

Social Issues
Government should not deny or abridge any individual's rights based on sex, wealth, race, color, creed, age, national origin, personal habits, political preference or sexual orientation. Sexual orientation, preference, gender, or gender identity should have no discriminatory impact on the rights of individuals by government, such as in current marriage, child custody, adoption, immigration, or military service laws. Consenting adults should be free to choose their own sexual practices and personal relationships. Adults have the right to expose themselves (but not others) to any risk to their own health, finances, safety, or life.

Social Security
Any effort to socialize the retirement savings industry is clearly unconstitutional. Social Security is an insidious pyramid scheme causing monumental intergenerational theft. The first SS recipient, Ida May Fuller, paid in a total of $44 and received lifetime benefits of $20,934. There were 6 workers for every retiree in 1955, but now there are only 3 and soon only 2. Everyone should be cashed out of SS by giving them bonds equalling their total lifetime contributions (and employer match) plus interest and inflation less benefits already received. Indigent overdrawn retirees should be treated similarly to disabled welfare recipients.

Welfare and Poverty
Poverty in America is exacerbated by government: socialized schools deliver inadequate education, minimum wage laws remove the bottom rungs of the employment ladder, and welfare rules encourage dependency. The Constitution gives the federal government no authority to provide benefits to people merely because they are poor. There is no state in the union that cannot afford to create a income safety net if its voters want one. Competition among state welfare programs would ensure that none of them become too extravagant.

My top priority would be divesting the federal government of all programs and functions not authorized by the Article I Section 8 powers of Congress. My second priority would be a Green Tax Shift that ended all taxes on income/production/sales/gifts and taxed only A) land value and B) the pollution, consumption, or congestion of the community resources.

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.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Environmental Kuznets Curves and Pigovian Taxes

There's just no question in the economic literature whether environmnental quality is what is called a "normal good" -- i.e., one that is demanded more as incomes grow. See e.g. Environmental Quality Is A Normal Good (2003) by a couple of Canadian economists. In fact, if you search on the phrase "environmental quality is a normal good", you find lots of papers by economists asserting this. The underlying phenomenon is called the Environmental Kuznets Curve, which is described in Wikipedia thus:
Another situation where Kuznets type curves appear is the environment. It is claimed that many environmental health indicators, such as water and air pollution, show the inverted U-shape: in the beginning of economic development, little weight is given to environmental concerns, raising pollution along with industrialization. After a threshold, when basic physical needs are met, interest in a clean environment rises, reversing the trend. Now society has the funds, as well as willingness to spend to reduce pollution. This relation holds most clearly true for a many pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, lead, DDT, chlorofluorocarbons, sewage, and many other chemicals previously released directly into the air or bodies of water.
PERC (a leading market-oriented environmental think tank) writes in The Environmental Kuznets Curve: A Primer:

Since 1991, when economists first reported a systematic relationship between income changes and environmental quality, this relationship, known as the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), has become standard fare in technical conversations about environmental policy (Grossman and Krueger 1991). When first unveiled, EKCs revealed a surprising outcome: Some important indicators of environmental quality such as the levels of sulfur dioxide and particulates in the air actually improved as incomes and levels of consumption went up.

Prior to the advent of EKCs, many well-informed people believed that richer economies damaged and even destroyed their natural resource endowments at a faster pace than poorer ones. They thought that environmental quality could only be achieved by escaping the clutches of industrialization and the desire for higher incomes. The EKC's paradoxical relationship cast doubt on this assumption.

We now know far more about the linkages between an economy and its environment than we did before 1991. This primer shares this knowledge. [...]

However, income growth without institutional reform is not likely to be enough. Improvement of the environment with income growth is not automatic but depends on policies and institutions. GDP growth creates the conditions for environmental improvement by raising the demand for improved environmental quality and makes the resources available for supplying it. Whether environmental quality improvements materialize or not, when, and how, depend critically on government policies, social institutions, and the completeness and functioning of markets.

Better policies, such as the removal of distorting subsidies, the introduction of more secure property rights over resources, and the imposition of pollution taxes to connect actions taken to prices paid will flatten the underlying EKC and perhaps achieve an earlier turning point. The effects of market-based policies on environmental quality are expected to be unambiguously positive.

All the mechanisms on Guy's list (posted on the private PlatCom forum) are just ways that higher-income societies seek to satisfy that demand for a cleaner environment. The only item on the list that argues against the validity of the basic point is the claim that higher-income societies can in effect export their pollution. This is called the Pollution Haven Hypothesis, and is discussed on pp. 14-17 of the full PDF of the PERC primer. The empirical data suggests that any such haven effect is swamped by the EKC effect of the rising income in the "haven" country.
Note that the EKC effect needs smart policy like pollution taxes in order to work. Pollution taxes (aka Pigovian taxes) are almost universally regarded as a no-brainer in the literature of market-oriented environmentalism, and there is even a "Pigou Club" of famous economists who are petitioning for this policy. Such anti-aggression taxes are supported by several of us on PlatCom, but the LP's radical thought police make such policies verboten in the LP Platform. So what we have here is 1) a top-of-mind voter issue, combined with 2) a consensus market-oriented solution for the issue that is accepted by economists of all ideologies, and that 3) is not embraced by any of the LP's competing parties. So is the LP jumping all over this policy position? Of course not! What do you think we are? A party that advocates the leading market-based solutions? Nope.
I'll close by applauding Rob Power's recent comments about Mary Ruwart on the Outright forum:
her only arguments on pollution are regarding the point source type, e.g., a factory dumping mercury into the river, to which her answer is that the people downstream sue the factory into oblivion. This well-reasoned argument was fine for 30 years ago when urban rivers were flammable, but it simply doesn't work for modern non-point-source pollution that every living thing contributes to. This has been a concern of mine for a long time. She has a few topics on which she offers nothing more than hand-waving arguments, which only works in a room full of friendly libertarians -- it easily gets torn apart by non-libertarians.
I'd like to ask people who dismiss Platform reformers as "Republican lite": can one advocate taxing environmental aggression and still be considered a real libertarian?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Re: Palo Alto School Bond Debate

Your questions below are good ones.  For 1-3, the short answer is in this language I've proposed to the LPUS Platform Committee as an Education plank:
Parents, not government, should have the responsibility and the authority to decide what moral values their children develop through education. Government should not dictate to schools, teachers, or parents how or what children should be taught. Consumer choice, not government, should decide which schools and teachers are succeeding or failing, and thus which schools and teachers should get more resources or less. Parents should be free to choose who educates their children, and any funds for a child's education should follow the child to the chosen school or teacher. We advocate the government returning both control of and responsibility for education funding to parents. The government should no more own and operate schools than it should own and operate grocery stores.
The longer answer is in this 2006 blog posting.
For question 4, the answer is:  I'm a parent who is doing what he can to make sure his three little girls enjoy both a better education and more freedom than what the current nanny state provides.  I'm doing what I can both to reform our local schools and to reform the national Libertarian Party.  I might not accomplish much toward either goal, but I'm guaranteed to accomplish neither if I don't try, and my conscience doesn't really allow me any other choice.

-----Original Message-----


Not to put you on the spot, but, out of curiousity:

How will you rebut:

1) It's for the children, and
2) We need this investment in our schools, and
3) Only the mean-spirited would oppose supporting children and maintaining schools, and
4) You, sir, are a libertarian, which we all know is little short of being an anarchist.  Who are you to even get involved in this?

Home Security and Automation

I'm taking another look at home security/automation, and wondering what you would recommend.
For security, almost any decent multi-zone system with callout to a monitoring service (like SmartHome's $9/mo service) would satisfy Melisse.  I've got some tougher requirements though, as I want:
  • >20 zones with per-zone speech announcements e.g. "motion in basement", "motion at north gate"
  • Volume-adjustable speakers in multiple rooms to play the announcements
  • Ability to separately set any zone to 1) silent, 2) event announcement, 3) alarm
  • Multiple wall/bedside keypads to do the above setting comes close to handling the above, except for playing announcements in multiple rooms.  A gold-plated solution would be to include whole-property audio as part of the requirements, but it would add thousands of dollars to hardwire speakers into the required rooms (LR, 2 bedrooms, basement), especially if you add more bedrooms and intercom capability (because it would be silly to wire half the bedrooms with speakers, and none with microphones).  And once we're running new conduits, we'd want to pull ethernet and maybe coax to many of them too.
But I already have a decent whole-property audio hack: my FM pirate radio station.  I could allocate one of my $100 FM stations to broadcast the security announcements throughout the property, which would even tell us when someone's at the door while we're out playing in the back yard.
And for an intercom system, I think the best answer is to wait until something like becomes available as a home system.  Uniden's phones are almost there, except they can only do a voice announcement to all handsets from the base, and not from an arbitrary handset.
We'll also be wanting to upgrade our exterior security lighting, but I don't have a hard requirement that the security lighting has to be integrated with the security system.   Similarly, I want to change about half of our interior light switches to have a motion-sensing option, but I don't require scripting or central control of them.  It sounds like Insteon would be the best technology for such integration, but I worry that our 1963-vintage wiring would just lead to flakiness that would frustrate Melisse.
Speaking of Insteon, an alternative approach to a consumer security console would be to use a software package like Girder or ECS on a PC.  That would be cheaper, more flexible, more fun for me to tweak, and more future-proof, but it probably wouldn't be as Melisse-friendly in terms of easy-to-use keypads and keychain fobs.
As much as I hate looking at all the old sensors and four consoles from our 20-year-old dead unsalvageable inherited security system, I can't justify giving $4000 to an installer guy to replace it with one that will end up the same way in a decade or two.  I think wireless is the way to go in a house this old and with such inadequate crawl spaces.
Any advice?