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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Danger, Danger, Ad Hominem!

I dislike ad hominems. I think I have a bias toward believing that there is such a thing as "truth," or that things are objectively knowable. I admit that our own position--defined by our class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.--conditions how we see things, that it may be impossible to escape fully from this conditioned perception, and that language is not merely or simply a reflection of the way things are (the signifiers and signifieds never completely correspond, and there are connotations intermixed galore that befuddle any thing that can be called a "meaning"). But I do think what passes for logic and objectivity is the best we have for discussion beyond merely asserting what amounts to "I'm right; you're wrong" slogans. Criticizing others for their motivations or their (usually only alleged) hypocrisy is a step in the sloganeering direction.

All this is a prelude to saying that I don't like ad hominems, but I am about to indulge in one anyway. Specifically, I am referring to the tone adopted by some critics of the health insurance reform when they argue that it is unconstitutional. Primarily they focus on the mandate, but there are other elements of the reform that might be unconstitutional as well.

The "some critics" I refer to are those at the Volokh Conspiracy--primarily Messrs. Adler, Barnett, and Somin--who have advanced numerous and quite compelling arguments against the law's constitutionality, primarily focusing on the mandate. When I say compelling, I mean their arguments make sense and might be right, whether one is talking about "constitutionality" in the pragmatic sense (will the Supreme Court uphold the law?) or in the meta-sense (does the law conform to an honest and consist reading of the constitution, whatever such a reading may be?). I am not fully convinced by their arguments (for example, the mandate is hard to reconcile with any provision of the constitution, but it seems to me to be more a regulation of commerce than the school-zone-gun-ban struck down in Lopez v. U.S.; and the question, for me, focuses on whether the mandate is a "proper" regulation, not whether it is a regulation per se, which I think is the point that Mr. Kerr makes in his posts on that cite, which are pretty much the only posts there that argue that the mandate is constitutional, at least in the pragmatic sense).

I find it hard to argue against the anti-health insurance reform arguments: I am not a legal scholar; I find it hard to settle on one (or even several loosely compatible) mode(s) of constitutional interpretation; and by any measure, their arguments make a certain amount of sense to me. To take their arguments at face value--and there is really not much other way to take them--they are simply just intellectual arguments about an important issue and are part of the larger debate of ideas that represents the best of what the internet promises to provide.

But (and now, the ad hominem) they seem to take so much joy in the prospect that the law might be struck down. For all I know, at least some of them are personally interested in the ban against pre-existing condition discrimination or against lifetime caps on coverage (two provisions of the law that might very well be struck down, too, if the mandate is declared unconstitutional). But not knowing them, all I can see--or that I allow myself to see--is that they're professors, most of whom have tenure, at prestigious universities where they presumably have (1) good or at least serviceable health insurance and (2) a good enough salary to make up for any deficiencies in their health insurance coverage. Their arguments seem to be an intellectual exercise of the same sort that 17th-century French scholars might engage in when they discuss the tension between amour-devoir and amour-passion. But these Volokh scholars are cited (sometimes) in judicial opinions, and some of them volunteer their energies to write amicus curiae briefs to help overturn the law.

I would not like to make it a requirement for debate on the constitutionality of legislation (because at base, it's irrelevant to the exact constitutional issues at play), but I would greatly appreciate it if these authors wrote with more of a spirit of humility, with a realization that this law, for all its faults (and not all the faults are constitutional, some of the faults may even lead to people having worse health care and for all I know the very people it's designed to help might be negatively affected), is an attempt to provide people with that which they (the authors) already enjoy almost as a matter of course. They might be right that the law is unconstitutional, and it might even be harmful to boot. And maybe it is indeed their solemn duty as "truth-seekers" to do what they can to speed the law to its demise, but sometimes it's just hard to seem them enjoy it so much.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that one measure of whether you are guilty of pride is the degree to which pride among others bothers you. In that sense, I am guilty of the same lack of humility I am accusing those Volokh authors of, and since I am engaging in ad hominems, I might as well acknowledge the log in my own eye even if I do nothing to take it out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Words I prefer people not use

I'd like to preface this list with a few clarifications and disclaimers:
  1. I am not claiming a false moral equivalence. For example, "WASP" is on my list, but I am not saying that it "is just as bad as the N-word." It's not; the N-word is much, much worse.
  2. I realize and acknowledge that the words on this list reflect my own class, gender, race, sexuality, etc., and that for the most part they reflect that I am not, in most senses of the term, "marginalized" whereas other words (e.g., the N-word) are most commonly directed at other marginalized people and function as a way to further marginalize others. In most of the senses of the word, I am not marginalized, and I do not claim to be. I am, in fact, quite privileged.
  3. As a corollary to number 2, I realize that most or all of these words are sometimes used by marginalized people as a defense mechanism or as a way to strike back at an oppressor class--a strategy/tactic that Robin D. G. Kelley refers to as "infrapolitics." I personally have doubts about the utility and advisability of such "infrapolitics," but I also acknowledge the issue is much more complicated than "I don't like these words and people shouldn't use them," even though I don't like these words and would prefer that people not use them.
  4. I am not arguing for censorship (other than self-censorship). I am not even arguing that companies or employers ought to enforce rules against using these words, although I would posit in the abstract that in some employment situations it might be wise for management to encourage a degree of mutual respect, and that might entail forbidding the use of such words (even so, I suspect that simply devising an "index of prohibited words" is not, by itself, a wise management tactic). I am not arguing for political correctness; if anything, I am arguing for politic correctness: we all have to live on this earth with other people, and I am letting others know that certain words or terms they may not have thought of might function as a way to impede civility and understanding than as a way to foster it.
  5. I have in the past, and maybe even now, sometimes used the words on this list unironically. I say this for the sake of disclosure, not to defend my use of the words or even to claim that I don't sometimes use these words.
  6. There are other words that deserve to be on the list, but that I am omitting. Some of them are not necessarily widely accepted as offensive or derogatory (e.g., the word "gay" as a pejorative, a word that I have sometimes used myself in that way, even though I ought to know better). Others are so offensive (like the c-word or the n-word), that I would hope that anyone would have them on their list. I am including only the words that affect me personally.
  7. (I don't like the number 6, so I wanted to end with "7")

Here's the list of words:
  • Breeder: I realize that this word comes as a counterpart to "queer" or the "fag" and as with a lot of words, is descriptively accurate (some people "breed" and some don't). Still, maybe there's a better way to say "straight person" or "person who decides not to have children." Also, this term assumes that all straight people want to "breed," although I have encountered at least one straight person who used it to describe herself.
  • The d-word: my sexual anatomy doesn't define me to any greater or lesser degree than it defines any one else (with all necessary qualifications about our "phallocentric" society, etc., etc., which, even if true, assume a lot that is contestable.)
  • (The faux "southern" accented word: e.g., "guvmint," "Jebus," "librul," "terruh"): these words are used to accuse other people (without actually accusing them, so it's hard even to answer the accusation) of being ignorant or uneducated simply because they are religious or challenge certain prevalent assumptions (most of which I share) about the power of the state or the threat that terrorism might pose. These terms also smear a large portion of the U.S. population by implication, drawing on the stereotype that southerners are uneducated and stupid while also assuming that all southerners speak with one voice on matters of state power, religion, and the "war on terror."
  • Sausage Fest: see "d-word." I encountered this word in grad school, used (mostly but not exclusively) by my lesbian friends [see update below], and its very hard to tell them how offensive I find it.
  • WASP: Not all "White Anglo-Saxon Protestants" are part of the power elite, and even if they were, it's not right to a priori assume that they are all like some vicious insect that "stings" the weak and powerless.
  • White boy / white girl: the use of this term, as a term, is probably the most defensible on the list, because it functions as a way to underscore that the racially "unmarked" person--i.e., the white person--does indeed belong to a "race" (socially constructed or otherwise...I won't enter into the Walter Benn Michaels debate now). Still, it would be nice for people (including white people, like me, and especially me, as I tend to think in these categories) to at least think twice before identifying people first, primarily, and only by their race. On a more personal note I can recall from middle school and high school non-white people who used it on me as a bullying word.
Again, I want to stress my qualifications and disclaimers at the front of this post.

UPDATE 12-28-10: The spirit of this post is to argue for restoring civility. By stating, above, that "my lesbian friends" tend to use a certain term, I have just resorted to the sort of labeling that most of the rest of this post decries. Therefore, I offer my apologies. I am leaving my original phrasing above because I believe that once I post something, I should take responsibility for having posted it. I haven't always followed that policy on this blog, but I have been trying to do so of late.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Are markets in any meaningful way "natural"?

It is a common meme of our culture (and by meme I mean "something that I claim to be 'in the air,' but I abjure any responsibility for proving that people actually say or believe it") is that "markets" and "market mechanisms" are "natural" and that attempts to interfere with them by, say, government regulation, are "artificial" constraints on the natural. It's sort of a zen thing: the natural laws of, say, supply and demand are immutable, and regulations don't change those laws, they just frustrate and channel their operation in what are, in the long term, harmful ways. I simplify, of course: I suspect that I don't really understand the "laws supply and demand" and that at any rate they by themselves do not sufficiently explain what a market is.

What is a market? Wikipedia defines "market" (at least today it does) as " any one of a variety of systems, institutions, procedures, social relations and infrastructures whereby businesses sell their goods, services and labor to people in exchange for money. Goods and services are sold using a legal tender such as fiat money. This activity forms part of the economy. It is an arrangement that allows buyers and sellers to exchange items." I'll work with this definition not necessarily because it is the right one, but because I'm too lazy to come up with my own or to research all the other possible meanings.

Those who speak of the market and "market mechanisms" as natural are, I believe, speaking metaphorically. The most literal construction to put on the difference between "natural" and "artificial" demonstrates that, literally speaking, markets are not natural at all. According to my Google master (which is the ultimate owner of this blogspot account and the Prime Mover behind the search engine I use, praise be its name), lists, among several definitions of artificial:
  • contrived by art rather than nature; "artificial flowers"; "artificial flavoring"; "an artificial diamond"; "artificial fibers"; "artificial sweeteners"
  • artificially - not according to nature; not by natural means;
  • Man-made; of artifice; False, misleading; Unnatural
It is the notion of "(hu)man-made" that I want to emphasize here. (I do not, however, want to emphasize "falsity," as is implied in the last definition I cited.) In the most literal reckoning, markets, because they involve, by Wikipedified definition, people, are "artificial." Without people, there would be no markets. (Probably. I don't know if people make the argument that non-people, say, dogs, cats, paramecia, or venus flytraps engage in behavior that can be properly labeled "market"-oriented behavior. I'll also concede, without knowing or even caring, that there is probably some species of chimpanzee somewhere whose members participate in some "market-like" behavior.)

Rather than claiming that markets are literally natural, the "market naturalizers," I think, are making a different claim. One variant of this claim is that people, left to their own devices, engage in market-like behavior and that a political economy that lessens obstacles to this market-like behavior encourages people, in effect, to do what they are "naturally" inclined to do. Conversely, a political economy that, through regulation, increases the obstacles to this market-like behavior discourages people, in effect, from doing what they are "naturally" inclined to do.

This claim and its converse have a corresponding normative claim that markets are good, first on the the ground that what is "natural" is good, but second on the much more tangible ground that markets lead to greater material and even non-material happiness: market competition leads to more "choice" and more goods and services (material) and allows each to develop his or her comparative advantage (material and non-material inasmuch as pursuing one's true calling is a "comparative advantage" and leads to personal happiness). The first ground is facially compelling but empirically unprovable: it's just assumed, and most people presumably share the assumption. The second ground is subject to quantifiable proof, and even though "happiness" is always tricky to pin down or to quantify, access to the goods one wants and to the ability to pursue what one does best can be easily measured.

One question that comes to mind, for me at least, is who or what enforces fairness in the market? If I cheat somebody on a sales transaction, how can someone get redress? I suppose that one would not patronize my business or services if I were known to be a cheater (and, for the sake of simplicity, I am speaking of a market as a center of distribution of goods and services and not the more hoary (because I don't understand it) notion of "public choice" theory that probably extends market behavior to other types of action....in other words, I'm sticking toward my working definition cited above). Would the person I cheated get their money back? How? It seems that there needs to be some arbiter that will prevent the person I cheated from resorting to challenging me to a duel, or paying protection to a bunch of thugs who will make sure I pay back that which I stole (but then we get into a feudalism thing, and that's usually not very pretty).

The type of example I just mentioned is not really all that damning. The market naturalizers recognize, usually, that there needs be some enforcement mechanism for a market to operate smoothly; they also mention the phenomenon of "market failures," in which goods and services are not really allocated all that well (the tragedy of the commons, and all that). In answer to my assertion that "there needs be some arbiter," a market naturalizer might claim that a distinction ought to be made here between "government" and "governance," and it's a distinction I don't understand fully. But to the extent that I do understand it, it merely begs the question (in the sense of "raises the question" and not in the sense of "assuming that which is to be proven") of what "government" is, or what the "state" is, or what is an "artificial regulation" and what is a "regulation in accord with the natural laws of the market."

I've written a lot here, and I don't have an answer to my own question, at least not an answer that would convince anyone not already predisposed to agree with me. Here's my tentative answer: markets, whether natural or not, are fragile things and need to be propped up by something and the something that props them up is part of what defines the state. Two objections to the preceding sentence: the first clause (about inherent fragility) is merely the confession of a bias that is not particularly provable; the second clause (about defining the state) merely begs the question (in the sense of "assuming that which is to be proven" and not in the sense of "raises the question"). But that is the starting assumption I am working with.

Why bother stating this assumption? I'm certainly not the first at questioning the naturalness of the market, nor is my questioning of it necessarily the most eloquent or even comprehensible. But I think, or at least hope, that looking at markets as fragile entities "demystifies" (a term I hate, because it would make me look like a Marxist who spends all his time whining about commodity fetishisms and the "alienation of labor from the product of labor") the notion that "darn it, markets just need to be free" and any governmental intrusion into the economy is a hindrance of that freedom.

There are, of course, wiser and less wise governmental intrusions into the economy, and some intrusions create perverse incentives that make things worse. The Health Insurance Reform, for example (which I support by the way), will, even if it works like it's supposed to and isn't declared unconstitutional, create certain challenges that can't be escaped from just by governmental fiat: will there be enough doctors to service the newly insured at the lower remunerations that will likely result from government controls on the prices of premiums? how much will the prices of premiums be lowered? how will smaller businesses bear the burden of having to provide insurance? how will people out of work find jobs now that it would be more expensive for even larger businesses to hire new employees? But the notion that the reform merely impinges on something "natural" would not be a good argument by itself to lodge against the reform. Any such argument needs to be supplemented by what would be better, by an assertion of a different kind of structuring of the health insurance and health care markets, and that assertion would either be the status quo (which no one, to my observation, claims to like) or something different, based on, say, tort reform or tax credits or decoupling (through new employment taxes) employment from access to health insurance.

One of the tags for this post is "libertarianism." By so tagging this post, I do not mean to imply that libertarians have no valid points when it comes to regulating or deregulating the economy, and I do not mean to build a man o' straw--I know their critiques of regulation are more sophisticated--but I do notice that they sometimes indulge in the "markets are natural" rhetoric, and it is this indulgence I am objecting to.