Monday, July 26, 2010

Nom de plume, nom de moi: me revoici!

This post is just to announce I have changed my display name, which used to be "theolderepublicke" to my current pseudonym, "Pierre Corneille."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Follow up on "Where is the state?"

In previous post (click here to see, or simply scroll down), I suggested, to the extent that I wrote anything coherent at all, that the existence of voluntary organizations that exercise coercion in a matter that is more or less "legitimate" and with only limited connection to the state, pose a challenge to libertarianism. I should elaborate on what I meant.

First, I realize that non-state actors can be coercive and violent and the fact that there are such non-state actors does not make the state any less dangerous, although it might provide one argument for why we need a state, a point which I suspect libertarians recognize.

Second, I do not wish to deny the extent to which the state is implicated in coercive actions by putatively voluntary associations. The various manifestations of the Ku Klux Klan are an obvious example of violence being carried out supposedly independently of the state but existing largely because the state suffers them to exist. (And in some cases, I suspect, local state actors--members of the local police or sheriff's department, for instance--might have participated, further blurring the distinction between state and non-state actors.) The example I cited in my post below was less extreme, and the decision of the Canadian federal government to go after the coal "combine" through an intimidating hearing and, later, through a federal antitrust law suggests that the Canadian state did not, at least not officially, tolerate such an action.

Third, I think my conceptual difficulty with libertarianism is that I am not clear what libertarians are against. I know they are for "liberty," but it is unclear to me that they necessarily oppose non-state impediments to liberty, or at least they don't do so as libertarians. This is not a knock against libertarians, just a qualm I have with libertarianism, as I understand it. And of course, some libertarians, such as David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy, even support some positive action by government to redress certain infringements on liberty by non-state actors. I have in mind his essay on a libertarian approach to anti-discrimination laws. Click here to read it. Particularly, I'm interested in the following assertion:
Consistent with longstanding classical liberal suspicion of monopolies, many libertarians would allow the government to ban discrimination by such entities.
In the context of anti-discrimination laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this suggests moderate libertarian support for such laws. (I should note that Bernstein does not claim that his is the only libertarian-oriented position on the subject. See his post on the Volokh Conspriacy here for links to different takes on the same issue.)

Fourth and finally, I think my principal conceptual qualm with libertarianism, as I understand it, is that any action in which a "public" is affected is almost necessarily regulated somehow. (By "public" I mean what John Dewey meant in The Public and Its Problems: a person or group of people affected by the actions of others.) Any "free market" and any social interaction has a set of rules and deviations from those rules have consequences. The substance and contours of these rules may be defined by the state, or by convention, or by some supposedly non-state or quasi-state entity like a "board of trade." There are better rules and worse rules, and I suppose an argument is to be made that a state, arrogating to itself all the "legitimate coercion" under its jurisdiction (although in the final analysis, I'm not sure states actually do this, or that they don't do this without facing constant contestation if there is a strong civil society), might not always or necessarily be the best instrument for setting up these rules.

Again, I fear my post on the matter has become a bit incoherent. My "clarifications" just raise new questions about what I really mean here. (I'm sure glad I post these things pseudonymously!)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Where is the state?

One of the conceptual difficulties that I have with libertarianism is that, as I understand it, it prescribes minimally invasive government interference with society or the economy and prefers, instead of such interference, a maximum of individual liberty consistent with the respect due to other's rights. My "conceptual difficulty" arises, in part, because I have a hard time distinguishing what is the state in contradistinction of other entities. It seems to me that without a "state," or entities might come into being or continue in existence, and these can be oppressive in a manner similar to the state.

For example, one of the items I am studying for my dissertation was a short-lived organization that was called the "Coal Trade Branch of the Toronto Board of Trade," or "coal section" for short, which lasted from about 1886 to 1889 or 1890. This was an organization of Toronto coal dealers that became, not surprisingly, given its name, an affiliate of that city's board of trade.

The goal of the coal section was, basically, to keep retail coal prices in the city at what its members considered a "fair" or "reasonable" rate (translation: they wanted to limit competition among themselves). If a retailer cut prices without permission, the coal section would fine him (to my knowledge, they were all male), and if he did not pay the fine, he would be declared in "default." Being in default meant that the retailer could not get coal from the wholesaler or from shippers in the US. (It's a complicated story, but the American coal operators and distributors were in on the deal; and it's important also to note that Ontario at the time--and for several decades thereafter--depended on the US for almost all of its coal.)

I'm studying the coal section because of its antitrust implications. It was one of the reasons that Canada enacted the first ever (that I know of) national-level antitrust law in 1889. (There were several state-level antitrust laws in the US before 1889; and some laws that might be construed as proto-antitrust--such as laws against forestalling--had been a staple of Anglo law since at least the 1600s, and other legal systems, such as the Napoleonic Code, had laws against "coalitions" that resembled antitrust laws. I should also point out that I'm using the word "antitrust" somewhat loosely.)

But this organization highlights what I take to be the conceptual difficulty I have with libertarianism. The coal section was in some ways a "voluntary association" and in other ways was a creature of the state. But its statelike actions--what I take to be its claim to "legitimate coercion"--were not seriously implicated in the state as people seem to understand "the state" (i.e., the coercive components of the section were not seriously implicated with Toronto, Ontario, Canadian, British, American, New York, or Buffalo "state" action).

Multi-year contracts for faculty?

In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education (click here to read it), Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus offer several things colleges and universities can do to improve the bang for the buck for students and to reduce costs. Some of them are nice, but hard to imagine how they'd be implemented. Others seem at least worth a thought.

One is to do away with tenure and instead sign on faculty with multi-year contracts. They don't go into much detail into how this would work. But I imagine there are some merits and demerits of the plan, some of which depend on how they are implemented. Merits:
  • It would open up opportunities on the academic job market and end the lifetime entrenchment of faculty.
  • It would both increase accountability of faculty members while at the same time reducing the pressure on non-tenured junior faculty.
  • Contracts, depending on how they are drafted and how they are offered, might open a way for people who are today adjuncts to sign on for a little stability.
  • It would potentially open the door to invidious discrimination against, say, older professors and against professors who have a lot of family obligations--people who may not be able to take on the tasks that younger people with fewer ties can take on. I would say, however, that the current system, at least at research oriented universities, already have such a bias against newly minted people on the job market who are older or who have a lot of family responsibilities. The pressure on junior faculty to publish and to serve on committees is, I hear, intense and carries with it no necessary guarantee of tenure.
  • It could make such items as student evaluations inordinately determinative in who gets a contract, or at least a second contract. I'm not against the idea of student evaluations per se, but they can be misused.
These are only a few thoughts. I'm still thinking about the issue, and there's a lot I still don't know about academic hiring or the idea of multi-year contracts.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sometimes owning a car means you gotta make right turns

I live in Chicago where the car/bicycle/pedestrian culture is one that approximates Lord of the Flies or some sort of social Darwinian struggle for primacy as people try to survive in one piece as they go to wherever it is they go. Because I own neither a car nor a bike, I'm in the pedestrian camp, but I have some empathy--although perhaps not sympathy--for the situation facing bike drivers and car drivers. I realize they, individually, are each trying to make their way within an aggressive street culture that pauses usually only when someone is seriously hurt. It's a be-aggressive-or-be-injured sort of world.

Still, there are a few basic things cars (and bicycles too....I'm an equal opportunity complainer, except when it comes to pedestrians), can do. One of them is to not insist on making left turns when it is so inconvenient to every other transportationist in view. One advantage of owning a car is that you can go long distances in relatively short time. (To me that, along with the ability to take others with you, are the only real advantages.) Cars can usually afford to drive a little circuitously by making a few right turns instead of insisting on making a bee-line for the lane they want as they turn from the Dunkin Donuts onto Ashland Avenue (at Grand) at 8:10 in the morning without looking to see which pedestrian they're almost running over.

Update 7-15-10: I made a correction above. I had originally written "I have some sympathy--although perhaps not sympathy...." I had meant to say "I have some empathy--although perhaps not sympathy." On behalf of Google and the rest of the blogging community, I offer my sincerest apologies.

The great crusade

Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy has devoted several recent posts (see them here, here, and here), in which he takes on an essay that historian Michael Bellesiles has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Bellesiles, it will be recalled, was widely, and apparently accurately, criticized for (ahem) bending the truth or simply fabricating data in his book Arming America, which argued that the notion of a gun culture in the U.S. was a fairly recent invention. Lindgren, apparently, was the person who led the charge in calling out Bellesiles.

The essay Lindgren is now critiquing is some thought piece on Bellesiles's experiences with a student who, he says, had a brother injured in Iraq. The point of the essay is more or less that war is bad and that the US uses the patriotism of the least advantaged to fill its military ranks. Mr. Lindgren has noted several inconsistencies in Bellesiles's account and has tried to demonstrate that the student's brother Bellesiles has written about could not have had the experiences Bellesiles recounted in the essay. Mr. Lindgren, apparently, has researched the number of injuries and deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past year or so and found none that corresponds to what Bellesiles wrote.

I have very mixed feelings about this project. On the one hand, I haven't much sympathy for Bellesiles. His past performance probably rightly subjects him to higher scrutiny. And the decision to publish anything carries the implicit "risk" that one's facts will be checked. In that sense, what Mr. Lindgren is doing is entirely appropriate.

On the other hand, Mr. Lindgren seems to take an inordinate amount of glee in tailing Bellesiles. (I'm also not fully convinced that Lindgren has uncovered much of a damaging case because his refutations seem, to me, to be explainable, or at least potentially explainable and not in themselves particularly damning. Still, if Bellesiles's account is good, it should be able to withstand scrutiny. As my adviser once said, the "lying" strategy doesn't work.) It seems unbecoming, almost as if Mr. Lindgren has appointed himself the conscience of Bellesiles.

Still, motivations shouldn't matter. If Bellesiles's account is wrong, it is wrong regardless of whether Mr. Lindgren is a nice person. (While I'm making moral judgments, I should add that I have never met him personally, that he once courteously responded to a blog post I wrote about him, and that while he posts under his own name, I write my posts anonymously). And what better person to rely on to check another's facts than someone who has an interest in discrediting that person's facts? People who already agree with Bellesiles are likely not to devote sufficient time in calling him out. (I do, however, personally know one scholar who, early on, wrote about inconsistencies between Bellesiles's Arming America and what she knew of some of his source base. I don't know her views on gun control, but I suspect that whatever her views are, she doesn't have a lot of respect for the "oh-my-gawd-they're-gonna-take-my-guns" lobby.)

Getting your job back

In "The Killing Floor"--a docudrama style film that discusses the experiences of blacks who moved to Chicago to work during World War I--the main character, Frank Custer, gets laid off for union organizing at his job at the packinghouses, but is reinstated because the wartime labor agreement forbade such firings. When he goes back to work, he says (I think the quotation is more less accurate), "One thing rich folks don't know is the joy of getting your job back."

I was laid off in September 2008 from my part time job as a loan processor due to the credit crisis. In January or February of 2009, they called me back to offer me another part-time job. I remember how nice it was to walk back into that bank and see the people I had used to work with. Although the job itself could be really dreary, the work environment quite jovial and we had all gotten along very well, so much that it was almost fun to be there. I just remember that first day, seeing people who I thought I'd never see again once I had been laid off.

I eventually "laid off" my employer, however, because I got a better job. (But I'll add that I gave them two weeks' notice, two weeks more than they had given me. Because I was only part-time and had worked there for just four months, I got no severance and was not eligible for unemployment.) But I remember how much I liked the people at that job, even if the job itself wasn't all that.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Socially, I'm a libertarian, but economically...."

One of the reasons I'm not a libertarian is that I have an incomplete idea of what, exactly, libertarianism is. My readings of libertarian authors are pretty much limited to libertarian leaning blogs and columnists, such as the OneBestWay (the successor to Positive Liberty), the Volokh Conspiracy, and Steve Chapman. I have read John Locke, who, at least according to some people, was a proto-libertarian. Otherwise, that's about it.

When I ask my (mostly liberal or left-leaning) friends about their views on libertarianism, I generally get one of two responses. The first is a long lecture about how libertarians are hypocrites because they use public roads and benefit from taxes more than most non-libertarians do. This seems a bit strawman-ish to me. I imagine thoughtful libertarians at least recognize the points at which their ideology/political orientation conflicts with daily practice, just as my Marxist friends recognize the conflict between their relatively comfortable middle-class status and their advocacy for the rights of the "proletariat" and my liberal friends recognize the conflict between, for example, using the government to aggressively promote the economic interests of the disadvantaged even though many of the same disadvantaged people might support a non-liberal political party for reasons that have little to do with economics.

The other response is something like this: "When it comes to social matters, I'm a complete libertarian, but when it comes to economic issues, I think there ought to be regulation." In a sense, this, too, is strawman-ish because most libertarians, in my admittedly somewhat limited observations, accept the need for at least some regulation of the economy. What bothers me most about this response, however, is the neatness of the distinction that the speaker is trying to draw between the putatively "social" and the putatively "economic." To me, the two are so interspersed that it is often, though perhaps not always, hard to separate them. Here are some examples:
  • Libertarians usually want an end to, or at least a de-escalation of, the War of Drugs. There is a social component to this--the freedom of consenting adults to use drugs--but also an "economic" component--the state would spend less money in enforcing drug laws and in incarcerating offenders (and, I suppose, drugs would be cheaper, both in price and in the "transaction cost" of being arrested).
  • Libertarians usually dislike state-mandated discrimination based on arbitrary categories. Therefore, while they may have qualms about state actions that encourage marriage, they or at least some, usually believe that the state should recognize gay marriages if it is going to recognize any marriage. And the issue of the legality of marriage is not purely social. For the parties involved, there are some very real economic benefits. For the state--federal and state-level--there is a question of allocation of resources. For example, the distribution of survivor benefits for social security, I imagine, would change if the federal government recognized gay marriage.
  • A "libertarian" political economy--one in which the government is minimally intrusive and does only that which the "market forces" cannot do, and in which each adult is assured of a "liberty of contract" to sell his/her labor as they see fit--has social implications. Dismantling the welfare state*--whatever its other effects--would probably force poorer people to be even more reliant on family and informal networks of similarly situated people than they already are. (Here and now, I make no judgment on whether this would be a good thing, except to say that there would be definite pros and cons.)

*I'm not suggesting that all libertarians want to dismantle the welfare state, or that those who do, would want to do it precipitously and with little regard the very real hardships such a dismantling would cause, at least in the short term. I can also imagine a more moderately libertarian argument for continuing the welfare state (perhaps on the assumption that there are bigger fish to fry than taking away resources from poor people) but modifying its incentives to make its operation more efficient and beneficial to recipients of welfare. But dismantling the welfare state is logically consistent with what I understand to be libertarian critiques of government.