Thursday, 21 April 2022

For Your Consideration

     Some questions were raised about a parenthetical remark in a previous post, about preferring a minimum income to a minimum wage, that I'd like to address in greater detail, which may take a couple of posts. So in this one, I'd like to address the issue raised by the first comment, paraphrased thusly: "What is the value of money given 'free of charge'?"

    This is a common objection to minimum income plans, that they amount to giving people something for nothing. The most obvious counter to that is: So what? What's wrong with giving people something they didn't earn? People inherit wealth they didn't earn. People collect rent and interest and other income just from owning stuff, without actually doing anything beyond merely being the legally recognized owner of something, whether or not they did anything to deserve it. In our free market capitalist system, we don't object to people making money through the ownership of capital, including capital they merely inherited. So what exactly is the harm in giving people money they didn't do anything to deserve?

    But I want to argue that, in fact, we do deserve it, all of us, because of our collective ownership of the enterprise we call the state. And what is it that we have paid for our ownership, or as we say in contract law, what valuable consideration did we provide? I argued in an earlier post about the liberty dividend that we invest our liberty, but that's a rather abstract and intangible thing, even if it does count as good consideration at law. When we agree to do or not to do something that we might otherwise have done, such as in a non-disclosure agreement when we agree not to exercise our freedom of speech in a way that reveals someone's secrets, that is a real and valuable consideration capable of supporting contractual obligations on the other side. 

    So what I want to argue here is that what we give the state in exchange for our share includes something much more tangible: everything that anyone else owns, that it is possible to own. I mean this literally, because the entire concept of ownership is a creature of the state, of society. What prevents you from using "my" property? You may say it's your morality, and that's all well and good, but people's moralities differ, as do their ideas of who should own what, and it is the courts, applying the laws of the state, which will decide that. In other words, I have surrendered my freedom to use (or attempt to use, and probably end up fighting over) everything in the world that is deemed by the state to belong to someone other than me. Now, the state might deem that there are things which belong to me, which  this means that you, too, have surrendered to the state the freedom to use my stuff (again, a subset of all of the stuff that belongs to people other than you).

    Therefore, since it is the state which exercises ultimate authority over who owns what property, we have each of us invested all the property in the state. We don’t usually speak of it this way, but this is exactly what sovereignty is: the exclusive right to make and enforce rules or policies about who can do what with what. In free countries like Canada, the state generally delegates much of the decision-making to individuals by defining in its laws what we think of as private property rights, but these are ultimately conventions, subject to legislative or judicial amendment, and thus in a very real sense we have endowed the state with all the property there is.

    I claim, then, that for this reason every citizen of the state should be considered a shareholder in it. When, as in Canada, the Crown retains the rights to natural resources like forests, fisheries and minerals, it should manage these assets to the benefit of its shareholders (citizens), whom it own a fiduciary duty closely analogous to that owed to a corporation by its board of directors. The shareholders are entitled to a voice in management, which usually involved electing delegates to represent them and advance the policies they favour.

    I do not intend to argue here that issuing regular dividends from the proceeds of the corporation is a good idea. I’ll probably address that in a later post. All I mean to establish here is that doing so would not at all be giving people “money for nothing”. We obtain our shares in the state not “for nothing” but by virtue of being bound by its laws, which is good and valuable consideration. And owning a share in the state means that any dividends that state may issue (such as a universal basic income, for example) are not charity, but a duly earned benefit.

Monday, 4 April 2022

False Flags

    Every once in a while I see a meme shared that purports to be a letter from Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was Canada's 7th Prime Minister, urging that newcomers to Canada from all nations are welcome but they must become Canadian, dagnabbit! and learn to speak English or French and leave behind all them thar furriner customs that clash with our beer, hockey and Timbits. (It didn't actually reference these thing, but it was very much about assimilating to the Canadian way of life, whatever that is.) One version of this meme even came with a grainy black and white photo attached, showing a man apparently giving a speech in what looked like a campaign rail stop. 

    "Hmmm," I thought upon looking at the picture, "That looks nothing like Wilfrid Laurier. In fact, I think it looks like Teddy Roosevelt." So I googled a few key phrases from the letter, and sure enough, Laurier never wrote it: someone had taken the real letter, which had been written by Roosevelt, and just replaced all the references to the U.S. with Canadianized replacements ("English and French" in place of "English", etc.). Apparently it had been circulating enough to warrant a French news service debunking it here.

    It was at once both infuriating and hilarious. Infuriating because of the sheer dishonesty involved. There's no way this was an innocent mistake; whoever took that Roosevelt letter and altered it to present it as coming from Laurier knew perfectly well that they were fabricating a deliberate lie. What possibly could possess them to think this was an act of Canadian patriotism? If it was meant as a joke, though, it was hilarious, taking an expression of distinctly American nationalism and passing it off as Canadian patriotism by slapping on a few superficial (and false) Canadianisms. 

    I feel the same kind of insult whenever I see a vehicle drive by with a big Canadian flag waving, often supplemented with "F*CK TRUDEAU" or similar slogans. It's not that I think a true Canadian shouldn't criticize the Prime Minister. Rather, it's that I feel like my flag is being co-opted to stand for something that's not really Canadian, as if I won't notice a cheap "LET'S GO BRANDON" knock-off.


Wednesday, 16 March 2022

The Nameless Fallacy

    I haven't seen this particular fallacy described elsewhere. It happens often enough that I was thinking it ought to have a name, and I was thinking of calling it the fallacy fallacy, but that refers to a different fallacy, and it seems to me it's better to leave it unnamed, in light of its nature.

    So what is it? It's the belief that calling out the name of a fallacy is an argument. "That's a straw man" or "That's a No True Scotsman" are things you'll hear all the time in debates, but it's almost never a good idea to use the name of a fallacy in an argument, for several reasons.

    First, it's very often misused. Knowing the names of fallacies is no guarantee that you actually know what makes them invalid. Many people seem to think that ad hominem just refers to name-calling, for example, or will call out "No True Scotsman" if you try to define a term in a way they don't like. 

    Second, it's lazy. Even if you do happen to properly understand what the fallacy is and why it's a fallacy, simply naming it is seldom an efficient shortcut to making clear your opponent's error, in part because (remember the first reason) there's a good chance your opponent either won't, in which case you're wasting words.

    Third, it very often leads to completely unnecessary side-arguments about the definition of the fallacy itself. "What? That wasn't an ad hominemAd hominem is when I say you're stupid, therefore your argument is wrong." "No, ad hominem means a personal attack!"

    Fourth, it's likely to be seen (often correctly) as showing off, an attempt to telegraph that you know something about the technical aspects of argumentation and therefore are not to be messed with, you master of logic you. 

    Finally, it's almost always completely unnecessary. Remember that a fallacy is a flawed argument, an error in reasoning that makes it vulnerable. You don't need to name the flaw in order to attack it. For example, recognizing that an ad hominem is a form of non sequitur where the premise ("You're stupid") does not lead to the conclusion ("therefore, you're wrong"), you can note that you do not need to refute the premise. "I may or may not be stupid, but stupid people can be right and smart people can be wrong. Show that my argument is wrong." 

    That is, by the way, why it's definitely useful to have names for the various types of fallacies, so we can discuss and analyze them and learn how to recognize and counter them, and to avoid committing them ourselves. Shop talk about rhetoric benefits greatly from having terms of art like these. But naming them in the middle of an actual argument is rarely a good move. 


Friday, 4 March 2022

Understanding over Believing

  I've been thinking about this authoritarian epistemology idea for some time now, and I think I have identified a potential remedy. The idea is to stop thinking in terms of knowing (or believing-what-is-true), and focus instead on understanding.

We have long put a great deal of emphasis on the value of knowledge. For most purposes this is a perfectly serviceable value, and the pursuit of knowledge is certainly a noble calling.

But the problem arises when we take the authoritarian mindset into account. As I argued before, the authoritarian tends to see such things in terms of power, and in particular construes the act of telling someone something and being believed as an exercise of power. That's not a completely irrational model; the ability to persuade someone to do something is very much a kind of power. And as Voltaire said, anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. So it's not at all unreasonable to be wary of anyone trying to assert that kind of control over you, even if it's something as innocent as informing you what time it is.

The problem is this: when you regard the transmission of information as an attempted exercise of power, it becomes very tempting to resist being informed of anything, because being told something and believing it becomes a kind of surrender of autonomy, a failure of will. You feel like someone may be laughing at you behind your back, as if it's April Fool's Day and you're not in on the joke. And so disbelieving whatever you are told becomes an act of defiance and a demonstration of personal strength. What matters isn't so much whether you're right or wrong in any objective sense, but how bravely you stand against a more powerful opponent, which is why this sort of conspiracy theory tends to target The Government, The Mainstream Media, The Academic Elite, or whoever else might represent the dominant establishment view. Which is all well and good, because the establishment really ought to be challenged regularly, but when you adopt your beliefs just to be contrary, you're very likely to be wrong most of the time. Worse, you deprive yourself of the capacity to be right, because the more evidence is compiled in favour of the opposing view, the more your clinging to your wrongness feels like a grand display of heroic resolve. 

    That sense of heroic resolve isn't nothing. It's a legitimate emotional motivation, that need to feel some pride in one's accomplishments or worthiness, so maybe we can find a more constructive way to satisfy it.

    That's why I propose instead to focus on understanding instead of believing/knowing. Understanding is not a failure of will, but an accomplishment of intellect. If I explain my view to you, and you succeed in making sense of it and how my claims fit into your model of the world, that is your triumph; you own that understanding, and while I may have helped you attain it by making my explanation as clear and accessible to you as possible, I cannot command you to understand me. It is something you can only ever do for yourself.

    Moreover, once you understand a proposition, it's up to you to decide for yourself how likely it is to be true, given all the other things you understand about the world. Deciding that what I say is probably true is no longer a surrender of your autonomy to mine, but your own independent conclusion that you can take ownership of and can revise as you see fit, and thus not a sign of weakness. You can and should feel proud that you have successfully made sense of what someone else has to say, especially if it's something you might have been initially inclined to dismiss as obviously wrong.

    None of this is to say that you shouldn't be aware of the possibility of people lying. Quite the opposite: you should be always alert to the unreliability of anyone and everyone's testimony, whether they be lying, mistaken, confused or otherwise fallibly human. This is itself an important part of the process of understanding. It's just that you shouldn't fall into the laziness trap of dismissing everyone who disagrees with you as either dishonest or stupid, because that's generally just an excuse not to bother trying to actually understand them. They might well be dishonest or stupid, but it's dangerous to underestimate an opponent, or to see them as an opponent when they might not actually be one. 

    Nor should you completely abandon the possibility that the person might be mistaken in some way. You should try to start from the presumption that they're at least as smart as you are, and that if something seems wrong it's probably because you haven't properly understood it yet, but they might well have made some error in reasoning they haven't noticed yet. If you can identify and articulate exactly what this error is, that's a particularly glorious victory, but don't be too tempted to take shortcuts to it; you still have to really understand what they're trying to say to be able to pull this off effectively. 

    Once you shift from knowing to understanding, your real opponent is no longer the person you're arguing with, but the problem you're arguing about. If you can defeat the problem, you'll never lose an argument.


Friday, 4 February 2022

With apologies to Martin Niemöller

 First they came for the speeders, and I said nothing because I obey speed limits.

Then they came for the people practicing medicine without a license, and I said nothing because I don't practice medicine at all.
Then they came for the unvaccinated driving trucks across international borders, and I said, "Oh for Pete's sake, this is not a prelude to genocide you idiots! Most of you have paid speeding tickets in the past, and you're still here!"

Saturday, 29 January 2022

Choices and Freedom

    Let me start by reiterating that freedom is, for me, the primary purpose of law and government. As I've argued many times on this blog, laws constraining our freedom are justifiable only if they lead to a net increase in our practical freedom. So freedom is really important to me.

    That said, there's a certain kind of appeal to freedom argument that is just total nonsense, because there are some circumstances where alternatives are simply incompatible, where my exercising my freedom of choice makes it impossible for you to exercise yours. The best example of this is the complaint of smokers that their freedom to choose to smoke or not to smoke is violated by the imposition of anti-smoking bylaws to public spaces.

    On the face of it, yeah, it's absolutely true that such rules take away the freedom to choose to smoke in such public spaces. What's not quite so immediately obvious is that, owing to the nature of smoke and air, there is an enormous disparity in the power of smokers and nonsmokers to exercise choice. The choice not to smoke must be unanimous, whereas any single smoker may unilaterally decide that they and everyone else in that space will inhale smoke. 

    I want to go to eat in a restaurant without smoking. You want to go eat in the same restaurant and smoke. We can't both get what we want. Someone's options are going to be limited here, no matter what policy we choose. Allow smoking, and I can't go to a restaurant without giving up my freedom to breathe fresh air. Disallow smoking, and you can't go to a restaurant without giving up your freedom to light up a cigarette. Flag-waving about freedom is pointless; what you need to show is that your freedom to smoke is somehow more valuable than my freedom not to smoke. (This particular question has been mostly resolved by the widespread acknowledgment that smoking really does cause cancer and other diseases.)

    Although complicated by the fact that you can't see or smell viruses, the situation with vaccine mandates and various public health measures is analogous. I hear people complain that they can't go to church or to a restaurant or anything else without showing their vaccine passport. Oh no. Well, the alternative is that I can't go to these things without taking on a major risk of being infected with a deadly virus. Someone's options are going to be limited, one way or the other; we can't all get what we want. So whose options should we limit?

    I don't mean to answer that question here. There are an awful lot of factors involved, and an awful lot of different pandemic measures we could debate. Some may turn out to be good ideas, some may be bad. The only point I want to make here is that freedom can be violated in a whole lot of ways besides just imposing an explicit rule, and if we really want to maximize our freedom, we need to think about more than just whether or not someone is telling us what to do. Viruses can take away your choices, too. 

Monday, 1 November 2021

A Comment on Executive Privilege

    The other day, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by law professor Saikrishna Prakash, arguing that former President Trump's claim of executive privilege against releasing documents to the January 6 Commission has some merit. Professor Prakash summarizes the reason for executive privilege:
"The policy rationale for executive privilege is that presidents will not receive candid, unvarnished advice from their aides if that advice becomes public as a result of subpoenas, judicial or legislative."
    And indeed, there is some textual support for this in the Supreme Court judgment he cites: 
"Human experience teaches that those who expect public dissemination of their remarks may well temper their candor with a concern for appearances and for their own interests to the detriment of the decision making process."
    But I'll point out that the Court does not elaborate on this principle much, to the extent that even mentioning it should probably be considered obiter dicta. And indeed, the Court goes on to diminish the relevance of that principle in context:
"However, when the privilege depends solely on the broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest in the confidentiality of such conversations, a confrontation with other values arises. Absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, we find it difficult to accept the argument that even the very important interest in confidentiality of Presidential communications is significantly diminished by production of such material for in camera inspection with all the protection that a district court will be obliged to provide."
    In other words, yeah, confidentiality is good and all, but it's not enough by itself to override the legitimate interest of the court in deciding whether or not the claim of privilege is legitimate. Courts often do this: acknowledging the existence of a concern or argument without delving into its validity because they consider it irrelevant to the case at hand. (This heads off future objections that the Court failed to consider it. Not as much of an issue at the Supreme Court, from which there is no appeal, but it's still good judicial practice to cover all the bases.)
    And because the issue was only raised cursorily for the purpose of dismissing it, the Court did not go into any kind of depth in analyzing that basis of privilege, which is a shame because I think if they had seriously considered this basis of privilege, they would have phrased the description of it quite differently. The notion of executive privilege here is, after all, closely analogous to attorney-client privilege, and exists for very similar reasons. Importantly, that privilege belongs to the client, and emphatically not to the lawyer. And here's why.

    We want people to seek out legal advice, so that they can conduct themselves in a lawful manner. The example I like to use is of someone considering whether or not to murder their rich uncle so they can inherit his estate. If they consult a competent lawyer, they will be told "No, that's a crime. You can't lawfully do that, and moreover, there is a longstanding common law principle that you cannot inherit from someone you've murdered, so even after you've served your sentence for the crime you will not receive any money for it." And, presumably, having had proper legal advice, they will know that this is not an option. So if the uncle then dies in suspicious circumstances, the fact that the nephew or niece might have received legal advice on this very subject should not be used as evidence against them. 
    The privilege does not exist to protect the lawyer. Yes, of course, it is very important that the lawyer be able to give candid advice and not worry about being embarrassed, but there is something seriously wrong if a lawyer gives advice about which she would be embarrassed if it became public. About the only circumstance I can imagine in which a lawyer should be embarrassed by the advice she gave in private would be if it were bad advice, that is, unethical or incompetent. And she absolutely ought to be afraid of giving such advice, whether or not it is revealed to the public!
    The same principle applies to advisors to the President, though obviously the scope of what constitutes good or bad advice may differ somewhat. But we can see clearly why the privilege belongs to the President and not the advisor through a simple example: suppose an advisor just straight up offers a hefty bribe to the President as an inducement to make some executive order. Should the advisor be able to rely on executive privilege to shield such an offer from scrutiny? Or would the President be within their rights to fire the advisor and refer the matter to the Justice Department for prosecution? I would hope it's pretty obvious that I favour the latter answer. 

    So my reading of the SCOTUS remark on executive privilege is that while there might be legitimate military, diplomatic or other national concerns supporting a claim of executive privilege, the idea that privilege must be protected to save the President's advisors from potential embarrassment has no real legal weight. It is the responsibility of the President to select and earn the trust of advisors who will to give him that candid unvarnished advice, knowing full well that same President has the power to make that advice public.