Monday, January 12, 2015

When can governments restrict our freedom?

Photo Credit: Matthew Powell via Flickr
Roger Crisp points us to the restrictions placed on high-speed gambling machines in the UK, aiming to reduce the socially detrimental impacts that the activity can have on the lives of individuals and their families.

He notes that this might conflict Mill's famous "liberty principle" (alternatively referred to as the "harm principle"):
The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others (On Liberty, ch. 1, para. 9).
This is widely held to be a foundational principle of the political liberalism. But limiting individual's ability to gamble is clearly a limitation of their freedom, and is not obviously justified by protecting others (by which restrictions on, e.g., gun ownership obviously could be justified). So should we permit such laws?

Crisp says we may, because of the harms that "problem gambling" can have on the families of individuals who fall prey to this vice. Certainly, it's true that families can be affected by the poor choices of its members, and we can see how such regulation could benefit and protect families from serious losses and harms.

But Crisp also writes:
The gambler may respond that we don’t seek to prevent people taking risks in other enjoyable activities which may have seriously detrimental effects on their families, such as dangerous sports or smoking cigarettes. If I’m allowed to race motorbikes at high speed, or smoke 80 Rothmans a day, why should I be prevented from placing £100 bets if that’s what I want to do?
Though I'm unfamiliar with relevant UK law, American law certain does limit motorcycle speed, enforce helmet laws, and seek to disincentivize tobacco use through heavy taxation. So gambling restrictions, when fully appreciated for the harms that problem gambling can cause (I hesitate to use the term "gambling addiction" because it's controversial, though I think the term is probably apt), might easily be seen in a similar light.

As Crisp notes, restrictions on these other activities can likewise be justified through appeal to the interests of family members. This is a good point, often under-discussed in "personal freedom" discussions--but this is because the role of the family in liberal democracies is often neglected in political philosophy and discourse. This is a deficiency Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift seek to rectify, as I hope to discuss in the future.

Though perhaps straying from the original intent of the liberty principle, Crisp's justification fit's within Mill's framework, because it justifies the restriction on liberty via harm to others. But there's another justification for such restrictions, which I have tended to favor.

Essentially, the claim is that restrictions on liberty do not merely come from government-imposed limitations. They can come from norms of society, that might (say) discourage or incentivize not wearing a helmet on a motorcycle, or from chemical addictions, such as the nicotine in tobacco that makes it difficult to quite smoking. We might then, in fact, promote liberty by using regulation to discourage or limit dangerous activities, access to addictive substances, or the risk of substantial gambling losses.

This argument works very differently from Crisp's. Crisp is arguing that the government can limit our freedom to gamble because it protects out families from harm. In contrast, I claim that regulating gambling activities is not in fact a limitation of liberty, but a promotion of it. Both are consistent with accepting the Mill's liberty principle. (Alternatively, some choose to reject the principle.) Though these arguments might seem to be at odds, they could both be correct to a certain extent, and work in tandem.

Formulating what is and isn't a restriction on freedom is difficult, and may be endlessly controversial, so any regulations that seek to remedy these must be provisional, open to adjustment, and reasonably limited in scope. Further, they ought to be subjected to democratic oversight, as well as to judicial appeal in the case of discrimination against minorities. But I think we can legitimately justify such apparent "restrictions," and it's plausible that we're obligated to do so.

This justification avoids some of the problematic features of Crisp's justification by appeal to the harms suffered by family members. For example, why should individuals with limited or weak family ties be obligated to follow such restrictions? Others might question whether familial values can legitimately ground restrictions on liberty at all, since it is commonly believed that the family is purely a domain of "private" concern. This is almost certainly wrong, but in justifying these regulatory measures, it's best to appeal to the least controversial means available.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Feigning Security: A review of Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

An Israel/Egypt barrier. Photo Credit: Idobi via Wikimedia Commons
Why, in the wake of enthusiasm for globalization and the burgeoning of a cosmopolitan global identity, is the world seeing a resurgence of wall building on national borders? Wendy Brown takes this question as her challenge in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Her primary examples are the US-Mexico border fence and the Israeli Security Fence, in addition to walls and fences in India, Saudi Arabia, and all over the globe. The putative aim of these walls is stopping the flow of persons, labor, drugs, crime, and the general promotion of security, but they consistently fail to sufficiently address these concerns, and only serve to create new problematic dynamics.

Because the walls are futile, Brown suggests that a deeper explanation for the desire for walling is needed. Her answer explores political theory, theology and psychoanalysis. And indeed, in Brown’s telling, it is the futility of the walls themselves that is most revealing. The more national boundaries become diluted by globalizing forces, she argues, the more important it becomes that individuals and states build physical structures to reinforce our artificial divides. But the act of reinforcement reveals it’s own insufficiency; walls can never serve the purpose of sovereignty, and their existence only emphasizes the concept’s frail nature. And while they fail as solutions to any range of problems, walls produce new and different challenges, and often stir up anxieties on both sides. Their purpose, therefore, is merely to satisfy a psychic (if not pathological) urge for both power and protection.

While Brown’s analysis is insightful and revealing, it lacks greater context. She provides compelling accounts of the historical concept of sovereignty and the contemporary phenomenon of walling. But crucially, she skims any serious contemporary theorizing of sovereignty and cosmopolitanism, and only gestures at a historical understanding of walling. So while the theory she presents about the political function and meaning of walls is attractive, and certainly accurate to some extent, many questions remain about its generality and historical specificity.

So why is sovereignty so important in modern politics? Brown argues that the concept has deep theological roots. Sovereignty is a feature of divinity, of an absolute ruler with dominion over time and space. It is this feature of nation-states, that it has rightful claim of jurisdiction over a people and a territory, which legitimates governmental use of force, and distinguishes insiders from outsiders. The outsiders are the un-ruled, unpredictable, barbaric, while the insiders are bound by legitimized law and order. (These distinctions themselves produce contradictions. It is that lack of “ordered society” beyond the boundaries of the state that justify war, destruction, and disregard on the part of sovereign, supposedly the beacon of rightness and security.)

Because sovereignty grounds the legal order just as God grounds the moral order, sovereignty has become evermore important in a secularized age. Indeed, the significance of sovereignty’s absolute status is intensified for a secular society without God. In political theory, Brown says, sovereignty plays the role of the “unmoved mover,” as without it, none of the other tools for political rule can gain any traction. There’s no sense in halfway sovereignty, just as a weakened God is no God at all.

Can this be reconciled with Brown’s chosen title, which contains the eponymous concept of “Waning Sovereignty?” With some semantic flexibility, we can see what she means. Sovereignty isn’t waning, but the illusion of sovereignty is. Sovereignty is a fiction nations tell themselves, the citizens and their governments, for the purpose of their own survival and comfort. The pursuit of strengthening borders, with the use of the newest technology and 24-hour surveillance, just serves to show that the concept of sovereignty is less important in our world than it once was. As Hannah Arendt argued in On Violence, violence is used by those without power, or whose power is diminishing. Power is the capacity for control without the need for violence; sovereignty that needs to prove itself with physical blockades displays its own irrelevance. The fantasy of the concept cannot persist against the challenges of a globalized world and is bound to fade.

And yet this raises a question: Does Brown prove too much with this argument? Sovereignty is a fiction, true, but it’s not clear what we should draw from that fact. Fictions can serve a purpose, and point in useful directions. The attempts to preserve old-fashioned fantasies of sovereignty through the buildings of walls are both futile and wrongheaded, and Brown is convincing on this point. But the concept of sovereignty is a shifting one. Democratic sovereignty poses some peculiar problems, but it solved several problems of the totalitarian sovereignty proposed by Thomas Hobbes. At times, Brown is optimistic for the arrival of a post-sovereignty world. But it’s not obvious this world will be preferable in every way to the world we have now. Nor is it obvious that sovereignty, though certainly strained, is in its death throes. Perhaps the possibility for new forms of sovereignty could prove fruitful, but Brown primarily analyzes the work of historical sovereignty theorists.

It’s also unclear how new the phenomenon of walling up borders and insecure sovereignty is. Brown notes that walling has always been a part of political practices, and that their spectacle has always been a large part of their appeal. But she argues that the particular global context is new. However, Brown offers little defense for this thesis. She takes it as given that globalization, such as it is, offers unique challenges to sovereignty.  

This is not obviously so. Many contemporary liberal democratic states have an enduring stability that many ancient civilizations would have envied. Globalization offers many challenges, to be sure, but so do coups, annexation, invasion, and any number of threats to sovereignty that are less common in contemporary industrialized countries than has been the case historically. And some threats to sovereignty, such as globalized power structures, e.g. the United Nations, the European Union, and World Bank, which many do view as threats, fail to produce the dynamics Brown concerns herself with (no one is building walls to Greece.)

And in the case of the Israeli Security Fence, one of Brown’s prime examples (though also, she admits, a “hard case” for her theory,) is more a force of colonization than a reactionary defense of sovereignty. To be charitable, we could read these as one in the same goal, but this would remove any temporal context from Brown’s thesis. The post-war creation of the modern Israeli state is not readily seen as a feature of contemporary globalization.

Additionally, we might wonder: Why does the US build a wall to Mexico, but not to Canada? Brown’s answer must be that Mexico is seen as more of a threat to American sovereignty that Canada. But what are the reasons Mexico is more threatening than Canada? Without delving into detail, the answers would surely contain racial, political and economic motivations. But if something along those lines is correct, it’s not clear what work “sovereignty” is doing in the explanation, and why we think it should generalize globally. Xenophobia and international tensions exist for a myriad of reasons, and in every known global context, and they reflect a lot more than the fragility of the notion of sovereignty. Indeed, it seems that racial and cultural divides would be the reason to worry about waning sovereignty, rather than the other way around.

As mentioned above, these walls mostly fail to accomplish the purported goals. If they’re not merely evaded, they create new problems of their own. Security on borders immediately raises the stakes of crossing, but can induce a microcosm arms race, thus decreasing overall safety.

Most often, walling advocates miss the larger picture. Drugs only cross walled borders because there’s demand for the drugs within the border. Undocumented laborers only migrate because there are potential employers. Those in favor of walls are opposed to the very forces within their own nation who make the walls (in their view) necessary. But this discord threatens to undermine the very sovereignty that the walls are supposed to fortify. If law cannot be maintained within the country, the distinctions between the two sides of the walls become less clear. And with dissident forces within the walled nation contesting the need for the borders, those who favor walls sometimes feel compelled to become vigilantes in defense of the border. But this fully brings to the fore the challenges posed to sovereignty; it cannot possibly be defended by the work of vigilantes, which themselves undermine the state’s authority.

Drawing on psychoanalysis, Brown describes the persistence of the desire for walls despite these tensions as a form of psychological defense mechanism. Defense mechanisms need not be rational, but reflect our desire to cling to an imagined sense of security and protection, even if doing so can undermine the fantasy. Thus she writes, “ The wish for sovereign protection that generates and sustains religion is so powerful and emerges from such a primal psychic experience that it cannot be addressed by an other force or allayed by science or reason… the desire for walls appears as a religiously inflected one.” (132)

The account is attractive, but need we be so psychologized? Is it not safe to assume that many people simply don’t recognize the empirical facts of the futility of walling, and fail to realize the contradictions involved? Those who should know better, as Brown notes, often simply pander to those who believe the walls are necessary.

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty applies a relatively simple paradox fruitfully to intensely fraught and complex nature of contemporary geopolitics. While not fully successful, Brown’s work is illuminating and sharp, and provides us with a number of conceptual tools with which to reflect on the borders of nationhood. Surely a bigger toolbox could find even greater depth to behold.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Stop lying to children

A stork, not carrying a baby. Photo Credit: Apurbasen via Wikipedia

Over at Practical Ethics, Hannah Maslen discusses some interesting (though seriously limited) research indicating that children who are lied to by an experimenter under particular conditions are more likely to lie to the experimenter. She suggests that since we don't want children lying, we should avoid lying to them when we can.

But this is just sound childcare advice, because these are situations in which the experimenter is quickly found out to be lying. And any decent educator would tell you not to lie to a child if the child will soon discover the truth (except, perhaps, in dire circumstances). The child will lose trust in the liar, diminishing the effectiveness of any childcare or education.

The interesting ethical question is, when is it bad to lie to children, regardless of whether or not it achieves one's broader goals?

Maslen writes: 
Most people would agree that telling young children that babies get delivered by storks is not the sort of lie we should be concerned about. 
I think we should be concerned about these kinds of lies. Obviously it's not a tragedy if a parent tells this lie, but I think there are serious reasons to avoid doing it. It plays on a child's trust and gullibility to avoid a parent's discomfort. It contains confusing misinformation that, at some point, the child will have to confront was a lie. And it (perhaps) promotes a propensity to lie. All of these, I think, would be reasons not to lie to an adult, and they apply equally against lying to children.

If it's inappropriate at a given age to discuss the mechanics of human reproduction, why shouldn't we just say to a child "That's something we'll talk about when you're older"?

More on this to come.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The problem with "black on black crime"

Remember Rudy Giuliani? He decided to share some of his thoughts on the recent discussions of racial politics and violence regarding events in Ferguson:
The fact is that I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We are talking about the significant exception here [in the Brown case]. I'd like to see the attention paid to that that you are paying to this.
I think Giuliani is wrong here, though I think people often do a bad job of explaining why he is wrong. For example, the incomparable Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in response to Giuliani:
It's almost as if killers tend to murder people who live near them. Moreover, it seems that people actually hold officers operating under the color of law to a different standard.
The first point is of course completely apt, and as the Washington Post acknowledges, most murder is intra-racial. But that doesn't really weaken the force of Giuliani's critique; his point is that, if you want to prevent black people from getting murdered, it's best to protect them from black murderers. The claim that the best way to protect white people is to protect them from white murderers doesn't change this claim. (Of course, neither of these is actually a strategy, but a general point about the focus such strategies ought to have).

The second point might be true, that we ought to hold police officers to a higher moral standard, but I'm not sure it actually gets to the root of the problem with Giuliani's argument. Because even if a certain act is more morally objectionable, if another act or group of acts is in effect more costly, it is prudent and wise to concern ourselves with the costly acts rather than the more objectionable acts. 

Let me explain this with an example. Suppose it's a bad thing to litter in the park. Some people, who are really evil, might throw away their batteries on the park because they like doing bad things. Suppose this is more objectionable than somebody who just litters because they are careless, or they don't realize the harm that it does. If the vast majority of the litter in the park is done by careless litterers, and our goal is to protect and support the value of the park, it makes the most sense to focus our efforts on reducing the careless litter, rather than the minimal litter of the really bad actors.

In fact, we might see campaigns decrying the evil litterers, while ignoring the much more numerous casual litterers, as a kind of moral fetishism, an overemphasis on blameworthiness that actually distracts us from what is really most important: protecting the park. This, I think, is the claim that Giuliani (and so many others) are making when they bring up "black on black crime".

Although the structure of the claim is, on my view, valid, it misses out on some important details.* First, Giuliani is just mistaken that no one talks about crime within African American communities. Those discussion happen all the time but (1) many white people just don't care enough to listen and (2) these discussions happen within black communities that, unsurprisingly, do not include many white people. Discussions about police brutality and interracial violence will involve the whole country, so these will be the conversation that conservatives of Giuliani's disposition pay attention to, but that doesn't mean that other conversations aren't also going on.

And, perhaps more importantly, the problem of white supremacy and racial oppression is the context in which intra-racial violence among African American communities arises. As Coates has discussed at length, this is system of oppression has deep effects today. One of the effects, for instance, of a distrust of the (mostly white) police is that disagreements are handled with force and violence is allowed to escalate. And the general disadvantage that black people face in our society foments the ingredients of conflict.

The redirection to "black on black crime" is an attempt to obscure this, and hide the fact that any societal structures play a role in the oppression of communities and the perpetuation of violence. There are several motivations for this obfuscation, some of which I have discussed previously

But it's more pernicious than just obfuscation, because underlying this argument is the assumption that either black people or "black culture" is somehow deeply troubled and flawed. The conservative response to this is to prescribe blanket moral condemnation: "Fix your culture", "fix your community", "where are the fathers?". Instead, we might think that there are deep socioeconomic and broader cultural effects in play, within a nation whose history includes a legacy of racial animus. Thinking that violence is just a "black people problem" trivializes this history and is thoroughly patronizing.

It might seem here that I'm just turning from blaming one culture to another. To some extent that's true, though I'm much less interested in the moral condemnation of individuals here and more interested in understanding the dynamics of power and oppression that structure society. And while it is a racist fantasy to imagine that somehow African Americans just have an inferior culture and simply need to better themselves, it is uncontroversial that our society is the product of doctrines of white supremacy and cultural superiority.

The broader argument of Coates' piece (linked to above) is a bit strange. He makes an interesting analogy to the problem of "American on American" crime, which is far more common than crime from muslim terrorists. Yet so much more of our national conversation (and budget) exists around addressing the much smaller problem of Muslim terrorists. This analogy is meant to show that the Giuliani and similarly minded conservatives are hypocritical, and that the "black on black crime" argument reveals racial bias, because they don't make the connection to American-on-American crime.

It's an interesting point, but I think it cuts the wrong way for Coates. His brief discussion about American crime vs. Muslim terrorist crime is actually compelling. We do worry more as a country about terrorist attacks than we do about, say, gun control, which is plausibly to our detriment. So the suggestion would be that if conservatives are to revise their hypocritical views, the should worry more about American on American crime (which, in fact, conservatives do talk about a fair amount, though not in that language), not that their dismissal of police brutality and white supremacy is misguided.

For the reasons I've given above, I think this dismissal is misguided. But Coates, to whom I am intellectually indebted for much of my thinking on this topic, neglects these points in this post, with problematic results.

*Both of these point have been discussed by Coates previously, to who has greatly helped to clarify my thoughts on the matter. I don't mean to make any general critique of Coates here, who is exceptionally thoughtful on these topics--I simply mean to critique the brief argument I quoted above, which many have employed, but is in my view too flippant.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The worst argument in the world

Photo Credit: tobym via Flickr
Over at the, Peter Schiff gives yet another warning that inflation might still be just around the corner, a warning we've heard constantly over the last several years. I'm not an economist, but it's clear these predictions have proved phenomenally wrong, repeatedly, and yet they persist.

More interesting to me, though, is one of the arguments we've heard over the years that Schiff here repeats. It is, in my view, a version of the worst argument in the world.
Mainstream economists (who hold sway in government, the corporate world, and academia) argued that as long as the labor market remained slack, inflation would not catch fire. My fellow Austrian economists and I loudly voiced the minority viewpoint that money printing is always inflationary-in fact, that it is the very definition of inflation.
If Schiff, and his fellow Austrian economists, were right about this, there would be no question. The title of his piece, "Where is the inflation?" would have an obvious answer. It would be in the Fed's balance sheets, where we've seen a huge expansion of the monetary base.

But this is a mistake. Because, obviously, Schiff sees the problem for his worldview: the monetary base has expanded significantly (i.e. the Fed has "printed money") but inflation remains modest. These things, after all, are measured in different ways. So printing money is not, by definition, inflation.

But suppose it were true that inflation just meant the printing of money. Well, then the question would be, who cares? That means that we've printed lots of money, that is, expanded the monetary base. But to say that means we've also had inflation is to just repeat yourself, because they mean the same thing. What we want to know is if there are any negative effects of printing money--but having a definitional relationship tells us nothing.

What I think Schiff wants to say is that money printing always necessarily leads to inflation, that is, rising prices. And rhetorically, it's tempting to illustrate this necessity by appealing to, or declaring a, definitional relationship. But instead, this move actually negates any substantive assertion, and merely makes confusing use of words that have better definitions.

Inflation is the general rise in the price of goods and services across the economy. Printing money, or monetary expansion, is the macroeconomic tool that the Fed has of essentially increasing the supply of money ("money printing" is, of course, misleading because money is no longer just printed dollars and cents, but the term as metaphor is suitable). It does this by lowering interest rates or buying treasury bonds. Schiff might think that, always and in every case, monetary expansion leads to inflation. But if that even if that were true, they wouldn't mean the same thing.
Take another example, "the square root of 9" and "the sum of 1 and 2" are both necessarily 3. But that doesn't mean that the two phrases mean the same thing. Clearly they do not.

This argument even fails for Schiff on his own terms; if monetary expansion and inflation were the same thing, if one means the other, then there's no argument to be had. That might sound good for Schiff's case, but it really indicates that he hasn't made any interesting or worthwhile claims at all. He might has well have said, as philosophers are prone to, "all bachelors are unmarried men". 

In fact, it's worse than this--the definition of bachelor is uncontroversial. But if you're introducing a definition that is controversial, for words that have perfectly good definitions already, you're just making matters more confused.

Once you realize this argument for the sham that it is, you realize that people use it all the time. But it's just a trick, an illusory argument. The reason I think it's the worst argument in the world is that it seems so powerful--relationships of necessity are important, and definitional necessity appears to be the strongest kind of necessity--but it is entirely vacuous.

Consider another example (courtesy of Derek Parfit in On What Matters). Some people think that "the morally right action" just means "the action that has the best consequences." These people think this is a declaration of the truth of consequential moral theory, but in fact it is the opposite. It means that moral theory is nothing more than consequentialism, which is just an assertion. Such an assertion could have no more meaningful effect on our lives than the realization that garbanzo beans and chickpeas are the same thing.

The problem for a consequentialist who held this view is that a non-consquentialist could completely agree. In fact, it's always a generous move in an argument to accept your interlocutor's definitions. So as before, I might accept that "morally right" means "having the best consequences", but any question I had about such actions with the best consequences (such as, is there always conclusive reason to act thusly?) would thusly apply to "morally right" action. I might ask, is there always conclusive reason to do what is morally right? Ought I do what is morally right?

Normally we might think that "what I have most reason to do" or "what is morally right" or "what I ought to do" all refer to the same concept.* But if I accept the consequentialist definition of "what is morally right", I have to use other (to me, synonymous) phrases to ask the pertinent question. If she chooses to define all of these phrases in her special way, she may do so, but she simply leaves her interlocutor unable to question what is most interesting--and not in a helpful way.

Definitions and words are just the tools with which we have arguments. But arguments are actually about the features of the world and the things that matter to us. You can adjust the definitions of the words to mean whatever you like, and it might seem like you're making a point. But really, you blur the intuitive connection that words have to the features of the world and the things that matter to us. And this makes argument less clear and less helpful, and our thinking more muddled. 

What I've said here might seem to suggest that there's never any point in arguing about definitions. That's not quite correct--and I'll show why in a subsequent post(which--I anticipate--will be (even!) more interesting to readers than the topics covered here).

*Some people do not accept this. More on this later.