Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

27 July, 2012

A Brief, Belated Note on Michael Sandel

By Aaron
27 July, 2012

In the times I’ve heard or read Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, he’s never missed a chance to lament what he calls the “market triumphalism” that has prevailed since – are you sitting down? – the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s. Moreover, Sandel writes with a note of concern that “Economics [has become] an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.”

As it happens, just this past week, Steven Horwitz – a resident of this imperial domain – posted on Facebook what may be the best, if unintended, response to the writings of Michael Sandel that I’ve yet seen. It is certainly among the most succinct. Horwitz writes:

Economists are sometimes accused of thinking only in terms of money, but that's dead wrong. We're the ones pointing out that costs are more than just financial. In fact, the best economists are the least "materialist" people around, as we understand that costs and benefits are ultimately subjective and personal. The more you understand economics, the less of a "materialist" you should be.

Just as economists – well, the good ones, at least – take their theorizing beyond the realm of money, so too do markets transcend the lowly bogs of filthy lucre. When libertarians, Austrian economists, and others of a free market persuasion speak of “markets” what they’re really talking about is “voluntarism.” The Market, properly understood, should not be confused with Namdaemun in Seoul or the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul – though these places are certainly a piece of The Market. Rather, The Market refers to the myriad ways in which individuals come together to form cooperative relationships in the absence of coercive force. Sometimes this involves the exchange of money, but quite often it does not.

My first impulse, then, when Sandel writes, in his latest book What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, that “we have drifted from having a market economy to a market society,” is to think, great, more voluntary interactions and fewer instances of coercion by outside parties.

But, of course, this is not what Sandel has in mind. For him, The Market is more akin to a large department store where folks can now buy everything from access to better health care, to the right to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, to a spot in the carpool lane on a busy Texas freeway. For Sandel, the fact that such things are for sale at all presents a towering philosophical challenge. He writes:

A debate about the moral limits of markets would enable us to decide, as a society, where markets serve the public good and where they do not belong. Thinking through the appropriate place of markets requires that we reason together, in public, about the right way to value the social goods we prize.

The trouble underlying Sandel’s philosophizing is apparent in the wording of this passage. How, exactly, will “we” have this debate that will help “us” decide where markets belong and how much “we” value these social goods? After all, as Horwitz points out, costs and benefits are subjective and personal, which means that in any such mass debate – say, via democratic elections – one group of individuals will be arrogating to themselves the right to tell other groups what they can and cannot do with their time, money, and bodies. Perhaps some majority (or even plurality) of citizens believe that surrogate motherhood degrades the female. Fine, but by what means and by what right did that majority acquire ownership over the body of any woman who wishes to provide such a service?

It’s worth noting also that the areas in which Sandel appears most concerned about people buying their way into better products and services tend to be precisely those areas where markets are not allowed to function: health care, prisons, traffic and roads, education, and the environment. Sandel thus misdiagnoses the problem. The issue is not that rich people are segregating themselves with their money, but that entrepreneurs – via The Market – are most often prevented from discovering new ways to bring better products and services to those populating the lower rungs of the income ladder.

For millennia, the merchant class – and the commercial activity in which its members wallow – has been viewed with scorn by the academic elite. What these academic scolds fail to do, however, in their condemnation of commerce is suggest a realistic and morally superior alternative to The Market and its voluntary networks of relationships. To read Sandel (and the not dissimilar writings of Robert Frank), then, is to read someone who, to summarize Thomas Sowell, appears to believe that simply because he finds something unpleasant means that there should be a law against that thing, though Sandel stops short of advocating specific policies. How he proposes to limit The Market without trampling on the freedom of individuals to pursue their chosen course in life, however, is not clear.

26 July, 2012

Post-Aurora: A Defense of the Human Race

By Aaron
26 July, 2012

For every villain like James Holmes, there's a handful of eccentric "superheros" trying to stop him (video also here)

Events like last weekend's mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater are almost enough to make a person lose faith in humanity, to write off the whole lot of homines sapientes as a lost cause and go live in a cabin in the woods of Alaska. News stories about Miami face-eaters and monstrous Penn State football coaches don't exactly improve one's view of our species either, but one reason these stories make the news is precisely because they are, blessedly, so rare. As awful as such events are, then, we'd all do well to step back and note that, isolated horrors aside, the vast majority of humans remain kind, generous and, quite simply, downright decent.

I say this as someone who hasn't always had a terribly optimistic view of my fellow man (although I've generally been more sanguine about the fairer sex). Indeed, for much of my life I agreed with the comedian Bill Hicks who described humans as "a virus with shoes." Unfortunately, this dour view of humanity leads a person to unsavory conclusions about human capabilities. If I believe, for instance, that humans are naturally - and only - selfish, uncaring misers, it follows that the government must confiscate some portion of their income in order to care for the old, sick, and hungry that would otherwise die in the gutters if not for such state-run programs as Medicare and Social Security. And if I believe that humans are merely a pack of short-sighted imbeciles who will not look after their own well-being, it follows that I should support an array of restrictions on their activities - such as what they put into their body, whether or not they wear a seat belt, or how they choose a hair stylist - even if those activities harm no one but themselves. In short, this pessimistic view of humanity - grounded as it is in an arrogant view of myself as qualified to make such judgements about the ability and character of others - leads almost inevitably to the belief that people must be watched, coddled, and guarded against at all times. I take no pride in saying so, but for years this is how I viewed people.

At some point, however, I realized that my pessimism was not just exaggerated, but also wrong. This realization began when it dawned on me that I, too, am human (a startling bit of insight, I know) and, as such, am subject to the same foibles as most everyone else. Thus, even if humans are selfish and short-sighted - which we certainly are on occasion - there is no reason to believe that I or any bureaucrat, both as imperfect as the next fellow, could do any better at the task of overseeing the affairs of others. Even this viewpoint, however, retained a hint of pessimism, as it merely lumped me and said bureaucrat into that same tight-fisted and doltish whole.

A more important moment of understanding came when, one day, I looked around and realized that, with the exception of the occasional James Holmes, Jerry Sandusky, and Cho Seung-Hui, humans strive to be, as Adam Smith put it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, both loved and lovely:

[Man] naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blame-worthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame. 

That is, most folks, most of the time and - this is crucial - under the right incentives, want to do the right thing, and they most often succeed. The magician, comedian and all-around philosopher Penn Jillette was correct, then, when he noted:

I believe firmly that if you pull a Ferrari up in front of a Starbucks and say to a random person, “My wife’s pregnant, I gotta run in the car with her, I gotta drive her there, my car is out there, just please take it and park it and text me at this number,” and run away, they’re not gonna steal that car. Your vast majority of people are gonna go, “Oh Jesus, I don’t know if I can drive a stick.” And they’re gonna get in there and they’re gonna do that. I think if liberals would just trust people to be better, there’s no problem with them either.

Jillette here hits on an important point: the nanny state and its cousins on the politicial continuum (tyranny, authoritarianism, socialism, etc.) are predicated on the notion that most folks are diluted variants of either James Holmes (he of the Aurora, Colorado shooting) or Forrest Gump. Trouble is, the nanny state actions that grow out of this belief become a self-fulfilling prophecy: when you remove from folks the incentive to care for their parents, save for their own retirement, or properly insure their home against disaster, guess what? They don't do it. Not because they're greedy or stupid, but because they follow incentives and the incentives tell them there's no need to bother. If someone else will do something for me, why do it for myself? 
Yes, we're all greedy - or, if you prefer, self-interested - but we're also inclined to help our friends and loved ones and even the occasional stranger through a rough patch. Yes, we can be a foolish and myopic lot, but we also generally take the long view when it behooves us to do so. And more often than not, if you pay close attention, you won't be disappointed by the folks around you. 

If you're still troubled, however, as I confess I am, by the recent events in Colorado, take a moment to watch this video with Harvard's Steven Pinker, who notes that we, as humans, are killing each other a lot less than ever before. Perhaps you don't think that's saying much, but hey, it's a helluva lot of something.

23 July, 2012

Déjà Vu?

By Aaron
23 July, 2012

I haven't seen it yet, but let me take a guess: the new Batman film features a crazed villain who's bent on destroying society, and Bruce Wayne is still a brooding recluse who would prefer to be left alone but who nevertheless emerges for a climactic battle with Evil at about the 3/4 mark in the movie.

Now, must I see The Dark Knight Rises or can we just safely say that I got the gist of the franchise via the previous six installments?

Here, by the way, is a playlist with the official trailers for all seven Batman films. I daresay I need of another Batman film about as much as I needed a Lenny Kravitz cover of "American Woman." 

02 July, 2012

The Pursuit of Frivolity

By Aaron
02 July, 2012

In his recent book, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley notes that "prosperity is simply time saved." This insight achieves that rare dual feat of being both obvious and profound. Consider, for instance, how much you are able to accomplish because you have a washing machine and do not, as a result, have to spend hours down at the river laundering your unmentionables. Or ponder for a moment how much less you'd be able to do if oxygen didn't occur naturally or if rain didn't fall on its own (putting aside the obvious fact that we couldn't very well do anything without either of these). 

Point is, as societies become wealthier, humans have more time on their hands. With these additional minutes, hours, and days, some folks devote their energies to finding ways to give us even more time (via email, airplanes, medicine, etc.), thereby making us even more prosperous. Others, meanwhile, dedicate themselves to what I'll call "the pursuit of frivolity," that is, to bringing pure happiness, for its own sake, to the world. My favorite examples of these latter pursuits, as I've written before, include Bumper Nuts and The Pooter. (Of course, happiness is itself another variety of wealth, so perhaps the creators of these treasures are not so different from those who improve pharmaceuticals or fine-tune Wal-Mart's logistical operations.)

To Bumper Nuts and the Pooter - those wonders of our modern world - I can today add the video above, in which some blessed soul took the time (and what time it must have required) to synchronize scenes from classic American musicals, such as those of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, to the Bee Gees' disco classic "Stayin' Alive." I suspect that if we were able to transport our hunter-gatherer ancestors to the present day, they'd ask not where we got the technology to produce such a video, but rather where we got the time. 

This video, then, which embodies technology and time, is prosperity itself.