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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, December 31, 2021

TGIF: Pursue Your Happiness and Forget the Rest

How about we do something novel in the new year? Let's stop worrying about the stuff most politicians, pundits, and activists want us to worry about and instead think about ourselves, our families, our friends, and whatever communities we choose to be part of. Let's forget about "the country" and the rest of the world. Let's individually pursue happiness.

All I'm saying is that it's finally time for the politicians, bureaucrats, and know-it-all intelligentsia, left or right, to get out of the way and let us set our own agendas.

Too self-centered? Well, too bad. Much evil results from people failing to mind their own business. But what I have in mind does not involve wishing other people ill or seeing life as a zero-sum game in which you can win only if others lose. On the contrary, we benefit from other people's, including distant strangers', good fortune because at the very least it opens up opportunities for mutual gains from trade. ("The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market," the wise Adam Smith pointed out some time ago.) In reality, it opens up so much more.

There's little chance this sort of world would result in what is often stigmatized as "selfishness." The vast majority of us understand that truly caring about oneself necessarily means caring about other people in a variety of proper ways. In fact, the person who claims to care only about himself actually cares little even about himself. That's why mutually beneficial social arrangements have been bottom-up affairs. As Thomas Paine recognized in The Rights of Man:

Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.

Yet the policy elite and much of the ideological left and right don't want us to understand this. They have other plans for us. They always do, don't they? So they can't let us get it into our heads that their agendas are illiberal impositions.

The ruling establishment and its mouthpiece media try to keep us agitated by a variety of threats. As Ted Galen Carpenter notes,

In recent years, U.S. executive branch officials and members of Congress from both political parties have routinely portrayed Russia or China (and frequently both countries) as existential threats to the United States. It also is becoming increasingly common to find news articles or opinion pieces that adopt the same theme. Moreover, a significant number of politicians and analysts put smaller powers, especially Iran and North Korea, and even non-state actors, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, in that category. The concerted campaign on the part of opinion-shaping elites to hype the danger from such sources is leaving an indelible mark on public attitudes. Many Americans now believe that their country faces multiple, horrifying threats.

More sober reflection should cause the public to conclude that the dangers are greatly exaggerated, and that the individuals, agencies, and organizations that foster such hysteria are not doing the country any favors. ("Paranoid Superpower: Threat Inflation is the American Way.")

Do the real or imagined threats to Ukraine or Taiwan really represent existential threats to the world including the American people?

Then there's the so-called climate emergency, which doesn't exist. After more than 40 years of the most ridiculously bad predictions of the imminent catastrophe, it's time for those who still take the doomsday scenarios seriously to realize that "Wolf!" has been cried too many times. The same goes for other "crises," like the ones supposedly presented by immigrants, global free trade, and the allegedly rampant racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and the assortment of imagined phobias.

We can also tell the "woke" left and the national conservative right that we have our own lives to live, thank you very much. And, no, we don't have too much freedom, no matter what they may think. They can include us out of their culture wars.

The point of freedom is to be left unimpeded in our own individual and voluntary cooperative pursuits. It will forever be remarkable that the Declaration of Independence specified "the pursuit of happiness" in its examples of unalienable rights. Let's never forget it.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Feelings and Explanations

We frequently conflate feelings with explanations of feelings. It's important that we not do that. 

From the fact that people are infallible authorities on whether they experience, say, pain, it does not follow that they are infallible authorities on why they experience pain on any particular occasion. They can't be wrong about the former, but they surely can be wrong about the latter. It would make no sense to say, "I thought I was in pain last night, but I was wrong." Yet it would make perfect sense to say, "I thought my mouth hurt because of a cavity, but I was wrong. The source of the pain was my right temporomandibular joint. The connection between effect and cause is even looser with things like anxiety. One might feel apprehensive or dysphoria generally, but how does one pin down the precise cause with confidence?

People of course can lie about being in pain, or not being in pain, but that is beside the point. I assume sincerity here.

So imagine someone suffering distress because, despite his homo sapiens body, he sincerely believes that his real species identity is that of an extraterrestrial. That is, he was "given the wrong body" and mistakenly "assigned" to the category homo sapiens. How does he know? He says he feels like an alien and doesn't feel like a human being. He also insists that his explanation must be correct because only he has direct and perfect knowledge of his own identity. Therefore he demands that everyone not only acknowledge it but also really believe it. 

Leaving aside some serious problems (what does it mean to feel like an alien or for that matter a human being?), a rational person could take his claim of distress at face value while rejecting his explanation as wrong and even absurd. Expressions of doubt about, not to mention the outright rejection of, his explanation might hurt that person's feelings, yet that would be no reason to patronize him by pretending to take the explanation seriously. If he reacted to the doubters and "deniers" as phobic bigots and exclusionists who ought to be drummed out of enlightened society, he would be the irrational one. One can certainly sympathize with people who suffer without being committed to embracing their explanations for their suffering. We all have the moral (not to mention legal) right to judge the plausibility of explanations for ourselves. 

Needless to say, the sort of person I have in mind should have the same rights as everyone else, which boil down to the right not to be aggressed against. People should be legally free to aspire to any identity they want. But identity is always a two-way street; it's a social phenomenon. And that means that other people have rights too. If those others find the positive obligations being expected on them unreasonable (such as the obligation to accommodate a self-identified extraterrestrial and to recognize that person as such), they have a right to say, "Sorry, but no. Live and let live applies to you too."

We cannot show respect for others by adopting their reality-defying fantasies. Sensitivity to suffering does not require us to check our common sense, our logic, and our reason at the door.


Friday, December 17, 2021

TGIF: Double-Rigging of the Auto Market

U.S. government interference with our lives often resembles a Russian matryoshka doll: regulation is nested in more regulation. Take the provision of Biden's pending Build Back Better bill that would create a big tax credit for people who buy U.S.-built electric vehicles (EV).

Not only would the government distort the domestic auto market by rigging it in favor of electric vehicles over conventional ones, but it also would rig the EV market, Trump-style, in favor of U.S.-made products. This implies that "foreign" EVs are so attractive to American buyers that the domestic offerings need help from the state to compete. That's an argument against the provision right there. If the vehicles that American companies and workers turn out aren't what American buyers would want to buy without subsidies, the manufacturers shouldn't be protected from that important information.

Why not? Because markets exist for consumers and not for producers. Makers of trade policy have no political incentive to operate on that principle because manufacturers of a given product can easily organize for government protection of their livelihoods and reward the politicians who do their bidding. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for consumers, who have too many other things to worry about. Any kind of trade restrictions hurt them because prices will be higher and product variety will be constrained, especially if a trade war breaks out through tit-for-tat retaliation.

Trade wars end up hurting producers as well, of course. Even without a trade war, when Americans buy less from foreigners, foreigners, having less money, will buy less from Americans and other foreigners. The bad effects ripple globally.

Understandably, electric-vehicle makers in Canada and Mexico are especially upset. Who could blame them? The San Diego Union-Tribune reports, "Canada and Mexico worry the provision would lead to dramatic reductions in EVs purchased in their respective countries and violates the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, the trade pact the three countries passed last year to replace NAFTA."

So much for the alleged free-trade zone of North America.

But things are not quite so simple as the provision's backers make out, demonstrating that Donald Trump had no monopoly on willful ignorance about the reality of trade. The inhabitants of the United States, Canada, and Mexico do more than trade finished consumer goods with each other. For many years North America has been a single highly integrated market for producers' goods.

According to the Union-Tribune, Canada's consul general for Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona, Zaib Shaikh, points out that, in the newspaper's words, "Determining the country of origin of a given vehicle is complicated because the auto industry of the three North American countries has become so highly integrated."

In other words, It's not clear what an American, Canadian, or Mexican EV is exactly. “'When you think about vehicles assembled in Canada, they’re actually 50 percent U.S.-made,' Shaikh said, 'because the supply chain works so that things are crossed over six or seven times across the border' before a vehicle is finally assembled."

It's hardly the first time that the authors and backers of legislation were ignorant about the thing they sought to regulate.

As already noted, tilting the market toward American manufacturers, even if that were possible today, is not the only objectionable feature of the provision. The provision also aims at tilting the market toward EVs and against vehicles with internal combustion engines. EV purchasers would gain $12,500 in tax credits by 2027. This is in pursuit of the Biden administration's goal of cutting carbon-dioxide emissions 50-54 percent from the 2005 level by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050.

Those targets are important for many people on the fallacious grounds that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that is ruinously warming the climate when in fact it is plant food that is greening the earth and bringing other palpable benefits to mankind. (Thanks to technology, the real pollutants in gasoline are already controlled in today's clean cars.)

To the extent that human-generated CO2 emissions through the use of fossil fuels have contributed to mild global warming since the Industrial Revolution began, they have helped to improve the lives of human beings everywhere by making the natural world more hospitable. During this time, population, life expectancy, and per-capita wealth have grown, while extreme poverty, infant mortality, and deaths from weather extremes have plummeted. Cold kills more people than heat, and the longer growing seasons made possible by warming help feed the world's nearly 8 billion people at a lower cost.

For the foreseeable future, nothing will be able to compete with fossil fuels in providing reliable, inexpensive, and abundant energy -- something billions of people in the developing world desperately need if they are to achieve the living standards that we in the West take for granted.

So rigging the market in favor of electric vehicles is a dumb idea.

Finally, we might welcome tax credits because they provide a chance to keep more of our money, but this principle is a snare and a delusion.  The power to tax (that is, steal) is bad enough without it also being a politician's tool to manipulate market outcomes. That only adds injury to injury.

Friday, December 10, 2021

TGIF: Joe Biden, Let's Not Go to War with Russia

Here's a good idea: let's not go to war against Russia. Let's not even rattle a saber at Russia (or China, for that matter) because even wars that no one really wants can be blundered into. Many losers would be left in the aftermath, even if nuclear weapons were kept out of sight, but no one would win. So as that smart Defense Department computer says in the 1983 movie WarGames, "The only winning move is not to play."

The crisis du jour is Ukraine; before that, it was Georgia, both former Soviet republics. For some inexplicable reason, Russia's rulers get nervous when the U.S. foreign policy elite treats Russian historical security concerns as of no consequence. Could it have something to do with the several invasions of Russia through Eastern Europe in the past? Jeez, from the way the irrational Russians behave, you'd think their American counterparts never invoked U.S. security concerns (usually bogus) as a reason for military action. As if...

But maybe it is time for America's rulers to take Russian worries into consideration. Even for those of us who are no fans of Vladimir Putin and the government he runs, this seems like good advice – if for no other reason than narrow American self-interest. At least, that's how it looks from the view of regular Americans, who might appreciate for a change what Adam Smith described as "peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice."

Anyone who has paid attention to U.S. foreign policy since the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact alliance, 1989-91, would realize that America's bipartisan foreign-policy elite has taken precisely the wrong tack by baiting nervous Russian nationalists at every turn. Despite promises to the contrary, that elite has led the charge to add members to the NATO alliance, taking the anti-Soviet military and political organization right up to the Russian border and staging military exercises uncomfortably close. The U.S. has also sold weapons systems to NATO-member Poland, formerly a member of the Warsaw Pact.

Putin insists that NATO not expand any further, but Biden told him to shut up. The U.S. position is that NATO's inclusion of former Soviet possessions is purely an alliance affair. Meanwhile, Biden threatens more harsh economic sanctions and even more U.S. troops to Eastern Europe if Putin doesn't acquiesce by, among other things, moving his troops away from the Russia-Ukraine border

Let's also recall that in 2014 the U.S. stood behind a neo-Nazi-supported coup against an elected, Russian-friendly president in Ukraine, knowing full well how the Russians would react. Fearing U.S./NATO encroachment, Putin's government annexed Crimea with its strategic warm-water Black Sea naval base, which has been part of the Russian security system for over 200 years. Nevertheless, and most relevant to today's heightened tensions, Putin declined an opportunity to annex eastern Ukraine (the Donbass region full of ethnic Russians ) when a majority there voted for independence from Kiev.

You didn't have to know too much about European history to see how provocative the U.S.-sponsored regime change in Ukraine would be. To make matters worse, Ukraine and Georgia have become de facto NATO members, but only because the U.S. elite has not yet convinced its European counterparts to give those two former Soviet republics official membership. That, however, hasn't stopped Washington from extending a security guarantee to Ukraine that is all too much like the one that NATO members extend to one another. Biden has just reinforced that guarantee.

Which Americans are ready to die for Kiev?

For some reason it's easy for Americans, who can be as nationalistically self-centered as anyone, to assume that any ratcheting up of tensions with Russia must be the Russians' fault. The establishment media have no problem presenting this as an indisputable fact. But how do they know it's true? They never furnish evidence. Foreign-policy expert Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute has a much more evidence-bound take:

Moscow’s behavior has been more a reaction to aggressive moves that the United States and its Ukrainian client have already taken than it is evidence of offensive intent. Russian leaders have viewed the steady expansion of NATO’s membership and military presence eastward toward Russia’s border since the late 1990s suspiciously and they have considered Washington’s growing strategic love affair with Kiev as especially provocative.

Moreover, Carpenter adds,

Ukraine’s own policies have become dangerously bellicose. The government’s official security doctrine adopted earlier this year, for example, focuses on retaking Crimea, the peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014 following the West’s campaign that helped demonstrators overthrow Ukraine’s elected, pro-Russian president. Statements by President Volodymyr Zelensky and other leaders have been disturbingly bellicose, and Ukraine’s own military deployments have further destabilized an already fragile situation.

Carpenter points out that while the United States is far more powerful than Russia in conventional terms, "unless the United States and its allies are willing to wage an all-out war against Russia, an armed conflict confined to Ukraine (and perhaps some adjacent territories), would diminish much of that advantage. Russian forces would be operating close to home, with relatively short supply and communications lines. US forces would be operating far from home with extremely stressed lines. In other words, there is no certainty that the US would prevail in such a conflict."

Would the Biden administration then back down or go nuclear? Who is eager to find out?

Those considerations aside, the U.S. government should simply stop fanning the Russophobic flames simply because a war would be incredibly stupid.

Friday, December 03, 2021

TGIF: Safety in Freedom

With the emergence of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, renewed restrictions on liberty or calls for their reinstatement have broken out around the world. The new wave is probably only beginning, and with it will surely come sermons on how we must face trade-offs between liberty and safety. This seems to be the new normal.

The usual justifications for this purported necessity always feel inadequate, with gaping holes in the case for expanding government power to extraordinary lengths. Since we all now have a good deal of experience with COVID under our belts, let's hope that the public's doubts about any new power grab will be strong and loudly expressed.

What brought this subject to mind was a recent Oxford Union debate, which I ran across on YouTube. While I've watched only a little, it quickly occurred to me that the case for a necessary trade-off between liberty and safety runs aground with the realization that liberty is a necessary condition for safety. After all, it's not always clear how one can best stay safe in a situation: that requires thought, discourse, action, and therefore liberty.

Moreover, that matter is separate from the question of how safe any particular person may wish to be. Indeed, people have different preferences with respect to risk and safety in part because life is complicated and trade-offs are ubiquitous. Increasing one's safety in some measure by abstaining from some desirable activity will likely require too big a sacrifice for some people, although for others the benefit will be well worth the cost. (A person cannot violate his own freedom.) So who's to decide? Why should a faceless bureaucrat or a charismatic politician make the call?

Few people understand that there's safety in liberty, specifically, the freedom to think, improvise, and innovate. This is true for individuals, but when the potential danger is social or global, the case for liberty is equally clear. That's precisely when we all need many minds searching for solutions without central direction. Knowledge is dispersed, and no one can say who will have a key insight. Competition is the universal solvent. And to be effective, thinking requires freedom of action.

Matt Ridley and Julian Simon before him elaborated how we all benefit from the often unintentional combination of ideas generated in different and unlikely places. By now, the serendipity that freedom produces ought to be expected. The results often are imaginative approaches to vexing problems that few would have dreamed possible.

The case for giving up freedom to acquire a measure of safety is actually an appeal to trust in an anointed central authority. And that means a threat of force is at least implied.

But where is the actual safety in that arrangement? Why should anyone believe that the anointed know what they are doing? They operate in a centralized, bureaucratic environment. The rulers expect the ruled to behave like children who have been told that all will be fine if they obey. Unfortunately, the ruled often think of themselves as children when it comes to the latest risk proclaimed by their rulers.

So are people really safer than they would have been in a free, decentralized, and competitive environment? We find no evidence for this in places that imposed harsh restrictions on liberty in response to COVID-19. Lockdowns, vaccine and mask mandates, and travel bans show no signs of delivering on the politicians' promises. There just is no good substitute for freedom at every level because no central authority is knowledgeable enough.

Finally, what about the risks that individuals might present to others and not just to themselves? There are big differences between 1) the potential risks to others that anyone may pose in simply going about the normal business of life and 2) the dangers produced by aggression, gross negligence, and inadvertent toxic pollution, where identifiable individuals entitled to due process can be shown to present demonstrable peril to others. For one thing, in the first case, people are not passive victims-in-waiting but generally informed agents capable of taking precautions against infection. Imagine the nightmare that would come from the principle that everyone in society may be viewed as a threat to everyone else merely by breathing. We don't have to imagine it, do we? That's how most governments throughout the world -- blunt instruments that they are -- responded to the pandemic. As a result, our livelihoods -- our lives-- are now subject to cancellation without notice.

(Photo credit: Dev Asangbam, Unsplash License)