Category Archives: Ends and Means

Stepping Up to the Plate?

Slow internet. No words invoke greater apoplexy in modern man than these. Oconee County, being largely rural, has suffered through its share of less than ideal Internet connectivity over the last decade. So it is little wonder that county officials recently engaged representatives of Corning Optical Communications to discuss the possibility of wiring the entire county for fiber optic Internet access. As a resident myself, nothing would please me more. However, as an ethically consistent human being, I cannot opt to ignore a little thing like theft even when that theft might benefit me personally.

Inroads to high speed Internet have been slow not because of capriciousness but rather due to simple economics. Investments are made only if the prospect of a meaningful return is sufficient to compensate for the risk involved. What would you say if someone asked you to invest your retirement savings into a project that might yield a payback of less than 1% after 75 years? If you’re unwilling to make such a poor investment, then who can blame the telecoms for reaching the same conclusion. Capital intensive projects like running underground cables for miles and miles only to serve a handful of customers just don’t make economic sense unless those customers are willing to pay hundreds of dollars a month. And since nobody is willing to pay that, it doesn’t happen. Local governments don’t help either as various right-of-way statutes heap unnecessary costs on the process (see OCGA §46-5-1(a) and 48-5-423).

In the meeting, according to the Oconee Enterprise, Administrative Officer Jeff Benko observed that, “…in areas where the private sector has not stepped up to the plate, there’s an opportunity for the government to intervene.” In other words, where my parents have not stepped up to the plate by buying me a Ferrari, there’s an opportunity for my bank-robbing uncle to buy one on my behalf. “Stepping up to the plate” is the economic equivalent of providing something at a false cost because no one is wiling to pay its true cost.

This project was estimated to run about $1400/home served. If everyone voluntarily wrote a $1400 check that would be grand. It would be true democracy, marketplace democracy, in action. Consumers vote their preference every time they open their wallet. But we live with a political democracy as well, so as long as 51 out of 100 people want something, then it’s perfectly acceptable to reach into their neighbor’s wallet and take what is needed. Some might suggest paying for it with bonds is ethically sound as someone is voluntarily lending money to the county. But that logic is specious insofar as the bond must eventually be repaid and the only way to do so is with taxes and as we all know, taxes are theft. Indeed bonds are even more cowardly as they shift the repayment burden onto future taxpayers who have no voice in what is decided today.

Repeat after me: just because it is something I want, that does not make it is ok to use political means to force others to provide it for me.

Market Failure: Revenge of the Commons?

If you missed last week’s article be sure to read it here, however, a synopsis of the article’s thesis is that “market failure” is impossible. Markets are closed systems and as such anything internal to the system affects the entire system. A market can no more “fail” than a pot of water exposed to a flame will fail to boil. Apropos the pot of water example: if a pot of water does not boil after 5-seconds of exposure to a lighter we do not say “ah-ha, physics has failed, here is proof that flames cannot boil water!” No, we realize that if sufficient heat is applied, it will boil (thermodynamics) but that the process takes time (kinetics). Failure of something to occur instantly or even within our own lifetime does not equate to “failure”. Markets regulate themselves; perhaps not as fast as some would like, but it occurs nevertheless. As the saying goes: you can have it fast, cheap, or good: pick any two. With state regulation of the market you only get one: fast, at the expense of it being both expensive (inefficient) and poor (ineffective). Natural market regulation is both good (effective) and cheap (efficient), but tends to be slow, which many find frustrating. This gradual process thus provides a framework of excuses for state intervention to speed things up. These people fail to see the thermodynamic forest for the kinetically slow-growing trees.

At first glance it might appear the pot example is not illustrative of a closed market system. The pot is exposed to the surrounding air, which can transfer the heat away. So we must clearly demarcate the borders of the system under discussion; let us say the pot and flame are in an insulated box. Everything outside is irrelevant to what occurs in the box.

So, we define the market as that system containing everything that is (apparently) part of the market. However, the counterargument here would be that things outside of the market system, unlike the pot and flame, do effect what is in the system. That is, the “commons” outside of the market (into which things may be dumped or extracted) apparently play a role. To the extent such commons are artificial in nature (“public” spaces) and thus through state coercion the market’s efforts to allocate and economize those resources via private property are frustrated, we cannot say then that any abuse of such spaces is a market failure. The state itself is setting up the very situation that opens them up to abuse. The state is not part of the market. The market is peaceful voluntary trade where both parties “win”; the state is violent involuntary trade where one side wins and one side loses.

However, there are natural common areas (the oceans and the sky) that are not amenable to conventional private property demarcations (e.g. fences) – although technology is slowly changing that reality. These would appear to be areas outside of the closed market (private) systems and thus immune to feedback from the market even though the market may benefit from them. For markets separated by a commons but connected through other means, the feedback occurs at the border with the commons and this information is transmitted via the other connection just as though they directly bordered each other.

But, let us consider the more difficult example of two isolated markets, not in communication, separated by a commons. We will consider the ocean (although the sky works equally well). Imagine that you live on the coast and fish for a living. Far across the ocean another settlement pollutes the water. Eventually that pollution reaches your shore and affects your fishing productivity. You have no idea where it is coming from (non-point source pollution), all you know is that it is a new cost you did not have before. Since you do not know the source you only have once choice: to clean up/remove the pollution at the bordering point to where you customarily fish.

Is the fact that you have to devote resources to cleaning this up a market failure? No. Why not? Well imagine that if instead of it being some far away people polluting the water it was some natural event (volcano, mudslide, etc.). Your actions would be no different (cleaning the water) yet you would not say the market has failed just because Nature foisted additional hurdles at you. If the effect is the same, the cause is irrelevant if you have no way of knowing or influencing the cause.

Now lets say you do find out who is polluting and ask them to stop but they refuse. You do not trade with them so feedback cannot occur that way. You now have two choices that prompt me to pose this question: Is it morally justified to attack and kill them until they submit to your will if continuing to remove the pollution yourself may also solve the problem? One option involves the ending of human life; the other option is a mere inconvenience. Which would you choose? If you answer yes to the former then I suggest you reflect on how the state has warped your sense of reality such that it is considered morally acceptable to initiate violent actions against others in order to resolve non-violent conflict. Now consider that all state actions rest on a bedrock of threatening violence against those that will not bend to its will, no matter how trivial the concern. History does not judge kindly those who initiate aggression to force others to do their bidding

Speech, Money and Means

Elections, campaigning, voting; these are all creatures of the state. To the extent the state itself is illegitimate, it is wasted effort to debate the legitimacy of internal rules of an illegitimate entity (a bit like arguing over the moral distinction between thieves that pick locks vs those that break down doors). So discussions concerning whether the government should limit political donations to this amount or that amount is entirely academic; there is no right or wrong answer given the larger context that compelling all to accept the outcome of an election is the true affront to individual rights (that is, the right to choose with whom one will associate).

With that said, however, I would like to touch on a common philosophical misconception that has been reignited with the recent Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC. In this decision the Supreme Court struck down limits on total donation amounts to candidates and political committees (while retaining certain other limits). The predictable knee-jerk response then ensued from the progressive media outlets: Unrestricted giving means our democracy is for sale! More money in politics means only the well-funded candidates will win elections! Money is not speech! Ok, stop right there. The first two assertions are at least plausible (although plenty of examples abound where the more well-funded candidate lost), however denying the essential connection that money and speech have is to engage in intellectual dishonesty

What does the right to free speech entail? (Before I continue, for clarity’s sake “speech” is shorthand to describe any action that externalizes the thoughts or ideas of an individual). Does free speech mean we should be able to speak for free? No. It means that it is impermissible for anyone (which includes government) to aggressively interfere with an individual’s exercise of speech (assuming the speaker has not voluntarily agreed to limit that right under contract). Conversely it does not obligate anyone to assist an individual in his speech efforts. That is, speech is a negative right. If one wishes to spread their speech more efficiently, they may employ their own means (money, printing press, radio station, etc.) or they may ask others to assist them in their effort by providing them with those same means.

Speech is a means to an end. That is to say, we exercise speech in order to achieve some end. Means themselves often require other means to achieve them. For example, I buy gas (means) to use my car (means) to drive to work (means) to earn money (means) in order to buy food (means) to keep me alive (end). In a campaign the candidate’s end is to make the public aware of his candidacy and persuade them to cast their vote for him. This is done through speech from the candidate to the public. Speech is most efficiently disseminated using tools (print, radio, TV, etc) and those tools can often only be obtained via monetary trade. So, perhaps money is not literally speech in the same way that gasoline is not literally food, but in both cases the former is a direct link in the causal chain of means to achieve the latter end. To deny the significance of money as it relates to speech is to deny the legitimacy of utilizing any means to achieve some end.

For those concerned with the possible distorting effects of money in politics I would suggest ending the fixation on limiting money and rather focus instead on what the money is buying: power. If we commit to limiting the power of government over our lives, we will find the appeal of purchasing such impaired power likewise diminished.

Ends and Means

Suppose the following: In order to prevent crimes against children there exist laws that require all residences and offices to be wired with cameras that record all activity. Furthermore, this practice has existed for decades and is simply accepted by the populace as a necessary intrusion of privacy. Most feel they have nothing to hide and so quietly accept the intrusion. Occasionally though this tool is used to harass and intimidate those who are out of favor with those running the State. Unfortunately though, in spite of these abuses, the acceptance of a “greater good” arising from this system weakens any widespread dissent. Now suppose an elected official finally objects to this system. Suppose they propose a repeal of the law enforcing this system.  Does this mean they are “for” crimes against children? Or does it simply mean they are against State sponsored violations of basic human rights? To take an even more extreme example: if it were shown that killing all males over the age of 30 entirely eliminates all crimes against children, should we thus enact such a law? If we did so, would the proposed repeal of such a law imply we are “for” those that would commit crimes against children?

It is entirely possible to be unified in the ends we seek while disagreeing over the most appropriate means to achieve those ends. Just because some particular set of means might achieve an end does not imply or prove it is the ONLY or BEST way to achieve that end. Objecting to an odious set of means does not imply an objection to its ends. Those that make such assertions are intellectual midgets, political opportunists all too eager to play upon the fears of the crowd as they employ cowardly straw man attacks.

So what is the point of my little tale above? To wit, Georgia Representative Sam Moore has introduced a bill (HB 1033) that would repeal all state laws related to loitering (defined as being on public property, ejection from private property is always permitted). Such laws empower local authorities to harass and intimidate (also known as profiling) those that they feel “look wrong” or “may be up to no good.” Current anti-loitering laws (GA §16-11-36) impose upon the citizens of this state a duty to produce proof of identity when such an inquiry is made under color of law enforcement. Current law states the officer may graciously allow one to prove their innocence “by requesting the person to identify himself and explain his presence and conduct.” To be clear this does not relate to probable cause (i.e. unambiguous evidence of potential or actual malfeasance), it solely relates to pure gut instinct, and nothing more. That these laws have stood for so many years is a ludicrous offense to a country supposedly founded on individual liberty. Sam Moore should be praised for his courage in opposing the status quo, not vilified with a false narrative.

But that’s not really the part of the bill that has gotten so many fired up. Legislation, like making sausage, is messy. Frequently new legislation that overrides parts of other unrelated legislation is added years later. Although the statutes related to loitering have nothing to do with restrictions on registered sex offenders, those statutes make reference to the loitering statutes so as to supersede any restrictions against them. Thus this bill (HB 1033) repeals those other statutes as well to ensure the complete and absolute abolishment of all anti-loitering laws. What ?!? Police can’t indiscriminately ask anyone for proof of identity just because they happen to be near a school or church? Clearly Sam Moore must hate children. It’s simply not possible that he is just as much against those that would harm children as his critics but simply feels there is a more effective route to achieving this end than maintaining Nazi-esque unconstitutional “prove-your-innocence” laws. These laws are in fact racist holdovers from the Jim Crow era recycled with a new purpose; to fool the credulous into believing the lie that such laws will protect our children. They do no such thing. They simply create a false sense of security that lulls us into complacency, making it more, not less, likely that such a predator will succeed.