Book Review: Against Empathy

Against Empathy is a book about the negative effects of trying to feel what other people feel by Canadian American psychology professor Paul Bloom. The book makes the case that concern and compassion function better in the absence of empathy. It also makes the case that empathy is a driving force behind much of the cruelty and irrationality in the world. The book is divided into six chapters and two shorter interludes, each of which explores a different aspect of empathy.

Bloom begins by defining his terms and laying out the case he intends to make over the whole book and in each chapter, as any good academic would. Adherence to definitions for the purpose of avoiding confusion is done well throughout the book, and is especially necessary when a word as widely defined and misused as empathy is in play. Rather than arguing in favor of psychopathy, Bloom advocates thinking with our heads rather than our hearts so as to reach a more consistent and helpful morality. Nor does he argue that empathy is completely bad; only that it does more harm than good.

The first chapter makes the distinction between cognitive empathy (recognizing another person’s feelings without feeling them oneself) and emotional empathy (experiencing the world as one thinks that someone else does). The shortcomings of the latter are the primary focus of the book, namely that empathy can lead to ignoring unidentifiable victims, denigrating logical choices that have superior results, letting our biases lead us astray, overrating present costs versus future costs, and sending unnecessary aid. The chapter ends with responses to objections raised by Bloom’s colleagues during the writing of the book.

In the second chapter, Bloom explores the neuroscientific aspects of empathy, including mirror neurons, the role of preconceptions of other people, and the difference between understanding and feeling. The difference between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy is important here, and it can be detected in fMRI scans. Bloom then discusses how empathy is currently measured, as well as the shortfalls of such methods.

The failures of empathy in the pursuit of virtue are the primary subject of the third chapter. These failures occur because empathy works as a spotlight, illuminating some problems and leaving the rest in the dark. This causes people to choose to help suffering individuals instead of suffering masses, to care less about the problems of a perceived out-group, or to engage in high-time-preference thinking. There is also the matter that one person can never truly feel what another person feels because one person does not have another person’s aggregate experience. In short, empathy interferes with a rational assessment of how to make the world better. Bloom concludes the chapter by praising economists for avoiding empathy in their analyses.

Next comes a half-chapter-length interlude about empathy and politics, which deserves more attention than it gets here. Bloom correctly states that empathy is not a useful measure of where one falls on a map of political views, but says little about libertarianism and nothing about anarchist or reactionary thought. The shortsightedness discussed earlier leads to incorrect long-term policy decisions, and empathy can lead judges to take decisions contrary to the letter of the law.

The fourth chapter is about the relationship between empathy and intimacy. Bloom argues that empathy runs counter to the special nature of a close interpersonal relationship, instead leading one to treat one’s family no better than strangers. He mentions an interesting hypothetical case of a pathologically empathetic person and shows how psychologically harmful this condition can be. It is interesting that there is no clinical name for this condition. Next, Bloom explores the difference between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy in Buddhist philosophy, which contains a similar distinction and a similar recommendation about embracing cognitive empathy while rejecting emotional empathy. After this, the difficulties that doctors may encounter if they are distracted by emotional empathy are discussed, as well as the negative effects that receiving emotional empathy can have on patients. Then, Bloom makes important distinctions between having useful past experiences, caring about people without using empathy, and having emotional empathy in the present. The positive role of empathy in apologizing for misdeeds is examined, and Bloom has no counterargument on this point.

The second interlude considers empathy’s ability to serve as a foundation for morality, especially from the beginning of life. Bloom considers that empathy may be foundational for young children but harmful for adults, much like human breast milk. He considers that selfishness may motivate kind acts, but finds the explanation wanting on the grounds of misunderstanding both natural selection and psychology. The topic is left as an open question, but the evidence discussed suggests that even young children are capable of caring without internalizing another person’s feelings.

In the fifth chapter, Bloom explores how violence and cruelty are linked to empathy. In particular, he discusses how empathy can lead people to commit cruel and violent acts, especially toward people who have themselves committed atrocities. Bloom correctly posits that violence will always be with us, as some problems are insoluble without it. Here, the spotlight nature of empathy is seen to maximize the impact of victimhood while minimizing the impact of perpetration, which leads to escalations of hostilities between nations and blood feuds between families. Empathy can lead people to falsely believe that they are doing good deeds when they are being cruel and violent. It can also lead wartime leaders to fail to recognize sacrifices that must be made to win the war. Next, Bloom looks at the nature of psychopaths and the role that dehumanization plays in atrocities. He shows that these are concerns are different from concerns about empathy. He ends the chapter by comparing empathy to anger, and finding both to be unworthy of removal from a person’s psyche, but in need of subordination to rational deliberation.

The final chapter addresses the role of reason and defends it against several attacks. After all, an argument that presupposes rationality can be undermined by a case that people are fundamentally irrational. This chapter could have been improved by including the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, as it would have added a strong defense of objective morality. Like so many controversial academics who encounter social justice warriors, Bloom was told to check his privilege, which he rightly dismisses as nonsensical, though “SJWs are the real bigots” is not a sufficiently sharp response. He addresses the concern that regardless of the virtues of reason, humans are incompetent at it. But this can be shrugged off by noting that reason is objective and thus not subject to individual competency. The arguments in favor of determinism lead to performative contradictions if taken to their logical conclusions, but Bloom does not attack them in this fashion. A second attack on reason comes from psychological studies that show how people can be subconsciously influenced, but to know this is to know to take corrective steps to eliminate the problem. Finally, Bloom makes the case for rationality by discussing the strong correlation between high IQ and success, as well as the correlation between self-control and success. He briefly returns to politics to note the irrationality there, but concludes that this is due to the political systems rather than the participants themselves. Bloom ends the book by conceding that empathy can have good results, but that this is the exception and not the rule.

In a sense, Bloom does not go far enough. The concept of conspicuous compassion is barely mentioned, and there are some cases in which psychopathy can be used for beneficial results. The final chapter is in need of stronger logical cases against Bloom’s critics. Even so, Against Empathy is thought-provoking and much-needed to stem a tide of books that take too bright a view of empathy.

Rating: 4.5/5

On Sharp Argumentation

In chess, the term ‘sharp’ is used to denote a move, position, game, or style of play that involves highly tactical positions in which there is the potential for great reward and little or no room for error. The term may also refer to a player who regularly plays in such a manner. A sharp position frequently contains a significant amount of asymmetry, meaning that the position has differing goals for each player. Players may use sharp moves in order to take an opponent out of his or her comfort zone and see if this can produce a mistake that one can use to win the game. But this can also backfire; a mistake on one’s own part can lose the game in such positions. The essence of sharp play is to play aggressively, making threats and responding to threats with counter-threats rather than with passive or retreating moves. Common advice to novice players is to practice playing sharp lines, but doing this in tournaments or against stronger players is likely to produce defeats, as one is likely to make a mistake. It is more effective to be a sharp player than to try to find sharp moves here and there.

An analogy may be drawn with a particular style of argumentation. Sharp argumentation aims to step outside the Overton window in order to take an arguer out of their comfort zone and make them defend ideas that they assumed were universally accepted. The goals are different for each participant in sharp argumentation, in that the mainstream commentator is trying to defend the range of allowable opinion while the sharp arguer is trying to challenge and move it in their direction. This tactic has the high risk of making one look foolish if one cannot defend such a position with great skill, and it has the high reward of making an opponent look foolish if they cannot attack the position well. The goal of a debater should not be to seek out particular sharp positions just to troll and trifle with one’s opponents, but to become sharper in a more general sense.

Accepting Absurdity

With the nature of sharp argumentation established, let us now consider a situation in which one might use this tactic. Consider a libertarian who supports the right to keep and bear arms and is going to debate with a progressive who supports greater gun control measures. The progressive says, “The right to keep and bear arms is not absolute. For example, no one thinks private citizens should have nuclear weapons. There are reasonable restrictions that we can all agree upon.” The goal of the progressive here is to define a certain position as out of bounds while stealthily taking ground.

How might the libertarian respond? One could agree that there should be some restrictions, but believe that the state is not the best way to accomplish this. While this is not anathema to libertarian theory, in the sense that the rules of membership in a stateless community may require that one not be in possession of certain weapons if one wishes to remain in that community, it is a dull response because it both accepts the opponent’s framing of the issue and makes a concession where none need be made. Another possible response is to accuse the progressive of throwing out a red herring because the discussion is about guns that are commonly used by individuals, not weapons of mass destruction. This is not as dull of a response because it calls out the tactic that the opponent is using, but it is not sharp because it does not answer the claim in a robust manner.

Now let us consider a sharp response. The libertarian says, “Speak for yourself. I support private ownership of nuclear weapons,” and offers a detailed explanation of why nuclear weapons are better in private hands than under state control. This line is sharp because it rejects the opponent’s framing of the debate, robustly accepts an idea that the opponent regards as absurd, and strongly challenges all mainstream views about nuclear weapon ownership. The progressive may become so flustered as to regard the libertarian as beyond reason, responding with insults, dismissals, and other such non-arguments. Getting an opponent to react in this way does not necessarily mean that one’s reasoning is correct, but it does make one the winner of the argument as long as one remains calm and reasonable while the opponent loses composure. Short of this, the progressive may attempt to pick apart various aspects of the case for private nuclear weapons. In this case, the libertarian must be able to defend against such attempts because a false move can easily lose the battle for public opinion, while a solid defense against every objection will make the progressive look poorly versed in the subject matter.

Discomfort Zone

Some lines of sharp argumentation require an arguer to leave one’s own comfort zone in order to battle the opponent on unfamiliar ground. Consider a Republican who is debating a Democrat concerning the 2016 election. The Democrat says, “The 2016 election result, and thus the presidency of Donald Trump, is illegitimate because of Russian interference during the general election.” Here, the Democrat is making a strong claim backed by what is an unproven accusation at the time of this writing.

How might the Republican respond? One could say that there needs to be a full investigation into connections between the Donald Trump campaign and the Russian government to find out the extent of any collusion between the two, but stop short of agreeing with the Democrat. While a Republican may have legitimate concerns over foreign meddling in the democratic process, this is a dull response because it accepts the Democrat’s framing of the situation and concedes that the Democrat may be correct. Another possible response is to point out that there is no evidence of tampering with the election process itself, other than the usual questions about turnouts exceeding 100 percent in a few heavily Democratic districts. This response is not dull because it reframes the issue in terms of hacking of email servers belonging to Democrats, as well as in terms of election tampering done by Democrats. But it is not sharp because it fails to challenge the Democrat’s claim that Russia was involved and that this would delegitimize Trump.

In this case, going sharp requires one to depart from Republican orthodoxy and take a libertarian-leaning position that is too extreme for most Republicans to entertain. The Republican says, “There is no evidence that the Russians altered the outcome of the election to hand Trump the Presidency, but if they did, they were justified in doing it,” followed by a case for why they would be justified. This line of argumentation departs quite far from Republican orthodoxy about national security and foreign policy, but is very capable of throwing the Democrat for a loop. As before, the leftist may forfeit the argument by losing composure, hurling insults and dismissals. Otherwise, the Republican would need to defend the positions that Hillary Clinton was more likely to cause a war with Russia, that the Russian people have a right to influence the US election because they are affected by its result, and that the US has no room to talk given its track record of overthrowing governments when its leaders dislike election results. The latter two are certainly not conventional Republican arguments, but they are defensible. Again, failure to defend such bold positions effectively would make the Republican look crazy, but a skilled defense may leave the Democrat speechless.

Enough Versus Too Much

Just as there are problems with being too dull, one can also argue too sharply. Consider a conservative who is debating a social justice warrior on almost any topic that one cares to imagine. At some point, the social justice warrior is likely to resort to calling the conservative and/or the case the conservative is making racist, misogynist, or another such epithet. The SJW is doing this in an effort to cow the conservative into backing down from the case being made.

How might the conservative respond? All too frequently, the conservative will say, “I am not a misogynist/racist/etc.,” or “No, it isn’t,” followed by an apology or rationalization. This is dull because it plays into the SJW’s narrative. When a SJW resorts to name-calling, they are no longer engaged in rational discussion, and attempting to bring the discussion back to rationality once one of the participants has renounced reasoned debate is like administering medicine to the dead. An apology is even worse, as this concedes the point to the opponent and emboldens other SJWs to shut down debate by similar means. A better response is to inform the SJW that name-calling is not an argument and leave it at that, though this lacks the necessary boldness to be a sharp response. It also fails to challenge the frame set by the SJW.

A sharp response by the conservative would look something like this: “Fine, it is misogynist/racist/etc. It also happens to agree with the available facts. Now, make a valid counter-argument.” This response is sharp because it refuses to back down while challenging both the SJW’s framing of the issue and definitions of terms. Many SJWs have no argument beyond calling a person or idea bigoted, so this response is likely to make a SJW lose any sense of composure and fail to say anything else of substance. In the rare instance that one must continue, one must be able to make the case, as failing to do so can get one labeled a misogynist/racist/etc., which can have many adverse consequences.

A response that would be too sharp would be to reply to an accusation of racism or sexism by displaying clearly hateful bigotry toward the SJW. A response along the lines of “Shut up, (insert misogynist/racist/etc. slur here)” may be satisfying in the moment, but this is a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. An impartial observer will view the SJW as the victor for getting the conservative to respond in such a vulgar fashion. Meanwhile, the media career of someone who does this will take a major hit, which is exactly what the SJW wants.

Conclusion

Used properly, sharp arguments can explore new avenues of thought while making inferior debaters look foolish. However, improper usage can be disastrous not only for one’s argument, but for one’s reputation. As always, research and practice are necessary in order to perform properly in an intellectual setting. Sharp argumentation is not for everyone, but it is a useful tactic to know even for someone who is not naturally inclined to argue in such a manner.

Fake Libertarianism Revisited

A significant portion of my work consists of critiquing arguments, decisions, and statements made by other people. But sometimes, the lens of examination is best turned inward to correct one’s own missteps. Such is the case for an article I wrote three years ago about the nature of fake libertarianism. In retrospect, I failed to accurately present the structure of libertarian philosophy, and thus erroneously defined what it means to be a fake libertarian. Let us see what is wrong with my former case and make the necessary corrections.

Just as before, we must first have proper definitions for “libertarianism” and “fake” in order to consider the issue of fake libertarianism. Libertarianism is the philosophical position that the proper use of force is always defensive in nature. Initiating the use of force is never justifiable, while using force to defend against someone who initiates the use of force is always justifiable. A fake adherent of a position is either a person who claims to believe in that position while explicitly rejecting the premises of that position or their logical conclusions, or a person who misrepresents the premises of that position. Note that this does not compel action; a person is free to choose not to respond to initiated force with defensive force. Nor does this constrain one’s entire ideology to a single position; one may believe in additional premises beyond a certain position which are not in contradiction with that position without being a fake adherent, but to falsely represent such premises as being contained within that position does make one a fake adherent.

In my previous attempt, I argued that a fake libertarian is a person who claims to be a libertarian but does one or more of the following:

  1. Supports initiating the use of force for any reason;
  2. Rejects a logical conclusion of the non-aggression principle;
  3. Claims that another principle can trump the non-aggression principle;
  4. Claims that libertarianism contains something that it does not contain, or vice versa.

Points (1) and (4) are sound, but points (2) and (3) require some revision. The non-aggression principle is neither an axiom nor the basis of libertarian theory, as my previous attempt would suggest. The starting point for all of libertarian ethics is self-ownership; that each person has a right to exclusive control of one’s physical body and full responsibility for actions committed with said control. Note that in order to argue against self-ownership, one must exercise exclusive control of one’s physical body for the purpose of communication. This results in a performative contradiction because the content of the argument is at odds with the act of making the argument. By the laws of excluded middle and non-contradiction, self-ownership must be true because it must be either true or false, and any argument that self-ownership is false is false by contradiction.

Because each person has a right to exclusive control over one’s own body, it is wrong for one person to initiate interference with another person’s exclusive control over their body without that person’s consent. It is clear that self-ownership trumps the non-aggression principle on the grounds that the independent principle overrules the dependent principle. One may also reject a logical conclusion of the non-aggression principle if doing so is necessary in order to accept a logical conclusion of self-ownership.

The above would be true but trivial if there were no cases in which the non-aggression principle came into conflict with principles of higher rank, so let us consider three such cases.

Innocent Shields

Strict adherence to the non-aggression principle would suggest that innocent shields held captive by an aggressor are non-aggressors and that harming them is immoral. But if this is true, then anyone who is being more harmfully victimized by the aggressor is doomed. Additionally, considering an aggressor who hides behind innocent shields to be an illegitimate target would provide a means for an aggressor to escape punishment and restitution. Another means of dealing with such a situation is provided by Walter Block’s concept of negative homesteading. To quote Block,

“A grabs B to use as a shield; A forces B to stand in front of him, and compels him to walk wherever A wishes. A then hunts C in order to murder the latter by shooting him. C also has a gun. Is it legally permissible for C to shoot at A in self defense under libertarian law?

[…]

In ordinary homesteading, or what we must now call positive homesteading to distinguish it from this newly introduced variety, it is the first person upon the scene who mixes his labor with the land or natural resource who comes away with the property rights in question. It is the first man who farms a plot of land, who becomes the rightful owner. A similar procedure applies to negative homesteading, only here what gets to be ‘owned’ is a negative, not a positive. This concept refers to some sort of unhappiness, not a benefit such as owning land. The ownership of misery, as it were, must stay with its first victim, according to this principle. He cannot legitimately pass it onto anyone else without the latter’s permission.”

The homesteading principle is a direct corollary of self-ownership, just like the non-aggression principle. This gives them equal standing in libertarian philosophy, meaning that a conflict between the two must not give the non-aggression principle supremacy over the homesteading principle or vice versa.

To use the theory of negative homesteading, we must identify the first homesteader of the misery. In Block’s example, this is B. It is impermissible for B to transfer this misery to C. Thus, the theory of negative homesteading permits C to shoot A and risk hitting B even though a strict view of the non-aggression principle would not. None of this is to say that concern for the innocent shield should be disregarded; only that if an aggressor is too dangerous to ignore and it is impossible to subdue the aggressor without harming innocent shields, then the innocent shields are expendable in order to reduce the overall amount of aggression committed.

Reecean Proviso

The theoretical basis for private property rights in libertarian theory also starts with self-ownership. Because one is responsible for one’s actions, one gains an ownership claim over one’s improvements upon natural resources. It is impossible to own the improvements without owning the resources themselves, so property rights over external objects in a state of nature are established through mixing one’s labor with them. As property rights are established and maintained by exercising self-ownership, they are dependent upon self-ownership. As with non-aggression, self-ownership overrules private property in external objects because that which is dependent is subordinate to that upon which it is dependent.

Next, let us note that all sentient beings are equal in their self-ownership, in that all sentient beings have property in their own physical bodies through exclusive direct control over them. Although the nature of their bodies and minds will almost certainly result in different beings appropriating different quantities of external resources and in different beings having more or less capability to defend those resources from challengers in practice, the theoretical strength of a particular property right over an external object by one sentient being is equivalent to the strength of another particular property right over another external object by another sentient being. Applying this to the fact that self-ownership stands above private property in external objects, we get the result that the self-ownership of one sentient being stands above the private property rights in external objects of another sentient being.

A strict view of the non-aggression principle would not allow any appropriation of another person’s private property without their permission, but a case in which self-ownership is in conflict with private property could allow for this. Although this is subject to so many caveats in practice that the appropriate lifeboat scenario may never arise, the theoretical possibility for a situation in which a person is justified to appropriate a small amount of resources from someone else’s property in order to stay alive does exist.

Unrepentant Aggressors and Agency

Because libertarian theory is a logical construct, it is subject to logic in the form of rationality and consistency. For private property rights, the non-aggression principle, or indeed even self-ownership, to apply to a person who has violated another person’s rights of the same kind is inconsistent. As such, a thief has no standing to claim property rights, an aggressor has no standing to claim non-aggression, and a murderer has no standing to claim self-ownership until restitution is made for their crimes. In the latter case, restitution is impossible because a murder victim cannot be made whole. An unrepentant aggressor may be attacked in ways which would violate the non-aggression principle if done to a non-aggressor because the aggressor’s actions demonstrate a rejection of the non-aggression principle.

One might protest that a bystander lacks agency in a matter between an aggressor and a victim, but the concept of agency has been shaped in a world dominated by states. Thus, private citizens are discouraged (and sometimes prohibited) not to interfere in certain matters between other people because the state claims sole authority to resolve such matters. In a society organized in accordance with libertarian theory, there is no such monopoly on the creation and enforcement of laws, or on the final arbitration of disputes. The concept of agency in a libertarian social order would likely impose fewer limits on an individual’s conduct, thus leaving one free to use force against unrepentant aggressors even if not in an immediate self-defense situation. The possibility of becoming an outlaw subject to the every whim of anyone who cares to attack an unrepentant aggressor presents a strong deterrent against committing acts of aggression.

Strategic Thinking

A separate but related problem is that of libertarian purists denying the context of a situation and refusing to consider less than perfect alternatives. There are situations in which an option which adheres to libertarian principles is not politically viable and libertarians are not willing to do what would be necessary to make such an option viable. In such cases, there will be several options and all of them will involve acts of aggression. Navigating these situations requires us to figure out either which option is most likely to result in the least amount of aggression or which option is most likely to move society closer to a libertarian social order. Advocating for one such option over the others, or ranking them from best to worst, does not constitute an endorsement of aggression because one is not choosing an aggressive option as an ideal or because one wants to, but as a least evil and because there is no good option.

Parts Unchanged

The definition of what constitutes a fake libertarian was in need of correction, but the when, where, and why remain as they were. Fake libertarianism is still a widespread and growing problem. As before, the reasons for being a fake libertarian are to gain recognition in a smaller field of competitors instead of trying to compete directly with more powerful establishment commentators, to destroy the libertarian movement from within by being an entryist, and to gain capital through false representation of something valuable.

Taking a slightly softer tone with some of those identified instead of calling them fakes and running them off may be sound strategical advice in some cases, especially with respect to the anarchist-minarchist debate. But any movement that wishes to take political power for any purpose, including the destruction of said power, must beware of holiness spirals. Libertarian groups have a twofold problem in this regard; that of strictest adherence to libertarian principles and that of leftist infiltration. Those who reduce their circle of allies to only the most ardent libertarians will lack the numbers to accomplish anything. Meanwhile, leftists who infiltrate libertarian circles and fill them with progressive nonsense can manage to run off real libertarians, which helps to explain the growth of the alt-right movement. Both of these problems are dangerous to the goal of liberty and must be countered whenever they present themselves.

Conclusion

There is no better way to conclude than by restating the closing paragraph from the original piece:

“Just as counterfeiters do not make copies of worthless banknotes and forgers do not falsify meaningless signatures, political charlatans do not pretend to hold a position if doing so has no potential benefit. Thus, true libertarians should take heart. The very fact that there are fake libertarians means that true libertarianism is worth something, and that defending it against those who would falsely assume it and attempt to destroy it is worth doing.”

Book Review: Come And Take It

Come And Take It is a book about 3D printing of firearms and the implications thereof by American entrepreneur Cody Wilson. The book details Wilson’s experiences over nine months in 2012-13 when he decided to leave law school and figure out how to use a 3D printer to make a functional plastic handgun. It also conveys his thoughts on political events of the time, such as the re-election of President Barack Obama and the Sandy Hook school shooting.

The story of Wilson’s entrepreneurship is not so different from many others; he must decide whether to make his venture be for-profit or non-profit, decide whether to work for the state or the people, figure out how and where to get funding for his operations, find the right people to work with, wrestle with the impulse to continue his schooling versus working on his entrepreneurial idea, and deal with legal challenges and roadblocks thrown his way by established interests. What sets it apart is the unique nature of his work.

Wilson’s story takes some interesting turns, such as trips to Europe and California where he meets with everyone from left-wing anarchists in the Occupy movement to a club of neoreactionaries led by Mencius Moldbug. This shows that the project to allow everyone to be armed regardless of government laws on the matter changes the political calculus across the entire spectrum, thus making him a person of interest to people of a wide range of political views.

The book is a valiant effort in creative writing and storytelling, but its subtitle of “The Gun Printer’s Guide to Thinking Free” is rather misplaced. It is not so much a guide for someone else to follow as an example which future entrepreneurs may study in order to adapt proper elements thereof for their own projects. The technical details that one might hope for in such a book are only partially present, though we may fault the US Department of State for that, as Wilson tried to include details of the production procedure for his plastic handgun but was forced to redact the material with large black blocks in the final chapter.

In a strange way, the book feels both long and short. Though it is just over 300 pages, it takes much less time to read than most books of that size. Come And Take It offers an interesting look into the mind and experiences of a true game-changer in the world of technology and self-defense, though the reader who is looking for thorough details on 3D printed weapons or a general manifesto on liberty must look elsewhere.

Rating: 3.5/5

Book Review: In Our Own Image

In Our Own Image is a book about the prospects of creating artificial intelligence as well as the cultural, economic, historical, philosophical, and political concerns about it by Greek author and scientist George Zarkadakis. The book considers the problem of AI from the perspectives of human evolution, cybernetics, neuroscience, programming, and computing power.

Zarkadakis begins by briefly speaking of his early years and doctoral research, then spends the rest of the introduction outlining what he will discuss in the rest of the book. The book proper is divided into three parts, each with five or six chapters. The first part covers the evolution of the human brain from the primate brain, especially the most recent 40,000 years. The role of language in accelerating human progress is discussed, as well as the effects of totemic thinking, story-telling, philosophical dualism, and theory of mind. The use of metaphor and narrative to understand the world is examined, along with the inaccuracies inherent in them. The invention, uses, and limitations of the Turing test are explored, as are Asimov’s laws of robotics and the role of AI in fictional stories throughout history.

The second part is about the nature of the mind. The differences in approach between dualism versus monism, rationalism versus empiricism, and materialism versus Platonism are discussed. The thought experiment of the philosophical zombie and the possibility of digital immortality are explained. On the matter of why there appears to be no other intelligent life in the cosmos, Zarkadakis shares an interesting hypothesis: science is an unnatural idea at odds with our cognitive architecture, and an intelligent alien species would be unlikely to widely adopt it. This means that the universe is likely full of Platos, as well as Ancient Greeces, Romes, Indias, Chinas, and Mayas, but is perhaps devoid of Aristotles and societies advanced beyond that of humanity in the early eighteenth century. Daniel Dennett’s explanation of consciousness is overviewed, as well as the contributions of a great number of scientists to the field of cognitive psychology. Finally, the field of cybernetics and its offshoots are examined, showing that the hard problem of consciousness is actually solved with ease. The brain-in-a-vat paradigm of consciousness is shown to be insufficient by applying cybernetic theory.

Everything up to this point lays the foundation for understanding the last part of the book. The third part details the history of computers and programming, from ancient theorists to more recent mathematicians, and from punched cards to modern electronics. The limitations of symbolic logic and the implications thereof against AI in conventional computers are explored, and possible solutions in the form of new electronic components and computer architectures are explained. Charles Babbage’s inventions are discussed, as well as the lost potential of their lack of adoption in their own time. The role of computational technology during World War II is considered, along with the results of government spending on computer research at the time. The development of supercomputers, including IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson, is outlined. The ‘Internet of things’ is compared and contrasted with true AI, and the possible societal impact of large-scale automation of jobs is considered. The possibility of evolving rather than creating AI is examined, as are the possible dispositions of an AI; friendly, malevolent, or apathetic. Interestingly, Zarkadakis shows that there is good reason to believe that a strong AI may exhibit autism spectrum disorders. A short epilogue that begins with a summary and then considers possible economic, political, and social implications of strong AI completes the book.

The book is well-researched and impeccably sourced, at least in its core subject matter. That being said, the book struggles to find an audience, as it can be a bit too technical for the average layperson, but does not venture deeply enough into the subjects it covers to interest a professional in AI-related fields. In other words, it is lukewarm where being either cold or hot is best. Zarkadakis also commits some ultracrepidarianism, particularly in the fields of economics and politics. He seems to believe that AI will overcome the limitations described by Hayek’s knowledge problem and Mises’s economic calculation problem, but unless AI can get inside of our heads and know us better than we know ourselves, this is impossible. In politics, he briefly mentions the possibilities of AI leading to anarchism or to neoreactionary-style absolute monarchies with computerized philosopher-kings, but does not give these possibilities the amount of consideration that they warrant. Finally, the book contains more typographical errors and grammatical abnormalities than a competent editor should fail to correct, though we may grant Zarkadakis some leeway because English is not his first language.

Overall, In Our Own Image is worth reading for those who already have some knowledge of the subject matter but would like to fill gaps in their understanding, but there is room for improvement and expansion.

Rating: 4/5

Read the entire article at ZerothPosition.com

Tucker, Spencer, Libertarianism, and Fascism

On February 18, white nationalist and alt-right leader Richard Spencer was present in the bar of the Marriott hotel that hosted the International Students For Liberty conference. He was invited by the Hans-Hermann Hoppe Caucus, a group of right-libertarians with no official affiliation with SFL. A sign and the claims of several Hoppe Caucus members made it seem as though Spencer was an official part of the event, although he was not.

“We started the Hoppe Caucus with just a small group of people to spread diversity of conversation into the libertarian movement,” said Mitchell Steffen, founding member of the Hoppe Caucus. “We don’t agree with what Spencer believes in a lot of ways, but we still wanted to hear his point of view.”

For the better part of an hour, he and a small gathering of supporters, other listeners, and some SFL attendees engaged in political conversation in a peaceful and mostly quiet manner. Things got more raucous over time, then Jeffrey Tucker and others arrived to loudly denounce Spencer. Tucker left the scene, but those who came with him kept yelling, prompting hotel security to ask the entire crowd at the bar to leave. Spencer requested an escort out by hotel security, which they provided.

“It was really unfortunate how it turned out,” Steffen said. “I think the Hoppe Caucus did a good job of pushing the envelope and exposing hypocrisy though. Spencer’s ideas should be challenged with better libertarian ideas. He should not be bullied.”

The Exchange

First, let us analyze the exchange between Tucker and Spencer, transcribed below from the source video:

“JEFFREY TUCKER: I think fascists are not welcome at an anti-fascist conference! Not welcome! Students For Liberty is about human dignity, about liberty for all and not about fascism and that is what that man represents! You know the only reason you’re here is because of public accommodation laws; otherwise you’d be thrown out immediately, buddy.
RICHARD SPENCER: Oh, its Jeffrey Tucker! (unintelligible)
JT: (unintelligible) Yeah, this hotel, because you’re devaluing this property, my friend.
RS: Oh, really? By you, Jeffrey? I’m not sure you could throw out a fly, little Jeffrey. Hey Jeffrey, I used to read those articles by you, Jeffrey.
JT: Look, you don’t belong here. You absolutely don’t belong.
RS: Oh, I don’t belong here? What?
JT: You know why? Because we stand for liberty.
RS: Do you support the deep state, dude? That’s awesome.
JT: You stand for fascism, and you don’t belong here. Students For Liberty opposes everything that you stand for, buddy.
RS: You tweeted that you support the deep state over Trump. I think you might be a little fascist there, little Jeffrey.
JT: You are a troll. You can’t organize your own conference, so you come to our conference.
RS: That’s not an argument.
JT: You know the last time you tried, you had a bunch of losers in a room making Nazi salutes. That’s what happened at yours.
RS: That’s not an argument.
JT: So you come to our conference and troll us. If you were on Twitter right now, we’d all block you.
RS: I was invited by people here to come speak to them, Jeffrey.
JT: You are a liar! You are a liar! Fascists are liars! (exits)”

Inaccuracies

First, despite potentially misleading statements and signage made by the Hoppe Caucus, Spencer was not technically at the conference. He never went inside the part of the building reserved for the conference that required paid admission, but rather remained in a bar outside which was not reserved for ISFLC participants. Nor did Spencer himself claim to be part of the conference. Tucker is free to voice his opinion that fascists are not welcome at an anti-fascist conference, and although he does not officially speak for SFL, SFL released a statement in support of Tucker’s actions. However, the wisdom of such a position is questionable. The reaction of Tucker and his ilk is precisely why the alt-right is growing. Neutral observers see a fascist engaged in rational discussion while leftists angrily shout him down and cause a disturbance that gets the venue’s security involved, thus making the fascist seem reasonable by comparison.

Tucker then said that SFL is about human dignity, whatever that may mean, which means that it is not really about libertarianism. Libertarianism is a philosophical position on what constitutes the acceptable use of force. It says that initiating the use of force is never moral, but responding to an initiation of force with defensive force is always moral. Libertarianism says nothing about human dignity one way or another. In a libertarian social order, those who overindulge in vices, engage in criminal behaviors, and/or refuse to be productive people could very well find themselves living a life without dignity, especially if their particular community has a more socially Darwinian ethos. To be fair, Spencer is in the wrong here as well; while peaceful methods could partially achieve his stated goals, many of his goals could only be fully achieved by initiating the use of force.

Tucker claimed that Spencer would be thrown out if not for public accommodation laws and was devaluing the hotel’s property. It is impossible to know whether this is so because it is a counterfactual, but the fact that Spencer has been there several times beforehand without incident suggests otherwise. Ironically, Tucker used the pragmatic libertarian case against open borders to justify his outburst. Open state borders are a form of public accommodation, in that they require the force of government to prevent people from using their freedom of association and private property rights to exclude other people. He cannot be unaware of this inconsistency at this point, so we may reasonably conclude that Tucker is being malicious rather than simply ignorant. What is known is that chanting obscenities, as people accompanying Tucker did, diminishes the quality of experience for bystanders, thus devaluing the hotel’s property.

As an aside, one must wonder if Tucker would be so quick to denounce a similar figure who is of a protected class, such as a member of the Hotep movement, which is in many ways the black counterpart of the white nationalist alt-right. Perhaps inviting someone like Ali Shakur would be a more effective move at ISFLC 2018 than inviting Spencer. Then we could see whether Tucker would be consistent or would fear the social justice warriors around him calling him racist.

Spencer asked if Tucker supports the deep state over Trump, and suggested Tucker might be a bit fascist for doing so. This referred to a February 15 article by Tucker, arguing that however bad the establishment may be, Trump could be worse. While his analysis in that article is suspect, the only hint of fascism from Tucker is in his reaction to Spencer’s presence.

Libertarianism and Fascism

Tucker claimed that SFL stands for liberty while Spencer stands for fascism, and thus Spencer did not belong there. Let us examine the relationship between libertarianism and fascism, for there has long been a link between the two. Ludwig von Mises wrote favorably of fascism in 1927, saying,

“It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history. But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error.”

Mises was prescient on the matter of how fascism in particular and reaction in general arises. There is no need to fix that which is unbroken, so a healthy social order will contain nothing to the right of conservatism, meaning the desire to maintain the status quo. Reactionary thought arises when a society makes a mistake and the social order becomes unhealthy, and fascism in particular arises as a response either to the threat of a communist takeover or to the suffering caused by socialism. Libertarianism and reaction are pieces of a whole, and libertarianism and fascism can work together in some circumstances because they share the common enemies of democracy, socialism, and communism. There is a danger here, as Mises would learn the hard way when fascists forced him out of his academic position in Vienna and away to America, but history clearly demonstrates that as bad as fascism can be, communism and socialism wreak more havoc.

The 1973 Chilean coup d’état led to another confluence between libertarianism and fascism. Before Augusto Pinochet took power, Chile was suffering from 140 percent annual inflation and contracting GDP under Marxist leadership. Pinochet was willing to listen to Milton Friedman’s students, and although the Chicago School of Economics is not as libertarian in disposition as the Austrian School, this led to an important series of market reforms and improvements in the mid-1970s and the 1980s known as the Miracle of Chile. These policies were continued after Pinochet’s rule ended in 1990, and the percentage of people living in poverty was reduced from 48 percent to 20 percent from 1988 to 2000. In 2010, Chile was the first South American nation to win membership in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, an organization restricted to the world’s richest countries.

In more theoretical terms, if a private property owner under libertarian standards wishes to administer his estate after the form of a fascist dictatorship, it is his right to do so. Being the owner of the property means that he has a right to exclusive control over it, including its governance structure. However, he cannot force people to stay, so a libertarian fascist will have to be far less oppressive than statist fascists in order to keep his regime populated. This kind of governance, which offers people no voice and free exit, has proven best at limiting state power throughout history. It would also be best for limiting the tyranny of the private property owner that so concerns critics of libertarianism. This sort of libertarian fascism is not what Spencer advocates, but Tucker’s claim that fascism is necessarily opposed to libertarianism is both logically false and contradicted by the historical case of Pinochet’s Chile.

Trolling, Heiling, Blocking, Lying

Tucker claimed that Spencer came to ISFLC because he could not organize his own conference, then contradicted himself by referencing Spencer’s National Policy Institute Conference in November 2016 at which Spencer said, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!,” and several people in the audience responded with Nazi-style salutes. Though Spencer’s conference was much smaller (275 attendees versus 1,500+ attendees), Tucker’s claim is clearly false.

Tucker accused Spencer of being a troll and of lying about being invited to the venue. Spencer was not lying about being invited, as the Hoppe Caucus invited him and Spencer never went into the part of the building reserved for ISFLC where he was not invited. Whether Spencer is a troll or not is mostly a matter of opinion. He is not the most informed person, having been caught in numerous errors of fact throughout the years, but he was engaging in a peaceful discourse. Being offended was a choice made by Tucker and his ilk because Spencer was attracting enough attention to make the SFL establishment uncomfortable. It is telling that Tucker and company would resort to causing a disturbance and involving security forces because his side appeared to be losing in the marketplace of ideas that night.

Tucker said that if the confrontation had occurred on social media rather than in the physical world, then all ISFLC attendees would block him. This is another untestable counterfactual, but judging by the amount of people engaging with Spencer, Tucker’s claim stretches credibility.

Aftermath

The Hoppe Caucus released a statement on their Facebook page, saying,

“The Hoppe Caucus hosted Richard Spencer at ISFLC not because we were trying to start some kind of commotion, but rather an important dialogue. Hans-Hermann Hoppe invited him to his own Property and Freedom Society Conference several years ago for that very reason. After all, event organizers thought it would be a good idea to have leftists and even full-blown communists at the event as apart of the ‘big tent.’ So why not discuss the alternative right? Why not enlarge the tent a little bit further? Furthermore, who gets to define the tent? Is it the big money funders? Is it the oligarchs? Is it is the intellectual elite? Or is it the rank-and-file libertarians? These are all questions we should be pondering considering what happened this weekend.”

SFL has declared that “[t]hose responsible for the disruption have been identified, and are no longer welcome at Students For Liberty events.” Again, this is their right, but Spencer was not inside the event proper and attempting to silence Spencer and the Hoppe Caucus only makes them look like winners of the debate to a neutral observer.

Robby Soave demonstrated an ignorance of the facts of the case and libertarian principles, as well as political autism concerning group dynamics in his write-up of the matter. This would not be so notable, except that media outlets from Salon to The Blaze ran with his deeply flawed narrative. But this is to be expected, as accepting a narrative from someone else is easier than researching and thinking for oneself.

Overall, this incident illustrates why the libertarian moment seems to have passed and the alt-right movement continues to grow. Regardless of what one may think of Tucker, Spencer, fascism, or libertarianism, the tactics employed by Tucker and his ilk ensured that Spencer and fascism emerged victorious while the flawed application of libertarian ideas by those who either do not understand them or intentionally misuse them harmed the cause of liberty.

Felling The Oak Of Statism

Several years ago, I went on a vacation with my family to the mountains for a week. On the day before we returned home, a line of severe thunderstorms hit back home. We arrived the next day to find that a large oak tree near the house had been struck by lightning. Debris was all over the yard between the woods and the house, and huge chunks of bark that had been blasted off were looped around the branches. The strike killed the massive tree, and its continued presence posed a danger. It was large enough to fall onto the house from where it stood if left to its own devices, so it had to be felled. But due to these circumstances, it could not be cut down haphazardly and without regard for what damage might be done if it were to fall in the wrong direction. We called in professional loggers to remove the tree in such a way as to avoid hurting anyone or damaging anything. The tree was removed properly and all was well.

There is a useful lesson here for those who seek to end the state. The state is like that oak; large, weighty, and with great potential to destroy. A thunderstorm consisting of economic, social, and cultural decay masked by technological progress has come. A lightning strike of discontent with the status quo is charging up, and sooner or later the tree of statism will be fatally struck. But if we leave the tree to die and fall by its own weight and decay, immense and possibly irreparable damage may be done to the social order. Just like the oak, the method used to dismantle the state apparatus cannot be haphazard in nature.

Those who subscribe to ‘No Particular Order-ism’, or the belief that libertarians should take whatever reduction in the size and scope of government they can get, are exhibiting a dangerous myopia that borders on political autism. There are certain aspects of government which, if abolished, would result in a potentially catastrophic outcome if other aspects were not also abolished beforehand or concurrently. There are other aspects of government which, if abolished, would leave people in a dangerous lurch in which they have neither a government monopoly nor a private alternative to provide them with service. There are also forms of privatization of state-controlled assets which could potentially be worse than leaving them in the state’s hands. Let us consider one example of each type to show what can go wrong if certain improper felling techniques are used on the oak of statism.

Improper Order

An example of abolishing government functions in the wrong order is that of open borders before welfare elimination. Many libertarians argue that state immigration controls should be completely lifted because they violate freedom of movement of immigrants, private property rights of residents, and freedom of association of both. But doing this while welfare programs are in place would encourage foreign peoples to flood a nation, displacing the native population while using the state to steal from them en masse. (Note that this also violates the private property rights and freedom of association of the native population.) The people who would be attracted to the country in this scenario would not be people who wish to be productive and make the nation better, but people who seek to exist parasitically upon those who have been forced to pay for the welfare state. Although this is a potential strategy for eliminating both state borders and welfare by using the influx of immigrants to crash the welfare state, this was originally proposed by leftists as a means of expanding the welfare state to the point of a basic income guarantee. (Notably, some people who call themselves libertarians actually want to expand the state in this way.) The likely outcome of all of this is not a freer society, but a loss of culture and identity to demographics which have a less libertarian disposition, the promotion of parasitism as a way of life, and the denigration of meritocracy.

Left in the Lurch

An example of leaving people without any kind of service would be the abolition of government militaries without any private replacement to protect people in their absence. This is the one part of the proverbial oak which is sure to fell the entire tree if it is cut, as a state without a monopoly on military force within its territory is a contradiction of terms. However, it is necessary to account for the Pax Romana problem. Students of history will be familiar with the time of relative peace and stability from the time of Augustus (r. 27 BCE-14 CE) until the time of Commodus (r. 177-192 CE). During this time, the economy, the arts, and agriculture flourished because the tribal battles that predated Roman conquests as well as the rebellions and riots that predated the Pax Romana were largely suppressed. But there was a dark side to this, particularly in parts of the empire which were much closer to the border than to Rome. With Roman forces in charge of law, order, and security, many peoples suffered losses in the ability to provide these services themselves. After all, societal organs tend to decay from disuse just as individual people do. When the Pax Romana ended, these peoples were without the stabilizing forces which they had come to rely upon and were out of practice in providing these services for themselves. The end result was that several of these peoples suffered raids, conquest, and murder at the hands of various barbarians and empires. Returning to our time, the restoration of the role of the militia in society as well as the development of privately owned military hardware (and perhaps a nuclear deterrent) are necessary prerequisites for an orderly elimination of government militaries. The only workable alternative to this (and only possibility before the aforementioned steps are accomplished) is a violent uprising by enough of the population living under a particular state so as to make that population ungovernable.

Soviet Dissolution

An example of improper privatization is that of handing control of state monopolies over to politically connected oligarchs. As Gustave de Molinari writes,

“Private property is redundant. ‘Public property’ is an oxymoron. All legit property is private. If property isn’t private it’s stolen.”

This is true, but the path from here to there matters. There are two proper methods of privatization of state-controlled property. One is to figure out the tax burden levied upon each person and distribute shares of state-controlled property accordingly. This is the most just method, as it attempts to compensate victims of state-sponsored theft for their losses. The other is for private citizens to seize control of whatever state-controlled property they can take and defend. This is not as just as attempting to return property to its rightful owners, but a person who takes property from a thief has a better claim to the property than the thief. For the state to hand over its monopoly over some good, service, or property to a particular private interest contributes to the creation of an oligarchical class which wields informal political power in promotion of its own self-interest to the detriment of everyone else, as happened in Russia during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These oligarchs can cause more damage than the state in certain situations, particularly if they use their ill-gotten gains to influence who gets to wield state power, as they invariably have throughout history.

Conclusion

As always, it is important to think strategically and play the long game. Enemies of liberty are certainly doing this, and failure to do so by libertarians needlessly puts us at a disadvantage. Considering the likely consequences of cutting one part of government before another, cutting a part of government before a private replacement is viable, or privatizing state-controlled assets in certain ways can help us to fell the oak of statism in such a way as to safeguard essential elements of the social order and avoid needless unrest.

A Comprehensive Strategy Against Antifa

In recent months, the violent far-left group known as Antifa has grown from an occasional nuisance that rarely affected anyone other than neo-Nazis into a serious threat to anyone who is politically right of center and/or libertarian who wishes to speak in a public venue. Their tactics have escalated from peaceful counter-demonstrations to violent attacks upon people and property. The latest incidents at the presidential inauguration, University of California-Berkeley, and New York University clearly show that this trend cannot be allowed to continue.

As such, it is necessary to create a comprehensive strategy to defeat this group. This plan contains eighteen measures, some of which can be used by ordinary citizens, some of which involve the state, and some of which can be used by either. If these suggestions are implemented, then the Antifa threat should be dealt with and eliminated in short order. Without further ado, let us begin.

1. Stop giving in to their demands. When a behavior is rewarded, those who engage in that behavior will do so more frequently, and other people will emulate that behavior in search of their own reward. This means that public universities and other speaking venues which kowtow to pressure from Antifa must stop doing so. If Antifa’s behavior no longer results in platform denial to their political rivals, then they will have less incentive to engage in it. This measure can be aided by making the funding of taxpayer-supported institutions contingent on defying efforts to silence speech in such venues.

2. Fight fire with fire. When a behavior is punished, those who engage in that behavior will do so less frequently, and other people will avoid emulating that behavior for fear of being punished themselves. The reason that Antifa members continue to assault people and destroy property is because they can; they face far too little defensive violence in response to their aggression. This must change. The most effective way to make a bully stop is to bloody his nose. Note that many of their fold are physically small and weak with little or no combat experience. This will make the impact of finally meeting physical resistance all the more effective.

It would be best for right-wing citizens to take to the streets in order to violently suppress and physically remove Antifa themselves, but leaving this to police officers or National Guard troops is better than nothing. It may be necessary to let the state handle this in places where it has legally disarmed good people, but taking an active role wherever one can will defeat Antifa more quickly and help to restore the vital role of the militia in society.

3. Stop discouraging defensive violence. The maintenance of liberty requires the ability to bring overwhelming defensive violence to bear against aggressors. It is time for conservatives, reactionaries, and libertarians to stop denouncing people who state this obvious fact. That such self-defeating behavior has been happening in right-wing circles for years is one reason why Antifa has gotten away with so much of what they have done thus far.

4. Hire private security. This is already being done by some of Antifa’s targets, but it needs to be done by all. Again, many members of Antifa lack the size and strength to engage their opponents in honorable combat. Thus, having private security present to watch for sucker punching cowards and other such vermin can blunt much of Antifa’s ability to project power.

5. Go after members of Antifa by talking to their employers. This is a favorite tactic of Antifa in particular and social justice warriors in general. They will accuse a person of racism, sexism, or some other form of bigotry, often with no regard for merit, then contact their employers to get them in trouble. Their intention is to shame employers into firing their political rivals, or to disrupt businesses that refuse to bow to their pressure. Because they routinely do this to people, they have no right to complain when it is done to them. Turnabout is fair play, and it is time to strike.

6. Hack their websites and other online presences. This is already being done, but more is needed. Their online presence is an important method by which they recruit, organize, and secure funding. This must be shut down to arrest their growth and hinder their operations. Again, turnabout is fair play; Antifa sympathizers regularly try to hack right-wing websites and silence right-wing speech.

7. Infiltrate Antifa to gather intelligence and spread misinformation within. This is standard procedure for government agencies in taking down a criminal organization. The extent to which such operations are underway, if at all, are not publicly known. This needs to be done so that Antifa’s efforts can be blunted and its key personalities arrested. Although this tactic could be used to perpetrate false flag operations in their name, it is best not to do so, as this could backfire. The truth about Antifa is bad enough; there is no need to make up lies about them.

8. Call them what they are: rioters and terrorists, not protesters. The establishment media frequently refers to Antifa as protesters, regardless of their conduct. As Confucius said, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names.” We must hold the lying press to account and correct the record whenever and wherever possible. Antifa are not mere protesters; they are rioters and terrorists.

9. Remove and/or punish police commanders who give stand-down orders against Antifa. For the state to monopolize law and order within its territory is a travesty. For it to monopolize these services and then refuse to provide them is far worse. Anyone who is in command of police officers who are supposed to defend the public against Antifa’s crimes and tells those officers to stand down is not only in dereliction of duty, but is actively aiding the enemy. These administrators must be removed, and ideally, subjected to criminal charges as well.

10. Declare Antifa a domestic terrorist organization. The simplest definition of terrorism that covers all instances of it is that it is the use of violence, threats, fear, and intimidation against innocent people for the purpose of achieving political or social goals. Antifa operates by these methods, has various local chapters throughout the United States, and is organized, so the label of domestic terrorist organization clearly fits. This would allow for federal funding to be allocated specifically for combating Antifa, as well as the involvement of the Department of Homeland Security, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and other such agencies.

At this point, libertarians may protest that the United States government also meets the above definition of a terrorist organization, and they are not wrong about that. But they would be well-advised to check their autism and deal with the context of the situation. One can take the view that the state must be eliminated in the long-term while using it for our own purposes now. Setting one enemy of liberty against another is a wise strategy, and as bad as the United States government can be, allowing Antifa to grow and gain political power would be far worse.

11. Ban black bloc tactics. It is already illegal in many places to wear masks in public, but this should be specifically banned everywhere within the context of riots and other violent demonstrations. It is important to be able to identify Antifa activists for the purpose of punishing them properly, and laws against the public wearing of masks can be used to arrest Antifa members who are not violating any other statutes at the time. Perhaps they cannot be held for long or convicted of anything, but it will disrupt their activities.

12. Charge rioters with felonies. This has already happened to many rioters from the presidential inauguration, but felony rioting charges against Antifa and similar groups need to become more widespread. Lengthy prison terms and hefty fines will discourage people from involvement with Antifa while sidelining current activists and confiscating funds which would otherwise be used by Antifa. Ideally, such fines would be payable into a fund that would reimburse private property owners for damages caused by Antifa members.

13. Charge anyone who aids Antifa in any way. With Antifa declared a domestic terrorist organization, giving them aid, funding, and/or training would constitute the criminal offense of providing material support to terrorists. Such charges need not be limited to US residents; for example, George Soros is known to have provided funding to Antifa and other violent groups through his Tides Foundation. Extradition of foreign nationals to the United States to face charges would be a necessary part of this measure.

14. Freeze their funds. With Antifa declared a domestic terrorist organization, freezing Antifa-related bank accounts to shut down their financial resources should be a simple matter. This will not halt local activities, but it will hinder their ability to move professional rioters across the nation and conduct other operations which go beyond the local grassroots.

15. Send illegal aliens involved with Antifa to Guantanamo Bay. This measure is probably not necessary, but it would send a clear message that Antifa will not be allowed to continue its behavior. It could also bring out Antifa sympathizers who are on the fence about whether to actively participate by enraging and triggering them sufficiently to bring them out. Conversely, it could serve as an extreme measure which is used in the short-term in the hope of having to use fewer measures in the long-term. The legal rationale for this measure is that a foreign national who is in the United States and involved in terrorism may be treated as an unlawful combatant.

16. Eliminate gun-free zones. The vast majority of Antifa activity has occurred in gun-free zones or places in which carrying rights are restricted to some degree. By eliminating gun-free zones, the state can ensure that more citizens are capable of defending themselves from aggressors like Antifa. This will also lessen the burden on government security forces.

17. Privatize public property. An underlying problem of which the surge in left-wing political violence is a symptom is the existence of state-occupied property. No one truly owns such property because no person exercises exclusive control over it. This leaves it open not only to use by groups of people who are at cross purposes with each other, but to an occupation by one group for the purpose of denying access to another group. If all property were privately owned, then it would be clear that whenever Antifa attempt to shut down a venue by occupying the premises, they are trespassing. This would make physically removing them a less ambiguous matter.

18. Above all, stop trying to be better than the enemy and focus on defeating the enemy. There is no need to alter strategy, virtue signal, or make any other effort to be better than Antifa. That they are violent criminals and we seek to defend against them means that we already are better than them. Let us do what is necessary to defeat Antifa, as detailed in the previous seventeen measures, and leave worries about improving ourselves until after this is done. Remember, this is a war, and in war, nothing is more honorable than victory.

The Political Autism of Anti-Protectionism

There is a certain species of policy analysis which exhibits many of the symptoms which are commonly found among high-functioning autistic people. Among these symptoms are an inability to understand context, a troubling need for routines, an obsession with particular topics, difficulty with abstract thinking, difficulty in understanding other perspectives, a lack of empathy, an inability to process social cues, repetitive use of set phrases, and an inability to identify or think about groups or shared interests. Analysis that suffers from some (or even all) of these shortcomings can be found all over the political spectrum, but it seems to come disproportionately from libertarian thinkers.

The rise of Donald Trump has brought a protectionist view of trade policy back to the forefront for the first time in decades. Naturally, this gives libertarians pause, as protectionism violates individual liberties, is economically inefficient, and gives more money and power to the state. In a textbook-style vacuum, free trade is both more libertarian and more beneficial than protectionism. But to stop there and fail to address the relevant current conditions would be politically autistic by way of context denial. Thus, it is necessary to examine how protectionist policies can make sense in certain contexts, as well as the problems with supporting a policy of free trade in all circumstances.

On January 26, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer floated the idea of a 20 percent import tariff on goods coming from Mexico as a means of funding a border wall. This prompted outrage from the establishment media, along with claims and analysis showing that Americans would pay the tariff rather than Mexico because Mexican products would be more expensive for American consumers as a result. This would be true if all else were equal, but this is not the case.

The Context

Mexico already has import tariffs which can be as high as 140.4 percent and average 13.97 percent. For Mexico to tariff US goods while the US does not tariff Mexican goods puts American companies at a disadvantage. While the libertarian may note that smuggling to evade the tariff would be a morally acceptable response, this is not feasible on the level necessary to conduct a national economy. Revolution to abolish the governments that impose the tariffs would also be morally acceptable, but this is likewise unfeasible, at least for the immediate future. Eliminating government interference in the economy that makes it harder to do business domestically is another option which is better than protective tariffs, but doing so to the extent and with the quickness which would be necessary is unlikely. The next best option, then, is for the US government to respond with an equivalent counter-tariff to attempt to even out the discrepancies caused by another state’s tariffs, with an aim toward negotiating abolition of the tariff on both sides.1 Given that 81.2 percent of Mexican exports for a worth of $309.2 billion go to the United States and 15.7 percent of US exports for $236.4 billion go to Mexico, the threat of a trade war clearly gives leverage to the United States. Peter Navarro, who heads the White House National Trade Council, said as much to CNNMoney:

“The tariff is not an end game, it’s a strategy…to renegotiate trade deals. Tariffs wouldn’t put U.S. jobs at risk.”

It is important to remember that much like nuclear weapons, the primary purpose of tariffs is not to be directly utilized, but to alter the behavior of other states by serving as a deterrent. The threat of a trade war by way of tariffs and counter-tariffs helps to keep the economic peace, just as peace through mutually assured destruction does with nuclear weapons. A response to another nation’s tariff to gain leverage against it is the secondary purpose, as explained earlier. Those who fail to account for this are exhibiting political autism by engaging in context denial.

The Analysis

A 20 percent tariff would discourage Americans from buying Mexican products. This would also raise the cost of goods which are currently provided at the lowest cost by Mexicans. The increase would not necessarily be 20 percent; to illustrate this, let us consider a simple example. Suppose that avocados from Mexico currently cost $1 each, while equivalent avocados grown in California cost $1.10 each. The tariff makes it so that initially, the Mexican avocados increase to $1.20 while the California avocados remain at $1.10. Initially, the American consumer pays 10 percent more but switches to the California source as much as possible. This diversion of funds from Mexico to California allows the Californian producers to make investments to improve their techniques and expand their operations, which will lower the cost of their products over time, potentially even below the $1 level that consumers originally paid to Mexico.

Whether this is a superior outcome for the American consumer depends upon a variety of factors, such as the available farmland in each location, the weather patterns over the next several years, the intelligence of American agriculturalists versus Mexican agriculturalists, and so on. What is known is that as few Americans as possible will be paying the tariff to the US government, and as many as possible will instead pay only part of it to American producers. This will not create net jobs, but it will have influence over where jobs will be created, which will give some American consumers more money to spend. The inability to think abstractly to get beyond the basic free trade position is an example of political autism.

Rationalism, Not Empiricism

Many economists will attempt to argue for free trade on empirical grounds, but this is a flawed approach. Economics is not a science, but an a priori discipline akin to logic and mathematics. The logical truths of economics can be illustrated by using empirical examples, but the discipline itself is not data-driven.

Most empirical cases for free trade rely upon David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. But comparative advantage makes several starting assumptions which are not always true, such as non-diminishing returns, the presence of multiple trade commodities, inelastic demand, domestically mobile labor, and internationally immobile labor. Although the available evidence suggests that free trade raises living standards, increases purchasing power, and accelerates economic development, these studies suffer from both the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy and the absence of counterfactuals for each case. This is not cause for dismissal, but it is cause for suspicion. A proper case for free trade must rest on logic, not observation.

Although free trade usually provides more net benefit than protectionism in the long run, people do not live in the long run; they live their lives and feel economic pain here and now. Furthermore, a net benefit does not mean that each individual person benefits; only that the sum of all benefits and malefits is greater than zero. It may be the case that a minority sees great gains while a majority suffers somewhat smaller losses, and this would explain why a democratic system would produce protectionist policies. Political autism manifests here in the form of the lack of empathy for those who are harmed by free trade in the short-term, the difficulty of understanding their perspective, and the inability to think properly about individuals versus groups.

Trump And Adaptation

The desire for protective tariffs among Trump supporters fits into a larger picture. Following Trump’s election, many leftists have criticized Trump supporters as being unwilling or unable to adapt to a changing world, and Trumpism as a reaction to that changing world. But an organism faced with a changing environment has three options: fail, adapt itself to the environment, or adapt the environment to itself. Most species are almost exclusively capable of the former two options, but humans are uniquely capable of the latter option. In seeking to reverse unfavorable societal trends, Trump supporters are doing something uniquely human and perfectly understandable. A libertarian may question their methods, but their motives make sense. Those who oppose Trump but express a desire to understand the other side would do well to consider this point.

Conclusion

There are good reasons to oppose protectionism in the abstract, but to simply state these reasons and fail to appreciate the context in which protectionism is advocated is an example of political autism. In theory, there are better courses of action, but these options are not always feasible. The threat of tariffs as a means to deter other states from imposing tariffs is an important tool for deterring trade wars, and a nation that refuses to consider such a deterrent is at a disadvantage against other nations that have no such scruples. The empirical case for free trade, while intriguing, is not true for all people in all circumstances, and does nothing to help those who have lost their livelihoods to foreign competition. In a perfect world, no protectionism would be justifiable, but that is neither this world nor the world of the immediate future.

Footnotes:

  1. Note that the use of barriers to free trade as a negotiating tactic is nothing new in US-Mexico trade relations. When Mexico tried exporting avocados to the US in the 1990s, the US government resisted at first, but gave in when Mexico started erecting barriers to US corn exports. The end result of using counter-barriers against barriers to free trade in this case was freer trade.

Book Review: The Invention of Russia

The Invention of Russia is a book about the history of the Soviet Union and the formation of modern Russia by Russian journalist Arkady Ostrovsky. The book focuses on the time period of the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin. Special attention is paid to the role played by the media in shaping narratives and steering the population from the Soviet era to the present.

The prologue deals with the author’s experience during and immediately after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov on February 27, 2015. He briefly overviews events over the past few decades that factored into Nemtsov’s murder, and the author’s experiences through those years are also discussed.

The book proper is divided into two parts, each with five chapters. The division between the parts is roughly set at the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis. The first chapter begins with the end of the Soviet Union, then backtracks to give the reader a sense of Soviet history up to Gorbachev’s rise to power, with emphasis on the events that foreshadowed it, such as de-Stalinization and the crushing of the Prague Spring. The second chapter covers the time from Gorbachev’s appointment to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The nature of perestroika and glasnost are discussed, as well as how the Chernobyl incident affected both. Later in the chapter, Ostrovsky details the split between the liberal reformers and the Stalinist hardliners, as well as the beginnings of the privatization of state assets which formed the class of Russian oligarchs. The third chapter explores the final two years of the Soviet Union, including the economic difficulties, the rise of Yeltsin, the worries of the KGB and other elements of the Soviet power structure, the January Events in Lithuania, and the 1991 Soviet coup attempt. The fourth chapter looks at the role played by the media in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and how the generational shift from the shestidesiatniki to their children affected the changes. The Kommersant newspaper is highlighted as an example of the new Russian media, as well as one of several examples of less than honest business practices in the early 1990s, which occurred due to the moral vacuum left by communism. The fifth chapter covers the time from the end of the Soviet Union up to the 1993 crisis, with particular attention to the role of television, radio, and print media in shaping the narrative and saving Russia from another Communist takeover.

The sixth chapter continues the discussion of the 1993 crisis, then moves on to the creation of NTV, Russia’s first Western-style television station. Of course, NTV had to compete with Channel One and other state media, which caused tensions with the state when NTV covered the first Chechnya war from the Chechen point of view. The chapter concludes with the 1996 election, in which the media played an essential role in bringing Yeltsin up from single-digit polling to a victory over Gennady Zyuganov, his Communist challenger. The seventh chapter continues with the events after the election, including a battle between oligarchs that turned into a political crisis, continued troubles with Chechnya, the search for a vision for Russia moving forward, and finally, the 1998 Russian financial crisis.The eighth chapter shows how this milieu combined with NATO airstrikes in Serbia and an overly propagandistic media was able to elevate an obscure KGB agent named Vladimir Putin to the presidency of Russia. The decision of most of NTV’s leadership to side against this was the beginning of the end for the station. The ninth chapter covers the time from the beginning of Putin’s rule to the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, including the ouster of several high-profile opponents of the regime, the bringing of NTV into the control of Gazprom and its gradual turn toward the regime, further trouble with Chechen terrorists, the Russo-Georgian War, and the activities of various media personalities. The tenth chapter looks at Putin’s rule in light of Russian popular culture, the rise of the bureaucrat-entrepreneur, the protests of 2011-13, the military operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and the use of propaganda to manufacture support for foreign aggression.

The book is excellent at face value, providing a perspective that can only come from a native person who lived through many of the events described in the book. But it is even more valuable to libertarians and reactionaries for the obvious parallels between Russian history and the current state of affairs in the West, as well as for the warnings concerning the improper dismantling of government monopolies, as happened during the transition from the Soviet Union to modern Russia.

To conclude, the unique explanations of historical events and the focus on the role of the media in steering the ship of state make this book an invaluable addition to the collection of any activist, analyst, historian, strategist, or student.

Rating: 5/5