Monthly Archives: February 2009

The Moral Importance of Autonomy and Responsibility

Crispin Sartwell on how collective action lightens the perceived burden of moral responsibility. I am reminded of a gobbit from Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: “Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?”

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Dog gone fair!

Experiments show dogs have a sense of fairness and conceptions of justice and an overlapping consensus: 

Recent research indicates that non-human primates refuse to participate in cooperative problem-solving tasks if they witness a conspecific obtaining a more attractive reward for the same effort. However, little is known about non-primate species, although inequity aversion may also be expected in other cooperative species. Here, we investigated whether domestic dogs show sensitivity toward the inequity of rewards received for giving the paw to an experimenter on command in pairs of dogs. We found differences in dogs tested without food reward in the presence of a rewarded partner compared with both a baseline condition (both partners rewarded) and an asocial control situation (no reward, no partner), indicating that the presence of a rewarded partner matters. 

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Sober Thoughts

From Peter Boettke, quoting Sophie Scholl, the leader of a resistance group in Nazi Germany: 

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

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Taking Progress For Granted

Kevin Kelly at the Technium has a great clip from Conan O’Brian. I don’t know who this comedian is, but he does a wonderful job satirizing ingratitude.

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Marc Andreessen On…Everything

Great Charlie Rose interview with Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen. My favorite part has to be his advice to newspapers: “It’s over. Kill the print edition.”

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Wilkinson On Limited Government

A very wise post. He makes the distinction between small government and limited government and then argues for the importance of the latter.

I think this takes us to another sense of “limited government” as “limited to what non-government alternatives cannot do better.” An obvious implication of market failure arguments for state provision of certain services is that the state should not be in the business of providing services where markets or other voluntary mechanism are superior. There’s no justification for the coercive tax-financing of state enterprises when those good and servives would be provided (usually with higher quality and a lower price) with no state coercion. Also, state enterprises will tend to crowd out private enterprises both by (a) absorbing capital and using it badly and (b) by virtue of its inherent advantages in securing anti-competitive subsidies and barriers to entry, which is all the more reason to limit government to the things we actually need it for.

Read the whole thing.

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A Reasonable Anarchy

I have found a new term with which to define my political philosophy. This comes as a surprise, because I inadvertently stumbled upon it while searching for the title of Jedediah Purdy’s new book, A Tolerable Anarchy.  Disappointed, because the phrase hints at a moral defense of the creative destruction inherent to capitalism, I mistakenly thought the precocious law professor had seized the rhetorical high-ground, and left wild souls like myself without so eloquent a tool.  I’m happy to see I was mistaken. I find “a reasonable anarchy” much preferable to confusing terms like anarcho-capitalism, which comes across as more Chomsky than David Friedman, and the phrase bears a strong resemblance to the rational anarchism advocated by Professor de la Paz in the Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  It also implies that the benefits of massively scaled coordination to mutual benefit may have limits.  The provision of public goods is a problem.  Anarchy it is, but within the confines of demonstrably sound, and yes, in Mr. Purdy’s phrase, tolerable public goods. 

But on further reflection, my misremembering “reasonable” for “tolerable” reveals a telling difference between the precocious law professor and myself, for tolerable connotes a sense of holding out, a sense of acceptance without endorsement.  Reasonable, however, conveys the sense that it’s a philosophy based on reason and evidence.  Whereas tolerable–it’s reminiscent of left-wing intellectuals who, betraying which side of the baseline they begin from, tolerate elements of capitalism, but want to keep the free-market beast caged–or better yet, harnessed amid progressive tax-schemes and a thousand and one regulations. 

Either way, despite the high-flown rhetoric of either side, this comes down to marketing.  My guess is that Mr. Purdy has written what will amount to the faint echo of Obama’s inaugural address: an unconvincingly bland attempt to unite the pioneer tradition in America with massive government action.  Picture Davy Crockett coming down from the Blue Ridge Mountains, a lake off to the side, he’s wielding folders full of orthodox policies straight out of the Democratic repertoire and the frontiersman speaks, “I have seen the American frontier! And it is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” 

Purdy offers similar vapid thoughts in today’s NYTimes Book review (a review of Beyond the Revolution by William Goetzmann):

“The Declaration of Independence is Obama’s touchstone, as it was Lincoln’s, because it anchors the country to a cosmopolitan vision of openness and equality. It has never been clearer that the country’s best self is a global inheritance, its worst a parochial self-certainty. A book of 19th-century ideas that portrays America as one part Google, one part melting pot and one part utopian dream may just have found its moment at the inauguration, eight years late, of the 21st century.”

An enterprising cultural anthropologist would document the left’s infatuation with Google.

Anyway, and incidentally, a quick google search on “reasonable anarchy” brings me to G. K. Chesterton’s book on Robert Browning. Describing the tendencies of Browning’s knaves, he writes, “These loose and mean characters speak of many things feverishly and vaguely; of one thing they always speak with confidence and composure, their relation to God. It may seem strange at first sight that those who have outlived the indulgence, and not only of every law, but of every reasonable anarchy, should still rely so simply upon the indulgence of divine perfection.” 

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