Category Archives: Political Theory

The problem with equality.

“Equality” is the watchword of liberals and other milder right-wing groups. I have written about equality of outcomes before. It is an extremely unpopular concept, and not what most people mean by “equality.” Therefore it is probably not a good idea to use equality for that sort of thing.

It is therefore important to distinguish carefully between equality, equity (or fairness), and liberation. There is a somewhat famous image showing three children, of different heights, trying to look at a baseball game, but are blocked by a fence. Equality is portrayed as giving them all equal sized boxes, meaning that only the taller children can see the game. Equity is portrayed as giving everyone enough boxes so they can see. And liberation means taking down the fence.

The analogy with ethical issues and political issues, I think, is obvious. For instance, gender equality means giving men and women the same opportunities to safety, employment, and so on, without taking into account the different ways in which men and women are treated by society and our institutions (in short, liberal feminism). Gender equity means giving men and women the means to have equal outcomes regardless of their gender (e.g. equal wages for equal work, wages for housework, socializing men to be less aggressive). And gender liberation means abolishing gender (radical feminism).

Equality, therefore, is a trap in the same way that liberal feminism is a trap regarding gender issues: its ultimate aim is to justify hierarchies while pretending to alleviate their negative effects. Economic equality measures, from higher minimum wage to universal income, are better than no measures, but they ultimately serve the role, as they always have, of propping up the capitalist order. All welfare systems have served this role. They have always been a result of the tension between the lower classes (working class, students, the poor) and the interests of the elite, for as long as there’s been class warfare.

The main goal of any (social) hierarchy is to perpetuate its own existence, because of the people whose livelihood and/or social status depend on the hierarchy and the beliefs which the hierarchy has propagated to support itself. Equality rhetoric is perfect for this, because it preserves the hierarchy while using equality as a perceived reward. Equality measures within a hierarchy does not really affect the inequalities of power between the superiors and inferiors in a hierarchy. The only way to end inequalities within a hierarchy is to eliminate that hierarchy, liberation, because superiors and inferiors are an inherent part of any hierarchy.

There are two major kinds of hierarchies, institutions and systemic prejudice, and so there are two different ways in which this can be expressed. Equality within institutions usually means that the rules apply equally to everyone (leading to the famous maxim that both poor and rich people are prevented by the law from sleeping under bridges). In theory, everyone has a chance of gaining status and power, but this does not refute the existence of that power. For instance, having more women be CEOs or scientists does not refute the existence of the corporate or scientific hierarchies. On the contrary, it props them up as valid, in much the same way that most religions seek validation by making their own charities.

Hierarchies are the core problem, not lack of mobility within them. Hierarchies are bad because their very structure assumes that some people’s values or desires are more important than other people’s (omitting values which seek to harm other people, which should already be dealt with by society at large). Once you have a structure with superior and inferior strata, the values of that superior stratum inevitably diverge from that of the rest.

People are aware that our ethical viewpoints dictate our views about power. However, the distribution of power also influences our ethical viewpoints. Of course, people who have power can, to some extent, influence or dictate what we’re supposed to accept as right or wrong. A structure which gives some people the right to order around other people will necessarily lead to some level of undermining of our moral sense. Militaries and cults are more extreme examples of this, but it takes place in all hierarchies. Inherent to the existence of hierarchies is the denial of moral autonomy and the manipulation of people’s values for a “higher good” (usually the good of the leaders of the hierarchy, or the hierarchy itself).

But another point is that the distribution of power dictates the possibilities of ethical behavior we can perform. The more money we have, the more influence we have, the more authority we have, the more we’re able to bring about better or worse outcomes for others. A multi-millionaire can contribute effectively to benevolent charities, or start their own, while a poor person cannot do the same. Influential figures can leverage their influence by getting people to help a certain person or a certain situation, while others cannot.

This is another way in which hierarchical status can influence the importance given to one person’s values. When we hear about rich or influential people and their impact on the world through charities or advocacy, we applaud their values and see them as being important moral agents. But that is really the result of hierarchies, a construct, which does not reflect real moral worth.

My current political position.

I used to define myself as a libertarian socialist (I still do in response to questions, if anyone asks me). I do not follow political labels any more, because I’ve come to the conclusion that groupthink is harder to overcome than ideological error, and it seems like all political groups have heavy groupthink attached to them. Bringing up feminism (real feminism, I mean) is a big no-no even in actual leftist circles. Antinatalism and population reduction, surely one of the biggest issues of our time, are usually relegated to the margins (this is changing slightly, and the discussion has started, although barely). There is no way, even in leftist groups, to try to bring up other radical issues without being attacked.

The best I can say is that I am a radical leftist. That, of course, can be misinterpreted. People, especially Americans, seem to think that “leftist” means “liberal.” Extremists of many kinds are called “radicals.” This is unfortunate, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

Nowadays, I prefer to think about ideals. I’ve gotten very much into Iain Banks’ Culture series, which is about a far-future utopian anarchist galactic society governed by super-intelligent AIs. If I had to point to any book which highlights what I believe in, that would probably be it. There’s also The Dispossessed, by Ursula LeGuin, which I’ve been recommending for a long time. These provide an ideal of what could be, and what direction we should be thinking towards.

There are downsides to this. Some people will argue that pointing to far-future utopias demonstrates that those utopias cannot exist right here and right now. While spurious, this argument also shows the need to discuss current-day liberationist structures as well, like self-managed businesses, autonomous communities, freedom schools, and so on. There is no reason, apart from the interests of existing power structures, why we can’t have liberationist structures anywhere.

This position already has a name: fully automated luxury communism (FALC). It is not a widespread position (not yet, anyway), although it’s starting to get some popularity. It is a hyper optimistic position, which may seem to contradict my pessimism. I personally have little to no hope that FALC will ever exist in human societies, mostly because we’re going to exterminate each other before that happens (even if liberationism ever catches on). But I hold to it as an ideal which should inform our political views in the here and now. We all know deep down, even the worst conservatives, that the ideology of the future is not one of exclusion and petty limitations.

People might call me out for not caring about the present. It’s not that I don’t care about the present, but rather that I think people need ideals more than ideas. We are at a time in history where it seems like we have arrived at the horrible end of history, that capitalism has won, that democracy has won, and that we are about to destroy ourselves. Devoid of living alternatives, devoid of ideals, the opposition is reduced to a bunch of whackos trying to stake a claim of being the only true political alternative.

On present time politics, I prefer to concentrate on individual issues, like I do on this blog. Bottom-up politics, if you want, instead of top-down. Really getting into the details of a handful of issues and getting to the truth of it can then become a litmus test: any ideology which does not conform to what I already know is definitely true cannot be right. The reverse, forcing specific positions based on one’s general political views, can lead straight to absurdity, because their opinions are unchecked by good sense or logic, only by one’s internal logic.

Right now, I think the most important issue concerning politics is the issue of population control. And yet this is an issue that is not discussed very much at all. Here I am not talking about antinatalism, but about population ethics and population reduction in general. There is an urgent need to start reducing population worldwide. This is also connected to other issues like feminism (since much of procreation is caused by the exploitation and objectification of women), radical environmentalism (since population control is overwhelmingly the most efficient and only permanent way of reducing human impact on the environment), childism (since population growth is driven by childist arguments), antitheism (since so much procreation, and opposition to abortion, is driven by religion), antinatalism (obviously), and so on.

In terms of social organization, there are so many different problems and issues with their own importance that it’s hard for me to just name one. An old school leftist would probably point to the lack of class awareness as the core problem. Again, I think the lack of ideals has a lot to do with it.

Are our societies cult-like?

Given my interest in analyzing cults and how they brainwash people, I suppose it would be natural that I would want to apply that same understanding to society as a whole. After all, our societies are totalizing groups, like cults. Everything we do and think is either a consequence or a reaction to all the socialization and indoctrination we have received. Pledging allegiance to a cult means foregoing allegiance to the society. Does that mean, therefore, that society is just a bigger cult?

We designate certain groups as cults, and other groups as quasi-cults, cultish, or not cults at all, based on their separation from the larger society they inhabit: separation of language, segregation of information, separating friends and families, shifting value systems and allegiances. Therefore, judging any society’s level of cultism is, strictly speaking, impossible, because we have no greater society to compare it to.

However, in another sense, we already do judge societies on the basis of our own. For example, we can say North Korea is a cult because of its political system. We can do this by talking about a section of it, the political system, and comparing it with other political systems. Of course there is a degree of self-indulgence in this. What we’re saying is, “look how much more cult-like North Korea is compared to us.” This does not prove that our societies are not cult-like, merely that one is more cult-like than the other. This evaluation is therefore inherently relative.

While we cannot evaluate societies literally on the same criteria as cults, we can still reason by analogy. Let me list the main criteria for identifying cults:

1. Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

2. Mystical Manipulation. There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes.

3. Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.

4. Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

5. Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.

6. Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating cliches, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.

7. Doctrine over person. Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.

8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also. (Lifton, 1989)

Again, I am saying we need to reason by analogy, not literally. Society is not a group with a clear and definite structure, a charismatic leader, and a set of doctrines that are clearly laid out to the initiate. Society encompasses vast and numerous groups which interact in complex and often vague ways, many leaders with various qualities, and doctrines which are either “common sense,” technical knowledge, historical or social myths, religious doctrines which vary wildly from group to group, scientific principles, beliefs disguised as science, positions that are part of political worldviews, and so on. This list narrows down quite a bit if we give a more precise definition of the word “doctrine.”

What is a society formally delimited by? It is delimited by its border (a society exists within a country or territory), by its government (monopoly of control over a country or territory), by its economy and currency (who you can trade with, who you can work with), and more vaguely by its culture (the way things are done). There are, of course, other structures that are extremely important within a society (such as the family structure or the gender hierarchy), but these are the particular structures that separate societies from each other.

What are the ideas and beliefs that separate societies? Well, obviously, allegiance to a country, a government, an economy, and a culture. But there are also more general principles, such as us versus them (or more generally, manichean thinking), racism, neo-liberalism (which sets economies against each other), war and a history of war, religious hatred, and so on.

Based on this reasoning, what can we use an analogy to these criteria?

Milieu Control: Information is controlled within society by the capitalist media, and particularly by the capitalist media’s dependence on the government’s favor for access to important people and information. While this has been especially noted in the case of the United States (e.g. see Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent), people in all societies are artificially limited in their access to information and communication by the constraints of capitalism. Only certain groups are allowed to use the mass media, and only in certain ways. The Internet, of course, represents a significant attack against those limitations (in the same way that the Internet has been very bad for cults in general).

Mystical Manipulation: Because it is impossible to manipulate the direct experiences of the people of an entire society, this is not a possible means of control. What can be manipulated is access to information and how to interpret that information, the former which I’ve already covered.

Demand for Purity: Most of the ideas and beliefs I listed above are examples of black and white thinking, and we are constantly exhorted to conform to them (be on the “right” side). We are also encouraged, through the belief in positive thinking, to purify our minds. There is no general idea of “perfection” in our societies, only success, so that doesn’t really apply here.

Confession: Again, because of the size of any society, there is no way for this to be a working principle. But the principle of confession applies to various areas of society, including parenting (confessing your disobedience), justice (confessing your crimes), and religion (confessing your sins).

Sacred Science: This principle is taken literally by cultural relativists (culture is always right), authoritarians and right-wingers (power is always right), and others. But as a more general analogy, the belief in one’s society as the “good” side, and in your culture as the “right” culture, is beyond questioning or doubt (and anyone who questions them is considered a traitor, a secret “them”). We do not consider our leaders infallible, but we do consider them to be representatives of the society, and therefore people who are necessarily on the “good” side.

Loading the Language: The way words are manipulated, in politics for example, is well understood. We use plenty of thought-terminating cliches, even in normal language.

Doctrine over person: All groups affirm the superiority of their agreed-upon beliefs against the personal disagreements of their members. Any group that did not do this would not remain a group for long. Societies are no different. Experiences which lead people to deny some socially mandated belief (e.g. the superiority of “our” way of life compared to others) are denied or reinterpreted.

This is an extremely cursory examination of the issue, and I am not claiming otherwise. And again, I am not literally saying societies are cults (because such an evaluation is impossible). What I am saying is that by reasoning in analogies we can see ways in which societies sometimes operate in a similar manner to cults.

This is not to say that society is evil. Actually not all cults are evil, and some are rather benign (although they tend to be the exception rather than the rule). The reason why we are against cults is because they are the perfect sort of environment for a leader to brainwash people. And we don’t like brainwashing because it negates the native value system of the individual in favor of some imposed value system, a value system which benefits someone who is not the individual holding it.

Well, of course we have that in our societies also, just not in the same extreme form. Take religious brainwashing, for instance. It is a well known phenomenon that people who deconvert from a religion generally and suddenly drop all the other positions that came along with it (like political positions or ethical positions). This is because most people are indoctrinated as children into a religion, which includes the value system imposed by that religion on the believer. That value system overrides the native value system of the individual. Once they leave the religion, they also drop that imposed value system. The same thing is true of people who leave cults. Other ideologies, like political ideologies, philosophical ideologies, child-raising ideologies, racist or sexist ideologies, and so on, can warp people’s value system to some larger or smaller extent, making certain things acceptable which otherwise would not be, and making certain things unacceptable when natively the person would have nothing against it.

With brainwashing and indoctrination in general comes its opposite mechanism, cognitive dissonance. If you don’t know what that is, cognitive dissonance is the mental tension generated by acquiring a belief which contradicts one of our other held beliefs. For example, if you believe that your friend Peter is an upstanding individual who would do no wrong, and then you observe him punching a person you believe is innocent, you would experience cognitive dissonance because you both believe that Peter is an upstanding individual and that Peter punched an innocent person, which is a contradiction. If you want to no longer experience the discomfort, you would have to resolve the contradiction by rejecting one of the two beliefs. People who change their minds about something they used to believe strongly usually do so because of cognitive dissonance.

In cults, people often experience cognitive dissonance by observing things happening within the group that contradicts what they were told about the group (e.g. “the group is a paragon of virtue” vs “the group kicked Peter out even though he did something praiseworthy”). Likewise, we experience plenty of cognitive dissonance between commonly accepted beliefs in our societies and what we observe or read about. Belief in the rightness of the country or government may be challenged by what the government actually does or has done in the past. Belief in the inferiority of certain classes or races may be challenged by meeting and living with such people. Religious and political beliefs may be challenged by a wide variety of events, including reading about scientific or empirical counter-evidence, being unable to satisfactorily answer contrary arguments, and so on.

Pragmatist objections to radical ideas.

There are a few ways by which people can just dismiss radical ideas and go on with their lives without bothering to think about them. One way is to simply dismiss radical ideas as being unpopular, and therefore not worthy of consideration. This is, of course, a simple argument from popularity. How popular an idea is has nothing to do with whether it’s true or not. It just makes it easier to ignore. This is not really an argument, just an emotional appeal (an appeal to our desire to be part of the group, part of the gang, not be an outcast).

There is, however, a further argument which is based on this. There are people who believe that truth should be judged based on its utility, and who call themselves pragmatists or concerned with practicality. This has nothing to do with pragmatism as it was formulated in philosophy, but has been a common straw man about it. Either way, their strategy consists of something like the following:

1. Radical ideas are unpopular and will never be implemented.
2. Ideas which cannot be implemented are not practical.
3. There is no point in holding as true something that is not practical.
4. Therefore, there is no point in holding radical ideas as true.

Some will even so far as to say that radical ideas are actually false because of this, but I have given a charitable version of the argument here.

There is a sense in which this argument is somewhat valid: if you think there’s no point in believing something, then don’t believe it. However, it is not clear why our standard should be “whether it’s practical.” Many of our fundamental ethical principles are not very practical, but we adopt them anyway. For instance, many people happen to believe that people shouldn’t be treated as means to an end, or that we should not initiate harm, or things of the sort. From what we know of human history and current events, this is supremely impractical, but that doesn’t make these principles any less valid. Indeed, if you agree with the idea that morality and ethics only arise because of our disappointment with the world, then the whole point of ethical ideas is to point to something better than what we have now, so they must be impractical almost by definition.

It seems that “practical” can be more or less equated to “whatever we have now,” because whatever we have now is already implemented. And indeed this sort of argument is often used to defend the status quo: we know the status quo can be implemented because that’s what we have right now, while ideas for changing it are inherently uncertain and therefore not practical. While this argument is more complex than the popularity fallacy, it does to some extent reduce itself to popularity as well, because what is considered practical in our societies is generally what is popularly understood and believed. Our accepted conceptions of the human being, of society, of economics, and so on, dictates what is seen as practical and impractical.

The obvious reply is that this is not how truth works. We do not determine truth by practicality in any area of life. Truth, as commonly defined, is correspondence to reality (I expound on my own closely related theory of truth in this entry). But it seems to me that we need to be more specific here, because there are a number of claims being conflated. What do we mean when we say, for instance, that antinatalism cannot be true because it’s not practical? The way I see it, there are three propositions involved here:

(1a) There is sufficient rational evidence for the proposition that “procreation is wrong.”
(1b) Procreation is wrong.
(1c) We can prevent everyone from procreating.

Proposition 1b is the antinatalist view, so any antinatalist must believe (1b). Perhaps there are some antinatalists who do not believe (1a), but generally speaking people who believe (1b) will also tend to believe (1a). The reverse is much stronger: people who believe (1a) are very likely to believe (1b), and indeed, if they are honest, they should believe (1b).

On the other hand, there are no antinatalists I know who believe (1c). According to the pragmatist, this makes antinatalism false, or at least not true. But “antinatalism” is commonly defined as the proposition that procreation is wrong, not the proposition that we can prevent everyone from procreating. If that’s the pragmatist’s argument, then it’s simply incorrect, since refuting (1c) does not refute antinatalism in any way. The pragmatist may argue that it does make antinatalism useless, but whether (1c) is true or not, antinatalism still has an effect on people’s lives and cannot be discounted as useless. If it has any effect on people’s lives and some effect on society as a whole, no matter how small, it cannot be useless.

In a sense, the argument assumes that (1c) justifies (1b), that the practicality proves the truth of the proposition. What I believe, based on how we validate truth, is that a proposition like (1a) is what is needed to justify (1b), that what we need is rational evidence that the proposition is true. (1a) is a statement of fact which has nothing to do with practicality or implementation of any kind: an argument is either valid or invalid, a piece of evidence is either relevant or it is not relevant, and so on. While it may be complicated to reason through, the question “is there sufficient rational evidence for something” is a statement of fact which ultimately has only two answers, yes or no.

Another area where people use this sort of argument is in the case of left-wing ideologies. Let me take Anarchism as an example:

(2a) At least most hierarchies are not rationally justified. (the Chomsky Principle)
(2b) We should organize society along egalitarian lines.
(2c) We can organize society along egalitarian lines.

An Anarchist is most likely to agree with (2b), given that it is basically a restatement of Anarchism. An Anarchist may disagree with (2a), although I would think it rather unlikely. But an Anarchist does not have to agree with (2c). Here, we must point out that, as in the case of antinatalism (with the Shakers and the Cathars, to name only two), there have been instances of communities organized along egalitarian lines, historically and in the present. But when the pragmatist argues against Anarchists, the argument is that “our society” (whatever society that might be) cannot be organized along egalitarian lines, not “a society.” That is to say, it may be pragmatic for a Zapatista to believe in Anarchism, because it’s their status quo, but it’s not ours.

But this view, if correct, leads to the rather distressing conclusion that their idea of truth is no longer universal, but is rather culture-dependent. This is a red flag which shows that what they call truth is not really truth but something more wonky. What they are talking about is something like an “accepted belief” or “popular belief.” Truth is truth regardless of where you are or what society you’re in (except for things like indexical propositions, which have a meaning that itself depends on context, like “I am tired”). While you may not have access to evidence that other people can access due to being closer to its source, it does not mean that you have a “different truth,” it simply means that you have less evidence on which to base your judgment.

Of course, the issue of whether any given hierarchical society can be organized along egalitarian lines is a difficult one and can be asked in many different ways (is it feasible if there is the will to do it? will there ever be the will to do it?). But the simple fact is that no one can provide a definite answer to that question. Likewise, no one can definitely say that it will never be the case that no one will procreate. I will grant that the possibility is vanishingly small, but it is non-zero. However, whether the possibility is zero or non-zero, the issue of practicality has no bearing upon the truth of (1a) or (2a). The arguments for antinatalism are either valid or invalid. The Chomsky Principle is either true or false.

In some cases, we get a variant of this argument, which consists of stating that, while there is a possibility, that possibility is too frightening to contemplate. I have discussed this in the case of gender. It is also sometimes invoked in the case of denying free will (if people start denying their free will, they’ll go on a rampage!). This is a similar sort of argument, in that it still relies on general agreement, popularity, the status quo, and so on. If people believe a given hierarchy or ideal is necessary, then they will balk at the idea of losing it, and based on that, other people will say “look at what might happen if we lose this ideal.” But this still has nothing to do with whether this is a truthful evaluation.

This way of arguing goes hand in hand with a reformist, gradualist mindset. Gradualists want everyone to believe that their way is the practical way, the realistic way, that slow, gradual change within the system is what will work in the long run, and that radicals and revolutionaries are “utopian.” So it’s a natural step from there to argue that radicals are simply not being practical, that their way will never work, and that therefore there’s no point in considering their ideas. Of course, this is all nonsense: most social changes have not been accomplished by reformists (rather, they generally take credit for the changes after they take over a movement and tear it to shreds in order to make it socially acceptable).

Because issues of practicality are rather difficult to analyze, it’s also easy for these people to frame radical ideas as personal opinions, something like “well, you may think that X is better, but that’s just your opinion and I can ignore it because most people disagree.” So that’s another way in which the argument can collapse into a popularity contest.

What do you do if you’re in a privileged class?

There is a huge tension between being a radical and being a person who has privilege in some hierarchy or other, as most of us have. As radicals, we see privilege as an external force, something to be abolished. As people with privilege, we see privilege as something that’s a part of who we are in society. Being a radical necessarily means the desire to abolish, to cast off, part of oneself. Since they are, after all, human, a lot of radicals are uncomfortable with that fact. There is also an unfortunate tendency to balkanize, to believe that one’s specific radical ideology is the only radical ideology worth pursuing, and that all others are pointless. This makes it easy to ignore privilege, and is basically the radical equivalent of “Oppression Olympics.”

The expression currently in fashion with the liberal/SJW set is “check your privilege.” This is used to shut down arguments from a person who holds a position of privilege, whether that privilege is relevant to the conversation or not, and equating such a position with an automatic disqualification from rational conversation. In general, “check your privilege” is not used to grapple with the concept of privilege, but rather to wield it like a weapon. Since it is wielded by people who, like most of us, have some position of privilege, this betrays a lack of self-awareness or irony.

So what should a radical do when confronted with their privilege as, for instance, a Western consumer, a parent, a man, a white person, or a married heterosexual (to name only those)? What they should not do is introvert and examine themselves for their merits or shortcomings. As any radical necessarily understands, criticism must be systemic in nature, and praising or attacking the individual, even if it’s yourself, is irrelevant. The radical which strikes at the root on one or many issues must not forget to do so on all issues. Reducing everything to yourself (“but I’m a good person!”) is reactionary, because it shields some hierarchies from analysis. So is simply ignoring hierarchies if you’re on the side that benefits.

The first step is to actually realize that you are a beneficiary of a hierarchy. This small step is already a great deal more than most people can muster, which is why it’s worth noting. Intersectionality, as used by liberals, has done a lot of work in helping people make that realization a lot harder. You can ignore the fact that you’re benefiting from one hierarchy by pointing out that you’re losing out in another. But ethnicity does not cancel out class, class does not cancel out sex, and so on. These are all separate social realities which must be addressed separately.

This is the place where people can work at rationalizing their benefits in order to go back to their state of mental comfort. The gamut of rationalizations run from biology (“I benefit because I am biologically/mentally superior”) to consequences (“If you take away those benefits, the world will basically end”). It’s important to realize that this is irrelevant to the whole process. Whatever your explanation for the existence of the hierarchy, it still exists.

If you are able to go further, the second step is to look at this hierarchy and how it manifests itself in your life, mainly in the expectations it places upon you (your social role), as well as your reactions to things that happen around you. As male, for instance, I am placed in the social role of man and expected to perform masculinity. I am aware of how this has affected my life profoundly and how it has colored my actions and thoughts. Many events in my life, which previously seemed mysterious or unimportant, are revealed, upon reexamination, to have been caused by people taking on, or reacting to, the man or woman social roles. I also understand that the way in which I react to events or things people say concerning sex or gender is grounded in my socialization and indoctrination as a man. Before you can criticize, you have to understand what it is that you’re criticizing.

The third step is self-criticism: realizing how your actions have harmed other people, or how the benefits you have received have been stolen from others. As a Western consumer, my life of plenty has been subsidized by sweatshop labor and slave labor in the Third World. As a man, I have benefitted from women’s labor and women’s grooming. As a person who passes for white with a white-sounding name, I benefit in added safety and financial opportunities (amongst other benefits) which exist at the expense of people of color.

Again, the point here is not to beat yourself up, or to give up because you don’t want to feel bad about yourself, but to engage in systemic analysis. People shirk from self-criticism because they want to “stay positive.” But this has nothing to do with being positive or negative. I am not automatically a “bad person” for being a Western consumer, a male, or white-passing. Neither do I get a “pass” for not being a bigot. It’s not about you, it’s about the hierarchies you benefit from. Besides, it’s wasted work to try to understand how hierarchies affect your life if you don’t do anything with that information.

If you get this far, this is the place where you should be able to realize that the rationalizations are false and that the people who are labeled superior and inferior in a hierarchy are actually equal, full human beings. You are able to do so because you’ve realized that the inferiors (which I use in this entry in the sense of “classified as inferior on some hierarchy,” not of “actually inferior beings”) are put in their situation by the hierarchy itself, not by some personal defect, and that they do not deserve to be inferiors. If you do not have the empathy or the reasoning abilities necessary to arrive at this conclusion, it is highly unlikely that you’d even get this far anyway.

When I say that superiors and inferiors are equal, I don’t mean that they are already equal in society. Of course you can always ignore reality and claim that the hierarchy somehow has no effect on people despite systematically imposing control on them and redirecting resources away from them. But again, I assume you do not have the combination of stupidity and cruelty necessary to contort your mind into believing such a thing.

If we are equal, then nothing can justify the status of superiors and inferiors, and we arrive at our status through accident of birth or, sometimes, accidental fortune or misfortune. Any person in a situation of privilege could have been born without that privilege. That being the case, it must be true that privilege is unjust.

Furthermore, you must recognize that the situation of the inferiors is different from yours. That is to say, that due to their particular situation, the inferiors cannot simply “stay quiet,” as you are able to. Usually people are able to stay quiet because they are not the ones being exploited or oppressed. To be an inferior is to cope, either by acquiescing or resisting. One must resist the temptation of jeering, or hate, those who acquiesce, but rather recognize that we are all reacting to our place in society in different ways.

The last step is to revolt against your social role. The way in which you do this depends on what you can, and what to, do. What you shouldn’t do is introvert and feel pity for yourself or rage against others, which is, as I said, a danger at every step. You need to look outwards. Read about radical ideologies which fight against the hierarchy you’re a part of. Join, or support, some form of collective action or community. As I’ve said before, being nice to oppressed or exploited people makes you a decent person but it doesn’t actually help make any systemic changes, which is why liberals are so keen on it. Go beyond just “being nice” and actually do something that makes an impact. Speak up against other privileged people when they rationalize. Make it clear you’re on the side of the people being exploited. Donate time or money, if you have any.

Note that none of this applies to the inferiors in a hierarchy. It would be pointless, as well as mean-spirited, to throw the points I’ve listed back in an inferior’s face and tell them that they should acknowledge their faults or acknowledge that they are both equal. Inferiors are under no obligation whatsoever to have sympathy for the people who are exploiting them. Doing so can only slow down, or completely halt, the process of disentangling themselves from the socialization and/or indoctrination used to enforce that hierarchy. “Naming the oppressor” is a huge step in that disentanglement. To spend one’s time pondering the equality between themselves and those who oppress them, or to reflect on how nice some oppressors are, while technically valid, is time which could be better spent understanding and naming.

Feelings are not a good basis for believing things.

What is people’s relation to the truth? I would say that most people are not insanely preoccupied by ideologies, and therefore do not think about such trivial topics. To them, “the truth” can mean a lot of things, even contradictory things. People who care about what’s true and what’s not see it quite differently. To them, there is a core issue at stake: how do we know what’s true? Knowing this, we can then reject inadequate methods. The hardest challenge, then, is to remain consistent and honest.

Is it really that important to know how to find the truth? Well, I think it may be mildly useful to divide truth into categories here. For instance, there are truths that are widely known and do not require any special ability to reason. Most of our practical, day-to-day truths are in this category. There are also truths that populate the technical and scientific fields. While these truths may be under fire depending on prevalent ideologies, all that matters is that those training to take the mantle of the discipline in question understand and uphold them.

Note that I am not saying that all propositions widely believed in these categories are automatically truths. There are plenty of propositions that are widely known, and propositions that are technical in nature, which are not truths. I am speaking here only of the truths (that is to say, of propositions acquired rationally).

And then there are abstract, non-technical truths. These truths are often just as crucial to human existence and human societies, but they are not widely agreed-upon. They tend to be of a philosophical nature, simply because “philosophy” is, generally speaking, the rubric under which we stuff everything that’s abstract but not scientific. Things like epistemology (how to know), morality (the standards upon which an individual’s actions should be evaluated), ethics (how the rules of society and its institutions should be constructed), politics (the study of power, its distribution, and its application), and the origins of human thought and behavior, are included under this label. Religion is another vast area of abstract, non-technical truths (unless you delve into the mechanics of specific doctrines in an inter-subjective manner, that is to say, assuming the doctrines are true, in which case they can become quite technical).

The first two categories are generally not problematic. We learn day-to-day truths through growing up and observing adults or being taught by them. We learn technical truths when we learn a trade or a field of study. We learn how to groom ourselves from our parents, and we learn algebra from our teachers and school books. While they may be prone to errors (especially in family structures and school systems, which have powerful intellectual distorting effects), neither of these methods are particularly complicated.

Abstract, non-technical truths are another thing entirely, because they are highly partisan and therefore difficult to consider dispassionately. Take religion, for example. Most of us are indoctrinated into following one religion or the other. The question of whether God exists, or whether God is a moral standard, is not merely an issue of fact but also a worldview issue: a person may be unwilling to look at a fact, or any fact, related to this question because doing so would put their worldview into question. Questioning one’s worldview creates mental insecurity and can be painful, and we seek to avoid pain (unless doing so creates the risk of more pain down the line).

This is not, by the way, an issue of “rational” versus “irrational,” or “reason” versus “faith.” It is perfectly rational, if you want to use that word, to seek to avoid pain. Actually, you’d probably call someone a fool or a masochist if they did otherwise. People only deconvert when the cognitive dissonance they are experiencing makes continuing to believe more painful than the alternatives. Again, it is a basic moral imperative that we seek to avoid pain, so this is not too surprising.

It is these abstract, non-technical truths that concern me on this blog, and which also concern a great number of people in some fashion. It seems humans have a thirst for universal, absolute truths about the human condition. Given that fact, how best can we arrive at any sort of truth within this area?

Well, I think that you have to maintain a strict separation between what you know to be true, on the one hand, and what you feel is true, what you want to be true, or what fits your pre-existing worldview, on the other hand. In general, any personal criteria for belief are unlikely to be valid, because it is very unlikely that universal, abstract truths have anything to do with your feelings or desires. The things which have to do with our feelings and desires are usually either personal or inter-personal. You may care about what you desire, but the laws of reality don’t.

Now, there are some people who think that subjective reasons for belief are valid because, after all, we are dealing with humans, and humans are moved by their feelings and desires. What they fail to realize is that there are two different things to talk about here: the thing being analyzed and our truths about the thing being analyzed.

This is a complicated point, so let me use a pretty clear-cut example, that of homeopathy. Homeopathy is clearly absolute, laughable nonsense, but there are enough people who believe in it to sustain a flourishing worldwide industry worth billions and billions of dollars. Most people who believe in some form of alternative medicine do so on the basis of their own subjective evaluation (“it worked for me!”) or on the basis of other people’s subjective evaluations. I acknowledge that this is the case. However, that does not mean that I must accept those evaluations as true, only that the other person believes they are true.

The fact that health is influenced by subjective factors does not mean that my evaluation of that fact itself must be subjective. My belief that “health is influenced by subjective factors” is based on scientific studies about the placebo effect, prayer, meditation, and other such methods. These methods take effect in the body in ways that we can analyze scientifically, without ever appealing to the subjective domain.

I hope this illustrates my point well enough. As a general rule, we must analyze subjective effects on material systems using our observations of those material systems, not with subjective evidence. Or more simply: what we know to be true must be separated from what we feel is true or what we want to be true. The fact that the material systems we are analyzing are human-run systems does not change that fact.

For example, a few years ago I wrote a great deal about theories of price, comparing STV (subjective theory of value, generally upheld by ancaps) and LTV (labor theory of value). To simplify, the STV holds that price of a product is whatever people agree upon as the worth of the product. This is pure illogic. But they arrive at this conclusion by observing that everyone values products at different levels, and that people buy or do not buy products based on how much they desire them. In short, the evidence is entirely subjective. But we know that’s not how prices work.

Even if that was how prices worked, that would not therefore mean that we should analyze prices subjectively, for desires still come from somewhere and that must be analyzed. You see a lot of that fallacy in pseudo-feminist analysis, where desire is held as primary and therefore outside of analysis. But desire cannot be primary, as our desires are constructed by the sort of society we live in and the context we personally live in. All you’ve done is drawn an arbitrary line and said “this far and no further, shall you look.” But this is likely to convince only the incurious or people whose worldview would be harmed by looking.

This brings me to the last point, which is that we should strictly separate what we know to be true and what fits our worldview. Now, to a certain extent it is impossible to follow this principle becaue of our cognitive biases, but this should not stop us from trying to correct this state of affairs as much as possible.

First, we must acknowledge that the ideologies we believe in all have tensions and contradictions. This is true of the most absurd ideologies and the most reasonable ideologies, the main difference being that the tensions and contradictions in the former are clearly visible to anyone who thinks about it for more than a minuite, while the tensions and contradictions in the latter are less obvious and require more effort to see. No matter what you believe, it is important that you seek out those tensions and contradictions, and try to resolve them. This is a good exercise because it forces you to look at your system of thought from outside of it, and it stimulates change and growth.

Second, we must read the best counter-arguments we can find, the most credible opponents, and try to answer them. I say “the best,” because there’s obviously a lot of nonsense objections to all sorts of things. For instance, an antinatalist shouldn’t waste his time answering a hundred variants of “why don’t you just kill yourself?”, and I wouldn’t expect a feminist to waste her time answering “you must be really ugly and incapable of getting a man.” We should go for arguments which are at least sophisticated. In some cases this is very difficult. Finding sophisticated objections to anti-childism is impossible because, as far as I know, they simply do not exist. Likewise for the pro-abortion position. In other cases, like atheism or socialism, finding sophisticated objections is not too difficult (but still harder than finding stupid objections, which are legion in any case).

Libertarians desperately trying to justify basic compassion.

I’ve already commented many times on this blog about the fundamental cruelty underlying Libertarianism, voluntaryism, and other related ideologies. The root of this cruelty is their refusal to acknowledge so-called “positive rights,” i.e. rights which obligate other people to provide something. They believe that we all have rights, but that we can have no guarantee of access to the resources that make the expression of those rights possible. The end result is that Libertarians only really believe in human rights for those who can afford them. Children, women, people in emergency situations, and poor people, are basically useless and should be left to suffer or die, because the free market resolves everything and anything that’s left is not worth resolving (or is not even a problem).

This leads to problems with Libertarians who actually have some empathy or compassion. They are left with three possible resolutions:

1. Disagree with the cruel conclusions without disagreeing with the logic that leads to them. This seems to be the tack that most Libertarian commentators take on this blog. Unfortunately for them, it is nonsensical, because they can’t point out why the conclusions are wrong. All they can do is complain loudly that we’re misinterpreting their ideology, without actually telling us what the misinterpretation is.

2. Declare that those cruel conclusions are exceptions which should be dealt with using different rules. These people can both maintain the validity of Libertarian logic while asserting that it can lead to a just society if we just patch it up correctly. In this view, the free market is the best economic system that exists, it’s just slightly imperfect.

3. Agree with the cruel conclusions but reframe them as being kinder “in the long run.” The free market is perfect and expanding it can only bring positive changes to everyone. Some people just have to be left by the wayside. Once all the poor people with the bad time preferences die out, you see, everyone will be better off.

This leads me to an entry called Why Did Hayek Support a Basic Income?, by Matt Zwolinski. Zwolinski takes the second option: while he believes that most problems in workplaces are justifiable, he believes that there are some exceptions, and that these exceptions should be patched using a minimum income program (mincome).

Now, it may seem that a Libertarian could never contort themselves enough to justify supporting mincome, which is, after all, a socialist idea. Zwolinski has managed to do it, although it all hinges upon an equivocation on the word “freedom.” Let me first look at his definition of freedom:

A slave is unfree because his every decision is subject to interference at the will of his master. To be free, in contrast, is to be able to act according to one’s own decisions and plans, without having to seek the approval of any higher authority…

This is why Hayek saw a powerful regulatory state as a threat to individual freedom. The state’s regulations are always implicitly or explicitly backed by threats – “Do this or else!” – and thereby coerce citizens into acting in accordance with the will of the regulator (or the will of the special interests served by the regulator), instead of their own.

This, coupled with the fact that Zwolinski sees nothing wrong in principle about business owners telling their employees what to do, leads me to believe that Zwolinski is talking about freedom1 (i.e. freedom from physical coercion and nothing else). Obviously it is true that the slave is unfree, but this does not therefore mean that everyone else is free. An employee in a capitalist workplace is not “able to act according to [their] own decisions and plans.” People who grew up in a strict religion or cult, when they become adults, do not become magically “able to act according to [their] own decisions and plans.” Being “able to act according to [our] own decisions and plans” implies freedom1,2,3: the absence (or potential absence) of external determinism acting upon them.

Hayek’s commitment to freedom and opposition to coercion also explains his libertarian belief that free markets and private property are a necessary precondition of political freedom. After all, one of the most important functions that rights of property serve is to provide individuals with a domain in which they need not seek the approval of any other person in order to act as they wish. Property rights provide individuals with a kind of jurisdiction over which their own will is law.

Again, a very clear signal that Zwolinski is solely talking about freedom1. Anyone who proposes that free markets and private property are a necessary precondition of freedom is clearly not talking about freedom from the “kind of jurisdiction,” by which people control each other, provided by private property. If you believe in freedom1,2,3, on the other hand, such a statement is contradictory. Clearly anyone who is ruled by the will of another, whether through government programs or the threat of force of arms brought about by private property, cannot be free1,2,3.

This is the basic paradox of Libertarianism: they claim to believe in freedom from tyranny, but at the same time they advocate another form of tyranny, that of private property owners forcing everyone else to bend to their will in order to access their resources. Basically, private property owners in a Libertarian system are nothing more than tyrants in miniature, exerting a monopoly of power over a territory. Instead of one all-powerful and sporadically accountable government, they believe in hundreds of thousands of all-powerful and completely unaccountable governments who can still collude and establish cartels, which is not much of an improvement.

The fact that property rights provide individuals with “a domain… over which their own will is law” is precisely what’s wrong with property rights and why they are anti-freedom. Freedom cannot exist at the expense of other people. Rights which authorize coercion against other people are not real rights.

Zwolinski quotes long lists of wrongdoings by businesses against their workers, and then proceeds to whitewash most of them by saying that they are “necessary cost-control measure[s],” whatever that’s supposed to mean (necessary for what?). But then he says:

Are we really willing to say that each and every one of the outrages documented by Bertram et al. is the product of workers’ free choice, rather than (what they appear to be) something imposed on workers against their will by those who wield power over them?

If libertarians are concerned to protect the freedom of all, and not just the freedom of most, we will want some mechanism that catches those who fall through the cracks left by imperfect market competition. We will want, too, some mechanism for protecting individuals whose economic vulnerability renders them vulnerable to domination outside the marketplace – the woman, for example, who stays with her abusive husband because she lacks the financial resources to support herself without him.

You will note here that we have now completely switched gears. “Imperfect market competition,” in Libertarian theory, is an oxymoron. Most importantly, the equivocation has now come into play, as he’s now clearly talking about freedom1,2,3. In fact, his examples perfectly demonstrate this fact. The previous examples, which are “imposed on workers against their will,” concerned compensatory power. And the example of the woman who stays with her abusive husband is a case of conditioned power as much as it’s about money, if not more.

That was the magic trick. He’s equated a defense of freedom1 with something based on freedom1,2,3, which means that he can pretend to be compassionate (i.e. a supporter of freedom1,2,3) while still supporting a cruel and evil system (one based on freedom1). So, in a sense, his argument is not in the second category as I said before, but also just a logical fallacy. Because he doesn’t expect people to realize this, he thinks his readers will think of him as being a Libertarian of the second category. Well, he is, after all, addressing other Libertarians, and presumably he knows how smart they all really are.

And now, the conclusion:

Cases such as these point the way to a freedom-based case for a Basic Income Guarantee, of the sort that Hayek might very well have had in mind. A basic income gives people an option – to exit the labor market, to relocate to a more competitive market, to invest in training, to take an entrepreneurial risk, and so on. And the existence of that option allows them to escape subjection to the will of others. It enables them to say “no” to proposals that only extreme desperation would ever drive them to accept. It allows them to govern their lives according to their own plans, their own goals, and their own desires. It enables them to be free.

The point of a basic income isn’t to give everyone the same amount of wealth. It is to ensure that everyone has enough access to material wealth to render them immune to the coercive power of others.

From a Libertarian standpoint, this is pure nonsense, because the free market is the optimal state of the economy and gives the greatest amount of freedom and prosperity to everyone. This is a socialist argument. Zwolinski is only able to make it because he’s switched his conception of freedom to freedom1,2,3.

From a socialist standpoint, I would say that these are all good points, but if your goal is freedom and prosperity for all, then why bother with a capitalist economy at all? Capitalism has always been about funneling these things towards the elite classes, the minority, against the majority. There is no point in patching up the free market with a mincome if you could just not have a free market and be better off in most, if not all, regards.

But his goal here is not to present a correct account of freedom, his goal is to present an account of compassionate Libertarianism. Unfortunately for him, he is only able to do so by stealing the radical conception of freedom. This is only another practical demonstration of why Libertarianism is a bankrupt ideology.

If you’re a voluntaryist who’s pissed at me, debate me!

Recently I have become aware of certain voluntaryists who are not particularly impressed by the fact that my anti-voluntaryist entries (especially this one) rank very highly on Google when they search “voluntaryism.” I think that’s great! People should be exposed to the utter vacuity of voluntaryism.

If you don’t like it, and you can’t comment because the comments are closed on these old entries, you know what you can do? You can debate me on this very blog. And people will see that, too! However, keep in mind that the first debate I had with a voluntaryist didn’t go very well for them. You might want to read that first and prepare to counter those points.

If you want to start a debate, simply write a response to any anti-voluntaryist entry I’ve written (preferably The Voluntaryist Delusion, as it is the most exhaustive, and we’d just come back to the points I wrote there anyway), and post the URL here. But I will only do debates one at a time, in case more than one person starts at one time (optimistic, I know).