Category Archives: Anti-capitalism/usury/STV

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.

My libertarian socialist political position.

For a while now, my political position has been within the domain of libertarian socialism. Libertarian socialist ideologies are anti-State, anti-capitalist center-left (in absolute terms, not in terms of political parties, which are mostly all right-wing), and they center around self-management and federated structures.

Fundamentally, politics is about the distribution and organization of power (and who gets to distribute and organize it, and who benefits from the distribution and organization). Statist ideologies mainly differ in the concentration of power they will allow the State, and other institutions, to abuse. Much of the disagreements between them lie in the balance of power they think is ideal for society.

Anarchists in general distinguish themselves from all those ideologies because they believe that power should be dispersed amongst the population, not concentrated in a few powerful institutions. This is a radical difference, which is seldom understood. Many ideologies have sought to bring about egalitarianism through concentrating power into a benevolent institution (like the Soviet State). No matter how well-intentioned, such institutions must fail because of the incentive systems which necessarily follow concentrations of power. Hierarchies seek to perpetuate themselves and power is an easy, addictive method to do so. And inevitably enemies of the regime will use that to their own advantage, as well.

It is not that power is an inherently bad thing. As Anarchists have identified, it is power in the form of hierarchies which creates the biggest problems, because hierarchies magnify the use of that power by their manpower and credibility. As St. Augustine said in the famous Pirates and Emperors story, “because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.” Private criminals are not one hundredth of the problem that corporate crimes and State crimes are.

We recognize the necessity of having some power around, if only to stop people from inflicting (physical) harm on each other or from generally impeding social autonomy (by destroying or diverting vital resources, for example). However, concentrating this power, whether in a State or some other institution, is a generally bad idea. Concentrating the power to determine what is legal and what is illegal is an even worse idea.

As a general principle, power should be kept in check by strictly delimited roles, direct accountability and, most importantly, task rotation. Keeping power in the hands of the same people year after year creates a group of people with interests that slowly diverge from those of the rest of the population, eventually creating a ruling class. The same is true of a State or a corporation.

Democracy is said to provide the accountability and task rotation. But this is a naive sort of statement. Democracy is a tool of the ruling class designed to provide the illusion of accountability and task rotation, while keeping power within the same class of people and not giving the population any real alternative which would erode their class interests. The only time egalitarian measures are implemented is when the more centrists amongst the power elite fear retribution.

What would replace democracy in a libertarian socialist system? All workplaces and cities would be self-managed, meaning that decision-making power about something would rest in the hands of those who use it, whether it’s a piece of machinery, a bridge, or a neighborhood. Each group would elect a representative or representatives to speak for them at a higher level, and on all the way up to the world level. While some decisions may have to be taken at the world level or the industry level, most decisions, I think, would be handled at the local level. The general rule is that decisions should be left to the lowest level possible.

With self-management being put in place and corporations replaced with work collectives, capitalism is necessarily done for, since it is predicated on the distinction between labor and capital. This does not mean that all work collectives would automatically start acting in the interests of the general population. However, from all the examples of self-managed workplaces I know, this tends to be the case. Workers generally live in the cities where they work, and have no intention of shafting their neighbors and friends, or attracting the ire of the population. This is partially because, in our capitalist systems, they often need material, legal, or political support from the public in order to flourish, since the States are never happy to concede anything to self-managed workplaces.

The main positive accomplishment of capitalism has been to link the world with flows of production. However, this positive accomplishment has come at a very heavy price, as neo-liberalism has amply demonstrated. In general, these flows drain valuable resources from the Third World for the consumption of the Western world. Self-management at a world level would reverse this, if only because these neo-liberalist resource drains do not benefit the population of the Third World countries that are targeted: they only benefit the power elite, that is to say, the business owners and politicians (the people who support so-called “free trade,” which really means: “free movement of capital”).

The same general principles apply to law and justice: the administration of justice and the construction of law must come directly from the people. I am not talking here about the conceit of jury duty, which is not administrated correctly anyhow. In our current system, the purpose of jury duty serves the same general purpose as democracy: to rubberstamp the condemnation of people who can be credibly condemned, whether they are really guilty or not. A true justice system serves the interests of the people, not the State. It does not imprison millions of people for the crime of being considered second-class citizens, for example.

Furthermore, as I don’t believe in blame, I don’t believe in the punitive function of justice. The courts should not exist to exact revenge on the guilty but to do what serves the needs of the people: restitution, i.e. trying to leave society in as good a shape as it was before the crime. Courts should not be adversarial but should seek to find the truth. But by far the most important element of any Anarchist justice system is the reduction of the incentives of crime. The end of the State and State police, economic equality, the elimination of sexism and racism, the end of the family being an all-important social unit, would all contribute to a dramatic reduction in crime. The fewer crimes there are, the easier it is to have a fair and timely system.

The construction of the laws themselves would follow federated lines: those who are affected by a law are responsible for its construction and maintenance. So for example the workers in a self-managed industry would make laws regarding their workplaces, consumers would make laws regulating products, women would make laws regarding VAW, abortion, and other women’s issues, and so on. Discrimination and prejudice would be countered, not by sporadic generosity from the power elite, not by the almighty “free market,” but by the equal power of those discriminated to assert their own humanity.

Here are some basic political principles I believe in:

1. The Chomsky Principle: We should in principle reject any hierarchical relation or structure unless it’s proven to be justified in some way. Since hierarchies are not a priori necessary for anything, we have no reason to accept them passively. The statement that a hierarchical relation or structure should continue needs to be be tested using the same standards of evidence that we would use to test any other statement of fact. Question with boldness the validity of any hierarchy, because the individual and social costs associated with any hierarchy demand a justification.

2. Egalitarianism: We should always assume that all human beings are equal, and to treat them as equals, unless we have contrary evidence. For example, we may measure two individuals’ “intelligence” as being different, but this does not mean we should treat one as superior over the other. Every instance where we treat people differently from each other needs to be justified, and we should also not keep pretending there is equality where there demonstrably is not (but that this does not automatically mean that some people should be treated as inferiors, unless THAT can be justified as well). This is basically just an extension of point 1.

3. Determinism: There is no such thing as individual choice, and no one can be blamed for their actions. Any institution or ideology which is based on the notion that people should be blamed, punished, or on vengeance, cannot exist in a rational society. The prison system is based on the belief that criminals must be punished. The capitalist economic system is based on the belief that poor people are to blame for being poor. Neither of these beliefs are rational.

4. Power should be broken down and distributed equitably amongst the population as much as possible.

5. The emphasis of any political change should be on changing our social systems to adapt to people, not the other way around. Nothing should be a more important consideration than people: not profits, not “law and order,” not power.

Customer complaint for capitalism.

A customer enters a store and goes up to the desk.

Customer: Hello there, I’d like an exchange please.

Owner: We don’t do exchanges. All sales are final.

Customer: Now listen here, you simply have got to take responsibility for this faulty product. It’s illegal, is what it is.

Owner: Well, what is it then?

Customer: It’s this capitalism. I’ve had it for more than two hundred years, and it’s not working.

Owner: What do you mean it’s not working. It looks fine to me. Isn’t it producing?

Customer: Oh yes, it’s producing a great deal of stuff and things, but the distribution system is broken, and it all pools at the top.

Owner: Oh, that’s not broken, that’s a feature.

Customer: (outraged) A feature? A feature? How can that be a feature?

Owner: Well, you only need the stuff at the top, since that’s the only part that really does anything.

Customer: But the top part doesn’t actually produce anything, it just makes the rest of the machine produce things and then takes the credit for it. This is completely broken. Also, when it produces, it’s polluting as hell and it’s really loud.

Owner: Have you tried painting it green?

Customer: What??

Owner: Have you tried painting it green?

Customer: How is that gonna change anything?

Owner: Well, a fresh coat of green would make it look a lot better. It wouldn’t LOOK broken.

Customer: But that’ll just give me a broken machine with green paint on it.

Owner: Yea well, what can you do? We’re the only game in town.

Customer: That’s not true, there was another outfit that had to cut down in the nineties, but they’re still open. They have a different economy. There’s also theoretical models that have been tested piecemeal in other places.

Owner: Hah! You’re gonna rely on a discredited model or some theoretical model that’s probably gonna collapse on you? Just accept this capitalism.

Customer: No, it’s broken! I want my money back!

Owner: Look, I can sell you this green paint.

Customer: How much is it?

Owner: 44 trillion dollars.

Customer: WHAT? I don’t have that kind of money.

Owner: Well you bought the capitalism, you gotta pay for the paint. It’s like airline fees.

Customer: I don’t like those either!

Owner: Yea but… you’re stuck now. You have to pay the 44 trillions or your capitalism will stay broken.

Customer: What about adding some failsafes? Like a more even distribution of stuff, or making less stuff so we can have less pollution?

Owner: You can’t do that without breaking the property rights gauge.

Customer: So what? Break the gauge.

Owner: If you break the gauge, you void the warranty.

Customer: I don’t care, we need some failsafes in there.

Owner: Can’t do that. If you break the gauge, you void the warranty.

Customer: But what about the fact-

Owner: You break the gauge, you void the warranty.

Customer: They’re doing it in other places.

Owner: Their warranties are expired. If their capitalism breaks, it’s entirely their fault. The capitalism works perfectly well with the property gauge. Anything else is suboptimal.

Customer: Suboptimal for what?

Owner: For the property gauge.

Customer: Who the fuck cares about the fucking property gauge? I want you to fix this capitalism.

Owner: The property gauge says it’s working perfectly fine. The distribution and pollution are at optimal levels.

Customer: And why are almost all the couplings leading to the top white and male connectors?

Owner: That’s a coincidence.

Customer: What do you mean, it’s a coincidence? Whoever put this machine together connected the top with the white and male connectors. The blueprint itself specifies that there could ONLY be white and male connectors at the top.

Owner: Oh sure, but there are some connectors that aren’t white or male at the top now, so what are you whining about? It’s working.

Customer: It’s only “working” because it was so bad when it was made that any improvement looks better!

Owner: Well, you’re totally wrong. There are no other products. And breaking the property gauge would break the warranty. I’m gonna have to call the police.

Customer: Call the police? What do you want to call the police for? I’m just trying to get an exchange.

Owner: You’re being uppity.

Customer: I’m not being uppity, you’re being uppity!

Owner: I’m a respectable professional. You shouldn’t talk to me like that.

Customer: Well listen now, we can talk like reasonable people and…

Two policemen in riot gear bash through the door and start tasering and beating on the customer.

Owner: (smug) He tried to break the warranty! I told him!

Why is being against methodological individualism so important?

I have often said that methodological individualism, the view that every social phenomenon can only be explained as being caused by individuals, is profoundly wrong and leads to irrational conclusions. But it seems like such an obscure issue to make a point about. If you ask people what “methodological individualism” is, you’d get mostly blank stares.

The funny thing is how prevalent it is amongst our modern political ideologies. It is the driving idea behind neo-liberalism. It is also the foundation of post-modernism. These two ideas exist in completely different areas of the political spectrum. It is also behind most of political reasoning: no matter the issue, we seem to believe that we can talk about it by solely referring to individual actions and individual merit or demerit. If Christians and other woo-woos can attack science on the basis of its reductionism (reducing all phenomena to “atoms banging around”), a charge which is mostly spurious, then all the more should we attack this political reductionism (reducing all social phenomena to individual action “in a vacuum”).

Atheism is the first threshold that one must cross intellectually, because most people are indoctrinated into some religion or other, and religion is a closed system which does not admit of intellectual progress. Some Christians may be able to transcend their Christianity, especially if they are in less extreme denominations, but by and large they are the exception, not the rule. It is very rare that you’ll find a committed religious person who does not also support hierarchies (so-called “Christian Anarchists” notwithstanding). Hierarchies are inscribed in monotheistic religions: the hierarchy between God and humans, the hierarchy between men and women, the hierarchy between humans and the natural world, and so on.

Still, most atheists are unable to progress very far beyond that point, so what is holding them back? What is the belief holding them back? I’ve tried to identify what that belief is, and I think it must be something like methodological individualism.

Religion is an extreme example of methodological individualism. After all, it seeks to explain the entire universe through the actions of only one individual: God. But beyond that trivial aspect, religion also tries to explain social issues through individual actions: crime is caused by unsaved, Satanic individuals (or Satanic conspiracies), poverty is caused by lack of faith or other personal shortcomings, and lack of faith itself is caused by you simply not trying hard enough. Crackpots even try to blame meteorological phenomena on individual sins. Often they simply cannot explain things that happen to us, shrugging them off as “God’s will.” But ultimately, the “choice” to be saved, or to not be saved, is the source of every good or bad thing in our lives, including our eternal fate.

Politics work in a similar way, just less extreme. We see issues through narratives, and we evaluate narratives by judging the archetype or stereotype involved. This means that we evaluate issues by looking at (imaginary) individual actions. This is methodological individualism, too.

The best sign of methodological individualism, at least from the liberal side, is when they interpret a socio-political critique as a personal attack. They are so indoctrinated to believe that politics is only about individual actions that they cannot even conceive of a critique of something greater than themselves. From their perspective, there is nothing greater than themselves. They follow Thatcher’s principle that “there is no such thing as society… [t]here are individual men and women, and there are families,” even though they may greatly disagree with Thatcher’s policies, because they have accepted the basic premise of neo-liberalism.

All the mainstream political movements, on all sides, are branches of neo-liberalism, which is an extreme-right ideology. So what they’re doing is trying to argue for liberal concepts by using extreme-right framing. It can’t work. So that’s the situation we’re in today. If you don’t understand how harmful this premise is, you won’t be able to reason your way beyond it.

Voluntaryism is probably the most well-intentioned methodological individualist position there is, which is why I was one for a while, and why I’ve taken so much pains to debunk it. In my view, if voluntaryism is debunked (which I think it is), then no individualist position can hold water, because they are all worse. Voluntaryists, of course, disagree that their position is debunked, but by and large their objections are very weak (a lot of moving the goalposts and tu quoque fallacies, mostly, which doesn’t add to a hill of beans).

The problem with voluntaryism is, in a large part, the problem of methodological individualism: the refusal to acknowledge the nature of institutions, a nature which mostly lies outside of individual action. But if you don’t understand institutions, then you can’t understand society. Society just cannot be reduced to individual actions, no matter how hard you try. This means you will always get wrong results. We see this in neo-liberalism, where these beliefs are implanted in order to further the capitalist agenda. We see this in post-modernism, where these beliefs are pushed in order to destroy any systemic analysis and reduce truth to a set of personal, innate traits. Their objective has never been to uncover the truth.

People who do break through this individualist premise are able to move on and construct theories which are much better at explaining social phenomena. Feminism (the systemic analysis of the gender hierarchy) makes a lot more sense than sexism (more specifically, the belief that individual women are responsible for their own exploitation). Anti-racism (the systemic analysis of the race hierarchy) makes a lot more sense than racism (the belief that individual POC are responsible for their own exploitation). Anti-capitalism (the systemic analysis of capitalism and how it affects society) makes a lot more sense than neo-liberalist rhetoric (which posits that individuals are responsible for their own economic exploitation). Anarchism (the systemic analysis of political hierarchies) makes a lot more sense than the rhetoric designed to support political hierarchies (that people are innately evil and must be governed, that people cannot do anything without hierarchies, in general, that individuals alone are incapable). The conclusions of the systemic analyses are much closer to reality than those of the individualist ideologies. But sexism, racism and neo-liberalism were never designed to uncover any truth anyway: they are rationalizations for exploitation and oppression, in the exact same way that Christian apologetics is a rationalization for Christianity. And they fail for the same reasons.

Free market logic doesn’t work out.

There is an argument, which is really more of a dogma, used to justify free markets. It is basically a reductionist argument which holds the following:

1. Person-to-person market exchanges are to both parties’ mutual benefit.
2. The free1 market is reducible to a set of person-to-person market exchanges.
3. Therefore, the free1 market serves the general welfare.

This argument is usually presented as if it was rigorously logical and unimpeachable, but nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, it is predicated upon the truth of the vulgar individualist premise, that society is nothing but a collection of individuals. Otherwise it is impossible to make sense of premise 2. Since social institutions are not just groups of individuals, and they do partake in exchange (e.g. corporations, governments, churches, and so on), it is impossible to reduce the free1 market to a loose set of individual exchanges, and premise 2 necessarily crumbles.

The only way to make any sense out of premise 2 is to assume that it is not descriptive but prescriptive: that it does not mean “we observe that the free market is reducible to a set of market exchanges,” but that it means “in order to be a free1 market, an economy (or subset thereof) must be reducible to a set of market exchanges.” But the only kind of economy that would be so primitive as to remain at the level of pure individual exchange would be a small-scale barter system. Anything more you introduce into the equation, like a ruling class, a currency system, property rights, laws against theft or fraud, or whatever, would be part of an institution, and therefore introduce something that goes beyond “one-to-one market exchanges.”

So let me now review premise 1. This premise is usually introduced as a little story of an exchange between two individuals. Here is a typical example:

Two individuals go to market; Person A owns Good X, and Person B owns Good Y. What needs to happen for A and B to voluntarily exchange X and Y?

If the exchange takes place, it must be true that certain prerequisites have been met. A must value Y more than he values X; otherwise, he would not have given up the greater satisfaction conferred by X for a lesser one conferred by Y. B—on the other hand—must value X more than he values Y; otherwise, he would not have been willing to give up Y for X.

What, then, is the inevitable result of the exchange? A leaves the market with Y—which he values more than he valued the X he used to have. B leaves the market with X—which he values more than he valued the Y he used to have. Both people now have goods that satisfy them more than the goods they gave to the other person. Both people are benefited by the exchange. In that sense, any trade—provided that no party is coerced—is mutually beneficial to all those involved.

The use of the word “market” here is interesting. If we assume it means a market as a public place where farmers and other producers display their wares, then it assumes some level of civil organization which is beyond the level of pure individual exchange. But I may be nit-picking here.

The more relevant point, however, is that this is a just-so story, that is to say, it is a made up story which fits a certain worldview but doesn’t necessarily have any relation to the facts of reality. For one thing, it confuses value with desire. There are many things we desire to receive in exchange but do not value highly enough to validate the exchange. For example, someone who is addicted (no matter to what) will desire the object of their addiction even if they do not value them. Also, many things are desired not for the value they themselves have, but for what they can bring the individual in status or credibility (a college education, a luxury car, expensive art works, whatever). Finally, there are also things we must acquire because we simply cannot get by without them, regardless of how much we value them (car insurance, for instance).

One may reply that, in all my examples, the person buying the things still wants to make the exchange because they get more from doing it than not doing it, and therefore still fulfills the “mutual benefit” clause. But if that’s the case, then either “benefit” merely means that one is willing to do an exchange, which is circular, or it means that the person is actually, factually, always better off, which is simply false. Plenty of exchanges do not actually, factually lead to mutual benefit, especially in situations where the problem of incomplete information, or risk in general, are particularly important. For example, if you buy a new car, and it breaks down within a week through no fault of your own, then you can hardly be said to have benefitted from the exchange, no matter whose fault it is.

The fact that market exchanges leading to mutual benefit entails that a free1 market also leads to general benefit is not nearly as significant as it’s portrayed. Advocates of any economic system can argue that their chosen system also serves the general welfare through a set of beneficial flows of resources, whatever those flows consist of. For example, a libsoc would argue that each individual’s exchange of their labor-time for an equal part in society’s production is to mutual benefit, and leads to the general welfare. A proponent of the welfare state might argue that all valid welfare resource redistribution improve the Pareto efficiency of a society (i.e. they benefit some people while leaving no one worse off). Even a hypothetical advocate of the Grab-What-You-Can system (I say hypothetical because, as far as I know, not even the most consistent voluntaryist is stupid enough to advocate such a system) may, with some credibility, argue that while any individual theft does leave the former possessor worse off, any set of mutual thefts, where each person steals what they need the most, leaves everyone better off.

If anyone can make up a just-so story, even the imaginary Grab-What-You-Can advocate, then they are basically useless without empirical evidence to back them up. I happen to believe that the libsoc view is correct, but you do not have to agree with me on that. My point here is that capitalism does not gain much from the argument, even if it was an entirely valid argument. Whether capitalism leads to the general welfare is not under question, but does not distinguish it from any other economic system that has ever existed: what is under question is whether capitalism is more ethical than those other systems, which is an entirely different issue. People who argue about technological progress or living standards under capitalism, or communism, or any other system, are missing the point.

So now that I’ve cleared premise 1, let me come back to premise 2, the premise that the free1 market is reducible to a set of person-to-person market exchanges. We can show very easily that this is false. Keep in mind that the argument here tries to transpose the fact that individual exchanges entail mutual benefit to show that a free1 market entail general welfare. So, any set of exchanges that are mutually beneficial must therefore lead to the general welfare.

Now, suppose that a person A is buying all the power plants in a region for great amount of money from person B, C, and D. Each exchange was beneficial to both parties involved. Persona A then decides to shut down all those power plants. Persons B, C and D are now out of power and must either make their own or move. This is a huge loss on their part. The set of exchanges did not lead to their mutual welfare.

My example highlights two important conditions which lead a set of favorable exchanges towards an unfavorable result: the formation of monopolies, and clashing values. We already know (except for market fanatics) that monopolies are a good example of market failure. Having one person, or a small group of people, control a vital resource through a series of exchanges is bad news for everyone else, even if it was in the interest of each person who traded it away. But equally important in this example is the fact that person A has a different objective, shutting down power plants, than person B, C and D, who are interested in having power. In a capitalist economy, most people involved in the economy have the same objective, make more money. A monopoly mainly hurts people because of inflated prices (because of the lack of competition) and inequality of power (they can make their monopoly into law, or discourage new entrants more easily).

If a series of beneficial exchanges can turn into an unfavorable situation, then premise 2 must be invalid. The problem here is that individual exchanges do not exist in a vacuum: they are part of a socio-economic context, use resources that come from somewhere and are used by someone, they involve partially or completely unknown information, and they involve people who have a specific status in that society.

To quote an actual, serious economics definition:

A completely free market is an idealized form of a market economy where buyers and sellers are allowed to transact freely (i.e. buy/sell/trade) based on a mutual agreement on price without state intervention in the form of taxes, subsidies or regulation.

Note the word “idealized.” The concept of the free1 market is based on a mental construct, a hypothetical, not a reality. Again, the only economic system that has ever come close to this hypothetical is a primitive, small-scale barter system. In real life, market prices are mostly set by institutions (mostly corporations), and people do not transact freely because of pre-existing conditions.

But most importantly, a free1 market, or any kind of market for that matter, cannot exist without some form of property rights. An individual can only trade something if they are in control of it. And this control, in ordinary life (not in cases of theft, for example), is predicated upon the general recognition and respect of property rights. Because property rights are a chimera and generally go against people’s interests, they must be protected and maintained by some form of authority, and that authority is most likely to be a State. Therefore no market can be free from State intervention, because it depends on the State for its survival.

Furthermore, property rights are not the result of market exchange, they are a precondition to market exchange. If, as some market fanatics believe (like “anarcho-capitalists”), the only legitimate impositions are those that arise from market exchange, then that would necessarily exclude property rights, since, logically, property rights cannot arise from that thing which depends on the prior existence of property rights.

The ironic thing is that their objections to State intervention also apply to capitalism in general. Here is an example:

For example, you enter a post office and buy a first-class stamp for 45 cents. May we conclude that you prefer the services the stamp will buy to whatever else you might have spent the 45 cents on? If you were not ordered into the post office at gunpoint, I should think so.

Is the transaction therefore legitimate? I should think not—not entirely. Why not? Because your alternatives were artificially constricted by a system supported by violence.

The phrasing of this last sentence is rather revealing, because it’s an apt description of modern capitalism, where our alternatives are “artificially constructed” by a system “supported by violence.” It is the violence of the enclosure of the commons and the genocide of native people that created the space necessary for capitalism to exist, it is the violence against the third world that gave capitalism its cheap labor force, it is the violence against labor activism that gave the capitalists power they needed to extract more surplus value from their workers.

The author of this particular extract might say that the post office represents embodied coercion, that the violence is not present at that very moment in that particular exchange but that it is part of what made the post office what it is, what gave it its power. The same thing is true of corporations. While none of our exchanges with corporations may be violent, at least in the West, the corporations themselves embody all the coercion that was necessary for their formation. Our alternatives to their products and modes of operation are artificially constrained by a system supported by violence.

The concept of “child poverty.”

I have already touched on this before, but I think it’s just too damning to gloss over. “Child poverty” as a concept is, in and of itself, a complete refutation of both capitalism and childism.

In our daily lives, the concept of “child poverty” is little more than a statistic. In 2014, UNICEF announced that 32.2% of children in the United States live under the poverty line, and that this is one of the worst levels of child poverty in the Western world, only trailing behind Greece, Latvia, Spain, Israel and Mexico.

But if we analyze this concept of “child poverty,” what does it really mean? What does it mean for us to say that a child is poor?

We are told that in a capitalist system, we need some people to be rich and some people to be poor, because we need to reward good decision-making, hard work, and so on and so nauseatingly forth, and we need to punish bad decision-making, laziness, failure to contribute, and so on and so nauseatingly forth. It’s a complete propaganda line that has no connection to reality, but I understand it. But what does it have to do with children? Children aren’t making economic decisions, and they don’t have any opportunities to be hard-working or lazy at a job.

One attempt at rationalization I’ve actually seen in some Austrian economics-affiliated book (probably by that disgusting little troll, Hans-Hermann Hoppe) was that the defects of character that make someone poor will be transmitted by the parents to the child, as they will raise their children to be lazy and bad at decision-making, and therefore we should expect children of poor families to be poor as well. In essence, the fact that the children are poor is basically economics cutting to the chase: you are an inferior child and therefore do not deserve a chance.

I absolutely reject this rationalization as anything but pure bigotry. Even if it was true that poverty arises from personal failings (which is nonsense), there is no reason to expect that a child would inherit those personal failings. There are plenty of hard-working people who had lazy parents, lazy people who had hard-working parents, smart children with dumb parents, dumb children with smart parents. Genetics is not destiny.

It seems to me that this alone destroys capitalism, if we accept the premise that capitalism is a fair system. Even if it was fair in general (which it isn’t, not by a long shot), it certainly is not fair to the children in poverty. And children who start poor have a lower chance of being able to escape poverty later in life, which means that the merit argument for capitalism necessarily fails. Pre-existing inequality nullifies the “free market.”

Capitalism is an inherently elitist system and, in order for that elite to reproduce itself, there must be a distinction between it and the rest of the population. That distinction is in the schooling system: the families with the most money can send their children to the best colleges, which are the breeding grounds for the next generation of elites.

But let’s continue further. What does it mean for a child to be poor? It means that the child lives in a family that is under the poverty line. But the child did not choose to be born to a poor family. This was, purely and simply, an accident of birth. Was it not? What justification can there be for this?

Technically, this is not a criticism of the family structure as such, since a society can have families and keep child poverty low by redistribution, like Finland and Norway (where child poverty is below 10%). But the root cause of child poverty is still the family structure. We believe that it makes sense to make a child’s financial, emotional and physical well-being depend on the social status of two individuals, the two individuals who had sex to give birth to it. That’s the best case scenario, of course: often it’s dependent on just one individual.

The only justification offered for this state of affairs is that the child is, after all, property of the parents: they don’t use that word, but that’s what it amounts to. The child must be tied to the status of those two individuals because they own it. It is not A child, it’s THEIR child. This is the tradeoff we’re making: we’re “gaining” this ownership of children, this possession of another human being, the “right” to indoctrinate it, and in exchange we admit that up to more than a third of children will live in poverty.

Is that a good tradeoff, you think? Do we need to be making it? Is it worth all this child poverty? I don’t fucking think so.

Why couldn’t a forest own itself?

I’ve talked a great deal about the incoherence of the concept of self-ownership and how it’s a self-serving belief used to further capitalist aims. Here I would like to talk about how self-ownership rhetoric can unwittingly be used to attack capitalism.

My line of reasoning began when I learned about a very special tree. There is a tree in Athens, Georgia, the only one in the world as far as I know, which is a “self-owner.” Not only that, but it also owns the piece of land it lives on. Since it is the son of the original “self-owning” tree, people call it “The Son of the Tree that Owns Itself.” For the sake of clarity, let’s call them both SOTs (self-owning trees).

The Wikipedia page opines:

This does not confirm that the tree owns itself, but suggests, rather, that it is considered to be within the right-of-way along Finley Street. Athens-Clarke County confirms that the tree is in the right-of-way, and is thus “accepted for care” by municipal authorities… Regarding Jackson’s deed, one writer noted at the beginning of the 20th century, “However defective this title may be in law, the public recognized it.” In that spirit, it is the stated position of the Athens-Clarke County unified government that the tree, in spite of the law, does indeed own itself.

This may just be a “cute” footnote to local Georgia folklore, but seen from a political perspective it does present some interesting questions.

“Property” is really two relations: a relation between two sides, owner and owned, which we could call a claim, and a relation between the owner and the other individuals in that society where the latter agree to respect and uphold the claim. Without either of these two relations, property cannot exist.

According to self-ownership rhetoric, however, we can just forget about the first relation because “owner” and “owned” can be equated. If this is true, then, from this perspective, “property” can only be a relation between that person or thing and the rest of society. If other people recognize and respect a property claim, then that claim is valid. And in reverse, if the property claim is not recognized, then the claim is invalid.

If this is true (and I am not saying it is, obviously, since I don’t believe in self-ownership), then the SOT in question is actually self-owning, because its claim is recognized by the individuals in its society. The law is, as in all things, an indication but not a definitive answer: an unenforced law has no relevance due to that lack of enforcement, and a belief enforced without or against law (as in this case) gains relevance from that enforcement.

One may answer that this recognition is facetious and could be withdrawn at any time, but I fail to see how this does not equally apply to human beings. After all, we withdraw our belief in other people’s self-ownership constantly (for example, when we throw them in prison, force them to go to school, kill them in wars, etc), and most people praise these events. If this does not nullify self-ownership in humans, why should it nullify self-ownership in trees?

On what other basis should we disqualify trees from “self-ownership”? That we need to cut them down, and therefore cannot afford such tenderness of heart? But there are plenty of people who defend human sacrifice, and who would accuse egalitarians of being namby-pamby. So again, no significant difference there.

Is it that trees do not have a “self”? I have yet to hear any account of the “self” in “self-ownership” that doesn’t either degenerate into “the body owns the body” or veers into metaphysical nonsense. If advocates of the concept can point to a “self,” and can explain why their particular conception has any relevance to the discussion, then we shall see.

But suppose that non-human organisms, such as trees, can indeed own themselves, as I think the SOTs has demonstrated. Then the link between self-ownership and rampant capitalism is cast in even further doubt than previously.

Our “normal” perspective on “self-ownership” is that only humans can be “self-owners.” That’s because “self-ownership” is a self-serving construct meant to reinforce the notion that humans are at the apex and “nature,” that which is outside of us, is inherently inferior and should serve our needs. As God stated to Noah and his family, all green plants are their property and everything that moves is for eating: the only difference now is that we’ve replaced the religious Bible with a secular “Humans’ Burden.”

In capitalism, the natural world only gains any sort of value at all through an alchemic transmutation called “mixing one’s labor,” or “transformation.” The message here is clear: nature itself is only valuable insofar as it serves human values. This is the same rationale of exploitation that the elite uses against women, workers, children, POC, and so on: you are valuable only as long as you serve our interests.

The concept that a tree could be an owner is ridiculous to us because we’ve been raised with the elitist Western notion that humans are separate from the rest of nature, that humans (especially white adult males) are “intelligent” in a way that no other part of nature can be, that trees, like all other “natural resources,” exist solely for our benefit.

I was driving through the English countryside with my daughter Juliet, then aged six, and she pointed out some flowers by the wayside. I asked her what she thought wildflowers were for. She gave a rather thoughtful answer: “Two things,” she said. “To make the world pretty, and to help the bees make honey for us.” I was touched by this and sorry I had to tell her that it wasn’t true.
Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable

Sure it’s easy to laugh it off as childish ignorance, but she’s just regurgitating what she’s been taught. That’s the worldview we’ve all been indoctrinated with, and it’s the worldview that’s leading to the squandering of the resources of this planet and the extermination of hundreds of species every year.