Bioshock and the folly of libertarian utopias

What happens when you run a society based on the premise of unrestrained greed

“[Atlas Shrugged] is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.” – Attributed to Sid Ziff of the Los Angeles Mirror-News

Despite being a firm believer in reading your enemy (as evidenced by the copies of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Milton Frideman’s Free to Chose that I have gathering dust somewhere), I must confess I have never read Ayn Rand’s most well known novel, precisely because of reviews like the one quoted above. Atlas Shrugged is something of a bible for libertarians since it delineates her philosophy known as Objectivism which is based around ‘rational egoism’ and the economic system best suited to promote it, laissez-faire capitalism. The book was critically panned during its day and Rand was never taken seriously as a philosopher (or a novelist for that matter) although this has not stopped the book from finding its way into millions of college dorm rooms by “edgy” econ and political science undergraduates who fail to realize the lifelong cognitive and moral impairment that reading it and believing in it might entail.

The book itself is about a group of industrialists who, oppressed by excessive government bureaucracy and regulation, decide to abandon their businesses in order to create a new community based entirely on laissez-faire principles. The community would be called Galt’s Glutch, named after the mysterious character of John Galt who masterminds the capitalist rebellion and also outlines the community’s philosophy. Since then, the idea of forming a real-life Galt’s Glutch has been something of an obsession for many libertarians, although finding a location for such utopias is not easy. There is not a square inch of land left on Earth that is not claimed by a government as sovereign territory. This leaves only one place where states have no authority: international waters. Continue reading

The New Right ecosystem

The communities and personalities behind conservatism’s lastest bid for your hearts and minds
The New Right Ecosystem

The New Right Ecosystem (click to enlarge)

The emergence of a new conservative movement in the Western world in the 21st century has been one of the most important political developments of our time. But despite the way that this movement has influenced recent elections and produced shocking results like Trump and Brexit, the grand majority of people still fail to understand how and where it emerged. Ever since Hillary Clinton first spelled out the “alt-right” in a campaign speech in 2016, this term has been used as a catch-all for all right-wing politicians and pundits that have pursued a populist, anti-establishment rhetoric but this too proven to be far too limiting in scope for understanding the breadth of the movement. It also ignores that many of the people pushing the movement’s ideas don’t identify with the alt-right, aren’t anti-establishment, and may even be coming from the left itself.

I have therefore created a convenient infographic on what I call the New Right Ecosystem: the assortment of communities that are supporting the New Right movement. Some are obvious, like the original alt-right, the men’s rights activists, or the troll and meme armies that proliferate on forums such as 4chan. Many of these were mentioned in a seminal 2016 Breitbart piece co-authored by who was then the rising superstar of the alt-right, Milo Yiannopolous. But over the past decade even other communities that once appeared to embrace left-wing values have shifted squarely into the Trump camp, as is the case with the New Atheist and skeptic communities that initially arose to combat religious fundamentalism of all kinds in the post-9/11 Bush years. Finally, others like the libertarians are using the New Right as a platform to pursue their free market agendas. The fact that nearly all alt-right and anti-establishment pundits refer to themselves as libertarians or “classic liberals” (an increasingly used euphemism for libertarian sympathies) is telling of how nationalism and market fundamentalism have formed a strange and toxic marriage.

I am confident that the infographic is mostly self-explanatory after reading the legends.  However, this post will serve as a basic F.A.Q., with more analysis coming in future posts. Continue reading

The Spectrum Fallacy

Why all of something good isn’t better than just some of it

The economic rise of China since the 1980s has been one of the most, if not the most, impressive feats of economic progress ever. It has eradicated poverty by the hundreds of millions, created an industrial sector that has dwarfed anything ever seen in human history, and despite the country’s size and maturity, continues to grow at a pace that any Western democracy and even most developing economies can only dream of. This has been largely been achieved by the Chinese government’s adoption of market policies. China is now the world’s greatest trading nation and also a massive receptor and supplier of foreign investment. Capitalism works, and it follows that China is the perfect example of why countries should liberalize their economies and embrace free markets unconditionally.

Except it doesn’t follow.

If you were tempted to draw this apparently obvious conclusion, congratulations, you are a victim of what I like to call the Spectrum Fallacy, possibly the most pernicious flaw of logical argumentation in policy circles. What is the Spectrum Fallacy? It is the flawed premise that just because something is demonstrably better than something else, more of that something is necessarily better than only some of it. It is very similar to a well known logical fallacy, the false dilemma. Like the false dilemma, the spectrum fallacy assumes that there is a false choice, that one must necessarily choose between two mutually exclusive options (statist communism or laissez-faire capitalism). However, here we are assuming not that there are more choices but that either of these two choices can be better when they are applied less extremely across the spectrum of possibilities. Continue reading

In defense of Free (ish) Will

Beneath the hype, hard determinism still has major flaws

The debate around free will is one of the longest running in all philosophy, and has huge ramifications well beyond it. By and large, we live in societies created under the libertarian notion that human beings possess free will: the ability to make decisions that are free of causal and coercive influences. If I go to a bar and choose beer over wine, it was an act of free will since nothing stopped me from choosing wine instead; I don’t dislike wine (though I prefer beer), they cost pretty much the same, and both were readily available on the menu. Laissez-faire economics runs on the notion that we have free will in nearly every element of our lives, and the way to maximize individual freedom is to provide people with more choice, while removing the constraints that would limit those choices (namely the state). It’s hard not to feel some natural sympathy for this position. We all feel like we have free will. The very notion of being human and feeling human (as opposed to being an automaton) depends on this.

Unfortunately, the evidence in favor of this libertarian view of free will is scant. In contrast to libertarians, determinists believe that every single human action was entirely determined by prior causes and therefore is not truly free even when there is no coercive influence that prevents us from doing otherwise. So perhaps nothing stopped me from choosing wine, but was I entirely in control of my physical desire for beer? Not really. Perhaps I want to “prove” my free will by next time choosing wine but did I choose the thoughts in my head that made me want to behave like a contrarian? Did I choose my contrarian personality? Perhaps there is some degree of randomness in the neural activity or quantum mechanisms in my brain that led me to this and so my choice is not fully determined in a strict sense, but since I cannot control processes at the micro-level, are they even relevant? Either way I did not have the free will to pick wine over beer in the first instance, or beer over wine in the second.

In recent years, determinism has exploded in popularity, particularly since it has been embraced by numerous celebrity public intellectuals like Sam Harris (who wrote an essay length book in 2012, Free Will). Determinism is to pop philosophy similar to what Freakonomics was to pop economics a few years back: it’s a great way to start a dinner conversation and look like you’re the smartest person in the room. After all, most people who haven’t read extensively on both sides of the philosophical debate would be naturally prone to thinking that they have libertarian free will. Getting swayed to the determinist camp is easy when done by an eloquent and convincing interlocutor, which Harris certainly is, and when one doesn’t particularly have a stake in the outcome – if anything, determinism seemingly justifies all the bad things you’ve ever done since you couldn’t help yourself from doing them!

The problem is that Harris performs a number of intellectual sleights of hand that are common among determinists: reduce the debate to a single definition of free will, claim that the opposing arguments are so rubbish that they cannot be taken seriously, and avoid discussing those arguments that seriously threaten his point. That Harris chooses a 66-page pop philosophy book to do this rather than undertake his battle in rigorous, academic channels is telling of his unwillingness to face serious opposition from compatibilists: those who believe that free will and a deterministic universe can coexist. So let’s dwell deeper into this topic. Continue reading

Why libertarians are wrong about seatbelts (and pretty much everything else)

Nanny state laws don’t just protect the victim but everyone else too

I have made it clear in previous writings that I find libertarianism to be possibly the most morally repugnant economic ideology, and also a particularly dystopian one if put into practice. My most obvious objection to it is that is presents only axiomatic evidence to vilify the actions of the state. Under pure libertarianism, aside from the enforcement of private property and possibly national defense (the “nightwatchman state”), the state has no role to play in society. More so, forcible methods of financing for said state, namely taxation, is viewed as “theft” or even as Robert Nozick argued, as forced labor. Despite this, there is a role for the state in enforcing legislation, but this too is vastly limited in scope. Nanny state laws that impede personal freedom are seen as unnecessary and morally unjust, even if they seek to prevent undesirable outcomes. The best example is the libertarian aversion to something most people would take for granted: laws that force people to wear seatbelts.

Under libertarian logic, seatbelt laws are immoral because they take away the right of a person to decide out of their own free will whether they wish to risk death on the road. This risk is hardly questionable: motorists who don’t wear seatbelts are more than twice as likely to die in a road accident than those who wear them. It seems almost common sense that a) if you’re a motorist you should wear a seatbelt and b) the state would do good in ensuring that even the people irresponsible enough not to wear a seatbelt will not risk their own death in doing so. Libertarians will have none of that, arguing in the primacy of individual freedom over anything else. There is a slippery slope logical fallacy employed here; the argument is not so much that such a law is bad per se, but that any state that is capable of creating and enforcing such a law can create and enforce more and more severe laws that encroach on freedom. Today it is seatbelts, the next logical and inevitable step is turning into Stalinist Russia*. Continue reading