Saturday, December 19, 2015

John Quiggin vs More Weeds

In John Quiggin vs Weeds I shared what he wrote in the comment section of his blog entry... Income redistribution: Where should we start?...

Plume, I agree with other commenters here. From now on, for my post, can you limit yourself to one comment per post per day.

Catching up on some of his blog entries I just discovered another attempt by Quiggin to weed his garden.  In the comment section of Locke’s Road to Serfdom he wrote...

Brett, you were banned some time ago. I don’t want my discussion threads derailed by debates with you. Could other commenters refrain from responding to Brett, please.

Some weeds are hard to get rid of!  Clearly Quiggin doesn't value Plume's and Brett's contributions as highly as he values other people's contributions.  Just like I don't value all the different plants in my garden equally.  "Weeds" are the plants that I value the least.  I'd be happy if my garden didn't have any weeds in it!  In fact, I'd love to have a magic wand that would instantly turn each and every weed in my garden into an orchid!  How awesome would that be?  I would just wave the wand over a weed and voila!  It would be instantly transformed into an orchid!  Then my garden would provide me with much more value!   

Quiggin definitely wants his blog's comment section to provide him with much more value.   He also definitely opposes slavery.  But honestly I'm not quite sure why he opposes slavery.  I don't think that I've ever read a blog entry of his that he's dedicated to explaining why, exactly, he opposes slavery.    

What's wrong with slavery?  Let's take Brett for example.  Right now he's a weed in Quiggin's garden.  From Quiggin's perspective... all the space that Brett takes up in Quiggin's garden could be allocated to far more valuable plants.  In other words... the opportunity cost of Brett is too high.  What if Quiggin could wave his magic wand and transform Brett into an orchid?  Wouldn't that be a good thing?  And isn't slavery a magic wand that would do the trick?  Then Brett would do whatever Quiggin wanted him to do.

Crooked Timber and Australia are two different spaces.  The first is a virtual space and the second is a physical space.  Both spaces have Quiggin in common and it stands to reason that he would like to derive the maximum value from both of his spaces.  

In this blog entry... Private infrastructure finance and secular stagnation... Quiggin wrote...

Apart from the direct effect of lower investment, there’s a strong case that infrastructure investment increases the returns from private investment in general and therefore stimulates growth.

Quiggin wants the Australian government to spend more money on infrastructure.  Evidently he perceives a positive correlation between growth and infrastructure spending.  Just like he perceives a negative correlation between growth and war spending.  

Does Quiggin want to rely on slavery to ensure that people spend more of their money on infrastructure?  Well... 

Let's say that Brett is in the US.  This means that, no matter how much money the Australian government spends on infrastructure, none of that money would be taken from Brett's labor.   Brett wouldn't be forced to do something that makes Quiggin happy.  Brett wouldn't be Quiggin's slave.  

But what if Brett moved to Australia?  Then more of Brett's labor/life would be spent/sacrificed to infrastructure.  Brett would be Quiggin's partial slave.  Brett would be forced, in some part, to do something that makes Quiggin happy.  "Partial slave"?  Errr... part-time slave?  

It would make me happy if Quiggin addressed the topic of full-time vs part-time slavery.  What if I had a magic wand that would force Quiggin to stop whatever it was that he is doing and spend an hour or two... or three... or four... writing a blog entry on the topic of full-time vs part-time slavery?  Would I wave my wand?  Probably... not.  It would be very presumptuous of me to do so.  I have absolutely no idea what Quiggin is doing now!  Maybe what he's doing now is more important/valuable than what I want him to do.  Yet, Quiggin has no problem waving his magic wand (voting) trying to force millions of his fellow Australians to spend more of their money on infrastructure.  As if it's very unlikely that any of them have more important public goods to spend their money on.

Quiggin has accused Locke of hypocrisy for speaking out against slavery while profiting from the slave trade.  Is it hypocritical for Quiggin to criticize Locke while fully endorsing part-time slavery? 

Personally, as a pragmatarian, I have absolutely no problem with people being forced to pay taxes.  My problem is when people are prevented from choosing where their taxes go.  Does it make me a hypocrite that I oppose slavery but support taxation?  Well...

The reason that I oppose slavery is because I support difference.  

Progress is a function of difference.  Slavery limits progress because it diminishes difference.  Less difference means less progress.  More difference means more progress.  Sexual reproduction is superior to asexual reproduction because the outcome of sexual reproduction is more difference... which means more progress.    

Giving people the freedom to choose where their taxes go would inject a massive amount of difference into the public sector.  This massive amount of difference would yield a massive amount of progress.

Is Brett's difference diminished when he's forced to spend some of his dollars on public goods?  Nope.  Everybody needs public goods just like everybody needs private goods.  The incredibly obvious and fundamentally important yet intensely unappreciated aspect is that we don't all need the same exact amount of public or private goods at the same exact time.   Our preferences and circumstances are incredibly diverse!  This is why markets are just as necessary for public goods as they are for private goods.  And it's why the absence of a market in the public sector is directly responsible for diminishing Brett's difference.  Brett can't shop for himself in the public sector.  He can't decide for himself whether more defense or more infrastructure will maximize the value he derives from the public sector.  Brett is a slave to the extent that he can't decide for himself how his own resources are allocated.  And Quiggin supports slavery to the extent that he supports preventing Brett from deciding for himself how his own resources are allocated.  

Part of the problem is the opaqueness of the part-time slavery mechanism.  If Brett lived in Australia then Quiggin probably wouldn't go to Brett's home and force him to spend more of his dollars on infrastructure and less of his dollars on defense.  Instead, Quiggin votes for representatives who might be elected and might spend more of Brett's dollars on infrastructure and less of his dollars on defense.  Just because the mechanism is so indirect and imprecise doesn't change the fact that Brett can't choose for himself which public goods he spends his dollars on.

Admittedly, accusing anybody of supporting any amount of slavery generally isn't the best way to make friends and influence people.  But as I've pointed out numerous times before... Quiggin is my second favorite liberal.  I'm confident that he will assume good faith and correctly perceive that my criticism is entirely constructive.  It's a very important topic and it's entirely possible that my logic is fatally flawed.  Maybe Brett isn't a part-time slave?

Well... while I'm at it... perhaps I should address the very popular topic of equality from the perspective of difference.  Let's say that Brett is super poor and Quiggin is super rich.  This means that Quiggin allocates a lot more resources than Brett allocates.  Quiggin and Brett are both different... but, because of the disparity in their wealth, Quiggin's difference has far more weight than Brett's difference.  Compared to Quiggin... Brett's difference is vanishingly small.  Given that my basic premise is the importance of difference.... wouldn't there be greater progress if a good chunk of Quiggin's wealth was given, in some form, to Brett?

For some time now Quiggin has been working on a book about opportunity cost.  Do you think it's awesome that he's writing a book about opportunity cost?  I sure do!  This means that I plan to purchase his book as soon as it's published.  When I do so I will be expressing my difference.  My difference is my interest in the topic of opportunity cost.  This difference of mine will be made manifest by my choice to allocate my money, a limited resource, to the purchase of Quiggin's book on opportunity cost.

With this in mind... it should be readily apparent that the redistribution of Quiggin's wealth to Brett would diminish my difference and the difference of everybody else who's going to purchase Quiggin's book.  There would most definitely be a net loss of difference.  Which would mean less progress.

Eh, of course I don't know for a fact that this specific loss of difference would result in less progress!  Nobody can possibly know!  Nobody has a crystal ball!  Hence the value of difference.  We cover more ground when people are free to buy, or not buy, Quiggin's book when it comes out.  And by covering more ground we learn more and make more progress.

So it's not that any given different path will certainly be correct.  It's that the freedom to go down different paths is how we maximize discoveries and hedge our bets as a society.  Perhaps Quiggin is correct that spending more money on infrastructure is the right path to take.  But nobody can know this with enough certainty to prevent people from choosing different paths.  Every stagnation/recession/depression that we suffer from is caused by the widespread belief that part-time slavery doesn't have any adverse consequences.  There will always be adverse consequences when too many eggs are placed in too few baskets.

Here are some relevant passages...

Regarding slavery as a continuum...

When, as among the ancients, the slave-market could only be supplied by captives either taken in war, or kidnapped from thinly scattered tribes on the remote confines of the known world, it was generally more profitable to keep up the number by breeding, which necessitates a far better treatment of them; and for this reason, joined with several others, the condition of slaves, notwithstanding occasional enormities, was probably much less bad in the ancient world, than in the colonies of modern nations. The Helots are usually cited as the type of the most hideous form of personal slavery, but with how little truth appears from the fact that they were regularly armed (though not with the panoply of the hoplite) and formed an integral part of the military strength of the State. They were doubtless an inferior and degraded caste, but their slavery seems to have been one of the least onerous varieties of serfdom. Slavery appears in far more frightful colours among the Romans, during the period in which the Roman aristocracy was gorging itself with the plunder of a newly-conquered world. The Romans were a cruel people, and the worthless nobles sported with the lives of their myriads of slaves with the same reckless prodigality with which they squandered any other part of their ill-acquired possessions. Yet, slavery is divested of one of its worst features when it is compatible with hope; enfranchisement was easy and common: enfranchised slaves obtained at once the full rights of citizens, and instances were frequent of their acquiring not only riches, but latterly even honours. By the progress of milder legislation under the Emperors, much of the protection of law was thrown round the slave, he became capable of possessing property, and the evil altogether assumed a considerably gentler aspect. Until, however, slavery assumes the mitigated form of villenage, in which not only the slaves have property and legal rights, but their obligations are more or less limited by usage, and they partly labour for their own benefit; their condition is seldom such as to produce a rapid growth either of population or of production. - J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy

Regarding taxation as slavery....

Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor. Some persons find this claim obviously true: taking the earnings of n hours labor is like taking n hours from the person; it is like forcing the person to work n hours for another’s purpose. Others find the claim absurd. But even these, if they object to forced labor, would oppose forcing unemployed hippies to work for the benefit of the needy. And they would also object to forcing each person to work five extra hours each week for the benefit of the needy.  But a system that takes five hours' wages in taxes does not seem to them like one that forces someone to work five hours since it offers the person forced a wider range of choice in  activities than does taxation in kind with the particular labor specified.   (But we can imagine a gradation of systems of forced labor, from one that specifies a particular activity, to one that gives a choice among two activities, to ... ; and so on up.)  Furthermore, people envisage a system with something like a proportional tax on everything above the amount necessary for basic needs. Some think this does not force someone to work extra hours, since there is no fixed number of extra hours he is forced to work, and since he can avoid the tax entirely by earning only enough to cover his basic needs. This is a very uncharacteristic view of forcing for those who also think people are forced to do something whenever the alternatives they face are considerably worse. However, neither view is correct.  The fact that others intentionally intervene, in violation of a side constraint against aggression, to threaten force to limit the alternatives, in this case to paying taxes or (presumably the worse alternative) bare subsistence, makes the taxation system one of forced labor and distinguishes it from other cases of limited choices which are not forcings.
The man who chooses to work longer to gain an income more than sufficient for his basic needs prefers some extra goods or services to the leisure and activities he could perform during the possible nonworking hours; whereas the man who chooses not to work the extra time prefers the leisure activities to the extra goods or services he could acquire by working more. Given this, if it would be illegitimate for a tax system to seize some of a man’s leisure (forced labor) for the purpose of serving the needy, how can it be legitimate for a tax system to seize some of a man’s goods for that purpose? Why should we treat the man whose happiness requires certain material goods or services differently from the man whose preferences and desires make such goods unnecessary for his happiness? Why should the man who prefers seeing a movie (and who has to earn money for a ticket) be open to the required call to aid the needy, while the person who prefers looking at a sunset (and hence need earn no extra money) is not? Indeed, isn’t it surprising that redistributionists choose to ignore the man whose pleasures are so easily attainable without extra labor, while adding yet another burden to the poor unfortunate who must work for his pleasures? If anything, one would have expected the reverse. Why is the person with the nonmaterial or nonconsumption desire allowed to proceed unimpeded to his most favored feasible alternative, whereas the man whose pleasures or desires involve material things and who must work for extra money (thereby serving whomever considers his activities valuable enough to pay him) is constrained in what he can realize?  - Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia

Regarding the value of difference...

I have suggested a different model and metaphor. The world is not a single machine. It is a complex, interactive ecology in which diversity -- biological, personal, cultural and religious -- is of the essence. Any proposed reduction of that diversity through the many forms of fundamentalism that exist today -- market, scientific or religious -- would result in a diminution of the rich texture of our shared life, a potentially disastrous narrowing of the horizons of possibility. Nature, and humanly constructed societies, economies and polities, are systems of ordered complexity. That is what makes them creative and unpredictable. Any attempt to impose on them an artificial uniformity in the name of a single culture or faith, represents a tragic misunderstanding of what it takes for a system to flourish. Because we are different, we each have something unique to contribute, and every contribution counts. A primordial instinct going back to humanity's tribal past makes us see difference as a threat. That instinct is massively dysfunctional in an age in which our several destinies are interlinked. Oddly enough, it is the market -- the least overtly spiritual of concepts -- that delivers a profoundly spiritual message: that it is through exchange that difference becomes a blessing, not a curse. When difference leads to war, both sides lose. When it leads to mutual enrichment, both sides gain. - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference 


  1. You might be interested in this response in advance

  2. Thanks! It is interesting! Especially since I was stop-lossed. My 8 year contract was nearly complete but they sent me to Afghanistan anyways. I didn't have a choice in the matter. After I got back they did send me some compensation for being stop-lossed. :/

    I oppose conscription for the same reason I oppose preventing people from choosing where their taxes go. Of course it's a whole lot worse to force somebody to go to war than it is to force them to spend a portion of their income on war. But in both cases the person's difference is diminished. It's a different story when people choose to spend themselves, or their wealth, on war. In this case their difference is expressed.

    With this in mind I do not oppose voluntary enslavement. People should be free to sell some, or even all, of themselves. If I tried to restrict their freedom to do so then I would be guilty of involuntarily enslaving them to some degree.