Monday, November 15, 2010

It Wasn't My Idea

When I was in elementary school I was always getting in trouble for reading books during class.  Nope, not comic books...but books from the class library [1].  I would read pretty much any book that I got my hands on. My friends had it good because I would read a ton of books and then share with them only the very best of the best books.  Music was also eventually added to the same filter-sharing process.

If a friend enthusiastically mentioned that they got so and so's new book or CD I would jokingly ask them who told them about that author/band...even though we both knew that it was me.  Sometimes, just to give them a hard time, I would claim credit for an author/band that I hadn't told them about.

One band I definitely did share with friends was Ben Folds. He has a song called Rockin The Suburbs in which he strongly disclaims the idea of slavery...
In a haze these days
I pull up to the stop light
I can feel that something's not right
I can feel that someone's blasting me with hate
And bass
Sendin' dirty vibes my way
'Cause my great great great great Grandad
Made someones' great great great great Grandaddies slaves
It wasn't my idea
It wasn't my idea
Never was my idea
Some things we deserve credit for, some things we'd like credit for and some things we don't want any credit for.  In my post...Justification for Government...Debbie H. shared the following comment...
Well, if you only want to figure out how to make stealing be a tad less irritating to the victims of the theft, then go right ahead. But if you want to do that, you can't also claim that your ideas don't affect those who are striving for a voluntary society. Because your idea still requires coercion through the threat of violence on your neighbors.
Pragmatarianism is a combination of taxes (coercion) and the invisible hand (choice).  I definitely can't take credit for either taxes or the invisible hand.

Who gets credit for the idea of taxes?  No idea.  What does come to mind is Jesus's response to the question of whether Jews should have to pay taxes to the Roman occupiers..."Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s".  Two thousand years later and we're still not happy about taxes.  Nothing is certain but death and taxes.

In comparison, there's no question who deserves credit for the invisible hand...Adam Smith.  In his book, The Wealth of Nations, he wrote the following...
By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.
What about pragmatarianism?  Do I get credit for that?  Nope, not according to a member of the facebook libertarian group.  A long time ago he'd read a sci-fi story with the same concept.  He couldn't remember the name of the author and for all I know I might have read the same story and totally forgotten about least on the conscious level.  For fun we can complicate the answer a bit.

How much do you have to modify somebody else's creation before you can call it your own?  It's probably an urban legend but I've heard it said that you only need to change one element of a patented invention for it to lose its patent protection.  That doesn't sound right.

In terms of music, back in the day Vanilla Ice took ("sampled") the catchy bass line from Queen's song "Under Pressure" and added it to his song "Ice Ice Baby" [2].  Initially he did not feel the need to give Queen any credit.  In more recent times, I discovered that nearly all Drum and Bass songs are based on a sample of an old song by a group that I'd  never even heard of.  The group was called The Winstons and in 1969 they released a song called "Amen Brother"...the world's most important 6-sec drum loop.

On the visual side of things...Marcel Duchamp's Mona Lisa comes to mind.  The physical changes he made to the Mona Lisa were very minimal...but still more than the changes he made to his Fountain.  The "Fountain" was actually just a urinal placed on a pedestal.  Kind of the same but completely different was Edward Weston's photograph of a bedpan.  In both cases, without any physical changes...the ordinary became extraordinary.  Adam Smith did the same thing when he showed us self-interest in a positive light.

Would I like credit for the invisible hand?  Sure.  Would I like credit for taxes?  Eh.  Just because taxes have been around forever doesn't make them ethical.  But if we remove taxes from the definition of pragmatarianism then we're just left with the invisible hand.  Adam Smith himself recognized the necessity of some coercion.  From The Wealth of Nations...
When a civilized nation depends for its defence upon a militia, it is at all times exposed to be conquered by any barbarous nation which happens to be in its neighbourhood. The frequent conquests of all the civilized countries in Asia by the Tartars, sufficiently demonstrates the natural superiority, which the militia of a barbarous, has over that of a civilized nation. A well-regulated standing army is superior to every militia. Such an army, as it can best be maintained by an opulent and civilized nation, so it can alone defend such a nation against the invasion of a poor and barbarous neighbour. It is only by means of a standing army, therefore, that the civilization of any country can be perpetuated, or even preserved for any considerable time.
Any coercion over what is absolutely necessary to secure our freedom from harm can be considered unethical.  Some people have a narrow definition of harm (negative liberties) while other people have a broad definition of harm (positive liberties).

Whether your definition of "harm" is broad or narrow...pragmatarianism can only positively affect those who are striving for a voluntary society.  Here are three things that I have no doubt of...
  1. Voluntary organizations can provide all the same public goods that the state currently provides.    
  2. Voluntary organizations can provide most of these goods more efficiently than the state.
  3. Opportunity costs would ensure that tax payers would choose the most efficient option.
For example, if voluntary organizations provide better public education than the state does...then less and less people would allocate their taxes to the department of education.  Voluntary organizations can make most state organizations completely redundant.  

[1]Daniel Boone is one person I remember reading about.  There really should be more historical fiction books for kids.   "there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in Books." - Hume
[2]Ok, I'll admit that at the time I could recite all the lyrics from "Ice Ice Baby"

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