Archive | September, 2008

Not Worthy To Unloose

outcast leper unclean I just heard James Taylor’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” Abomination! Abomination!

I Warm So Easy So Reason Me Loose

I just heard Sarah Palin saying that she doesn’t blame all human behaviour on global warming. Okay, let’s be charitable and assume she meant that the other way around. But then she said we should stop arguing about what causes global warming and just focus on how to fix it. As Rachel Maddow pointed out – if you don’t know what’s causing it, how can you know what would fix it?

Incidentally, I like Maddow more than most of the punditti, but her suggestion that we should respond to the current financial crisis with “New Deal” style legislation that helps the poor, as opposed to a bailout plan that helps the rich, makes me tear my hair out. What was the New Deal if not thoroughgoing crony capitalism that shafted the poor on a massive scale? She really needs to read Robert Higgs’ Depression, War, and Cold War and Butler Shaffer’s In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918-1938.

Risky Business

Just saw Keith Olbermann opining that it’s racist to blame the mortgage crisis on a rules change that encouraged the making of riskier loans in order to attract black customers; this, proclaimed Keith, is the equivalent of “blaming the crisis on black people.”

Um, no it isn’t. If the law forces you to make risky loans to black people that you wouldn’t make to white people, it’s the fact that the loans are riskier, not the fact that the recipients are black, that causes the problem. If the law had mandated lower risk standards for left-handed borrowers than for right-handed borrowers, that too could lead to a greater number of risky loans – and pointing that out would not constitute prejudice against left-handed people.

Mind you, I don’t think affirmative action in the lending market is anything like a major cause of the mortgage crisis; and focusing on that as opposed to more fundamental institutional problems might itself be a symptom of racism – but it hardly need be.

Fire and Water

Recently I asked if anyone could provide a link to a certain This Modern World cartoon. Charles found it, and some other good ones too. Check ’em out!

In other news, there’s a sign here at the Hilton in Orange Beach that says “Employees are required to wash your hands before leaving pool area.” You know, that’s awfully considerate of them, but all the same, I prefer to wash my own hands.

Where’s the Fire, Buddy?; or, Big in Wetumpka

So this morning I’m having breakfast at the hotel and a guy comes over to my table to greet me and shake my hand. At first I assume this is someone connected with the conference whose face I’ve forgotten. But no, he’s a complete stranger; he turns out to be a fire chief from Wetumpka, and he insists that I’m a celebrity that he’s seen interviewed on tv. The only thing I could think of was that he’d seen some Mises Institute webcast, but that didn’t ring a bell with him. Maybe he’s a skrull!

In other news: it turns out you shouldn’t hit your kids. Well, duh; we should hardly need a scientific consequentialist argument to tell us that.

I Thought the Law, and the Law Won

Greetings from Orange Beach! I got in tonight at 9:30, a bit later than I’d intended, but thereon hangs a tale.

Lysander Spooner I gave a midterm in class today, and I’d planned to leave right after. But while I was invigilating (as the British say) the midterm, I was reading Michael Thompson’s new book Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought (a great book, though with a lousy cover – Brownian motion is not a good visual metaphor for Thompson’s conception of life and action), and I came across a passage that gave me an idea for some remarks to add to my Spooner paper.

Thing is, I’m giving a version of the Spooner paper as my presidential address at the APS this weekend (my second presidential address here; check out the first one, from 2002), and I wanted to include my latest thoughts. So I paused to ponder, write, and print; hence my tardy departure for the Gulf. Anyway, here’s the new material:

In his recent book Life and Action, Michael Thompson considers an example from Rawls involving a society whose practice of promising differs from our own in various ways we would regard as unreasonable – regarding promises as binding even in emergency situations, for example, or even when made while talking in one’s sleep. If one holds, as Rawls does, that such a society simply does not have our institution of promising, but has a different, unreasonable one instead, and if one further holds that the binding force of promises depends on the reasonableness of the institution of promising, it would seem to follow, Thompson points out, that none of the promises made in that society should be regarded as binding, even the ones that our own institution would approve. (Analogously, if one holds that the duty not to steal depends on the reasonableness of the institution of property, it would seem to follow that in any society whose property institutions have any unreasonable features, such as slavery, their institution of property is unjust overall, and so no act of theft in that society warrants condemnation.)

Finding such implications counterintuitive, Thompson suggests that we keep the claim that the normative status of individual instances depends on the reasonableness of the practice as a whole, but abandon the claim that the deviant cases are genuinely part of the practice:

No one will hold that just any series of actions … can exhibit the sort of unity we intend in bringing things under a single practical disposition. And there is no reason to imagine that just any general schedule of action might be employed to describe such a thing, or, equivalently, that to any subtle diversity of such schedules there must correspond a possible diversity of dispositions. … Suppose, for example, that I return a deposit someone has made to me, a book for example, thinking “It is his: I must give it back” … and that I have often done this sort of thing. Later, though, I return some autumn leaves that have blown from someone’s red maple onto my lawn, again thinking “They are hers; I must give them back.” Need we hold that the practical disposition manifested in my earlier acts must or could have shown up in an act of leaf-return? Need we hold that the disposition that was manifested in those sensible earlier acts is any different from that displayed in the like acts of a more reasonable person who would have let the leaves go? That returning the book and ‘returning’ the leaves struck me as ‘the same’, that I didn’t feel any difference, cannot be supposed to establish the identity. The disposition that operates in my intuitively reasonable acts of return, we might think, is no different from the one that operates in all the acts of return of a person who lets leaves blow by; something else is at work in me in cases where I busy myself returning them. (Michael Thompson, Life and Action (Harvard 2008), p. 190.)

On this reading, the “inner constitution of the practice” (say, of promising) is the same in our society and in societies that count promises as binding when made in sleep and so on; it’s just that this inner constitution “is associated, in the deviant communities, with a widespread error or a superstitious religious conviction or something on the order of a fad – disturbance, at all events, and mere dross ….” (p. 186) I suggest that for Spooner, the legal institutions of nonlibertarian societies likewise have the same libertarian “inner constitution” as those of libertarian societies, while their nonlibertarian practices are alien accretions – so that when a judge in the deviant society condemns a murderer and commands the return of an escaped slave, she is in the first case, but not the second, expressing the same practice as her libertarian counterpart – and so in the first case is applying law while in the second case she is applying something that stands to law as fool’s gold stands to gold.

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