Month: November 2014

Private cities and public places

Have you heard the old libertarian joke?  It goes like this.  Should heroin sales to minors be legal on public sidewalks?  The libertarian responds, why are there public sidewalks?  The libertarian answer captures a certain truth.  Conflict arises when spheres of action, the set of actions deemed by others as reasonable, are ill defined.  Private property denotes clear spheres of action, thereby minimizing conflict.  By resorting to private property instead of public property, questions of appropriateness of certain courses of action are taken out of the public sphere.  In essence, the joke says the sales of heroin (I will ignore the aspect of children) should be a private matter.

However, while I believe the public sphere is currently too big, I do not believe the optimal size of the public sphere is zero.  The following essay is my attempt to square my advocacy for private or proprietary cities, cities where a single entity owns the land on which the city is constructed and leases it to renters, with my belief in a public sphere.

First, one can distinguish between what might be termed an economic (or crude) defense of proprietary cities vs a holistic (or liberal) defense.  An economic defense would solely consider whether people vote with their feet.  If people choose to move to the proprietary city, it is better than their alternative options.  A holistic defense considers more than just people voting with their feet.  It questions whether proprietary cities can offer adequate protections for civil rights.  Will there be a healthy civil society, freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process for those accused of crimes.  In short, will a proprietary city be an extension of the modern liberal order, or a subversion of it.

As an economist I am very sympathetic to the economic arguments.  In fact, all other things being equal, more crude proprietary cities are better than fewer.  However, all other things are not equal.  Crude and liberal proprietary cities are, to some extent, substitutes.  This is especially true for the first proprietary cities, whose success (or failure) will likely determine the future evolution of proprietary cities.

Dubai, though not a proprietary city itself, offers a glimpse of what crude proprietary cities could become.  A society segmented by class, South East Asians providing the manual labor, admittedly at higher wages than they could get at home, but without many basic freedoms, and Europeans.  There is little mixture between the classes, and no hope for the South East Asians to enter the upper class.

On a more theoretical level, we can consider the limits of proprietary cities.  Private spheres allow for action that is unacceptable in public spheres.  If you visit my house, I am perfectly within my rights to restrict your actions.  I may ask you not to voice certain opinions or to enter without my permission.

This line, however, becomes blurry as private spaces enter commercial arrangements.  The argument for banning discrimination based on race is that business is fundamentally different from residence.  The sphere of action businesses can take is more restricted than the private sphere one can take in one’s home.

As nominally private enterprises scale, the distinctions further blur.  In a company town, should the company be legally allowed to restrict speech critical of the company?  Aside from legality, morally, should it?

When considering proprietary cities, we can compare Dubai and Hong Kong.  Do we want a city where manual laborers are second class citizens, unable to participate in the public sphere, or a city where the poor have comparable opportunities to the wealthy?  Hong Kong is obviously not an ideal liberal city, but it is far ahead of Dubai.

I have argued that proprietary cities be given institutional autonomy as well.  With such autonomy it seems reasonable for the host country to ask for certain procedural safeguards for civil liberties.  A bill of rights, if you will, protecting the residents rights to speech, religion, association, protest, fair trials, and more.

While I strongly support political decentralization, there are differing visions on how a decentralized world would appear.  It could be fragmented into different groups, with little trust and interaction between the groups, with no group representing liberal ideals.  On the other hand, decentralization could allow us to escape modern tyranny, experiment with better governance, and kept intact basic values which continue to hold us together.  With regard to proprietary cities, the latter must be fought for.

Conservatarian: Down with unnecessary labels

Charles Cooke of National Review is one smart cookie. His cover story on the cult of charlatan Neil deGrasse Tyson is a must-read for anyone dubious of progressivism. Like many of his polemics at Bill Buckley’s legacy publication, Cooke deftly tarnishes the idol of simple, left-wing secularists who scoff at Bible-toting bumpkins in flyover country. Truly, few things top a good takedown of a cultural icon.

With such talent, I was disappointed by the title and subject of Cooke’s forthcoming book. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure the thing will be well-written and full of keen insights laced with erudite quotations. But the name turns me off. Cooke is calling the book, The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right’s Future. It sounds like a cool, promising subject brought down by a neologism that will fit shoulder-to-shoulder in an ocean of increasingly pedantic political labels.

To be sure, Cooke is far from the first thinker to utilize the term “conservatarian.” His “manifesto” seems like an attempt to pioneer its launch into the popular lexicon though. The book’s synopsis describes Cooke’s offering as a “call to arms” that can “help Republicans mend the many ills that have plagued their party in recent years.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I also don’t find anything wrong with libertarians or conservatives. From a political perspective, I easily identify with the non-aggression principle of libertarianism. When it comes to worldly matters and personal disposition, I hoist my flag with Tory conservatism. And on some issues, such as the plight of the poor, I can be a downright bleeding heart liberal.

But what’s the difference? And should it really matter what label we use?

These are questions that constantly come up when discussing political matters. Matters of governance are often talked about in terms of ideology, rather than the utility or ethical nature of the law. Balancing the budget is called a “conservative” policy. Easing punishment for drug offenders is seen as “liberal.” Rarely is public policy talked in terms of common sense. That’s because ideological labels are a tribal contest. Each has their cheerleaders and detractors, similar to professional sports. The difference is that Nancy Pelosi’s collagen-stuffed face can’t be fixed with a skirt and pompoms, and Karl Rove is about as agile as an obese penguin.

Lumping ideas into firm categories leaves out the messiness that follows public policy. Just like spouses, there is no perfect government. Logrolling exists for a reason. Democracy, whether representative or pure, is a give-and-take system. Laws come out of the legislative process with all kinds of inputs from people with varying perspectives. No policy embodies the core philosophy of Edmund Burke or Paul Krugman. Compromise is the only universal in representative government.


Britannus Americanus: A Letter from a Jacobite


O Britannus Americanus! That great Spectre by which the entire World knows most keenly the Mind and Wit of the Puritan,—a Form of Mankind whose presence upon the Earth we should, as I will shortly endeavour to shew, not much have suffered without,—New England, the Symbol living and breathing of the Usurpation by which the Anglo-Saxon has found himself, in your mad Twenty-First Century, abolish’d by his own hand, in its grand Accusations against the fornication and impurity of other nations reveals itself,—if you, my Dear Reader, would countenance such a comparison,—to be Babylon’s Whore reconstituted, and the said Whore has perhaps too late begun to choke upon her Luxury and Splendour that we might save ourselves, that she might not choke us too with the Wine of her mad Fornication, our greatest Efforts to spew it from our mouths notwithstanding.

What a grand Irony it is for me to make such a Proclamation, recalling that New England’s own Theologians spoke in so similar a manner. Finely unlike the Puritans, you will however note, my Dear Reader, that I do not claim the Authority of the Good Lord, nor His Glory, nor even His particular Favour. In the present Treatment I aim merely to shew, with brief specimens from the relevant History as necessary, that the Anglo-Saxon Race, perhaps once granted indeed the Favour of the Lord, has most surely lost it,—or as it would be said in the old Chinese Tradition, that he is now without the Mandate of Heaven.

The said Usurpation by which England would appear to have lost the Divine Mandate is that by which she declared her rightful King to have lost it himself. Hear me, Britannia, where you have still ears to hear: You have wrongly killed your King, Charles the First, a Good King and a Good Christian! You were furthermore given the blessing of Cromwell’s demise, only to allow the overthrow of James the Second and Seventh by William of Orange! You dare still to give this latter Usurpation the happy Appellation of “the Glorious Revolution”! It ought not to give the Reader any great shock that I am therefore a Jacobite; that I am of the sure belief that England’s last chance for Redemption was,—and perhaps remains if God’s Mercy should allow it,—the restoration of her rightful Line of Kingly Succession.

I am not without fear,—as I assume the Reader to be so intelligent to suppose,—that the Jacobite position cannot be but a Symbol and a kind of Moral Statement. For Old England’s Ruination is New England’s Ruination, and New England’s Ruination is that of the whole World.

O Britannus Americanus, you great whore among Nations! You have cast away the yoke of Old England only more easily to despoil the riches of a New World! It is only a natural consequence, then, that America should find her Manners and Customs to an ever-augmenting degree untethered to anything which might best be called Anglo-Saxon. For it is you, New England, you who are to blame for the Fall of the Old American South, the Exploitation of the Old American West, and the Overthrow of the World’s Old Order; it is you who brought the frenzied burning of supposed witches to a new Continent and who, after ages have passed, taken Sodomy as a Sacrament with the very same Ferocity with which you once punished it!; and it is you, indeed, who have left us,—we the sad Remainder who speak your time-tested Tongue,—sarded and sodomised, so coarsely fuck’d, by a Novus Ordo Sæclorum over which even you no longer reign! By your thousand prides and your myriad vanities, the Possibility is not at all faint that we all may perish! I can only pray that the divers Nations with which you share North America will unchain themselves from you, just as you so duplicitously unchained them from Old England.

*The auspices by whose guidance I was given the letter above would be so foreign—and perhaps even distasteful—to the sensibilities of the present day that they would be almost impossible to articulate without a serious risk of miscomprehension. Let it suffice to note the striking resemblance of quills to wands.

The casual, everyday Marxism that is all too often ignored

The Daily Caller was good enough to let me publish a piece on why #Shirtstorm is a symptom of fashionable neo-Marxism in our culture. Here’s an excerpt:

The Verge, a tech site that tipped its hand as unethical and agenda-pushing during GamerGate, ran a headline reading, “I don’t care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing.” They are literally convinced that fashion, in both the clothing and radical chic senses, is so important that they don’t even care about forward leaps in science. Think I am mischaracterizing them? The subtitle reads “That’s one small step for man, three steps back for humankind.” Wearing a shirt that the groovy people at The Verge don’t like is three times as bad as making a breakthrough in space exploration is good.

The feminism that we have making noise right now isn’t the feminism that fought for equality and against discrimination. Rather than being based in enlightenment values of humanism and equality under the law, it is grounded in neo-Marxist theory of power and oppression. You know when people say that only women can be victims of sexism because of some non-falsifiable, abstract, aggregate definition of power? You were hearing neo-Marxist critical theory.

Escalating this kind of outrage is a pretty dangerous gambit, I think. As with all anti-rationalist narratives, this bizarre campaign is eventually going to buckle under the weight of its own accumulated contradictions.

Nozick’s experience machine in the age of the Oculus Rift

The year is 1974. Harvard philosophy professor Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia has just hit the shelves. A few dozen pages in, Nozick prods you to consider a simple thought experiment: Imagine you had a choice between everyday reality and a fabricated, alternative existence provided by what he called “the experience machine.”

This apparatus, invented by neuroscientists, could be set in advance to provide you the feeling of all your desired experiences over the course of your life. Nozick assures us that this simulated existence would seem entirely real, although you’d merely be floating in a tank, attached to electrodes.

Hedonism is the view that pleasure (sometimes also labeled “happiness”) is the chief good humans strive for. If hedonism holds, then, by definition, all human action would be strictly a means to that end. When prompted with the opportunity to pre-program a lifetime of pleasurable experiences, hedonists would rejoice: they would strap into the experience machine. However, most people, feeling a deep unease even contemplating the choice, indicate they would decline the offer. From this we are left to conclude that people value more in life than felt experience alone. Nozick’s clever hypothetical is generally viewed as convincing among contemporary philosophers as a robust challenge to hedonism and utilitarian theories in moral and political philosophy based on it.

Now let’s flash forward forty years from the thought experiment’s formal philosophical introduction and have a look at the current state of affairs. Does the experience machine, or something like it, exist?

The world we live in is digitized and connected like never before and it just so happens that a lot of people spend a lot of time taking advantage of that. Some of today’s widely used technologies can feel like low-level experience machines, although none come close to being a proxy for Nozick’s. That is all about to change. Oculus, a kickstarter-launched company has created what might be the next screen to claim its place in the pixilated lineage of groundbreaking electronic devices. Its virtual reality (VR) headset, dubbed the Rift, provides an immersive first-person sensory experience that will have a wide range of applications in the future. Facebook executives thought so highly of the technology that they speculated it could become the globe’s “next major computing platform” and promptly coughed up two billion dollars to make it their own.

While virtual reality has been around for quite some time in various forms, this recent innovation represents a large shift towards real-life experience machines. Call it Nozick’s axis:

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While the Rift is impressive, any possibility of realizing Nozick’s famous thought experiment depends on how well VR matches up against certain characteristics of the conceptual machine.