Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On Seth Adam Smith's Dad

Less than a year ago, Seth Adam Smith's great blog post, "Marriage Isn't For You," went viral. In the post, Smith explains how, not long before his wedding, his dad dealt bluntly with his cold feet by urging him to think about giving to, rather than getting from, his bride-to-be.

It is, as I say, a great piece. But it raises an interesting question for me, a question somewhere at the border of normative and applied ethics.

The crucial moment in Smith's story comes when his dad says:
Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. . . . Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.
It seems clear that the elder Smith isn't offering a report on what he thinks his son is doing, much less on what people in general are doing. So what is he claiming, then?

It might be useful to contrast what seems to be going on in Seth's dad's comments with a more straightforward account of devoted love in marriage.

Such an account begins, let us suppose, with the first stage of a couple's interaction. Perhaps the lover begins by simply liking the beloved, before going on to find the beloved attractive romantically, erotically, or both. In an ongoing spiral of engagement, liking and attraction give rise to the determination to engage further, which leads to additional bonding. The lover begins to incorporate the beloved into the lover's own sense of self, sense of identity. At the same time, the lover's delight in and desire for the beloved grow.

At this point, at least two complementary things may occur. (i) The beloved may find the beloved—whether simply because the beloved occupies a more central place in the lover's live and world, so that the lover is more aware of the beloved as a three-dimensional, vulnerable human with particular needs, or because particular needs and vulnerabilities on the part of the beloved present themselves to the lover—a vulnerable person whose needs evoke a desire to offer care and nurture. (ii) The lover incorporates the beloved clearly into the lover's own sense of who he or she is—a process of attachment, identification, and bonding. These developments prompt the lover to reach out, to will, to care for the beloved.

Meanwhile, delight and desire continue to play their independent roles in drawing the lover into the beloved's presence and prompting the lover to seek increased closeness with the beloved.

The lover moves toward a multi-part commitment: (1) a commitment to caring for the beloved, a commitment that prompts the desire to provide the reassurance and security that constancy can afford; (2) a commitment to achieve a "we" relationship with the beloved; (3) a commitment to the beloved to care for her or him precisely in and through the maintenance of a "we" relationship.

The initial commitments are commitments the lover makes in and to her- or himself, ratifying the felt attachment and bonding that's already been taking place. The third-stage commitment builds on these commitments, expressing them, at the right time, to the beloved. Thus, love here begins as impulse, becomes interaction-forged attachment and bond, becomes a self-chosen commitment, and is consummated as an interpersonal commitment.

So on this model, which I'd like to think will be familiar in general terms to many readers, love's obligations grow out of love's bond which grows out of love's desire.

Seth's dad seems to be saying something different. In his words, as Seth reports them, the focus seems to be on an in-built teleology. Love and marriage just are for particular purposes.

It should be clear that this can't be a report on the purposes empirical individuals happen to have. After all, Seth's dad isn't just reminding him of a purpose he already he has—he's saying, instead, that Seth should have a particular purpose. What, then, is the force of the should here?

Clearly, Seth's dad could just mean  that romantic relationships and marriages offer the opportunity to love unselfishly. But he seems to be saying more than this. He clearly implies that Seth is choosing and feeling deficiently because he is not immediately inclined to love openly and generously to his betrothed.

But he is also not saying that Seth is choosing in a manner inconsistent with commitments to himself and to his betrothed. For his language seems to imply that love's imperatives precede these commitments. There is, on his view, a set purpose for marriage, so that if one is going to marry at all, one should embrace this purpose.

The question, I think, is how Seth's dad would have responded if Seth had said, "Well, maybe you're right that 'marriage' as an institution has the character you describe, so that if I commit to marriage I am committing to behaving in this way. But what's to stop me and my beloved from entering a parallel institution, call it 'schmarriage', that lacks any expectation of devoted love but has many of the other superficial feature of marriage?"

It might well be that Seth's beloved would prefer a marriage to a schmarriage, so that, if he's going to commit to her at all, he'll need to commit to marriage rather than schmarriage. And, indeed, he might prefer that she adopt in relation to him the attitudes involved in marriage rather than those associated with schmarriage, and be willing for this reason to offer her a commitment to marriage. But while this might be a perfectly good reason for Seth to commit to a devotedly loving marriage, it's not what's in view here, since Seth's dad, in Seth's story, criticizes Seth for not wanting to commit to a devotedly loving marriage, and does so because of his judgment about Seth's attitude toward his beloved. His dad seems to presuppose an imperative something like this: Choose to commit to marriage in order to give to your beloved. He seems to think Seth would act wrongly or deficiently if he ignored this imperative.

I can think immediately of at least two ways in which one might defend Seth's dad's claim.

(1) One might understand Seth's dad as embracing, not an ethics of rules or duties or principles but rather an ethics of virtue. On this view, Seth's choices would be problematic, not as inconsistent with any categorical or self-assumed obligation (to himself or to his beloved) but rather as revelatory of a deficient character. More work would be needed here, but the idea seems plain and fairly plausible: devotion to one's beloved is a virtuous disposition worth embracing, and failing to embody this disposition (when one has a beloved to love devotedly) is a reasonably criticizable deficiency. One might ground this account of human virtue in different ways—as an embodiment of self-sacrificial divine love (cp. Ephesians, Hosea); as the expression of an attitude we just find ourselves consistently valuing (the Humean approach); etc. Particularly relevant here might be the fact that devotion is a natural expression of love's own impulse, so that failing to love devotedly might be a matter of suppressing love's own inherent potential and dynamic. (Perhaps this is what Seth himself is getting at when he later says: "No, a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love—their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, “What’s in it for me?”, while Love asks, “What can I give?”) It's hard to argue against this on deontic grounds, but it might qualify as ugly, and so as a Humean vice.

(2) One might also attempt a deontic account. To make this view work, we'd need some kind of argument to the effect that romantic love and marriage necessarily entail committed devotion, and that someone opting to love romantically or to marry would act wrongly if she or he failed to commit to loving devotedly. One might try to make this case in several steps. (a) One could note that, whatever one says about marriages versus schmarriages, the formal features of marriage—shared life, shared identity, shared physical space (not necessary, but common), and sex (again, not necessary, but common and obviously expected) make for great vulnerability between the partners, and a commitment responsive to that vulnerability is appropriate even if the partners try to frame some less committed relationship (at least without a purposeful waiver on the part of one or both). (b) One could note that, by inviting one's beloved into a love relationship, one effectively deprives her or him of opportunities to enter other relationships that might offer devoted love; and, given the great value of such love, it would be unreasonable to preclude it in a context in which one's partner might ordinarily expect it. Alternatively, (c) one might see this obligation as a product of some kind of vocation (not necessarily willed or announced by God; cp. Lawrence A. Blum, Moral Perception and Particularity).

I think the virtue-based approach comes closer to capturing what I suspect Seth's dad is trying to say. In any case, both approaches deserve further study and reflection.




Sunday, August 10, 2014

Does Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince Commit the Sunk-Costs Fallacy?

Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince contains a simple explanation of what seems like an important aspect of love: history. The Little Prince seeks to explain why his rose, in particular, matters to him. (It seems likely that Saint-Exupéry was trying to understand and justify his tumultuous relationship with his wife.) The Little Prince is deeply troubled by the discovery of many, many roses that seem phenomenally indistinguishable from his rose. He says to them:
You are beautiful, but you are empty. One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you—the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars; because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or bloated, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose. [One might just as well say, “My gardenia” or “My frangipani.”]
As such quite different philosophers as Raymond Gaita and Stephen Clark have noted repeatedly (see, e.g., Stephen R. L. Clark, The Mysteries of Religion: An Introduction to Philosophy through Religion [Oxford: Blackwell 1986] 207-9; Stephen R. L. Clark, A Parliament of Souls, Limits and Renewals 2 [Oxford: Clarendon-OUP 1989] 116-35), history matters (this isn't the way Clark frames the matter). We are not simply interested in enjoying the beloved's phenomenal characteristics: we are interested in our relationship with the beloved her- or himself. To believe that my lover has been surreptitiously replaced with a phenomenally indistinguishable duplicate could easily be the first step on a path toward madness—not because the belief itself is insane (it might or might not be), but because trying to come to grips with the conflicting thoughts and emotions involved could prove devastating. When I love you, I am attached to you, not to anyone who happens to resemble you. (This is a way into one sort of quite serious problem with theories which seek to combine belief in (i) life after death understood as resurrection with (ii) a purely physicalist understanding of the human person.)

So, phenomenologically, we're with the Little Prince. Even apart from the issue of tender, compassionate care for the other that is a crucial part of any attitude we would recognize as loving, we value the beloved not simply because she or he can offer certain goods in the future but also because we are attached to her or him as a self extended over time. (It doesn't matter for present purposes whether the continuity is simply narrative in nature or whether it is rooted in some sort of persistent substance.) Once I have a conception of a relationship with the other as an individual with a history, rather than as a moment-by-moment source of satisfactions, then valuing that relationship will not be compatible with ongoing reevaluation of its investment potential: I value the relationship as such, and not merely for what it can produce.


The sunk-costs fallacy can be committed by someone who makes an inapposite judgment regarding the relevance of past expenditures to present-cum-future investment choices. Suppose I have spent $1,000,000 on a product line that has so far made me $250,000, and which can be disposed of for another $250,000, so that I am (or will be) down $1,000,000 total. I can spend another $100,000 to reinvigorate the line in some way, with some chance of boosting my profits, or I can spend $500,000 on another product line entirely, with a significant chance of substantial new income, while shutting down the first product line. What ought to matter, conventional economic reasoning suggests, is my net income on either of the two options. My past investment shouldn't figure in my decision about the future.

It should be clear that, as an entrepreneur evaluating investment options in a case like this one, I am not in the same position as the Little Prince.


As the example has been framed, I can measure investment, loss, and profit using the same currency, and my objectives can be expressed with exclusive reference to this currency, so that it is quite easy to see (allowing for the reasonable determination of probabilities) what my losses and gains can be expected to be. The Little Prince has invested time and care, but his goal is not to yield more time spent caring for the rose, so the comparison between investment and output can't be made straightforwardly in the way it can in the product-line instance.


Not only is the desired output incommensurable with what has been invested, at least in significant part, but the Little Prince isn't seeking an external good. What he values is precisely the ongoing relationship with his rose. His goal is not to maximize the æsthetic pleasure of encounters with the phenomenal features of his rose or of roses like her. He is not seeking to maximize anything external to his relationship with her. Rather, he seeks to extend and nourish the relationship itself. And he seeks to do this not because the relationship itself is a reliable means of generating certain satisfactions; the values the relationship yields are internal to it. As Robert Nozick (whose discussion of this topic I only read, thanks to a suggestion from David Gordon, after crafting the initial version of this post) observes crisply, “Don't commit the sunk costs fallacy”

may be a correct rule for the maximization of monetary profit, but it is not an appropriate general principle of decision . . . . We do not treat out past commitments to others as of no account except insofar as they affect our future returns, as when breaking a commitment may affect others' trust in us and hence our ability to achieve other future benefits; and we do not treat the past efforts we have devoted to ongoing projects of work or of life as of no account (except insofar as this makes their continuance more likely to bring benefits than other freshly started projects would). Such projects help to define our sense of ourselves and of our lives.
Robert Nozick, The Nature of Rationality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP 1993) 22.

That's true now, of course, but, an objector might say, it's not true initially. Initially, the Little Prince simply values and delights in the rose and cares for her accordingly—for her own sake, so that she will persist, and for his sake, so that his relationship with her will persist. At first, this seems likely to be because of its observable features and the characteristics of its relationship with. But, over time, he comes to be attached to the rose as an individual persisting over time, caring about the rose as an other with her own point of view and valuing precisely his connection with her.


Now, it is open to the objector to say that the Little Prince shouldn't value the rose in this way, that he should value her only as a source of future values or satisfactions. But what would be the rationale for this normative claim? The notion that the sunk-costs fallacy is a fallacy depends on the idea that the investor wants value of quantity X but settles for some sub-unity fraction of X simply because of prior investment. The idea of the sunk-costs fallacy as a fallacy presupposes that the investment can be evaluated in virtue of its potential to produce a certain kind of output. The investor acts irrationally, on the standard view of the fallacy, when she fails to maximize the relevant output.


But the Little Prince has become attached to this particular rose. The objector could dismiss his continued commitment to her as irrational only if the Little Prince's goal were to generate some value or satisfaction and if his continued commitment could be shown to generate this value or satisfaction in a lower quantity than some alternative in which he had not previously invested. But to judge the Prince as irrational on this basis would be to misunderstood the logic of his interactions with the rose. He doesn't value the rose in the way he would need to for the objection to find any purchase. And the charge of economic, or instrumental, irrationality thus can't get off the ground: this kind of charge is a judgment about means, not ends.


Perhaps, however, the objector might suggest that there was something irrational about the transformation in the Little Prince's attitudes—in coming to value a relationship with a particular rose, a particular individual, rather than valuing simply what the relationship, or the individual, might be expected to yield on an ongoing basis.


There will, of course, be economic arguments against this kind of position, rooted in the idea that future yields will be greater when sought in ways that don't depend on persistent attention to future yields. Committed engagement yields better outcomes than case-by-case, moment-by-moment, assessment of probable outcomes. As recent analysts have pointed out, it will be useful to have a reputation as someone who persists. (See here, for example.) And there will be informational and resource constraints on pursuing alternate options in ways that make it reasonable to consider sunk costs.


But while this may be correct, it doesn't capture the way we actually experience relationships with valued others, personal and impersonal. Consider the loss of a farm that has been in one's family for eight generations. The point is not that one has, or that one's ancestors have, invested in the farm at a particular level: evaluating the loss of the farm isn't a matter of evaluating investments, profits, or losses at all, but of one's attachment to the property and its role in constituting one's identity. Thus, “[t]hat there must be something which compensates for a finite loss is just a dogma, one which is more familiar in the traditional version to the effect that every man has his price.” (See Bernard Williams, “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” Utilitarianism: For and Against, by J. J. C. Smart and Williams [Cambridge: CUP 1973] 144-5.)

I may develop a relationship with a particular object, place, rose (or gardenia, or frangipani), or person for any number of reasons. But my ongoing interaction with it creates a bond, an attachment, that gives it a special place in my motivational structure and so in my deliberation. (The bond need not be created in this way; my point is simply that it can be.) (i) My story is now a story in which interaction and involvement with this entity plays a significant part. (ii) My self-understanding is as someone defined in relation to this entity. (iii) The entity occupies a significant role vis-a-vis my priorities. (iv) Emotionally, I am attached to this entity, with the emotion reasonably understood as registering its place in my story and in my identity and in my priorities. All this is particularly true if the focus of my relationship is an entity extended through time, not appropriately understood as simply a collection of things strung along a temporal clothesline. (John Searle has argued, without elaborate metaphysical foundations, that selves can be thus understood: see John Searle, Rationality in Action [Cambridge, MA: MIT 2001] 75-96.)

The Little Prince doesn't persist in his relationship with the rose because he mistakenly supposes that doing so will yield more external goods than any alternative. He does so because he values the internal good of the relationship with the rose, a relationship with an individual extended over time, and because the rose, and his relationship with her, have come to constitute (in part) who he is.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Some Problems with Gun Control

There are no guns in my home, and there never have been. But I believe there are several mutually reinforcing reasons for skepticism about proposals for gun control.

  1. Gun control measures reduce the popular capacity for armed resistance to tyranny and invasion.
  2. These measures limit opportunities for self-defense against thuggery.
  3. They deny people the benefits of the deterrent effect exerted by the widespread belief that most members of a given population are armed.
  4. They increase people's dependence on state authorities who would otherwise be seen as irrelevant and unnecessary.
  5. They leave state authorities more willing to violate people's rights with impunity.
  6. The implementation of these measures increases the power of the state and provides excuses for state authorities to intrusively surveil people's nonviolent activities, thus compromising privacy and autonomy.
  7. The implementation of these measures involves forcible interference with nonviolent conduct—at minimum the imposition of fines and the confiscation of property, and, if the criminal law is used, the subjection of people to criminal penalties. This is objectionable for the same reason the criminalization of nonviolent conduct generally is objectionable.

Against Reincarnation

I suggest, in brief, two sets of reasons not to embrace belief in reincarnation:

1. Even if one affirms some sort of numerical duality between brain and mind—a duality that need not involve any commitment to substance dualism—it still seems simplest to suppose that the brain gives rise to mental life. At least at first blush, this is what our experience and observation suggest. But, for reincarnation to make sense, one would need to imagine that not only a mind or soul numerically other than the brain but also a personal self with memories, personality, etc., exists in distinction from the brain. It will then be necessary to explain both (a) how this personal self comes into existence in the first place, if not as an initial product of brain activity and (b) how it comes to be intimately associated with a particular brain.

2. In tandem with these metaphysical or scientific objections to belief reincarnation, there are also existential objections. Most important is the devaluation of the empirical self, which seems likely to be swallowed up in some sort of transempirical self. Most people are interested in survival research, psi phenomena, etc., because of their hopes for themselves and their loved ones. But belief in reincarnation seems to take away with one hand what it gives with the other. The reincarnationist promises life after death. But the life after death offered by or in connection with belief in reincarnation is not the persistent life of the empirical self: the history, the relationships, etc., enjoyed by the empirical self seem to recede into unimportance, since they seem to play a limited role in constituting the contents of the actual self. This means, of course, that my own particular life seems less significant—but also that any and all empirical lives ultimately don't seem to matter a great deal, since the underlying self is evidently importantly distinct from them.

These objections are hardly decisive, but the first set suggests why I find belief reincarnation metaphysically baroque and the second why I find it existentially unappealing.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Problems with Suicide: Necessity, Fate, Decree, Teleology

I have, as some readers might know, been reading a good deal about death and life beyond death in recent months. In light of what I've read, I've found myself thinking about a philosophical puzzle related to beliefs regarding suicide.

I don't believe anyone I know well has ever committed, or attempted, suicide. But the topic remains of considerable interest (and the subject of vocal debate).

Suicide and New Age Beliefs about Life after Death

A number of New Age thinkers and experients report that someone who has committed suicide can be expected to run into special problems in the afterlife as they conceive it. Sometimes, this is said to be because of the various moral problems putatively attendant on suicide. I am inclined to think that suicide (at least often) is morally problematic, and I have no particular beef, therefore, with those who reason in this way.

But I find interesting and puzzling another account of why suicides might create distinctive afterlife difficulties. On this view, a person who commits suicide runs into difficulties in the afterlife because she or he has died before her appointed time of death. I think it is quite difficult to make sense of this notion.

It seems as if one's time of death might be appointed in four ways—as a product of predetermination, as a matter of fate, as a target set by divine decree, or as a matter of natural teleology. None of these provides a plausible basis for the view that suicides suffer special liabilities after death.

Predetermination

When speaking of predetermination, I have nothing more mysterious in mind than what we ordinarily think of when talking about determinism. The idea would simply be that every event could be seen to have an antecedently sufficient cause. The history of the world could, in principle, once under way, take only one course. If predetermination of this sort obtains, then of course the time and manner of my death, like the time and manner of every other event, is certain, necessary.

But if this is true, it is difficult to see how suicide could bring about death "before one's time." Whenever one dies will be whenever it was necessary, in a fairly strong sense, that one die. However one dies will be however it was necessary, in a fairly strong sense, that one die. The time and manner of one's death will be the appointed time and manner in as robust a sense as seems possible.

To be sure, if one committed suicide, it is possible that one might not be as advanced, as spiritually mature, as one would have been had one lived a much longer life. But this will not be a problem unique to suicides, since all sorts of factors might lead to one's death at a young age, an age such that, had those factors not interfered, one might have lived many years beyond it. So it wouldn't make sense to single out the suicide as specially in difficulty in the afterlife.

Even if it is the case that one should not seek to enter the afterlife before the appointed time and in any other than the appointed manner, one need not worry about running into special difficulties in virtue of committing suicide if one understands the relevant sort of appointment to be predetermination, since when and how one dies by suicide will be appointed. And any difficulties encountered by the suicide will be parallel to, no different from, those encountered by many different sorts of non-suicides.

Fate

Fate is a slippery notion, but I take it to involve something like the idea that an outcome or process is inevitable under a certain description, but that surrounding or related circumstances need not be. It may be fated that I die on September 23, but it may be (on the relevant view) up to me whether I die in Damascus or Baghdad.

We may imagine that the time of my death is fated, that the manner is fated, or that both are fated.

Suppose the time is fated—I am, say, due to die on September 23. But the manner is not. As it happens, I commit suicide on this day.

There may, of course, be moral problems with this decision. But it cannot be the case that I have chosen to die before my time, for I have opted to die on the relevantly fated day. So, if the date of my death is fated, there can be no obvious problem with my decision to commit suicide on that day. And, if the day is fated, then it cannot be the case that I succeed in committing suicide, or otherwise dying, on some other day. For, if I could, then my death would not be fated in the relevant sense.

Similarly, the manner of my death, but not the date, might be fated. But either the fated manner is not suicide, in which case I will not, ex hypothesi, be able to commit suicide, or it is suicide, in which case it will not be blameworthy.

But, the objector might reply, it might be that my death by suicide was fated, but that I have chosen to commit suicide early. However, this response seems problematic for at least two reasons. (i) The notion of fate was invoked to give content to the idea of my death's being before its appointed time. But there does not seem to be a notion of an appointed time in play here. (ii) The imagined account provides no reason to think that committing suicide early should yield special difficulties, even if some sense can be made of early death on this account. I might, after all, be fated to die in an automobile accident, without its being the case that the specific circumstances of the accident are fated; and it might turn out that I die in this manner at age two rather than age eight-two.

So the notion of death as fated does not seem to provide a plausible basis for treating suicide as leading to special difficulties in the afterlife.

Decree

Many New Age believers and adherents of similar belief-systems affirm the reality of God, though of course others do not. Those who do embrace some sort of theistic belief might seek  to explain the idea of special afterlife disabilities for suicides by maintaining that God has established a time for me to die and that suicide brings about my death before this time.

This view seems to run into several difficulties.

(i) There is nothing about the view as stated that explains why my suicide might not bring about my death at just the time decreed as the time of my death by God. It might also take place after the decreed time, meaning that I am , perhaps (assuming spiritual maturation benefits from, or is not, at any rate, impeded by, more experience) even better prepared for the afterlife than I would have been had I died sooner.

(ii) Supposing this is not the case (the view must presuppose some sort of free will vis-a-vis God, so that I can, indeed, choose to violate God's decree, whether knowingly or not), there is no reason to single out the suicide for special liabilities, since murder and accident might also lead to my death in advance of the decreed date.

(iii) The decree as envisioned seems to be quite arbitrary. There is nothing in the position—so far, at any rate—to explain why a given time should be decreed. This is the sort of thing likely to make many New Age believers uncomfortable. And the essential arbitrariness makes it difficult, in any case, to see why any liabilities might attend on the suicide's putatively early death, since the death is early only in relation to an arbitrary divine decree. The liabilities seem likely to obtain only if they involve arbitrarily imposed postmortem divine punishments (for violating a decree of which there is every reason to think the suicide entirely ignorant).

The notion that a suicide's death is early because inconsistent with an arbitrary divine command seems to have little to recommend it.

Natural Teleology

A final possible explanation for special liabilities for suicides after death associated with the idea that the suicide dies before his or her time might be rooted in the idea that, objectively speaking, I need to reach a certain level of flourishing before I am ready for some sort of postmortem maturation, and that suicide preempts my progress toward this level of flourishing. However, because there is no inevitable link between personal maturation (or any other plausible conception of flourishing) and time of death, it is hard to see why this should, again, pose any particular difficulty for the suicide.

Doubts about Some New Age Critiques of Suicide

In brief, the special, non-moral justifications for avoiding suicide offered by some New Age believers, justifications having to do with special postmortem difficulties for suicides, do not seem plausible. I suspect, without evidence, that some of those who defend these justifications do so because of their moral worries about suicide (worries which, as I have said, seem quite reasonable to me), in tandem with the further worry that belief in life after death in some way makes suicide less problematic. Whether it does is a matter for another post. But, if it does, that seems to me to be a consequence simply to be accepted: it is unlikely that all of our moral intuitions could or should remain untouched by our beliefs about the actual consequences of particular actions.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Jason Brennan Did Not Like Gary Chartier's Book

My response to Jason Brennan's review of Anarchy and Legal Order is up at BHL.

The title is a reference, of course, to an increasingly familiar meme (see here and here).

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Good-Bye to FEE


The Foundation for Economic Education has an enviable history. For over half a century, it has sought to share the conviction that society can and should be organized on the basis of peaceful, voluntary cooperation. It has treated the key terms in its name, economic and education, with appropriate breadth—focusing not only on the contribution of unfettered exchange to human well being but also on the philosophy underlying a commitment to voluntary cooperation in the economic realm and the historical, social, and political context of the quest for freedom, while seeking to enhance understanding of the idea of freedom in a broad range of ways.

FEE founder Leonard Read famously summed up the Foundation’s vision in a simple, straightforward, powerful phrase: “Anything that’s peaceful.”

Peaceful conduct may be foolish or immoral, of course. But people have no business interfering with it by force—protests, boycotts, and educational efforts are perfectly OK, of course. Accepting a commitment to peace as the minimal requisite of decent human interaction, so that people can be expected to cooperate on the basis of persuasion rather than coercion, doesn’t solve any and all social problems. It points, however, to a context within which those problems can be addressed reasonably by free people.

Read, who wondered in retrospect whether the name he’d selected for his Foundation was unnecessarily narrow, saw that freedom was a single piece of cloth. To understand the meaning and justification of what he termed “the freedom philosophy” was to see that peace had to reign in all aspects of human life. It’s arbitrary to think about freedom narrowly in the economic realm; dedication to economic freedom makes sense in tandem with dedication to civil liberties and to peace in the international arena (and also, I believe, to a society marked by the absence of arbitrary authority ofwhatever sort and to solidaristic mutual aid). To talk about free trade without also talking about free immigration or the war on (some) drugs or the prison system or unjust violations of property rights by well connected corporations is ultimately senseless. While not an anarchist, Read embraced an extremely limited conception of the just reach of state power and actively promoted the cause of peace and openness to the world in the face of militarism and nationalism.

Leonard Read must be spinning very rapidly in his grave.

Even as it abandons the famous Irvington-on-Hudson headquarters Read established, FEE is apparently seeking, pointlessly, to abandon the mission Read developed, too. An organization that once fostered widespread embrace of the freedom philosophy now intends to provide basic instruction in economics to 16-to-24-year-olds. This means FEE won’t be delivering the summer seminars in advanced Austrian Economics that once enabled it to connect with graduate students. It won’t be targeting people at multiple stages of their lives seeking greater understanding of the grounds and implications of belief in freedom. And it can be expected to limit dramatically the content of The Freeman, the flagship FEE publication once edited (before its acquisition by FEE) by Frank Chodorov, shying away from discussions of peace, open borders, the involuntary confinement of “mental patients,” the drug war, cultural issues, and the history of corporatist mischief. As a result, the very 16-to-24-year-olds the Foundation wants to serve will be ill-prepared to meet the challenges  they will confront in their classrooms and in conversations with their friends, as will ordinary working people in search of ammunition that will help them communicate the freedom philosophy in their homes, congregations, and workplaces.

This change in course is doubtless not a product of mischief. It may well reflect a genuine desire to see FEE vibrant and strong. But it is, I believe, a profound and quite unnecessary mistake.

FEE has a unique brand. It has sought neither to be hip nor to be reactionary; it hasn’t taken sides in freedom movement faction fights. Refusing to accept the legitimacy of inside-the-Beltway policy debates, it hasn’t focused on the construction of policy analyses. Declining to engage in technical, accommodationist wonkery, it  has emphasized big ideas—and their backgrounds and applications—in ways that ordinary people of all ages could understand and appreciate, that could simultaneously enlighten novices and stimulate old hands. FEE should clarify and promote its distinctive brand rather than diluting or abandoning it.

But—for the moment, at least—that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

No longer fostering noninterference with “anything that’s peaceful” by anyone and everyone, even as it bids adieu to long-time ace Freeman editor Sheldon Richman, the Foundation will encourage regard for peace only within a limited range of human encounters, and do so only in a narrowed variety of venues and vocabularies. Giving up on its currently stated commitment to articulating “the most consistent case for the ‘first principles‘ of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion,” FEE will effectively ignore the links between freedom in different aspects of our lives and the reality that it makes the most sense to be pro-choice about economics when one is pro-choice about everything, across the board. I hope those who are as saddened by this development as I am will help to foster the growth of institutions and the organization of events that will share, as FEE will no longer do, a comprehensive, multi-layered vision of peaceful, voluntary cooperation as the only defensible foundation for a good society.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Left-Wing Market Anarchism and Ron Paul

If you say you're against the state these days, someone's sure to ask you how your views parallel Ron Paul's.

I'm sitting out this year's electoral battles: I'm not a principled non-voter (though I'm skeptical about electoral politics), but my friend Brad Spangler has agreed to promote my book, The Conscience of an Anarchist, in connection with his Vote for Nobody campaign. But that doesn't mean I don't have opinions about the election season.

To begin with, anyone who's derailing proponents of the corporate-warfare-administrative-national-security state like Willard "Mitt" Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry deserves three cheers for performing a public service. Until now, the Republican field has been dominated by warmongers and corporatists outdoing themselves in their support for state thuggery.

And, in case you haven't noticed, the same thing is true on the Democratic side, except that there are no alternatives there. Barack Obama clearly wants to serve George W. Bush's third term. His record of support for war, for the various abuses of the national security state—including surveillance, assassination, secrecy, and indefinite detention, and for bailouts and other forms of corporatism make him largely indistinguishable from his predecessor. And his willingness to legitimate evils that could previously have been framed as GOP aberrations as the products of a bipartisan consensus is especially troubling.

A Gingrich, Romney, or Perry term in the White House would be a disaster. So would another Obama term.

On many of the issues that I care about most, Ron Paul stands tall. New Left icon Tom Hayden writes: "Paul opposes the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He opposes the empire of military bases. He opposes Wall Street thievery, tax subsidies for oil companies, the suppression of WikiLeaks, the drug war and the criminalization of marijuana. Those positions might just save America." And Hayden is surely on to something.

Politicians are most unlikely to save America. But by far the worst thing governments do is to make war, and Paul's campaign is committed to dramatically reducing the chances that the US government's awesome power will be used in war-making.

And of course he's right about his other signature issue, too: as long as there's a central bank, the state will use it to fund otherwise unsupportable wars. Ending the Fed is a crucial step toward peace.

He's opposed to bailouts and other forms of corporate privilege. And he's acknowledged the legitimacy of many of the Occupy movement's concerns.

But while positions like these are worth affirming, that doesn't mean that Paul's candidacy is an unmixed blessing for those of us on the anti-state left. For Paul is, after all, a self-proclaimed conservative.

His stances regarding immigration, abortion, and same-sex marriage are wrong, and he needs to be much more clearly radical where other issues, like racism, poverty, and health care, as well as IP and worker freedom, are concerned.

It is unclear to me precisely what Paul actually thinks about immigration, but it seems apparent that he is open to at least some immigration restrictions (though, even here, he seems to be better than his fellow Republicans and President Obama. Anyone who believes in the freedom to work, who regards borders as arbitrary lines drawn by politicians, and who sees immigration freedom as a key weapon in the real war on poverty should have no time for nativist or nationalist stances on this (or any other) issue.

Paul's conservative positions on abortion and same-sex marriage aren't conservative enough for many on the religious right. But they're still mistaken.

He'd like to see the legality of abortion decided at the state level—an option I fear would lead to lots of victimless crime prosecutions. And he has supported the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which has had devastating consequences for same-sex couples. (Of course all levels of government should get out of the marriage business, but turning marriage into a private contractual relationships will pose serious problems for people in same-sex relationships until relationship status stops mattering entirely to government agencies.)

As a leftist, I believe in abortion rights and marriage equality. And I believe it's important to challenge not only bad laws and policies regarding these matters but also the moral convictions and cultural values that underly them.

I am confident that Ron Paul is not himself a racist. But the controversy about the racially inflammatory language in some of the newsletters his office mailed out in decades past, and the racist and anti-immigrant flavor of some immigration materials Paul campaigners have distributed more recently, is sure to raise its head again now that his campaign is attracting more attention. Paul has sometimes reached out to unsavory, even racist allies in the past, employing a strategy I find deeply troubling and utterly unwarranted. I believe he needs to repudiate this strategy while reemphasizing his own principled opposition to racism.

As an anarchist, I believe the state is unjust, unnecessary, and dangerous. So I'd certainly like to see it reduced in size rather than expanded. And Ron Paul is actually interested in making the bloated behemoth that is the United States government smaller (though he still seems mistakenly to treat it as legitimate in principle). But I think it's vital to proceed dialectically, in full awareness of the interconnections among various forms of oppression. The state is excellent at breaking people's legs and then offering them crutches (thanks to Harry Browne for the analogy). In a sane world, it would do neither; but taking away the crutches while leaving the state's leg-breaking activities in place or unremedied isn't sane, or fair, either.

And if Paul were a candidate on the left, he would be very clear about this point when discussing issues like racial discrimination, poverty relief, and health care.

Ending state support for segregation, the provision of remedies for past injustice, and a continued program of non-violent protest could have undermined entrenched white dominance in the South in the absence of the state action a gentle Paul critic like Hayden would like to promote; you don't need state action to promote racial justice and inclusion. Eliminating state-secured privilege and rectifying the effects of violent dispossession, subsidy, and land engrossment could deal with the problem of structural poverty, while mutual aid networks could provide ongoing economic security in the state's absence. The same sort of approach could ensure the widespread availability of health care services and make them dramatically more affordable than those on offer today.

There are clearly alternatives to state action in response to these problems. A leftist anti-statism would emphasize them in a way that Paul has not.

And as far as I know, Paul hasn't noted the ways in which monopolistic intellectual property privileges boost corporate power at the public's expense, or the ways in which the state empowers employers at the expense of workers or makes centralized, hierarchical corporations more economically viable than they would be without politically secured support. A leftist campaign would address these kinds of concerns head-on. And it would take a firm stand for markets, but against capitalism.

Ron Paul is, as far as I can tell, a kind and decent person who has said important things—things leftists should endorse. Anti-state leftists would do well to affirm Paul's positions on war, civil liberties, the drug war, corporatism, and the national security state, while challenging his stances on abortion, immigration, and same-sex marriage and his cultural conservatism and urging him to radicalize his views of remedies for racial injustice, of poverty, of IP, of worker freedom, and of capitalism.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Santa Claus: America’s Most Wanted Fugitive

WASHINGTON, DC—A joint federal-state task force intends to apprehend Santa Claus, whom it regards as a dangerous fugitive, Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Chet Waldron told reporters yesterday.

Among the factors making Claus a “person of interest,” according to Waldron:
  • Claus’s entry of private property makes him guilty of civil, and probably criminal, trespass.
  • Claus’s immigration status is in question. He has repeatedly entered the United States without a passport.
  • Claus appears to have purposefully avoided the inspection of the goods he has imported into the United States by customs authorities and the payment of relevant tariffs.
  • Self-described “pro-family” groups have asked the administration to take action because Claus’s provision of toys to children interferes with their parents’ rights to oversee the upbringing of their offspring without adequate supervision, since many popular toys may encourage attitudes and behavior of which parents disapprove or legitimize values and lifestyles parents find objectionable.
  • The fact that Claus has failed to provide information about the contents of the packages he carries has raised questions about whether any of his actions violate US drug or money-transfer laws.
  • Claus enters and traverses US airspace using a custom-built vehicle that lacks approval by the Federal Aviation Administration. Further, FAA officials note that he does not file flight plans, lacks a pilot’s license, and flies through darkened skies guided only by a tiny bioluminescent red light, in a clear violation of traffic safety regulations.
  • Justice Department attorneys have raised questions about Claus’s willingness to distribute his products for free, asking whether doing so violates anti-dumping rules.
  • There is no record that Claus, who clearly “conducts business” in the United States, has eever obtained a business license.
  • Some items delivered by Claus are believed to have been produced in violation of US patent and copyright laws and international treaties.
Clause defenders had hoped that the arrival of the Obama administration would lead to reduced emphasis on the planned Claus prosecution. But the presence of vocal Claus critics—including Secretary of State, said to regard Claus as a “persistent threat to national security,” and Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole, who has been quoted as urging the North American Air Defense Command to “shoot the old guy out of the sky”—in the upper echelons of the Obama administration suggests that Claus will continue to be a federal target.

US Senator Joseph Lieberman (Ct.) has called on the White House to support designating Claus’s North Pole workshop a terrorist organization. “We’ll see how long people keep supporting this bastard when they realize we can seize their assets and lock them up in Guantanamo,” Lieberman enthused to a National Press Club audience.

While the administration has yet to formally endorse Lieberman’s proposal, “We’ll keep looking,” Waldron told reporters. “Americans concerned about their safety can be sure that we’re going to put a stop to this persistent threat.”

This is an altered version of a piece originally drafted by George Getz, who deserves full credit for the idea and much of the text. I discovered the original at Independent Political Report.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Humanizing Air Travel

It is gratifying in the extreme to see consumers responding in increasingly vociferous fashion to the accelerating dehumanization of air travel: kudos, in particular, to the founders of We Won’t Fly. It would be truly exciting if ordinary people managed to persuade the USG to retreat by ending the pat-downs and pornoscanners.

But it would be very unfortunate if, should they win this battle, passengers let up the pressure for more decent traveling conditions. Yes, the TSA has gone too far; but it’s never not gone too far. While the latest indignities are atrocious, if we treat the air travel regime in place before they began as largely acceptable, we will provide incontrovertible evidence that, like the frog in the proverbial kettle, we’ve become far too tolerant of abuse.

Even before 9/11, air travel was often unpleasant. There was too much screening; too much passenger time and energy were wasted on dealing with security theatre. But during the past nine years, we’ve moved from the antechamber of hell to its seventh or eighth circle. To take some obvious examples:

  • Our ability to check in at the last minute has been impeded by rules that preclude checking in less than thirty minutes before take-off. (Remember Robert Hayes’s last minute pursuit of Elaine onto her flight in Airplane? Presumably, it wouldn’t even be possible under today’s asinine rules.)
  • More broadly, our time is wasted by tedious security screenings that simultaneously necessitate our spending far more time in airports than we once did and subject us to persistent and repeated indignities. We’re forced to remove our shoes, to permit our belongings to be searched in a far more detailed fashion than we once did, and to surrender harmless nail clippers and toothpaste tubes to thugs backed up by other thugs with guns.
  • Perhaps most irritatingly, in order to avoid making the screening process even longer, people without tickets aren’t allowed to come to airport gates to see off or collect their friends.
And the entire process is designed to treat everyone like a potential criminal. It’s this process, and not merely the use of this or that screening device or security technique, that has to end. A few tweaks here and there simply aren’t sufficient to fix the problem.

(1) The most basic feature of any solution has to be the recognition that the TSA’s security theatre is a response to factors created by the USG’s foreign policy. Suicide terrorism isn't a product of blood-lust or religious mania, however much those things may facilitate it: it's a (completely immoral) reaction, born of powerlessness and frustration, to imperial violence. If the USG really wants dramatically to reduce the risk of suicide terrorism, it simply needs to leave Iraq, leave Afghanistan, and close its network of military bases around the world (a move that would, conveniently, also save taxpayers [at least] hundreds of billions of dollars).

(2) As long as it continues to provide or regulate air travel security, passengers must keep demanding that the USG roll back air travel security regulations, at minimum, to their pre-9/11 level.

(3) Ultimately, though, the USG needs to get out of the airport security business. Consumers themselves need to be free to decide just what kinds of risks they're willing to tolerate: they should be free to choose low-risk/low-intrusiveness airlines or minimally-lower-risk/high-intrusiveness airlines (the deliberately tendentious formulation reflects my conviction that the real impact on passenger safety of Gestapo tactics is limited). (One qualifier: airlines that negligently allow passengers to be harmed in virtue of the imposition of risks greater than those for which the passengers contracted, or which negligently allow third parties to be harmed by suicide terrorists’ use of planes, ought to be subject to appropriate sorts of tort liability. This would presumably affect airlines’ security policies.) Michael Chertoff can fly under whatever conditions he likes; I just don't want him and his corporate paymasters determining under what conditions I do.

Responding to an earlier version of these remarks, an acquaintance observed that airlines could use responsibility for security as an excuse for higher prices and bad service. No doubt. But it is difficult to imagine a less consumer-friendly environment than the one that obtains now. And since airlines and airports would have reason to compete on the convenience-and-dignity vs. security mix, there would, at any rate, be pressure for the treatment of consumers to improve. At present, by contrast, airlines and airports have no reason to give consumers’ concerns any weight at all.

Passenger anger at airport indignities can play a crucial role in making air travel more humane. But it can do so only if passengers continue to protest until they are treated like valued customers rather than criminals and slaves—until the root causes of suicide terrorism are addressed, post-9/11 indignities are eliminated, and, ultimately, air travel security arrangements are set by mutual agreements between airlines and consumers.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cranick Fire Fund

Tom Knapp has just alerted me to the existence of a PayPal account, CranickFireFund@Yahoo.Com, designed to help the victims of the Tennessee fire that’s received so much attention of late. I would encourage readers to consider supporting this fund.

The Fulton Fire Fiasco

The decision by a Tennessee fire agency to deny service to a family with a burning house because the family had failed to pay the agency’s subscription fee (the agency was operated by the city of Fulton but provided service to non-residents on a subscription basis) has prompted sustained discussion throughout the blogosphere, with repeated claims that the incident demonstrates inherent difficulties with the fee-based provision of fire services. Implicitly, then, statists are inclined to see the incident as supporting an argument for state provision of such services, and thus for statism more generally.

The story is complicated, as such stories always are, by the facts. The incident happened, it appears, because the homeowners’ grandson started a fire too close to their home. The decision not to provide service was evidently a long-standing city-council voted policy, and the fire-fighters’ insurance apparently wouldn’t cover them if they provided service to a non-subscriber. On the other hand, the homeowners had apparently received fire service on a previous occasion when their service subscription was similarly unpaid (they evidently paid the day after they received the service), and so might reasonably have expected that they would in this case, too. It would be easy to become engrossed in the details of this particular story; but I’d like to take a step back and think about the big-picture issues it raises. I don’t believe it has to be seen as offering any support for statism.

Fire Service Is Not a “Public Good”

Characteristically, statists maintain that the state needs to deliver a good if it is “public” or “collective”—roughly, such that, if it is provided to anyone in a given public, it is effectively available to all the members of the public, including those who opt not to pay. The standard public goods argument for the state suggests that public goods will be undersupplied on the market for this reason.

There are all sorts of interesting things to say about this argument, but the important thing to notice is that it doesn’t apply here. Fire service is, in general, a private good: providing it to one person doesn’t entail providing it to everyone. So it’s not clear why it shouldn’t be provided on the market, even on the statist’s own preferred criterion.

Fire Services Should Not Be Tax-Funded

The statist answer, in this case, seems to be that the consequences of not providing service are so devastating that it is better to de-link fee payment and service provision. For the statist, this means funding services via taxation.

There are three obvious objections to the statist’s solution to the problem. First, the extraction of taxes at gunpoint by the state is itself unjust. Second, even if tax extraction to fund fire service provision were legitimate, a state powerful enough to extract taxes to be used to support fire service provision would obviously be powerful enough both to extract taxes for other, less desirable, purposes and to engage in other sorts of mischief. Third, if funding for fire service provision is delinked from expressed consumer demand for fire service provision and is instead set politically, funding levels are likely to be inefficient and unrelated to actual need or demand.

Why It Might Seem Reasonable to Deny Service to a Non-Subscriber

If fire service is not funded by taxation, does that means that it needs to be funded by subscriptions? And, if so, must a subscription-funded agency deny emergency service to non-subscribers?

Tom Knapp has made a very plausible case for denying service here and here. (Art Carden’s comment on the story is not altogether conclusive, but might be read as a case for something like Tom’s view.) Tom argues that subscribing to a fire service is like placing a hedged bet. If the odds are low that one will need the service, it will always be tempting not to pay one’s subscription. However, providing fire service is a capital intensive business (trucks and fire houses are expensive) and one with ongoing operating costs (firefighters need to spend long periods on-duty, even when they’re not fighting fires, so they’ll be available when fires actually occur). If people don’t subscribe to a fire agency, the agency will lack the resources it needs to function in a consistent manner on an ongoing basis. And the only realistic way to ensure that they will subscribe is consistently to deny service to non-subscribers.

Duties and Consequences

This approach raises concerns of two kinds.

(a) It seems to involve support for arrangements in accordance with which firefighters will stand idly by and allow their neighbors’ homes to burn, thus violating what would generally be regarded as a moral responsibility to eschew indifference to the vulnerability of others to harm.

By referring to this responsibility, I’m not suggesting that there is a general duty to prevent any and all harms. Rather, my claim is that, per my preferred version of the Golden Rule, I ought to prevent or end a harm to you in a given set of circumstances if I would resent your refusing to help me in similar circumstances were our roles reversed. Also, to be clear: I’m also not arguing that force may be used to require people to fulfill the duty of limited beneficence that follows from the Golden Rule or to punish them or secure compensation from them if they do not do so.

(b) It obviously leads to a terribly undesirable result: someone’s home is destroyed, even though the cost of saving it is significantly less than the value of the home itself.

It is, of course, possible to respond to (a) by noting that there is a duty on the part of firefighters in the imagined situation to all those in a position to benefit from the provision of fire service and willing to pay subscription fees. It might be maintained that one would be ill-serving paid-up subscribers if one rendered assistance in this case, since doing so would increase the odds that potential subscribers would fail to pay their subscriptions, and so limit the ability of the agency to meet its capital and operating needs and protect existing subscribers. Paid-up subscribers willing to pay subscription fees might well have reason to resent the provision of service in this case if it prevented them from receiving service when they needed it. Firefighters might recognize, in turn, that their reaction would be the same as that of the subscribers, and that they would therefore act unreasonably if they provided services to non-subscribers.

This is not a silly argument, and I do not want to treat it dismissively. It is surely right that obligations to all subscribers might trump the responsibility to show limited beneficence to non-subscribers in danger of suffering severe fire damage. However, it is possible to imagine arrangements that would not require fire agency personnel to stifle their compassionate responses and to refuse to prevent immediate, proximate potential loss but that would simultaneously ensure adequate service to those willing to pay their fair share of service costs via subscription. And such arrangements are surely preferable to those that make adequate service levels possible while requiring a firefighter to suppress her or his desire to help someone else in serious danger.

Competition as a Guarantor of Emergency Service to Non-Subscribers

Perhaps the firefighter need not be concerned, because another fire agency would step in were one agency to decline to provide service. Roderick Long and Bob Murphy both see market competition as a crucial source of security here. And it surely would be as regards subscription fees, for instance. On the other hand, it seems as if a competing agency would confront the same incentives as the agency initially contacted by the fire victim: if the competitor agency operates with a subscription-based funding model, it runs the risk of discouraging the subscriptions it needs for ongoing, consistent operation if it opts to respond to a call from a non-subscriber. So it, too (if Knapp’s argument about the economic challenges faced by a solo agency is correct) might find it counter-productive to provide on-the-spot services to non-subscribers.

Imposing High On-the-Spot Charges as a Way of Ensuring Regular Subscription Payments

But perhaps this criticism assumes that the non-subscriber pays only the subscription fee. Trey Givens, David Henderson, Long, Murphy (see here and here), and Jacob Hornberger all suggest that an economically rational fire agency would have been willing to deploy and extinguish the fire for some appropriately high on-the-spot service fee—one significantly in excess of the standard subscription rate. Long suggests that the victim be asked to “pay full price.” Murphy proposes “a penalty rate.” Givens suggests “a premium for on-the-spot requests” and notes that “[t]he firefighter who negotiates a decent rate for . . . [on-the-spot service] would get praised for his initiative.” Henderson endorses an approach featuring an on-the-spot charge that is “a high multiple of the annual fee.” And Hornberger maintains that “a private fire department would have the incentive to have pre-written contracts in which an owner who had failed to purchase fire protection would be asked to agree to pay, say, double the costs of putting out the fire.”

I think it is possible to be more precise than this. If Knapp is correct, as I believe he is, that the hedged-bet analogy is appropriate, then a homeowner will be inclined to avoid paying the subscription fee as long as she estimates that it will be more efficient for her to pay the on-the-spot fee. The question, then, is: at what level should the on-the-spot charge be set to discourage homeowners from declining to pay the subscription fee? The answer seems relatively clear: at a level such that the on-the-spot charge, when discounted by the actuarially determined likelihood that a given homeowner will need fire service, exceeds the subscription fee. A safe estimate of this likelihood might be 0.25% (thanks to Tom Knapp for dialoguing about this and related matters). If this estimate is correct, the on-the-spot charge would need to be over $30,000. A rational consumer would judge that paying $75 on an annual basis would make more sense than paying, say, $32,000 in the event of a fire.

(An aside: it appears that one reason the Fulton fire agency stopped providing service to non-subscribers outside the city limits was that it was difficult to get them to pay after the fact. I think Hornberger is right that “pre-written contracts” would help; and I share Nathan Byrd’s view that a contract providing the fire agency with a lien or other security interest in the property would help to ensure payment.)

The Claim That Letting a Home Burn Would Ensure Regular Subscription Payments More Effectively than Levying a High On-the-Spot Charge

Knapp’s objection to this analysis is, if I understand him correctly, that the odds of losing $32,000 will seem so low in a case like this that people simply won’t pay the subscription fee. Thus, the only way to ensure that subscription fees are consistently paid will be refusing to protect a non-subscriber’s home pour encourager les autres. I don’t want to deny the obvious motivational power of the image of a neighbor’s home burning. But there are at least two reasons why one might not necessarily accept this conclusion.

First, recall that the suggestion is that someone would judge paying a fire-agency subscription unnecessary in view of a possible $32,000 on-the-spot charge because of her estimate of the probability of actually needing fire services. But notice that she’s going to make the same estimate of the probability of a home fire without the possible availability of an on-the-spot alternative to a subscription. What’s going to change, of course, is her estimate of the cost of the fire. If her house is worth $320,000, the potential value of the $75 investment in fire service certainly increases. However, the potential pay-off for making that investment is still enormous even given the availability of an on-the-spot fee, and many of those not willing to make the investment in one case can thus be expected not to make it in the other.

Non-subscribers obviously fall into two groups: the lazy and forgetful on the one hand and rational calculators on the other. Someone who’s lazy and forgetful—who would have purchased a subscription but has simply neglected to do so—is not going to be affected by incentives. Ex hypothesi, she’s simply not thinking about the problem. Learning that someone else lost a house by not paying a fire agency subscription might awaken her from her neglectful slumbers, but so might learning that someone else had had no choice but to pay $32,000 because of having declined to pay such a subscription. By contrast, a genuinely rational calculator would certainly make the judgment that paying $32,000 in the event of a fire is less efficient than paying a $75 annual subscription.

Second, setting the on-the-spot fee at the level I have envisioned would enable the agency to cover its costs even if significant numbers of people chose to avoid the subscription fee and gambled on not having to pay the on-the-spot charge. Of course, this might mean that cash-flow was not as consistent as it would be in the case of subscriptions (and it is not clear that this is so, given that subscriptions would likely be paid at different points throughout the year, and perhaps somewhat erratically). But it would be considerably easier, with substantial payments by non-subscribers in hand, for the agency to opt for debt-based financing. It could borrow against its expected income, including income from on-the-spot charges. And it could build the cost of interest payments into the on-the-spot charges (perhaps increasing them from $32,000 to $35,000).

Alternatives to Subscription- and Debt-Based Funding for Fire Agencies

The conversation to-date has operated on the assumption that subscription and debt were the only mechanisms available for an envisioned fire agency to fund its operations. The fire agency has effectively been envisioned as (i) a member-funded cooperative (a reminder that “the market” need not mean the realm of for-profit commercial transaction) and (ii) a free-standing entity delivering only fire-related services. It is possible to envision at least three other options. Selecting any of them (and they could in some cases be combined) could make a fire agency that offered services to people who had not paid subscription fees more viable.

1. The agency could explicitly incorporate a charitable component in its operations. Community members able to do so could be asked to either to (a) cover the costs of subscriptions for particular persons or to (b) contribute to a fund designed to cover the emergency provision of services to non-subscribers. (Presumably (a) would be less subject to abuse, since it would be possible to assess genuine need on a case-by-case basis and exclude free-riders.)

2. The agency could bundle services of various kinds (insurance more generally and protection against violence are obvious examples) and could obtain needed operating funds in connection with its other services. This might allow it to have larger cash reserves and, in effect, to borrow from itself rather than from an interest-charging lender, “paying itself back” from on-the-spot fire service charges. (Thanks to Kevin Carson for outlining a version of this option to me.)

3. The agency could operate on a for-profit basis, obtaining funds, therefore, not only from customers but also from investors. The investor-provided funds could obviously cushion the agency in cases in which subscriber payments were low.

In principle, it seems as if any of these options, or several in combination, would make it possible for a fire agency to provide on-the-spot services to non-subscribers (perhaps for less than the sort of on-the-spot charge I have discussed here) and still maintain the resources needed to cover its capital and operating costs.

Conclusion

Private fire agencies like this one (CHT David Henderson) operate successfully in today’s economy. But critics of the market have argued that the behavior of the Fulton fire agency, even though government-operated, is evidence that the market cannot be trusted with the provision of fire services and that these services must be entrusted to the state. There are good reasons to avoid giving the state responsibility for fire services or anything else. But anarchists must still acknowledge that statist critics are right to note the morally troubling nature of the denial of service to a fire victim who had failed to pay a fire service subscription.

There are, roughly, two possible, contrasting responses anarchists can offer to the charge that the market-based provision of fire services leads to morally disturbing behavior. On the one hand, they can argue that the actions of a freed-market fire agency that behaved like the Fulton fire agency would be morally justified, even if harsh, because only by denying service to non-subscribers could the agency ensure that it received the subscription payments it needed to operate successfully. On the other, they can maintain that freed-market fire agencies would have alternatives other than denying service to non-subscribers and trying to operate with wild cash-flow fluctuations.

While I believe that the first option could be a morally responsible one, and while the assumptions about human behavior that underlie it may be correct, I have sought here to argue that we are not required to accept it and that other alternatives may be preferable in that they might make it possible for a freed-market fire agency both to provide emergency services to non-subscribers and to maintain a satisfactory financial position. Charging sufficiently high on-the-spot emergency services fees could be sufficient to incentivize rational calculators (and at least some of the otherwise lazy and forgetful)—who might under other circumstances be inclined to gamble that they would be better off not subscribing to a fire service—to pay low annual subscription fees. Charging high on-the-spot fees would also make it possible for agencies to maintain operating reserves and would render it easier for them to cover their costs effectively with debt-based financing if they needed to do so. Delivering some services as a charity (supported by appropriate fundraising) would enable a fire agency to provide emergency on-the-spot services to non-subscribers while enhancing its reputation. Bundling fire and other services would make it easier for an agency to assist those charged high on-the-spot fees without losing needed operating funds. And adopting a for-profit business model would enable an agency to secure needed funds from investors, and so to depend less on subscriptions—rather than on-the-spot charges—for financial stability.

The behavior of a tax-funded agency operated by a monopoly government is not necessarily a particularly good guide to the likely actions of a freed-market fire service. But statists have enthusiastically pointed to the Fulton tragedy as evidence that the market cannot be allowed take responsibility for fire safety. The actions of the agency can be seen as an understandable, if imperfect, response to the need to ensure satisfactory ongoing funding. But rather than defending it on this basis, I think freed-market advocates should point to alternate business models that would enable a freed-market fire agency to thrive even if it provided emergency services to non-subscribers. High on-the-spot service charges set in light of the likelihood of needed service, debt financing, charitable fundraising, service bundling, and investor funding could all contribute to the success of such a model. Thus, it can reasonably be argued that a freed-market fire agency need not behave like the Fulton fire department, and that a key criticism of non-state methods of service provision, and so a key argument for the necessity of the state, therefore fails.