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Why Free-Market Advocates Are Not Obligated to Defend the Economic Status Quo – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Why Free-Market Advocates Are Not Obligated to Defend the Economic Status Quo – Video by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
******************************

Many on the political left today equate advocacy of free-market capitalism with an “anything goes” support for the economic status quo. Many on the political right give credence to this perception by, indeed, seeking to defend the status quo just because it happens to be so. Yet this is neither an obligatory nor an advisable approach for characterizing a genuinely well-considered free-market outlook.

Suppose that you are a free-market advocate and also an engineer, well-versed in the principles and methods for constructing durable, safe structures. Suppose you also identify severe deficiencies in a bridge proposed to be constructed by a completely private enterprise. Mr. Stolyarov explores the implications of this dilemma and the appropriate responses in a free society.

Reference

– “Why Free-Market Advocates Are Not Obligated to Defend the Economic Status Quo” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Why Free-Market Advocates Are Not Obligated to Defend the Economic Status Quo – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Why Free-Market Advocates Are Not Obligated to Defend the Economic Status Quo – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
******************************

Many on the political left today equate advocacy of free-market capitalism with an “anything goes” support for the economic status quo. Many on the political right give credence to this perception by, indeed, seeking to defend the status quo just because it happens to be so. Yet this is neither an obligatory nor an advisable approach for characterizing a genuinely well-considered free-market outlook.

Suppose that you are a free-market advocate and also an engineer, well-versed in the principles and methods for constructing durable, safe structures. You hold that individuals and businesses should have the freedom to be able to build structures which would improve human well-being, in exchange for the opportunity to earn a profit (or not, if they wish to build structures for a charitable purpose). Now suppose that you are tasked with evaluating the integrity of a particular structure constructed by a private business – perhaps a bridge. This particular bridge happens to be fully privately funded – no subsidies, no exclusive rights, no barriers to competitors’ entry. The business undertaking the construction intends for the bridge to be used as part of a major new toll road that is intended to carry massive amounts of traffic.

Unfortunately, upon deploying your technical skillset and studying the bridge design carefully, you find that the bridge, while it is represented as being able to withstand one thousand cars at a time, would in fact collapse under the weight of only five hundred cars. You also find that, in your basic repertoire of engineering techniques, you have knowledge of construction techniques and superior materials which would rectify these design flaws and enable the bridge to be as safe and as durable as originally represented. The trouble is that the business owners want to hear none of it. They are attached to their original design partly out of cost considerations, but mostly because they simply cannot understand your findings or appreciate their significance, no matter how many different ways you have attempted to communicate them. The business owners have almost no engineering knowledge themselves and are generally contemptuous of overtly mathematical, “nerdy” types (like you). They are skilled salespeople who have capital from a previous venture and are eager to make additional money on a high-profile project such as this bridge. Suppose that you know that you have all of the technical knowledge of your discipline firmly on your side, but it is the owners’ money on the line, so, unconvinced by your arguments, they build the bridge according to their original specifications. They still advertise it as highly durable, but in a sufficiently nebulous way that the advertisements do not truly make any specific promises or technical claims. (This business is short on technically knowledgeable professionals, but spares no expense in hiring attorneys to litigation-proof its marketing materials.) The driving public’s impression from the marketing campaign is expected to be, “It is an incredibly sturdy, state-of-the-art, daring new bridge that you will enjoy driving on in safety and style.” The business owners contend that there is no problem. After all, were this a truly free market, the public could choose to pay to use their bridge or to find some alternative in getting from point A to point B. And competitors could build their own bridges, too, if they could buy the land, purchase the tools and materials, and hire the labor to do it.

Of course, on most days, this bridge would not collapse, since it is rare for five hundred cars to be on it simultaneously. The owners could well be reaping profits from their bridge for years and convince the lay public to drive on it with no visible ill consequences during that time. The bridge is, however, vulnerable to high winds, earthquakes, freezing damage, and gradual deterioration over time (exacerbated by substandard construction). As time passes, the risks of collapse increase. No bridge is invulnerable, but this particular bridge is about 30 years farther along the path to decay than other bridges that you know could easily have been built in its place, had the owners only listened to you. As a free-market advocate, you have some sympathies with the owners’ view that the construction of the bridge should not be forcibly prevented, as they are using their own property for their own chosen purposes, and they are not forcing anyone to use it. However, as an engineer who knows better when it comes to quality of bridge design and construction, what do you do?

This dilemma illustrates a question at the core of how free-market advocates approach the world in which they find themselves – a world, of course, which is far from free in an economic sense, but where many people still use their own property for their own purposes. There are some who will assert that the very fact of private, voluntary use of property renders such use inherently above criticism, provided it is a manifestation of free choice. (We can overlook, for the sake of this argument, the fact that, in the real world, many incentives and constraints upon human action are routinely distorted by the effects of political influences in favor of one group or set of outcomes and/or in opposition to others.) In this argument’s more typical instantiation in today’s world, some would assert that any outcome of “private enterprise” in today’s world must be acceptable for free-market advocates, since it was (ostensibly) somebody’s use of private property for a private purpose. For example, mass corporate layoffs (virtually unheard of until the 1970s), raising the price of a life-saving, long-generic drug by 5,556 percent (as pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli did with Daraprim in 2015), listening to or creating brutal “gangsta rap” (virtually unheard of until the 1990s), teaching of creationism in private schools (common throughout history, but increasingly untenable in the face of over 150 years of mounting evidence), and many other behaviors of questionable rationality and/or taste are defended as being the decisions of private entities – so what could be wrong about them?

The problem with reflexively defending any and every behavior, just because a private entity undertakes it, even in the absence of market distortions, is that it misses an essential point. The market is nothing more than the sum of the choices and actions of its participants. A market outcome is not a Panglossian “best of all possible worlds” scenario. Even in the absence of compulsion or restraint, some people will be mistaken, irrational, overconfident, immoral, confused, or all of the above. Ex ante, they may expect that the transactions and behaviors they engage in will benefit them – much like a tribal shaman might believe that his rain dance would bring forth water for the tribe’s crops – but, ex post, they may well find themselves regretting their behavior, or even if not, they may have still become materially, intellectually, or emotionally worse off from it compared to the alternatives. In addition to choice, there is also truth – which comes in the form of scientific, mathematical, historical, and philosophical principles and facts. Truth is an outcome of combining induction from the empirical facts of reality with deduction from the application of logical reasoning to known facts and incontrovertible first principles. It is entirely possible for a person – including a wealthy, powerful, influential person whose decisions affect thousands or millions of others – to completely miss what the truth is, or even to be ignorant of the correct methods of arriving at the truth. In other words, if the external reality is objective and governed by comprehensible natural laws – and if morality is also objective in the sense that some outcomes are incontrovertibly more beneficial to human well-being than others – then it must be the case that somebody who is thinking in a rational, well-informed manner can truly “know better” than a particular decision-maker who is not.

Does that mean that the market could be replaced by some “superior” system of decision-making? Ultimately, no. We have no guarantee that any substitution of decision-making for that of private actors could lead to a necessarily preferable result from those decision makers’ free choices. If Person A is irrational and mistaken, we have no guarantee that leaving Person B in charge of A’s life would not lead to even more irrational and mistaken choices, compounded by the knowledge problem that B will necessarily have in relation to A’s situation. The possibility that B could be not simply misguided but nefarious, and seek to sacrifice A’s genuine interests in favor of B’s own, is a further argument against this kind of command-and-control approach. More devastating, however, would be an outcome in which a different person, C, really is doing his best to act in a truthful, rational, and just manner, but the controller B does not see it. Or perhaps B does see it and thinks it is all well and good, but B needs to set uniform standards that would keep the lowest common denominator in check, and C’s scrupulous, innovative, and principled way of living could never be generalized to a society-wide system of controls.

But getting back to you, the engineer: How to address the dilemma that you are in? Has the “market” not “decided” that the bridge of substandard technical quality is just fine? Not so fast. We must never forget that we are the market, and that the market does not only consist of the first decisions and inclinations of some small group of wealthy, powerful, or connected individuals. Quite the contrary: We are what a truly free market consists of. A truly free market consists not only of our affirmative choices, but also of our negations and criticisms of certain other choices. It consists of our knowledge, including those situations where we truly “know better” than certain others. You, the free-market engineer, could not force the bridge owners to change their design. However, you could fully publicize its flaws in a fully free society, one characterized by robust protections of free speech and lack of a climate of frivolous litigation with regard to libel laws. If today such professional criticism is difficult, it is because many larger, politically connected enterprises will hire legions of attorneys to squelch sufficiently specific assertions in meritless litigation that is too costly for ordinary people to counter. But a truly free society would lack this obstacle and would include a legal system that is designed with speed, simplicity, affordability, and protections for peaceful natural persons in mind. A corporation would not be able to sue you for publicizing detailed criticisms of its products; the judge would be empowered to simply throw out such a lawsuit at first glance. A truly free market of goods and ideas is not an indiscriminate stew of anyone’s and everyone’s plans. Any such plans also would get tested, scrutinized, refined, and ultimately accepted or rejected by the other market participants. To the extent that one owns property that could sustain the perpetuation of a plan, one might counter even strongly held prevailing opinions – but only temporarily and only if one has other means of replenishing that property if the plan causes it to be depleted.

Moreover, in a truly free market, barriers to entry exist only on the basis of the constraints of the physical world, not on politics and special behind-the-scenes influence. Thus, competitors can always arise with a superior business model. Perhaps if you, the engineer, criticize the existing bridge sufficiently, another business enterprise will learn of its defects, purchase another piece of land, and construct a parallel, sturdier bridge that takes your suggestions into account. The misguided owners of the first bridge might eventually find themselves out of business because travelers will discover that safer, more convenient routes are available. And if the bridge ever does fail, a free-market system of civil liability will penalize those businesses who, through negligence, failed to take reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of their customers. If the bridge ever becomes an imminent danger to travelers, it would be proper for public warnings to be issued and for the law-enforcement entity (be it a minarchist government or a private dispute-resolution agency) to order that traffic to the bridge be discontinued until the immediate danger is averted (perhaps through structural improvements at that time). A free market does not permit the reckless endangerment of unwitting, non-consenting others.

But always, in a hypothetical free-market society or in our own, a free-market-oriented engineer – or any professional, really – should have no compunction about expressing the truth about the soundness and validity of any party’s decisions or proposals, be they private or governmental. Just as a private party may well propose building a substandard bridge, so might a government today actually develop a decent bridge, especially if the incentives of a given political system are conducive to that particular outcome. The free-market engineer should not hesitate to praise the technical design of a good bridge, no matter what its source – because truth is true, and a bridge that could support two thousand cars at a time would, indeed, support those cars no matter who constructed it (provided the methods and materials used are identical in each case). A free-market perspective is a political and economic position which is compatible with completely rigorous, objective views of matters of science, technology, mathematics, history, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, psychology, and any other conceivable discipline. Free-market advocates should respect people’s right to make choices, even when those choices are mistaken, but can maintain their own right to criticize those mistakes using as high a set of standards as they consider justified. If your values include striving for truth and justice, then those values are a part of the market as well, and you can improve market outcomes by working to instantiate those values in reality.

This essay may be freely reproduced using the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 License, which requires that credit be given to the author, G. Stolyarov II. Find out about Mr. Stolyarov here.

Universal Physical and Moral Laws, With No Lawgiver – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Universal Physical and Moral Laws, With No Lawgiver – Video by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
May 20, 2015
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Mr. Stolyarov endeavors to refute the common argument that any law, be it a physical law or a law of morality or justice, requires a lawgiver – an intelligent entity that brought the law into being. While some laws (termed manmade or positive laws) do indeed have human lawmakers, a much more fundamental class of laws (termed universal or natural laws) arise not due to promulgation by any intelligent being, but rather due to the basic properties of the entities these laws concern, and the relations of those entities to one another. To the extent that positive laws are enacted by humans, the purpose of such positive laws should be reflect and effectuate the beneficial consequences of objectively valid natural laws.

References

– “Universal Physical and Moral Laws, With No Lawgiver” – Article by G. Stolyarov II –

– Formula for the Universal Law of Gravitation: F = G*m1*m2/r2, with F being the force between two masses, m1 and m2 being the two masses, r being the distance between the centers of the two masses, and G being the universal gravitational constant.

– “Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Happiness” – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

– “Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Happiness” – Video by G. Stolyarov II

– “Indiana Pi Bill” – Wikipedia

Universal Physical and Moral Laws, With No Lawgiver – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Universal Physical and Moral Laws, With No Lawgiver – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
May 13, 2015
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Here I endeavor to refute the common argument that any law, be it a physical law or a law of morality or justice, requires a lawgiver – an intelligent entity that brought the law into being. While some laws (termed manmade or positive laws) do indeed have human lawmakers, a much more fundamental class of laws (termed universal or natural laws) arise not due to promulgation by any intelligent being, but rather due to the basic properties of the entities these laws concern, and the relations of those entities to one another. To the extent that positive laws are enacted by humans, the purpose of such positive laws should be to reflect and effectuate the beneficial consequences of objectively valid natural laws. For instance, it is a natural law that each human being possesses a right to life. A positive law that prohibits and punishes murder of one human being by another would reflect the natural law and therefore be desirable. On the other hand, if any positive law were to mandate murder (as various edicts by tyrannical regimes throughout history, targeting political dissidents or disfavored minority groups, have done), then that positive law would be contrary to the natural law and therefore illegitimate and harmful.

The physical laws of nature pertain to all entities, including humans, and describe the regularities with which these entities will behave within applicable situations. Examples of physical laws include Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, the law of gravitation, the law of conservation of matter and energy, and the law of conservation of momentum. If it is asserted that these laws require a lawgiver, then the lawgiver would hypothetically be able to alter these laws on a whim at any time, thereby depriving them of their universality and predictable application. Such a state of affairs would not only be highly inconvenient (to say the least), but also completely incompatible with the reality that these laws are derived from the nature of entities as they are.

We can draw upon ubiquitous observation and the fact that these laws of nature can indeed be harnessed so precisely that every functional technology ever invented works because it takes advantage of them. The argument that the laws of nature could change tomorrow depends on a false perception of what those laws are – a kind of Platonic view that the laws of nature are superimposed upon the world of objects. In reality, however, objects (entities) and their qualities and relationships are all that exist at the most basic level. The laws of nature are relationships that are derived from the very properties inherent to objects themselves; they are not some higher layer of reality on top of the objects that leads the objects to behave in a certain way. That is, the laws of nature are what they are because the things whose behavior they describe are what they are.

The truth that the laws of nature are a function of the objects whose behavior they describe pertains to fundamental physical laws, such as the law of gravitation. While the law of gravitation and the equation [1] describing that law apply universally, the very existence of the law is dependent on the existence of entities that have mass and therefore exhibit gravitational attraction. Were there no entities or no entities with mass (incidentally, both logically impossible scenarios), then the concept of gravity would not have any relevance or applicability. Likewise, the amount of mass of particular entities and their distance of separation from one another will determine the extent of the gravitational force exerted by those entities upon one another. The gravitational force arises because the entities are as massive as they are and located where they are relative to one another; it does not arise because a supernatural lawgiver imposed it upon entities who would otherwise be completely static or random in their behavior in relation to one another.

The key parallel with the laws of morality is that, as the laws of gravitation stem from the objective properties of entities themselves (i.e., that they have mass – which is a universal property of all entities), so do the laws of morality stem from the objective properties of human beings themselves – namely, the biological and physical prerequisites of human survival and flourishing. Different specific decisions may be the appropriate moral decisions in different contexts, but because of the essential similarities of humans along many key dimensions, certain general moral truths will hold universally for all humans.  But again, were there no humans (or similar rational, sentient, volitional beings) with these essential attributes, the concept of morality would have no relevance.

Neither morality nor gravitation require the existence of entities outside of those exhibiting moral behavior or gravitational attraction. A system of physical or moral laws is not dependent on an outside “lawgiver” but rather on the objective natures of the entities partaking in the system. Objective moral laws include the principles of ethics, which address how a person should behave to maximize possible well-being, as well as the principles of justice, which address how people should relate to one another in respecting one another’s spheres of legitimate action, rewarding meritorious conduct, and punishing destructive conduct against others. There is a natural harmony between adherence to objective moral laws and the attainment of beneficial consequences for one’s own life, material prosperity, and happiness – provided that one adheres to a view of long-term, enlightened, rational self-interest, which does not allow one to sacrifice the lives, liberty, or property of others to achieve a short-term gain.

Some would assert that principles of behavior that tend to maximize well-being and serve one’s rational self-interest may be part of prudent or practical conduct, but are not the same as morality. In the minds of these individuals, morality (typically, in their view, willed by an external lawgiver) is independent of practical means or consequences and often (as, for instance, in Immanuel Kant’s outlook on morality) inherently divorced from actions conducive to self-interest. I, however, strongly reject any notion that there might be a dichotomy between morality and practicality, happiness, or prosperity – when a long-term, enlightened, and multifaceted outlook on the latter conditions is considered. Some might be so short-sighted as to mistake some temporary advantage or fleeting pleasure for true fulfillment or happiness, but the objective cause-and-effect relationships within our physical reality will eventually disappoint them (if they live long enough – and if not, their punishment – death – will be even greater). If some or even many humans might be drawn toward certain pleasurable feelings for their own sake (which is an evolutionary relic of a very different primeval environment inhabited by our ancestors – but a tendency ill-adapted to our current environment), this is not the same as achieving truly sustainable prosperity and happiness by using reason to thrive in our current environment (or to create a better environment for human flourishing). One of the objectives of a good moral system is to guide people toward the latter outcome. My essay and video “Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Happiness” offer more detailed thoughts on key elements of a life of flourishing and the concept of eudaemonia – the actualization of one’s full potential, as Aristotle and later virtue-oriented philosophers described it.

Objective moral law, derived from the fundamental value of every innocent rational, sentient being’s life, posits an essential harmony of the long-term, enlightened self-interests of all who earnestly pursue truth and goodness. Unlike many proponents of an externally legislated moral framework (for which the alleged lawgiver might be a supernatural being, a single human ruler, or a collective of humans), I would not consider self-sacrifice to be a component of morality. I align more with Ayn Rand’s view of sacrifice as a surrender of a greater value (e.g., one’s life) to a lesser value (e.g., abstractions such as nation-states, religions, or perceived slights from another nation-state or religious or cultural group). A person can behave morally – promoting his own life, respecting the rights of others, and contributing to human flourishing – without ever surrendering anything he values (except as an instrument for obtaining outcomes he might justifiably value more). Morality should therefore not be seen as the subordination of the individual to some higher ideal, be it a divine order or a manmade one. Rather, the individual is the ideal for which moral behavior is the path to fulfillment.

A person who behaves morally advances himself while fully respecting the legitimate prerogatives of others. He improves his own life without damaging anybody else’s. In the process of pursuing enlightened self-interest, he also benefits the lives of others through value-adding interactions. Indeed, he may enter into an extensive network of both formal and informal reciprocal obligations with others that result in his actions being a constant, sustainable source of improvement in others’ lives. The virtue of honesty is part of objective ethics and impels a moral individual to strive to honor all commitments once they have been made. The key to a morality based on objective, natural law, however, is that these obligations be entered into freely and not as a result of the self being compromised in favor of an alleged higher ideal. Consequently, a key component of natural law is the liberty of an individual to evaluate the world in accordance with his rational faculty and to decide which undertakings are consistent with his enlightened self-interest. When positive laws are crafted so as to interfere with that liberty, positive law becomes at odds with natural law, leading to warped incentives, institutionalized sacrifices, and painful tradeoffs that many individuals must make if they seek to abide by both natural and positive laws.

Objective natural laws – both physical and moral – do not require a lawgiver and antecede manmade, positive laws. Some natural laws, however, may require positive laws – such as prohibitions on murder, theft, and slavery – in order for the desirable outcome brought about by the natural laws to be reflected in actual (rather than simply hoped-for) human behavior. In order to improve human well-being, positive laws should be developed to advance and effectuate natural laws, instead of attempting to resist them or contravene them. Just as a law that redefines the value of pi as 3.2 (one actually unsuccessfully attempted in Indiana in 1897) is rightly seen as absurd on its face, even if a majority votes to enact it, and would result in many failed constructions if implemented by engineers and designers of machines, so would a law that abrogates the natural liberty of individuals to peacefully pursue their own flourishing result in damage to good human beings and increases in physical harm, suffering, and injustice. A good human lawmaker should respect pre-existing objective natural laws and not attempt to contradict them.

[1] F = G*m1*m2/r2, with F being the force between two masses, m1 and m2 being the two masses, r being the distance between the centers of the two masses, and G being the universal gravitational constant.

This article may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author. See Mr. Stolyarov’s biographical information here.