The twentieth century is littered with the death and destruction of numerous societies that have attempted to implement the collective pleasure principle of Utilitarianism. The twenty-first century finds itself with an endemic moral confusion that threatens to drive us to repeat the same mistakes again. The blame for much of this rests at the feet of philosophers who've claimed the authority of Plato and Aristotle, without actually having taken the time to earn it. John Stuart Mill is clearly one of those philosophers.
If you look closely at Mill’s arguments in Utilitarianism, he seems to be making a very strong response to Kant (perhaps against the Groundwork?). Mill accepts the notion of moral duty, just as Kant does. But he insists it derives not from any form of analytic (i.e., Kant’s notion of synthetic a priori) truth. Rather, Mill insists it derives from the apparently universal desire of mankind (individually, in aggregate) to seek its own pleasure. Aware of some of the contextual implications of this principle, Mill attacks head-on the charge of Epicureanism. But what strikes me as interesting, is the fact that, though he makes frequent reference to Kant, he never directly refutes Kant’s position, and never fully explains how the pleasure principle isn’t obviously and soundly refuted already by Kant’s explication of deontology (in the Groundwork). Mill just seems to ignore the problem of subjectivity in the hypothetical imperative, as described by Kant. Perhaps Mill is assuming that the apparently universal preference for pleasure somehow renders the hypothetical imperative a moot point? (i.e., since everyone prefers pleasure, it’s pointless to bother thinking in terms like, ‘if you seek pleasure, then you should do x’).
This idea of a universal preference is an intriguing one. Mill makes frequent appeals to preference – both implicit and explicit. What if we could actually identify a preference that is indeed universal to all human beings? I’m struggling, frankly, to think of one. Even something as intuitively obvious as “life” isn’t so obvious, when you consider the willingness of soldiers to throw themselves over the trenches, or the high rate of suicide among men in the west, today. Clearly, those folk do not have a preference for living. If something like life itself can’t be ascribed as a preference to all human beings, why should pleasure?
On the other hand, biology is notoriously fuzzy at the edges. Sometimes a horse is born with 5 legs. Is it no longer a horse? Sometimes humans are born with 3 x chromosomes, instead of an xy pair. Does that mean there’s no such thing as mammalian sexes? If we can accept these sorts of vaguenesses in distinction, then perhaps a “universal preference” could also be accepted as something slightly less than universal?
Perhaps, but when we start ascribing moral significance to such a thing as a preference, the game changes a bit. Because what are we really saying, when we say we can judge a behaviour as “right” or “wrong”? When I say something is or isn’t a preference of mine, nothing follows. I just go about my business, and you, yours. But when I take a preference of mine as a standard to judge you ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, I am implying a great deal more. It implies that, at the very least, I am licensed to condemn you for not sharing the preference — and at the most extreme end, that I am licensed to kill you.
But what if the standard isn’t some particular material preference (such as ice cream favors, or even living), but rather, for behavioral reciprocity? Now, if I have a preference for vanilla, and you have a preference for chocolate, but we both share (for example) a preference for not attacking people with differing preferences, then we might be able to negotiate a peaceful existence together. What’s more, we’d then be justified in self-defense against someone who didn’t share that meta-preference.
Perhaps this is what Mill was thinking when he suggested we all ought to regard each other equally, in the decisions we make? More thought must be done on this one…
This weekend I attended the launch event for the International School of Philosophy here in London. Three Talks on Three Philosophers was intended to showcase the kind of thought one could expect from the new school, as well as provide an opportunity for philosophical learning to the local community (greater Islington, mainly). Sam Freemantle, the founder of the new independent school, provided the first of the three lectures, in the form of an overview of his Phd thesis, “Reconstructing Rawls”. Following Sam, Adrian Brockless offered a passionate argument for a more thoughtful kind of education grounded in Socratic questioning. Lastly, Professor Ken Gemes of the University of London treated us with an extended version of his talk on Nietzsche’s Death of God.
Serendipitously, I also listened this weekend to a new reading of the introduction to Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (a book I read years ago). I say “serendipitously”, because it turns out to be a powerful lens through which to interpret the messages coming out of Saturday’s lectures. In particular, the lectures of Professor Gemes and Mr. Brockless, which were laden with themes that could easily have been attributed to Bloom. The erosion of truth and goodness as absolute values (both in society and in the academy), the corruption of the academy to purposes other than the pursuit of the good life, the need for a renewal of these core values, the seemingly intractable challenge of re-establishing them in an educational environment so democratized and demoralized that even the hint of such an effort will raise accusations of elitism. All of these were core concerns of Allan Bloom, and his voice was clearly resonating in the words of both Professor Gemes and Mr. Brockless. Though, I suspect neither of them would agree.
For Professor Gemes the worry is societal, and spans generations. He began his talk with the story of the madman from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, which illustrates the central problem for Nietzsche, as Gemes sees it: absent the catalyzing mythology of christianity, why would we continue to cling to it’s core values of truth and goodness? Given that the values of honor and glory held by civilization before Christianity seem more seductive, why wouldn’t we return to these, and abandon truth and goodness, in the absence of a dogma that focused us on them? According to Professor Gemes, Nietzsche believed we were clinging to truth as a value, by way of some sort of “hangover” from Christianity, and he wanted to know why. I think Nietzsche may have been disadvantaged by his proximity to the downfall of Christianity in the west. Over a century on now, in the “post-truth” era, it appears we have indeed begun to abandon truth and goodness as ultimate values, and have indeed begun replacing them with honor and glory once again.
Nowhere is this shift more clearly and startlingly present, than in the academy. Mr. Brockless highlighted this inadvertently, I believe, in his lecture. Using the Socrates of Gorgias and The Republic as a mentor, Brockless crisply argued for a conception of higher education that differentiates itself from the contemporary academy, by focusing on the pursuit of truth through “authentic” learning that exposes students to “meaning and understanding of the human condition”, rather than on the career advancement goals and academic advantages of its students. This plea explicitly demands that truth be reseated in our minds as an absolute value, pursued for its own sake. Although Mr. Brockless’ lecture came before Professor Gemes, his is a direct response to Nietzsche, in the form of a resounding and explicit affirmation of truth and goodness, above honor and glory, at least as far as the academy is concerned. To that end, Brockless counseled a return to the ancient classics, and glowed with a reverence for the Socratic dialogues themselves, even recommending them as a starting point for students.
Interestingly, a popular new voice has also converged on this question. I’ve recently seen a lecture by Jonathan Haidt of New York University, in which he suggests that a “new schism” ought to take place in the modern university, involving the realignment of ultimate values. In his view, these divergent ultimate values are “truth” versus “justice” (actually, “social justice”, which he contends is unjust at times). But rather than pressing for the conquest of truth over social justice, Haidt advocates for an amicable divorce. Haidt centers his lecture on a vision of education very similar to Brockless, in which universities that adopt truth as a core value dedicate themselves firmly to free expression, and open dialogue and debate in which no idea is off the table. In other words, the Socratic tradition. The same tradition Brockless described during the question and answer period of his lecture.
Allan Bloom’s book was a vanguard in this discussion, I think. Some might suggest that perhaps there really is no problem, and this is all just varying degrees of predictable conservatism occasionally surfacing above the white noise. After all, these sorts of complaints have been around for almost 50 years, and yet the generations leaving university then and now don’t seem to be too much different from each other. But are they really so much the same? Bloom (and proteges like E. D. Hirsch) would point to the degradation of “dead white males” in the academy, and their gradual replacement with relativist and anti-absolutist dogmas (in addition to the impulse toward radical activism) — and the pervasive cultural ignorance and growing hostility to truth of new students — as certain indicators. I’m not sure that Haidt, Brockless, or even Gemes would necessarily agree with that. But one thing that all of these voices seem to agree on, regardless of the reasons grounding it, is the loss of truth and goodness as guiding star values in our overall culture, and most profoundly, in the academy.
The question is what, if anything, should we do about it? Brockless and Haidt have slightly divergent opinions on this. One suggests lobbying to reestablish the traditional mission of all higher education, the other recommends a more “free market” answer (if I can call it that), by bifurcating the institution into two competing organizations, one focused on truth, the other on justice. Neither of these speakers’ solutions are entirely satisfying to me. I think this problem is bigger than all of us, and may be inevitable. I wonder if Nietzsche thought so, too.
They Shall Simply Be Forced To Be Free
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
What are these “powers of the earth”, and how was this “separate and equal station” discovered among and between men, and how do we know this entitlement was derived from “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”? According to Jefferson and his collaborators, these questions need not be answered. They are axiomatic. They “hold these truths to be self-evident”. Specifically, in Jefferson’s view, for anyone who takes a moment consider the truth, it should be obvious to their common sense, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Despite it’s fame, and although it is masterful prose, the Declaration of Independence is not a particularly groundbreaking piece of writing. In practice, it was simply a polemical indictment of George III, and an open declaration of war against Britain. What the Declaration is not, is a philosophical treatise. Jefferson takes his “self-evident truths” as an ex post facto rationale, but he does nothing within the confines of the document to justify his reliance upon them for the rest of his argument, even though he was fully aware of their origins (Jefferson was a practicing lawyer, and well read in English jurisprudence and political philosophy).
The Declaration is a political statement, and it is the last link in an intellectual chain stretching back at least two centuries before it. As we’ve seen from the readings of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, ideas of “Natural Law”, “Right”, and “Equality” (at least, as it exists in a “state of nature”) feature heavily in the book. But Hobbes was not unique. These ideas have been around since the ancient Greeks and Romans, and in vague forms, are a common thread in English Common Law jurisprudence stretching back to the 13th century.
So, why are we reading this (along with Hobbes), and not reading Locke’s Second Treatise, or Rousseau’s Social Contract? Both of these works directly address the question of justifying the social goods of Liberty, Security, and Happiness much more thoroughly than the Declaration itself, and it seems to me, that’s what we’re trying to do here, yes?
In any case, what if we were to distill the Declaration down into its actual arguments? Would it still be as convincing? I’m not so sure. But let’s give it a try, and see what we can come up with:
To begin with, I’m going to discard the first paragraph, as it’s really nothing more than introduction. Charity demands that we set this aside. This leaves us with the first sentence of the second paragraph to start with, as our first proposition:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This is not so much a first proposition, as it is a list of starting assumptions. As I said before, he takes these assertions as axiomatically true. So, our starting assumptions are:
- There is a creator
- This creator has created nature, and imbued it with a set of universal “natural laws”
- This creator has created all members of the set ‘mankind’, as a part of nature.
- This creator has inculcated certain properties to those members, in equal portion
- Those properties are fundamental to (inseparable from) the nature of each member of the set ‘mankind’
- Those properties are called “rights”, and are enumerated as follows:
- “pursuit of happiness” (aka property ownership)
It’s a bit difficult to tell whether Jefferson intended the remainder to be considered also a part of the “self-evident truth” (that governments are instituted, that they derive their just power from the consent of the governed, etc). If I were to take the entire block of text preceding the “list of facts” as “self-evident truths”, it would require believing that Jefferson thought his entire statement was something that was as completely unassailable as the fact that the grass is green, and water is wet. This is uncharitable. So, we’ll take everything after the enumeration of basic rights to be his “arguments”.
What does that look like, exactly? Well, perhaps something like this:
- A justly constituted government is one in which its power is derived from “the consent of the governed”
- The British government under “the present King of Great Britain” does not derive its power from the consent of the governed
C1: Therefore, the British government is not justly constituted
- (sp) All men desire to defend themselves against alienation from their inalienable rights. (from our assumptions)
- (sp) If government is not justly constituted, it is not an effective weapon of defense of the rights of all men.
- [C1] The British government is not justly constituted
C2: Therefore, the British government is not an effective weapon of defense of the rights of all men.
- It is the right (and/or duty) of all men to “to alter or to abolish” unjustly constituted governments.
- [C1] The British government is not justly constituted.
C3: Therefore, the American colonists must “throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security”
Jefferson and his collaborators were not comfortable resting on these arguments alone, however. So, they included an enormous list of particular grievances as “facts” meant to “prove” George’s “abuses and usurpations”. But if your arguments are so strong, why would you need to do this?
Well, in fact, Jefferson (and most of his collaborators) knew the arguments actually weren’t that strong. One author (Bernard Bailyn) argue that the colonists were laboring under the belief that there was a massive conspiracy at play, working to undermine the British constitution (as it was understood in 1770), and that the colonists believed they were pawns in this conspiracy. He may be right. But I take a far less extravagant view, myself.
Right from the start, George and his court lawyers would have taken issue with Premise 1 of the first argument. What’s more, they probably would have used both Locke and Hobbes themselves, in order to defend George’s right to rule. By the 1700’s, the court really didn’t need to make reference to Divine Right, in order to claim legitimacy. This much had already been settled in the dispute with Cromwell (if you actually read all of Leviathan, Hobbes is aggressively defending the right of an absolute monarch, of precisely the kind that George III imagined himself to be).
Then, there’s premise 2, of argument 1. Ah, rights. Those ineffable properties of mankind, endowed to us by our creator that are at once both inalienable, and yet alienable. It’s amazing to me, how almost three hundred years later, the concept of “rights” is almost as muddy and unjustifiable now, as it was in 1776. In some ways, the founders of America had it easier, though. They, at least, could appeal to a Supreme Creator, whose magical powers could make them a part of our “nature”. Today, secular analytical philosophy doesn’t have that luxury. It has to pretzel itself into all kinds of intellectual knots to make them seem real, let alone justifiable.
But let’s take them for granted, as Jefferson asks us to do in this polemic, and let’s assume also (as he seems to here), that they are properties that can be, by force or fraud, alienated from individuals. Let’s also take the implicit assumption from Hobbes (which Jefferson silently assumes here) that mankind is incorrigibly self-motivated. By this reasoning, no sane man would consider a government as the surest weapon of defense against the usurpation of his rights.
Why? Well, precisely because the state is a weapon. It is the weapon. A weapon of both physical force, and moral authority, that a self-interested man could use with great efficiency to his own advantage. The very thing that Jefferson and his colleagues are charging George III with, in this document. Jefferson and the signers were well read, and well aware of the perils of the institution of government. If you read the Federalist Papers, it is clear that they knew full well that you cannot create a huge weapon, enshrine it in moral armor, put it into the hands of men, and then expect them to not use it to their own advantage. Instead, they dissembled, vacillated, and rationalized into existence a Rube-Goldberg machine they believed would turn the weapon into a tool — and then further insured that they were the ones who got to use that tool. How convenient.
Free Money For Everyone
Over the last year or so, I’ve seen a number of fresh videos popping up in places like TED, enthusiastically championing a resuscitated old leftist public policy idea called the “Universal / Unconditional Basic Income”, or “UBI”. This summer, Switzerland is scheduled to hold a referendum on one such proposal. And, earlier this month, I attended a lecture here in London, in which Barb Jacobson made a vigorous pitch for the idea. Since this has suddenly become a hobby horse for the left again, I think it’s time to have a good hard look at it. To start, I’m going to let the proponents of the concept define and describe it for us:
“A lump sum of income, that is distributed unconditionally — without any strings attached — to every person in a country, every month… What is the goal?… Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate to the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services UDHR #25…” ~ Federico Pistono
So, according to Federico, it’s a payment equal to the amount of resources necessary to satisfy the standard set by the UN Declaration Of Human Rights. And while Rutger Bregman doesn’t mention the UNDHR explicitly, he seems to agree with this conception in principle:
“A monthly grant; enough to pay for your basic needs: food, shelter, education. That’s it… in the first place, it’s universal. Everyone would get it. Whether you’re a billionaire, or a beggar… The basic income is a right. A right, as a citizen of your country.” ~ Rutger Bregman
But there are those here in the UK who argue for a much more circumspect version of this idea. One that looks a lot more like traditional welfare. While it is “unconditional”, in the sense that the payments would be issued without rules for usage, they’re certainly not universal, and they’re most decidedly not intended to provide you with enough money for “your basic needs”:
“Essentially… giving every adult ~£3,700 per year unconditionally, with up to £4,300 per year for each child [in] 2012 prices. A family of three with a child under the age of 5, would receive in the range of £11,000 per year. Universal payment. Unconditional. This replaces all tax credits, child benefits, and tax allowances. [however, it would not replace the National Living Wage]” ~ Anthony Painter, RSA
This article in The Independent also clarifies that the payment would be taxed back from you once you earned more than £75,000. Barb Jacobson described something similar in an interview, and referenced the RSA plan in her talk at Conway:
“A regular payment, made to everybody, unconditionally. And that’s it. (Source: Youtube)… Basic Income – that is to say, a payment to every individual regardless of worth or means… in this country, there are several models. Most of them have been done by Citizens Income Trust. They’re based on the income tax system… The RSA has just come out with a model which is about 80 pounds a week…” ~ Barb Jacobson
Monorail, Monorail, Monorail
While proponents of UBI struggle to produce consistent or detailed plans that realize the core principles of a UBI, they do not hesitate to make many enthusiastic claims of the amazing beneficial effects it will have on society, regardless of those details. It’s going eliminate income inequality. It’s going to “create social cohesion”. It’s going to drastically reduce poverty. It’s going to eliminate waste, fraud, and corruption in government. It’s going to “strengthen democracy”. It’s going to improve the health of the population. It’s going to encourage entrepreneurship and technological innovation. It’s going to stimulate the economy. It’s going to “liberate” everyone. It’s going to reduce unemployment. It’s going to rescue us from environmental catastrophe. It’s going to promote gender equality. It’s going to improve education levels, protect us against the robots and on, and on.
Given how spectacularly effective this social medicine sounds, how could anyone in his right mind be opposed to it? Even if there are potential risks or unknown costs, surely they can’t be that bad when weighed against all these amazing benefits. So, of course, I’m on board with this, right?
Well, not quite. Having read all these articles and listened to the lectures, I’m struck by the fact that nobody is really offering any actual evidence in support of these amazing claims. And, at the risk of overusing a cliché, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Of course I would be in favor of something that simultaneously eliminated poverty, protected the environment, increased entrepreneurship, and brought justice and fairness to the entire world. But this is like saying I’m in favor of Superman. In case you weren’t sure: Superman is imaginary.
Numerous obvious (and somewhat naive) objections have been thrown at this idea. Most of them are actually hoisted up and shot down handily by the proponents themselves, in an attempt to lend some superficial credibility to it. Objections like, “Wouldn’t this produce a generation of work-shy couch potatoes?“, or “Isn’t this just Communism?” These are not really objections, so much as they’re just conditioned reactions. The impulses people respond with, when confronted by ideas they find strange and threatening. But there are serious problems with the idea that remain almost entirely unanswered. I am going to focus on the three I find most significant: Morality, Cost, and Economics 101.
We’re All Consequentialists Now…
The first of my objections is a moral one (there are actually several moral objections, but I am going to focus on the one I view as the most significant). This is typically waved away as “storytelling” or “ideology”. Federico Pistono does this, for example, and asserts that it doesn’t matter what your a priori moral objection is, if the idea actually accomplishes a goal that is particularly noble in his estimation (e.g., satisfying article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights). In other words, the only good is the good of a particular set of outcomes he and his supporters prefer.
What Federico may not realize consciously (I am trying to be charitable) is that he’s smuggled in his own moral argument in an attempt to refute another moral argument, by asserting that certain desirable outcomes are more important than mere morality. He chastises his cloud of unnamed acquaintences for their archaic devotion such silliness, but then proudly argues for a form of moral Consequentialism. For those who aren’t quite sure what that means: The Ends Justify The Means. For the more astute viewer, you may have picked up on the muddled blend of Mohism, Utilitarianism, and Motive Consequentialism embedded in Federico’s impassioned plea. To Federico’s credit, he admitted that he was unsure whether the goal was actually achievable by means of the UBI. But this only makes his argument much worse. It utterly defangs his excuse for a deplorable and utterly unecessary double-standard.
But, let’s set aside the explicit problems with his moral position in particular for a moment, because what’s really at issue here is whether or not we can determine the moral implications of an idea like UBI, at all. In other words, what is immoral about a universal basic income, if (and that’s a big if) the outcome is something desirable?
To address that question, we need to go back to basics. Morality is a particular kind of judgment of human actions that categorizes them according to normative standards. In other words, it judges behaviors that are “good” or “bad”, or tells us what “should” or “shouldn’t” be acted out. Moral philosophy, or ethics, is the study and systematization of these judgments. One intellectual product of the discipline of ethics is the notion of political “rights”. A right is something akin to a “principle” encapsulating a rule governing how agents of the state ought to behave with respect to the citizens they rule over. Federico made an appeal to just such a rule, when he referenced article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (ironically, yet another attempt to smuggle morality into a discussion he claimed was not about morality).
Even if we stipulate to the validity of “rights” as a logical concept, and to the legal relevance (jurisdiction) of the UNDHR (Federico’s standard for ideal consequences), and to the validity of article 25 in particular (those of us who were schooled in the American legal tradition will probably not do this easily), there is still a major problem for Federico. You see, we have been granted other rights in that UN Declaration. Rights that stand in direct contradiction to any attempt at enacting the principle of article 25. Article three grants me the “right to life, liberty, and security of person“. Article four grants me the right not to be “held in slavery or servitude“. Article seven grants me “equal protection under the law”. And, finally, article 17 explicitly grants me “the right to own property alone as well as in association with others…” and further asserts that I shall not “be arbitrarily deprived of [my] property“.
One could argue that since these all come in the top 20, and they all come well before article 25, surely they hold a higher precedence than article 25. But even if we were to accept that every article is of absolutely equal weight and importance, all it leaves us with is an irreconcilable contradiction. The state must both confiscate my property, and not confiscate it. The state must enslave me to fulfil its duty, and must not enslave me to fulfil its duty. The state must violate my security of person, but must not violate it.
At the center of all of these swirling contradictions, of course, is the widely ignored fact that the state does not produce wealth. It appropriates wealth. And it does so by the active application of force and the threat of force. It has many excuses for doing so, among them “redistribution”, a euphemism for the forcible taking of property from one person, in order to give it to another. There are three ways in which the state can act out its power to take property: taxation, borrowing, or the printing of fiat currency. In all three cases, fundamentally, it is the forcible taking of property. The subject of borrowing and printing I’ll address in my next objection, but the true nature of taxation should be fairly obvious even to anyone new to the workforce.
This is the moral argument that folks like Federico are really trying to make. Not that, “it is morally good to give everyone some amount of property, whether they are justified in receiving it or not”, but rather, “it is morally good to take some amount of property from everyone, whether the state is morally justified in taking it or not”. For Federico, this is where the Utilitarianism comes in handy. Because once we get down to the bare facts of the relationship, idealists like Federico are left with nothing but a bald-faced ex post facto rationalization for their desire to take stuff that doesn’t belong to them: they think they can dispose of it better, more wisely, more justly, and more compassionately, than you can. And, if he can wrap that rationalization in fantastical tales of a utopian future, and obfuscating language like “the greatest good for the greatest number“, why, he can even make his theft sound like a profoundly noble act. He can become his generation’s social justice Superman.
But, ironically, he’s already openly admitted that he’s not even certain whether the consequences he desires are possible, let alone reasonably achievable (I concur with this assessment, as we’ll see in my subsequent objections). But what this means, in effect, is that he’s willing to wield the gun of the state to act out a theft that he’s not even certain will result in a desirable outcome. What utter madness. Federico chides us constantly to avoid moral storytelling, and to rely on empirical data, and yet cannot see the moral story he is telling himself. Federico’s boyish smile and youthful enthusiasm are little comfort when all he can offer is riches in the progressive afterlife for a present-day of almost certain Utilitarian suffering.
“God save us from people who mean well.” ~ Vikram Seth
Just A Few Easy Installments…
“Yes but,” you might say, “the moral argument is moot, because after all, we’re already taxing and borrowing for loads of other reasons. So, why not simply accept it, and resign yourself to trying to improve the efficiency of the system we have?” Libertarians seem to like asking this question a lot these days (I think they’ve given up).
How do we know this would actually “increase the efficiency” of the system (whatever that even means)? Sure, it would nominally eliminate agencies and jobs devoted to vetting and means testing, where certain benefits are eliminated — if they actually got eliminated. But if you actually look at the proposals in the pipeline now, none of them are unconditional or universal. All of them put limits on the funding that would require data collection for the purpose of filtering out those who do not qualify, and some would even include a back-handed means test that would put the burden of reclaiming distributions on tax collection agencies. So, it’s not at all clear to me that this would eliminate bureaucracy or improve “efficiency”.
But let’s think about what it would take to implement an actual UBI; one that satisfies all the criteria: universal, unconditional, uniform, individual, and sufficient for “basic needs”. That last criteria is an especially tough one to define. What are “basic needs”? The list can be as sparse as nothing but emergency essentials: temporary food, shelter, and clothing. Or, they can include all of the social services provided by the state today: education, healthcare, transportation, and many other goods and services. Again, there’s no clear picture of what the proponents of UBI are talking about. Which should be a huge warning signal.
Since the purpose of the payment is intentionally unspecified, and the disbursment is unconditional, I’m not sure why the proponents of this idea feel compelled to casually enumerate its “basic need” uses for us. Perhaps they think it makes us feel better to think of the money being used for those things, instead of on prostitutes, drugs, video games, amusement park tickets, or comic books? They often make a concerted effort in their lectures to argue that nobody would spend the money on those other things. But why? If I can spend the money in any way I wish, who cares if I spend it on a sack of staple rice, or a trip to Disneyland?
In any case, if we stick with the phrase “basic needs”, then we do have a universal rubrik we could use as a real-world mechanism for determining the size of this payment: The state’s official “poverty line”, below which it argues, “basic needs” are not achievable. In the UK, there is actually something heavily promoted (though, not yet officially adopted), called a “minimum income standard”. This number is supposed to represent the minimum income necessary for the satisfaction of “basic needs”.
So, let’s do some math. The JRF and minimumincome.org both place this number at somewhere around £17,000 per year for an individual. Since the median income across all of Britain is roughly £25,000, I’m willing to accept the MIS at face value. But we should be aware that this sort of generalization will make some folks appear extremely comfortable, and others appear nearly destitute by comparison, depending on exactly where they live in the UK. Still, for the sake of the general argument, let’s just go with the £17,000.
According to the Office for National Statistics in the UK, the total population in the UK is about 64.5 million. This includes adults, children, and legal foreign national residents. If we take the UBI at its word, and take it seriously, it should be simply a matter of multiplying this number by the minimum income standard, to get a figure for the whole country. That would come to just a shave over 1.095 trillion pounds. That should give Brits some pause. The current total national budget for the entire UK is ~£759 Billion. So, a proper UBI would balloon total government expenditures to nearly £2 trillion.
So, what would it take to collect 1.095 trillion in taxes from the working population of Britain? Well, let’s do some more math. Again, according to the Office for National Statistics in the UK the number of employed adults in the UK is roughly 31.4 million. if we divide our earlier number by this one, we get a figure of £33,917 in taxes, per working adult.
That’s right. In order for the entire population of the UK to take home £327 per week (the unofficial minimum basic income), those of us who work for a living would need to be taxed at a rate of £657 per week. Welcome to Cloud-Cuckoo Land, my friends.
However, he RSA claims its proposal would only come to £30 billion. This is nowhere near the naive figures we’ve been working with above. How is this possible? Well, to begin with, despite what they strenuously claim, the RSA proposal isn’t really universal or unconditional. It’s also not “basic”. For starters, it only comes to £71 per week (£3,692 per year). Which is nowhere near the commonly accepted definition of a “basic income”. Worse yet, even at this rather meager sum, the total cost still comes to roughly £238 billion. So, what else is going on here? Surprise, surprise, the “unconditional income” comes with LOADS of conditions:
- You must be between the age of 25 and 65. Apparently, they want to let the public pension system bureaucrats know that the RSA won’t be a threat. This also means 18-25 year olds are not considered legal adults by the RSA.
- However, if you are 18-25, you could sign what is essentially an indentured servitude contract, whereby you would “contribute” to your “community” as a condition of your payment. Paradoxically, the RSA insists that the state would do no monitoring or enforcement of these contracts. So I’m not sure at all how they’d stop you from taking your payment if you simply lied about “contributing”.
- You have to enroll in the electoral political system here (i.e., you have to be a registered voter), in order to qualify for a payment.
- If you are an EU citizen, you would have to “pay in” to the system for a number of years, before you could begin collecting.
- If you are a legal resident but a non-EU citizen (e.g., a US Citizen), you are ineligible for a payment.
- If you earn more than £75,000, your benefit would be refused or taxed back away from you, in graduated steps.
This effectively reduces the population of “qualified recipients” to about 8 or 9 million people (less than one-fifth of the 45 million legally registered UK Citizens). Which, of course, comes out to about £30 billion in new expenditures.
In otherwords, what we see being promoted heavily in the UK is not a “universal basic income” at all, but something else entirely. First and foremost, it is tool for social engineering, and for artificially constructing a new welfare constituency for the power elite. It is a thinly veiled attempt at manipulating young people into participating in a political system they instinctively recognize as corrupt and opposed to their best interests (and who express that instinct by refusing to particpate).
It is also yet another attempt at fomenting class resentment for the sake of income redistribution. I’ve avoided covering anything in Ms. Jacobson’s lecture up to this point, precisely because it was nothing more than a lazy, old-world Marxist anti-wealth screed. Rather than actually making an argument in favor of UBI, she spent the entire 25 minute lecture railing against the abuses of “wealthy property holders”, the deriding the idea of the Protestent Work Ethic — something nobody has been seriously defending for decades. But Jacobson did this, because she knew her audience: Elderly, old-world Marxist pseudo-intellectuals. People easily manipulated by class resentment. And this is the real core of the purpose of a UBI, at least as defined here in the UK (and I’d suspect pretty much everywhere).
The RSA Proposal is an attempt to convert the new, young tech economy into the same kind of easily manipulated political constituency that the public sector and the unionized working-class represented in the 20th century. When political elites have direct control over your income, you’re going to become very conscious of who those elites are. You’re going to suddenly have a stake in politics, because you’re going to be more or less controlled by it. And, given the choice, you’re going to use that involvement to choose the gentle master over the harsh one, again and again. The RSA wants to position itself as the new “good cop”, in our “good cop, bad cop” representative democracy.
I could repeat the analysis above with any number of other proposals from different countries and different organizations, but it would be redundant and boring. The basic tactic is always the same: a constant evasive oscillation between class resentment and lowered expectations, in an attempt to gain political power.
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch” ~ Milton Friedman (nominally)
The Physics Of Trade
This brings me to my last objection to the concept of a UBI. Continuing my theme of grade school levels of finance, it comes in the form of a basic tutorial in economics. One of the things I find most astonishing about the proponents of UBI, is just how ignorant they are of what an “income” really is. To illustrate this, I think it’s time I told a story:
Let’s imagine a world in which the idea of currency — either as a physical commodity, or as a fiat paper means of exchange — hasn’t even been thought of yet. It’s essentially a barter society: everyone trades goods and labor in kind with each other. Let’s further imagine a town square in this world, in which there are four shops: Bob’s Bakery, Sean’s Shoes, Sally’s Sewing, and Mike’s Meats.
One morning, Bob walks into Sean’s shop and asks, “Hey Sean, my shoes are getting pretty beat up. Can I get a new pair by Friday?”
“Sure Bob,” Sean replied, “problem is, I don’t really need bread right now. I’ve still got at least a week’s worth in my larder.”
Bob thought a moment, then pulled out a slip of paper and pen, and wrote on the paper: “Bob owes Sean 5 loaves and 2 baguettes. Redeemable anytime.” Bob handed the paper to Sean, with an eager smile.
“I see,” Sean said taking the paper from Bob, “I think that’ll work. I know you’re good for it!”
“Thanks, Sean! I’ll be back at the end of the week for the shoes”, Bob responded as he exited Seans shop.
The next day, Sally walked into Bob’s bakery, and handed Bob the familiar slip of paper. Only, Sean’s name had been scratched out, and Sally’s had been written in above it.
“I don’t understand?”, Bob said, confused and a little startled.
“Oh, sorry,” Sally explained, “Sean needed his shirt mended, but I didn’t need any shoes. So, he gave me your IOU instead.”
Bob hesitated a moment, then said, “Hmm… I guess this is ok. I’ll go have chat with Sean later today.”, and gave Sally her weekly bread order.
An hour later, Mike the butcher entered Bob’s shop.
“What’s up, Mike?”, Bob asked.
“Oh, hi Bob! Here!”, Mike extended his hand, and passed Bob a slip of paper. It read, in Sean’s handwriting, “Bob owes Mike 5 loaves of bread and 2 baguettes. Redeemable anytime.”
“Hey! What? I don’t owe you anything!”, Bob exclaimed.
“That’s not what Sean says”, Mike snickered.
Bob stormed out of his shop, marched quick-step down the street, and pushed his way through Sean’s front door.
“What the hell is going on here, Sean? What’s the meaning of this?”, Bob yelled as he tossed Mike’s note at Sean.
“But Bob,” Sean slowly began, “EVERYBODY needs bread, yes?”….
The point of this story, for those of you a little slow on the uptake, is to highlight exactly what is happening when we give each other money — and what happens, when that money loses its meaning. I can’t believe this is something that needs to be explained to full grown adults, but apparently, nobody understands it anymore.
Dollars and pounds are not little magic scrolls with arcane incantations written on them that make goods and services just suddenly appear out of the Cloud-Cuckoo dimension. They represent a finite and well-defined exchange of value between individuals. When I give you a dollar, I am giving you a dollar’s worth of some labor I’ve done for someone else, or a dollars worth of some real good that I’ve given to someone else. To complete the interaction, you give me a dollar’s worth of some labor or good. That is called a transaction. Like value exchanged for like, the value of which is negotiated between two individuals.
And this gets us back to the beginning of this essay. When you ask the state to give you money for no other reason than that you are breathing, you are essentially asking it to take something of value from someone else, and give it to you. As I said before, the state does not create value, it can only appropriate it.
So, when Rutger Bregman proudly announces that he wants “Free Money For Everyone”, what he’s really saying, is that he wants to take property from someone somewhere, in order to give it to someone else, somewhere else. He wants to be Sean, handing out forged IOU’s from Bob’s shop, because he’s compassionate like that.
There are three ways a state can appropriate value from its citizens:
The state can print it: One cannot multiply the amount of value in an economy simply by multiplying the number of slips of paper representing value. So, when the state does this, the real thing that the slips of paper represent gets smaller in comparison. The slip of paper represents less and less of the actual product or labor it was meant to represent. This is called inflation. The real amount of value in the world now, goes down. The only way to fix this, is to increase the amount of actual valued products and labor being exchaged in an economy.
The state can borrow it: This is essentially the appropriation of value from other economies, or from the future, in order to use it in the present in the local economy. But what happens if the lender (or the future) is never repaid? The real amount of value in the world goes down again, only we don’t notice it right away. It is a sort of invisible inflation. One in which empty promises replace currencies that have already replaced real goods and services. Eventually someone’s descendants are rendered utterly impoverished. The Dickensian horror that the left loves to scare us with is something they are creating, with the very schemes they claim are designed to prevent such a thing.
The state can tax it directly:. As I’ve already discussed at length in the previous objection, taxation is the most visible form of appropriation. The RSA plan actually goes further than just income taxes (it proposes a restructured “progressive” tax rate scheme), including various forms of property taxation as well. While this would shrink the size of that £657 per week income tax bill, it is still extracting value out of real goods: If you take my spare bedroom away from me, I cannot use it as an art studio. If you tax my business equipment, I won’t have enough to buy additional equipment or hire new employees. And so forth. The fewer resources at my disposal, the less creative I will be. The real amount of value in the world not only goes down, it can never be fully realized.
This is essentially a human physical limitation of economy. A “law of economic physics”, if you will. And, the more we crawl up our own asses and refuse to accept the reality of what we’re doing to ourselves, the worse it will get. The harder and harder you work at taking other peoples’ things, without negotiating a genuine exchange of real value, the less and less real value there will be for anyone.
Fundamentally, if you look hard enough at ideas like Universal Basic Income, you realize what they really are. Far from creating a society of “universal economic suffrage”, we are enslaving ourselves to a world “universal economic servitude”.
“The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.” ~Frédéric Bastiat
”When a man’s knowledge is not in order, the more of it he has, the greater will be his confusion” Herbert Spencer
Today, I attended a lecture by Derek Bates hosted by the Conway Hall Ethical Society, in London. I call it a lecture perhaps too generously. You’ll see why in a moment. The event was billed as one man’s attempt to provide a reasoned defense for the efficacy of a more direct democracy, and to propose a technological solution to the logistical problems inherent within it:
Derek Bates will argue that we should be able to properly engage with our elected representatives using modern communication and internet technology, have a “live” influence on our futures and express our opinions – effectively crowd-sourcing innovative policy and direction… A million brains could just be a whole lot better than one!
Given the nature of this topic, I am always immediately somewhat skeptical. Futurists have been falling all over themselves since the 1980’s, to explain how computers and networks would ultimately dissolve all of the logistical barriers of having large, diverse, geographically dispersed populations weigh in on a steady diet of public policy matters from the small (like when to repave the street in front of my house), to the large (such as whether or not to allow Iran’s government to engage in nuclear research). But a very rare few of them have been willing to address the founding principles behind such changes, even at a basic level like the problem of two wolves and a sheep.
So, eager to engage, I packed up my intellectual suitcase with every scrap of skepticism and critical thought on the subject I’ve ever collected, and I headed off to the hall expecting to be schooled by someone far older and far wiser than myself. I could not possibly have been more misinformed, or more disabused of my mismatched expectations, than by Derek himself.
It’s Not About What It’s About
Originally, I wanted this post to be about the problems of direct democracy, and about our continuing love affair with it, as a concept. I wanted to engage the content of Derek’s arguments as an example of this phenomenon. But I can’t do that, now, in good conscience.
You see, Derek didn’t actually have any arguments. What he did have, was a long list of banal, pedestrian complaints, and demands for more “training” of elected officials (whatever that means). His entire presentation had quite literally all intellectual depth and sophistication of a bad pub rant. And sadly, due to Derek’s unfortunate lack of podium presence, it was devoid any of the redeeming entertainment value usually found in such rants. The whole of the argument over the first hour literally boiled down to: “Politicians are ignorant and corrupt; someone needs to train them.” I honestly felt embarrassed for the man, alongside my own disgust and anger at having wasted two hours on a gorgeously sunny Sunday morning.
Derek did inspire me, however. I realized something, watching this train wreck of a slide deck: Derek is the problem. Allow me to explain.
The Hubris Of Politics
In his professional life, Derek has the scientific method on his side. He’s clearly used that to good effect, as a welding engineer and a materials scientist, in the petrochemicals industry and elsewhere. It’s highly likely that he’s actually solved quite a few very complex and very difficult problems with this training. I certainly wouldn’t dare attempt to challenge him in that realm.
Somewhere along the line, Derek has decided that his mastery of materials engineering, and the good it has brought the world, somehow now qualifies him as an expert in any number of other disciplines, including Philosophy, Sociology, Politics, Ecology, and Agriculture. Derek has become so enamored by the voluptuous beauty of his own intellect that he’s enthusiastically unshackled it from the ugly, sweaty rigors of any actual research, reading, or formal argumentation. Worse, he’s replaced those uncomfortable constraints with nothing but fantasy and a will to power.
In short, Derek is becoming a politician. But lacking the professional discipline and manipulative cunning of a career politician (or technological bureaucrat, or public policy “expert”) he’s relegated to making his one-man pitch to local ethical societies on Sunday mornings.
The War Of All Against All
But this isn’t just about Derek. It’s about all of us, and about the nature of democracy itself. Derek just happens to be a really good example of how dysfunctional we all are. Every time we step into a voting booth, or answer a political survey taker, or listen to a political speech, we’re thinking about ourselves: what gets me what I want; who do I like; how do I want to live; what makes me happy; what can someone else do for me.
This is the true nature of the pub rant. It is an expression of a broken psychology; one crying out in despair at the lack of something essential to itself, and bemoaning the inability to achieve enough mastery over the physical world to attain that desire. It rarely has anything at all to do with the external target of the verbal diarrhea, except that the target may fit some emotional template for the ranter. In a nutshell: I am owed something, and justice demands that someone be obligated to give it to me.
This is an angry child crying out for a parent. And, really, the state itself is nothing more than a collective expression of this dysfunction. Only, as adults, we have real power to do real harm in the process. Democracies of all forms and styles – in fact, monolithic institutions of power of all kinds – are fundamentally two things: Firstly, a weapon. But more importantly: the implicit social approval to use that weapon to threaten or harm others to get what you want. Political philosophers of all stripes have recognized this fact for eons, actually.
They’ve also identified another fundamental problem with the State as a form of social organization: How do you decide who gets what they want? Developmental psychologists will also point out that this is a common subterranean struggle within families, as well. Children are constantly vying for their parents’ attentions. And it’s not uncommon for siblings to attempt to manipulate parents to gain advantage over each other. Thus, it is with the State as well.
Knowing When To Quit
I don’t have an answer to this problem. How could I be expected to? I’m a 25 year veteran of the I.T. and software industries, not a political philosopher. But, then again, I don’t go around offering lectures claiming that I do have that answer.
And this is where I come back to Derek. It’s not impossible for a scientist to have something useful to say about political philosophy, just as it’s not impossible for a political philosopher to have something useful to say about science. After all, Herbert Spencer (for example) was able to bring both to heel fairly effectively, during his own lifetime.
But if you’re going to make this kind of professional leap, you really need to do it from a position of humility and curiosity — that is, if you’re not simply trying to get what you want at others’ expense. And, really, when was the last time you exhibited a politician behaving with the humility and curiosity of a scientist? Yet, this is precisely what Derek is expecting, in his demands for “better training” of politicians. Which, it seems to me, marks Derek as a pretty typical politician, himself: naive, untrained, and driven by egotistical fantasies about philosopher kings and smartphone apps.
Last night, I watched a debate between a journalist, a sociologist, and a scientist over whether or not philosophy is “dead” (as Stephen Hawking put it). Lewis Wolpert completely wiped the floor with the non-philosophers pitted against him. And sadly, he was also mostly correct. Philosophy has not done itself proud of late, and the fact that this panel didn’t actually include any philosophers to stand in its defense, is evidence that it is struggling, if not dead.
Wolpert is absolutely right. Science, as a practice, is indeed nothing more than a means by which we can gradually make more and more confident predictions about the actual behaviour of reality. And this pursuit is purely ethics free. But rather than this point suggesting the death of philosophy, instead it actually begs its continued existence. Where did the hard sciences come from, after all? Philosophy. Biology from Natural Philosophy. Astronomy and Physics from Existential Philosophy (not Sartre’s Existentialism). Psychology and Neurology from Philosophy of the Mind. And so on. What’s more, today, there is still no “science” of ethics, despite the efforts of celebrities like Sam Harris to argue otherwise.
I love science. It has given us so many fantastic metaphors. Saying that philosophy is dead because it is only capable of inventing sciences but never of being one, is like saying that nebular nurseries are ‘dead’ because they only create stars, but can never become one. It’s confusing the pursuit for it’s products. This is why Wolpert is partly wrong.
And there is so much more to do. Far from being settled questions, ethics and politics remain the responsibility of philosophers. A responsibility that has largely gone untended since Nietzsche. Fuller and Derbyshire danced around this very point in this debate. But neither seemed to grasp the implications consciously. Instead, they turned into flailing defensive children, when they got close to this realisation. Which is, I guess, what one would expect from people who have done more to destroy their own profession, than any scientist ever has.
Instead of honestly taking up the yoke of solving the riddle of a coherent secular ethic, philosophers busy themselves by denying that any such thing as normative truth is even possible, while simultaneously glad-handing on stage with anachronisms like theist apologists.
But Hawking is only half right. Philosophy as a profession is not dead, yet. Its vital signs are very weak. Now, as a society, we could put a pillow over its face and put it out of its misery. Or, we could remember the first line of our oath as doctors of men, and “first, do no harm”.