News

Loading...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Libertarian Slogans That Are False: I

"Involuntary exchange always makes at least one participant worse off." Well, this is only half nonsense. Of course, ex ante, it is true: if both parties believed the exchange would make them better off, it could be done voluntarily. (Query: But what about the case where I stealthily perform the exact exchange with you that you would have voluntarily made?) But ex post? Then it certainly is nonsense. A simple example: When my children were young, I made them brush their teeth. There was nothing voluntary about it. Now, years later, they have good teeth and have established a good habit. They are much better off because of this involuntary exchange. I could generates hundreds of examples like this quite easily, but you get the point.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, the brightest libertarians (generally) get this right. Mises certainly would not have demurred from my conclusion -- as he liked to say, "Many a slip twixt cup and lip," meaning, like they say in the mutual fund ads, your ex post results may vary. And Bob notes that Rothbard only claims we can say that it's likely in the ex post situation that the involuntary transaction made at least one person worse off. (Although this undermines his conclusion in his famous welfare paper.) But the naive version I am attacking, that holds it is apodictic both ex ante and ex post that at least one party to an involuntary transaction is worse off is something I encounter all the time on discussion threads. But that is not my main thrust in establishing this result: rather, it is to have at hand an important conclusion that we can bring to our next level of the discussion.

UPDATE II: I have changed the post title to be more accurate. Since Mises and Rothbard would not agree with the strong version of the claim I critique, it won't do to call it libertarian dogma; it is, however, a slogan that gets wheeled out as a conversation-finisher in many debates.

19 comments:

  1. You need to come up with a better example, because children aren't exactly considered rational (though, they will often surprise you). I have no doubt that you can come through, you're quite intelligent. For now, I'll respond to your current example.

    There are easily identifiable reasons that children are not considered adults with regard to laws and actions (we both know this). Plus, a lot of the things that parents often force children to do for their better good can often arise without force. I'll give you an example from my own life.

    When I was a kid nobody ever forced me to brush my teeth. Sure, a brush and paste were always available, but if anybody actually asked, "did you brush your teeth?" I would just state that I did and nobody would follow up. While it is true that I did brush, it was not a routine and it was primarily a curiosity based upon the actions of my much older siblings (the same with wearing glasses, shaving, combing my hair, using a wash clothe, etc).

    I cannot remember the age, but I know that I was quite young when I had my first root canal. Interestingly, it was on a baby-tooth. While I don't remember much of the event, I do know that I did brush more often than in the past after this event occurred (though still not in any routine fashion). I did not become a regular, routine brusher until my adolescence, and I think it is fairly easy to see why: the opposite sex. Most groom and dress customs arrive out of this very thing and continue throughout adulthood, there is no force necessary.

    Were my parents negligent in this respect (Brushing)? Sure, but they made up for it in a vast array of other areas (i.e. I won't fault them for not making me brush my teeth). Today, I have all of my teeth, only have a few fillings and a regular "tooth maintenance" routine, but my parents had nothing to do with it.

    To use child rearing as an example of libertarian dogma is just not correct, because most everybody agrees that parents must use some force to raise a child; one who is still entirely dependent. We certainly would not expect a 3 year old to wake up early, pack their lunch, hop in their car, head off to work and pay the bills, so why should we then use them as an example of the use of force in an adult world?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Joseph, sorry, your whole objection is besides the point. We are dealing with what pretends to be a universal, praxeological principle: "Involuntary exchange always makes at least one participant worse off." We are not discussing legal issues here at all. The age of majority and so forth, or how responsible children are, just doesn't come into the issue at all.

    Children are clearly capable of choice (they are praxeological actors). The principle above purports to be a universal, praxeological truth.

    I have shown it is not.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think that the key thing that you're missing is "dependency".

    Yes, children make choices, so you're not refuting anything in this regard. What is important here is that children don't have the ability to yet connect ends and means, rather they are still learning this relationship, and if left to their own devices they would surely die. They are entirely dependent upon the parent.

    The only way that your example could work in my mind is if you assume that all individuals are entirely dependent upon their "parent" government. I certainly would go that far and I don't think that you would either.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sorry, I meant to say "wouldn't go that far". I presume that you assumed that already.

    ReplyDelete
  5. But Gene, you are using these terms in a very different sense than Mises. Your children may be "better off" in terms of objective health and hygiene due to forcing them to brush, but that is not what Mises meant. He was talking about being "worse off" from the point of view of the actor, ex ante, and given that actor's subjective value preferences *at the time of the exchange*. Given that frame of reference, your children *were* made "worse off" at the time, even if they later changed their minds. This much you agree is true.

    But I do not recall Mises ever trying to argue that this is universally true in the ex post sense, so it would seem that this "libertarian dogma" is a straw man. Certainly people change their values all the time in ways that might make previous bad transactions seem like good ones, or vice versa. (Most adults hopefully place a higher premium on hygience and health than they did as toddlers).

    I think that most libertarians would argue, as an empirical matter, that by far *most* involuntary exchanges dealing with adults who are compos mentis make them worse off in the ex post sense as well. However, there is no dogmatic insistence that this is a necessary logical principle.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Oh, and I'm sure there are some libertarian noobs who are simply confused on this praxeological point.

    But if so, you should be careful not to pretend to have refuted Aquinas (Mises) by landing a blow against Pastor Bob (smashtehstate666).

    ;)

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Yes, children make choices, so you're not refuting anything in this regard."

    Well, no, Joseph, I was *asserting* this, not attempting to refute it.

    "What is important here is that children don't have the ability to yet connect ends and means, rather they are still learning this relationship, and if left to their own devices they would surely die. They are entirely dependent upon the parent."

    Joseph, this is an absurd red herring. I can't believe you've sidetracked me into this, but, as your a decent fellow, I will be patient. The issue here is a *praxeological contention*, not a legal one. The issue I'm addressing is not, "Should parents have legal authority over their children under libertarian law?" That seems to be what you want to discuss. Interesting topic, but not the subject of my post.

    What *I* am discussing is the contention: "Involuntary exchange always makes at least one participant worse off." That proposition is not qualified by, "Unless they can't connect means and ends well," or "Unless they would die without the involuntary exchange."

    So all this about children is, as I said, totally beside the point.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "He was talking about being "worse off" from the point of view of the actor, ex ante, and given that actor's subjective value preferences *at the time of the exchange*."

    But Mike, I conceded that the ex ante version of this statement is true right up front!

    ReplyDelete
  9. "The only way that your example could work in my mind is if you assume that all individuals are entirely dependent upon their "parent" government."

    And another red herring, Joseph: my argument said nothing whatsoever about government, or does the proposition I was criticising.

    Read Mike B's comment: he understands what is going on here.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "But if so, you should be careful not to pretend to have refuted Aquinas (Mises) by landing a blow against Pastor Bob (smashtehstate666)."

    And by the way, Mike, Mises absolutely gets this right -- "many a slip twixt cup and lip" etc. -- but I've seen very prominent people trying to make the ex post case.

    ReplyDelete
  11. "Items of Libertarian
    Dogma That Are Nonsense..."

    Well, excuse me for thinking that you were talking about political philosophy. Yes, I did attempt to read ahead of your point (my fault), but that was primarily due to the context of the title. I don't think that any Austrian would state that children don't have goals and act upon them, at least not from an economic perspective.

    Now that I understand that you're talking about praxeology, I can respond in that regard.

    First of all, I would like to know where you are getting the quote, "Involuntary exchange always makes at least one participant worse off." This would be helpful. Is it a paraphrase, or is it verbatim.

    Next, I don't see anything entirely "involuntary" about the parent-child relationship. Sure, kids can be a bear, but the parent goes through this voluntarily out of love, duty, goals, etc (as well as the organic process of the human hormonal system). Conversely, while children do have a means/ends system that influences their action, this does not preclude them from also understanding that their life is entirely dependent upon the authority/parent (who is also willing to engage in this relationship).

    The child bears the hard-hand of authority because he is entirely dependent upon such authority for his/her own life as well as providing guidance, answers, affection, etc. The parent endures the process of child-rearing for his/her own reasons In fact, most parents actually cherish the process regardless of the difficulties involved. When the late teenage years (or, more recently, the early 20s) comes around, this dependency relationship usually changes altogether.

    While the specific instances of this child-parent relationship (e.g. a child refusing to take a bath or brush their teeth) may not be entirely voluntary (or, appear to be so), the overall relationship is entirely voluntary at its very core. In fact, I think that it would be quite difficult to say anything further about this concept within the praxeological sphere; it requires political philosophy in order to continue on from this point.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Ah, Joseph, this is a prolegomenon to political philosophy. I'm working my way there, in other words.

    And I didn't say the parent-child relationship is involuntary -- I said there brushing their teeth was involuntary.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Gene, if it matters, Rothbard in MES explicitly defends the statement in a praxeological sense only ex ante. Then he gives pragmatic arguments for why we'd expect the market to make people benefit from exchanges ex post too, relative to government intervention.

    It might help you defuse objections if you quoted things from libertarians instead of calling them "nonsense" when, at first blush, you are in fact attacking a straw man.

    Maybe Rothbard makes too sweeping a statement regarding the ex post principle, maybe not. But you acting as if some libertarians ever said the thing you are attacking, doesn't convince me.

    (It's in Chapter 12 of MES.)

    ReplyDelete
  14. "Gene, if it matters, Rothbard in MES explicitly defends the statement in a praxeological sense only ex ante."

    Yes, that's good -- as I mentioned to Mike B, Mises absolutely got this one right.

    And I, too, would expect it to *typically* hold ex post, as Rothbard did!

    "It might help you defuse objections if you quoted things from libertarians..."

    Well, Bob, this post was prompted by the fellow who, today, repeatedly called me an ignoramus for not realizing the relationship holds apodictically ex post as well.

    So get in the comments and set him straight!

    ReplyDelete
  15. "And I didn't say the parent-child relationship is involuntary -- I said there brushing their teeth was involuntary."

    Yes, I understand this. I'll make a deal with you: if you don't attempt to connect specific instances of exchange with future habits of action, then I won't attempt to connect general voluntary arrangements (i.e relationships) with specific instances of exchange.

    Whataya say?

    ReplyDelete
  16. In response to your update:

    Voluntary exchange: ex ante both parties benefit, though ex post this is not always true. Involuntary exchange: ex ante one party benefits, though ex post this is not always true. Basically, in both examples the results may very in hindsight.

    Ugh, now I feel like a complete moron, I completely misunderstood what it was that you were trying to say. In fact, I went on a completely different tract altogether.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Well, Joseph, we are all mistaken at times. It is only the complete morons who can never admit this!

    ReplyDelete
  18. I'm skeptical of the whole thing. If you stop a kid from touching a stove he is better of ex whatever. Voluntary or not.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Not admitting that I am wrong bothers me more than simply being wrong. What bothers me even more is the fact that I certainly should have known the answer to this, but instead I got a certain idea in my head and went with it. I am not lying when I say that stuff like this actually keeps me up at night as the intrapersonal communication refuses to shut down. It sounds kinda stupid, but it's true.

    ReplyDelete