In a Blogís Stead
Archives: September 2002

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Slip Out of Those Genes

Sociobiological theories alleging genetically based differences in, e.g., risk-aversion between men and women, or time-preference between blacks and whites, have gained a wide hearing, and have even been given credence by some adherents of praxeology, the a priori science of human action. But it seems to me that it is precisely praxeological considerations that render such theories indefensible.

In Human Action, the past century's major statement of praxeology, Ludwig von Mises demolished the pretensions of "polylogism," the doctrine that the fundamental laws of thought differ from one biological, cultural, or socioeconomic group to another. Several decades earlier, the logician Gottlob Frege had demolished with equal effectiveness the related fallacy of "psychologism," the doctrine that the laws of thought depend on empirical facts about human psychology. (See my unpublished manuscript on praxeology for a defense of Mises' and Frege's arguments.)

Mises concluded:

No facts provided by ethnology or history contradict the assertion that the logical structure of mind is uniform with all men of all races, ages, and countries. ... The content of primitive man's thoughts differs from the content of our thoughts, but the formal and logical structure is common to both.
But defenders of sociobiology may well claim that they are asserting a biological foundation only for the content of thought, not for its form, and so are not running afoul of the Frege-Mises arguments. Does this get them off the hook?

Some sociobiological theses -- while not to my mind terribly plausible -- may be consistent with praxeology. But I don't see how the claim that an individual's degree of risk-aversion or time-preference is genetically determined can withstand praxeological scrutiny.

Risk-aversion and time-preference concern an individual's preferences in the praxeological sense -- i.e., not just those desires or impulses one happens to have, but the value-rankings that are manifested in one's actions. So if an individual's degree of risk-aversion or time-preference is innate, that means that it is already settled, not just that she will have certain desires, but that she will make certain kinds of choices.

Yet this denies free will. If it's already settled by my genes how risk-averse, or how time-preferent (if that's a word), I'm going to be in my future choices, how can I regard myself as having free will?

Unfortunately for sociobiology, the denial of free will is praxeologically incoherent. The act of choice logically presupposes an assumption on the chooser's part that the options between which she is choosing are both open. But this amounts to the assumption that it is not already settled, by her genes or anything else, which option she will choose. Hence free will has an axiomatic status; we are automatically committed to affirming its truth in every choice we make (even the choice to deny, or try to deny, the axiom itself). It follows that we cannot coherently suppose that it is already settled what degree of risk-aversion or time-preference will be manifested in our future actions. (It is settled a priori that our rate of time-preference will be positive -- Mises proved that -- but not what precisely that rate will be.) Whether or not I can control my psychological preferences (i.e., which desires I possess), I can still control my praxeological preferences (i.e., which desires I choose to act on).

The sociobiologist might reply that what's settled by an individual's genes is not any particular actions, but only a general tendency. But such a reply would be ambiguous between two possibilities:

Possibility One: Suppose I have an innate tendency to choose X over Y. Now that might mean that although I won't always choose X over Y, I will do so in, say, 75% of future instances. But that too seems incompatible with the free will axiom; if it's already settled that I will choose X over Y 75% of the time, then Iím not really free to plan my future conduct. As Ayn Rand observed in Atlas Shrugged:

A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.
Possibility Two: Now as the 16th-century Aristotelean Pietro Pomponazzi pointed out, there is certainly a sense of "tendency" that is perfectly compatible with free will: one might say "your present pattern of activity is such that, if it continues, you will behave in such-and-such a way." That poses no obstacle to free will because it's up to the person whether that pattern of activity in fact continues. And such a tendency might very well be innate in the sense that it is the tendency with which a person starts out. But it can't be innate in the stronger sense of being a tendency that person carries with her throughout life; for once the person changes her pattern of activity, then it is no longer true of her that "her present pattern of activity is such that ...." -- and so she no longer has the tendency.

The double helix is not a set of handcuffs. Our genes don't determine our destiny. We do.

Posted September 25th, 2002



A Blog By Any Other Name

When I started this intermittent web journal a week and a half ago, I chose for it the name "Instead of a Blog" -- partly as an homage to Benjamin Tucker's book Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One (as well as Bryan Caplan's similarly inspired Instead of a FAQ), partly to stress the lofty intellectual superiority of my online commentary in comparison with that of lesser mortals (yourself and your friends excluded, of course), and partly because I knew I simply wouldn't have time to update the thing as frequently as a proper blog (assuming there is such a thing).

But I wanted, of course, to be original, so I did a quick web search -- alas, more quick than thorough -- to confirm that no one else had beaten me to the name. My flimsy and inadequate research convinced me no one had, so I inscribed "Instead of a Blog" on my banner and leapt into the fray.

And all was well -- until today, when I happened to be reading an excellent article by Wirkman Virkkala (on the subject of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's shamefully biased and inadequate entry on the past century's greatest economist, Ludwig von Mises) only to find, in the author bio at the end, a link to Virkkala's blogsite, named -- you guessed it -- Instead of a Blog. A quick trip to his site revealed that he'd been instead-of-blogging nearly a month longer than I had!

Well, finding that another blogger (or unblogger) has scooped your site's name is a bit like showing up at a costume ball only to learn that one of the earlier arrivals has anticipated your Giant Carrot costume. So my unblogsite needed a new name.

My inventive mind quickly came up with the bold and daring substitute "In Lieu of a Blog," which I thought had just the right touch of Anglophiliac snobbery. But as product differentiation it seemed insufficient; moreover, the link with Tucker was weakened. (Benjamin Tucker was the editor of Liberty, 19th-century America's foremost individualist-anarchist periodical, and a forerunner of today's anarcho-capitalists. All in all, a model worthy of emulation.)

Another possibility that came to mind was "Instead of 'Instead of a Blog'," but while this was in a sense quite accurate, and even had a pleasing air of philosophical paradox, in the end it was just too ungainly. Besides, it might have been taken to suggest that my site was being recommended as an alternative to Virkkala's, which was certainly not my intention.

So, instead of "Instead of 'Instead of a Blog'," I finally settled on, or for, the title that now graces this page: "In a Blog's Stead." In convolution of diction and reconditeness of reference, this fresh christening, I'm happy to say, savours at least as much of Anglophiliac snobbery as "In Lieu of a Blog." And as C. S. Peirce said of his own term "pragmaticism," it is "ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers." Or worse yet, scoopers.

Posted September 22nd, 2002



Philately: Who Needs It
(A Puzzle Solved)

Like many admirers of Ayn Rand's work, I've often found it baffling that so many of those who are attracted to her message of reason, independence, and heroic individualism turn out to exhibit such a timid and cultic conformity when it comes to thinking outside the strictures that Rand herself laid down.

For the most recent example, see Andrew Bernstein's abject foray into Stalinist self-criticism for the sin of daring to write for Chris Matthew Sciabarra's dreaded Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, which turns out to be on the Ayn Rand Institute's index librorum prohibitorum. One high-church Randian called me a "whacked-out, cynical, neo-postmodern fetishist orbiting around Sciabarra" for venturing the suggestion that Bernstein's groveling apology ("I failed to properly use my mind," etc., etc.) didn't seem to strike quite the tone of proud heroic individualism that one might have expected from an admirer of Howard Roark and Dagny Taggart. (Actually, it's a fair cop: I am a whacked-out, cynical, neo-postmodern fetishist orbiting around Sciabarra. I'm also anti-mind and anti-life. But donít tell anyone.)

David Kelley's book The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand does an admirable job of showing how personal loyalty to and idolatry of Rand herself have subverted the Randian movement's commitment to the more important Randian values; but Kelleyís book still left me wondering exactly why those whose admiration for Rand was based on Randian values would put Rand the person ahead of those values in the first place.

A new book on Rand has inadvertently shed some light on this question, at least for me. Facets of Ayn Rand: Memoirs by Mary Ann Sures and Charles Sures is an exercise in hagiography, as one would expect from an official ARI publication. The purpose of the book, its authors explain, is to correct the "distorted picture" of Randís personality that has been perpetrated by "tabloid mentalities" who look for "flaws and shortcomings" rather than "greatness." (pp. 15-16) (No names are named, but Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden's My Years With Ayn Rand are obviously meant.) The book contains some interesting material on Rand (interesting at least to Rand junkies like myself), but what I found most eye-opening is what the Sures (an unfortunate name, as we'll see) revealed about themselves.

Though he had once enjoyed stamp collecting, Charles Sures explains, before meeting Rand he had "drifted away" from the pastime, having formed the "mistaken notion that stamp collecting was a nonintellectual endeavor for children." He returned to the "world of pleasure" that stamp collecting gave him only after Rand "liberated" him by explaining "the many ways in which that hobby was a legitimate intellectual and enjoyable pursuit for an adult." (p. 55)

In a strikingly similar incident, Mary Ann Sures describes feeling conflicted over the pleasure she took in "cleaning a copper-bottomed frying pan" and "seeing it shine on the wall"; she had become "depressed" when an acquaintance criticised her for "finding enjoyment in something so nonintellectual." Once again Rand came to the rescue, assuring her that pride in one's work was a "rational value" for which one need not feel ashamed. (pp. 44-45)

Both these incidents remind me of the woman in Randís play Ideal, one of the self-betraying minor characters, who feels an impulse to raise her arms in an ecstatic gesture, and then becomes embarrassed at the impulse. It is difficult to imagine a truly independent-minded individualist needing to have his or her preferences validated and approved, by Ayn Rand or anyone else.

And this led me to a hypothesis about why some Rand admirers become cultic conformists. Suppose you are attracted to values like independence and individualism, but you lack the self-confidence to practice them. And then Ayn Rand, a living embodiment of those values, comes along and encourages you to give it a try. Then at last you are able, sustained by Rand's affirmation, to live the kind of life you've hesitantly longed for. Lifted on Rand's wings, you feel what it means to soar.

As Mary Ann Sures writes: "She had certainty. This is what really attracted me emotionally to her .... [S]he didn't live in a state of chronic doubt. She didn't constantly question the rightness of her ideas. ... She was like fresh water, in unlimited supply, made available to a person dying of thirst. ... I grew up in an intellectual environment that almost everyone grows up in, that communicates one thing: you can't really be sure of anything." (pp. 26-27) Rand "straightened our intellectual spines and made it possible for us to lift our heads and look up and out, and to step forward into great distances with certainty and conviction." (p. 16)

A full-fledged individualist wouldn't need such validation from Rand; a complete anti-individualist wouldn't be interested in Rand's ideas to start with. Individualists don't need, and anti-individualists don't want, to have their "intellectual spines straightened." But imagine the mentality in-between: a person who's tempted by individualism but is afraid to actually go for it. Rand provided the framework within which such people felt free to be individualistic and independent -- but because this freedom depended on Rand's validation, Rand's own personality and ideas had to remain exempt from questioning, and so the individualism and independence could only go so far. In Randian terms: they were attempting to integrate a contradiction, with predictable results.

Posted September 15th, 2002



Reflections on the First Anniversary of September 11th

The first time I visited the site of the World Trade Center was some time around 1986. There was a fierce wind whipping through the canyons of Wall Street, and the flow of cars and pedestrians on the pavement below was equally vigorous. The friend who was showing me around waited for me to notice the two gleaming towers peeking over the nearer buildings. After pausing to honour Alexander Hamiltonís grave (yeah, I know, but compared to today's politicians he looks pretty good), we headed to the WTC and took the long elevator ride to the top. The wind was too strong, they said, to let tourists onto the outdoor observation deck, so we contented ourselves with the indoor one, where the view was still breathtaking. I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty as a tiny green speck below.

Somehow, on subsequent trips to New York I never seemed to get that far downtown -- though I remember once on a commuter flight passing startlingly close to the two towers shining in a coppery sunset.

The second time I visited the WTC site was last December. The area looked like the description of New York in the first chapter of Atlas Shrugged. Apart from the clot of gawkers at Ground Zero itself, the streets were nearly deserted. Shop windows were dark, broken, or boarded up. Wire fences partitioned the area. Buildings and streets were chipped with rubble. A steady plume of smoke rose from the gaping abscess at the heart of the district. The Stock Exchange, decked out in red, white, and blue electric lights, looked ghoulish, like too much mascara at a funeral.

Today is the first anniversary of September 11th: a day to grieve for the thousands of innocent Americans who lost their lives, their loved ones, or their fortunes in the attacks; the millions of innocent Americans who lost civil liberties as a result; the thousands of innocent Muslims who have become, or will become, collateral damage in the U.S. military response; and the millions of people around the world who are being drawn into an endless crusade -- I use the word advisedly -- to "rid the world of evil."

Today is also a day to grieve for the wound that the attacks inflicted on the libertarian movement. Since I regard libertarianism as the world's best hope for the survival of civilisation, I take this occasion for grief to be comparable in seriousness to the others. No issue in recent memory has split libertarians more seriously than September 11th.

Some (call them doves) argue that the terrorists were motivated by anger at America's arrogant foreign policy, so that disengaging from our international commitments, an advisable move in any case, should secure our protection in the future. Others (call them hawks) argue that the terrorists hated America not for its failings but for its virtues -- for its individualist, capitalist, secularist culture -- and so merely adopting a noninterventionist foreign policy would avail us naught. Many hawks argue that September 11th proves the need for a more energetic and aggressive government than most doves are willing to countenance. Even the normally dovish Cato Institute has thrown its support to, in their own chilling language, the "removal" of foreign governments and the "elimination" of their supporters.

Today the United States stands poised on the brink of war with Iraq -- or, more precisely (since the U.S. has already been waging war steadily against Iraq for over a decade), on the brink of an attempted conquest of Iraq. It is an appropriate occasion to reflect on the role of the State in September 11th and its aftermath.

Do the terrorists hate us for our (relatively) libertarian culture, or for our un-libertarian foreign policy? Well, pretty obviously, both. The question is whether they would be motivated to give their lives in an attack on this country if they had only the cultural grudge against us, rather than the military grudge as well?

Sure, I imagine some would still be willing. I remember all too well, from my days in Ithaca NY, the fundamentalist Christian who rammed his truck into a local movie theatre -- injuring only himself -- to protest the showing of The Last Temptation of Christ. (He said that he had done it on a pious impulse, and that the possibility of wrecking his truck or injuring himself simply hadn't occurred to him. The mills of Darwin grind slowly Ö.) All the same, I for one find it hard to imagine al-Qaeda having quite as easy a time recruiting suicide hijackers on the basis of a mere horror of Baywatch.

And that means we owe September 11th to our friend the American State.

Very well, some may say, perhaps a less interventionist foreign policy would have prevented the attacks -- but now we have to face the actuality of the attacks' having in fact occurred, and so we now need a powerful government to deal with the consequences.

The problem with this argument is that it requires us to forget that the information and incentive problems that plague State action in other cases are not going to disappear when the task is protection from terrorism. In any case, if nineteen people can bring the mightiest State on earth to a virtual halt, what more could be needed to demonstrate the emptiness of the State's promise of protection?

The current push to invade Iraq is a clear example of the unreliability of the State. No credible evidence has been offered to link Iraq with al-Qaeda; in fact, Saddam Hussein is precisely the sort of secularising, Western-style leader that al-Qaeda detests. (Notice how the guy dresses, for Pete's sake!) Sure, Hussein (happily, I donít know him well enough to call him Saddam) is a corrupt and oppressive ruler; but rulers like that are a dime a dozen. Sure, he wants to get his hands on some weapons of mass destruction. Suppose he succeeds. Then he'll be one more corrupt and oppressive ruler with weapons of mass destruction; there are plenty of those too (China? Russia? Pakistan?), and weíre not invading any of them.

Our rulers are pretty clearly using the war on terrorism as a cover for an attempt to grab Iraqi oil; that such a move would doubtless galvanise further hostility to America throughout the Middle East, and thus increase the likelihood of further terrorist attacks, seems to leave them unmoved. (Remember those incentive problems States face?) Hussein, for his part, is unmoved by the fact that his defiance of the U.S. is likely to result in mass death among his own civilian population; so long as playing chicken games with the U.S. makes him look cool in the Islamic world, his sleep is not much troubled by the possible consequences for his own citizens. (Yup, those incentive problems work the same way over there too. Why should rulers -- American or Iraqi -- care about pleasing customers who can't cancel their service?) The American and Iraqi States are dragging their respective citizens into a deadly confrontation from which neither's civilian population can benefit.

Jeremy Bentham is not exactly one of my favourite philosophers, but he certainly hit the nail on the head when he defined war as "robbery, having murder for its instrument ... operating upon the largest possible scale ... committed by the ruling few in the conquering nation, on the subject many in both nations."*

Thatís why Iíve taken the occasion of the anniversary of September 11th to launch a new organisation -- the Molinari Institute -- dedicated to the increasingly urgent task of abolishing the State.

* E. K. Bramsted & K. J. Melhuish, eds., Western Liberalism: A History in Documents from Locke to Croce (London: Longman, 1978), p. 355.

Posted September 11th, 2002



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