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Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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147 Responses

  1. Avatar dexter
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    Oh, to enter this world through the proper portal.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to dexter
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      If you’re in the Northern part of North America and you know about this web site, you did.Report

      • Avatar dexter in reply to Jaybird
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        Jaybird, I live smack dab in the middle of Lousy Sauna and my mother’s and father’s parenting skills were sorely lacking.  I am a lefty dealing with rushites and fundies on a daily basis, so while I realize things are much better for me than the average Tutsi, I am also old enough to remember when a highly skilled craftsman could make a very good living.  I remember when the time before the Waltons and their ilk moved all the plants to China.  Yes, my life is easier than most, but I remember when it was better than now and even though my children are well educated, I worry about their future because I don’t see America getting any better. As I said once before Galt won the culture war.Report

  2. Avatar Liberty60
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    Truly obscene amounts of wealth our democracy can live with. Obscene amounts of private power it can’t.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Liberty60
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      On that I’m sympathetic.Report

    • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Liberty60
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      I don’t think there’s a difference.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Elias Isquith
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        I think there is a difference, but people have worked hard enough to eliminate it that we can call it a temporal equivalency.Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Elias Isquith
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        says:

        Agreed, which is my point.

        If Alice Walton wants to have a solid gold toilet, I don’t care.

        But she can literally buy any election for any office and pass any law in America, via think tanks, public front groups, outright campaign donations, business groups and so on.

        She is not a citizen in the same class as you or I; she and the rest of the 0.1% have a power far beyond mere voters, and they are a de facto aristocracy.

        Radly Balko wants the government to give liberty to drug users, and decrease the power of police and prisons. Good for him!

        What if the Waltons decide to make their fortunes in private prisons, thereby coming into direct opposition to Balko and the libertarians? Who do you think will triumph in that fight?

        One person’s private power can and does present a mortal threat to everyone’s liberty.Report

        • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Liberty60
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          What if the populists decide to go after the malefactors of wealth *and* ban alcohol while their at it?Report

          • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Kolohe
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            Sorry, I am not able to see what you are getting at here.Report

            • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Liberty60
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              In United States history, when private power attacks liberty, two cases emerge. In one case the private power is broadly supported by the non-oppressed (e.g. slavery).  In the other, when broad support is marshaled to fight private power, that support comes with its own liberty destroying baggage (e.g.  the Progressive Era (up to and including FDR).

              In any case, at the end of the day, it was the government that that created the mortal threat to everyone’s liberty, not private power acting alone.Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Kolohe
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                The other truism is that what private power can’t enslave by its own devices, it enlists the government to do at its behest.

                Shrinking government while allowing private power to accrue doesn’t fix this; as I mentioned elsewhere, if the government isn’t large enough to enslave the people, the private power will make it so.

                This isn’t a hypothetical-

                That “Cash for Kids” scandal recently- a private prison bribed a judge to send kids to a juvenile work farm to enrich themselves.

                This was illegal, and broken up, only by the larger, much more powerful state and federal governments.

                Another example- private power in the form of prisons lobbying for stricter laws which result in more customers- private power enlarging government to do its bidding.

                Obamacare is another example- instead of single payer, we got lobbying from insurance companies for an individual mandate.

                Any entity- private, public, religious- that is allowed unrestricted power will eventually enslave the people- this was the genius insight of the Founders, and why they set up the mutually interlocking form of checks and balances.

                 

                 Report

              • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Liberty60
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                I think libertarians make a mistake when they favor private prisons. (iirc some people at reason do this, in a misguided effort to correctly take on the prison guard unions).  However, while they are not a good idea, they are also not a big part of the prison system today:

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_prison#Private_prisons_in_the_United_States_today

                100,000 total out of some 2.2 million people in prison at all levels today. There are, for the sake of comparison, far more people in (normal govt run) prisons) for marijuana alone.

                You look at when the state really gets in the face of poor and/or minority folks, it’s stuff like the drug war, gun laws, even things like primary enforcement for seatbelt use.  And all are broadly supported by the population (including liberals, and for that matter, the minority communities themselves) and private power doesn’t even factor.Report

              • Avatar Scott in reply to Liberty60
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                Liberty:

                Just remember that “genius insight of the Founders” next you are tempted to complain about legislative gridlock.Report

  3. Avatar North
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    While I can understand being gobsmacked I remain somewhat dubious of the obscene qualifier. I mean Walmart is a vast and highly efficient distribution network that provides a vast quantity of consumer goods to utterly enormous number of people at low prices. I mean if the top 0.1% were looters of nations or otherwise criminals I could see the rational behind indignation but these are heirs to a system that has produced utterly epic amounts of value and utility for society world wide. I fail to see the parallel with banana republics or criminal cartels.

    I guess my knee jerk reaction is “oh that’s interesting, so what?” I mean beyond a left wing nerve being plucked and the deep satisfaction of the primal screech of ‘they have more than most people have”; what is the value in this? Is there policy that’s being proposed? Is there a crime that’s been committed? Do we have nothing better to focus our ire upon?Report

    • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to North
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      “I fail to see the parallel with banana republics or criminal cartels.”

      Whats wrong with banana republics and criminal cartels?

      They produce prodigious amounts of bananas and drugs in a vast and highly efficient distribution network to utterly enormous number of people at low prices.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to North
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      Right, in lowering prices on low-end consumer goods Walmart has probably increased the real incomes of the poor by more than any charity you can think of.  That hey also got rich doing it just means they will better inspire other to emulate them.

      There may well be people in the top 1% or 0.1% whose gains are ill-gotten, or who are using that wealth for illegitimate ends, and opposing that is fair enough.  But I find this kind of “look at the Gini Index” reasoning specious.  A high Gini Index might be symptomatic of structural inequalities and those inequalities should be corrected, but the mere fact some people have x times as much stuff as other people has no necessary relevance for social justice.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to James K
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        I disagree with the last sentence. How much each group has should at the least strongly suggest if the system is rigged, if there structural inequalities and how well all people are benefiting from whatever the system is. It certainly doesn’t tell the entire story. The Gini index is the first place to look for circumstantial evidence of an unjust system.Report

      • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to James K
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        The weird thing to me about this tangent of the comment thread is that there seems to be this unspoken assumption that being born (or marrying) into the same family as Sam Walton somehow entitles you to vast sums of his wealth. This blind spot would result in one permitting all forms of aristocracy.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Elias Isquith
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          Elias, being born into Walton’s family entitles you to a chunk of his dough only inasmuch as Walton set it up that way. Being born into Gates’ family for instance entitles you to only a miniscule fraction of his wealth because Gates set it up this way. I fail to see the point. Yes, remarkably capable or bright or lucky people can amass fortunes. Unless their descendants find a way to be similarly remarkable or bright or capable then those fortunes will fritter away. I don’t see the parallel with aristocracy.Report

          • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to North
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            Louis XVII has a right to rule all of France only insofar as Louis XVI decided to bequeath it to him.

            Also, this…

            Unless their descendants find a way to be similarly remarkable or bright or capable then those fortunes will fritter away.

            …is nonsense. I’ve too much respect for your intelligence to go into detail as to why; I’m guessing the sentence doesn’t read the way you intended.Report

            • Avatar North in reply to Elias Isquith
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              Louis XVII has a right to rule all of France only insofar as Louis XVI decided to bequeath it to him.

              Absolutely not. Louis XVII had a right to rule France because the laws of the day were written to allow him to and he had a system of military and social force to force people to allow him to. The parallel between real aristocracy and the mere wealthy is nonexistent, you could be an aristocrat without being wealthy (and vice versa). One is mere economic possession of some money. The other is raw power.

              I’m sorry Elias, I think you’ll have to go into how this is nonsense. Children have children. Fortunes are split up. Houses are bought. Fools do foolish things. Descendants feud (lawyers occur). Inflation happens. Markets do their fluctuations. How many of the top fortunes on the Forbes list are thirty years old? Sixty? One hundred?Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to North
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                One is mere economic possession of some money. The other is raw power.

                You’re wrong because you think this division practically exists.

                And I don’t think one need be in the top 400 to be a member of a de facto aristocracy. I suppose you’d argue that someone who inherited a mere $400 million has no power advantage over you or me — go ahead.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Elias Isquith
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                I wouldn’t, but don’t 400 millionaires generally have kids who are maybe hundred millionaires and then mere millionaires after that?

                And no, I’m not going to say that a wealthy person has the same power as a poor one. But that’s nothing like the power that the old aristrocrats had.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Elias Isquith
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                If I won $400 million in the Lotto, would that make me an instant aristocrat? Something tells me that there’s more to it than that. Who one knows matters too, and while class is significantly coincident with wealth, it isn’t the same thing.Report

          • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to North
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            “Unless their descendants find a way to be similarly remarkable or bright or capable then those fortunes will fritter away.”

            Is this another way of saying that there is some automatic self-leveling force that inevitably breaks up concentrations of power without outside action?Report

            • Avatar North in reply to Liberty60
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              I’m just saying that a lot of the descendants of wealthy leave the family fortune smaller than they found it. Actually, now that I think about it can we think of any entrepreneurs or remarkable innovators who were heirs to large fortunes? I’m drawing a blank myself. Any names anyone wants to throw out?Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to North
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                I bet every billionaire who started out as a mere millionaire graduating from Harvard will classify himself as an “entreprenuer” or “remarkable innovator”. Heck they all seem to write books about themselves using those every words, that I see at airport bookstores..

                Like that sniveling Wall Street trader who wrote an op-ed threatening to take the jobs of middle class people because he was oh so ferocious a competitor, they all think of themselves as gladiators in Guccis.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Liberty60
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                Gladiators in Guccis

                Also an excellent bumper sticker.Report

              • Avatar greginak in reply to North
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                To be fair Paris Hilton likely won’t be leaving the family fortune smaller then when she inherited it. A descendant might leave a fortune smaller but if he inherited a few hundred million then it certainly might take a few generations of true incompetents before the fortune is gone. Even with minimal competency, or good lawyers/bankers, a rich family can be rich for multiple generations or until an asteroid hits.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to greginak
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                Maybe Greg? Paris did jump to mind but I wouldn’t bet heavily on the profit/loss of her lifestyle versus her earnings. Regardless she has uncles, aunts, cousins etc who are all definitly drawing down the family fortune.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to greginak
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                Well yes with minimally competant bankers and advisors and heirs all willing to listen to said advisors and live comfortably (but not the fortune can definitley be drawn out. I agree. But I just don’t think that’s something that you can rely on to occurr. People born without want tend to not appreciate the value of money and they blow through it.Report

              • Avatar greginak in reply to North
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                Oh yeah….Donny Trump would fit L60’s point.

                He is a bad business man with a talent for self promotion who started off rich and repeatedly failed at a business that is about as close to a license to print money as there is.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to greginak
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                Trump ain’t rich. Trump controls a shit-ton of money. That’s different. Now I don’t know why people give him the money, but I suppose he’s a better shyster than Madoff was.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Elias Isquith
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          says:

          there seems to be this unspoken assumption that being born (or marrying) into the same family as Sam Walton somehow entitles you to vast sums of his wealth.

          Obviously they’ve done nothing to that really entitles old Sam’s wealth.  But who else is entitled to it?  Who is entitled to receive it instead of them?

           

          This blind spot would result in one permitting all forms of aristocracy.

          Well, no, and your comparison of the Walton’s wealth to the hereditary power of the kind reveals a very serious blind spot of your own.Report

  4. Avatar dexter
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    I am just happy  knowing that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich person to get into heaven.  The Walton’s have done much to lower the standard of living for Americans while raising it for the owners of Chinese sweatshops.

     Report

  5. Avatar Jason Kuznicki
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    In 2007 (the most recent SCF) the cumulative wealth of the Forbes 400 was $1.54 trillion or roughly the same amount of wealth held by the entire bottom fifty percent of American families. This is a stunning statistic to be sure.

    We could confiscate it all and pay for a little less than half a year’s worth of the federal government.

     Report

  6. Avatar wardsmith
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    We could confiscate it all and pay for a little less than half a year’s worth of the federal government.

    This is why I’m voting for President Kuznicki.Report

  7. Avatar Patrick Cahalan
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    I see this as a problem, not precisely from a justice standpoint.

    First problem:

    It does seem odd to me to claim that one person – no matter what their productivity – has had a direct real input on wealth creation that is six orders of magnitude greater than another individual.

    I just don’t buy that.  No matter how great of an original innovator you are, you don’t trump the invention of the steam engine, industrialized assembly lines, and electrical generation, and those combined didn’t create a real impact on wealth creation that was six orders of magnitude greater than what we had without them.  Sorry, that’s crazytown.  And note: no reasonably finite number of innovators were responsible for *those* advances, either.

    So the fact that our system does generate a condition where the measure of wealth (money) is so far out of whack with the actual production of real wealth indicates that it’s pretty damn broken in some fundamental ways.

    This does not imply that there is a better system, granted.

    Second Problem:

    Since money and power are so intertwined, right now, and since our base goods are subject to more than just needs-based market factors, we get into the condition where a person who is in the position described in the previous problem (they have measurable wealth well out of proportion to their real contribution) can create massive market pressures that have serious adverse effects on people who have six orders of magnitude less wealth than they do.  Affecting the price of oil futures by $2 a barrel can have serious repercussions on the poor, everywhere.  This isn’t a case of the wealth-holders being unjust, per se (there’s nothing wrong with them trying to make a buck), but a case of there being systemic disadvantage for those who don’t hold the wealth that affects them more than it ought.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see an easy way to solve this problem.  Having inheritance taxes that were somewhat less beneficial to the inheritors of wealth would probably help, but it’s immensely difficult to implement these in any way that has a practical result in the right direction.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Patrick Cahalan
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      Yeah the problem with inheritance taxes in general is you then have to police the wealthy to make sure they don’t fob the dough off on their heirs prior to snuffing it. There’s simply an incurable power imbalance in the dynamic. People are immensly motivated to hide their assets from the government when it’s taxing in this manner. They’re infinitely more motivated than the disinterested officials are in actually catching them. This leads to a wholesale creating of increasingly complicated schemes and an overwhelmingly complicated counter scheme of regulations to stop it along with lobbying up the ying yang.

      Hell, if we wanted to decrease amassed wealth then just can the corporate income tax and the capital gains exemption.Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to North
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        Yeah the problem with burlary laws in general is you then have to police the burglars to make sure they don’t fob the loot off on their fences prior to getting caught with it. There’s simply an incurable power imbalance in the dynamic. People are immensly motivated to hide their burgled loot from the government when it’s criminalized in this manner. They’re infinitely more motivated than the disinterested officials are in actually catching them. This leads to a wholesale creating of increasingly complicated schemes and an overwhelmingly complicated counter scheme of regulations to stop it along with lobbying up the ying yang.

        Yeah, burglary laws will never work.

        Since I was being so snarky, I will make up for my snide tone by providing a better argument on your behalf.

        A problem with laws in general is if they are too onerous and restrictive of liberty, even ordinarily law abiding people will resort to extreme lengths to evade them. So laws should reflect a popular consensus of fairness among the electorate, leaving only the truly criminal who are willing to run the risk of breaking them. So there is an optimum point at which the inheiritance tax can be set by the electorate which will produce maximum revenue while minimizing evasion.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 in reply to North
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        Inheritance taxes need to be jacked up and firmly set kick in above a certain level — say (just to pick a number) 10 times the median yearly income of a family of 4. (Note: Not mean. Median).

        Heck, to avoid losing the family farm (like that every actually happens), give a generous and automatic grace period (5 years, a decade, whatever) in which to pay off the taxes, interest free. Surely if you inherit more than 10 times the median family of 4’s income — in whatever form — you can, over five or 10 years — pay off a 50% or so tax rate on that bad boy.

        Second, stop treating capital gains as different from ordinary income — that’s another method of wealth concentration that should be addressed. We, in America, have absolutely NO deficit of willing investors. There’s no reason we need to create further incentives to invest money.

        The carried interest exemption for hedges is just a godawful example of how this is a problem.Report

        • Avatar Koz in reply to Morat20
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          It’s a typical delusion of libs that they tend to think things like this are plausible. Forget about the political end, even. If you’re going to expropriate an entire estate, the “patriarch” will move his capital to a nontaxable context.

          In the economics profession, economic production has been historically been taken to be function of labor, capital (and maybe a couple exogenous variables). Libs have created a world where free capital is very very valuable factor of production. And it’s also pretty much a fact of life that capital is more maneuverable than capital as well. That’s the world we live in, largely the one that libs created.

          Under what possible scenario do we expect their tax fantasies to work?

          The cause of the problem is liberals. Get rid of the liberals, get rid of the problem.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Koz
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            It is a typical delusion of Conservatives (more of whom wear Snopes-ian overalls  than Gatsby suits) that clever people actually pay inheritance taxes. Vast platoons, yea regiments of estate law attorneys stand ready and willing  like so many Charons to take you in their little boats across the Styx to the Elysian Fields, leaving your worldly goods to your loved ones without the Dreadful Gummint getting so much as the drachma under your tongue.

            Tax fantasies, indeed.   Being a millionaire just means you can borrow a million.   If only more Conservatives actually had some money, they’d know these things.Report

    • Avatar Lyle in reply to Patrick Cahalan
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      Money and power have always been more or less interlinked. Recall that it was said that John D. Rockefeller owned the Pa legislature, and that the Vanderbilts owned the NY legislature. At that time the federal government was not as important so it was more important to own your state legislature than the federal congress. Of course back then you could be more open and just plain bribe or give stock to a congress person (see Union Pacific 1872/3 for details). In addition at the time there were no conflict of interest rules.

      To see how a truly free market works I encourage folks to look at the 1870/1880s in the railroad business (note that only the UP/Cp got loans from the govenment, while the Northern Pacific and the ATSF and SP got land as well as 10 years earlier the IC. The railroad execs had rate wars and treaties and rate pools, which were broken when someone wanted to take bigger market share. In addition the execs expanded unsubsidized branch lines like crazy (particularly on the great plains where railroad building was dirt cheap) . Between the rate wars and overbuilding 1/3 of the railroads went into receivership in the 1893 depression, which was a railroad bubble, just like the recent ones.Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Lyle
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        Yes, rich men controlled the legislatures like their own personal clubs.

        But I am sure no harm was done, since as established elsewhere, shipping rates were still pretty reasonable.  So quitcher bitchin!Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Lyle
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        To see how a truly free market works I encourage folks to look at the 1870/1880s in the railroad business (note that only the UP/Cp got loans from the govenment, while the Northern Pacific and the ATSF and SP got land as well as 10 years earlier the IC.

        Wait, a “truly free market” where they all got subsidies, some in the form of loans from the government, others in the form of land?

        Seems a bit funny to condemn as an example of a “free market” something that so much government involvement.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Patrick Cahalan
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      Parick,

      It does seem odd to me to claim that one person – no matter what their productivity – has had a direct real input on wealth creation that is six orders of magnitude greater than another individual. I just don’t buy that. 

      Sorry to jump in so late, but I noticed you made some interesting comments that were never addressed as the conversation shifted to inheritance. Actually it is quite possible to get virtually infinite variance in a fair system.

      As an example, consider If I spend a year working on a piece of art that everyone views as worthless and can only sell it for a penny, and someone else spends a year designing a superior product that sells for a thousand dollars and finds 10 million eager buyers. Or consider the economic potential of me in a basketball court as opposed to Jordan, or you as a talk host vs Oprah.

      You have not shown that our system generates “a condition where the measure of wealth (money) is so far out of whack with the actual production of real wealth”  nor that it is broken in fundamental ways.  There is no top end limit to value creation, and as long as people get rich creating value for others (Jordan, Walton, Oprah, etc) it is a great thing. Your assertion that people have wealth beyond their relative contribution is incorrect.

      I won’t even go into the issue that you are combining people that are in debt with those not in debt.Report

  8. Avatar Kolohe
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    says:

    “But I think there’s something more intuitively appealing in calling this subset of the population a faction, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or (my favorite) a kleptocracy.”

    Which doesn’t make it correct.  There are real kleptocracies in the world, the US isn’t one of them.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kolohe
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      Kleptocracy would imply an intent to steal on their part.  That they are the beneficiaries of a skewed system — and not one primarily of their own design — is a lot more defensible, and, I think, true.

      I will probably have a longish post about corporation size in a the next few days or weeks.  It’s an interesting and timely question.Report

  9. Avatar Burt Likko
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    The Forbes 400 has a combined wealth of $1.54 trillion. The “Walton Six” has a combined wealth of $69.7 billion, or $.0697 trillion. Let’s just round it up a bit here and call it an even $70 billion. $70 billion is 4.5% of $1.54 trillion.

    $70 billion is the combined wealth of the bottom 30%. $1.54 trillion is the wealth of the bottom 50%. That means that approximately $1.47 trillion is the combined wealth of those in percentiles 31-50. To be in the second-lowest tier is twenty-one times better than it is to be in the lowest tier, and that’s still not breaking in to the top 50%.

    Seems to me that the income-inequality curve gets pretty steep at a pretty low level, well before we reach the ranks of arbitrageurs and hedge fund overlords.

    It also seems to me that there’s something screwy going on with these numbers. Can’t quite put my finger on it, but maybe, just maybe, someone is lying with statistics here.

    I’ll also note that selection of the “Walton Six” as particular objects of derision here is perfect. As descendents of Sam Walton, we are to assume that they have done nothing to help build their own wealth; rather, they must be members of the idle, playful rich like Paris Hilton. Or maybe they also worked in the family business, helping it grow and become more profitable? I don’t actually know the answer to that question. And, of course, that family business is Wal-Mart, which is by definition “evil” the same way that Apple is “cool.” Maybe Wal-Mart is evil, I don’t know that, either. But it sure is popular with consumers, who choose in overwhelming numbers to spend their money there. They’re doing something right.

    Before I get accused of being some kind of a paleoconservative crying “class warfare oh noes! protect us, newt gingrich, from this nakedly kenyan socialism!” let me assure you all that I’m pefectly willing to consider tax hikes, particularly on those best able to shoulder that burden. Taxing income is not the same thing as penalizing economic success as I see it. I don’t see how our country is going to right its financial course without at least some leaning on the wealthy to pay more than they have been, as part of the bitter blend of unpleasant medicines we will inevitably and imminently need to take. I’m quite receptive to the argument that the sooner we start taking that medicine, the less bitter it’s going to have to be. In other words, if what you’re saying is, “The Walton Six and people like them need to pay a lot more in taxes than they are,” I’m still sitting at the table.

    But. I want to make my policy decisions while looking clear-eyed at reality in a reasonably comprehensive way. I don’t think that’s what we’re being given here. The “top 1% of the top 1%” and “Look how much fishing money those fishing Wal-Mart people have” is nothing but outrage that there are some really, really wealthy people out there. I don’t see anything in the OP other than that, there is not even a direct call for any kind of action other than “join me in being angry at this state of affairs!” I can infer from this a call to increase taxes on the ultra-wealthy, which as I’ve said before is a legitiamte sort of policy change to consider. But rhetoric and propaganda, on their own, are an insufficient reason to change public policy.Report

    • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Burt Likko
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      It’s always weird when you get castigated for failing to write the post a commenter wanted to read and that you never made even the faintest gesture towards intending to write.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Elias Isquith
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        says:

        And it’s similarly weird to be accused of missing the point without also being educated about what the real point was. My inference of a call to increase taxes on the ultra-wealthy was made in good faith and no ill intent, my doing so apparently gave offense, and you have my apologies. I tried to be clear that I was drawing an inference rather than directly attributing a policy position to you; I did not want to put words in your mouth but rather wanted to respond to the post.

        I may indulge in puckish jests from time to time but I was trying to adopt a sober tone in this case; I recognize that the issue you raise in the OP is a serious one and I want to engage it seriously. (“Engagement” does not necessarily equate to “agreement,” of course.) After re-reading the OP, I’ve tried to think of what else you might have been trying to convey that I apparently missed the first time around.

        Which compels me to apologize yet again, because after doing that, it still seems to me that the data referenced therein is a bit squirrelly, and I still can’t identify any (direct) call to policy action. I do see the OP highlighting a concern about wealth disparity.

        The first comment was me trying to respond to what, at least, I thought you were trying to say. It most certainly wasnot intended as a castigation. Never a castigation. Even if I disagree with you totally (which I do not) I would labor to mind my manners in so doing, because I think it’s inherently good to do so. I even make an effort to be polite to Heidegger when he spams my posts with serial comments containing confabulated nonsense; it would hardly make sense to respond to irritations with polititude but not to information and analysis offered by someone whom I regard as an equal, and whom I respect as a fellow searcher for the truth. So I apologize for a third time if anything I wrote inadvertently conveyed a tone of anything other than the most gentlemanly of responses.

        No offense intended, sir. I too, would rather dialogue about the subject you raised than for you and I to talk past one another completely. Help me out, please: what have I missed?Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Elias Isquith
        Ignored
        says:

        My apologies if I gave offense by trying to put words in your mouth. (I did try to make clear that I was inferring a call for increased taxes on the ultra-wealthy.) Not my intent to offend, not my intent to castigate. Even when I disagree with someone strenously, that doesn’t open the floor to castigation — and I’m not 100% clear on whether you and I even disagree at all, since it seems I missed something. Reading the OP again hasn’t helped me, unfortunately. Sincerely and with maxmium respect, would you restate the point you intended to convey, and which have I failed to understand?Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Burt Likko
          Ignored
          says:

          I read you as saying, in effect, that the OP was only telling part of the story, and possibly the least important part at that.  Sure, there are the ultra-wealthy, but then, the jump from the first income quintile to the second is astonishing, too.  And we rarely hear about it.

          That jump ought to be morally interesting — possibly moreso than the wealth of the few at the top, at least if we take Rawls seriously.  Rawls would tell us to look at these people first, based on the difference principle.  A marginal dollar is worth more to them than to someone at the top, and there are a whole lot more people in this class besides.

           Report

    • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Burt Likko
      Ignored
      says:

      Burt, I too was concerned about the “science” behind the sampling. Looking at their site I found the following:

      The survey is expected to provide a core set of data on
      family income, assets, and liabilities. The major
      aspects of the sample design that address this require-
      ment have been constant since 1989. The SCF com-
      bines two techniques for random sampling. First, a
      standard multistage area-probability sample (a geo-
      graphically based random sample) is selected to
      provide good coverage of characteristics, such as
      homeownership, that are broadly distributed in the
      population.
      Second, a supplemental sample is selected to dis-
      proportionately include wealthy families, which hold
      a relatively large share of such thinly held assets as
      noncorporate businesses and tax-exempt bonds. Called
      the ‘‘list sample,’’ this group is drawn from a list of
      statistical records derived from tax returns. These
      records are used under strict rules governing confi-
      dentiality, the rights of potential respondents to refuse
      participation in the survey, and the types of informa-
      tion that can be made available. Persons listed by
      Forbes magazine as being among the wealthiest 400
      people in the United States are excluded from sam-
      pling.
      Of the 4,422 interviews completed for the 2007 SCF,
      2,915 were from the area-probability sample, and
      1,507 were from the list sample; for 2004, 3,007 were
      from the area-probability sample, and 1,515 were
      from the list sample. The number of families repre-
      sented in the surveys considered in this article is
      given by table A.3.
      From the Errata section at the end, this interesting little tidbit:
      In the analysis of the SCF reported in the article,
      privately held businesses do not include businesses
      that were reported to have a net value of zero; this fact
      was not made clear in the definition given in footnote
      39. In 2007, 12.0 percent of families had a privately
      held business with a value different from zero; the
      median and mean values for families having such
      businesses were $100,500 and $1,071,100, respectively.
      If businesses with a value of zero are included
      in the business definition in 2007, ownership rises to
      13.6 percent of families, and the median and mean
      values fall to $92,200 and $946,300, respectively
      Notice how high the /mean/ values of privately held businesses are.

      Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to wardsmith
        Ignored
        says:

        The sample sizes appear to be large enough to inspire reasonable confidence.

        And if the method used to compute a family’s net wealth is the same as used to compute the net wealth of the Forbes 400, then we’re talking apples to apples. That would probably come in to play more with the “list sample” than the “area-probability sample,” by way of different kinds of financial products that “list sample” families would hold unlikely to be held by “area-probability sample” families.

        The real issues may well be the ones Mark identified — causing a lot of people who would reasonably be called “comfortable” if not “affluent” to be included as “negative net worthers” in the bottom 30%.Report

        • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Burt Likko
          Ignored
          says:

          Having looked through the study on which this claim is based, the emphasis of the actual study very much seems to be on personal debt. It’s actually a pretty useful study for other purposes, but it doesn’t seem to make any bones about the fact that it would include someone like, well, me amongst the very poorest Americans if it is used as a metric for determining inequality.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Burt Likko
      Ignored
      says:

      I think I’ve put the finger on it, Burt, in my latest post.  There are no small number of people at any given time that have negative balance sheets, aka “negative wealth.” Add a bunch of negative numbers together and it takes a bunch of positive numbers just to get to zero.  I looked at the data used for the study, and indeed that is the definition of wealth that it uses.  If 18 percent of Americans have loans outstanding in excess of their assets at a given time then it takes a good number of Americans to  balance that negative number out to zero.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Burt Likko
      Ignored
      says:

      Of course they’re doing something right. It’s called stealing intellectual property (JIT).

      Next question please?Report

  10. Avatar BlaiseP
    Ignored
    says:

    All this talk about the One Percent and the dizzying wealth accruing to the asymptote is so much mathematical nonsense.   My son and I did some work and concluded there’s no excuse for anyone to live in abject poverty, anywhere in the world.   The price for this paradise  might surprise you:   the rich would become astronomically richer.

    The rising tide which floats all boats will raise the gargantuan cargo ships and supertankers as much as the flimsiest canoe.   Poverty and misery are not artifacts of the wealthy becoming ever-wealthier.   Wars, overpopulation, bad government, lack of education and disease, especially malaria, are the main causes of poverty in the world.   Attenuate these problems and ordinary people will prosper.   But they will not prosper equally:  some will rise, by virtue of luck, cleverness and diligence, (mostly luck) into the stratosphere of the extremely wealthy.

    I’ve worked with refugees for much of my life.   It has been my greatest joy to watch them rise and flourish and their children prosper, surely as much joy was granted me in so doing as watching my own children grow to maturity.   Belay all this moaning and wringing of hands over the gaps between poor and rich:  the Wheel of Fortune turns fast enough to warrant a larger view of these things than facile conclusions about the obscenity of riches.

    The riches are not the problem.   It’s how people get rich which matters:  if as in Russia and dozens of other nasty  regimes, vast fortunes accrue to crooks and gangsters, that is bad government in action.    If these kleptocrats had any sense, they’d run open and honest governments and become even richer!   They wouldn’t need to live behind castle walls and guard their children from kidnappers.    They could quit pretending they don’t see the beggars peering in the windows of their armored cars.   They’d be praised and thanked for their wisdom and sound leadership and wouldn’t have to engineer these disgusting Cults of Personality.  And they’d sleep better at night.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to BlaiseP
      Ignored
      says:

      Wonder comment in general Blaise, I agree with the lot of it.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to North
        Ignored
        says:

        One of my father’s favourite jokes:

        High above a valley, an Asian dictator sat on his porch with a few of his cronies, smoking a fat cigar and drinking Laphroaig scotch from a Ming dynasty teacup.   Below him in the valley was a modern six-lane highway and its off ramps.  Shops and parking lots, well-built homes filled the slopes of that valley.  A high speed train stopped and disgorged several hundred well-dressed workers headed to a glittering office complex.

        “See that highway?   See that rail line?”  he crowed drunkenly to his cronies.   “By clever accounting, I managed to extract six percent of the public works budget as kickbacks from the contractors!”

        “We know!  We know!” his cronies bellowed, as drunk as the dictator.  “We are those contractors!”

        Another dictator, an African despot, sat on his porch overlooking a valley through which a dirt road meandered.   A few scrawny donkeys carrying firewood ambled along.   Full of palm wine, he crowed to his servants.  “See that highway down there?   Well neither do I.   I stole one hundred percent of the aid money meant to build it!”Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to BlaiseP
      Ignored
      says:

      All I want is smarter rich people. That’s all.

      If you set the criteria on being rich to be “papa made money” then you get dumb folks who can’t be worked with.

      I’d rather have evil geniuses — they’re at least rational.Report

  11. Avatar Roger
    Ignored
    says:

    This post and most of the supportive comments are totally absurd. This is the perfect example of what happens when you combine the zero sum fallacy of wealth creation with envy.

    The implication here is that the wealthy “demanded” or took wealth from someone else via theft, coercion or regulatory rent seeking. If this is true, and you have evidence, please suggest prosecution, laws or deregulation to address it. I will support this part of the initiative.

    In reality, the normal process to create wealth in a free enterprise system is to create value for someone else. Walmart has done unfathomable good for us, as has Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Amazon, United Airlines and so on. We save money and get great products and experiences, and they get money in return. It is a win/win, and the more I win the more they do. It doesn’t redistribute wealth, it makes both of us better. After all, that is why we enter into the exchange.

    Great problem solvers create massive positive sum prosperity and can get unfathomably wealthy doing it. This isn’t a bug of free enterprise, it is a feature. If we want more prosperity in the future the key isn’t to have fewer mega billionaires, it is to create oodles and oodles more of them.

    Let me be specific — the bottom 50% are made better off by the top .1%  Unfathomably so.

    As for their kids… get over it. Some people start life with advantages. For example, anyone born in the US in the last 60 years as opposed to the impoverished, illiterate, ensurfed, stinky, short-lived masses that filled the planet for the prior 10,000 years. Those of you reading this are the lucky ones. Your inability to avoid envy over those even luckier is pathetic.

     Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger
      Ignored
      says:

      The people who continue to envy those less well off then themselves, are the people who are pathetic. The fact that you continue to defend these folks, who would push you into rags, just so that they could feel “richer”, is demeaning.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Kim
        Ignored
        says:

        The point is that they make our lives better, Kimmi. The natural state before the ascendency of free markets was less than a billion people living short stinky lives of about $2 a day. Free enterprise creates a system where we can get unfathomably wealthy and healthy by adding value and wealth to others.

        I realize most “progressives” are blinded to the possibilities of positive sum win/win interactions implicit in free markets. Until you get this concept, this discussion is going to be beyond you. Walton, Gates, Jobs, Oprah, Rockefeller, etc helped all of us to become wealthier. Their market activity did not push us into rags.

        Do you understand the concept and possibility of win/win activity?

         Report

        • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger
          Ignored
          says:

          I will refer you to Tim Kowal’s post about the “win-win” situation whereby a large chain of stores expropriated the land of a smaller store with the friendly assistance of the local government.

          I assume the large store used pretty much your talking points about how the lives of the consumers would be improved by the efficiency of a larger store outlet.

          The consumers won, the store won, the City won. Whats the problem?Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Liberty60
            Ignored
            says:

            A powerful private concern blackmailing the government into using its power on the private concern’s behalf is not an example of the free market at work.  It’s an example of what happens when the government has too much power to interfere in the market.Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Liberty60
            Ignored
            says:

            Liberty,

            Are you serious? Really?

            I write several posts about the need for free voluntary interactions between adults and against zero sum interactions which specifically mentions the dangers of rent seeking and regulatory capture and your rebuttal is an example of the very problem I warn of?

            What are you missing? Rent seeking and regulatory capture are the problems. These are indeed the primary weapons of market incumbents. I have nothing but disdain for this type of zero sum exploitation.

            In the pursuit of activist regulators (to equalize wealth) progressives are the ones demanding this regulatory monster.

             Report

            • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger
              Ignored
              says:

              OK, so we agree about rent seeking and regulatory capture.

              So how do you propose to prevent the private interests from capturing the government?

              If you want to destroy the government power, my repsonse is that the private power just promptly constructs it again.

              Power builds whatever tools it needs to enlarge itself; if government is limited, private interests make it large enough to do what they want.

              Attacking government power while leaving private power intact seems like treating the symptom and not the disease.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Liberty60
                Ignored
                says:

                Liberty,

                Yes, we agree here on the dangers of regulatory capture. My latest comments to Greg on Tim’s post lay out my recommendations on how to delay this process. Powerful incumbents always try to throw sand into the gears of progress. Change is threatening to them, and there is always an asymmetry of power between market incumbents.

                The most succinct answer that I will give though is just what Tim suggested in his final paragraph. Collectively, we need to demand that governments are limited in scope and power. When we ask them to play an activist role to influence equitable and just outcomes, we create the very beast that the powerful capture.

                Indeed, it is pretty obvious to me that the special interests, the regulators and the intellectuals spewing this activist nonsense are all working together to promote and rationalize the very system they use against us.

                I understand why they try to build a complex, activist regulatory system. That is their ring of power. What amazes me is all the liberal and conservative “victims” that demand that this weapon be forged.

                 

                 Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                Hey, Liberty, did this answer — which didn’t address your question and just repeated the same ideological shibboleths along with some fist-shaking at pointy-headed elites — clear things up for you?Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                Elias,

                My referenced posting in Tim’s OP was much more specific. Please take a look.

                How about a response to my assertion that you fall for the zero sum fallacy on wealth? (see the root of this subthread)

                This area is a fundamental and constant area of contention between progressives and those that honestly understand economics. Do you understand that wealth creation can be a positive sum process? That Sam Walton, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Oprah make the rest of us better off, not worse? That we would be better off not by them being less well off, but more?

                We need more billionaires.

                 

                 Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Liberty60
                Ignored
                says:

                So how do you propose to prevent the private interests from capturing the government?

                This is what we have constitutions for.

                If you want to destroy the government power, my repsonse is that the private power just promptly constructs it again.

                This is why we make constitutions difficult to amend.

                Is it a perfect solution?  No.  But do you have a better one to offer?Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                Continuing on the theme of finding places to agee-

                OK, so we as citizens agree that a constitution is in order, that lays out clearly the limits of government power.

                Further, we agree that government services can easily become tools of oppression.

                But a constituion is literally just a piece of paper that means whatever Congress and the Courts say it means.

                Does it mean the City can confiscate my land and give it to a private developer? Apparently it does.

                Does the Constitution prevent the private interests from spending whatever billions they need to to make sure they get a Congress and Court that  rules in their favor? Apparently it doesn’t.

                My solution is very similar to what the Founders envisioned, which is a system that spreads power among many entities both public and private. A system which is open to amendment, but prefers stasis and incremental change rather than sweeping overhauls.

                There is no magic silver bullet, a Grand Theory of Everything that automatically self-corrects. In any just society, the people are constantly going to need to tinker and adjust the boundaries of power- one day granting more to the government, another day restricting it.

                Speaking in broad sweeping terms whereby government is always the oppressor, and private interests always the victim is every bit as fallacious as its opposite.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Liberty60
                Ignored
                says:

                Liberty,

                Now we are cookin’ with butter!

                I agree with your comment that there is much value in balance of power. I would however caution against creating a power that can actively act as an equalizer. This becomes the doomsday weapon. The game changes to assume control and influence of this power.

                I also worry about too much tinkering. Let me explain why.

                Consider the game of tennis. It has a set of simple and consistent rules and judges or referees who are chosen based upon their proven ability to be fair and impartial and to avoid trying to influence the game. If we wanted to destroy the game, a sure fire way to do so would be to create activist ref’s and dynamic rules.

                If we met every week with a the legislature of referees and argued over the rules — let’s change the points, let’s limit the speed of serves, let’s pass rules against poaching at the net, etc etc. Then the path to success within tennis would be to win the game of regulation. We shift from winning or losing on the court to winning or losing via the regulations and by assuring it is our ref’s not theirs that judge the contest.

                The key to good tennis is simple, consistent rules and non-activist refs. The same is true in markets. We need simple rules that prohibit force, fraud and rent seeking. As we justify more complex and dynamic rules, the rent seeking and regulatory capture become more and more assured.

                Government in my example is not the oppressor, and the private players are not victims. Government’s role is to be simple, consistent, fair and non activist. It’s role is to keep the competition on the court and to avoid trying to influence the outcomes.

                I fear you and much of America are pushing for activist ref’s. The results are pretty ugly.Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                When you say “much of America” is pushing for activist refs, you are including the vast majority of corporate America in that claim, I take it.

                So it comes down to this- Libertarians would prefer a limited government, while also erecting a firewall between that government and private interests. Presumably then, Libertarians will be fighting both the citizens who want government services AND private powers that want to capture government.

                On a completely unrelated, and wildly offtopic subject, there is this headline at memeorandum:

                “GOP Will Take Off The Gloves If Ron Paul Wins”

                Good luck with that.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                Liberty,

                Yes, special interest powers such as incumbent corporations, unions, government workers and such always lead the charge toward activist regulations.

                In a prior comment I mentioned Tolkien’s one ring of power. The saddest thing about it wasn’t that Sauron had the ring, it was that he tricked the elves into forging it for him. Large corporations and government agencies are like Sauron. They are tricking us into forging their power (see Elias’ OP). Truth is they could never forge it without our support.

                Your point about the libertarians acting as a voice against all sides is probably spot on. The more we fight over the pie, the more we destroy the pie. The point is to find a way to discourage or, better yet, stop fighting!

                I believe it is important to open others’ eyes to the danger and folly of zero sum, partisan wrangling over the distribution of power and wealth. If we take our eye off creating new and larger pies and instead  devolve into struggles over the existing pie, then we are screwed.

                Long term, I believe the pie makers in all of us will win out. But I could be wrong.

                (sorry for awkward mixing of the pie and ring metaphors)Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                Roger, while we agree that a world where both unions and corporations are unable to influence government is to be desired, the agreement stops there.

                I believe that world is about as unattainable as the fully representational worker’s collective, and for much the same reason.

                But there is another side that we haven’t touched on and deserves a voice here in the 1% thread.

                While we can agree that the social safety net for example can contain the tools for the opproession of the poor, would you also agree that it is nonetheless needed? Which means there will forever be the existance of “activist regulations” aka  the ring of Sauron.

                Or are you suggesting that in the limited-government world such a thing isn’t needed?

                 Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                Liberty,

                Yeah, the ideal is for minimal interference. The less the better. The model I use is there are actions that make the world better and actions that make it worse. The key is to do more of the former than the latter. The progress societies have made over the past 500 years (quickly over the past 150) is because we have taken more steps forward than back. The last few years may have been net backwards.

                I believe we will never eliminate steps back.

                I wouldn’t want to live in a society without good safety nets. To minimize rent seeking within the safety nets I lean toward private over public, local over national, choice over one size fits all, competition over monopoly, and protections against free riders (parasites).

                In other words, my safety nets may look slightly different than yours. They would evolve, but not based so much on politics and wrangling of special interest groups, but based upon competition and choice among those selecting them.

                 

                 Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                Liberty,

                One more comment on your observation that libertarians are fighting both the public and the rent seekers. I think it is more accurate to state that we all benefit from a fair system without rent/privilege seeking. Unfortunately, most of us try to optimize our outcomes by living in a world where everyone else plays fair and we “cheat” (seek unfair advantage). So everyone cheats and the worst of all worlds comes about.

                Libertarians are not fighting against anyone. They are trying to raise awareness that we need institutions and mores that discourage privilege seeking — for our own collective well being.

                Shifting to another bad metaphor, we are not Cowboy or Redskin fans. We are fans of a fair game of football. We are not opposed to fans of either team, we are trying to get both teams to play fair, and we think we will all be better off long term by being so.

                 Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                Roger,

                you leave your flanks far too open. Judge me not for my words, however sharp they be.

                Safety Nets are about the worst things to privatize. Half the coastal south can’t get flood insurance anymore (the insurance companies “wont’ issue it” — which as the insurance lad about these parts will tell you, means that “it’s tood arn expensive for people to afford”).

                But what does that really mean? it’s back on the STATE to handle the homeless. AGAIN.

                What’s to stop your private plans from doing the same cherry picking?Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                Taking Kim’s point more broadly-

                Competition and choice are fine for things that people want to buy, and other people want to sell.

                But there is no market for feeding, clothing, and healing people who can’t pay.

                Which means after we glibly discuss public/private partnerships, voucher this or exchange that, there is a fundamental decision that society makes:

                If someone makes stupid choices in life and is sick and unable to pay, do we all pay for his treatment or do we let him die?

                In other words, is there a societal obligation to protect the powerless, even if it is not profitable or efficient?Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                Kimmy and Liberty,

                Fine points. That is why I said I LEAN in these directions. Note that in some cases if it can’t be privatized there can still be choice or competition. I am trying to avoid over-centralization and bureaucratic stagnation. I am certainly not black or white on these issues.

                As to specifics… Kim, I assume you are referencing wind/hurricane coverage. Flood has always been a federal program (and has the bad side effect of encouraging building at the river’s edge). The problem with hurricane coverage is that it is horribly expensive. If you allow the price to float to what insurers need to make a profit and that doesn’t threaten their survival when the big one hits, there is no reason the market won’t cover that risk. The real point is that privilege seekers and regulators are trying to get others to subsidize their premiums.

                You are right about cherry picking. Indeed, in a prior life I was in charge of cherry picking for one of these insurance companies. I agree private insurance cannot handle all risks, as some people won’t be able to afford their level of risk. But then we are talking about subsidies for certain individuals. I can come up with lots of good reasons why a society would want to subsidize people, but it needs to be in a way which minimizes free riding and that does not encourage risky behavior (see building by river’s edge).  Details would probably take us astray.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                Liberty,

                If someone makes stupid choices in life and is sick and unable to pay, do we all pay for his treatment or do we let him die? In other words, is there a societal obligation to protect the powerless, even if it is not profitable or efficient?

                Great question.

                I asked my older brother this question and he said we should always be compassionate and take care of the sick and stupid.

                But my older sister replied that she is Ok with the sick, but not the stupid. If it is their fault she refuses to help them. “It just encourages them” was her logic, though it only applies to adults.

                My younger brother agrees with his older bro’ but he believes that there should be a limit to how much we help those that create their own problems. He’s worried about dependency, free riding and such issues.

                My younger sister believes those that want to help should help but feels that it is unjust to force people to be compassionate, especially since we all seem to disagree with who and how much.

                My twin brother just says “screw ’em”. But he is a bit of an ass.

                I still have not made up my mind on the issue. Liberty and Kim, what do you suggest?

                 Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                Hmm. I kinda feel confident that if we all sat down together, we could come up with something better than we got now.

                Supporting people who have some amount of problems doesn’t cost all that much. Certainly, if we got rid of half the prison population, we could pay for double the amount of people homeless (where I’m explicitly not talking about getting them homes, but more feeding/socks/training as feasible).

                A standard solution to free riding is flattening everything, like Social Security does. You don’t need to think about free riders taking advantage of us in their old age — because everyone gets X that they can plan around. So what’s the disadvantage of this? Well, you can’t buy into Ponzi schemes with your SS. You can’t be risky with it.

                Setting up a few simple rules and regs should be enough to discourage free riders with health care (our majorest expense, I think).

                1) If you come into the hospital, and you’re old and sick, people on the gov’t dole are entitled to X amount of care (not dollar related. but… comatose is probably about my threshhold. we won’t keep you around if you’re comatose).

                2) 3 hots and a cot is not an Emergency Room phenom.  This is a relatively urgent issue… (there should, as much as possible, be a place where people can go, and get minimal medical supervision at any time of day or night. a hostel with a nurse as desk staff).

                As for free riders on welfare — so long as we can price welfare lower than “I get all the goodies”, people will work. I fully endorse the gov’t spending money on socializing people to want to work.

                We may actually want to incentivize risky behavior… so long as we can price that into our insurance.. (of course, then you get teh painter phenomenon, where the person will NEVER pay off…)Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                I say that both conservatism and liberalism share a belief that power should always be held in check.

                Liberals believe that government should act as referee to govern power, and conservatives believe that religion or social mores should govern the behavior of power.

                Libertarians seem to belive that power will automatically be held in check by market or other self-regulating forces, and there is no need for us to restrict it.

                So when confronted by a sick person, regardless of his stupidity or lack of, both a conservative and a liberal will rush to his aid (even while arguing about blame and methodology).

                A libertarian might stand by and watch him die, convinced that this outcome will encourage others to make better choices.

                This is why libertarianism is a radical notion, a fundamentally different conception of social order than we have ever seen before, with the singular exception of socialism.

                 Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                lib, no, true conservatism is nothing more than Social Darwinism, with someone kicking the legs out from under you. Naturally, that’s not popular, so they disguise it with ideas like “let the church handle it” and other such devolutions of power.

                If you gave people a purely flat powerstructure, they’d bollix it up in notime. not everyone… just the “special” people. Just look at America…Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Roger
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                says:

                I don’t see how conservatism (definition?) could be more accurately described as Social Darwinism than orthodox libertarianism. Conservatism has too close of a relationship in the West with Christianity for that definition to hold water.Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                Conservatism has always had twin pillars, of social order and personal lilberty.

                Social order sets an outline of regulations and rules that are enforced via religion; e.g., in traditional societies, you weren’t taxed to pay charity; but you were obliged to tithe, upon pain of damnation. The Lord of the realm may have unlimited power, but he was still subservient to the Pope.

                Obviously, it never worked nearly as neatly as some would make it sound, but that was the theory at least.

                Proposing a world governed only by personal liberty is something new, something radically different.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                I think you’re in the zone, O Lib60.  I’d say conservatism is first of all about social order, and you astutely point out that that included a responsibility to others via charity, tithing, etc.

                “Empathy” or “fellow-feeling” as well, per Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”

                Smith’s second [and lesser] book, “Wealth of Nations” is merely an observation on how personal liberty coupled with self-interest produces more aggregate wealth and plenty.  Smith’s full title is “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.”

                It’s as much more field research than abstract Marx-style theorizing.  Liberty, at least economic liberty, seems to work.  But the initial argument for it is pragmatic.

                Freedom of thought is much more problematic.  Socrates gets the hemlock for ideas that are a threat to the state.  Heresy in the Middle Ages was a civil crime, again, as a threat to social order.  It’s the Protestant Dissenters coming to America—and the sectarian English civil wars—that make pluralism of religion-as-conscience necessary, if only for practical reasons.

                 

                Ah, but I go on, without even getting to “liberalism.”  Perhaps we’ll pick it up later–I think you’re onto a very interesting line of inquiry.  And as modern fans of Adam Smith point out, his second book is worthless without his first: economic liberty without ethics is barren.  On this, we may come to strongly agree.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                Kim,

                Hmm. I kinda feel confident that if we all sat down together, we could come up with something better than we got now.

                In theory. So the question becomes why don’t we? As you mention, a few simple rules could discourage the worst abuses. I suspect my various brothers and sisters of various political leanings will never agree though. One wants more, another less. The politicians and regulators themselves of course benefit from more.. always more.

                That is why I am encouraging more choice, competition, subsidiarity etc. I believe we have wildly different values and there are ways to appeal to a broader range of values than one monolithic federal bureaucracy.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger
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                says:

                Liberty,

                I say that both conservatism and liberalism share a belief that power should always be held in check. Liberals believe that government should act as referee to govern power, and conservatives believe that religion or social mores should govern the behavior of power. Libertarians seem to belive that power will automatically be held in check by market or other self-regulating forces, and there is no need for us to restrict it.

                So after several days of discussing the desire of a non activist referee — simple consistent rules enforced by non-partisan ref’s —  your summary is as above?

                I have clearly and repeatedly emphasized that we need rules against the use of force, fraud and other forms of exploitation.  How could you have missed this?

                So when confronted by a sick person, regardless of his stupidity or lack of, both a conservative and a liberal will rush to his aid (even while arguing about blame and methodology). A libertarian might stand by and watch him die, convinced that this outcome will encourage others to make better choices.

                WTF? It appears you are accusing either me or all the libertarians at this site of being less moral and compassionate than conservatives and liberals.   Am I misreading this?

                This is why libertarianism is a radical notion, a fundamentally different conception of social order than we have ever seen before, with the singular exception of socialism.

                If libertarianism was about standing by and watching the sick die, then your argument would be sound. We were discussing societal obligation. I clarified that different people have different takes on the issue (without labeling any of them with partisan tags). I asked for your recommendations on reconciling these differences. Your response is that libertarians are monsters. Why are you saying this?

                 Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger
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                says:

                TVD,

                Oh, so Conservatives are in favor of homosexuality after all! It does preserve the social order, after all — that’s why it has been selectively bred for. (by which I mean male homosexuality, nobody’s cared about breeding Lesbians, other than preserving them in the general population…)Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger
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                says:

                Roger,

                An who ever said we need to agree? The clash of ideas grinds out good, shiny ones like sand polishes broken glass. ‘sides, I can accept an unhappy bargain just like the rest of yinz.Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger
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                says:

                Roger-

                One of us seems to be confused as to what libertarianism means.

                From what I have gathered , Libertarianism puts the individual as soveriegn, that the highest duty is to oneself; there is no moral duty to others. They are not opposed to charitable giving, but they don’t see it as a moral obligation.

                If someone wants to explain to me the libertarian concept of social obligation, I would cheerfully stand corrected.

                 Report

  12. Avatar Kyle
    Ignored
    says:

    Two (brief) comments.

    1. “Having six people hold an amount of wealth equivalent to that of roughly 90 million is nearly unbelievable…it’s unfathomable.” And yet this is so artificial a calculation and perspective that I question whether we should want to fathom it. Just unpacking what wealth means is tricky, its realationship to the people in either group (6 or 90 million) is even more so. When so many concepts and relationships are simplified into a puncy graph of pithy statistic, to some degree isn’t the subject matter robbed of the very depth of meaning that makes the information valueable in the first place. I mean six people hold an amount of wealth equivalent to that of rougly 90 million…but they also hold the amount of wealth equivalent to roughly 900 million. What do either of these things tell us? I’m not sure. They’re numbers, they’re not relationships, they’re not good or bad, they’re just the particular way in which we count very particular things.

    IOW, I think the interesting story is not the “shocking” statistic (aren’t they all these days) but why the statistic matters in the first place and that could be fleshed out a bit more because it really is interesting.

    2. The thing that grabs me the most about this post and discussion is the way in which our somewhat unique ability to quantify inequality of monetary wealth distorts and dominates discussions of inequality generally. Which isn’t to say there aren’t good and interesting discussions to be had on the subject, merely that such discussions have an unfortunate way of sucking all the oxygen out of the room because people like numbers, graphs, and pithy statistics that can be helpful and limiting at the same time.

    Also, hi everybody! Mark, Erik, Jaybird, Burt, North, Jason, Greg, happy holidays!Report

  13. Avatar Roger
    Ignored
    says:

    Liberty.

    I expanded the thread to give us some room.

    I think you are describing an Objectivist. Sounds like a sketch of Ayn Rand to me. Objectivists, to the best of my knowledge, probably do call themselves libertarians. Perhaps James H can correct me here, though.

    I am not too familiar with this branch, other than to think they are creepy and make REALLY bad movies (Atlas Shrugged!).

    All I am qualified to represent are my views.

     Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger
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      says:

      Kim,

      Good points on compromise. Sometimes it is the best we can get.

      Often it isn’t though. Large groups often make extremely dysfunctional compromises. When partisan interest groups get involved, we often find amazingly suboptimal decisions. Congress is filled with such dysfunctionality of late.

      Interest groups gain relative positional advantage via various courses of action. The step best for the society at large is often not taken because of the relative power loss to a minority group. When a compromise solution is adopted, it suffers from the defect of testing nothing. All sides disagree with part of the solution (the part they compromised on). Then when it fails, both sides just dismiss it as due to the compromises.

      I am very reluctant to support centralized monopolistic actions. I prefer choice and competition where practical. A single course reduces options, eliminates benchmarks and points of comparison, reduces constructive competition, attracts ( almost guarantees) rent seekers, parasites and bureaucratic sclerosis, and it requires more coercion. We have different values and contexts and getting us all into one box limits freedom and experimentation.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger
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        says:

        Luv experimentation. Liked Reagan/Clinton’s ideas of treating states/cities like sandboxes.

        That said, how much of our GDP are you willing to waste in order to get “healthy competition”? 10%? (extrapolating from the 15% or more waste in health care, and tweaking it down because surely something’s more competent…)

        I don’t think the VA requires much coercion to get people to use it. But maybe that’s just because I see a decent gov’t run option as a good thing.

        I think that some partisan groups are MUCH more impractical than others. Some actually work for everyone’s benefit, in so far as that actually exists (EFF, who pays their lobbyist in cocktail weenies (ahem. “we don’t pay you enough for food? find some free food, you’re a lobbyist in DC.”)). The Israeli Lobby, on the other hand, is genuinely creepy (not JStreet, the other one). And Big Sugar is … well, big sugar.Report

  14. Avatar Roger
    Ignored
    says:

    Kim,

    Fine points all…

    I would not be willing to sacrifice ANY net long term progress (GDP, health, freedom, opportunity, etc) for the sake of competition. I embrace competition to reduce waste and improve our ability to learn. I see constructive competition as a necessary part of the recipe for progress (and agree that Darwinian, destructive competition bites).Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger
      Ignored
      says:

      btw,

      the reason ppl don’t actually hash out good compromises/idea exchanges, is that we lack the belief that we can actually get them implemented, or even seen by relevant parties. Well, most people lack that. I feel otherwise… but I know people who have had Bill Clinton crash their lectures (at which point they refused to give the talk, but I digress… “When I get nervous, I start doing improv comedy. This rarely ends well…”).Report

  15. Avatar Surf (Roger)
    Ignored
    says:

    Liberty,

    I should add that selfishness has nothing to do with core libertarianism. The core of liberalism is based more on the consequential values of liberty, non-coercion and property rights. Objectivists are to libertarianism as Mormons are to Christianity. Meaning that they have added parts of their own.

    The closest I can get to understanding how you might be right to view libertarians as selfish is that we do not support coercing others to be altruistic. Libertarians are fine with helping someone who is in need, and probably as likely to say it is morally necessary as the next person. What we don’t support is forcing another to go along with our desire to help. Progressives tend to support requiring and coercing others to  pay for medical care or welfare or whatever. Libertarians are very reluctant to force others toward their values.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Surf (Roger)
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      says:

      I’m reluctant too, towards forcing people. I’d rather everything be unicorns and eating crayons with attendant rainbows.

      If the libertarian approach of “letpeople do what they want” was feasible, we should have already seen a HUGE increase in charitable contributions in America, based on the declining tax rate for the past fifty years.Report

      • Avatar Surf (Roger) in reply to Kim
        Ignored
        says:

        Kim,

        I have no visions of utopia. I just argue that we LEAN toward more liberty, not less. More experimentation and competition, not less. More decentralization, not less.

        I am not arguing for charity rather than taxes. That would be silly. But I do LEAN toward lower taxes and more charity. I also lean toward choices in where our taxes go, local programs where practical, healthy competition between institutions etc.

        Makes sense, no?Report

  16. Avatar Liberty60
    Ignored
    says:

    “Libertarians are fine with helping someone who is in need, and probably as likely to say it is morally necessary as the next person. What we don’t support is forcing another to go along with our desire to help. “

    I can’t think of any society in the entire history of the human race in which this was considered true.

    Every religion or culture holds that taking care of the extended family as a sacred duty, compulsory, and failure to help is punishable upon eternal damnation. In most cases, “extended family” extended to kin and clan far beyond cousins, several times removed.

    By elevating the liberty of the self as the highest goal, libertarianism breaks with this universal code of conduct.Report

    • Avatar Surf (Roger) in reply to Liberty60
      Ignored
      says:

      Liberty,

      We have made progress. You are beginning to have disdain against libertarianism rather than against a caricature of it.

      A couple of things though…

      I can’t think of any society in the entire history of the human race in which this was considered true.

      Perhaps that is why history has been one long story of exploitation, impoverishment and enslavement with the beginnings of a very recent and fragile post enlightenment reprieve. Your position is odd. Don’t you think people said something similar when we suggested freeing slaves and bringing equality to women?

      As to “sacred duty,” I have no objection to a society considering the helping of others to be a sacred duty. All we need to do is convince people that it is their duty. I have concerns with physically forcing them to do something that is against their will. There is a big difference between the two.

      As an example, I am raising my grandson to care for others, and I would encourage him to widen his circle of caring not just to family but to all humanity and even all life. I am also trying to raise him to not use violence or deception on others. I would certainly encourage him to never use violence or threats to get others to do what they do not want to do. My lesson is that coercion should always be a last resort. It is tempting to take short cuts, but in the end it is counterproductive.

      I do not see “liberty to the self” to be a goal. I only support liberty for instrumental or consequential reasons. I believe more liberty is a better path than less.

      Liberty and property rights and experimentation are not goals, they are means to an end. The ends are the goals, dreams and desires of human beings. The goals are the enrichment, health, wisdom and happiness of humanity. The goal is progress.

       Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Surf (Roger)
        Ignored
        says:

        Reading this, and the above comments to Kim, makes you sound like a ordinary conservative, rather than a libertarian.

        But even taken on their own face-

        You note that you “have no objection to a society considering the helping of others to be a sacred duty. All we need to do is convince people that it is their duty. ”

        Well, yeah, true that.

        What does “sacred” mean? Is it important? Is it worth enforcing? Is there a time when my personal liberty can be infringed by the sacred?

        What does the word “duty” mean? Can we measure when someone fulfills it? How? Is there some consequence of not?

        Why is helping others a “sacred duty”? How do we make it come about?

        A philosophy that asks us only to “lean towards charity” or that posits that “more liberty is better” is one that has not even a passing aquaintance with the darkness or complexity of human nature.

        Is there such a thing as a libertarian who has failed to live up to his creed? How could you possibly tell?

        The philosophy you are describing lacks even the fundamental definition of what “good” is, or why it matters.

         Report

        • Avatar Surf (Roger) in reply to Liberty60
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          says:

          Liberty,

          What does “sacred” mean? Is it important? Is it worth enforcing? Is there a time when my personal liberty can be infringed by the sacred?

          I am not exactly sure what you meant by it — I was just borrowing your usage. I assumed it was important and so resisted my inclination to delete the term. Certainly I am aware that a lot of people view some values to be sacred. Some people probably even see liberty or self-interestedness (Rothbard/Rand?) as sacred or essential. I don’t.  I also was borrowing your term duty.

          Let me rephrase your question in terms that do make sense to me. Can liberty be infringed by other values? Yes, definitely. Where freedom routinely leads to bad outcomes, it should be repressed. Libertarians are often rule utilitarians. They like rules or codes of conduct that tend to lead to good results and to dislike ones that lead consistently to bad results. They value liberty and private property and free enterprise for consequentialist reasons.

          I believe we should — in general —  be free to do whatever as long as others are not directly harmed by it. This doesn’t mean I approve of everything one does that doesn’t harm others. It does mean that I will be tolerant of it.

          My way of summarizing it is that people are free to do whatever they like as long as the action is expected to have a positive sum outcome. For an action that only affects themselves, I would almost always allow adults to choose whatever action. They are a better judge of their values, needs and context than anyone else 98% of the time. There are some exceptions — for example the freedom to sell oneself to slavery. It has tended to be a bad idea, and I support rules against it.

          With interactions, I believe rules should prohibit zero sum, win/lose direct interactions. People should not be allowed to enslave, lie, cheat, steal, harm or blackmail others (or to use authority to do so). One wins, the other loses and society on average is harmed. Zero sum interactions are the poison of social and human development and progress. Included in this list is that I disapprove of your desire to physically force others to contribute to your charitable causes. It is better if you get them to do so voluntarily, and imo worth the effort and inefficiency.

          On the other hand, I believe there should be very, very little interference of positive sum win/win interactions such as are seen in free enterprise. These can be identified by voluntary, honest interactions between adults that do not have negative direct externalities (such as pollution). Positive sum interactions (along with knowledge) are the building blocks of social development and human progress.

          A philosophy that asks us only to “lean towards charity” or that posits that “more liberty is better” is one that has not even a passing aquaintance with the darkness or complexity of human nature.

          I would say the same about one that puts faith in centralized, coercive, interventionist authority. I study human nature and history 4 to 6 hours a day, and I believe exploitation is the bane of humanity. It must be discouraged.

          Is there such a thing as a libertarian who has failed to live up to his creed? How could you possibly tell?

          He would be intolerant of others and limit their freedom to do as they like as long as others are not harmed.

          The philosophy you are describing lacks even the fundamental definition of what “good” is, or why it matters.

          Not true. It allows you and me to both explore, learn and define” good” and then to interact in ways that benefit both of us and which discourages interactions which benefit one at the expense of the other.  A philosophy touting positive sum outcomes is 100% focused on discovering and creating “good.”

          I didn’t start as a libertarian, I started by pursuing good and found what i believed looked a lot like what Mises, Hazlit and Hayek were saying. In other words, I found they agreed with me but just happened to say it first.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to Surf (Roger)
            Ignored
            says:

            “I would say the same about one that puts faith in centralized, coercive, interventionist authority.”

            So we can put you down as anti-insurance companies?Report

            • Avatar Surf (Roger) in reply to Kim
              Ignored
              says:

              Not if there is competition between insurers and consumers are free to choose between them.  I seriously question the abilities of the free market to solve the issue of health insurance, considering the current state of affairs.Report

          • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Surf (Roger)
            Ignored
            says:

            What I glean from your post is that you favor things that are good, and are opposed to things that are bad.

            Further, you are opposed to things that harm people.

            But even then, coercion that forces people to be good is bad.

            Good God.

            Where do I start?

            You put a premium on the pursuit of self aggrandizement, but you somehow are convinced that any harm that comes from it will be tempered by a vague prohibition against “harm”, as if it was perfectly obvious what harm is, and that we would all agree on it when we see it.

            Yet the history of humans shows exactly the opposite. In your extensive study of us humans, surely you have noticed that we are possessed of incredibly powerful desires that are hard wired into our biology; we crave fats and sugars, sex, power, wealth. In no particular order.

            We are also possessed of an amazing ability to define good and bad according to our own self-centeredness; therefore humans can easily explain why incinerating Jews is “good”, but coercing them to pay a tax to fund an army to stop this is “bad”.

            Conservatism and liberalism both  proceed from a simple premise- that there is intrinsic value in human dignity and autonomy, that this very autonomy can only be brought about by a careful balancing of self-interest with a clear moral order that sets boundaries on behavior, and enforces them with coercion when needed.

            You appear to see no need for balance- instead of a balance of freedom versus responsibility, you see freedom as an unquestionable good, that ultimate freedom is the ultimate good.

            You throw a blanket approval over any and all human interactions that are “voluntary”, as if the line between consent and coercion is always bright, as if all interactions are made by rational actors operating on an equal footing.

            I don’t think your study of human nature has been as fruitful as you think.

             Report

            • Avatar Surf (Roger) in reply to Liberty60
              Ignored
              says:

              Liberty,

              You put a premium on the pursuit of self aggrandizement, but you somehow are convinced that any harm that comes from it will be tempered by a vague prohibition against “harm”, as if it was perfectly obvious what harm is, and that we would all agree on it when we see it.

              When did I put a premium on self aggrandizement? I certainly would say I put a premium on widespread human flourishing, if that is what you mean.

              When did I ever argue for a vague prohibition against harm? I recommend a clear and consistent prohibition on harm, and even a state apparatus (albeit minimal) to ensure it.

              You have not yet “gotten” the value of liberty yet. Where people interact with each other, their voluntary choice reveals their preferences and values. If there is no deception/fraud, then my choice reveals that I expect to value by it. We don’t all need to agree to it, just those parties involved need to. This is revealed any time they enter into an expected win/win relationship. Of course people are not omniscient and can make mistakes — I know I have thought I would value purchases that I later regret. We learn. Where people make consistent mistakes, I would support coercion against it (perhaps heroin use?).

              We are also possessed of an amazing ability to define good and bad according to our own self-centeredness; therefore humans can easily explain why incinerating Jews is “good”, but coercing them to pay a tax to fund an army to stop this is “bad”.

              Yes, the centralized, coercive state did convince tens of millions of people that it was good to incinerate Jews.  Notice that the Jews never agreed to this. This was a violent and coercive act.

              And yes, if we could get people to voluntarily fund the army to defend against such evil in the guise of good, it would be — all else equal — better than coercing them to do so. I would support such an army… wouldn’t you? But I am certainly not saying that involuntary taxation is always wrong. I clearly and repeatedly said I lean toward voluntary and will lower this standard for consequential reasons.

              I can’t believe you are arguing with a libertarian on the value of autonomy or dignity. You’ll get no rebuttal from me here. And how many times do I need to repeat that I do support coercion to prohibit coercion? Let me do it one more time….

              I endorse coercion to stop Nazi’s from killing Jews!

              You appear to see no need for balance- instead of a balance of freedom versus responsibility, you see freedom as an unquestionable good, that ultimate freedom is the ultimate good.

              You are not reading what I am writing. I think I have stated a dozen times that I do not value freedom as an ultimate good. Its primary value is as a path or discovery mechanism. Should I repeat this again too?

              You throw a blanket approval over any and all human interactions that are “voluntary”, as if the line between consent and coercion is always bright, as if all interactions are made by rational actors operating on an equal footing.

              That is because this is a complex topic to fit in the comments section of TLOOG.  I agree completely that the distinction is not always clear, and that there are power imbalances.

              Liberty, I value the discussion, but you need to quit pulling my opinions out of your ass and ignoring what I am saying so that you can argue with a straw man. I realize it is easier to argue against a caricature, but it is more productive to have a dialogue with a real person.Report

  17. Avatar Surf (Roger)
    Ignored
    says:

    Of course I am OK with them rating on color of car.  I am also OK with you going to a company that doesn’t rate by car color. I am also fine with you not buying insurance at all if you choose, or self insuring, or getting with like minded people and forming a mutual insurance group of your own.

    Of course the gorilla in the room is that most states REQUIRE you to have insurance. It is the state that is coercive, and believe it or not most insurance companies fought tooth and nail against mandatory insurance laws. They recognized the danger of inviting the gorilla into the room.Report

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