Contra-Populism: Part III

Do not let the hollow promises of populist ideology fool you! Populism of the right or left is antithetical to the individual liberty cherished in Classical Liberalism and Libertarian philosophy. For one, populism frames policy in collectivistic terms rather than individualism. Populism tends to advocate for policies that support Positive rights (a right to an economic good, e.g. Social Security) over Negative rights to protect the individual from interference with exercising their rights (free speech). Much of what populists advocate for is the retribution of wealth and market privilege instead of individual freedom. Policies such as Single-Payer Healthcare and tariffs impose costs on all voters. This is because populism holds the interests of the group; without unanimous consent. Sure, by choosing to live within a certain jurisdiction you may be tacitly consenting to the laws. However, the rise in populism has spurred an increased demand for state intervention to provide more economic privileges. The problem is that the preferences of the “average voter” cannot be known, as every voter has their own opinions and preferences (p.20). Ordinary voters are not unitary actor, but many individuals with different political proclivities; populism assumes too much about what is best for all of society (p.16).

It is not just the threat of majoritarian tyranny that makes populism perilous to liberty, but populism also requires conferring more authority to the state. This may seem ironic with all the “drain the swamp” rhetoric of the Trump presidency. Even in applying rudimentary logic, more collectivism requires a more centralized authority to be enforced and implemented. The unified will of the people is not recognizable; it takes the personified form of a “strongman” leader embodying the general will (p.20). They generally shift towards autocratic regimes (p.20) since implementing and justifying factually flawed and illiberal policies necessitates large sums of political authority. Beyond the threats of authoritarianism, the elites still benefit from waves of populism. The elites can hide behind the fluid nature of populism and allow majoritarian sentiment to shape crony policies that benefit narrow interests (p.171-172). For example, the supervillain of retail Walmart’s (not the author’s opinion, but a commonly held belief)CEO publicly stated the minimum wage was too low. Raising the minimum wage has been a longstanding talking point of the populist left. In true Bootlegger and Baptist (1983) fashion, Walmart stands to gain. Why? Because a higher minimum wage means more automation and fewer salaries. The bonus is that not only will the firm gain monetary from saving money while maintaining the veneer of having concern for those in the lower income brackets. 

The Pragmatic Solution to Gender Pronouns

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The convergence of gender and politics has been an enduring fixture in public discourse, pre-dating (the women’s suffrage movement). the modern feminist movement. The politics of gender are more opaque than merely debating the gender wage gap. Since the mainstream acceptance of transgender people, the bifurcated distinction between males and females has become murky. This makes social issues related to gender much more complex. In this gust of normative creative destruction, it is possible that feminism in itself is an anachronism that clings onto an outmoded perception of gender.

One issue that has made gender politics more bewildering has been the focus on using the proper gender pronouns. Many American corporations recognize non-binary gender pronouns and encourage their employees to indicate their preferred pronouns in their email signatures. Not everyone has the time (the list is long), interest, or congenial worldview of non-binary people to learn or use the correct pronoun. However, are our social interactions (such as work) doomed to become a prisoner’s dilemma between transgender people and Conservatives? Will the grammar aficionados forever wince at referring to a single person with plural pronouns (they/them)? There is a positive-sum compromise between non-binary individuals and those predisposed to accept the binary model of gender identity; that is, use proper nouns only.

No need to remember a litany of confusing pronouns, use their first name. For example, Jim. Even if Jim looks like a sultry female model in a bikini, still refer to this individual by “Jim”. It doesn’t matter if their name was Tiffany last week, just proceed by calling them “Jim”. This individual cannot take issue with you addressing them by their preferred first name. It enables Canadian residents to circumvent the hideous assault on free speech that is Bill C-16; by not forcing people to use gender pronouns they disagree with for political or social reasons, but concurrently adhering to Canadian law. This suggestion should be considered a pragmatic compromise, not a commentary on non-binary gender identification.

Bootleggers & Baptists: XL- Joe Rogan: Team Spotify v. The Medical Establishment

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INTRODUCTION:

Veteran stand-up comedian, mixed-martial arts commentator, and podcaster; Joe Rogan has come under fire for promoting COVID-19 misinformation. Business Insider lists six examples of Rogan proliferating misinformation about COVID-19 within the past two years. Arguably the proverbial “straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back” was last month (episode # 1757)when Rogan had a controversial virologist, Dr. Robert Malone, on as a guest. Prompting 270 medical experts to send an open letter to Spotify to address the inaccurate information disseminated through Rogan’s podcast. The letter expressed: “Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, though the company presently has no misinformation policy..”.

However, is this statement even true? Do platforms have a responsibility (legally or morally) to moderate and suppress factually incorrect content? Even though Spotify is a Swedish-based company, this rhetoric parallels the talking points of the Section 230 debate in the United States. Section 230, in most instances, shields service providers from liability for the media generated by content producers. This amendment of the Communications Act of 1934 (230 falls under the Communications Decency Act of 1996). Section 230 states :

‘….‘(c) PROTECTION FOR ‘GOOD SAMARITAN’ BLOCKING AND SCREENING OF OFFENSIVE MATERIAL.— ‘‘(1) TREATMENT OF PUBLISHER OR SPEAKER.—No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider. ‘‘(2) CIVIL LIABILITY.—No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of— ‘‘(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or ‘‘(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1)….” (p.84).

This subsection of Section 230 could easily extend to streaming services. Spotify exercises no editorial discretion and merely provides the tools to content creators to distribute music and podcasts. ****Ethically, there are free speech concerns regarding social pressure to moderate and censor content. While the First Amendment only protects citizens from government censorship, it is evident that Spotify is not troubled by the content produced on Joe Rogan’s podcast. If Spotify takes any action, it would be due to public scrutiny.

BOOTLEGGERS AND BAPTISTS:

The outcry for Spotify to address the JRE podcast’s proliferation of misinformation may not have manifested in a formal policy proposal, but there are still individuals that stand to benefit. Making the JRE controversy a perfect scenario for a Bootleggers and Baptist (1983) coalition dynamic. One subset of the coalition acting as the public face presented the moral argument for Spotify acting against Joe Rogan. Quietly, lurking in the background, are the callous beneficiaries hoping their ulterior motives are not recognized. 

The Baptists in this scenario are the experts that drafted the open letter to Spotify and other notable public health professionals that have vocally expressed condemnation of Rogan’s commentary on the pandemic. One of these renowned crusaders is Dr. Katrine Wallace of the University of Illinois, who catastrophically describes Rogan as “a menace to public health,” particularly for espousing anti-vaccine rhetoric”. Whether or not you find this statement hyperbolic or false, it still conveys an ethical concern for the influence of Rogan’s podcast influence on public health. Therefore, making Wallace and like-minded professionals Baptists. Although, there is the potential that Wallace is a Dual-Role Actor, simultaneously being concerned about public health and seeing an opportunity to raise her public profile. After all, she is a blogger.

There are two categories of Bootleggers that operate as silent beneficiaries in this scenario. The first group is the other Podcasters that distribute their content through Spotify. If the JRE podcast becomes removed from Spotify or suffers other forms of sanctions, that would mean less competition for Tim Ferriss. The second category of Bootleggers would be the medical establishment. Not to treat this faction as an amorphous blob, considering it is a collective consortium of various people, organizations, and businesses, it would be nearly impossible to identify all the potential players in the subset of the anti-JRE coalition. The vast networks of the medical establishment are so pervasive it has even been referred to as the Medical-Industrial Complex, paralleling the concept of the Military-Industrial Complex.

There are a lot of individuals that stand to profit from keeping the status quo intact. Any professional possessing heterodox perspectives stand potentially disrupt the current public consensus resulting in fewer profits for pharmaceutical companies and other appurtenant facets of the industry. Over the past couple of years, there has been an ongoing assault on expert consensus. In a world of “alternative facts, the gap has continued to widen between popular opinion and professional consensus. Few things can be threatening as a credentialed professional who holds positions that go against the grain of the establishment. These individuals appeal to a public that is disillusioned and skeptical of expertise. The medical establishment aimed to reclaim its throne by targeting influential voices that have contrary views. In the hopes that people will stop patronizing herbalists and reading articles written by Robert Malone. When persuasion is ineffective, censorship becomes the preferred mechanism. 

POTENTIAL SOLUTION?:

The problem remains of how do we distinguish fact from fiction? Is it Dr. Malone or the medical establishment that is being dishonest? The average American citizen lacks the knowledge, time, and resources to effectively qualify the claims of either faction in the COVID debate. This situation parallels the phenomenon of rational ignorance examined in Public Choice Theory; deference to experts and public figures is cost-effective to the average layman. No need to read dozens of medical journals filled with opaque jargon. When there are have several sets of experts with competing opinions whom do you listen to? It is possible to find an expert in any field that can confirm our priors.

One brilliant suggestion comes from UCF professor and scholar Enrique Guerra-Pujol, who suggests we should utilize prediction markets to assess the veracity of conspiracy theories. In any decision-making process, we are grappling with the fact that no one can have all the information. As stated in the Hayekian Knowledge Problem; information is naturally dispersed, meaning effective top-down decision-making is impossible. If we could hypothetically remedy this by creating an incentive-based mechanism that can aggregate all perspectives on a given topic we will have a better (not perfect) outcome. By including the vaccine skeptics rather than excluding them, they become part of the validation process. When we look at range-voting in jury trials it becomes quite apparent that even including erroneous perspectives does not drastically impact the overall outcome.

Perhaps instead of capitulating to public pressure to remove all of Joe Rogan’s “COVID episodes, Spotify could run a user poll or a modified prediction market (to avoid the ire of SEC and CFTC) to get the listener feedback on the veracity of the content of these episodes. Instead of removing the episodes, if deemed to be inaccurate, Spotify should merely place disclaimers.

****Correction- The 230 immunity argument does not hold up for two reasons:

  1. Spotify does exercise editorial discretion.
  2. Spotify may satisfy the legal definition of a publisher.

Suicide As A Property Rights Issue- Part II

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PART I

The moral argument for a right to suicide is firmly grounded in property rights. To many readers the very notion that suicide and ownership of tangible objects are interconnected is farfetched. Upon a superficial assessment of the premise, it is easy to jump to this conclusion. Once we get to the philosophical taproot of the concept of ownership the overlap between the two concepts becomes much more apparent. Fastened to the pillar of natural rights, the right of ownership is crucial in establishing all other rights. The ability to retain, transfer, and exclude others from one’s property lays down the framework for all other negative rights we cherish. For example, if a dinner guest offends us with an off-color joke at our house, we have the right to ask them to leave. The right of excludability. If the dinner guest is aware, we are offended by specific kinds of jokes, they fully consent to the conditions of the dinner party by opting to attend. Due to this variety of informal rule creation, there is no need to implement laws prohibiting offensive speech. Individual property owners can decide what types of jokes or language will be tolerated in their household.

The basis for ownership of tangible items goes back to an even deeper principle of self-ownership. If we do not own ourselves how can we possibly possess physical property? Either in the title or tangible form. The philosopher who bridges the gap between self-ownership and ownership of objects, locations, and intellectual property is no other than the great John Locke. At the most rudimentary level, we must own ourselves before we can possess any additional property. The extent to which this self-ownership is applicable is debatable. We can legally own ourselves. We have autonomy over (in most cases) our corporeal vessel that holds our inner organs. An individual can also exert control over their mind. Where does the right of an individual to own one’s self arise from?  This merely the abstract pontification of an out-of-touch philosopher? Most who have read Locke would staunchly disagree with the prior inference. Locke developed a concise explanation linking self-ownership to an unwavering natural right.

In Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689) he further expounds upon the natural basis for self-ownership. Arguably laying down the nascent substrate for the ethical arguments against slavery later on in the 19th century. The right to self-ownership is the result of divine providence. In Locke’s view, God gives us life and we are born free. For those who have more of a secular view of the world, it could state we are born free by our humanity. There is no grand authority that we must oblige by involuntarily transferring self-possession to as a result of cohesion.  

“…Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. (p.11)..”

Locke establishes that no one person has the right to own another human being. The implications of the above quote go beyond the abstract conceptualization of self-ownership. Due to a person owning themselves they also possess the fruits of their labor. If you work and toil to harvest lobsters in the icy waters off the coast of Maine, whatever you catch is rightfully yours. Providing you are not capturing so many lobsters that you are preventing others from having a chance to obtain the seafood delicacy. Nor are you procuring so many they will go to waste (p.12-15). Through self-possession and possession of our labor and the results of our labor, the natural rights argument for property ownership is pithily conveyed.

John Locke was correct about all people being born free and having possession of overall commodities, lands, and intellectual property that they have rightfully obtained through their labor. Where he went astray was asserting that natural rights are inalienable. Regardless of whether we procure these rights from god or as a result of our personhood, you can alienate these rights. Whether or not it is ethically justifiable is completely contingent on the consent of the individual. We have a natural right to free speech for example. While at work we temporarily or indefinitely suspend (for the duration of our employment) our right to unfettered speech as a condition of employment. There is nothing illegitimate about this arrangement because it expresses a form of tacit consent.  If you truly disagreed with the rules of the company you otherwise would not accept the job offer. Agreeing to conditions of employment can operate as a form of selling our natural rights. If we truly own ourselves and possess all of the natural rights we are guaranteed in the Constitution, why couldn’t we sell the title to our rights to other people? That is effectively what we do when after signing an employment agreement. Our natural rights cannot be transferred or relinquished unless we willingly agree to conditions or arrangements that nullify these rights.

One particularly controversial example of this concept was formulated by the Austrian economist and political theorist Walter Block. Dr. Block postulates that voluntary slavery is not incompatible with individual freedom. Such a position sounds antithetical to liberty, however, understanding the context is key. There is a difference between being forced at gunpoint into slavery and choosing to be a slave. Why would anyone choose to be a slave? They or a family member may owe an astronomical amount of money to a private individual and the only means of making restitution on their debts would be a lifetime of unpaid servitude.  It highly unlikely that anyone in modern times would consent to such an arrangement. Being able to sell one’s self to another person demonstrates an unfettered view of self-ownership. The laws prohibiting voluntary slavery are essentially are equally as unjust as keeping involuntary slavery legal. We can’t say that we truly own ourselves if we cannot do as we please with our bodies. That includes opting to sell ourselves into slavery.

The question becomes how does the argument for voluntary slavery apply to suicide? Logically it is predicated on the very same principle of self-ownership. If you truly own yourself and no one else has possession of your body and mind, then you have a right to kill yourself.  As jarring as this statement maybe it is nevertheless true. If we truly possess an object or an idea we can do as we please with it. We can sell the item or bit of intellectual property, or we can dispose of it. Nothing is stopping us from purchasing the latest iPhone at full retail price and then upon receiving the device, abruptly throwing it into a trashcan. While by the assessment of convention sensibilities such an action would irrational or foolish, no one has a right to prevent this behavior from occurring. Regardless of the perception of others, the notion of ownership prevents others from intervening. Some may criticize this example because it is comparing a replaceable item with the irreplaceable essence of human life. This critique is a fair one, however, that does not make this a false analogy.  The operative condition is the concept of ownership not what the individual is choosing to dispose of.  Regardless of the origin of where we obtain our natural rights from we do own ourselves. Much like anything else we own we have a right to dispose of ourselves. This is not making a moral judgment about the act of suicide in-of -itself. Nor is this a tacit endorsement of suicide. However, legality is no measure of morality. Nor is pressure to conform to societal norms.  If we legalized heroin use and prostitution tomorrow, these activities would not necessarily be moral.  But they would be legal. While these activities may be immoral, inferring an individual’s right to poison their body or engage in infidelity is also immoral. Immoral on a grander scale. When victimless crimes have codified sanctions, they are generally backed by the threat of incarnation, fines, or state violence.  

The decision to commit suicide is a deeply personal decision that should not be felt in the hands of doctors, psychologists, and especially nor legislators.  Attempts to intervene in suicide attempts are naturally transgressive against the individual’s property rights.  If indeed, we truly possess self-ownership.

Did Alexis De Tocqueville Predict “Cancel Culture”?

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Alexis De Tocqueville was arguably one of the most insightful writers to ever detail the intricacies of American Democracy. Tocqueville’s journey sounds like an unlikely one. Something analogous to an intellectual version of the excursions taken by Lewis and Clark. A royal magistrate from France traveling throughout North America in only nine months. Even spending some time with local tribal nations. Based upon his keen observations of American political culture Tocqueville made many predictions. Some of his lofty inferences fell flat and resulted in nothing more than faulty speculation.  What was truly impressive about his insights is what he got right.  He did possess an uncanny aptitude for being able to foreshadow various political and societal shifts in America. Much of his writing was quite prescient.

Any modern reader of Democracy In America can’t help but wonder if Tocqueville predicted the phenomenon of “cancel culture”. The present trend in which individuals guilty of engaging politically incorrect speech is de-platformed. Whether it be shadow-banning on twitter or having their radio talk show pulled from the airwaves. Tocqueville shared many of the same concerns that James Madison voiced in Federalist Papers #51. Both men understood how the collective passions of the people could veer into the territory of authoritarian mob rule. That is precisely what “cancel culture” has morphed into, figurative lynching-mob. Relishing the downfall of anyone transgressive of the virtue of political correctness. Resorting to de facto censorship to prevent such subversive individuals from having the ability to transmit any more socially intolerable ideas.

Tocqueville shrewdly points how often any minority must contend with institutional barriers when it comes to seeking justice. The outcry for prohibiting offensive speech targets individuals who are out of lock-step with the majority opinion, effectively infringing upon their First Amendment rights. The true intention of codifying protections for free speech is meant to protect the expression of unpopular opinions. Where is an individual to turn their right to free expression is violated, but their views are perceived as being reprehensive by society?

“My main complaint against the democratic government as organized in the United States is not its weakness, as many Europeans claim, but rather its irresistible strength And what I find most repulsive in America is not the extreme freedom that prevails there but the shortage of guarantees against tyranny.

When a man or a party suffers from an injustice in the United States, to whom can he turn? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? That represents the majority and obeys it blindly. To executive power? That is appointed by the majority and serves it as a passive instrument. (Tocqueville, P. 294-295. Transl. Isaac Kramnick).”

He could easily see that those with unpopular opinions could very well have little recourse in enforcing their liberties. It’s easy to defend someone’s right to denouncing racism. It is profoundly more difficult to defend the right of someone to publish racist literature.  This is mainly due to societal pressures. In the present climate defending the First Amendment rights of a bigoted person is tantamount to be racists. While this assumption rests on a rickety premise, public opinion only seeks to promote this fallacy. Due to public passions being more concerned with social justice, there is a willingness to mischaracterize people and to even dispense with critical rights if they do not comport with the grand objective of “tolerance”.  Both Madison and Tocqueville intuitively understood the social dynamics of crowds which would later be expounded upon by social psychologists. Not only to members of the crowd feel a decreased sense of individual responsibility, but there is an emotional amplifier effect. Having either attribute present will make an individual less apt to rely on reason and more apt to go along with the mob. Even if their outrage and indignation are hyperbolic.

The shrewd Frenchman not only understood how popular passions would overwhelm sound reason and effectively alienate minorities, but he foresaw the development of Progressive ideology. Tocqueville noticed that democracy had a proclivity for drifting towards equality. He wrote at length detailing the lack of social stratification in the United States. Even noting that the capitalistic tendencies of America could provide a man from a poor family with the opportunity for exorbitant material success if he is willing to work for it. Democracy as a whole has an equalizing effect on society.  The people elected officials that represent their will. The whole notion of “the government works for the people”.  An idea completely foreign to continental Europe in the 19th century (foreign in practice, not so much in theory). Tocqueville audaciously claims that disposition towards equality implies perfectibility within human nature.

“As classes disappear and grow closer, as a tumultuous mass of mankind, it practices, customs, and laws alter, as new facts emerge, as new truths come to light, as old opinions disappear and are replaced by others, the image of perfection in an idealized and fleeting form is offered to the human mind.

….. Some changes improve his lot and he concludes that, in general, man is endowed with the faculty of indefinite improvement. . (De Tocqueville, P. 522-523. Transl. Isaac Kramnick).”

It is the tendency towards  “indefinite improvement” that lays the groundwork for Progressive ideology. Progressivism generally holds that people are capable of constant betterment. The goal is to keep striving towards an idealized world where all the ills have been neutralized. Most adherents of Progressivism do not mind using the levers of government or other institutions to help lead people in the right direction. One of those corralling techniques would be punishment for veering off the path of social improvement. Such as making a culturally insensitive joke. This would explain the functionality of “cancel culture”. The de facto censorship is one of the means utilized to keep people on the straight and narrow.  If you say something offensive you will be ostracized and have your career ruined. The logic being you will avoid making such a social faux pas when faced with the severity of the consequences. Why? Because followers of the Progressive movement believe that you can do better. Some even sincerely believe that a world without prejudice could exist. Unfortunately, is nothing more than a pipe-dream. Nothing more than good intentions knocking on the door of utopianism. If man is fallible, the odds of offensive speech dissipating is unlikely. Such an assumption demonstrates an unrealistic perception of human nature. We can mold people into the image we desire through social pressure and coercion.  Rather, they need to come to their conclusions not to be forced into socially desirable opinions. There may be immorality in racism. However, there is also immorality in weaponizing social conventions to callously achieve social goals. Especially when innocent parties have their comments taken out of context and are used against them. Making these innocent bystanders nothing more than collateral damage.