The Billionaire and The Average Voter: Moral Equals

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It is easy to forget that not everyone shares similar needs and desires as you. This is a fact that is validated by contemporary public policy debates. All too often, voters and participants in the political process conflate (either inadvertently or strategically) their self-interest with the common good. Public interest or social welfare is an abstract metric open to interpretation; the terms operate as a form of persuasion than a concrete standard (p.77). For some, it is difficult to think that someone would not want free college or a single-payer healthcare system; this stems from an individual being too fixated on their values and policy preferences.

If it is likely that every political actor (including the average voter) acts in their self-interest, then why is it perceived to be immoral when a wealthy voter does versus an impoverished or middle-class voter does so? If the Republican and Democratic parties are moral equivalents, it is not outrageous to surmise that the poor person voting for “free” healthcare and the billionaire that votes for tax cuts are ethical equals. Neither individual is genuinely concerned by the potential externalities their favored policies impose on the rest of society. They only want initiatives that work in their self-interest. The concerns for the feasibility of these programs and processes are not even the equation for these people!

Admittedly, this is a heterodox position; most people would derisively dismiss it. The underlying assumption is that wealthy people do not need more money or institutional advantages. Most refutations would cite the imperative of actual need, especially if people lack necessities. There is some veracity to this argument, but the United States is not on par with the plight of a third-world country. Only 10.5 percent of households in 2020 suffered from “food insecurity”; in 2021, the United States outranked Germany in food security. Overall, impoverished people in the United States are better off than their counterparts abroad. While the wealthy may have market power and the connections to exert their political influence, the stakes for the average person in the US are often embellished. 

The belief that wealth inequality is the only determining factor in assessing the morality of voters acting in their self-interest is a fallacy. This suggests that the ethical responsibility for advocating and selecting bad policies (at the referendum level) is only subject to the size of a voter’s bank account. While a single vote is inconsequential in an election, a myriad of like-minded citizens voting in unison is a formidable coalition. Should these individuals be excused for electing representatives and choosing government programs that bankrupt this country or get us tangled in another foreign war? It would be reasonable to suggest no. Ultimately, neither the billionaire nor the average citizen truly cares about what is best for the country, only what benefits their interest. In the consumer market, this is not an issue, as acting in your interest does not require a redistribution of resources. In contrast, the same cannot be said about the political marketplace. 

Focal Points- Part IV: Truth, The Ultimate Focal Point!

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In-game theory, the concept of a focal point is a conceptual locus of convergence in the absence of pre-arranged communication. Generally, these mutually agreed-upon center points are culturally contingent. Although, there is one focal point that transcends culture and is arguably the ultimate point of unspoken convergence; that is truth. Some social commentators claim that truth is relative, quickly dispelling the argument that truth is a universal focal point. The facts are the facts. When something is axiomatically true, it is self-evident. To claim that truth is subjective is a puzzling assertion. We cannot simply deny the laws of mathematics, then suddenly, the rules governing the order of operations become invalid. The assumption of truth being subjective confuse methodology with results. Pluralism is valid so long as it reflects the truth. For example, there are multiple ways to solve an equation, but only one correct answer.

When people formulate rules, they must do so in a manner congruent with the immutable laws of the social and natural sciences. Otherwise, we will fall victim to the natural consequences of violating these eternal laws. Truth is such a magnetic focal point that it is inescapable. Sure, it is possible to contrive a convincing delusion, but while delusions may dissolve, the truth remains fixed. Regardless of whether we are truth-orientated immutable facts pull us in like the force of gravity bringing us back down to Earth. We can fight gravity; however, even when interpersonal communication is absent, any semi-rational person already knows that such resistance is inevitably futile.

Suicide as a Natural Right- Part III: The Externalities Argument

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Part I:

Part II:

Most legally mandated suicide prevention measures fixate on its impact on society. An individual assuming an externalities defense of the involuntary hospitalization of those with suicidal tendencies falls prey to a fallacy that all prohibitions of vices are subject to operating as a preemptive measure. Prompting the question, what is the committed offense outside of the state statutory code? What most Libertarians would refer to as victimless crimes. Enforcement of victimless crimes does not remedy the loss of property or harm to any non-consenting third parties. Rather, such laws have the unfortunate propensity of conflating potential consequences with actual damage done. Most arguments for maintaining the federal ban on illicit drugs emphasize prospective ramifications versus actual outcomes. Even drunk driving laws fail to meet the criteria for a violation of our private property rights. Operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated only increases the odds of bodily harm and destruction of property, but it does not guarantee this consequence. 

US civil law no longer recognizes personal suicide attempts as a criminal offense. However, the criminality of physician-assisted suicide varies radically by state. Suicide is no longer a crime. Suicide prevention laws are completely constructionist inventions. More importantly, it also fails to fulfill the criterion for violating another person’s natural rights. Arizona has an involuntary commitment law codified under Title 36 of Arizona Revised Statutes. If there is no crime committed, can detention be perceived as lawful?

Such fits the definition legally sanctioned form of kidnapping. The basis of the logic of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments provides fodder. If it were not for Title 36, it would be considered unlawful confinement. The only rational inference is that these mandates are the illegitimate byproduct of legal positivism. The standpoint drove by a “moral” concern for potential externalities. Codifying morality is never a justifiable reason for exercising the authority of governing institutions!

Bodily Integrity Arguments and Misapplications

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People have the unfortunate tendency of favoring reasoning that is favorable to their preferences. Once an individual encounters the same logic applied to a position they disagree with, the application is assumed to be invalid. The abortion debate is no different in this respect. Pro-Choice advocates basing their stance on the logic of bodily integrity must be willing to extrapolate this same principle to other situations. Anything else would merely be convenient cherry-picking.

For example, advocating for choice regarding bodily integrity also applies to several other controversial topics. Such subject areas include drug use, the right to commit suicide, and objections to vaccine mandates, to name a few. Despite any Pro-Choice advocate’s misgivings about permitting the listed rights above to be consistent, they must begrudgingly accept that these are rights that cannot be prohibited by law. Any counterargument or suggestion to criminalize the above positions is a deviation from the logic of bodily integrity. Permitting an activity does not mean you believe it is moral. Moreover, this argument is predicated on an externalities argument; in a rash attempt to weigh the societal costs.

However, many Pro-Choice proponents may then surmise that individuals defending the decision to use drugs, commit suicide, and decline immunizations must accept abortion as a permissible procedure. Reverse application is not quite so linear and has several complications. Indeed, abortion presents a predicament for exponents of a Lockean conception of self-ownership. In one sense, abortion violates the Lockean notion of self-ownership. As Locke asserts that we cannot “… nobody can transfer to another more power than he has in himself, and nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other… or take away the life or property of another..”(p.43)[1].

If we define the fetus as a living being, there is a conflict between the mother and the unborn child. Drug abuse, refusing immunization, and suicide confines direct bodily harm to the individual making the decision, thereby comporting with the tenants of the Non-Aggression Principle. Although, even in a legal sense, living children do not have rights[2] as they are under the guardianship of their parents. Also, if we truly own ourselves, can’t we choose which procedures we can have performed on our bodies? There is no easy solution to this complex and taxing quandary. 

Foot Notes:

1.) I omitted the portion of the quote regarding self-destruction. This portion of the doctrine is wholly illegitimate. If we own bodies, we have a right to dispose of ourselves; if God exists, he transferred our spirit to our corporal bodies. Through this transfer, God relinquishes ownership of our essence extending to us full possession of our bodies. Meaning we can maintain our physical bodies how we see fit, including but not limited to drug use and suicide.

2.) See Rothbard pages 97-113.

Suicide as a Natural Right- Part II

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Part I

The Lockean conception of shelf-ownership does not work if we cannot alienate self-hood. In the context of involuntary slavery, our absolute right (p.10) to self-possession is relinquished through coercive force [1]. The notion of natural rights almost always implies that the individual owns. For instance, the right of free speech codified under the First Amendment of the Constitution implies self-ownership. Individuals embroiled in political debate must utilize the very bodies they own and utilize scarce resources (p.2)to engage in the passionate exchange[2]. There is one glaring flaw that most ethical theorists get dead wrong about natural rights. Our negative rights that are part-and-parcel with our personhood may be self-evident, but they are certainly not inalienable. The American Declaration of Independence echoes this sentiment and forever cements it in the public consciousness: 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

The claim that these rights are unalienable does not connote ownership of these rights in any meaningful sense. By the inseparable nature of self-ownership and natural rights, we do not truly have unfettered possession of ourselves. The ability to alienate something is that can only be the consequence of ownership. True ownership implies that an individual can transfer, maintain, sell, deface, lease, destroy, etc. the article in question as they see fit. One of the strongest arguments for this radical interpretation of ownership comes from economist and Libertarian theorist Walter Block. Dr. Block writing “..No law should be enacted prohibiting or even limiting in any way people’s rights to alienate those things they own. This is “full monte” alienability, or commodification…” (p. 6) [3]. Block surmises that an unlimited condition of ownership naturally extends to the person, meaning that if an individual chooses to sell themselves into slavery this is legitimate. Unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the individual being sold is consenting to the arrangement [4].

However, most, and moral theorists would suggest that natural rights, especially selfhood cannot be alienated or dispensed with. As our mind and body are typically inseparable; neither can be reallocated nor disposed of. This supposition suffers from an unfortunate fallacy because a person can voluntarily absolve their will and sentience. In the most extreme case, a person could give themselves a lobotomy effectively alienating their will and severing their mind from their corporal body (p.8) [5]. 

There are less extreme examples of people abstractly selling off natural rights in exchange for material gain. One only needs to look to employment contracts to see a ubiquitous example of this selective selling of rights. It is common for employers to include social media policies as a condition of employment. Effectively acting as a voluntarily acknowledged limit on free expression; a right codified under the First Amendment. Regardless of whether this restriction is a temporary sale of this right or permanent alienation it is a legitimate exchange. From the standpoint of Rothbardian contract law, this arrangement fulfills the criteria for an enforceable contract. Under this theory of contract law, the property must be exchanged for the contract to be binding, any other agreement is a mere promise (p.133-135). At the core of an employment contract or conditions of employment, the property is being exchanged. The employer is transferring compensation (monetary and additional benefits) to the employee. This exchange is contingent upon the employee following the company’s internal policies. Indirectly operating as a form of selling or “renting” natural rights in exchange for employment.

Selling property is merely one means of alienating property. Other more drastic measures can achieve this same outcome. The concept that an individual can condemn their property, mirroring the same privilege current held by various tiers of the U.S. government. The only difference is that when the state does it, they do so without the consent of the owner. Even when eminent domain is practiced within the parameters of the takings clause, however, the property owner generally does not have the right to refuse to surrender their property. Regardless of whether they are justly compensated for the relinquishment of their business, land, or home this arrangement is still inherently coercive. In stark contrast, if a property owner dedicates to transfer or otherwise condemn the land they own, this is legitimate. Effectively, suicide is an example of a person opting to condemn themselves. A person choosing to forever dispose of themselves permanently disables their ability to contribute to society; mimicking how governing institutions can decree that land or a build is no longer fit for occupation or commercial use. The state typically initiates such a directive in the context of habitation or use of the property would pose a “safety hazard”. However, a person contemplating “condemning” themselves does not need to fabricate such vague excuses. If they truly own their own body and mind, they do not have to provide any justification for performing such action. Unlike eminent domain, the individual can consent to the decision they have made. 

Most people might argue that allowing others to commit suicide with no mandated intervention would squander human lives [6]. Further supporting this statement by repeating tired platitudes about how it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. No doubt, suicide does come with a wide array of societal costs. The individual can never be replaced nor can their human capital because no two people have the same experiences. If we set aside the externalities of the act, there’s a deeper conflict at play. There’s a long tradition of property owners having the right to destroy what they own. The right to destroy one’s property has its roots in the doctrines of Roman and English Common law (p.8). Moreover, there is a long-standing tradition that arguably supersedes the concerns of modern environmentalists or other public interest initiatives. The concern for wasting resources was even voiced by John Locke back in the seventeenth century:

The same law of nature, which does by this means give us property, does also bound that property. God has given us all things richly, 1 Tim. vi. 12. is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration. But how far has he given it to us? To enjoy. As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his Tabour fix a property in whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy. (p.12).

While Locke provides us with prudent advice regarding resource management, it is nevertheless, a suggestion. A just legal system would defend the property owners’ right to dispose of their property how they choose, even if it is considered wasteful. A legal system that has penalties or restrictions impeding the right to destroy one’s property, provides a perverted form of justice. Much like anything else a person owns, they should be able to “destroy” themselves. In a sense, we legally permit other more protracted forms of incremental suicide. For instance, currently, no laws are prohibiting the sale or consumption of sugar-saturated and chemical ladened soft drinks. Although cigarettes are highly taxed and regulated, we still live in a society where smoking is still legally tolerated. Both soda and cigarettes slowly kill the person ingesting either product; despite this fact, these products should remain legal. Following this same logic, if the person should be able to choose what they put into their body, they can choose to also ultimately dispose of their body.

Footnotes

[1]. The account of Slavery in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690).

[2]. An allusion to  Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s theory of Argumentation Ethics.

[3]. In reference to Block’s postulations related to the possibility of voluntary Slavery.

[4]. How slavery was practiced in the United States was a reprehensible institution. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was incompatible with a property rights justification for self-ownership. 

[5]. An example Walter Block borrowed from legal theorist Stephan Kinsella.

[6]. The idea of wasting human life can be applied in an economic sense. The decreasing fertility rates in the Western world present challenges to the labor force and the tax pool. Especially, after all the Baby-boomers die.

Suicide as a Natural Right- Part I

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The act of suicide is a serious matter that has a litany of inseparable moral, physiological, psychological, and societal considerations. Unanimously, the institutional consensus is that intervention is imperative in addressing the issue of suicide. Although little consideration is given to whether intervening in every alleged suicide attempt is ethical. In most cases, intervention entails involuntary commitment orders placed upon “suicidal” individuals. There is often a wide degree of digression allotted to mental health professionals in determining who is a danger to themselves. The nuances within these laws vary state by state. It should be noted the majority of states have involuntary commitment laws. As noted in a recent Supreme Court decision has indicated that the reasonableness for involuntary commitment under due process has already been established. Citing Addington v. Texas   , O’Connor v. Donaldson, and Foucha v. Louisiana. Do the despondent nature and impending bodily harm of a suicidal person warrant them being held against their will? Despite any ethical counterarguments, the law of the land indicates that such measures are justified.

All because a specific policy is codified in statutory law or is validated in case laws does not make it moral. Our law ought to reflect a sense of justice, however, this normative ideal is seldom achieved. Often many laws appear to be a capricious byproduct of overextended digression. If the Lockean proviso people do own themselves, at the very least involuntary commitment laws present a conflict between the legal statute and our natural right of self-ownership. From a Libertarian perspective, this is a right that should not be infringed upon. The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume wrote:

A man who retires from life does not harm society: he only ceases to do good, which, if it is an injury, is of the lowest kind. All our obligations to do good to society seem to imply something reciprocal. I receive the benefits of society, and therefore ought to promote its interests; but when I withdraw myself altogether from society, can I be bound any longer? But allowing that our obligations to do good were perpetual, they have certainly some bounds. I am not obliged to do a small well to society at the expense of great harm to myself. Why then should I prolong a miserable existence because of some frivolous advantage which the public may perhaps receive from me?

This short excerpt from the large corpus of Hume’s work encapsulates the issue with mandatory commitment laws; suicide presents little harm to society. In contrast, hold a man against his will for committing no crime would be quite damaging. It also should be noted that “suicide” across the board is not universally condemned, but is permissible based upon a qualifying context. For instance, some argue that elderly people suffering from chronic illness(es) have the right to end their own lives. Predicted upon the basis that they no longer owe anything else to society and are no longer a stakeholder. If membership to a community is voluntary, then withdrawal through either suicide or self-isolation should also be voluntary, making anything else coercion. The preference towards the norms of suicide towards the elderly and sick are also reflected in our laws.  As of 2019, eight states allow for physician-assisted suicide this privilege is only permitted for those suffering from a terminal illness. There are two interrelated flaws with the logic behind only allowing the terminally ill to have legal permission to end their own lives. The first concern is that this undermines the severity of mental illness. Through sanctioning such procedures to those suffering from physical illness, a double standard has been created. For years we have heard that mental illness is also an illness, however, mental health professions do not even vindicate their own words. These individuals are actively allowing for physical illness to hold a privileged legal status over mental illness. The second fallacy is that one of the prevalent arguments for intervention in suicide attempts is that the person’s thinking is impaired by psychological distress or intoxication. To allow the chronically ill to do the same is hypocritical under this very same line of logic. Those who are terminally are generally on psychoactive pain killers or are in intense pain. Couldn’t their capacity for reasoning be questionable at best under such debilitating conditions? If mental illness is an illness couldn’t it be terminal in its own right? These are two discrepancies that few pundits in civil society would have the courage to address honesty.

If we own ourselves, we have the implicit right to kill ourselves without any interference. That does not necessarily provide a moral justification for a suicide attempt but is moral condemnation obstruct this right. Analogous to how soliciting a prostitute may not necessarily be moral, but to utilize legal institutions to disrupt this exchange is unquestionably immoral. If under Arizona statute ARS 13-1304 sustains that holding a person against their will is illegal, then the same can be said about involuntary commitment. The difference is due to a pedantic technicality than a justifiable ethical argument. 

Terri Schiavo- From the Perspective of Lockean Property Rights

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Here is a hypothetical situation that presents us with a challenging conundrum that would drive most legal scholars and moral philosophers mad. There is as a person in a vegetive state who is hooked up to a variety of life-sustaining medical equipment (feeding-tube, ventilator etc.). Let’s say that the individual is married, and their spouse has been their legal guardian since they have become clinically brain dead. Does the parents of the incapacitated person have a say over the end-of-life decision making for their child? Should this heavy burden be left to the spouse and rightful guardian? It should be noted that the moral analysis must be separated from the determination of legality. All because something is legal does not necessarily make it moral. For instance, abortion in the United States is sanctioned around quasi-arbitrary timeframes with little consideration for situational context or biological development of the fetus. The decree of legislative fiat does not automatically make a policy moral. There are many legal protections within American statutory law that prevent individuals from facing criminal penalty or ligation. If crimes against persons and property cannot be subjected to restorative justice then there is no point in calling a legal system just.  In other words, we will be reviewing this situation from a philosophical standpoint, specifically from the perspective of individual property rights.

The above scenario is not quite so hypothetical but is a concise description of the Terri Schiavo case. However, one striking difference between the scenario presented above and the Schiavo case is that :

Terri Schiavo breathes on her own. She is not on a ventilator or respirator. Although she swallows, she is sustained through a gastric feeding tube. She is not in distress or imminent danger of death.(P.5).

Despite Schiavo’s lack of cognitive functionality for the most part she was able to “live” in the most basic sense of the term.  It should also be note that prior to her cognitive impairment she made no will directing her “wishes” for medical treatment. Also including end-of-life decisions. Therefore, leaving the variable of individual consent obscured by Schiavo’s incapacitated state. There was a rift between Schiavo’s husband/ guardian wanted to remove her feeding tube while her parents staunchly disagreed with this decision. Ultimately, the courts sided with the husband and Terri ended up dying after having her feeding tube removed. This may have been the legally permitted course of events, but was it moral from the paradigm of individual property rights?

The economist and Libertarian Philosopher Walter Block provides a remedy to this quandary squarely from the standpoint of Lockean property rights. A grown adult who has lost their cognitive faculties is analogous to a child and exist in purgatorial grey area when it comes to the prospect of Lockean ownership (p.5).Block takes the Rothbardian approach to addressing a parents required commitment to child rearing, which in fact allows parents to relinquish this right (p. 6). Much like how Lockean homesteading does not preclude an economic agent from taking ownership of an abandoned patch of land, this analogy can be applied to raising children. If an adult within the community is willing to devout the resources to raising a child discarded in dumpster, this should count as a transfer of guardianship (p.7). Based upon the premise of Lockean homesteading the Supreme Court of Florida was morally wrong in assigning the right to end Terri Schiavo’s life to her husband. Through wanting to end her life with no prior record or request of her wanting such measures taken, he effectively relinquished his guardianship. Clearly he did not do so in the modern legal sense, but he did so within the context of Lockean property rights. If her parents were willing to assume guardianship of their daughter then the court’s decision is nothing more than perverse.

And if they are, then whoever is at first control of her must maintain her; if he refuses, her guardianship reverts to the second closest party, her parents. If they will not homestead her, then perhaps her siblings. If not them, then anyone who wishes to take up this burden. Based on the number of protests at the callous way she is being treated ( Block, 2011, p.7)

The Syllogisms of Social Darwinism

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  • If Darwinism can be applied to gene selection, then the logic of “Darwinism” can be extrapolated to other fields of intellectual inquiry.
  • If Darwinism can be applied to biology, then it can be applied to social sciences such as sociology and economics.
  • If  Darwinism applies to the genetics of humans, then it can also be applied to socialization and social institutions.
  • If Darwinism is axiomatically true, then its applicability can be proliferated through the sound application of a priori reasoning.
  • If  Darwinism is true and cannot be applied to certain situations, then this is a condition of moral caveats more so than a judgment of truth.
  • If correct logic is only applied selectively, then the circumstances under which the concept is omitted would be an incorrect application.
  • If Darwinism is omitted in the analysis of the social sciences, then then this is a  selective application of the concept.
  • If a concept is being selectively applied, the reasoning behind this restriction in extrapolation is generally normative rather than positive.  

Against Self-Discover: The Irrationality of Finding Your True Self

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Frequently we hear about people undergoing the process of “finding themselves”. This concept is kind of preposterous once we truly contemplate it. This is not to say that it is impossible for an individual to not know “thy self”. Denying our true essence through methodically crafted facades acts as a social survival mechanism. Effectively shielding us from censure and other forms of social opprobrium. Self-deception being as common and conformity highly valued it would be foolish to question the desire for self-discovery. How much of our sense of self is truly a byproduct of internal processes and is absent of external influence? That is a question that remains to be satisfactorily answered.

It is more reasonable to question if the process of self-discovery is even worthwhile. It does seem to be somewhat of a hapless endeavor. Why? Simply because we are not stagnating. Our thoughts, opinions, and values are always being tested. Almost as if we are nothing more than the organic personification of Bayesian probability. Sure, we may have some attributes, normative preferences, enduring opinions. Do these semi-fixed characteristics truly signify resistance to the dynamism of existence?  No. When people do not adapt to new information, they merely find new ways of justifying their old beliefs. Holding the same premise, but adapting their reasoning. Someone may be a lifelong gun-rights activist, but their rationale for maintaining their principles may have evolved.

Self-exploration fails to capture the true quiddity of ourselves because we are ever-changing. Attend all of the vision quest retreats and peyote ceremonies you like, these experiences may very well lead you down a dead-end. Your perception of these experiences will likely change over time. Your opinions of the experience may even change while you are engrossed in such enveloping sensory journeys. The very malleable nature of man, especially from a psychological perspective, it is difficult to find a fixed sense of self. Layered upon the various cultural and normative identities we ascribe to ourselves, it possible that we perceive ourselves differently at various times and in divergent contexts.

Eg.) A man can be an American, veteran, Grandfather, Father, son, friend, baker, neighbor all at various times to various people.

All of these various categorical titles that can be ascribed to an individual may mean different things to them at different times.  Placing a get weight on the temporal and contextual influences driving our sense of selfhood.  To a certain extent, we may not even be the same person we are today that we will be tomorrow. The alterations may not be drastic, but although subtle substantial enough to cause minor qualitative changes in personality, cognition,  thought processes, normative values, etc. Colloquially we often hear young people talking about the need to “find themselves”. This analogous to Sisyphus perpetually rolling a boulder up a hill.  Due to our dynamic nature which is highly adaptive from an evolutionary perspective, progress is illusory.  This perceptual stalemate is only compounded by the fact that we often perceive ourselves incorrectly. Typically,  in an exaggeratedly positive light. Validating Adam Smith’s observations in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). People do not want to believe view themselves in a negative light. Making self-depiction a form of self-pacification. The futility of attempting to pinpoint our selfhood cannot be understated. Unfortunately, our sense of self is subject to the illusions and psychological coping mechanisms that afflict human perception.

Abortion: An Oversimplified Issue

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 The abortion debate is arguably one of the most oversimplified contentious issues in all of public policy. The intricacies of navigating the legal statutes and case precedence that shapes the regulations governing the practice are oftentimes are glossed over in public discourse. This rash reductionist approach has shifted a complex topic into a simple categorical dichotomy. Easily making it a fervent “wedge issue” that has formulated many pithy platitudes and “bump-sticker slogans”.  These slogans which are so pleasing to the ear could have effortless you contrived by a marketing team. All operate more like a carefully constructed marketing campaign than a multi-disciplinary analysis. This not only makes the abortion debate stale and uninspiring but highly predictable because both sides of the fence utilize an “all-or-nothing” strategy of argumentation.  This is highly imprecise for a subject that is steeped in nuisance and minuscule details.  Below is the list of disciplines that intersect in the abortion debate:

  • Medicine
  • Science
  • Philosophy/Logic/ Ethics
  • Political Science
  • Law
  • Theology
  • Sociology
  • History
  • Economics

If a pertinent area of study was neglected, I sincerely apologize. However, while not completely exhaustive, this list conveys exactly how complex the issue is. The intersection of all these vast areas of study converges on a single point,  the refutation or the defense of  Roe V. Wade (1972). This one case has become the quintessential Schellingian focal point in the abortion debate. Potentially providing some insight into why the debate is so one-dimensional.   

Cooperation and Conflict

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Staying within the structure of methodological individualism it is important to see how Smith’s Pin factory example (p.54-55) exemplifies the coordination of a group of economic agents. All working in unison towards the common goal of producing pins. All of these individual works comprise the overall assembly line. The totality of all the adjacent departments related to manufacturing makes up the internal structure of the firm. Any social institution whether it be a hobbyist club, social club, buyers club (e.g. Sam’s Club, BJ’, Costco), government, business, trade association, private governing bureau/authority (e.g. homeowners association), charitable foundation, research institute, study group, etc. are comprised of multiple individuals forming the group. It is flat-out erroneous to speak of the entire organization without any consideration for its members. The collective action of all the group members acting harmoniously to achieve the same ends is much more complex than treating these collective efforts as lumped together aggregate.

Each member of an organization has their internal objectives, thoughts, feelings, and desires. It can be said that all the active participants have their utility functions (p.25-26). Meaning that to some extent their wants, needs, and desires align with the overall group goals. For example, very few people like their jobs, but they voluntarily consent to the terms of employment because of their desire to earn money. Whether it is for the intrinsic satisfaction of possessing money or what currency can be redeemed for. Keeping within the theme of a Smithian analysis of social institutions, it is important to note that more than tangible goods are exchanged through interaction with others. We exchange ideas, culture, skills, knowledge, friendship, guidance, sympathy, morality, and moral support among other forms of desirable forms of social currency. Political activities tend to be a form of social association that is frequently marred by corruption and various forms of abuse. However, is the dynamic of politics overtly a zero-sum game? Not necessarily. As it can be viewed as a form of exchange, individual actors engage in various exchanges for mutual benefits (p.25). One example being logrolling the practice of lawmakers trading votes/favors.

The intangible exchange of social commodities cannot be understated in formulating effective working relationships. One crucial assumption of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that we seek the “approbation” of others. In other words, we seek to praise and approval from others. We are constantly seeking the acceptance of our peers. Being well-liked on the individual level wields a significant amount of social currency. If the ability to seek acceptance and cooperation is applicable on the individual level, couldn’t it also apply to the harmonious relationships between groups of people? After all the scope of social and economic interactions operates on a continuum of scale, what is applicable on a minuscule level should also work on a larger scale. The principle is a general maxim governing social interactions, therefore it should be transferrable. One of the best ways to overcome cultural barriers is through finding a form of social exchange desired by both parties. It does not mean that it must take the form of economic exchange. It possibly manifests itself in alliances and treaties among nations. Special agreements, pacts, contracts among nonpolitical social units. Most often it takes the form of economic trade between foreign nations. The necessity of unilateral trade agreements is refutable. Consumer sovereignty is the true impetus of international trade. Despite the bluster and theatrics of vociferous diplomats and other garden variety elected representatives.

Why voluntary association over other coercive means do we yield harmonious interactions? There isn’t a magic bullet answer to this question. However, some insights from Public Choice pioneer Gordon Tullock may help elucidate a potential variable that sheds some light on this occurrence. It is the ability to choose our partners in voluntary social arrangements that reduce the instance of Prisoner’s Dilemma. If our trading partner is not being cooperative, we can easily do business with someone else. Because of the mobility of free association (which is purportedly protected under the First Amendment) we do not need to be held captive by aggressive or hostile social relations. Due to this consideration, it is easy to see the original sentiment behind antitrust laws, but much like all laws, they suffer from loopholes and other issues. Even from the standpoint of the definition of a monopoly. One of the common attributes of monopolistic market behavior is assessed by is market concertation. However, this is problematic how do we determine which market is categorically correct for the assessment of market concentration? Nevertheless, we can freely choose our partners whether in trade or other forms of social situations it reduces the occurrence of the perverse incentives to be noncooperative. Sullying our reputation deprives us of the esteem that Adam Smith surmised we all crave.

Considering that trade is one of the forms of association that fosters cooperation. Even if free trade is not the key to world peace, it still makes us less apt to raise the sword to our geographic neighbors. To repudiate the previous administration’s trade policy, international trade should be encouraged. It is only natural to perceive David Ricardo’s concept of comparative advantage as an extension of Smith’s pin factory.  The premise of comparative advantage is that it can make production global and explains why we tend to import higher-order goods to produce commodities domestically. No one climate can best produce glass, grapes, and corkwood in the Cognac region of France. However, all of these components are required for assembling a commercially produced bottle of Cognac brandy. This specific region in France has some of the best grapes in the world for brandy production. The climate is wholly inappropriate for cultivating and harvesting the wood used in the stopper placed in every Cognac bottle. To avoid placing great restrictions on our ability to manufacture sophisticated goods, we need to trade with other nations. We can only truly achieve this through peaceful relations. Free trade in itself helps to facilitate peaceful relations.

Calibrating Our Impartial Spectator is An Ongoing Process

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In my previous blog post, I address the role of social distance in moral development. Per Paganelli’s interpretation of Smith’s TMS (1759), we reduced our self-command when we are around people we are emotionally attached to (p.12-13). Much of our moral development arise from socialization. Making our self-restraint a combination of learned behavior and social conformity. The schoolyard may be the proper environment for individuals to fine-tune their social awareness. Does our moral development stop once are no longer school age? I would suggest not. If anything it a continual and lifelong process that is always in progress. If anything as we grow older, the expectation of others and social norms become much more intricate. Some of the basic principles learned on the playground are social conventions that are applicable in any social dynamic. The etiquette learned in the schoolyard is too rudimentary to comprehensively cover all the social nuisances of professional situations.

For instance, what is the proper attire for a job interview? How do I politely reject my boss’s dinner invitation? These are just a few examples of social scenarios of greater complexity that cannot be learned even in High School (arguably even in college). The reserved awkwardness of new hires fresh out of college exemplifies this deficit in workplace social skills. Outside of there being a likely age gap between the new employee and the rest of their co-workers, they are afraid of making a faux-pas. They are deathly afraid of being the person who takes the last of the breakroom coffee without making more (this individual is universally hated). They do not want to be disliked by their new pool of peers. To not look like a self-absorbed young person, it going to take time. The new employee will go through an acclimation process. The primary drive of this adjustment is going to be the feedback of their co-workers.

I would go so far as to even suggest that each new social environment requires some duration of social learning. The phrase “.. reading the room..” comes to mind. For example, even if an individual has worked as a salesperson for twenty years, as soon as they take a job at another company they now become the “new guy”. A new job entails new co-workers, a new boss, new corporate policies, new corporate culture. Despite this individual’s extensive experience they still need to go through an adjustment period. This seasoned salesperson now has to learn to adapt to the personalities, culture, and rules in their new work environment. Even in social situations where we are familiar with the location and the people, various factors lead us to constantly adjust to the feedback from others. If you were attending a dinner party at your brother’s house (only family members were in attendance) you would still have to mold yourself to the social conditions of the moment. You will taper your behavior to the dispositions of the other dinner guests. Social settings are dynamic and even the slightest change to one variable can profoundly alter the course of events. To a certain extent, we are always fine-tuning our Impartial Spectator to maintain social harmony. Social situations much like all complex systems have a loose structure with a set of informal rules. Although there is a resolute structure the one altered variable can drastically change the trajectory of the interaction. As the expression goes “high school never ends”, actually we never leave the playground.

Social Distance: The Foundation of Our Morality

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Adam Smith is arguably one of the most misunderstood thinkers in all of philosophy. The public reduces the corpus of his work to a one-dimensional caricature of The Wealth of Nations (1776). Such characterizations of Smith’s work are carelessly painting with a broad brush. It can be suggested that when to draw new insights from Smith’s work we should be even more cautious. So much has been written on the body of his work, as Donald Boudreaux keenly points out, it is difficult to formulate any new meaningful insights (p.487). This issue is only compounded by the fact that new interpretations of Smith’s work run the risk of misrepresenting his brand of moral philosophy. Which is equally as shameful as representing a shallow representation of his insights.

One development springing from modern interpretations of Smith’s philosophical ideas comes from professor Maria Pia Paganelli. Back in 2010, she wrote a paper entitled The Moralizing Distance in Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments as Possible Praise of Commerce. In her paper, professor Paganelli analyzes smith’s emphasis on the impact of relational distance and moral development. As Smith points out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments because we are subject to “self-deception” due to our immense self-love (Paganelli [TMS III.4.2–6], 2010, p.6). Due to human nature, who wants to view their conduct in a negative light? In many regards, the moral tuning of our impartial spectator occurs due to social influences (Coase, 1976, p.5-7) It exceedingly difficult to admit when we are wrong. Never mind disclosing an outrageous oversight or a profound moment of weakness. Both are humiliating and are the kind gaffs we attempt to bury. The true interest insight from Paganelli is the fact that Smith contended that if our relationship is too close to a person, we do a poor job of shaping their moral development.

Surely, this does not apply to parents? After all, aren’t parents one of the greatest impetuses of moral development of children? Per Paganel’s research Smith’s TMS does emphasize that socialization is a byproduct of the impressions of others (p.7). It is unquestionably true that our emotional attachment to an individual has the potential of skewing our impartiality. The more emotionally attached we are to a person there is greater the aptitude we will perceive the course of events from a similar perspective (p.8). Paganel points out that Smith believed that parents were too “partial and indulgent” of their children to be the prime mover in facilitating their moral maturity (p.9). There is some qualitative validity to this observation. Anecdotally we have all heard a parent proclaim “… not my child..” in regards to the potential of their son or daughter engaging in unruly behavior. Most parents want to hold their children in high regard and implicitly view them as a genetic extension of themselves. To acknowledge the unpleasant truth little Johnnie is capable of stealing Mr. Johnson’s car is excruciatingly painful on two accounts. First, there is the discomfort of acquiescing your child’s capacity to engaging in morally abject behavior (despite years of the parents’ efforts to socialize their child). The second and more damaging pressure point is a sense of having failed as a parent. This extension of yourself is presenting you with challenges that could easily be interpreted as a sign of personal failure.

The emotional distance to aid children in developing moral precepts also cannot be too far. Helicopter parents fail to help their children erect a strong moral foundation. Smith also observed the same being true of children that are sent away to boarding schools. A parent being too aloof can have the same effect as being too indulgent, a child with a lack of respect (p.9). This phenomenon parallels what happens in foreign countries with opposing interests. If there is too much social distance between the two nations, factions will form (p.10). Creating a self-congratulatory echo chamber where there is not any room for negotiations or compromise. Rather the ire is driven by unconstrainted passions shouting the valiant chants and battle cries of nationalism. Too often nationalist fervor results in actual battle cries. Firmly illustrating how social distance has an impact on both the micro and macro scale of social interaction. Achieving the precarious balance of the correct social distance between various groups and individuals is key in achieving stable relations.

According to Smith what is precisely the correct amount of social distance? It is too herculean of a task to determine this balance at the level of nations. If this could have been achieved in a philosophic treatise back in 1759, wars would become a relic of the eighteenth century. Smith does suggest that the best platform for moral development is a child’s peers. Through a child adjusting themselves to the expectation of their fellow playmates, they gain a sense of self-command (p.11). Above all, we tend to have better deportment around strangers than we do our own family (p.12). This goes right back to the concept of social distance. When we are closer to someone on an emotional level we exhibit less self-command. One example would be a small business that attempts to foster a family-like dynamic. Most observers’ prima facie impression would be that such an ethos would create a “hospitable work environment”. Even though the idea of a workplace that creates a culture of close-knit comfort may sound endearing, it possesses a lot of pitfalls. For example, if an employee makes an error the business owner may take it personally. Since the business proprietor is not constrained by the formality of a corporate environment, they are free to curse and scold the offending employee. Like how a parent censures a misbehaving child. Demonstrating how the voice of the impartial spectator becomes more salient when others are in the room. A CEO of a company has their conduct limited to the expected deportment that the employees and board of directors find to be acceptable. Behavior outside of these norms will result in disapproval.

Can Adam Smith Help Us Recover From COVID-19?

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Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely turned society upside down. Plagued by uncertainty the entire planet was alarmed in went into full panic mode. Leading us to the immediate question of how do we contain a novel virus when its origins are shrouded in mystery? Many of these reactionary policies may have modestly slowed down the spread of COVID-19, however, most of the state-sanctioned restrictions ended up causing unforeseen problems. The shelter-in-place orders resulted in the highest recorded rate of job loss since The Great Depression. The economic ramifications of various lockdown measures go beyond the immediate consequences. There was a November 2020 study conducted by USC projecting an overall GDP loss of $3-4 Trillion over the next two years.

Lengthy book treatments could be composed to fully detail all of the intricacies of the economic carnage of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the fall-out of the pandemic reaches well beyond the economic repercussions. Our overall health has been impacted. Not necessarily by the direct symptoms of COVID-19, but by a result of the lockdown orders. People have been less active leading to weight gain, which may lower an individual resistance to the virus. While physical health may be most salient to us because it can be observed by the naked eye, what about mental health? It is well documented that social isolation is a contributing factor to depression. A multitude of stories has been published describing the psychological struggles of Americans during the pandemic. The hardnosed statistician may be quick to dismiss these narratives as being purely anecdotal. However, many of the risk factors for suicide have been magnified since the beginning of the pandemic. There has been a notable increase in the suicide rate from 2019 to 2020.

The pandemic has also fractured relations between us and our fellow citizens. Clinging to our inner circles to avoid spreading COVID-19, we begin to become more tribal. The trust we once held for our neighbors has become eroded over the past year. Anytime someone sneezes we give them the side-eye. Fostering a climate of distrust and paranoia. This distrust has manifested itself in actual hate crimes and discrimination. Some reports estimate that hate crimes against Asian-Americans increased by 150 percent in 2020. What does this have to do with COVID-19? Quite a bit. It is speculated that the outbreak originated in the Wuhan province of China (p.2). Leading some to erroneously blame people of Asian ancestry for the spread of the virus. Creating friction between various communities across the country and only serving to make an already tumultuous situation worse. Asian Americans much like all other Americans have been grappling with the stresses of the pandemic. Adding racial tensions to the mix only serves to create more division and distrust. We need trust to have a stable society. 

Could a voice from the past help us navigate these difficult times? Provide us direction in helping us heal from the carnage caused by a global pandemic? I would argue yes. That voice of reason comes from no other than The Enlightenment-era moral philosopher Adam Smith Many readers are probably thinking to themselves “… isn’t this the guy that told us to follow our self-interest. In other words, to be selfish?”. In a sense, yes. However, limiting the body of Smith’s work to the following passage is nothing more than a caricature of his overall contributions to economics, never mind moral philosophy.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but their advantages. (The Wealth Of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II, p. 456, para. 9)”

The above paragraph may be the most famous one ever written by Smith, but it does not wholly define his breadth of work. Smith believes that markets and morality were inseparable, and you could not have one without the other. At the crux of voluntary trade is interaction. If we treat each other poorly and do not foster a good-working relationship trade cannot take place. To foster strong relationships, we as a society need a firm moral backbone. Morality provides us with the precepts to facilitate just and fair interactions despite conventional wisdom, this is crucial to success in business. If you are not running your enterprise justly your client will eventually find out and choose to do patronize another vendor. 

Business ethics and social morality are intimately interconnected, one cannot exist without the other. That is why the two great works of Smith were meant to be read in tandem. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) addresses social morality and The Wealth of Nations (1776) details the inner mechanics of economic exchange (catallactics). Both books dovetail together so well, reading one leaves you with a missing piece of the puzzle. COVID-19 has unquestionably harmed society economically and socially and both books contain the wisdom to help us get back on the right track. I am a great admirer of economist Don Boudreaux, but I do have to take issue with his recent assessment of Smith’s possible perception of the impact of social isolation resulting from COVID-19. Dr. Boudreaux states that Smith could certainly empathize with and rationally understand the distress caused by social isolation. I do not disagree with his inference, but I would surmise that Smith would want us to draw lessons from his work. To apply the concepts in both books to help us as a society overcome the hardships imposed by COVID-19. His work was not intended to be confined to the postulations of lofty ivory tower discussions, but also for practical application. What good is moral philosophy if it is never put to practical use? Why not look to the works of Adam Smith for guidance and solutions to help us navigate the uncertainty that is the COVID-19 pandemic?

The Law of Diminishing Returns and Human Capital

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Most of us that have a rudimentary understanding of economics, are familiar with the concept of the Law of Diminishing Returns. It is quite evident that this premise is unquestionably applicable to physical goods. Does this enduring economic law also apply to intangible commodities? It is salient once a person has exhausted the optimal quantity of solid objects. This is conspicuous in the disutility of engaging in hoarding behavior. While the optimum number of chairs a person should furnish their home with is debatable and depend on several factors, it is obvious once a person has amassed too many. Once an individual has so many chairs that it makes restricts accessibility to certain rooms in the house, becomes a fire hazard, or the homeowner can no longer contain all of the objects they own within the confines of the physical structure of their house- then it is problematic. Then rightward shift from the equilibrium point is universally expressed. There is no foreseeable value in obtaining more or maintaining your current collection of chairs. The assessment of whether you have too many chairs is no longer a matter of aesthetic preferences, but a matter of physical limitations. It is easy to determine once we obtained too many physical goods. 

The saturation point is much more difficult to answer when about intangible goods (human capital, intellectual property, etc.). However, it could be argued that the Law of Diminishing does apply to human capital. The ultimate marketplace for human capital is the job market. Often we hear the term “saturation” be used to describe the labor market. Several factors can contribute to the overabundance of human capital available to employers. Periods of high unemployment leave firms with the ability to hire, a large pool of applicants to choose from. The saturation could be referring to a glut of similar skill sets or credentials. If history majors are a dime a dozen, but math majors are hard to come by, who is going to stand out in the job market? If everyone has basic Microsoft office skills, but there is one candidate in the resume heap that has an advanced certificate in Excel, needless to say, this will catch the eye of any hiring manager or human resources representative. 

Degrees and certificates are not so much human capital as documentation of skills and formal education. Couldn’t the soaking point of specific forms of human capital also be relevant to soft skills? Well, why not? If can be applied to credential and soft skills then it must apply to more innate qualities. Such as personality types. Pre-employment personality tests not only qualify if a candidate is a good match for a specific job role but also help to bring more balance to team dynamics. 

Going beyond even the job market or potential job prospects, human capital is integral in determining an individual’s overall trajectory in life. While other factors such as opportunity, motivation, and timing have a lot to do with success. Without the proper skills, most people will not rise above a certain point of attainment. One of the most coveted, but arguably overrated attributes in the panoply of human capital is general intelligence. General intelligence can only get a person so far. There is no one single factor that leads a person to success, but rather a multitude of different variables. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole certain applies. Providing some validation of  Scott Adams’s postulations regarding complementary skills. No one needs to a virtuoso, but it is better to be reasonably good at many related skills than to fully master one. General intelligence is the archetypal example of being a master of one domain. We all have heard the platitude “… jack of all trades, master of none…” so frequently that it is deeply ingrained in our subconscious. However, this old saying has little applicability to the real world. It isn’t the smartest or the most diligent among us that succeed. Then again, the village idiot and the local ne’er-do-well burnout aren’t the ones rising to the top either.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (2008) presents an intriguing example of why general intelligence alone will not ensure success. Gladwell details the near-tragic trials and tribulations of Christopher Langan. A man who is a bona fide genius. Despite his expansive and impressive intellect he never had the opportunity to thrive as a universally praised academic. Langan boosted an IQ of 195 shadowing the IQ of Albert Einstein forty-five points (p.70). As impressive as it sounds to have an IQ of 195, there is one important point to remember. A veteran scientist with an IQ of 130 is equally as likely as a colleague with an IQ of 180 to win a Nobel Prize (p.80). Meaning that Lagan’s intelligence while awe-inspiring could even be viewed as being superfluous. If a person with an IQ thirty points lower than Langan can be a Nobel laureate what value does the extra IQ points effectively bring to the table? 

Despite Langan’s intimidating intellect he failed to even obtain an undergraduate degree. This was due to a string of unfortunate shifts in his vicissitudes. One notable incident transpired when he was enrolled at Montana State, he had car troubles and could not make his morning classes. He had a neighbor who offered to give him rides in the afternoon to school. Regardless of how much cajoled and begged the dean he was not allowed to change his class schedule and was forced to withdraw from his program (p.94-95). Langan’s foil must be Robert Oppenheimer who worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War II (p.97). Here was a man who as a student attempted to murder his tutored (p.98). Not only did he get away with it, but later on after he completed his graduate program he managed to get on the prestigious Manhattan Project. It is evident his past transgressions did not dampen his career in any way. What truly separates both these men from one another? Both men were exceptionally bright, but one man couldn’t even convince his dean to do something as innocuous as changing his class schedule. Another got away with attempted murder. The difference was that Oppenheimer had a greater degree of practical intelligence (p.101).

The comparison between these two men illustrates that not only is there a ceiling in the benefits of having high general intelligence. There are also limitations if the only skills you have are related to general intelligence. Without practical knowledge, a robust IQ is tantamount to be a weight. We all need the precepts requisite to tactfully navigate the world. In the absence of this scaffolding, our intelligence is of little use and only serves to weigh us down.