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I am not a Libertarian Because I Believe in Freedom and Property Rights, And I’d Like to Minimize Government Coercion, Part 2

by Mike Kimel

I am not a Libertarian Because I Believe in Freedom and Property Rights, And I’d Like to Minimize Government Coercion, Part 2

This is a follow-up to my previous post on libertarian philosophy, the aftermath of which was a surprising amount of, well, let’s just call it assorted vigorously uncomplementary communication. (Shows what I get for making myself easy to find, eh?) But I also got some more interesting comments from libertarians which have led me to think further, and perhaps they can help me refine my thoughts.

To quote something I noted in the last post below the fold:

In the end, the question is – who will be coerced, how many will be coerced, and how bad will the coercion be? I tend to come down on the side that the coerced party should be the one that is the first to try to coerce others, and that the coerced party should be as small as possible, and that the coercion should be the least bit possible.

By that I mean the following… when people in an apartment complex listen to loud music, or they let their lawn get overgrown with weeds, or they don’t vaccinate their children, or they dump toxic waste in a river that passes through their property, or engage in any number of other of activities, there can be very large negative externalities created. This is because the loud music doesn’t stop at their property line, and the weeds emit seeds or shelter vermin that move beyond their property line, and stuff dumped in a river keeps going past their property line, etc.

Now, just about every activity produces some externalities, positive and negative. Externalities are a byproduct of human activity and progress, and we don’t want to eliminate the good with the bad. Nothing gets produced without some amount of pollution and/or destruction. That means unless we want to live in caves, some amount of externalities have to be tolerated in society. The question comes down to how much, generated by whom, who decides, and is there some form of compensation for those who suffer the consequences?

Decades ago, Ronald Coase provided an answer. (A comment to non-economists: the paper, perhaps the reason he won a Nobel Prize, is surprisingly readable and I recommend it. A pdf version is here. Its been a decade since I looked at it last, I think I’ll reread it myself!) Essentially, he said that the problem is reciprocal – my right to prevent you from emitting toxic fumes impinges on your right to emit them. As long as the property rights are well defined, and it is easy for the various parties to negotiate, you end up with the same (efficient) outcome no matter who has the right to decide what goes into the air. The reason: the various parties will negotiate amongst themselves.

But there are some problems, aside from who decides the property rights. Coase identified one – that is is often difficult for parties to negotiate; one nightclub has a lot of incentive to generate loud music and might be able to figure out how much that generates in revenue, whereas folks two blocks away might still have their sleep disturbed by some sub-sonic thumping, but they might have a harder time realizing they were harmed or putting a dollar figure on that harm. Besides, how do you get everyone together who was harmed to negotiate?

There are other problems… my son is too young to be vaccinated for many diseases. The anti-vaxx movement is killing herd immunity. If my son gets the measles before he is old enough to get the MMR vaccine, will I know who caused it? In the unlikely even that I do know, in what world will my son be adequately compensated?

But there is one other problem Coase did not consider. I frankly don’t care if someone is listening to mind-numbing bass on their sound system down the block. I only care if I (and to be socially minded) or someone else is forced to listen to that bass. My guess is that in most instances, the person generating the mind-numbing bass doesn’t care whether other people are listening to it either. And while it is possible for the party generating the music to ensure that the music (mostly) stays on his/her property, it is very difficult for a very large number of neighbors scattered over a wider area to protect against the broad range of all possible negative externalities that might seep onto their property, any one of which might start up at any time.

In the end, someone has to decide how much a person can do on his/her property taking into account what externalities are generated. And unless you want a free-for-all or people are sufficiently distant from each other that none of the negative externalities generated is very large, that someone is the government.

From what I can tell, this is the crux of the problem as far as most libertarians are concerned. Given their distrust of the government, they want people to be left alone. And that leads a free-for-all. Galt’s Gulch may even begin as a well-ordered place, but it very quickly either develops order, or becomes an anarchy and eventually gets abandoned. If you don’t believe it, there are countless examples across the American West. Less familiar to Americans, the same pattern can be seen with settlements all across Latin America. Pick any random town in the middle of, let’s just say, the state of Goias in Brazil. (A nice place to visit, by the way, though I haven’t been there in twenty five years.) The history of that random town is probably the same regardless of which one you pick. Some settlers left a bigger settlement somewhere on the coast of Brazil, either because they were looking for gold or wanted to set up a ranch. At first there were no rules, but those settlements that are still around today are called towns and cities, have plenty of rules, and a government to enforce them. I can’t think of a functioning place that manages to remain like Galt’s Gulch after a couple of generations.

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Darwin Strauss and Popper

Robert Waldmann

Neoconservatives have expressed sympathy for “intelligent design theory,” that is, creationism. This is well documented by Ronald Bailey’s article in “Reason on line.” Bailey discusses why neoconservatives might claim they don’t believe in evolution by natural selection even though there is no scientific basis for that view.

update: link corrected thanks to VtCodger in comments.

Mainly, he suspects that it is a Strussian “noble lie,” roughly that they believe that fundamentalist religion is needed for the good of socieity, so they pretend to agree with it. He mentions, but is not very fascinated by, the idea that this is partisan hackery — that neoconservatives think the interests of the Republican party would be harmed if they didn’t bend their knees before the fundamentalists. Of course the problem is that once one decides to lie, it is very hard to decide exactly how noble to be about it.

He doesn’t mention the collosal arrogance of people who assume that biologists don’t know anything relevant about biology which they don’t know. I think this is always a risk in people coming from law or social sciences. They just have no clue how much evidence lies behind the claims of natural scientists and assume that they can bluff their way past biologists as they have successfully bluffed their way past say economomists.

In the second part of his article, Bailey argues that there is no scientific case against evolution by natural selection. Naturally it would come first, one normally doesn’t question someone’s honesty until one has exausted other options (although the NeoCons he quotes are pretty up front about how they start with the conclusion and work back to the evidence). I think the editorial decision makes sense as most Reason on Line readers don’t really need to be convinced that modern biology is not all a big mistake.

I think Bailey’s arguments for Darwin are weaker than his earlier analysis—not because he doesn’t make a convincing case, but because he buries the lede. Basically he has a theoretical disagreement with a mathematician, then speculates about the origin of life, then asks if one can be both a Christian and a Darwinist (hint yes) and only then discusses some of the evidendence for evolution by natural selection.

But Berlinski stoutly declares in Commentary that he is no creationist. He claims merely to be engaged in critiquing the failures of Darwinism. Berlinski is particularly savage about what he regards as Darwinism’s tautological character. “Time and again, biologists do explain the survival of an organism by reference to its fitness and the fitness of an organism by reference to its survival, the friction between the two concepts kindling nothing more than the observation that some creatures have been around for a very long time.”

In Berlinski’s view, evolutionary theory simply says that the ones that survive are the ones that survive. But that is not quite right. But that is not quite right. Darwinian natural selection sifts for useful variations among mutations, thus natural selection generates increased fitness, not just preserving the fittest. This process generates new species, species B being the descendant of earlier species A. This claim is clearly more than a tautology.

Wrong Bailey, the way to argue that something isn’t a tautology is to point out a testable implication. Instead Bailey claims the stated theory is not quite right because it didn’t include the word “species” even this explanation is incorrect (see below*) but the main thing is that the theory of evolution by natural selection has testable implications because organisms have detectable features which don’t make any detectable difference.

The evidence for the theory became vastly vastly enormously gigantically even more immense than it was already when biologists began sequencing DNA. They found patterns explained by the idea some sequences don’t matter and drift faster than others which do. Based on those sequences they can redraw the family tree of living things and lo and behold it almost exactly matches the tree drawn based on other features and based on fossils. Oh and one can check that the sequences that don’t seem to matter don’t matter and, so far, they don’t. Before sequencing the evidence was weaker but already overwhelming based on traights which didn’t seem important.

There might be another explanation for these facts, but no one has ever pretended to have one. Instead critics of biology like Berlinski and Kristol just ignore the evidence entirely. Bailey mentions it long after speculating at length about the origin of life (OK and I began indignantly typing before I read that far).

Berlinksi’s claim is, I think, false as a matter of fact. Biologists do not claim that the survival of this or that species is evidence in favor of evolutionary biology. The evidence all concerns trivial things which are considered evidence of evolutionary history exactly because they have tiny or zero effect on fitness.

The quote of Berlinski (all I have read of his writings) does not disprove the hypothesis that he thinks that modern evolutionary biology is completely summed up by the phrase “the survival of the fitest.” That is, indeed, a tautology. It is indeed part of the subtitle of “The Origin of Species.” But I mean, to be fair to Darwin, one should at least read the full subtitle. Oh and maybe glance at the book. And to be fair to evolutionary biology, one would have to note that much evidence has been collected since then (not to mention the theory has developed).

I have Popper in the title, because Popper did the same damn thing in “The Open Society and Its Enemies.” Popper at least asserted that something wasn’t there — predictions which have since been confirmed, explanations of puzzling facts, you know non tautological science — which absolutely wasn’t there. Popper, I think, assumed that he was brilliant enough to know what is written in a book after reading part (not all) of its subtitle.

* I think a biologist tried to explain this to Bailey and he didn’t get it. The non tautological point is that the descendents of species A might belonge to species B and C two different species present at the same time. Now the claim that two different organisms belong to different species is *not* mere terminology — it has an operational definition — orgnaisms from two different species can not produce fertile offspring descended from both of them.

If evolution were always new species A replacing now extinct species B, then all we would know is that we choose to use different words for organisms of type A and B. Without a time machine, we can’t test if they are two different species.

Now “survival of the fitest” does not logically imply that one species can, over time, split into two. This is a radical idea. It is also, in principle, experimentally testable, although the experiment will take a long time.

I personally think the experiment is under way and it is already clear that one species can split into 2 much more quickly than evolutionary biologists imagined. The experiment is raising fruit flies in laboratories. They are used to study genetics. Normal non mutant flies are called “wild type” but their ancestors haven’t been wild for about a century now. They have been bread in labs from each other.

Interestingly when an actual wild male captured in the wild is mated with a lab bread “wild type” female, something happens called “hybrid disgenisis” which means the offspring are messed up. It is known that this is caused by a transposon (basically a very very benign virus) which keeps itself inactive in the genome of wild fruit flies by making a repressor protein. None of that protein gets into spermatazoa so if the transposon is in one of the male’s chromasomes it makes copies of itself and spreads them around inside the chromasomes of the fertilized egg.

Evidently the transposon spread through the wild population after the ancestors of the lab flies were captured.

Some of the offspring survive this process. But already there is a barrier between wild and lab fruit flies after about one century. One can imagine that another hundred years or so, wild males will not be able to produce fertile offspring with lab bread females (just a few more such latent virus like things would do it).

Now to get two whole species it has to be blocked the other way too and the lab population is very isolated (also from other insects) and divided among labs so I mean maybe experimental speciation won’t occur in my grandchildren’s lifetime. But it’s really close.

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