Thursday, November 01, 2012

The King's Table

I was thinking about the distinction between the traditional King's Table and the ideal of the Round Table at the Court of Camelot. At the traditional medieval table, the sovereign (whether King in the royal court, or local lord in a local court) sat at the head, and people were seated closer to or further away depending on their level of power and influence. The Round Table exemplified the ideal of equality: there was no "head" of the table to sit at, so all who sat at it sat as equals... even the King, himself.

The Federal Reserve system is interesting in that is is also like a long rectangular table, but it can be difficult, for those who know how it works, to distinguish which end of the table is the "head". For at one side of the table (the Federal Open Markets Committee) sits the Chairman of the Board of Governors, ostensibly the head of the most numerous component of the FOMC: the seven members of the Board of Governors. The second component of the FOMC is five Presidents of the twelve Federal Reserve Banks, four of which serve in rotation, one of which is a permanent member, and therefore the other potential "head" of the FOMC: The President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

I'm not sure if there's any point to this rambling.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Abortion: One The Inconsistent Nature of Both Sides of the Debate

Recently, a picture came across my Facebook feed, which inspired the following. I find it difficult to place myself in this debate, between the so-called "pro-life" and "pro-choice" crowds, because I consider the substance of both arguments to be generally lacking.

On the one hand, there's the pro life crowd. I can respect a consistent pro-lifer, who is simultaneously opposed to abortion as well as other forms of wanton killing, particularly war. But all too often, the very same person who speaks, perhaps even eloquently, about the sanctity of life when speaking of an infant other than his own is the same person who cries out shrilly for the blood of foreigners the moment the flag is hoisted. Additionally, I dislike the simplistic view that any practice that is reprehensible should simply be made illegal, without any reference to the nature of the penalty which should be imposed, the method of enforcement, or the actual outcome of a given policy.

But the pro-choice position also has its issues, the largest of which is a seeming dishonesty with regard to what I regard as the central issue of the debate: at what point in a person's development does a child become legally "human", and as such entitled to the protection of the State? This issue is easily dodged if you regard the State simply as not having standing to pursue the case; however, it is my understanding that the vast majority of those who advocate this position are not typically consistent with regard to what is and is not outside the purview of the State. Also, it isn't as if those on the "right" regard women as not having a choice as to whether or not to bear a child; the characterization of the "pro-life" position as one which regards women purely as breeders in service to the State is highly disingenuous. Rather, the question is at what point the choice has been made, and a woman (and perhaps a man, as well) becomes legally obligated to bear the consequences of that choice.

(Note that I bring up the man because this question also has bearing on another issue: the point at which a man becomes legally responsible to provide material support.)

The "Pro-Life" position is consistent on the first question: they regard a person's legal existence as beginning at the moment of conception. If one disagrees with this, one should say so, and further, one should propose an alternative which can be medically tested for using current technology. Do you regard birth as the proper beginning of a person's legal existence? What would you define as "birth"? For example, would it be legally allowable for a woman to kill her child just before it emerges? How about a week before labor would normally commence? How about a month? And there's another alternative: some cultures (ones which developed in a period when infant mortality was very high) do not "induct" the child into their society until some time has passed after the birth (some do not name a child until it has survived for a number of days, and one might regard the point of circumcision under traditional Judaism as legal recognition of the child's position in their society). And how about the practices of classical Greece and Rome? Should death-by-exposure be allowed up to a certain point?

I'm not making a slippery slope argument here, but posing a legitimate question (at least, under the generally accepted paradigm with regard to the relationship between the State and Society): at what point in a child's development, if ever, does the State gain the authority to require the parent to sustain the child's life?

The second question is when one should regard the "choice" as having been made; when does the life become a legal obligation? Once again, the most extreme of the "pro-choice" crowd is consistent, and might even be open about it from time to time (as socially unacceptable as this position is). To them, the moment of decision is the same as the moment they believe life begins: the moment of conception. Under this ideal, chastity is a viable option, birth control is a gamble (or perhaps even an immoral act, under certain religious traditions). What is the pro-choice alternative? Where is the point at which the child goes from being a choice, to being a legal responsibility? (Same question as before, restated.)

Ginsburg's quote is well received, but my question is this: by what legal principle do we distinguish the woman who makes the adult decision to terminate her pregnancy, from the woman who fails to care for her infant child?

Now I should distance myself from this argument. I do have my own position, but it stems from a highly non-traditional (though increasingly prevalent) view of the relationship between the State and Society (in other words, with regard to the law I dodge the issue presented above). That, however, is the subject of another essay, as is my regard for the most common variety of the pro-life position (and "religious rightisim" generally) as idolatrous and spiritually bankrupt.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Re: You're crazy.

A fellow calling myself Dr. Chief recently posted the following on an earlier post on the Broken Window Fallacy:

You're crazy, even if he does spend the money for land, or ownership that benefits what you see as only himself, others will benefit in the future. You're argument takes for granted that at least half of people who have money are dishonest and will take advantage of the system to make "dishonest" honest purchases. It is a moot point either way, there is no morality injected at all and forcing there to be some sort of moral choice is your fallacy.
It got me thinking on how to express these thoughts again, and so I decided to respond. It grew until I decided I needed a full post. Here is my response:

I don't assume dishonesty on the part of any person in this analysis. Access to land must have a price; how else would we allocate this scarce resource? My only assertion (not apparent in this particular piece, as I only analyze the broken window fallacy from the perspective of Geoist economics) is that the particular institution that makes access to physical space as a fully alienable right is, itself, an immoral institution, comparable to slavery. It just that the effects aren't as obvious as slavery.

Perhaps I should have avoided value judgments in this particular piece. It's an old piece, and I'm still developing my rhetorical style. But the whole point of this series was to point out the immoral nature of certain institutions.

At any rate, your error is assuming that buying land has the same social benefit as buying capital or consumer goods. It doesn't. When one buys things, one sends a signal to the market: producing this was a good idea. You compensate those who were involved in the production of that good. One would only produce the good if one expected to receive payment in return.

Land is different. By "land" I am referring, of course, not to fertility or a dug mine or anything like that. I'm referring to physical space. It was there before we got here. It will still be there after we're gone. When one pays for land, one does not reward a producer. Unlike Labor and Capital, it exists, has existed, and will exist regardless of any person's decision. The only social benefit is the benefit the market always provides: efficient allocation. (The market also efficiently allocates slave labor; that does not make slavery a moral, or even efficient, institution.)

To whom should that payment be rendered? It is my belief that, if there be a God who created the Heavens and the Earth, such a being is the only rightful Landlord. In His absence (may His Kingdom come...), if we assume all persons have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and property (or the Pursuit of Happiness, as Thomas Jefferson put it), we must assume that every person has a right to that pre-requisite not merely to life, but to existence itself: physical space, at the very least, the airspace we displace.

But the fact is, in our current society, the right to physical space is a fully alienable right, bought and sold like a commodity. The privilege of existing is held by a subset of society. Some hold a lot of the keys to existence. Others hold only a few. A majority have to pay someone else for the right to exist. I'm not talking about food, water, and shelter here; I fully agree that no person has a right to anybody else's labor... even for such "necessaries" (every man a right to the water, no man a right to force someone else to draw it for him). I'm talking about "land as standing room", as Ludwig Von Mises put it.

If it sounds insane to question the ancient and sacred institution of landownership like this, recall that for most of human history, the notion that a man's freedom of action could be bought and sold like a commodity (and that the condition of slavery was an inheritable status) was also regarded as an unquestionable and necessary institution. All the civilized world has since outlawed the institution... and the cotton continues to be picked.

But what is the alternative to the way we currently allocate land ownership? I have spent the past decade thinking and writing on that very subject. Henry George had a beginning to an answer to that question. It was John Locke (in what some call the "Lockean Proviso") who most famously posed the question in the first place. A short synopsis: the institution that could replace our current land institutions could also completely replace the current welfare state without a single violation of the principles of liberty, without doing even a remote amount of damage to the economy, and without sending a segment of the population social democrat types currently claim as their chief concern spiraling back into desperate poverty.

Possibly irrelevant addenda:

A brief statement to provoke thought: banking (fractional reserve banking, which is what is generally meant by the term "banking") is to Capital, what Slavery was to Labor. The institution of fee-simple landownership (let alone alloidal title) is similarly related to Land. I will leave the explanation of the relationship for a future entry.

I'll also reiterate the analysis of the broken window fallacy, if only because I like the way I wrote it and don't feel like discarding it:

The fact is, when more resources go to landowners, less goes to providers of labor and capital. Less is earned; more is gained by virtue of an indestructible past legacy. ("Capital" might also be described as a legacy, but unlike land, it must be continually replaced, whereas an investment in land has an indefinite lifetime.) When you break the window, a capital and labor expenditure becomes necessary. Overall production of wealth drops... but a (slightly) larger share goes to providers of labor and capital, at the expense of landowners. This is how the "Broken Window Fallacy" actually "works" better than Bastiat concluded... though there is a far better alternative for those who are presently wholly dependent upon their labor and capital for their livelyhood than the welfare/warfare state.

That's how I should have written it, anyway. Thanks for your comment.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Redrawing Democracy: A Vision

I've been thinking today about my personal vision for the kind of society I would like to live in, a sort of "ideal picture" of an ideal country. It's actually pretty specific, and I think I am finding words to describe this picture. The first part is unabashed utopianism. The second part is serious "political science-fiction" as I like to call it.

Physically, visually, it looks somewhat like a plant, with each part being of equal importance, though some parts are more visible than others. The roots would be in the countryside, where much of the population growth would occur and a reserve of unspecialized yet hardworking people would be maintained, where both new population and raw materials would originate. The stem would be a network of incrementally larger transportation arteries and commercial hubs, from an unmanaged network of dirt and gravel backroads linking rural communities to more paved roads and rails, to factory towns that process the raw materials, finally to the flower of the society: the cities. The cities would be clean, dynamic places, where the great variety of cultural, commercial, and industrial forces that originate in the countryside would shine, hybridize in ever changing ways, as people, products, and ideas moved in and out.

The Root (Country)

The roots would be an essentially unorganized countryside. There would not, in this society, be an organized, State-driven effort to extend the amenities of urban civilization to the farthest reaches. In other words, tax dollars would not be spent to directly extend or subsidize the extension of things like transportation and communication networks to these places. If the phone company sees no profit in extending phone lines to a particular community (and the people of that community are unwilling and/or unable to finance the extension of the network to their community), the lines would not be extended. If the only way to build a paved highway to such a place is coercive finance, the road would not be built.

Th result of this would be that unique rural communities would be more able to continue their existence. Places where labor specialization is less, where jacks-of-all-trades flourish, where traditional values are under less pressure by a ubiquity of instant communication with the rest of society. The various communities would be highly diverse, with some being ethnically diverse, others ethnically homogenous. Some places would host things like free-love hippie communes, while others would host more religiously motivated communities. Some would be essentially commercial operations, focused on profitably providing raw materials for a market. Others, particularly ones further off the beaten path, could be more idealistically founded. There would be a government over this all, but the primary purpose of this government would be to ensure that no particular group of individuals could either monopolize the available resources or impose their communal visions on others.

From these places more adventurous souls could come, migrating to the cities with no particular specialization but a well developed work ethic, revitalizing urban cultures that all too often lose sight of the value of hard work and perseverance in favor of blaming their neighbors for their woes. To these places could go the world-weary of the urban world, who would have a wide range of communities to choose from, and be able to revitalize rural cultures that all too often lose sight of the value of innovation in favor of a dogmatic adherence to tradition.

Ultimately, the character of the root would be a spectrum of degrees of connectivity to the world market, ensuring that there are always places where the value of hard work and personal perseverance is always apparent, unlike in urban societies where the value is often more abstract, hidden as it is by layer upon layer of business-controlled access to capital and other resources.

In our current society (Western civilization and the more urbanized Asian civilizations), the root is undervalued, weakened by well-meaning but misguided efforts to extend the benefits of modern civilization to these places by any means necessary. The result is a sort of grafting-on of the rural societies in other parts of the world, as population growth slows in over-urbanized societies and are are gradually replaced by alien populations. The civilization I describe would be a more balanced civilization, accepting its less incorporated rural populations as kin (being linguistically compatible with their urban counterparts), with an economically resisted but politically free flow of individuals between the root and the flower. Urban civilization would also be more evenly distributed, as opposed the overconcentration of urban communities in the geographic West, with rural populations on the outside.

The Flower (Shining City)

Cities would ideally be clean, prosperous, diverse, and well-engineered, with multi-use buildings being the norm, "zoning" being minimal. These would be the places to which raw materials would flow, both physical and cultural, and from which refined materials would be released, from manufactured products to novel cultural movements. Populations would be dense, and the ubiquity of mass transit would make it possible to travel by foot alone (auto accidents would be few, with most of the drivers being those who have no choice due to their professions). Further, most of the cities would be linked by advanced mass transit (high speed rail?), allowing convenient, almost seamless movements of people and goods between the most advanced cities. Travel between the cities and less urban communities would have a continuum of convenience, from being able to reach the larger towns via older rail systems, the smaller towns via less developed roads, to remote communities that one can reach by inconsistenly maintained gravel roads... at best. And there would yet be places the hardiest of urban tourists would have to themselves, reachable only by foot (whether human or equine).

To these places would come the more adventurous persons of rural origins, hungering for a faster paced and more competitive life than exists in the countryside. From these places would depart those who are weary of that same fast pace and high level of competition, and they would have a wide variety of places to choose from. Thanks to the equitable distribution of access to natural resources (most chiefly, access to physical space, to be described in a later section on the political institutions defending this society), "captive" populations mired in urban poverty would not exist. Further, due to those same institutions, city boundaries could shift and move periodically, to account for changes over time, speeding the decomposition of the dead institutions of dying cities.

Branch and Stem (Everything In Between)

The cities would not be walled; the country would not be isolated. The chief characteristic of the connecting tissue would be variety, variety, variety. There would not be one single plan defining the nation's transportation system. Larger towns, serving as hubs of trade and manufacturing between the two extremes, could be connected by robust transportation systems. But there would yet be places connected by only the most tenuous threads, with minimal (but still present) commercial connection to the urban flower. The further one got from the most rural communities, the more diverse the communities would become. While the great megatropolises would connect with others around the world, the smaller cities would connect regionally. But new transportation systems would be established in an organic fashion. Megatropolises could shrink to more regional status; new cities could rise (though this happens less often than one might think, with the oldest city sites having been continually occupied).

I'm not sure what else to say about this.

Bark and Thorn: Government

There would be, constitutionally speaking, two levels of government: the national and the local. Local could be big in some places, representing the populations of entire cities or wide-ranging territories. It could also be small in other places, representing entirely independent villages or even individual homesteads.

The concept would be that all individuals have an equal right of access to the land. By default (due to the absence of equally distributed "ancestral estates" in most of the world), this right would be exercised by equal and inalienable ownership of shares in a single corporation, which would function as the national government.

This government would collect "taxes" in form only. In substance, they would simply be rents paid for the privilege of excluding others from use of land resources, which would include everything from physical, geographic space, to the limited capacity of the atmosphere (locally and globally) to process the byproducts of human activities, to exclusive use of segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. It would always seek to collect the most it could, keeping rents at revenue-maximizing levels (seeking neither to raise them so high it hurts productivity, nor lower than necessary). It would spend these revenues on whatever the board of directors, elected by the population at large, decided was necessary. Any extra would be returned to the shareholders (read: again, the population at large) as a dividend.

Ideally, in my opinion, this government would focus primarily on defense of people against aggressors, both foreign and domestic, keeping the peace and leaving more in-depth governing to the lower levels of government, and thus returning as much of its revenues as a dividend as possible (this practice is what is meant by "geolibertarianism"). This is what I would advocate as a participant of the political process. However, the actual results could be whatever the citizenry enabled via the board of directors.

Local governance would not be set in stone, and would be formed in the following manner. Groups of shareholders would have the right to redeem, temporarily, their corporate share in exchange for a physical share of the land equal in value to their share of the corporation. Essentially, segments of the population could "secede" from the level and govern themselves in whatever manner was mutually agreeable to the participants. They would, first, have to had legal occupancy of that land; they would have to already "own" it and be paying the appropriate rents for it (which would tend to be higher per square foot in urban areas, and potentially nearly-free in the most remote rural areas). The value the population would receive back as a dividend if the rents could somehow be collected without bureaucratic overhead and the government returned the entire amount as a dividend would have to equal the rents that would normally be paid for protected occupancy.

From that point until the expiration of the charter, no more than fifty years later, the national government would not collect physical land rents from this area, nor would they exercise jurisdiction over internal affairs in this area. (They would still collect, and its people would still participate politically, in a limited fashion as joint-owners of overlapping broadcast regions and pollution basins.) At expiration, the population would be re-issued their shares in the national government, the land be returned, and if they so desired and the re-assessed rental-value still matched the re-counted population (and they all still wanted to participate), the charter could be re-established. I suspect, however, that people more often would take this opportunity to adjust borders, try entirely new divisions, or even return to direct national governance.

Examples of how this might work include cities that make the decision to become "free cities", establishing independent political institutions (particularly independent of more tradition-bound rural populations), collecting local revenues more efficiently, spending them locally on urban priorities, and so on. It could include a small town that wants to defend it's unique local character from what it perceives as an overbearing national government. It could include an individual homestead, the members of which want to attempt a fully "market anarchist" type of political life. It could include a pioneering community, who believe the rental-value of an area could be substantially higher given some work, and who could use this institution to secure the benefits of putting in that work and taking the risk over a period of fifty years... but not allowing their descendants to perpetually place themselves over the remainder of the population.

Most importantly, it would include a great variety of different sizes and types of local governance, making such a country, overall, into a true "laboratory of democracy." Successful experiments could be easily extended and imitated; unsuccessful experiments would liquidate by default after a time. Populations that wish to break away could do so peacefully; others that wish to join together could do so without dragging their neighbors into it. THINGS COULD CHANGE... and nobody would have to fight a war to make it happen.

The national legislature could even be bicameral. One house would be the board of directors elected by all who choose to be governed directly by, and participate directly in, the national government. The other could be the representatives of voluntary contributors (a version of the "openly sold Senate" I described nearly a decade ago).

Anyway, that's what the vision of this particular brainstorm looks like.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Redrawing Democracy Again

The earliest posts on this blog are a series I had written on an even earlier blog (my old site which no longer exists) on a blueprint for an entirely new kind of government. Nearly a decade has passed since I originally wrote these essays, and I've continued to put a lot of thought into the subject over that decade.

That original plan suffered from severe complexity issues. I've also learned a lot more about economics, delving deeply into both Austrian economics and Geoist political economy. Finally, I have, in the interim, pretty much completely lost my faith in what many of the founders (United States) referred to as "parchment barriers" (bills of rights, lists of enumerated powers, etc.) to contain the abuses of government... but I've also been finding other methods. Over the past month or so, my thoughts on the subject have begun to gel into something coherent.

This, over the next few months, I will be posting to this blog again. I will try to keep the articles short and purely descriptive, leaving the theory behind it and my predicted outcomes for a longer work I intend to publish at some point in the future.