Thursday, November 25, 2004

Libertarian framing

I'm always amazed at how vulnerable we all are to simple framing tricks.

I greatly admire the writings of Cosma Shalizi in his weblog (and elsewhere), but a recent entry, Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise, left me irritated. He starts a hypothetical discussion with a libertarian with the libertarian asking:

"Why on earth are you in favor of giving the state any more governmental power than is absolutely unavoidable? It'll just be abused."

Cosma then proceeds with a defensive attitude, which by accepting the frames, yields the discussion. (See the Rockridge Institute for how this framing works.)

There are at least seven significant framing tricks in this brief statement.

First, "absolutely unavoidable" translates into "whatever we approve of". It's a waffling expression, and if an anarchist looked at them and said "all government power is avoidable", they'd have to start making it explicit.

Second, this pretends to set up a bright-line rule for avoidable versus not avoidable, and pretends that such a line is significant. The reality is that, as the anarchist says, it is all avoidable, but what we really care about are the consequences of any particular power.

Third, unless you weigh the consequences with an absolutist ideology such as libertarianism, you will rationally choose to delegate powers where the consequences are (on balance) positive.

Fourth, abuse will occur with ANY power granted government. Even the ones libertarians want government to have.

Fifth, abuse is not something we need consider separately: it is just another consequence, and needs to be weighed against the benefits of giving government a power.

Sixth, political power is not created or destroyed by giving it to government: if it is not given to government, it remains in private hands WHERE IT IS ALSO SUBJECT TO ABUSE.

Seventh, the amount of actual abuse must be measured in real-world conditions to know whether it is tolerable or intolerable, and will vary wildly depending on the specifics of the situation. We cannot permit an implicit demand for perfection, because no system is perfect and we thus would automatically fail.

Given time I could probably identify a number of other tricks involved. Amazing what can be crammed into 24 words!


Mark Plus said...

Speaking of framing, have you given any thought to the libertarian myth that some individuals are orders-of-magnitude more "productive" than others? I find that practically equivalent to saying that superhumans live amongst us. I'd like to see how "productive" these wealth elites are going to seem after Peak Oil becomes undeniable in a few years. "What do you mean, you don't have any gasoline to sell me for my car? I thought you were 'productive'!"

Mike Huben said...

It's true that some individuals are vastly more productive in a specialized field than others. For example, as a programmer, I had friends who could leave me in the dust. As a technical support engineer, I could diagnose and solve problems several times faster than anyone else in the group.

But what libertarians are really talking about is after-the-fact justification for inequalities produced by the market. If we accept the productivity explanation, we might consider that inequality just.

It's obvious that productivity differences can explain some wage inequality. But it can't explain very much when you get to really high wages, such as CEO wages. Recent studies have shown that CEO wages are high primarily due to self-serving and superstitious bidding on past executives with winning streaks.

How would I frame this? I would refer to the injustice of inequality, and scoff at productivity arguments. I'd compare the productivity versus rewards of contestants in a game of musical chairs. The CEO may be able to get his bum behind a big desk a fraction faster than a competitor: that's not productivity.

Mark Plus said...

Mike Huben writes,

"It's true that some individuals are vastly more productive in a specialized field than others. For example, as a programmer, I had friends who could leave me in the dust."That's not the sort of "productivity" I was talking about. I'm referring instead to the production and transportation of tangible wealth in mass quantities, for which we are currently using fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have thoroughly distorted our sense of economic responsibility because we still give credit to human efforts for the work performed in fact by nonhuman "energy slaves." Just compare how long it would take you to push your car 20 miles compared with how quickly and easily a gallon of gasoline can do the job. Without fossil fuels, some of us who would survive the Dieoff might still attain the "productivity" of someone like a Plato, Michelangelo or Mozart, but none of us would be "productive" like, say, Bill Gates.

Mike Huben said...

I'd have to see a better definition of that sort of productivity to be able to work with it.

Mark Plus said...

I, personally, can testify that in all the years I've worked in the hospitality industry, I have not been in the least "productive," despite my ability to derive an income from showing up on the job. I've played a role in the distribution and consumption of material goods like utilities, linens, furniture and so forth -- but I haven't produced any of them. That's why I'm not impressed by the assertion that the individuals who can make fortunes just from sitting at the desk and making phone calls (like George Soros, for example) are somehow vastly more productive than the rest of us. No, for some weird nonrational social accident they are just strategically placed to gather inordinate amounts of claims on the flood of material wealth produced by a system heavily dependent on fossil fuels. That flood would still be flowing even if such individuals weren't able to grab control of so much of it -- but it would reduce to a trickle without the work done by coal, oil and natural gas.