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30 August 2010

Lee on Boettke on Ostrom, in reply to Bates

As has become my habit, I again blew way past the character maximum for blog comments. This is a response to Winton Bates' comment of 29 August, 2010 21:32 on this blog.

On first inspection of the above comment I was half wondering whether Lin Osrom was short for Elinor Ostrom, and to my delight it is! Elinor Ostrom's claim to fame seems to be at least a partial debunking of the 'tragedy of the commons' understanding of free and/or public goods, which in itself is enough to make her a hero of mine. If only I had a penny for every time my ideals have been whacked over the head with the wet noodle called 'tragedy of the commons' by some snarky libertarian. Another barometer of true brilliance is the impressive and diverse variety of groups and causes that seem to want to claim her as one of their own, or at least claim some measure of vindication in her findings for their own pet theories, and pet bodies of theory. Only a year or so post-Nobel, and she's right up there with Thomas Jefferson by that barometer. Laissez-faire types love her for demonstrating that central authority is not needed for optimal allocation, while commies like me celebrate her finding that apparently property rights aren't needed either. What isn't exactly clear to me is what exactly is needed, and what exactly is the range of problems to which these group dynamics are applicable. I need to read up on these things.

As for this Peter Boettke, the name looked familiar, and of course following the link burned the name "George Mason University - Department of Economics" onto my retinas. Just day before yesterday one of the blogs I subscribe to posted a link to this claim that GMU Econ is essentially a wholly-owned subsidiary of the David H. Koch Foundation.

Of course, in the spirit of fairness, I read all 23 pages, at least twice.

As for Dr. Boettke's thesis that the only reasonable regulation is self regulation, I find it interesting that he finds Dr. Ostrom's findings to include "informal, and sometimes
even tacit, rules that communities live by." This sounds to me like neither government regulation nor self-regulation, but social norms. So, perhaps we should rejoice in the triumph of the normative over the positive; calling into question another mainstream economics dictum with which my most cherished beliefs have been pummeled many times.

As for the beekeepers and apple growers, maybe the jury is still out on that. Just last night David Suzuki's TV show was looking into the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder that has been decimating the honeybee population. It seems that bottling up, 'mixing labor with' and commoditizing the 'service of nature' that is pollination has had the effect of bringing the bees, like the other livestock, into the world of monoculture, which may be a contributing factor to CCD. In fairness, the show was inconclusive as to an exact cause, positing that the honeybee is facing so many stressors from so many sources that any one of these stressors could be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Here's a gem:

It is arguable, that not since Kenneth Boulding (see, e.g., Boettke and
Prychitko 1996) have we seen a social scientist allow their sheer curiosity
about the world to take them on such a methodological journey of so
many different approaches to get at the phenomena she wants to
understand…

Sounds to me like the everyday practice of anthropology. I'll probably file it as yet another example of mainstream economists being dismissive of the other social sciences.

All in all, the article read to me like a salvo of the standard talking points I have come to expect from 'Masonomists,' but I did learn something. I didn't know that Dr. Ostrom had cred in both public choice theory and political economy. Public choice theory is a discipline people of my ilk tend to dismiss as just another school of thought created in service to incumbent interests. Political economy, I always assumed, was the exact opposite; a discipline scuttled (for similarly mercenary reasons) in favor of economics as a science apart from politics. It seems obvious (or let's say intuitive) to me that all economic relationships (e.g. employer-employee, landlord-tenant, franchisor-franchisee, principal-agent, and yes, government-citizen) have a political (i.e. dominance-submission) dimension. I'm inclined to believe that the movement from political economy to economics is in service to the agenda of defining the political in the ultra-narrow terms of 'monopoly of the initiation of force,' while the invention of public choice theory is an attempt to make political science a branch of economics, in keeping with Steven Landsburg's project of making all sciences branches of economics through sophistic demonstrations that everything from particle interactions to evolutionary biology to matters of the heart (is nothing sacred?) are basically manifestations of market forces.

Snarky, but definitely food for thought, and much reading for me to catch up on.

29 August 2010

In reply to Winton Bates, on whether the next generation will have it even worse

The following is intended as a comment to Winton Bates' post titled Are Americans pessimistic about the prospects for the next generation?

Speaking as a 'Generation X' American (born 1965) I'm inclined to believe that (1) my generation's coming-of-age years occurred during that ratcheting-down of working class expectations called Reaganomics, (2) future generations can expect further ratcheting down of expectations and (3) the high point of American civilization was what was called the 'post-war period,' maybe 1946-1979. Some put its definitive end as early as 1973 (OPEC embargo). I'll go along with that, but human resources made a strong campaign of working with rather than against the trends circa 1980; what Jacob Hacker has termed the Risk Shift.

Whether the American standard of living is rising or falling, it should be undisputed that the structural trend is for Americans of modest means to be expected to eat more and more of the risk inherent in enterprise. All of the trends in human resources practice point in this direction, be it the trend from union to non-union workplaces, gainful (permanent, full-time) to 'contingent' employment, employee status to 'independent contractor' status, fee-per-service to HMO in health benefits, and defined benefit to defined contribution in retiree benefits. I would say that whatever gains (if any) have been made in median income have been more than offset by the losses in economic security. Even if it's true that risk was systematically underpriced by employers and insurers (perhaps due to incompetence or lack of 20-20 hindsight) during the postwar period, that underpricing enhanced quality of life in very tangible ways.

I think at least the next two or so generations are facing a continuation of this trend. For them, debt-financing of education, unpaid internships, attrition hiring, and self-employment by default are being added to the expectations placed on individuals generally.

There are of course many very important ways in which the present is much better than postwar America, which was far more racist and sexist. It was also more bureaucratic and conformist, but in these areas I think the present-day trend toward a surveillance state, and more significantly, a surveillance workplace, more than cancels out the relative cultural freedom, which in practice has more to do with expression than with substantive rebellion.

I don't expect a reversal of the Risk Shift trend until the painful market correction between global-north and global-south wage expectations has run its course to equilibrium. I think the odds are against this particular elephant being swallowed and digested during my lifetime. The only hope for a mercifully quick (though possibly more traumatic) resolution of these structural inequities is to 'liberalize' human migration with as much ideological ram-rodding as has been applied to the 'liberalization' of trade and of capital flows. The necessary adjustment of global-north consumption norms to the reality of global warming should also help, as will the projection that we will probably clear the population hump (though at a staggering 9 billion) by about mid-century.

Toward a thick individualism

Toward a thick individualism



Thick individualism as I intend to formulate it is not exactly the same thing as thick libertarianism. Of course I don't regard individualism as exactly synonymous with libertarianism. Libertarianism, both thick and thin, it seems, is anti-government first and pro-individual second. Another reason I tend to distance myself from libertarianism is because while libertarianism draws the battle lines between the public sector and the private sector, I tend to draw the battle lines between individuals and institutions. The latter category definitely includes all governments and businesses, and I generally also tend to throw in nonprofits, religions and perhaps families. I'm the type of anti-authoritarian for whom the creators of the Geek Code invented the PE>$ designation, which translates to "Distrust both government and business." That statement pretty much sums up my worldview, and it's been my worldview pretty much since my first job.

The apparent cluster of ideologies that includes thick libertarianism, left libertarianism, market anarchism, market socialism, and mutualism (at least in the American sense) seems to have a decidedly anti-corporate flavor (which, curiously, is starting to emerge in right-wing 'libertarian' circles) but it isn't clear to me whether they are pro- or anti- 'business,' in a sense that would include, for example, small business. I'm decidedly anti-business, as my working definition of capitalist is 'someone who owns and/or operates a business.' Like the IWW, I understand a worker to be 'someone who isn't a boss.' An employee of a small business is an employee, which is to say, used. From the vantage point of the employee, the employer is definitely an institution. Granted some employers are individuals, but here we're generally talking about work in personal service and other situations involving explicit social rank, which would logically be an affront to all schools of anarchy save the capitalist ones.

Needless to say, at some point I started to refer to my system as anti-institutionalism. This left a disturbing aftertaste, however, since it seems the only thing more trite than a neologism ending in -ism is one that also begins with anti-. Besides, it is fashionable these days, for some reason I can't quite fathom, to chide people for expressing with precision what they are against without describing what they're for. The formulation neo-individualism occurred to me, but the neo- prefix is perhaps even more trite than anti-. Then a few days ago, I saw yet another reference to thick libertarianism and it hit me. Why not call it thick individualism, describing it more or less as individualism as if individuals mattered.

The practice and advancement of thick individualism should logically avoid the creation of institutions. This begs the question of the legitimacy of organizations such as syndicalist unions and federations. One way around this is to regard these as part of a dual power strategy, although I'm generally inclined to think of power itself as a dirty word. Small-f federalism as a decentralizing tendency is, I think, of real value, so I would say that if we must have organizations, they should be federations of smaller organization, which devolve in a transparent way all the way to the individual. Given my general anticapitalist (which to me implies anti-market) bias, I'm inclined to think that if we must accept organizations as a necessary evil, they should also ideally be nonprofit organizations.

Anarcho-capitalists, of course, self-identify as individualists. Like thick libertarians and thick individualist(s?), this to them means they are anti-statists. They seem to think the state is collectivism taken to its logical extreme. I think of it is inequality taken to its logical extreme. Meanwhile I struggle with certain questions, like, whether it's possible for an organization not to be an institution, and whether my professed love of collectivism is simply out of spite toward the capitalist types. My provisional answer is that I can imagine no non-collective strategy by which the mice can bell the cat, whether the cat is the boss or the state.

Market anarchy is for markets

Market anarchy means anarchy (i.e. freedom) for the market. Real anarchy means freedom for the people, which means, among other things, freedom from the market. If the market enjoys freedom to find its equilibrium, that doesn't help me if the equilibrium price of my talents happens to fall short of the equilibrium price of my needs. Unmet needs are the basis to all forms of exploitation. Those who have what they need within easy reach are those who have the freedom to take this (or another) job and shove it. Freedom for the people may require the ability to override market outcomes. Obviously a nongovernmental means of accomplishing this must be invented, but such an invention is necessarily part of the struggle.

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