Defending the non-central fallacy

post by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-03-09T21:42:17.068Z · LW · GW · 39 comments

Aaron Bergman recently defended logical fallacies against the charge that they're bad arguments. His thesis wasn't new. Gwern highlighted "Bayesian Informal Logic and Fallacy" and "Fallacies as weak Bayesian evidence"

Defending logical fallacies sounds pretty fun, so I decided to do it myself. But, I thought, if I'm going to do it, I might as well go all the way. Why not defend the final boss of all fallacies, the so-called "worst argument in the world [LW · GW]": the non-central fallacy.

Scott Alexander describes [LW · GW] the non-central fallacy as such,

X is in a category whose archetypal member gives us a certain emotional reaction. Therefore, we should apply that emotional reaction to X, even though it is not a central category member.

When phrased like that, it's hard to disagree that this a bad argument. Probably not literally the worst argument in the world, but still pretty bad. However, people don't usually phrase their arguments like that. Taken literally, this description is looking terribly like a strawman.

What might the steelmanned version of the fallacy look like? Here's one possibility:

While often mistaken for being outside of morally relevant category Y, X in fact belongs to Y upon reflection. Therefore, we ought to treat X more similarly to other more typical members of Y.

Imagine the following argument. 

Person A: "I think eating meat is wrong."

Person B: "Why?"

Person A: "Because animal farming is cruelty. By eating meat, you are contributing to this cruelty, and that's wrong."

Person B: "That's ridiculous. The archetypal examples of cruelty are things like torture and child abuse. Animal farming just means raising animals for food. You, my friend, are guilty of the non-central fallacy."

As much as I sympathize with Person B, I must say that Person A appears to have the better point. It kind of just looks like Person B is deflecting. Let's examine how Person A might reply.

Person A: "I'm not saying that animal farming merely fits the dictionary definition [LW · GW] of cruelty, and therefore we ought to treat it exactly like every other case that matches that definition. 

Look, why do we think that torture and child abuse are wrong in the first place? For me, it's because those things involve involuntary suffering, and I think involuntary suffering is bad, no matter who experiences it. When I said that animal farming is cruelty, I was merely using that word as short-hand to convey my stance on involuntary suffering."

Is my argument really a steelman of the non-central fallacy, or is it merely a different argument? Maybe I'm giving people too much credit by re-interpreting their argument in a way that they never actually meant. To find out, let's take a peek at some examples Scott Alexander gave in his post.

"Taxation is theft!" True if you define theft as "taking someone else's money regardless of their consent", but though the archetypal case of theft (breaking into someone's house and stealing their jewels) has nothing to recommend it, taxation (arguably) does. In the archetypal case, theft is both unjust and socially detrimental. Taxation keeps the first disadvantage, but arguably subverts the second disadvantage if you believe being able to fund a government has greater social value than leaving money in the hands of those who earned it. The question then hinges on the relative importance of these disadvantages. Therefore, you can't dismiss taxation without a second thought just because you have a natural disgust reaction to theft in general. You would also have to prove that the supposed benefits of this form of theft don't outweigh the costs.

Who makes this argument? Well, Wikipedia cites thinkers from Augustine of Hippo to John Locke and Frédéric Bastiat, but mostly agrees that in the modern day, this argument is primarily made by American libertarians. Michael Huemer is an American libertarian philosopher who has made this argument on several occassions, so he is probably a good representative. How does he put the argument?

Imagine that I have founded a charity organization that helps the poor.1 But not enough people are voluntarily contributing to my charity, so many of the poor remain hungry. I decide to solve the problem by approaching well‐​off people on the street, pointing a gun at them, and demanding their money. I funnel the money into my charity, and the poor are fed and clothed at last.

In this scenario, I would be called a thief. Why? The answer seems to be: because I am taking other people’s property without their consent. The italicized phrase just seems to be what “theft” means. “Taking without consent” includes taking by means of a threat of force issued against other people, as in this example. This fact is not altered by what I do with the money after taking it. You wouldn’t say, “Oh, you gave the money to the poor? In that case, taking people’s property without consent wasn’t theft after all.” No; you might claim that it was a socially beneficial theft, but it was still a theft.

Now compare the case of taxation. When the government “taxes” citizens, what this means is that the government demands money from each citizen, under a threat of force: if you do not pay, armed agents hired by the government will take you away and lock you in a cage. This looks like about as clear a case as any of taking people’s property without consent. So the government is a thief. This conclusion is not changed by the fact that the government uses the money for a good cause (if it does so). That might make taxation a socially beneficial kind of theft, but it is still theft.

This argument is sounding suspiciously similar to my steelman. Put in my own words, Michael Huemer is saying, "although you might not think of a tax collector as a thief, the two have as much in common. Just as we wouldn't be so ready to accept the justification of a thief who says they're 'serving the public interests' by stealing, we shouldn't be so willing to do the same for the tax collector." 

Is Michael Huemer simply being deontological? Scott Alexander had alluded to his "personal and admittedly controversial opinion [that] much of deontology is just an attempt to formalize and justify [the non-central fallacy]." Huemer responds to this accusation directly,

If taxation is theft, does it follow that we must abolish all taxation? Not necessarily. Some thefts might be justified. If you have to steal a loaf of bread to survive, then you are justified in doing so. Similarly, the government might be justified in taxing, if this is necessary to prevent some terrible outcome, such as a breakdown of social order.

Why, then, does it matter whether taxation is theft? Because although theft can be justified, it is usually unjustified. It is wrong to steal without having a very good reason. What count as good enough reasons is beyond the scope of this short article. But as an example, you are not justified in stealing money, say, so that you can buy a nice painting for your wall. Similarly, if taxation is theft, then it would probably be wrong to tax people, say, to pay for an art museum.

In other words, the “taxation is theft” thesis has the effect of raising the standards for justified use of taxes. When the government plans to spend money on something (support for the arts, a space program, a national retirement program, and so on), one should ask: would it be permissible to steal from people in order to run this sort of program? If not, then it is not permissible to tax people in order to run the program, since taxation is theft.

Agree or disagree with his argument, Huemer is making a perfectly valid inference. As a society, maybe we are being duped when we are told that taxation is not real theft because it's totally justified, unlike normal theft, trust me. We have all seen the lengths to which the human mind will go to justify phenomena it considers normal and natural, even when those things are actually quite terrible upon closer examination. When viewed from an outside perspective -- outside society, that is -- Huemer's point becomes even clearer.

Suppose anthropologists open a dialogue with a tribe that throws people into lava after every solar eclipse. "This behavior is ritual sacrifice, and therefore barbaric!" the anthropologists object. "Not so," replies the chief. "Our Western critics are always committing the non-central fallacy. Unjust ritual sacrifice is when other tribes illegitimately sacrifice people to false gods. Our gods are real."

How do Scott Alexander's other examples fare? He also mentions the argument "Capital punishment is murder!" My steelman for "taxation is theft" can easily extend to this case too. The reader can probably fill in the blanks: just as we wouldn't accept the justification "but that guy was evil" as a good one in the case of ordinary murder, maybe we should also be skeptical when the state makes the same excuse for capital punishment.

In fact, I would allege that all of Scott Alexander's examples suffer from the same flaw. Far from changing the argument, I think my steelman is the usual meaning people have in mind when they argue "X is a Y" as a reason to oppose X.

Scott Alexander probably called this argument the worst in the world, not because it really is the worst, but because it is so common. However, I suspect that the argument is so common precisely because it conveys so much using so few words. People who use it are trying to convey something meaningful.

Consider this sketch.

Here we see points in thingspace [LW · GW] related to murder. The interlocutor has labeled some points murder, but left capital punishment out. The reply "capital punishment is murder" could just mean that we ought to draw a more natural boundary. Although capital punishment is a non-central member of the murder cluster, it's still a member. And a more natural clustering would reflect that.

 

While capital punishment might not be an archetypal member of the cluster, it certainly has more in common with murder than the points of a different cluster. It's as if we want to say, "if you just reflect a bit, you'll see that capital punishment is more similar to murder than you previously thought. Surely it would be unfair to deny that it's at least very close."

Admittedly, people are often lazy and so often don't clarify themselves after using the non-central fallacy. Also, it's common for people to be unable to fully elaborate their own arguments. Alas, let us not confuse a lack of rhetorical skills for bad argumentation. What is epistemic charity good for anyway?

39 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-03-10T02:07:18.761Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let's consider the Martin Luther King example. He was a criminal, as unjustly determined by the contemporary legal system. But of course, to label him as such, in order to discredit his ideas, would be a central case of the non-central fallacy. There are two sets of "criminals:" people who have been convicted by the legal system under laws still in force, and people convicted of behavior that is both criminal and morally repugnant. MLK fit the first category, but not the second.

So I think the non-central fallacy can be taken two different ways.

  1. Skirmishing over the boundaries of a category, as you illustrate here. This is "the categories were made for man, not man for the categories." [LW · GW]
  2. Roping in far-distant examples while neglecting to include nearer examples. This is "proving too much." [LW · GW]

I think the example of MLK is an example of (2). If we can't make a statue of MLK because he was a "criminal," then we can't make one of the founding fathers, because they were also criminals - treasonous criminals - in the eyes of the government they were rebelling against at the time.

Replies from: Jayson_Virissimo, korin43
comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2021-03-10T23:10:59.276Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the Martin Luther King scenario is a particularly bad example for explaining the non-central fallacy, because it depends on a conjunction of fallacies, rather than isolating the non-central part. The inference from (1) MLK does/doesn't fit some category with negative emotional valence, to (2) his ideas are bad just is the ad hominem fallacy (which is distinct from the non-central fallacy). The truth (or falsity) of Bloch's theorem is logically independent of whether or not André Bloch was a murder (which he was).

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-03-11T02:05:19.360Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But the point of the OP is that fallacies are not logical, but inferential. In social contexts, we often use a leader's social reputation as a proxy for whether their ideas are any good. The point of the OP is that this may be inferentially reasonable, without being deductively logical.

Replies from: Jayson_Virissimo
comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2021-03-11T16:30:47.463Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with your point about there being at least two distinct ways to interpret the non-central fallacy, and also the OPs point that while ad hominem arguments are technically invalid, they can be of high inductive strength in some circumstances. I'm mostly critiquing Scott's choice of examples for introducing the non-central fallacy, since mixing it with other fallacious forms of reasoning makes it harder to see what the non-central part is contributing to the mistake being made. For this reason, the theft example is preferred by me.

comment by korin43 · 2021-03-10T19:16:25.490Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you can make a case that the non-central fallacy isn't exactly the problem here though. In the case of MLK, we usually don't refer to people who do things like protest without a license as "criminals", even if they have technically commited a crime. If MLK had committed serious crimes (i.e. he went around murdering people who disagreed with him), then "We shouldn't make statues of MLK becuase he's a criminal" would actually be a decent argument.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2021-03-10T06:11:14.083Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And a more natural clustering would reflect that.

What subspace are you doing your clustering in, though? [LW · GW] Both the pro-capital-punishment and anti-capital-punishment side should be able to agree that capital punishment and "central" murder are similar in the "intentional killing of a human" aspects, but differ in the "motives and decision mechanism of the killer" aspects (where the "central" murderer is an individual, rather than a judicial institution). Each side has an incentive to try to bind the murder codeword in their shared language to a subspace that makes their own side's preferred policy look natural [LW · GW].

comment by Idan Arye · 2021-03-10T16:43:27.967Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most[1] logical fallacies are obvious when arranged in their pattern, but when you encounter them in the wild they are usually transformed by rhetorics to mask that pattern. The "lack of rhetorical skills", then, may not be bad argumentation by itself - but it does help exposing it. If a pickpocket is caught in the act, it won't help them to claim that they were only caught because they were not dexterous enough and it's unfair to put someone in jail for a lack of skill. The fact remains that they tried to steal, and it would still be a crime if they were proficient enough to succeed. Similarly, just because one's rhetorical skills are not good enough to mask a bad argument does not make it a good argument.

A more important implication of my take on the nature of logical fallacies is that it is not enough to show that an argument fits the fallacy's pattern - the important part of countering it is showing how, when rearranged in that pattern, the argument loses its power to convince. If it still makes sense even in that form.

Note that in all of Scott's examples, he never just said "X is a noncentral member of Y" and left it at that. He always said "we usually hate Y because most of its members share the trait Z, but X is not Z and only happens to be in Y because of some other trait W, which we don't have such strong feeling about".

So, if we take your first example (the one about eating meat) and fully rearrange it by the noncentral fallacy not only with X and Y but also with Z and W, the counter-argument would look something like that:

It's true that animal farming (X) is technically cruelty (Y), but the central members of cruelty are things like torture and child abuse. What these things have in common is that they hurt humans (Z), and this is the reason why we should frown upon cruelty. Animal farming does not share that trait. Animal farming is only included in the cruelty category because it involves involuntary suffering (W) - a trait that we don't really care about.

Does this breakdown make the original argument lose its punch? Not really. Certainly not as much as breaking down the "MLK was a criminal" argument to the noncentral fallacy pattern makes that argument lose its punch. Here, at most, the breakdown exposes the underlying reasoning, and shifts the discussion from "whether or not meat is technically a cruelty" to "to what extent do animals deserve to be protected from involuntary suffering".

Which is a good thing. I believe the goal noticing logical fallacies is not to directly disprove claims, but to strip them from the rhetorical dressing and expose the actual argument underneath. That underlying argument can be bad, or it can be good - but it needs to be exposed before it can be properly discussed.


  1. I say "most", but the only exception I can think of is the proving too much fallacy. And even then - that's only because there is no common template like other fallacies have. But that doesn't mean that arguments that inhibit that fallacy cannot be transformed to expose it - in this case, to normalize the fallacy one has to reshape it to a form where the claim, instead of being a critical part of its logic, is just a placeholder that can contain anything and still make the same amount of sense.

    So, there is still an normal form involved. But instead of a normal form for the fallacy, the proving too much fallacy is about finding the normal form of the specific argument you are trying to expose the fallacy in, and showing how that form can be used for proving too much. I guess this makes the proving too much fallacy a meta-fallacy? ↩︎

comment by Sniffnoy · 2021-03-17T03:35:22.661Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I feel like this really misses the point of the whole "non-central fallacy" idea. I would say, categories are heuristics and those heuristics have limits. When the category gets strained, the thing to do is to stop arguing using the category and start arguing the particular facts without relation to the category ("taboo your words").

You're saying that this sort of arguing-via-category is useful because it's actually aguing-via-similarity; but I see the point of Scott/Yvain's original article being that such arguing via similarity simply isn't useful in such cases, and has to be replaced with a direct assessment of the facts.

Like, one might say, similar in what way, and how do we know that this particular similarity is relevant in this case? But any answer to why the similarity is relevant, could be translated into an argument that doesn't rely on the similarity in the first place. Similarity can thus be a useful guide to finding arguments, but it shouldn't, in contentious cases, be considered compelling as an argument itself.

Yes, as you say, the argument is common because it is useful as a quick shorthand most of the time. But in contentious cases, in edge cases -- the cases that people are likely to be arguing about -- it breaks down. That is to say, it's an argument whose validity is largel to those cases where people aren't arguing to begin with!

comment by rohinmshah · 2021-03-10T17:09:48.977Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In this scenario, I would be called a thief. Why? The answer seems to be: because I am taking other people’s property without their consent. The italicized phrase just seems to be what “theft” means. “Taking without consent” includes taking by means of a threat of force issued against other people, as in this example. This fact is not altered by what I do with the money after taking it.

I feel like the obvious response is "there is something like consent with taxation, because people have agreed to a contract in which they pay taxes as long as everyone else pays taxes, and force is used to enforce the contract". It still seems like you're still playing games with emotional reactions unless you address this point.

I also think this is just a rephrasing of what Scott said, but in the language used by Huemer.

Replies from: matthew-barnett, blacktrance
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-03-10T17:28:28.333Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I feel like the obvious response is "there is something like consent with taxation, because people have agreed to a contract in which they pay taxes as long as everyone else pays taxes, and force is used to enforce the contract". It still seems like you're still playing games with emotional reactions unless you address this point.

Is there a contract? I certainly never signed one. Yet I still have to pay taxes. FWIW, Michael Huemer responds to this objection directly in chapters 2 and 3 of his book, The Problem of Political Authority. He concludes,

The social contract theory cannot account for political authority. The theory of an actual social contract fails because no state has provided reasonable means of opting out – means that do not require dissenters to assume large costs that the state has no independent right to impose. All modern states, in refusing to recognize explicit dissent, render their relationships with their citizens nonvoluntary.

Most accounts of implicit consent fail, because nearly all citizens know that the government’s laws would be imposed upon them regardless of whether they performed the particular acts by which they allegedly communicate consent. In the case of those governments that deny any obligation to protect individual citizens, the contract theory fails for the additional reason that, if there ever was a social contract, the government has repudiated its central obligation under the contract, thereby releasing its citizens from the obligations they would have had under that contract.

The central moral premise of the traditional social contract theory is commendable: human interaction should be carried out, as far as possible, on a voluntary basis. But the central factual premise flies in the face of reality.

 

I also think this is just a rephrasing of what Scott said, but in the language used by Huemer.

Yes, although I was quoting Huemer for what he said after that quoted paragraph.

Replies from: rohinmshah
comment by rohinmshah · 2021-03-10T17:49:32.762Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems like it is based on an overly literal interpretation of a "contract" + not being willing to deal with complexities of the real world. There clearly is a difference between how much you have "agreed" to the "contract" of governance, and how much you have agreed to a robber breaking into your house and taking your valuables. These are all things that count as some amount of "agreement" to the "contract", that don't have analogs in the robber case:

  • Empirically lots of people do agree to the contract by explicitly getting a visa and coming to the country and later becoming citizens
  • You do use the services provided to you by the government (roads, utilities, fire department, police, parks, etc)
  • If there were some way of opting out of the contract (which also means you opt out of the services above), the vast majority of people would not do so
  • You personally don't choose to renounce your citizenship and leave the country
  • You personally don't choose to live in the wilderness and never interact with government services (and then you can just stop paying taxes and no one will come and take money from you). (I suppose you could argue that there's an analog in the robber case that you didn't personally choose to get the maximum security burglar-proofing for your house.)

I agree you have not literally signed a contract. Nonetheless, it seems clear you should not be using the same word for the case of a government collecting money and then providing services that empirically you do use, and the case of a stranger breaking into your house and taking your valuables.

Replies from: matthew-barnett, matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-03-10T18:03:30.308Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you want a more detailed reply to your objection, it might be worth picking up a copy of Huemer's book, The Problem of Political Authority. The problem with most of these cases is that they only appear like strong arguments if we're already committed to the premise that we should treat state actors and non-state actors differently. In other words, they only appear strong if we begin with the conclusion we set out to prove. For instance,

Empirically lots of people do agree to the contract by explicitly getting a visa and coming to the country and later becoming citizens

Suppose that you want to move to Hawaii because it's so beautiful, but you know (because you saw something on the internet) that upon arrival, someone will rob you. If knowing this information, you still move to Hawaii, does this mean that you are consenting to being robbed? Even if when you actually get to Hawaii, you make sure to explain to every potential robber that you really really don't want to be robbed?

You do use the services provided to you by the government (roads, utilities, fire department, police, parks, etc)

As Huemer points out, this fact can't be strong evidence that I am consenting to be governed, because nearly everyone knows that they'll be forced to pay taxes whether or not they use those services. Likewise, if you offer your kidnapped victims food, and they accept, that does not imply that they agreed to be kidnapped.

Personally, I don't think the contract argument is the best argument for governance. I'd be more inclined to argue for the consequentialist argument for government: that is, that governance provides greater utility overall compared to the alternative. That's also the argument that Scott Alexander seems to want people to use. Huemer also directly replies to this argument in chapter 5 and part 2 in his book, if you're curious.

Replies from: samshap
comment by samshap · 2021-03-12T05:31:08.441Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Suppose that you want to move to Hawaii because it's so beautiful, but you know (because you saw something on the internet) that upon arrival, someone will rob you. If knowing this information, you still move to Hawaii, does this mean that you are consenting to being robbed? Even if when you actually get to Hawaii, you make sure to explain to every potential robber that you really really don't want to be robbed?

Your argument here is both circular, and committing the noncentral fallacy!

To recap:

In a debate with rohimshah over whether taxation can be consensual (and therefore theft),your argument reads:

  • Taxation is analogous to robbery
  • Robbery (even robbery that predictably occurs when I consume a good or service) is not consensual
  • Therefore, taxation (even taxation that predictably occurs when I consume a good or service) is not consensual
  • Therefore taxation is theft

I won't ding your OP for assuming that taxation is nonconsensual, since you were merely responding to Scott's arguments that had already conceded that point.

However, to argue that all taxes are always nonconsensual is clearly absurd.

Many taxes (especially local ones) are nearly identical to fees that private actors charge under similar terms (e.g. property taxes are equivalent to HOA fees and rents). Not to mention plenty of times when people explicitly consent to taxation!

If you want to strengthen your argument, limit it to: 'nonconsensual taxation is theft'.

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-03-12T06:23:54.617Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your argument here is both circular, and committing the noncentral fallacy!

Then you may be interested in Aaron Bergman's defense of circular arguments (begging the question) and my defense of the non-central fallacy here [LW · GW].

Jokes aside, I didn't think robbery was essential to my argument there. I could have said "Suppose that you want to move to Hawaii because it's so beautiful, but you know (because you saw something on the internet) that upon arrival, someone will kill you." and the structure of my argument would be identical.

My point was that merely taking an action that predictably results in some effect does not imply that you consented to that effect. If I take an action that predictably leads to my enemy capturing me in battle (since I have no better options), that does not mean that I am consenting to enemy capture.

It would be difficult to precisely define consent. However, I think under any common sense definition of consent, something can still be non-consensual even if you knew it would happen to you as a result of taking an action.

If you want to strengthen your argument, limit it to: 'nonconsensual taxation is theft'.

I agree, although I assumed that was already implicit in what I had said.

comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-03-10T18:59:52.270Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If there were some way of opting out of the contract (which also means you opt out of the services above), the vast majority of people would not do so

It depends on what you mean by this. Imagine a community of 99 poor people, and one rich person. Every year, the people conduct a vote on whether to tax the one rich person and redistribute his wealth. Sure enough, most people vote for the policy, and most people like the benefits that this governance structure provides. If given the choice, the vast majority of people in the community would not opt out. But that's leaving out something important.

If everyone really were given a choice to opt out, then precisely one person would, the rich person. After opting out, the community would lose a large tax base, and would therefore require taxing the next richest person. This next richest person would probably then want to opt out.

Put another way, governance is an iterated game. If given the choice, the vast majority of people would prefer not to opt-out in the first round. After sufficient iterations, however, it seems most would prefer to opt-out.

And that's not even getting into the objection that one of the main reasons why people would not opt-out of governance is because they've been indoctrinated into believing government is good. Given the choice to opt-out of aging, many say they would not want to. However, if we grew up in a world where aging was always known to be optional, I'm sure the statistics would be different.

Replies from: ShemTealeaf, TAG
comment by ShemTealeaf · 2021-03-11T19:29:06.398Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the rich person is giving up the ability to use public resources and have the protection of the community's laws, are they still going to opt out? Sure, they'll have more money, but they'll have to use that money to hire bodyguards, since the other members of the community are now free to rob or kill them. They'd also have to make sure they have some way of enforcing the contract with the bodyguards, since they can't use the community's court system. Presumably the rich person has some source of income that is making them rich; will they be able to maintain that without the community's cooperation? Honestly, I think just losing access to the legal system would be enough to prevent virtually everyone from opting out of membership in a modern liberal democracy.

In order to successfully opt out, you'd probably need to have enough people to form a competing community that can sustain and protect itself. After some time goes by, that competing community probably doesn't look all that different from a government. I recognize that this might not apply to people who live self-sufficiently in the woods, or to billionaires who actually could afford a private defense force, but it applies to the vast majority of people.

Replies from: Idan Arye
comment by Idan Arye · 2021-03-11T20:15:46.582Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In this hypothetical scenario, the rich person was the sole source of funding for the community's services. Once they opt out, the community will no longer be able to pay the police, and since all the police salaries came from the rich person's pockets - the rich person will be able to use the same amount of money previously used to pay the police force to finance their own private security.

Same for all the other services the community was providing.

Of course, the community will still have all the infrastructure and equipment that was purchased with the rich person's taxes in the past, and the rich person will start with nothing - but this is just a temporary setback. In a few years the rich person will build new infrastructure and the community's infrastructure will not hold for long if they keep using it without being able to afford its maintenance.

This leaves us with the core community service the rich person was enjoying. The only service that does not (directly) cost money to provide. Social norms.

As you said - once the rich person opts out of the community, the members of the community is no longer obliged to refrain from robbing or kill them. And they have an incentive to do so. They may no longer be able to pay their police in the long run, but it'll take some time for all the cops to quit and it'll take some time for the rich person to build their own security force (unless they have prepared it in advance? They probably did), so if they act quick enough they can launch an attack and have a good chance at winning. And even if they get delayed and the balance of armed forces swifts - large enough masses of poor people can take down the rich with their armed guards.

So this is what's going to stop the rich person from opting out. The threat of violence if they do so. In that light - can we still say they are allowed to opt out?

Replies from: matthew-barnett, ShemTealeaf
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-03-11T20:30:51.453Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So this is what's going to stop the rich person from opting out. The threat of violence if they do so. In that light - can we still say they are allowed to opt out?

Well, in the hypothetical, yes, they can opt out. We will assume that in the hypothetical, the people would not rise up against the rich person if they voluntarily opted out of governance under some hypothetical agreement. 

Can you clarify your point more? I am unsure whether you are merely making some general observation about why rich people can't opt out of taxes in the real world, or whether you are making some theoretical argument for the implausibility of one of the assumptions in my thought experiment.

Replies from: Idan Arye
comment by Idan Arye · 2021-03-11T22:55:39.722Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was replying to ShemTealeaf's claim that the rich person still has an incentive to stay - remaining under the protection of the community's court system. I was arguing that what the rich person needs from the community's court system is not its resources (which the rich person was providing anyway, and would dry out once they secede) but its social norms - the people's agreement to respect it's laws, which mean they would not attack the rich person. My point is that if the reach person's incentive to stay is to not get robbed and killed by the community - then we can't really say that they are allowed to opt out.

Of course - if they poor people that remain the community will not attack the rich person once they leave - then they are indeed allowed to opt out, but in that case their incentive to stay is gone.

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-03-12T03:16:05.924Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was replying to ShemTealeaf

Oh makes sense. Because of how I was notified, I thought you were replying to me. Read my comment as if I thought you were. :)

comment by ShemTealeaf · 2021-03-11T23:40:37.032Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's fair; maybe I didn't understand the hypothetical. If the person is so rich that they are providing 100% of the funding for the government, my criticism doesn't apply. If you can fund the services that a government would provide on your own, I can see the case for opting out. In practice, I don't think that applies to more than a handful of people. If the argument is that the top 0.01% richest people and a few loners in the woods are being unjustly prevented from opting out of taxation, I'm willing to concede that point. I don't think it changes the overall picture that the overwhelming majority of people would not want to opt out.

Also, I wasn't really talking about an organized uprising in terms of why the person opting out would need protection. I assume there are plenty of criminals who already exist that would enjoy the chance to engage in some theft without risking jail time. The community would just put up a sign outside the rich person's property saying "this house is not protected by community laws or police". Maybe if the rich person wants to use a public street, make them wear a shirt that says "this person does not have the protection or backing of any nation" to ensure that they're not free riding on the police protection that they're opting out of. None of that involves the community threatening violence; it's just withdrawing protection.

Furthermore, legal protection is just one of many services that the state provides. At the most basic level, it's pretty hard to get around without using public roads, and it's pretty hard to stay rich if the government decides you can't do business in its territory.

Replies from: Idan Arye
comment by Idan Arye · 2021-03-12T00:53:11.322Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think there is some academic merit in taking this example to the extreme and assuming that the rich person is responsible to 100% of the community's resources, and they alone can fund the its entire activity, and if they secede alone the community is left with nothing. They can't protect people in their streets because they can't afford a police. They can't punish criminals because they can't afford a prison. They may be left with their old roads, but without maintenance they quickly wear out while the rich person can build new ones. Their permission to do business means nothing because they have no means to enforce it (no police) - they can't even make a credible embargo because the rich person is the only one you can offer jobs and the only one who has goods to sell, so the incentive to break the embargo is huge. The rich person has all the power and zero incentive to give in to the community which will take it away and give their "fair share" of  of it in return.

Of course - this extreme scenario never happens in real life, because in real life there are always alternatives. There are more rich people, to begin with, so no single rich person can hold all the power. People can start their own business, breaking the 100% dependency on the rich class from our example. And - maybe most importantly - modern society has a huge middle class that holds (as a socioeconomic class) a considerable share of the power.

So, a real life rich person cannot have a full Shapley value like our hypothetical rich person, and the poor people's Shapley value is more than zero. Still - a rich person's Shapley value is much much higher than a poor person's, and therefore there is a point where taxation is heavy enough to make it worthwhile for them to secede.

Replies from: ShemTealeaf
comment by ShemTealeaf · 2021-03-12T15:15:04.945Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree in theory; I just don't think that the hypothetical bears much resemblance to reality. The tax burden of the richest individuals in the US is just a tiny rounding error in the federal budget. Even if you could stop the tax payments of every billionaire in the country, the federal government would barely notice the difference. You'd have to stop the tax payments of millions of people before it would start having a noticeable impact on the government ability to enforce its will.

Also, on a practical level, I think that the downside of losing membership in the state is so enormous that it would outweigh almost any tax burden. Just to start with, you would lose the ability to enter into most countries, since you would not have a valid passport. Even if your former government is willing to let you travel through their territory to leave your property (something which they are under no obligation to do), where are you going to go? How are you going to maintain your income? Realistically, how high would the tax burden have to be for you to accept those costs of secession?

Replies from: Idan Arye
comment by Idan Arye · 2021-03-12T23:44:00.922Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Realistically, how high would the tax burden have to be for you to accept those costs of secession?

France's 2015 taxes of 75% made rich people secede, so we can take that as a supremum on the minimal tax burden that can make people secede. Of course - France's rich didn't have to go live in the woods - they had the option to go to other countries. Also, they did not have the option to not go to any country, because all the land on earth is divided between the countries.

I agree that the main benefits for the rich to remain in under the state's rule and pay taxes is to be able to do business with its citizens. And of course - to be able to pass through the land - otherwise they won't be able to physically do said business. So the core question is:

Does the state have the right to prevent its citizens from doing business with whoever they want?

They practice that power - that's a fact. They send the police to stop business that's not licensed by the state. But should this be considered an act of violence, or as an act of protecting their property?

Replies from: ShemTealeaf
comment by ShemTealeaf · 2021-03-15T21:56:58.842Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

France's 2015 taxes of 75% made rich people secede, so we can take that as a supremum on the minimal tax burden that can make people secede. Of course - France's rich didn't have to go live in the woods - they had the option to go to other countries. Also, they did not have the option to not go to any country, because all the land on earth is divided between the countries.

 

Right, but they're presumably moving to another country where they're still paying taxes and participating in the state. If they had the option, do you think that they would prefer to opt out of the state completely (with all the associated downsides), rather than just moving to a country with somewhat lower taxes?

Does the state have the right to prevent its citizens from doing business with whoever they want?

I think we can sidestep this question, because I don't think the state even has to do this with force. If they just say "anyone who does business with Person X loses access to roads, police, courts, sanitation, etc.", that's a very strong disincentive.

comment by TAG · 2021-03-10T19:10:03.200Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

After sufficient iterations, however, it seems most would prefer to opt-out.

Does it? Do you have evidence for that?

comment by blacktrance · 2021-03-10T20:13:15.007Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The noncentral fallacy is about inappropriately treating a noncentral member of a category as if it were a central member. But your argument is that taxation isn't a member of the category "theft" at all. "Taxation is theft, but that's okay, because it's not the common, bad kind of theft" would be more in line with Scott's responses.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2021-03-10T21:03:20.616Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think one thing going on here is that normally, the word "theft" comes tacked on with metadata about "and theft is bad, boo" (the way most people use words)

The claim "taxation is theft" is specifically meant to associate it with "and that's bad, boo".

comment by Sherrinford · 2021-03-10T16:22:42.985Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Concerning the question of whom to call a murderer, there was a decision on that by the German Constitutional Court.

comment by localdeity · 2021-03-12T02:38:48.122Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At a glance, I don't think I've seen the following points made, so I'll do so:

  • The general approach from math and the sciences is to make the definitions rigorous, from which the intended conclusions will necessarily follow.  For example, any object of mass 10kg near Earth's surface will experience a force of roughly 98.1 N toward's Earth's center due to Earth's gravity.  There is no "non-central example" of "an object of mass 10kg near Earth's surface"—well, perhaps I should specify what "near" is, for example as being within 1% of 6371 km of the km.  Then quantifying that allows me to quantify "roughly" as well, by plugging in GmM/r^2 for the minimum and maximum of the radius values.
  • Observe how we refine both the conditions and the conclusions in the above.
  • Arguments that have been refined in this way will be of the form "1. Object X meets the conditions of belonging to group Y.  2. It is a theorem that statement Z applies to all objects in group Y.  3. Therefore Z(X)."
  • If you have the proof of the theorem at hand, then it should be easy to taboo the name of group Y and just plug X into the text of the proof and get an equally rigorous argument.  Sometimes that would be a better approach to the whole issue; though if group Y is common enough, it might be worth the work of establishing the definition.

To apply it to the "taxation is theft" argument: Well, basically, we want to make a rigorous definition of "theft" (or possibly a new term) that covers taxation, and see how much we can retain.

Taxation is nonconsensual taking of someone's rightful property (some might argue about "consent" in a democracy; let's assume that Bob is objecting to being taxed, and he did everything he could to vote against it, to support politicians who said they would reduce or even abolish taxes, etc., yet was unsuccessful).  We would therefore be able to make arguments like "under certain moral systems, taxation is immoral", and "because it doesn't require the consent of those being taxed, even if some instances of taxation were net good in some way, we'd expect to end up with a lot more instances than that unless there were strong barriers preventing it", and "taxation reduces people's incentive to trade their labor for property, because some of that property will go missing", and "taxation incentivizes people to spend energy arranging their possessions in ways that are less likely to get taken, which is a waste".

On the other hand, certain other characteristics that are common in theft are not the case: taxes are generally mostly known in advance, while theft is mostly unpredictable; and where theft might take a poor-ish person whose primary asset is a car and suddenly bankrupt them, taxes are unlikely to do that.

Taxation is centralized, systematized theft.  The systematization has its benefits and civilizing effects: economies of scale and reduced risk and variation in the collection process—similar to what you get when you industrialize other processes.  Also, we probably benefit from a "tragedy of the commons" among those who receive the taxes: most individuals don't have a strong incentive to raise taxes a lot.

For murder and capital punishment: Let's first note that the legal profession has made distinctions: "first-degree murder", "second-degree", etc. (it seems to vary by jurisdiction), not to mention manslaughter, and of course there are cases like self-defense where it may not even be a crime.  "Homicide" is what they call "killing" without implying anything about the legality.  First-degree murder, the worst, seems to mean "murder pre-meditated in cold blood", while the lesser degrees apply when there are extenuating circumstances and less pre-meditation.

Executing a prisoner is 100% pre-meditated in cold blood.  The argument for it to be legal is to cast it as self-defense and/or revenge.  Are revenge killings legal?  It seems like they sort of used to be, and then at some point States generally disallowed individuals from doing it, while arrogating that function to itself.  As for self-defense... one could argue that the criminal, having committed their crimes (like murder), has shown they are a threat, but really that's not a strong enough data point.  (What fraction of murderers do it again? ... A Google result says between 2% and 16% for different groups.  What if they killed their brother out of enmity that began in childhood, and they have no more brothers? Also, "got drunk and angry in a bar argument and killed a stranger" is a lot more likely to recur, yet would probably be second-degree, while the "brother" scenario might be first-degree.)

Capital punishment is centralized, systematized revenge-killing.  Once again, the systematization brings benefits and civilizing effects: economies of scale, reduced risk and variation.  I would not say that this changes the morality of it, only the tactical utility.  (I haven't actually said whether I think revenge-killing itself is moral.)

Anyway, on the subject of the original frame—"capital punishment is murder", given the definition "murder = killing without proper justification", is assuming the conclusion—that capital punishment should be illegal.  If you want a different definition, I would say use a different term.  If it were "capital punishment is killing", that would be an uncontroversial statement of fact; nor would the argument "killing is necessarily bad" persuade more than a few pacifists.

"Capital punishment is revenge-killing" would be the closest to an argument we can break into its pieces, "killing people for retaliation is bad (to the point where we should have a policy against it)" and "capital punishment is a policy of killing in retaliation", and attempt to justify both pieces.  Though some of the arguments people would like to make, like "revenge killings generally lead to generations-long family feuds", would not extend to the State's centralized revenge killings; in constructing or evaluating such arguments, the key technique of rigor is to notice statements that are actually "(we've seen in the past that) revenge killings (often) lead to family feuds" when they should be "(we can prove that) revenge killings (necessarily create conditions that likely) lead to family feuds", and in trying to prove that you should either notice that the definition of "revenge killing" doesn't specify that it's carried out by a family member—or, if it does, then notice that clause of the definition doesn't apply to capital punishment.

comment by Dustin · 2021-03-11T03:00:30.248Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This comment is mostly an aside, so feel free to skip reading if you're not interested in a digression.

To quote the quote of Huemer:

Similarly, if taxation is theft, then it would probably be wrong to tax people, say, to pay for an art museum.

I enjoyed much of the argument that you quoted, but this struck me.

I think maybe the "would probably be" should have been written "it might be".  I can think of arguments around the benefits to society of everyone getting to enjoy art in an art museum that do not seem to apply to the individual who steals to buy a piece of art for their home.

I haven't thought them all the way through, but, again, I found the quoted sentence quite incongruous.

comment by Jiro · 2021-03-15T09:06:33.478Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The reader can probably fill in the blanks: just as we wouldn’t accept the justification “but that guy was evil” as a good one in the case of ordinary murder, maybe we should also be skeptical when the state makes the same excuse for capital punishment.

I wouldn't accept "that guy was evil" in the case of ordinary murder, because "is unjustified" is baked into the definition of "murder", not because that would be a non-central example. I might accept it in the case of killing rather than murder.

Furthermore, I'd point to the fact that many arguments against capital punishment prove too much. Would you accept "that guy was evil" in the case of ordinary kidnapping? Does that mean that we should be skeptical when the state makes this argument for prison?

comment by tslarm · 2021-03-13T22:40:49.963Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the badness of the fallacy (or 'fallacy') depends on the surrounding context.

If, in a one-way communication, someone presents 'X is an A' as if nothing more needs to be said, that's bad. Or if they're engaged in a conversation but they present it as some kind of unanswerable knockdown argument and refuse to discuss it, ditto. (Especially so if they're using it to smear the other side in the eyes of onlookers.)

But if it's a proper conversation and they are engaging in good faith, it's fine; the next step in the discussion can be to tease out which features of category membership are important in the present context, to what extent the entity in question has them, etc.

e.g.:

'MLK was a criminal'

'yeah, and normally that's a bad thing, but in this case he broke unjust laws in ways that were necessary to serve a very important end'

'I agree, but I still think we should be very reluctant to publicly celebrate criminality, lest we weaken the social foundations of respect for the law'

'fair enough, <but I disagree in general, because.../and I agree, but here's why this is an exceptional case...>'

comment by Elmer of Malmesbury · 2021-03-10T16:25:33.250Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's funny because, in your farming example, we could also accuse Person B of non-central fallacy: torture and child abuse are just particularly extreme, non-central forms of cruelty, but most cruelty is more subtle – like a manager belittling employees. In some way, you could say that the center lies in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the best way to deal with that is to always evaluate things in comparison to their alternatives: everything might involve some cruelty to some degree, but maybe there are easy ways to make farming comparatively less cruel?

comment by panoptical · 2021-03-15T14:52:35.400Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Alice: I'm hungry.
Bob: Want a sandwich?
Alice: Meh... not really.
Bob: How about a hot dog?
Alice: Oh, yeah, that sounds good.
Bob: Aha! So you do want a sandwich.
Alice: What?
Bob: Well, technically a hot dog *is* a sandwich, so when I asked you if you wanted a sandwich and you said no, you were mistaken.
Alice: ...
Bob: (complicated internet argument proving a hot dog is a sandwich).
Alice: Okay, fine, whatever. I'm hungry.  Just make me a "sandwich".
Bob: (hands Alice a ham and cheese sandwich)
Alice: ...okay, see, this is literally the exact thing I *didn't* want.
Bob: But you said you wanted a sandwich!

What's happening in this parable is that Alice is making an honest attempt to communicate her preferences to meet a need, and Bob is playing word games.  The content or strength of (complicated internet argument proving a hot dog is a sandwich) is completely irrelevant to that assessment: whether or not Bob is justified in conflating "hot dog" with "sandwich", it is indisputable that Alice has clearly communicated a preference and Bob has provided something which does not satisfy that preference.

The "taxation is theft" argument is the same.  People and societies throughout history have established legal regimes which codify taxation into law but ban theft, which clearly communicates a preference for taxation and a dispreference for theft.  There is nothing remotely confusing or ambiguous about this distinction, and so just as any person operating in good faith can instantly distinguish between a hot dog and a sandwich, any person operating in good faith can instantly distinguish between taxation and theft.  Regardless of the content of (argument that taxation is theft), any attempt to substitute one for the other is justifiably going to be met with confusion and annoyance by people who are trying to use words in their regular senses to communicate regular pragmatic concepts in order to meet their needs.

I submit that deliberately making it harder to communicate detracts from reasonable discourse and should be avoided, as a general rule.

In general, there is no requirement that any particular word must describe a coherent category with clear membership.  This seems like an inherently different concept for people to master and internalize, because examples keep popping up throughout history - from Diogenes mocking Plato's "featherless biped" to "is cereal soup", we seem to always want to abstract a category definition from a collection of known category members, and then try to expand the category by re-analyzing non-members using the new abstracted definition.  Sometimes this works and yields insight, but sometimes it produces strife and confusion.  The key is not to mistake the proposed category definition for an ontological fact about the world, but rather use it as an experimental mental model which might or might not yield insights.

In the case of the "taxation is theft" argument, if the insight is something like "don't fund an art museum with taxpayer funds because taking someone's money to buy art is unjustified" I'm not even sure that "taxation is theft" is doing any intellectual work at all other than bringing a loaded term into the conversation so that people focus on arguing about rhetoric rather than arguing about the opportunity costs of art museums and the consequences of a society with a higher or lower tax rate.  In other words, you definitely could have realized those are important questions to consider without first conflating taxation and theft.  I think that in this case, as with Bob's ham and cheese sandwich, the conflation is just making it harder to communicate about what we actually want as a society.

To the extent that the non-central fallacy represents an instance of trying to reanalyze group membership based on some insight about what group members have in common, it can be a useful tool for producing hypotheses.  But to the extent that it is used as a rhetorical device, it seems to make it harder to communicate effectively and harder to think clearly about the object question, and seems to produce outcomes in conversations that are very similar to the outcomes from bad faith arguments.

comment by spkoc · 2021-03-11T15:06:18.948Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Before I go off on a rant about "taxation is theft", I want to respond to the actual theme of the post: the fallacy depends on your metric(?) function(not sure what the term is). How do you graph types of events, how do you determine proximity?

For instance, are micro-aggressions just as bad as physical violence? Or at least should we attempt to prevent them with similar amounts of force and regulation?

If your metric is physical damage done then probably not. If the metric is self-reported emotional or physical suffering, then maybe. But the category becomes very different if you change the metric. For instance, people inflicting pain in ways that don't leave a mark is a failure case for metric 1, but not metric 2. People lying about their inner state is a problem for metric 2 but not 1. 

This then breaks down into an argument over what the 'true' metric should be. If someone calls this fallacy against someone, presumably they're flagging a disagreement about the metric being used.

Rant about taxation is theft

I hate the taxation is theft argument(in general, it's a good one to bring up in this post). States are associations of citizens with particular rules, that own the land of their territory(and various other assets), if you don't like their rules leave. But all the land belongs to some association... so what? Tough cookies? 

Disclaimer: not a libertarian, but trying to take the ideology more seriously than its advocates seem to, at least what I've encountered so far.

By remaining resident/citizen of a country you are implicitly consenting to the laws of that country, including taxation. Just like using a website implies you tacitly accept its Terms of Service(legal interpretation of how enforceable this is varies for private company ToS, of course).

The only countries where this argument is at least emotionally persuasive are those that don't have exit rights, ie. you can't leave and renounce citizenship. Even there, in a geopolitical anarcho-capitalist sense, you don't have the right to just be resident for free. The state owns the land you are on, you owe it money. The only real moral wrong here, in my interpretation of natural rights libertarianism, is that you are being denied exit rights.

Granted even if you leave one country you'd still have to be accepted by some other country where you end up paying some taxes.... buuuut and this is why I hate this argument so much.... that's because citizens have 'collective' private property ownership over the sovereign nation they are a part of. The libertarian argument against taxation reduces to abolition of private property! 

Also obviously, taxation is explicitly consented to if you are an immigrant.

As strawman libertarians might say, you don't have a right to healthcare. Well you don't have a right to standing on dirt owned by the United Commonwealth of SomewhereLandia either. But every piece of dirt is owned. Tough luck. So is every piece of diamond. Build a rocket and sail off west young fellow.

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-03-11T23:26:13.214Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Granted even if you leave one country you'd still have to be accepted by some other country where you end up paying some taxes.... buuuut and this is why I hate this argument so much.... that's because citizens have 'collective' private property ownership over the sovereign nation they are a part of. The libertarian argument against taxation reduces to abolition of private property! 

I think you may be giving short shrift to the actual philosophical arguments made by libertarians. Michael Huemer responds to your argument that "the state owns the land you are on" in section 2.5.1 in The Problem of Political Authority. I'll quote some of his reply here,

Even if we granted that the state owns its territory, it is debatable whether it may expel people who reject the social contract (compare the following: if anyone who leaves my party before it is over is doomed to die, then, one might think, I lose the right to kick people out of my party). But we need not resolve that issue here; we may instead focus on whether the state in fact owns all the territory over which it claims jurisdiction. If it does not, then it lacks the right to set conditions on the use of that land, including the condition that occupants should obey the state’s laws.

For illustration, consider the case of the United States. In this case, the state’s control over ‘its’ territory derives from (1) the earlier expropriation of that land by European colonists from the people who originally occupied it and (2) the state’s present coercive power over the individual landowners who received title to portions of that territory, handed down through the generations from the original expropriators. This does not seem to give rise to a legitimate property right on the part of the U.S. government.

Now one may conclude, as you do, that this argument leads to a more general "abolition of private property." After all, many property claims in the world are either the result of conquest and expropriation, or the result of the inheritance of such expropriation. However, this response would ignore two facts.

First, the vast majority of property in the world can't actually be traced back to expropriation, except indirectly. For example, the high market market price of a smartphone is driven almost entirely from the actual engineering and construction of its components, rather than the value of the raw materials that make it up. While the raw materials might be stolen property, the labor used to make it arguably isn't (though Marxists famously disagree).

Second, it is perfectly consistent to argue for property rights in the abstract while holding that most actual claims to property in the real world are illegitimate. Libertarian Robert Nozick defended what he called the "Lockean proviso" in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, under which property right claims are only valid under a specific set of circumstances. Otherwise, we must forfeit them. One article summarizes some radical implications of this view,

One of the most controversial ideas contained in this work is Nozick’s defense of the “Lockean proviso,” which requires the “rectification” of outcomes that result from the unjust appropriation of property. Reparations redressing the effects of slavery, however, may just be the tip of the iceberg should we accept this robust conception of the Lockean proviso. Going back into the past in search of wrongs could lead to the discovery of innumerable injustices that conceivably demand contemporary rectification by their perpetrators’ descendants. It could also serve as the rationale for radically altering (and even abolishing) the global capitalist system altogether. For this reason, the proviso has been far more popular on the Left than the Right.

Nozick usually comes across as a rather traditional libertarian, arguing that “principles of justice” regarding the acquisition and transfer of property exclude theft, fraud, and enslavement. A just appropriation of property must be the result of voluntary and informed consent that both parties to the exchange of property freely exercise. However, he also emphasizes the importance of understanding the “original” or “historical” manner in which the ownership of property came about. If “past injustices” (including theft, fraud, and enslavement) enabled this ownership, then “rectification” of these crimes must take place. Nozick consistently argues that parties that have been made “worse off” by actions like these deserve compensation.

Replies from: spkoc
comment by spkoc · 2021-03-12T15:39:41.454Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I need to read that Huemer book, it sounds very interesting from what you've quoted in this and the other thread here.

You're right, I am being unfair to the actual philosophy. I have a negative emotional reaction to the political movement that uses the name. I have quite a lot of ... sympathy(?) for the actual philosophical movements' conclusions, however I still think it collapses to being a bunch of heuristics on top of utilitarian arguments in the end. Also I think objectivism(libertarianisms' radical grandkid(?)) is ... evil? Not utilitarian compatible, at least.

I feel like you side stepped the core issue in the party analogy: if I/we/the state can't restrict access to our property because someone might die without it ... that kinda means we can't restrict access to our property almost at all. Is anyone dying in the world of a preventable disease? Clearly the state isn't providing enough healthcare access or private healthcare providers are immorally restricting access to care.

The actual criticism then goes back to: States do not have legitimate claims for their property. I realize you address this in:

Second, it is perfectly consistent to argue for property rights in the abstract while holding that most actual claims to property in the real world are illegitimate.

But there's no legitimate property if analyzed on a long enough time horizon. At some point some primitive human bashed some other human in the head and every one of us is the infinitesimal beneficiary of that crime. Hence Christian redemption and baptism, actual legal code statutes of limitations, moral principles that only active purposeful harm is morally bad and all sorts of other coping mechanisms civilizations have developed over the ages. The alternative is literally eternal blood feuds or wars that can only end in complete annihilation of one of the factions.

The question then becomes why don't these coping mechanisms apply to states, but apply to every other human organisation? What makes state ownership illegitimate, but corporate ownership built on top of government contracts legitimate? At what degree of indirection does the sin wash off? What about children of employees of companies that sold goods to slavers?

Yes, it's consistent to argue for property rights while recognizing the illegitimacy of current property allocation... but the only moral remedy for that(if taken as a serious axiomatic moral principle) is some sort of tabula rasa society, which would obviously be crazy utility destroying and nobody supports. Ok, Bakunin et al, but come on.

I don't think libertarian principles have something unique and practical to say about where to draw the line when it comes to 'tainted' ownership rights. Even in that Nozick quote: why are we stopping with the USA? What about even more ancient history in Europe, or indeed North America. Obviously an absurd rabbit hole. We stop when there are still living descendants that are angry about this issue... well if you start providing a monetary incentive for grievance you're going to find a lot of historical grievance. Hell, looking outside the US bubble there's plenty of historical grievance globally right now everywhere.

Hopeless attempt at clarity

Trying to clarify my criticism for myself as well: libertarianism seems to present axiomatic moral principles, commandments that if unbroken will produce a just society. In practice, even philosophers treat the axioms more like heuristics layered on top of utilitarianism: "You mustn't violate private property rights ... unless you have good reason for it. Property should be justly acquired but if enough time has passed we gotta move on and get things done." Well, ok, so what does this actually produce for us?

Government should do useful things with tax money. Unironically revolutionary idea in Locke's time, but this stuff is in the water like flouride in the modern era. And going full circle, actual political movements that use the label seem built around objectivists, in that they're willing to say: the principle is more important than the utilitarian outcome of its application. Taxation is bad even if it helps people. Except, of course, modern political movements are awful and don't say that in public, that's just for the inner circle. In public they just lie(in my opinion) and claim that all government activity is net utility desroying. 

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2021-03-12T20:38:03.524Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I need to read that Huemer book, it sounds very interesting from what you've quoted in this and the other thread here.

Awesome. I should say that I don't agree with all of the book's conclusions.

I have quite a lot of ... sympathy(?) for the actual philosophical movements' conclusions, however I still think it collapses to being a bunch of heuristics on top of utilitarian arguments in the end. Also I think objectivism(libertarianisms' radical grandkid(?)) is ... evil? Not utilitarian compatible, at least.

I think I'm pretty much in the same spot here. I think the utilitarian arguments for libertarianism are the strongest, but in the end, I think utilitarians have given good arguments that cast a ton of doubt on the libertarian project. I'm getting a bit off-topic from the post I wrote, but I'll briefly summarize my views below.

In my opinion, the strongest argument for libertarianism is that it leads to higher medium-run economic growth. My views here are closely aligned with Tyler Cowen's in his book Stubborn Attachments. Straightforwardly, living standards have gone way up in the last 200 years primarily due to technological progress, and the economic liberalization that has enabled it. Libertarian governance lowers regulatory burden, reduces deadweight loss associated with taxation, and provides businesses more financial capital available for investment. These effects arguably raise economic growth more than the downsides of libertarian governance might lower it.

However, while economic growth is important on medium timescales, existential risk is far more important in the long-run. Bostrom outlined the fundamental reason why about 20 years ago. His vunerable world paper provides a direct argument for centralized government.

Since I don't actually agree with deontological libertarianism, I can't fundamentally defend it against some of the objections you've raised. I could play Devil's advocate for a while, but I don't feel like I know enough about the topic to go much further.

And going full circle, actual political movements that use the label seem built around objectivists, in that they're willing to say: the principle is more important than the utilitarian outcome of its application. Taxation is bad even if it helps people. Except, of course, modern political movements are awful and don't say that in public, that's just for the inner circle. In public they just lie(in my opinion) and claim that all government activity is net utility desroying. 

Your critique of the actual political movement seems valid to me. FWIW I think it's usually a cheapshot to argue against the median activist for a given cause. In large political movements, it's typical for >90% of the people who identify with the movement to have very bad arguments for their position. That's why I think we should actually look at what the most well-known and respected philosophers are saying about the issue.

In this case, I would recommend David Friedman's essay "Market Failure: An Argument for and Against Government". His central argument against government is not at all deontological. Instead, it's based on the conjunction of three basic points,

  • The reason why market solutions are not always best is because of a large class of market failures.
  • If we look at the source of market failures, we find that they're generally due to markets failing to internalize the cost and benefits of market interactions.
  • However, in a democracy, the costs and benefits of political interactions are even less internalized than in market interactions.

Therefore, democracy is not a solution to market failure. I think this is quite different than the claim that "all government activity is net utility destroying" and its one I would be quite happy to see a solid counterargument to.