Saturday, January 01, 2005

Dual Meaning

Here's an interesting insight on the mindsets of liberal vs. conservative commentators. The Iraqi's launched an attack, a real one, not long range mortars or a suicide bombing, on a US military outpost near Mosul. Unsurprisingly, the got slaughtered as soon as US forces could call in air support. What does this attack tell us about the insurgency?

Iraq'd says they're getting cocky. Powerline says they're getting desperate. Which is it? You got me, but viva la difference!

And Happy New Year! Blogging will be sporadic as I settle back into college. Hopefully I'll be back in full force by the 3rd or 4th.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Pollution, Environment, and the Marketplace

Earlier, I wrote a long post on the limits of the market system, inspired by a post by Michigan Law Professor Don Herzog. It received to very insightful comments by my friend John Hall (he's "anonymous"), as well as my longtime reader Randomscrub. A new post on the subject by Prof. Herzog allows me to address their criticisms and bring up some new points.

Startign with Herzog's new addition to the discussion:
A line from Blackstone's Commentaries -- "There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property ; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe" -- is sometimes cited as a prize nugget of classical liberal insight on property rights. But Blackstone invokes it only to launch a long and complicated history of how this intuition properly gives way to wide-ranging historical developments.

These historical points don't settle what we should do; I introduce them only to continue my nefarious project of showing the deep continuities between us left-liberals and our classical-liberal ancestors. If you're a libertarian, you're free to argue that the line in Blackstone is (more or less) right as it stands. And then we have the usual fun dilemmas: should I be permitted to buy a donut ring of property surrounding yours and then refuse to allow you to leave your lot, on the grounds that it would be trespass? Less whimsically, absolutism about property has always yielded in the face of pollution. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick has a brief discussion oddly set off in italics. A subordinate clause -- "Since it would exclude too much to forbid all polluting activities" -- gives away the game. On the absolutist view, if a single propertyholder refuses to consent to having pollutants enter her property, that should be enough to shut down industry and other polluting activities.

This provides an adequate answer to John's point on the environment; simply put, he proves too much. If any property holder can sue (on the basis of a violation of property rights) to enjoin pollution that enters his land, then one property holder could permanantly stop all pollution. Perhaps Greenpeace will be happy, but I sincerely doubt it's what John has in mind in his free market system. Taken in the other direction, the tort model proves too little. An article by Murray Rothbard (ironically given to me originally by John) shows the difficulties of prosecuting any polluting activities if we apply the standard tort model. Rothbard lays out the standards for torts in a libertarian world:
To establish guilt and liability, strict causality of aggression leading to harm must meet the rigid test of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Hunch, conjecture, plausibility, even mere probability are not enough. In recent years, statistical correlation has been commonly used, but it cannot establish causation, certainly not for a rigorous legal proof of guilt or harm. Thus, if lung cancer rates are higher among cigarette smokers than noncigarette smokers, this does not in itself establish proof of causation. The very fact that many smokers never get lung cancer and that many lung cancer sufferers have never smoked indicates that there are other complex variables at work. So that while the correlation is suggestive, it hardly suffices to establish medical or scientific proof; a fortiori it can still less establish any sort of legal guilt (if, for example, a wife who developed lung cancer should sue a husband for smoking and therefore injuring her lungs)
Murray Rothbard, "Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution." Cato Journal 2 No. 1, Spring 1982. pp. 55-99

As Rothbard later recognizes, any claim of a harm (or as he prefers, an "aggression") based on pollution is almost inherently speculative, and would not survive this strict standard. Rothbard later talks of how property owners can homestead certain levels of pollution; the amount of pollution they give off is their "right" up until a new property owner is affected. At the point, the first property owner can still give off that level of pollution, but cannot raise it without violating the new owner's rights. This too, falters under analysis. Property has been "owned" (in the libertarian, homesteaded sense) since time immemorial, so presumably everybody has a homesteaded right to zero pollution. Even if one decides that modern society has so jumbled and infringed on property rights such as to make all prior property contracts meaningless, we're still left in a situation where we are locked into current levels of pollution, all it takes is one owner to protest against an increased industrial production on the grounds that it violates his property rights to stop it. In the end, either model is equally bad: Either we cannot ban any pollution (because we can't prove a harm beyond speculation) or we can ban all pollution (because it violates property rights).

Randomscrub points out that my argument assumes that the market is amoral, when in fact it is made of people who can choose to make moral choices. This is true, and it is certainly true that the Milbrath quote I cited only reveals that markets have a tendancy to aid the rich. However, there are several problems with the implications his claim.

First of all, there is only a small subset of the population who possesses the means to make the "moral" choice of funding a water treatement plant into a reality. I'd love to create a water treatment facility in South Asia, but I can't because I don't have the funds. The people who possess the funds probably got them from somewhere, and the way one makes enough money to fund major projects is by seizing upon the most profitable options and running them. As already noted, these options cater to the rich at the expense of the poor. So the very type of person who possesses capital is also relatively unlikely to be one inclined to undertake charitable projects.

Second, much capital in the modern world isn't controlled by individuals as such, it's controlled by corporations. Whereas individuals are free to do whatever they like with their money, corporations are bound by a variety of laws, contracts, and agreements to act in the best interests of their stockholders; this means they are obligated to seek out the most profitable, not the most moral, course of action. History shows that corporations, even those governed by people whom are quite generous in private life, tend to act in an impersonal manner, often flagrantly violating the rights of persons up until the outcry is loud enough to drown them out. Since this outcry only works to stop a fraction of the times where the company is proactively violating rights, it seems facile to suggest it would be strong enough to push the company to proactively improve the wellbeing of persons upon whom they have no legal obligation.

Third, I'd say my position is empirically true. The fact that I can pick up the newspaper and still read about appalling water conditions around the world is prima facia evidence that the "moral market" isn't solving the problem. True, some of the obstacles are put in place by and are the fault of corrupt local governments. But I don't believe that removing the governmental regulations would solve the problem. Again, this has been empirically verified. Chris Jochnick, Legal Director at the Center for Economic and Social Rights provides the example of Ecaudor. There, the state had given the Texaco Oil virtually free reign in the country's outland regions. The company responded by engaging in massive environmental degredation at the expense of the nation’s Amazon community. Affected citizens were told that there was no redress available from the company because Texaco was a private corporation and thus not party to relevant treaty law, they would have to go to the state for aid. However, since Texaco’s revenues were 4x the entire GNP of country, and in any event the company was actively backed by the US government, few believed that the nation could stop the environmental destruction even if it were so inclined.["Confronting the Impunity of Non-State Actors: New Fields for the Promotion of Human Rights." Human Rights Quarterly 21.1 (1999) 56-79].

Here, the state pretty much let a large company alone, free from oppressive regulations or legal restrictions. And following my model, Texaco didn't engage in win-win propositions with the local community, or seek to create mutually beneficial business activities. Instead, it systematically raped and plundered the region, at great profit to the corporate overlords and shareholders who lived thousands of miles away and did not have to face the consequences of their actions firsthand. Empirically, then, something more than a free hand has to happen before a company will engage in moral actions in the global periphary, especially in regions where governments are weak and easily coerced by powerful Multinationals backed by US power.

Incidentally, the above event also shows the limitations of claiming that "protection of property rights" would solve. Who exactly would be doing the protection? As noted, the violator (Texaco) was bigger and more powerful than the nominal enforcer (Ecaudor). With the policeman effectively taken off the beat, the structures which defend property rights from aggression effectively collapsed.

I still think the overarching point is valid: markets can't solve everything, and they are particularly bad at solving environmental problems. Once we accept that the governmetn can create certain "baselines" to make the market work, or at least work morally, then we can recast our discourse so that the market works for everyone, not just the elite few. This is the role of governments in the new, globalized world.

Rossi Wants a Revote

In the great state of Washington, losing Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi now wants the state to just call off the whole election and vote again. For those of you who don't know, Rossi was ahead in the original tally of votes and the first recount. However, a second, manual recount put Democrat Christine Gregorie ahead, and it now looks like she will be certified the winner.

I'm going to try and put aside the rank hypocrisy on the Republican's part here (Kevin Drum is having more trouble), and address the proposal on its merits. I'm honestly undecided as to whether this is a good idea, but I lean that it isn't. For me, the paramount issue is whether or not the will of the people, as expressed in the election, is met. That's why I support recounts, including any additional ones that Rossi would like to have done. I'm also skeptical of the Washington Supreme Court decision that ruled canvassing boards could not look at ballots that were disqualified due to "voter error." I supported looking to voter intent whenever possible in Florida 2000, and I'll support it here. However, contrary to GOP claims of a double standard, I do understand the distinction between those ballots disqualified due to voter error and those disqualified due to administrative error (such as the now famous ballots in King Country which were eventually allowed). The latter ballots have a far better claim of validity than do the former. But that notwithstanding, I do think that there should be a goodfaith effort on the part of the entire state to determine who the voters intended to vote for.

That being said, a revote is an entirely different can of worms. For better or for worse, we have elections on certain days so that all of our candidates are evaluated based on the same series of events. A revote would have absolutely unpredictable effects on voter turnout, it might spike (due to partisans thinking their candidate was "robbed"), or it might plummet (with many less-attuned voters unaware that a second election is being held, or just not caring enough to vote any more). In the absence of clear evidence of fraud, which I haven't seen yet, I don't think we should upon this Pandora's box.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Back in Action

I'm back from Aspen, but I'll be leaving for college on the 2nd! The ski vacation was great, although it was marred by the tragic events in Asia. If you can spare anything, please send help.

Anyway, I'm re-entering the blogosphere with commentary on Kevin Drum's post on the partisan nature of the blogosphere. He writes:
There's a point to be made here about the "independent" blogosphere, too. Namely that it's anything but. In fact, the political blogosphere is far more partisan than any organ of the mainstream media, more partisan than most op-ed pages, and most of the time more partisan than even the overtly political magazines. The blogosphere is about the most partisan and least independent voice this side of talk radio.

Drum says he can't see anything wrong with that (though he may have been sarcastic). I see something VERY wrong with it. The blogosphere's potential for positive contribution to American political discourse doesn't lie in the amplification of shrill partisan hackery. It lies in its potential to bring together an enormous amount of expertise, analysis, opinion, and argument together in an easily accessible and quickly disseminatable form. The mainstream media certainly has its problems, but at least it never became an echo chamber for the RNC and DNC's talking points of the day. The best blogs are those that argue the idea, not the man, and are willing to stand up to their standardbearers when their nominal allies drop the ball.

I almost never read Daily Kos or Eschaton because I know they will never take a Conservative position on anything, regardless of merits. I avoid Hugh Hewitt and even Instapundit for the same (politically reversed) reasons. If you're only posting to pump up your chosen party, then you have no space in my blogworld.