Monday, December 07, 2015

Building the Death Star is what was costly.

I've got a letter in response to the National Post's on the economic cost of destroying the Death Stars up at FEE's blog.
"Last week's column, "Blowing up the Death Star in Star Wars would have cost more than $500 quintillion — and crippled the galaxy," is an amusing article, but it makes a disturbing error by neglecting the nature of Death Stars as killing machines. Musing about the cost of their destruction is like musing about the cost to the economy of dismantling a death camp. 
Three major errors in economic reasoning lead to this oversight..."
Read the rest here.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Anarchism: every man for himself?

"A radically liberal society might be imaginable in which there is nothing left for government, a monopoly of the use of force, to do. The legal services government now provides could be provided competitively, according to the laws of supply and demand. According to free-market anarchism, all the fundamental institutions necessary for the market to function—money, police protection, and even justice—would themselves be "for sale on the market." Of course, to say justice would be "for sale on the market to the highest bidder" is to invite ridicule. If a court is deciding law according to which party to the dispute can pay better, then the "service" it is supplying does not deserve the name "justice." But as with any good, everything depends on what specifically the suppliers and demanders actually want. It is imaginable that the demand for legal services could be well-defined, so that competitive pressures could force suppliers to offer fair adjudication according to widely understood principles of the rule of law.
...
Whether Rothbard or Friedman's imagined schemes for competitive legal institutions—and indeed whether any particular government-supplied legal system—can work depends completely on what Hospers calls "ideology," and what I prefer to call the "political culture." It depends on what the general public in this particular society considers morally acceptable behavior. To this, Rothbard answers: Of course, everything does depend on such general beliefs. I agree with this concession by Rothbard, but I think it suggests that radical liberals have been ignoring what is really the most important issue in the question of the state: the political culture. 
...
The source of the difficulty with the anarchists' argument, as well as the arguments of their critics, is, in my view, the economistic vice of analyzing individual human beings as autonomous, cultureless "agents." In practice, each of the disputants presupposes a set of beliefs that seem reasonable to him, beliefs which his critics charge beg the question. The solution is not to pretend to avoid discussion of beliefs altogether, but to make the issue of such beliefs the central theme of political discourse.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

General rules, specific outcomes, and #refugees

The S.S. St. Louis was a ship full of unscreened potential refugees with unproven economic potential coming from a war zone filled with enemies of Canada and the United States, but seeking refuge.

We see the rejection of the St. Louis' would-be refugees as a tragedy, but by the standards many people advocate for determining which refugees we should accept, we would turn it around again today.

Rules should be general, not specific. Sometimes our general rules will not give us the specific results we want and bad things will happen. We'll let in a criminal, a spy, or a radical, or we'll condemn innocent people we could have saved to die. Perfection isn't an option, and neither is a costless policy.

Whether or not we should have a rule that would require us to turn away the St. Louis today is arguable, not a discussion beyond the pale. But people who advocate for that rule should have to own up to the potential costs of their preferred policy, not just preach the virtues of caution.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A response to Liz Wolfe on free speech and not being a jerk

Because constructive criticism was (and continues to be) so important to finding my voice, and because the author has expressed her desire to hear it, I'm responding to the post Libertarians, It’s Time to Decide: Compassion or Free Speech Purism? from the Students for Liberty blog (which has also generated an excellent response). 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

'Duties' in democracy

The argument that we must vote goes like this: since it affects all of us in an important way, it can only work if enough of us participate, and we each have the power to participate, we have a duty to vote. Because it's a duty, doing it is always the right thing to do, so we should vote 'no matter what' and 'do our part' for democracy.

But if democracy is about more than putting ballots into boxes and instead about, as Don Lavoie puts it in 'Democracy, Markets, and the Legal Order: Notes on the Nature of Politics in a Radically Liberal Society', "openness and publicness, not some particular theory of how to elect the personnel of government", and, "not a quality of the conscious will of a representative organization that has been legitimated by the public, but a quality of the discursive process of the distributed wills of the public itself", then electoral voting is only how we choose a single organization playing a part in the ongoing process of democracy - a small part of a whole.

Democracy, more broadly considered, is the process that establishes the limits of public opinion, values, and culture. As Lavoie puts it:
"What makes a legal system, any legal system, work is a shared system of belief in the rules of justice—a political culture. The culture is, in turn, an evolving process, a tradition which is continually being reappropriated in creative ways in the interpersonal and public discourses through which social individuals communicate... Everything depends here on what is considered acceptable social behavior, that is, on the constraints imposed by a particular political culture. Where slavery is considered offensive, those who attempt to practice it are easily overwhelmed by the horror of the public. Where it is thought by the general public to be justifiable, no amount of constitutional design will prevent it.those who attempt to practice it."
In elections, the scope for discourse is narrow and closed, occurring between sets of ideas drawn from all of acceptable public opinion. But the process by which we establish acceptable public opinion, or our 'political culture', is broad and open, and that's the only way it works. To build our culture, we propose ideas from in and outside the norm and test them through study, discussion, and argument. It must be open to all if we're to know what ideas and values are most important, and enough of us have to participate for it to work.

This process is more important than electoral voting because it is a prerequisite for free elections. All free societies, regardless of how they choose their governments, depend on it. If the importance of elections is a compelling reason to participate, the argument for taking part in this process should be far more persuasive. It affects all of society in an important way.

You have the right to study public policy, philosophy, economics, and psychology to try to understand them, to debate them, and test their mettle. You have a right to spend your time trying to persuade others of what you think you've discovered. Doing all of these things will make you a powerful contributor to political culture and you have the power to do them. But while you have a right to do all of it, you don't have an obligation to do any of it. No moral obligation follows from having rights, even if using those rights contribute to democracy and democracy is socially important.

If voting is a duty because of the need for broad participation, the potential for wide societal impact, and the ability to contribute, then there should also be a duty to participate in serious, ongoing study and dedication to democratic participation. If, on the other hand, these reasons are insufficient to make deep, ongoing commitment to democracy a duty, then they are insufficient to make voting a duty.

Someone who participates in only the lowest-cost form of engagement, voting, has the power to do more, but chooses not to. That's fine. Part of the process of democracy is moving in and out of participation, and it's not the only thing in life that matters. But it shows us that these reasons for considering voting a duty might not be sufficient, after all - it might be fine to abstain from even the lowest-cost form of engagement. A broader conception of democracy helps untangle the rhetoric around participation so that we can decide whether and when it's worth participating, along the most meaningful way to do so.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Remembering is not enough

In the past week an NDP candidate admitted she "didn't know what Auschwitz was" and a Chicago news station displayed a badge from a Nazi prison uniform when reporting on Yom Kippur observance. Disappointment at this level of ignorance of the Holocaust is appropriate, but the belief that we can avoid repeating history if only we remember it misses something important.

Backlash against both the ill-educated candidate and the hapless news station are evidence of the fervour with which we demand remembrance of one of history's great crimes. But memories alone can't prevent tragedy. The minister under Tito who managed the work and starvation camps for Swabian Germans in Yugoslavia immediately after World War II was a Jew who survived Hitler's death camps. His memories may have justified repeating history. 

The horrors of life under the Soviet Union, post-revolution China, and North Korea are well known, but poorly understood. The 20th century's greatest and most terrible economic lesson, the impossibility of comprehensive planning and the tremendous cost of the attempt, is explained away as the result of evil leaders with bad intentions. Those who try to understand the motivations of the communists, socialists, and fascists responsible, though, find that their goals had an almost fairytale innocence to them: they wanted a land of milk and honey, where want, toil, and uncertainty would be disposed of handily with logic and science, and citizens who would be secure because they would never have to depend on anyone but each other. When we see people today suggesting:
"We could live in a country powered entirely by truly just renewable energy, woven together by accessible public transit, in which the jobs and opportunities of this transition are designed to systematically eliminate racial and gender inequality." 
it's insulting to say that they've forgotten or don't care about Stalin's show trials or the Kims' prison camps. It is fair to say that they don't understand the severity of their request, what it leads to, and why. They don't understand how intimately economic life is intertwined with the parts of life they think of as more meaningful. They don't understand that you can't bend one without warping the other, or that less than they're suggesting can break both. This is likely why the building blocks of fascism are widely accepted, maybe even popular: they're amenable to these goals. Without better understanding, we find ourselves shunning fascism's name while cheering its substance.

It's equally unfair to claim that the failure to recognize a symbol of the Holocaust implies those responsible wouldn't be alarmed by calls for arm bands for specific groups today. What is alarming is that superficial opposition to armbands might be all that we've gained from remembering their role in the Holocaust.

The purpose of the Nazis' arm bands was to make Jews identifiable on sight so that they could be marginalized, brutalized, and excluded. But we don't need arm bands to discriminate, to make people ashamed of who they are, or to treat them differently. They aren't needed by those who call for security ministries to focus on people who look Arabic or wear Muslim clothing when searching for terrorists, and they aren't missed by anyone who wants to justify stop-and-frisk programs' emphasis on black American males by referencing their greater likelihood to be arrested. We remember the pictures, but we forget the lessons.

So yes, it's irresponsible to forget. But remembering is only the first step. It may be even more irresponsible to remember and believe remembering is sufficient, without seeking to understand.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

By any other name...

I've written before on how easily the building blocks of fascism fall within the realm of acceptable political ideas. Here's a quote that could have come from some of the more hostile responses to when I reveal my political leanings:
"Against individualism, the [public-minded] conception is for the State; and it is for the individual in so far as he coincides with the State... It is opposed to [libertarianism], which arose as a reaction to absolutism and exhausted its historical function when the State became the expression of the conscience and will of the People. [Libertarianism] denied the State in the name of the individual; [Public spiritedness] asserts the rights of the State as expressing the true reality of the individual... In this sense [public spiritedness] [may be forced upon citizens]... The [responsible] State, the highest and most powerful form of personality, is a force, but a spiritual force, which takes over all the forms of the moral and intellectual life of man. It cannot therefore confine itself simply to the functions of order and supervision as [libertarians] desired." 
While illiberal, this isn't way off the spectrum of politically acceptable speech. Until you return the taboo words that have been replaced:

Friday, August 21, 2015

Trade-offs for humane investment

In Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play, J.C. Scott, like many skeptics of markets, laments the loss of autonomy for wage labourers who left their smallholder farms to work in factories where employers dictated the terms of their work.

Today we're celebrating increasing autonomy in the workforce. But if it's what we've been seeking all along, why did so many give up owning their productive resources in the first place? The question is similar to the question of why, if we're so much richer today, many of us have gone back to eating what our grandparents used to eat. Understanding the answers means thinking about investment.

When we suspect something can make us better off, we’re willing to give up some stuff we'd like to have or do now and put those resources toward its acquisition. Near-subsistence farmers might take leaner meals until they can buy a plow or fertilizer that will allow them to grow more food with less effort, while in a modern economy investment could be a car to travel reliably or education to increase earning potential.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Preferences, not poverty.

Economics is tricky business. It seems straightforward to apply simple rules like supply and demand, but unless we understand how markets reveal information, some economic conclusions can seem counterintuitive.

People are wary of data that says that the cost of living has fallen, even for the poor. If we take today's standards and apply them backwards, it can seem like we've stagnated. But prices and purchasing decisions of the past are full of information about the people who made them, not guidelines for measuring the lives of (very different) people today.

Are food prices rising? In the 1970s while today's trendier meat, like oxtails, would have been pretty cheap, you could have a helluva time getting fresh asparagus in January. Canned vegetables, or maybe frozen as more households purchased freezers, were more likely on the menu. Technology (shipping, preserving, refrigeration) had something to do with the different food people wanted, but the real key is understanding how preferences have changed with income.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

More on modern-day fascism

People who liked my post about the current popularity of many of the tenents of fascism in mainstream politics are likely to enjoy Steve Hortwitz's latest column at The Freeman about why politicians are making us use 'the F-word' so much these days. An excerpt:
Today we use the word fascism as an epithet, especially for bossy people. We associate it with dictatorships, and especially with Nazism. It turns out that fascism was a fairly well-worked-out theory of how to organize a society, and in its original form was not about racism or anti-Semitism directly. Fascism was an attempt to combine what people saw as the best parts of capitalism and socialism, and then to do so in the context of putting nationality before class.

...

So what does this have to do with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump?

I would argue that they are both “nationalist socialists.” That is, they both embody key elements of fascism. They both think the nation comes first, and they both think the United States is an organization (not a spontaneous order) that should be under someone’s control.
Read it all here!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Much ado about Cecil.


Unlike the shooting of the rhino in Namibia, the shooting of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe does not have redeeming qualities for conservation, and though there may be a role for even trophy hunting in Zimbabwe, the current process is complicated and corrupt. So it makes sense to be unhappy with how this lion was killed, but I'm not sure it warrants the mass and often obviously clueless outrage the Internet has produced.

Individually, people mean well. But the mob's moral compass isn't doing its job. How many have posted a meme or retweeted a quote but won't take the time to read a Zimbabwean's take on Cecil? Getting upset on behalf of Zimbabweans about this isn't just not enough, it's totally out of touch. There are more problems facing Zimbabwe than just poaching. We shouldn't only pay attention when an American dentist gets involved. If you're going to get upset on behalf of Zimbabweans, make sure you're listening to them about where they need support. From the article linked above:
The country is going through serious economic challenges, and quite understandably, most people have pressing needs on their minds, such as food, shelter, and jobs. Thousands have been laid off work sine a recent Supreme judgment a couple of weeks ago. An activist called Itai Dzamara has been missing for more than four months and some worry that the story of this human being has not received as much international attention. So forgive them, if their attention is not as much focused on Cecil's sad demise. It's not that they don't get it, or that they don't care for animals, no. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Frighteningly modest proposals

Consider the following proposals:

  • Our nation has goals that society should support, regardless of the problems and goals of other nations or peoples;
  • It should be the job of our economy and of society to achieve those goals, rather than (or at least before) we worry about our own selfish plans;
  • We should be able to support our national goals without having to rely on other countries for trade or support;
  • It would be best if we could stop politicians from wasting time arguing, set their goals, and make them implement them; and 
  • People who do not share commitment to our national societal goals are antisocial and should be made to contribute to the plan. 

This doesn't seem wildly out of line with what many mainstream voters believe. Or perhaps they believe that it's impossible, but a nice idea. Playing up this sort of thinking has been key to the early success of the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Unfortunately, given how unremarkable this proposal seems, it constitutes the building blocks for fascism*, a set of political beliefs that, despite its fall to the level of pejorative insult, was a popular idea for Western governments following on the heels of the Progressive Era.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Canada and Independence Days

Canada Day and Independence Day falling so close to one another makes me reflect on what makes each of them worth celebrating. I spent a lazy (though later rowdy) Canada Day on Prince Edward Island, being reminded how diverse the Canadian experience is. I'd spent a long weekend in New England leading up to that, spending the heady day following the Obergefell decision in Boston, with rainbows decorating windows across the city.

I thought of the phrase, "There once was a dream that was America," though I can't remember where it comes from. And I thought of all that Canada and the United States are and were supposed to be. When they were at their best, they were crucibles for building and directing one's own life, for being the author of our own stories. They were where anyone could come to find a place to make something great. They were the very best kinds of sanctuary. Though that's faded with our concerns about both economic and physical security, it's what we can strive to make them again.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Costs aren't arguments

The minimum wage as it is often advocated is Very Bad Policy.

I’m not saying that because I lean libertarian or because I think it will cost jobs, but because of advocates who are unwilling to weigh costs against benefits and instead deny the costs exist. Understanding that a minimum wage is likely to cost jobs isn’t ideological belief, but the default expectation we should hold if we understand economics.

Theory explains why we expect job losses to happen: If a price floor is implemented on identical goods, some people will no longer choose to pay or be able to afford the higher price, so they’ll buy less and seek out substitutes, even though many people would like to sell more at the higher price.

Most goods aren’t identical, so when a price floor is applied, buyers will be picky. A minimum price for alcoholic beverages means you won’t see much budget vodka or malt liquor on the shelves because few people will pay a premium for them. Those who might enjoy a cold can of, say, Old Milwaukee, but can’t afford the premium price (if it’s offered at all) go without a beer, buy it illegally, or switch to cheaper ways to drink.

Workers don’t sell goods, but services, and people aren’t interchangeable. Some, even if it’s just because they lack training, experience, or education, can do less in any given time than other workers, whether it’s putting things together, keeping track of multiple tasks, or simply working without needing help or supervision.

The minimum wage is a price floor, and it’s people who cannot contribute as much per hour that aren’t as likely to convince buyers to pay for their work. Unlike a can of Old Milwaukee, though, every person is brimming full of potential. Fewer job opportunities means fewer chances to unleash it.

Theory is bolstered by the agreement of most empirical evidence. The evidence isn’t unanimous, but economic theory doesn’t tell us to expect that it should be. When the minimum wage doesn’t eliminate jobs, we can’t declare the general theory to be without merit or we’ll risk treating the exception as the rule. We should explain the exception instead.

But all of that is, emphatically, not an argument against minimum wages. It is only an explanation of one likely cost. Understanding costs allows us weigh them against expected benefits and, if we decide it’s worth it, to choose to bear them and proceed. If advocates of a minimum wage deny costs that we have every reason to expect to make their case, they're asking that we support their policy on false premises. That’s not a good way to make any decision, and an especially bad way to make decisions for other people.

Perhaps, like some people today and the original advocates of a minimum wage, you think that it would be a good way to keep immigrants from taking work from native-born citizens (see point 5 here). More likely, you may look at the costs of the minimum wage and believe that they’re worth bearing because other policies are better suited to improve the lives of low-skilled workers than low-wage jobs. In either case I would disagree, but at least we’d be having the right conversation.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sweet, sweet privilege

I'm over at Anything Peaceful talking about the alarming powers that have been amassed by maple syrup growers in Quebec. The story is a great foil to talk about the consequences to civil liberties and secure property of abandoning the rule of law for legal privileges.
The Federation estimates that only 75% of producers support its fixed prices, but it has the legal power to strong-arm the 25% who don’t. Dissenting producers don’t — can’t — have the same rights under the law if it’s to be enforced. Without equal rights under the law, there cannot be secure rights to property. 
One rebellious seller remarks that since he defied the Federation, “They can come into my house anytime they want.” Perhaps that’s why producers in Ontario and New Brunswick, who still benefit from the price supports, have declined to join Quebec’s Federation.
How did this happen? Quebec producers sought legal privileges for themselves by organizing into the Federation. Now that that privilege exists, it’s been seized not only by maple syrup producers, but by a specific contingent who benefit most from it. Special powers, once created, benefit the especially powerful.
Check out the whole post here!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Earth Hour, washing machines, and fighting poverty

I missed Earth Hour this past weekend. I meant to share Hans Rosling's magic washing machine to mark the occasion.

We must remember the incredible, liberating power that electricity has. While we should try to find more efficient ways to use and produce it, our time would be best spent thinking of the truly poor and of how to expand electricity use around the globe, rather than playing at poverty for an hour once a year. The reward will be more people, especially women, freed from poverty to think of the best ways to produce and use energy and to improve our lives in ways we haven't yet imagined.



Saturday, March 28, 2015

What do the NSA and the Ithaca College Student Government Association have in common?

Edward Snowden blew the whistle on NSA spying in part because of his belief that the ability to speak freely and explore ideas is crucial to becoming the person that you want to be - and had allowed him to become the person he wanted to be. He believes that NSA spying (in addition to being illegal, immoral, and having the potential to start accidental wars) chills the process of discovering, trying, adopting, and discarding ideas.

Keeping this in mind might help to explain to those to whom it's not obvious why it's troubling to see students embracing the idea of chilling uncomfortable or what they deem to be offensive speech. Reason reports that the Ithaca College Student Government Association is attempting to create an Internet-based system for reporting and tracking microaggressions on campus.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Immigrants aren't oranges.

An exceptional piece arguing for more open immigration in today's New York Times;
Few of us are calling for the thing that basic economic analysis shows would benefit nearly all of us: radically open borders.
And yet the economic benefits of immigration may be the ­most ­settled fact in economics. A recent University of Chicago poll of leading economists could not find a single one who rejected the proposition. (There is one notable economist who wasn’t polled: George Borjas of Harvard, who believes that his fellow economists underestimate the cost of immigration for low-­skilled natives. Borjas’s work is often misused by anti-immigration activists, in much the same way a complicated climate-­science result is often invoked as “proof” that global warming is a myth.) Rationally speaking, we should take in far more immigrants than we currently do. 
So why don’t we open up? The chief logical mistake we make is something called the Lump of Labor Fallacy: the erroneous notion that there is only so much work to be done and that no one can get a job without taking one from someone else. It’s an understandable assumption. After all, with other types of market transactions, when the supply goes up, the price falls. If there were suddenly a whole lot more oranges, we’d expect the price of oranges to fall or the number of oranges that went uneaten to surge. 
But immigrants aren’t oranges. It might seem intuitive that when there is an increase in the supply of workers, the ones who were here already will make less money or lose their jobs. Immigrants don’t just increase the supply of labor, though; they simultaneously increase demand for it, using the wages they earn to rent apartments, eat food, get haircuts, buy cellphones. That means there are more jobs building apartments, selling food, giving haircuts and dispatching the trucks that move those phones. Immigrants increase the size of the overall population, which means they increase the size of the economy. Logically, if immigrants were “stealing” jobs, so would every young person leaving school and entering the job market; countries should become poorer as they get larger. In reality, of course, the opposite happens.
Read the whole thing here - it does a great job of going through and giving the arguments against the common economic arguments against more open borders.

Monday, March 16, 2015

#OpenBordersDay

On one of the most important policy issues in the world is Open Borders. To that end:
Freedom of movement is a basic liberty that governments should respect and protect unless justified by extenuating circumstances. This extends to movement across international boundaries.

International law and many domestic laws already recognise the right of any individual to leave his or her country. This right may only be circumscribed in extreme circumstances, where threats to public safety or order are imminent.

We believe international and domestic law should similarly extend such protections to individuals seeking to enter another country. Although there may be times when governments should treat foreign nationals differently from domestic citizens, freedom of movement and residence are fundamental rights that should only be circumscribed when the situation absolutely warrants.

The border enforcement status quo is both morally unconscionable and economically destructive. Border controls predominantly restrict the movement of people who bear no ill intentions. Most of the people legally barred from moving across international borders today are fleeing persecution or poverty, desire a better job or home, or simply want to see the city lights.

The border status quo bars ordinary people from pursuing the life and opportunity they desire, not because they lack merit or because they pose a danger to others. Billions of people are legally barred from realising their full potential and ambitions purely on the basis of an accident of birth: where they were born. This is both a drain on the economic and innovative potential of human societies across the world, and indefensible in any order that recognises the moral worth and dignity of every human being.

We seek legal and policy reforms that will reduce and eventually remove these bars to movement for billions of ordinary people around the world. The economic toll of the modern restrictive border regime is vast, the human toll incalculable. To end this, we do not need a philosopher’s utopia or a world government. As citizens and human beings, we only demand accountability from our own governments for the senseless immigration laws that they enact in our name. Border controls should be minimised to only the extent required to protect public health and security. International borders should be open for all to cross, in both directions.
Add your name to the list of signatories by emailing openborders@googlegroups.com, with professional and academic affiliations, if appropriate.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

I [Don't] Side With...

My top match is what makes the I Side With graphic, but it's not why I want to post this. I wanted to post this because of my 4th/5th best match: the Conservative Party of Canada (tied with the Bloc, outpacing the Greens, Communists, and Christian Heritage Party). Other classically liberal friends are posting similar results.

I have lots of friends who support Canada's Conservative Party, and a long time ago I used to be a supporter. So I have heard Conservatives talk for years about how libertarians and classical liberals are just ultra-committed, politically impractical Conservatives who will never realise the world that we want*, and if we want to be practical, or when we finally come around, we will vote Conservative.

Sorry, my friends on the right, but as I've been saying for years: that's just not the case. If I decide to get practical and go to the polls, I'll be voting for your opposition.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A negative vote for affirmative action.

Others have written, and written well, arguments for libertarians to embrace the feminist position. The qualms we have with socialist feminism are with its socialism, not its feminism. Alas, the discourse between left-feminists and liberals is not as developed as the discourse that we have with 'the right'.

And so I recently found myself dissatisfied with my own argument against affirmative action as a solution to unequal treatment of women in the workforce, though I thought I agreed with my conclusions. The argument that came to mind without much thought was:
Affirmative action attempts to correct an injustice, but it introduces new ones in the process. It disadvantages applicants who aren't targeted and treats women as though they can't succeed on their own merits. What’s needed to address this problem is societal change of gendered expectations and an insistence that laws consistently promote equality rather than special privilege for either side.
But what if your main concern isn't the presence of any injustice, but the correction a specific injustice? In this case, does liberalism come up short in the quest for a more equal workforce?

Happily, this sort of thing motivates better thinking. After giving the problem the thought it deserves, I don't think affirmative action deserves a liberal endorsement, and here's why:


First, the problem of discrimination in the workplace is not as big as it’s often made out to be. Steve Horwitz’s video on the gender-wage gap explains that women aren't paid as little as 75 cents for each dollar that men are paid for the same work, but are choosing less lucrative occupations and making different choices about their work/life balance. For the reasons that women make these choices, they continue to be underrepresented in many high-earning jobs. That's a different sort of problem, and the one that affirmative action (AA) aims to solve.

Let’s assume that we can design a program that will get women into the jobs they're failing to secure now, and will be rolled back seamlessly once equality is achieved. If such a program can correct society's attitudes towards women, perhaps it's a compromise that pragmatic liberals ought to consider.

AA programs in schools have not performed as desired: they have not resulted in a reduced need for support for black students to secure spots over time, and they did not result in more diverse campuses than 'colour blind' regimes.  Though the policies are intended to foster acceptance and tolerance, they can help perpetuate stereotypes and spur accusations of ‘reverse racism’. I can't think of a compelling reason that either workplaces or schools are exceptional, so I believe our expectations should be similar and we should be skeptical of claims that AA can solve problems caused by discrimination in the workforce that it hasn't in schools.

AA may be successful in catapulting women into management jobs in which men have been willing to work long hours, but it cannot change the expectations that come with the job (the long hours), nor the societal expectations for women (that they act as primary caregivers for children). Placing a woman into a job without changing these expectations puts the cart before the horse. It does not overcome the pressure on her to choose between family and career or the associated guilt.

If a woman is awarded a position because of AA, she was not the most qualified candidate (otherwise, she would have been awarded it without the policy). If she is more motivated by societal norms than the norms of the job, she is unlikely to meet the expectations of her position. AA sets her up to fail, and the stereotypes the policy aims to overcome (that women 'can't handle' that sort of work) to ring true. If the organization is forced to change the nature of the job to accommodate a female appointment without changing social norms, this has the same effect, and we should expect it to result in a drop in pay since the work ceases to be equal.

If she is qualified, the presence of AA may mean that the woman to whom a job is awarded will battle the charge that she didn't earn her spot. Shortcomings, real or perceived, may be disproportionately attributed to her gender, again contrary to the intentions of the policy. This battle may be won if she conforms to the norms of the job and produces exceptional work, but as Steve's video points out, making those choices already solves the problem.

Even if we assume away the unintended consequences for individuals, success in correcting disparities in outcome are bound to be recognized, at least in part, as the success of the program rather than the success of women in overcoming biases and discrimination. So long as the program is credited, women will not be able to claim, or even know the extent of, their victory.

Finally, our original assumption is a big one. Institutions are unlikely to be designed perfectly. Instead, their design will be subject to the social pressures that have resulted in the discrimination they're intended to correct. And once instituted, AA creates a vested interest (women who believe that they can secure jobs more easily because of the policy) that makes it difficult to reverse, regardless of whether it is successful or still needed, meaning that we may be left with needless discrimination, even if the original program was justified.

When there is injustice, the idea that a policy can solve the problem is appealing, but it's always more complicated than that. Even if a policy is merely ineffective, it may give the impression that something is being done and more action isn't needed. (This attitude may be partly to blame for a general sense of apathy and reluctance to acknowledge problems of discrimination today.)

What can feminists do, then? First, let's know what success has looked like in the past - the history of economic progress and liberation in the family and of women specifically within the market and society are important stories that we should be able to tell. Peacefully call out injustice - don't make excuses for it. Build something better – for instance, women succeeding in new work environments, like telecommuting and contract-based self employment, have the potential to be major stereotype busters. And don't settle for someone who makes gender an issue in relationship and household decisions. (Why would you want to when you realize what that says about them? Don't make excuses!)

That's the path to real change, not lip service or feel-good slogans. That's what matters, and we shouldn't settle for less.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

OK, #LetsTalk.

For three #BellLetsTalk days in a row, I've wanted to write something. I think it’s a good initiative. I'm a big believer in the power of talking (and writing) to not only help overcome personal mental health challenges, but to fight the misconceptions around an issue that affects more people than many know or acknowledge. But it's not as easy to write something as it might sound.

I wish I could tell you all my whole story, but my story has become something more private than I ever expected it to be. Not something to just toss out there. Maybe one day I'll find the words to share it all, but for this year, I can tell you three things that I wish more people realized about mental health:

  • Mental health is not binary.
Mental health gets treated like something you have or you don't. I've met people who think that someone who's in therapy is someone who can't keep it together - the therapy is proof that something is 'wrong'. Meanwhile, when someone has a breakdown, we 'never saw it coming'! They seemed to have it together, but only because they didn't tell us what was going on.

Stop being surprised. For most people, keeping a struggle with mental health private is a way of feeling like it's under control and a way of avoiding judgement. Often hard times can be managed with proactive coping mechanisms, or with the help of medications that you might never know about, but that doesn't mean they're not there. It's a damned shame that more people don't feel comfortable coming forward to build coping mechanisms and support networks until things fall apart.

Not every physical illness requires us to go to the doctor or the hospital to survive. Let’s stop acting like the only mental health struggles that count are the ones that require a major intervention. Then we can start to acknowledge how varied mental health experiences are, how common they are, and how often they go unrecognized because of the stigmas we’ve built around them.

  • Helping someone is easier, and harder, than you think. 
For many people struggling right now, one of the biggest challenges is feeling out of control of their life. It feels like events and emotions are conspiring to keep control out of reach, and the further it drifts, the harder it is to grasp again.

We tend to treat people who seek help as though they are forfeiting part of their decision-making ability, as though they’re no longer capable of handling important decisions. But someone seeking help has already taken an especially tough decision and first step down a path to recovery. That path can be a long, hard one, and not everyone reaches the end. But imagine how much harder it is when taking that first step forward leads to everyone treating you as though you’ve stumbled three back instead.

Trying to help someone who is struggling with personal demons can make us feel powerless – but there’s something you can do: Be a good friend. Have a healthy relationship. Insist on it - don't give in to unhealthy habits. Give the person you want to support the type of support that you would want. Offer help when it’s requested, but let them make their own decisions – those are the ones that will stick. Give them something to compare the craziness in their life to, and let them choose the better path.

  • If you want to help, help yourself first. 
This sounds surprisingly selfish, but trust me, and remember that those offering support can - probably will - need support themselves.

Trying to help someone struggling through mental health issues can take everything out of you. Some people need to find their footing before they can set the right boundaries for a good friendship, no matter how badly that's what they'd like to do. And trying to help until that happens can be incredibly frustrating: Because you care, you wish you could do something. So if things get worse, you start to panic and feel as though there's something you could have done. But wishing it doesn't make it true. You can't take on the hardest stuff, even for those you love the most, no matter how much you wish you could, no matter how much they'd like to let you.

And when you think about it, wanting to take all of the hard stuff on for someone else is perverse and patronizing - no one wants to be treated as a child who needs to be taken by the hand. Everyone wants to be able to stand on their own.

It feels selfish to take time for yourself when you know someone who's struggling, but it’s more selfish for a friend to take everything you've got. Be a good friend, but insist on the same for yourself. And take the time you need to take care of yourself. You’re worth it. Realizing just how worth it you are is one of the most important things any of us can do for our own health, and showing someone else that it's OK to make time for yourself is can be one of the best things you can do for them.

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And to all those who are fighting to get by: You can find a way to do it. And you're not alone. Please, it doesn't have to be out loud for all to hear, but let's talk.