Monday, May 31, 2010

On the right to exist.

In all areas of inquiry, there are easy questions and there are hard questions. Easy questions are the ones that aren't really worth answering -- or, at least, the answers are so obvious that they should go without saying. For example: are coalition governments legal, constitutional, stable, and in most ways better than majority governments? The answer is "yes", and the explanation shouldn't be needed. (If needed: explain the difference between the latter and mob rule, with examples, and be sure to identify the precise laws and/or constitutional clauses which block the formation of coalitions.) Or: is a gun registry justified because police use it regularly? The answer is "no", and, again, the explanation shouldn't be needed. (Again, if needed: the police use things that make their jobs easier, but making the job of police easier is a pretty low-ranked policy goal, if a goal at all.) Or: can a state send its military to attack and board a vessel in international waters? The answer is "yes". (A state can do anything.) Should it? The answer is an emphatic "no". (It's both foolish and immoral, and possibly illegal.) And so on.

Easy questions aren't usually interesting to blog about, although they fit well within a tweet or two. One reason is that there's really no reasoning with people who don't see the answer. (Explaining the obvious is possible, but persuading someone towards the obvious is not. If you'll deny the obvious, then you'll deny anything, including basic moves of logic, facts, and grounding precepts.) Another is that there's no genuine controversy, and argument doesn't function without controversy. What we have instead is either confusion or bad faith or irrationality or some combination.

Occasionally, though, an easy question crops up where the received wisdom is so egregiously wrong that it's worth taking the time to explain why the answer is what it is. So, here's the question: do countries have the right to exist? (The answer is "no", for reasons that will hopefully become clear.)

I think this is mostly a confusion rather than bad faith or irrationality. So, let me try to clear up the confusion.

First, there's a lot of ways of thinking about rights. I propose to adopt a very broad view of what a right is: a right is something deserved; that is, I have a right to things that I deserve to have. I wouldn't say the converse, though: I deserve things which I don't have a right to. It's plausible that I deserve to have a satisfying job, but I don't see that it's plausible that I have a right to such a thing. The advantage to this broad conception is that it's neutral between rival views. For example, rights are sometimes conceived as claims. For example, my right to be paid by my employer is a claim I have against my employer. But, if legitimate claims are rights, they are rights because I deserve to have my legitimate claims satisfied. So, desert is at the bottom of the conception. Similarly, rights are sometimes conceived as powers. For example, my right to vote is a power I have -- some ability I can choose to exercise. But, genuine powers are rights because I deserve those powers. There are, after all, many powers I have -- the power to jump, for example -- that aren't rights; so what makes some powers rights is, plausibly, that they are powers I deserve.

Second, there's a lot of ways of thinking about existence. We might say that something exists if it is physically present, and does not exist otherwise. I don't think that's the right view in this case, though, because countries are not physical objects. (I'll come back to that in a bit.) We might then say that something exists if it is taken to exist, and does not exist otherwise. But, again, that's not the right view in this case, because the existence of some countries is controversial. Some people taken them to exist, and others don't, and neither position is fringe. (Is Lebanon one country or two? Is Iraq a country at all?) So, I would say that, in this case, we should take existence to be referring to a non-physical status that doesn't rely on broad acceptance, but rather limited acceptance. This works nicely for most things: the table exists because everyone who runs into it accepts that it does (and anyone who didn't, wouldn't), people exist because we acknowledge that they do, etc. So, a country exists if the people living within the alleged country acknowledge that it exists. This is still controversial, of course, as there are countries where some members within the country want to declare a new country to exist -- think of the Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka or Quebec separatists as examples. But, I think these cases are best conceived of as conflicts of whether a country should continue to exist, not different claims about which countries do exist.

Third, countries are odd things, metaphysically speaking. They aren't physical objects. Land is physical, water is physical, the materials of buildings are physical, human beings are physical -- but countries are not. Countries are made up of or constituted by various physical things -- land, water, humans, buildings, and so on -- as well as various other non-physical items -- cultures, histories, languages, and so on. Countries are a supervenient thing: they require more primitive pieces in order to exist, but, once those pieces are together in the right way, then the country exists as well. This is crucial, because it draws attention to the fact that a country isn't a given. It's not something that's just there, in the world; it's something that got made up. That doesn't mean it's not real, of course -- money is also made up and, as people die from the lack of it, I'd say it's pretty real -- but it does mean that a country can be brought into or out of existence without anything more than a conceptual shift. That is, supervenient things can be destroyed if we just stop thinking about them in the way we do. Taking money again, we could change what money is -- and even eliminate it entirely -- just by deciding to. We can't do that with bits of land, though: rocks don't go away just because you wish them to. Rocks have to actually be moved, through physical means. Supervenient objects are just ways of thinking about their primitive bases -- collecting them together, if you like -- and so they can be changed by changing a habit of thought. So, a country is just something that we habitually think about in a certain way: we think Canada is there, and so it is.

Fourth, we have to take on board the fundamental principle of equality: treat likes alike. (Or, what amounts to the same thing: don't introduce a distinction without a difference.) This is especially crucial for moral issues, such as what rights there are and who has them.So, if one thing of a type has something, then all things of that type must have that something -- unless there is a relevant difference between them. If one person has a duty to tell the truth, then all people have a duty to tell the truth, unless there is a relevant difference between people. (For example, some people may be unable to tell the truth due to not knowing it.) If one country has a right to exist, then all countries have a right to exist, unless there is some relevant difference between different countries. (Manner of founding, for example, or type of government.)

What follows from these? A few things.

First, there's no sense in which countries can have a right to exist. If a country had a right to exist, then we would be saying that a thing which is created by a habit of thought deserves to be accepted or taken by some identifiable group of people. This is absurd. It's like saying that a hockey team -- something which is created by a habit of thought -- deserves to be accepted or taken by some identifiable group of people. The team and the country may actually be so accepted, but I see no basis for the claim that they deserve to be.

Second, there's no sense in which individual people can have a right to exist. If an individual person has a right to exist, then all people have a right to exist. But there are many people who, as a matter of fact, don't exist: the dead, those as yet unborn, and those who could have been born, but never were. So, if one person has a right to exist, all those people have a right to exist. They deserve existence. There is no way to make the dead come back into existence, of course. But the unborn and the never-born could come into existence, both through breeding. So, if there is a right to existence that inheres in persons, what follows is that everyone should be forced to breed -- naturally or artificially -- as much as possible, to ensure that as many people as possible have what they deserve, namely existence. Which, again, is absurd.

Third, there's a clear sense in which individual people have a right not to be killed -- that is, to have their current existence removed. So, once a person exists, then that person has a right to not be caused to not exist, at least by the actions of another person, all things being equal. I take it that this is incredibly obvious, so I'm not going to try to defend it. But, this doesn't apply to countries at all, for reasoning similar to the above. There are many countries that no longer exist. If countries have a right not to have their current existence removed, then it follows that no country could ever fail -- someone would have to be forced to continue to accept that country's existence, or else the country would not get what it deserves. Again, this is absurd.

Fourth, there's a clear sense in which individual people have a right to form groups as they see fit -- that is, to come together with other people. Again, like the right not to be killed, I take this one as just obvious. Given that, though, and given that existence is a matter of some group of people taking something to exist, it follows that individuals have a right to come together for the purpose of and in order to take something else to exist. Given that countries are supervenient objects, one thing people could come together to take to exist is a country. So, while the country has no right to exist, people do have a right to gather together and decide that they will consider some area or some cultural group to be forming a country -- and the right to reverse this decision and disband the country.

So, countries don't have the right to exist -- but we do have the right to create them.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging.

Converge, "No Heroes"

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On trust.

I want to lay some things out about the recent "scandal" regarding MPs' unwillingness to allow the auditor-general to perform a full audit (of some specific kind; the details of that unfortunately elude me). I had hoped this would simply go away, but the story seems to have legs. I'm not claiming this as anything other than a first word, by the way: but I think it cuts to the heart of a lot of dissatisfaction with government, which seems to be fueling this particular outcry.

The idea behind monitoring funding seems to be based on notions of accountability and transparency. Accountability I take literally: to be held to account by others. You are accountable insofar as you can be required to give an account to someone else for what you have done. Transparency I take to mean something like being visible to outside gaze. This should also be taken pretty literally, I think: transparency in the relevant sense means that people outside the system can view how the system works. Revealing funding, then, is supposed to be a way to hold MPs to account and to make the workings of the House (and Parliament generally, I suppose) more visible to outsiders -- i.e., the citizenry in general.

That's the argument as I see it. I think it's badly mistaken, though.

The problem is that accountability relies on trust. We hold people to account because we trust them to do certain things for us. If we didn't put trust in people, we wouldn't bother holding them to account -- indeed, we probably couldn't, in any meaningful sense. Similarly, we hold people to account because we have trusted them and we expect them to fulfill their end of that trusting relationship. This applies to government in pretty obvious ways. In the Canadian and British systems, government is based on the principle of responsible government. I think this makes the connections clear -- government is supposed to be responsible, we trust the government, we hold the government to account because we entrust them with responsibilities. (Compare this to the American system, founded on the principle of checks and balances. This implies that government is not to be trusted -- government is to be limited, curtailed, and constantly watched. If that's your view of the ideal government, then the rest of this isn't meant for you.) This means, though, that if we can't trust the government, all the accountability measures in the world are really beside the point -- the core issue, the inability to trust government, remains.

Transparency works on something like the opposite point: on a kind of distrust. We try to monitor people, see all processes, because we don't trust them. Think, for example, of public sector employees broadly. There's an annual ritual we go through where public sector salary data are released, and there's a minor feeding frenzy over the handful making six-figure salaries -- with no question as to whether their training, expertise, etc. justify the salary (in contrast with the seven-plus-figure salaries earned in the private sector for doing work of far less importance). In this case, transparency measures are put in place because we don't trust public workers -- we force them to be transparent as an expression of that very distrust. Regardless of whether we should trust public sector workers, it's pretty clear that there's broad distrust of everyone in the sector. (Again, compare to the private sector here; I think it's pretty instructive.) We might also think of modifications occasionally proposed -- and occasionally implement -- to welfare systems, whereby recipients have to display all their expenditures of received monies. Again, it's an indication of distrust. Those horrible little poor people can't be relied upon to manage their own affairs, so someone has to keep an eye out to be sure things are being done correctly.

So, if we're looking to make government more transparent, that seems a marker of the fact that we don't trust government. If we're looking for government to be accountable, then that shows that we aspire to trust government -- to be able to have them be responsible as we ideally want them to be. These imply, I think, that we need to focus directly on that core problem: we need to repair trust in government. This doesn't mean we introduce accountability measures (those exist when we already trust), nor that we introduce transparency measures (those exist when we don't trust). In fact, if we could trust government, then accountability and transparency measures would be offensive. Instead, what follows is that we must face the need to repair the failings of basic governmental structures. The unresponsiveness to constituents rather than party bosses, for example. Or the keeping of promises. Or of fair and honest dealing with the public. Or of putting the public first rather than career goals. Fix the system so that trustworthy people are in positions of trust and can be trusted and then this cluster of accountability/transparency problems will dissipate.

The corollary to this, interestingly, is that in order to be able to trust government, the public needs to give something as well. Trust is a reflexive relation, after all: for trust to exist, both sides have to be trusting. (Otherwise we end up with some sort of dependency rather than full-fledged trust. Think of a romantic relationship where one partner is constantly suspicious and the other never so. I take this as a case of dependence -- the latter on the former -- rather than genuine trust.) So, if we put people in place who can be trusted, we must then trust them. We don't get to monitor them constantly. We only get involved if we think that there's something odd going on -- that is, that our trust has been misplaced. Permanent measures of accountability and transparency would thus be seriously misguided.

I think that this is what's wrong with the claims for monitoring funding, then: first, it ignores the real problem of trust; and, second, it will actually make the problem worse by leaving us unable to forge the sort of trust that we seem to be really searching for.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging.

Testament, "Electric Crown"

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Okay, I lied.

Blogging and travelling really don't mix very well. Free and clear for next Monday, and no post for next Thursday. Then, hopefully, back to full schedule.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Travelling...

...so no blog today. Will have one up for Thursday, as scheduled.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging

Kreator, "Violent Revolution"

Friday, May 14, 2010

On corporate personhood and free expression.

Shorter one today. It's late, I'm tired, and I couldn't get my thoughts together on electoral reform and the virtues of coalition governments. So, instead, I'll take on a smaller point.

Remember Citizens United v Federal Election Commission? That was the Supreme Court of the United States decision which held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in elections cannot be limited without violating the First Amendment. Now, of course, Canada doesn't have a First Amendment, and SCOTUS decisions don't have any force under Canadian law. But, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does give us rights to freedom fo conscience, thought, belief and expression, and corporations are (in at least the "entering into contracts" sense) persons under Canadian law. So, it's only a few skips to allow, as a freedom of speech issue, that corporations in Canada have a fundamental right to fund electoral ads.

Here's how that argument would go (spelled out as it draws out the key issues):
  1. Persons have fundamental rights under the law.
  2. One of those rights is to free expression.
  3. Encouraging expression of ideas, such as by paying for them, is part of free expression.
  4. Corporations are persons.
  5. By (1) and (4), corporations have fundamental rights under the law.
  6. By (2) and (5), corporations have the right to free expression.
  7. By (3) and (6), corporations can encourage expression of ideas, such as by paying for them, as part of free expression.
(5), (6), and (7) follow logically. (1) and (2) are true by definition. Key, then, are (3) and (4). If (3) and (4) can be established, then it would follow that Canadian corporations should be held to the same standards as American corporations.

Is encouraging expression of ideas, such as by paying for them, part of free expression? It depends, I think, on how far free expression really extends. We could consider free expression in a very narrow sense. You have the right to free expression insofar as no one is actively and directly stopping you from speaking as you choose. This is narrow because your expressions could be totally ineffective and ignored, and you could have few, if any, opportunities to express yourself, due to the indirect and/or passive influence of others. (If you have to work 100+ hours a week, for example, then you won't have a lot of time to make your opinions known.) We could also consider free expression in a very broad sense. You have the right to free expression insofar as you have reasonably equal opportunities to express yourself, in comparison to others within your society, and your expressions receive reasonable due consideration. This is broad because your expressions would have to be taken seriously, inasmuch as they deserve to be taken seriously. And you would need to be provided with platforms and venues within which you could say what you thought.

Taking free expression as narrow or broad in this sense is irrelevant to the issue at hand, though. If paying for the expression of ideas is itself part of free expression, then, even in the narrow sense, it would be illegitimate to prevent someone from paying for the expression of ideas. What matters, really, is whether free expression has to take any particular form -- whether there's any particular sort of thing that one has to be expressing in order for it to fall under free expression. Or, to put it in a slightly more illuminating fashion, what do you have to be doing in order to be "expressing", and thus within the ambit of "freedom of expression".

There's some obvious candidate activities. Speaking. Writing. Artistic endeavours should also fall within the range of expressing, as should certain kinds of meaningful actions (e.g., gestures intended to communicate claims that could have been expressed verbally). But what about encouraging certain expressions and discouraging others? I'm not going to say I have any firm views one way or the other, but I do think it's dubious, at least initially, to hold that encouraging expression of ideas counts, itself, as part of expressing anything. Encouraging expression of ideas is a precondition of expression. This is because it creates the circumstances in which expression can occur (and be increased). And the preconditions on something are logically distinct from that very thing. It's a precondition on being a man that one is human, but being human is obviously distinct from being a man. It's a precondition on being a chair that a thing be a physical object, but being a physical object is obviously distinct from being a chair.

Now, one could easily argue that when it comes to things like political ads, the distinction between the content of the ads (which would fall within free expression) and the funding for the ads (the preconditions on that expression) is a pretty fine one to make. I think this is a little confused, though. It brings us back to the extent of free expression -- whether we take it narrowly or broadly. If we take it broadly, then we would need to equalize opportunities for free expression, and could legitimately limit support for various kinds of expression on the grounds that it impedes other expressions. If we take it narrowly, then opportunities aren't in play at all: so they can't be reintroduced as a form of expression, because opportunities are by definition considered irrelevant.

So, there's something weird going on with point (3). Point (4) is on stronger ground, though. Here's how you could argue for (4).
  1. A person (in the "contract signing" sense) is defined by features F.
  2. A corporation has features F.
  3. Persons have rights.
  4. Therefore, corporations have rights.
  5. Therefore, corporations are persons (in the "having fundamental freedoms" sense).
That is, it's a matter of drawing an analogy between corporations and uncontroversial cases of persons (so, normally functioning adult human beings) and, on the basis of that analogy, inferring that a further feature of persons should also be held by corporations. And corporations really are rather similar to uncontroversial cases of persons. Corporations are made up of various components which serve subcorporate functions. This is pretty obvious, as corporations are made up of persons and groups of persons, which do things for the interests of the corporation (accounting, IT, etc, etc -- exactly which functions depend on the corporation). Human beings are similarly made up of various components which serve subpersonal functions. This is less obvious, as we tend to think of humans as being coherent wholes, but that's a deeply misleading impression. Human begins are made up of any number of biological systems which interact to produce things like consciousness, thought, memory, and the like. And the whole person is the combination of all those various functions. So, we can fill in the analogy in just that way: by drawing attention to the fact that corporations and (normally functioning adult) human beings are made up of complex and dynamically interacting processes, each process being performed by a distinct component part, and the results of the interaction are the functions that attach to the whole.

Once you've got an analogy between two things then it's good reasoning to infer that they resemble each other in a further way, pending identification of a disanalogy which breaks the connection (possibly just on the point that's in play). Are there disanalogies between corporations and human beings?

One common suggestion is that corporations are made by people, and human beings are not. Only non-artificial people deserve rights. But that's a non-starter, on two grounds. First, we're talking about rights, which, as far as I'm concerned, are legal fictions. So, in the relevant sense, both human beings and corporations are being dubbed people. It's artificial in both cases. Second, it's just stupid to say that human beings aren't made by people. Parents, friends, peers -- these all play a key role in who we are; indeed, without them, we not only wouldn't be the people we are, but we simply wouldn't be.

Another common suggestion is that corporations are formed for a limited purpose -- to profit. By contrast, human beings can adopt many different purposes. And only persons that can alter their purposes deserve rights, because only such persons need rights. Putting aside concerns about the connection between desert and need and rights, it's just wrong to say that corporations can't adopt other purposes. Most corporations are formed to pursue profits -- but there are purposes that are common to many people as well (health, well-being, etc.). Some corporations are formed for other purposes, though -- non-profits are, by definition, not formed for profit, and there's nothing which stops a corporation being formed which would pursue philanthropic goals entirely, even if this was directly contrary to the pursuit of profit.

Apart from these, I'm not sure what the difference -- the relevant difference, that is -- between persons and corporations is supposed to be. So, I'm content to grant that corporations are persons, just like human beings are. (Which has an angle that not everyone's seen, I think -- if you're a person, you not only have rights, but you have responsibilities, and can be held both criminally and civilly liable. Anyone interested in a jail for corporations?) In order to resist the rather nasty conclusions that follow from Citizens United, then, I would lean on the arguments against (3), that encouraging expressing ideas is not part of free expression. This is in part because conditions on free expression are not the same as expression.

But, more importantly, I think the issue is that we need to read basic freedoms like free expression broadly, such that opportunities to expression must be made reasonably equal between persons. The issue, the real issue, raised by Citizens United is that opportunities to expression are drastically unequal in most countries, even liberal democracies like ours. I won't rehearse the argument here (as it's quite long), but we have crucially misunderstood freedom in ignoring the importance of equality. Freedom doesn't really exist if it applies to some more than to others.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Had to share.

I'll be posting later on something more substantive. But I had to share this in follow-up to my earlier post on intellectual property.

Game publisher/developer Rockstar Games recently released Max Payne 2 for download on a service called Steam. Max Payne 2 originally required a CD to play. So, Rockstar had to change the code to allow it to run without a CD. See here for the story, but the short version: they used a version of the game that had been cracked by a now-defunct pirate group called Myth.

So, a legitimate games publisher used an illegal piece of code in order to get functionality that they can now turn around and sell to consumers.

Who's got the better product again?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On intellectual property.

Preamble

I've been thinking through issues related to "intellectual property" and piracy and copyright and so on. I don't intend to get into any specific policy ideas here. I'm more interested in commenting on, and debunking, the arguments offered in favour of -- sometimes very harsh -- technological methods for protecting copyrighted materials, as well as constructing an alternate moral framework within which we can think, hopefully more productively, about what intellectual property is and is not.

The Problem with Moralizing

Debates on intellectual property quickly take on a moral tone. File-sharing is called "stealing" or "piracy" or, most directly, "wrong". (As well as the substitute for moral condemnation in our morally unserious age, "illegal". More on the stupidity of that another time.) Rights are invoked, property rights being the obvious ones, but also the (Lockean) right to be compensated for what one has mixed with one's labour. And, of course, whatever violates a right is, by definition, a wrong.

I don't think intellectual property issues are fundamentally a moral issue, though. That is, I think the real problem gets lost as soon as we engage in a debate about rights and rights-violations or about harms and wrong actions. Talk about rights and rights-violations immediately sets up a conflict between the rights-holder and the rights-violator, where the former has a legitimate claim against the latter. (Indeed, the idea of a "legitimate claim" can be seen as the moral foundation for the legal strategy that major media companies use against file-sharers.) In response, the alleged rights-violators try to deny the right, either by offering an alternate moral framework (e.g., copylefting, Creative Commons) or by invoking a sort of tu quoque argument (e.g., those evil corporate so-and-so's had it coming!). Similarly, when we talk about harms and wrong acts, it immediately imposes a framework of punishment, compensation and retribution -- those who commit harms deserve punishment as a legitimate retributive response to their wrong action. (And so on and so forth.)

It's the wrong framework to actually solve the problem, though, because of the usual difficulties associated with resolving moral problems. People get emotionally invested and take disagreement to be equivalent to a personal attack. Many are unwilling to admit that moral problems can be attacked rationally and the rules for reasoning about morality are not broadly understood. There are many fundamental debates within the folk concepts of morality which moral philosophers have spent centuries teasing out -- never mind finalizing. (Although some progress has clearly been made; for example, current deontological and consequentialist theories of ethics are more broadly in agreement than their historical forebears) And I haven't said anything about the religious aspect. Thus, generally, moral debates in the public sphere, given what the public sphere is currently like, create rather than remove problems.

Intellectual property is a current problem, though. Copyright laws are being rewritten, both at the national and international level. Individuals are having to pay incredibly high levels of civil damages. And our cultural industries are being fundamentally reshaped. So, if we're stuck with the moral framework, we're going to end up stuck with the IP problem, in some form, for the foreseeable future. (There is no serious basis to the claims the MPAA/RIAA strategy of constant lawsuits plus the secretive ACTA treaty will actually stop anyone from trading files over the internet. See below for why.)

The alternative is an economic framework. Treat IP as an economic problem, and look for an economic solution.

Looking at the Problem Economically

Here's why it's an economic problem. Black markets emerge when consumers want something which they either can't obtain legally (e.g., various drugs and weapons) or aren't willing to obtain legally (e.g., IP). That's just the way people work, and there's really no way to stop that from happening. However, the extent of the market can be controlled. The black market in child pornography is very small, given ongoing international law enforcement efforts to stamp it out. Similarly, the black market in nuclear technology is very small, given the same efforts. So, that's one way to eliminate or curtail a black market: a tremendous, coordinated system of hard legal enforcement.

This obviously doesn't work for all black markets. It's been a dismal failure when it comes to controlling the black markets in many drugs -- marijuana is the obvious case (hello, Vancouver!) -- and the black markets in many kinds of weapons, particularly handguns. The problem, I think, is that police enforcement is only successful when one condition holds. It has to be practically possible to deploy enough police resources to control both supply and consumption of the material on the market. The markets in child pornography and nuclear technology are quite small, so it's not impractical to control the supply (by eliminating it, in the former case, or rigidly controlling it, in the latter case) while simultaneously making consuming the product very, very expensive (with harsh penalties and concerted efforts to impose punishment on consumers in these markets). So, we need a pretty small market, given how many police resources have to be deployed to keep the market under control. One way to keep the market small is to have a broad mechanism of social disapproval towards those who consume the product available on the black market. Consumers of child pornography and nuclear technology are subject to broad social sanctions, which keeps the market small, making it possible to control it through police resources.

Now, compare that to, say, the black market in marijuana. Not only is there not broad social disapproval towards consumers of marijuana, there's some social tolerance (and even approval, in some circles) of those who consume marijuana. So, the mechanism which could keep the market small isn't working. This implies, I think, that the market will continue to grow -- the mechanism which would limit demand and thus keep the market small isn't there. The only way forward, then, would be to rigidly control supply, so that the demand would just go unsatisfied. That might work, except for the fact that growing marijuana isn't that difficult. (It's a plant, after all, which can be grown hydroponically.) It even grows wild. So, police are constantly fighting a rearguard action to try to keep the supply under control, while demand continues to grow, and thus economic incentives are pointing strongly in the direction of becoming a supplier. Thus while police may become harsher and harsher in their techniques, to try to keep the supply under control, they will inevitably get further and further behind.

If politicians really wanted to stop people smoking marijuana, they'd make it legal (which would cause the bottom to fall out of the illegal supply market, as small producers couldn't compete with large commercial farms), use police action to moderate its use the same way we do alcohol and tobacco (which would allow satisfying consumer demand while keeping the broader public safe from the twin effects of intoxication and second-hand smoke), and launch educational campaigns to discourage its use (the same way the use of cigarettes is discouraged). The impossible attempt to curtail the market would and should be abandoned.

An Economic Solution to IP Copying

The same, I think, applies to IP. There are millions of people, worldwide, who engage in the black market in IP. Some profit directly -- counterfeiters -- and others profit indirectly -- by contributing to a broad pool of available IP, which they can then use themselves, as well as through increased social status (see the founders of the Pirate Bay, for example). And that demand doesn't seem to be going down any time soon, because there isn't any broad social disapproval of consuming that black market product. Indeed, as attempts to control the market become more and more draconian, it seems that this actually increases consumer demand: the more control the MPAA has over how we can use our TV, the more control computer game manufacturers try to exert over where we can install the software, the more ridiculous the RIAA's legal victories become, the more people want the superior product -- the product that is available on the black market, without the harsh usage restrictions, and with the bonus "fuck you" to the big media corporations. (Don't underestimate that last one, BTW. Everyone likes to take a poke at a bully when he's vulnerable, and the RIAA has set itself up as the biggest bully in IP.)

So, the market can't be controlled. So, it should be made legal. Make personal, low-scale copying and sharing entirely legal. That gets the hardcore pirates out of the game. If anyone can copy and share, then there's no benefit to copying and sharing files en masse -- it no longer brings any social benefit, and no longer brings any personal benefit. If anyone can copy and share, the counterfeiters really can't benefit, either -- if everyone can produce something, then the price inevitably plummets. Any hardcore pirates still remaining -- leave them alone. And the same goes for the counterfeiters. If a legitimate company can't offer a superior product to a counterfeiter or a pirate, then that company should be in a different business.

An example: I remember when buying albums was an experience in its own right. From the small record shop with the cool older guy who knew everything there was to know about music, to the genuinely beautiful album art, to the special bonuses -- lyrics, photos, etc. -- that came in the CD booklets and album sleeves. So, even though I could get the music through tape-trading -- the old-school equivalent to BitTorrent and other P2P methods -- I didn't stop with that; I bought the things I liked, because I wanted those physical things. Somewhere along the line, that fell by the wayside. Now, I can get the lyrics and the photos online -- and I can also get videos, animations, band interviews, you name it. The only thing I couldn't get would be an interestingly-shaped album (like Cradle of Filth's Cruelty and the Beast in the cross-shaped box) or some sort of included bonus ("feelies" in video game parlance, like the stencil -- and the box -- included in Metallica's Live Shit boxed set). So, if you want me to buy a physical album, you have to make the physical object worth buying. Otherwise, it's not economically rational for me to buy it. On the other hand, if you just want me to pay for the music, then it has to be easy. Making me buy a DRM'd device is a pain; making me go to some special store is a pain; making me dig out my credit card and enter numbers and codes is a pain (not to mention clearing some space on the card); making me pay before I can hear the music is a huge pain. How is this superior to the pirated product?

It gets worse when we turn to, say, movies. The MPAA recently got approval from the FCC to stream first-run movies to TVs. Good idea, right? Movie theatres aren't doing so hot, and streaming the movies directly might make the MPAA members some serious dosh. Except: they also got approval to disable your TV's ability to record the signal; and any TV which can't be so disabled can't get the movies. Both features which don't exist in the pirated movie. So, why not pirate it? Again, keeping in mind that the police -- and governments and the whole legal apparatus -- can't keep this market under control, so the market will continue to grow, more people will enter the market, and the police will keep pouring resources into it fruitlessly. Just like the drug war.

Engaging with the Moral Debate on IP

I'm sure, at this point, that many readers are screaming (at least on the inside) about the moral aspects of the issue. I've already addressed why I don't think taking on the moral issues of IP is likely to be productive. But, for those who want to engage in that debate, here's my thinking.

The moral issue related to IP is something like the following. People own IP -- it's real property. They own it because they have worked on it or created it. Whatever one works on or creates becomes one's own. People who own something deserve compensation when other people use or take that something. And, people who own something deserve to control who can use or take that something, and when, and how.

Let's put some labels on the parts of this argument. We've got "the property claim" -- IP is property. We've go the "labour theory of property" -- working on something or creating it confers ownership. We've got the "compensation as rectification claim" -- taking or using something that belongs to someone else demands compensation to the owner. And, we've got the "absolute control of property" claim -- anything one owns is one's to do with as one sees fit.

I think these are all wrong.

IP isn't "P"

I don't think intellectual property is really property. This is a long argument, and I haven't worked out all the details. So, I'll just sketch it. Intellectual property is a poor name for something that actually forms part of one's self. The act of creation is a form of self-expression, but also of self-construction. Taking something that's implicitly part of who you are and making it explicitly part of the world doesn't just show who you are, but partly makes who you are. Think of sketching a work of art. One has an idea, then sketches it, then consults the sketch, then gets a new idea, then alters the sketch, etc. That's the point I'm heading towards. When I express who I am, and make it an external thing, the fact that it is now an external thing that I am observing actually changes who I am -- and then I can express this new self, consult the explicit thing, change my self, and so on.

The importance of intellectual property, then, isn't that it's something I own -- it's stronger than that. Intellectual property is important because it's me. So, let's instead talk about "explicit self-expressions" rather than "intellectual property". (Pretentious, I know; but "intellectual property" is just as bad.) That gives me some rights to it -- I can decide whether to make it public or not. But, once I make it public, just as when I choose to engage with the community rather than live in a cave in the desert, I have to accept that other people will evaluate, engage with, adopt, alter, and otherwise use what I bring into the community. I can't act all surprised when, if I'm out in the community, people talk to me, respond to me, adopt my ideas as their own, and so on. Similarly, when I put my explicit self-expressions out there for others to see, they will consume them, use them, evaluate them, engage with them, adopt them, alter them, co-opt them, satirize them, copy them, share them, etc, etc, etc. It's no different, as far as I can tell, from what happens when I speak to someone else. Those words could, from some perspective, be seen as my property. But they are really an explicit form of self-expression. I put my thoughts out into the public sphere, and those thoughts can then be used by someone else. That's what it means to make them public, after all: they become part of the public's space, part of the community, and are no longer just mine to use and control.

This doesn't mean I shouldn't be identified as the origin point, of course. Authorship is a matter of where something started, and if I'm the first person to tell you some idea, then basic respect for me as a person demands that you attribute it to me. But the fact that I am the author does not entail that I am the owner.

If IP is Based on Labour, It's Everyone's

The labour theory of property is deeply flawed; objections to it are well-known. I'll just give what I take to be the most damning objection, in this context. IP is often a combination of pre-existing elements: if we're talking about writing, then previous ideas or thoughts; if we're talking about music, then previous combinations of notes; and so on and so forth. So, if working on something or creating something makes one the owner, then everyone who has used certain combinations of ideas or thoughts owns (partially) everything subsequently created using those some combinations of ideas or thoughts. (Note: this isn't a legal argument; I'm not interested in what property law is like. This is a moral argument.) Given the long history of writing, this implies that many of the owners of any "new" piece of writing are long dead. Plausibly, their property rights have been inherited by their heirs. Which implies that any "new" piece of writing is owned by many thousands -- if not millions -- of people. And, if we push this line of thought as far as we should, we wind up, I think, with the claim that everyone owns every piece of writing that exists, ever -- for they all use ideas and thoughts that have been used before. The same obviously applies to music and all other forms of IP.

Now, one might object that the combination of ideas and thoughts is truly novel, and that is owned by the creator of the new piece alone. That's true. But it's irrelevant. Because all that shows is that the new creator is a part-owner of the piece of writing: the new creator's contribution is the combination. But all the ideas and thoughts are still owned by their previous owners, and thus the previous owners have an equal share -- at least -- to the new creator in the ownership of the piece of writing. If the combination weren't truly novel, then the new creator of the piece of writing would only own as much as he or she inherited from forebears due to their creation of ideas and thoughts.

(There's a wrinkle here for genuinely new ideas -- which are few and far between, at this point in our intellectual history. But, even if there are new ideas, they will occur surrounded by many, many old ideas, and so, again, this only entitles the new creator to a part-ownership of the piece of writing.)

So, if that's your theory of why intellectual property is property, then intellectual property is really a commons.

Not All Rights-Violations Deserve Compensation

When it comes to the idea that compensation is demanded as rectification for using someone else's property, this is just deeply confused. I think it's based on a flawed argument by analogy, which would go something like this. If you borrowed my car, you'd have to pay me for the wear on the car -- at least the gas. And if you took my car without asking, you'd have to pay even more -- you might even have to pay some of your freedom, and be taken to jail. So, if you take my intellectual property, you have to pay me for it -- and if it was done without my permission, maybe you should be taken to jail. There are two problems with this. First, as I've already suggested, intellectual property may not really be property. In which case, there are strong disanalogies between IP and a car. Furthermore, second, putting aside that argument, even if IP is genuinely property, it is still not property like using a car. For if I take your car without your permission, and then return it to you, you have been deprived of the use of your car, and your car has been diminished in value by my use of it. So, I owe you compensation because you have actually been harmed. If I copy your IP, though, where is the harm? I haven't deprived you of your use of the IP, as I copied it, rather than literally stealing it. And I haven't diminished the value of your IP; it's still as valuable as it was before I copied it.

I see two possible replies here. One turns on the idea that violating a property right is itself a harm for which compensation is owed. The other turns on the claim that repeated and widespread copying diminishes value of IP by diminishing the profit that one can obtain from selling that IP.

The second is an empirical claim, and the data are, at least, complicated to interpret. To establish it, it would be necessary to show that copying a piece of IP directly caused a drop in sales. But that is very difficult to show, for it's not clear that everyone -- or even anyone -- who copies a piece of IP would, if not for the copying, have bought it. That is, not every case of copying -- and possibly not any case of copying -- is a case of a lost sale. The data that have been presented by various industries thus far are nowhere near good enough to establish this causal claim; at most, they show a correlation between a rise in copying and a drop in sales. But a rise in copying and a drop in sales are not obviously causally related -- the correlation could be a complete coincidence, due to unrelated causal processes producing the rise in copying and the drop in sales as unconnected effects. So, better data is needed, and, as far as I know, no one has it.

The first is a strictly moral claim, but it's not a very good one. Not every rights-violation is harmful, and not every harmful rights-violation demands compensation. If I promise to hold on to your gun until you need it, and then you show up asking for it while in a violent rage, I would violate your right to your gun (and would violate your right to have my promise kept) not to return it. However, it doesn't seem that I harm you -- although I might wrong you -- by holding on to your gun. Indeed, I probably do you some good by holding on to it, as I keep you from using your gun until you are in better control of your emotions. (Example cheerfully stolen, with modern modifications, from Plato's Republic.) And, if I promise you on your deathbed to give your wealth to your dog, but, when you slip into an irreversible coma, I instead give that money to Oxfam, I have inarguably harmed you -- I have taken your property and broken my promise, and done you no good in the process -- but no compensation is demanded, for it is not possible to compensate you. You are in a coma, one that is, ex hypothesi, irreversible. You can't be helped any more.

So, generalizing from these cases: if a rights-violation actually helps you, then you are not owed compensation (there is no harm); and, if a rights-violation harms you but compensation is not possible, then you are not owed compensation. Arguably, both apply to copying IP. Widespread distribution of IP can help, rather than harm, creators who have had difficulty in getting the media corporations to pay attention to them. (Much as I do not care for his music, Justin Bieber's rise from YouTube to Island Records is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about.) Similarly, compensation for widespread copying is incredibly difficult. The best way to compensate a creator for copying would be to directly pay the creator something; and, although "Donation" buttons are common for independent computer game creators, they don't seem widespread elsewhere. Short of contacting every single creator, what is someone who copies IP to do? I acknowledge that this could be vastly improved, making compensation possible. But, even if it were, then actual harm -- rather than help -- would have to be demonstrated, in each individual case. I'm not convinced that all but a handful of creators would turn out to have been genuinely harmed by copying of their IP.

Having Property is a Limited Right

And, finally, we come to the absolute control of property claim; that if one owns something, then one can use it as one sees fit. This is obviously false. I own a piano. I can't push it off my balcony -- I'm not allowed to. I own a cat. I can't drown it in the bathtub -- I'm not allowed to. And so on. There are many, many limits to what I can do with my property, usually related to causing harms to other people.

Does this apply to IP? Even if we concede that IP is property, as well as every other claim I have argued against thus far? Yes. Taking creators to have absolute control over their IP, given that most new artistic and intellectual creation builds on previous artistic and intellectual creations, would entail that creators of previous artistic and intellectual creations are able to stop others from making new artistic and intellectual creations. If I have written a song, and I have absolute control over that song, then anyone using even a part of that song needs to ask for my permission. Given that there are limits to how many novel combinations of notes can be used to make music, even atonal or dissonant music, sooner or later, every combination will be owned and no new creation will be possible. To my way of thinking, limiting how humans can express themselves intellectually and artistically is a very significant harm, much greater than the harm inflicted by copying IP.

I can see two objections to this point. First, it might be objected that this only entails that those who are going to create new artistic and intellectual objects should be excused from the absolute control exerted over IP. It doesn't entail that everyone should be so excused. Second, it might be objected that a limit on this absolute control -- say, 20 years -- would be sufficient to balance the various rights and harms that are in play.

With regard to the first, I think it only works if we assume that it can be predicted, in advance, who is going to be inspired to new artistic or intellectual creation upon being exposed to a given piece of IP. (And, really, whether that new creation is going to involve elements of that piece of IP, and which elements. But those are complications I don't think I need to make the point.) And, given that we don't really understand how inspiration works, this is just not knowable. Given that it's not knowable, the options are either give IP owners absolute control -- and cut ourselves off from new creation -- or don't -- and allow for the richness of new creation. I think the latter is a significant improvement, and so the property rights over IP have to give way in the face of that harm.

With regard to the second, it's a bigger concession than it seems. For, in offering a compromise, it necessarily concedes that the control over IP isn't actually absolute, but limited. But, if the benefit of new intellectual and artistic creation swamped the control over IP when it was held to be absolute, a fortiori it swamps the control over IP when it is held to be limited. So, the need for compromise is defeated as soon as the compromise is offered. In offering the compromise, the objection concedes that there is significant value in new intellectual and artistic creation; and, in that concession, there is no longer any reason that I can see to grant control over IP.

Summary

So, to summarize:
  • Getting into moral arguments over IP gets us into trouble, and leaves us without a clear solution to the problem
  • The real problem is economic, and thus requires an economic solution
    • The economic solution is to concede defeat and legalize the copying market
  • If we want to engage with the moral argument, then we have to see that the moral arguments surrounding IP are badly flawed
    • IP is not really property, but explicit self-expression
    • The labour theory of property, when applied to IP, implies that IP is a commons, not a private possession
    • Compensation is not owed for every rights-violation, and it's plausible that the rights-violations involved in copying IP are of the kind that aren't owed compensation
    • IP should not be held to be something the creator can absolutely control, for there is obvious and significant benefit to new intellectual and artistic creation
As said in the preamble, I didn't promise -- and, I think, didn't really deliver -- any policy suggestions. But, I think this is a useful framework for thinking about policy; once we get away from the moral thinking about IP -- which probably wrong anyway -- then the possibility of a workable, economically-sound solution becomes available. If we insist on thinking about IP in moral terms, then we need to face up to the strong arguments against the standard way of thinking about IP as a moral issue.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Comments are back.

I've turned comments back on for both blogs. Anyone can comment for the first two weeks, and then moderation kicks in. I reserve the right to delete comments I don't think are constructive (where "constructive" is read to mean comments that contribute to the discussion rather than trolling, deliberate nastiness, etc.).

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging

Getting way into this folk metal thing.

Arkona, "Goi, Rode, Goi!"

Friday, May 07, 2010

New post at...

...the Neoteric Peripatetic. A draft version of a paper I've been working on, entitled: "Understanding in Reasons-Explanations of Action".

Thursday, May 06, 2010

On capitalism and the dynamic evolution of social behaviour.

Fair warning: this is a bit back-of-the-envelope. Okay, very back-of-the-envelope. I'm pretty much thinking out loud here. I'm jumping off a point raised by Catelli over at his place, and trying to work out why I have a rather different sort of pessimism than he does.

Catelli suggests that capitalism is based on greed and doomed to fail. I don't agree with either point. The former I don't accept because I think that capitalism is a much broader category than Catelli seems to think -- capitalism can be greed-driven, but can also be driven by self-interest (which is milder). But that's more of a taxonomical question: where do we draw the boundaries around the concept. Not a lot hinges on it, and different taxonomies may serve different purposes.

The latter I don't agree with because I think that capitalism of exactly the sort we're dealing with right now has recurred throughout the history of human civilization. And that's where the difference in pessimism comes: Catelli thinks that capitalism (in his sense) is doomed, while I think it's, at best, going to retreat for a while and then return yet again.

First things first: what sort of capitalism are we talking about here? Capitalism, as a class of economic systems, I take to be defined by two things. First, just about everything is privately owned. Some resources are held publically or in common, but these are exceptions, driven either by deliberate choice not to exercise private ownership (e.g., voluntary co-ops -- people who choose to gather and pool certain resources, often housing) or by lack of a mechanism to own the resource privately (e.g., the Moon -- hard to put a fence around it and enforce against those who cross it). Second, economic exchange is guided by self-interest. Producers and consumers of goods and services are motivated to engage in transactions in order to improve their own situation, not to improve the situation of others. Again, there may be spot exceptions to this -- just about all of us do, on various occasions, give to others out of genuinely altruistic motives -- but, broadly, production and consumption are for self-interest.

The second point I think is not definitive of capitalism as such, but definitive (in conjunction with a few other key features, particularly a pricing system) really of markets. We get a close affinity between capitalism and markets because capitalism really needs markets in order to work. Centrally-planned capitalism is a system with significant inherent tensions, as the central planners have to be motivated by interests other than those which motivate everyone else in the system. Socialism (say) by contrast doesn't need markets, but is consistent with them (indeed, I'd argue that socialism works best in conjunction with markets, but that's another post).

So, what's key is that capitalism is defined by a system of broad private ownership. And I think that is an inevitable consequence of certain basic processes which generate human social organization and behaviour.

The first thing to see here is that social organizations evolve, just like living things. "Evolution", read in the broadest sense, isn't necessarily a biological theory. (It becomes a biological theory in short order, but the basic notion I'm about to spell out isn't biological). "Evolution" is a way of talking about a dynamic interaction between at least two fundamental processes: a process of variation and a selectional process. The process of variation introduces differences into a population of things -- which may be living, but may not be -- and the selection process ensures that some of these things "succeed" more than others do, in the sense of replicating themselves. And these replicated things vary again, and the selection process applies again, and so on, up the spiral.

The application to living creatures is obvious. The variation process is, primarily, genetic drift: the slight changes in the genetic code that occur from generation to generation. The selection process is environmental fitness: some of these changes help organisms survive longer, have hardier offspring, have more offspring, etc. Successful variations are thus those which lead to greater reproductive success; and so on, up the spiral until we reach wherever we are today.

You can also apply this to basic physical particles, though. (Dawkins makes this point at the beginning of The Selfish Gene.) Physical particles will combine in various ways, depending on the concentrations of elements in their immediate environment. (It's hard to get diamonds forming in carbon-poor environments, for example.) There's your variation: the chance encounters of atoms with atoms will result in different molecules forming. These molecules are more and less stable, though. Some structures of atoms are very stable, unlikely to break apart into components or smaller molecules. (Diamonds, again, are a good example.) Others, not so much. The selectional process, then, is the combination of environmental factors surrounding the molecule: the presence and concentration of other molecules, radiation, etc. Successful variations are those which last long enough to replicate themselves -- induce copying of their structure in the atoms in the surrounding environment. And up the spiral.

And, you can apply this to social structures. There's lots of different ways of organizing people together -- monarchies, communes, democracies, and many sub-variants thereof. Which one any particular group of people comes up with seems a matter of historical chance. We in Canada have a system of parliamentary monarchy because Britain did. But, if France had won the battle for control of Canada, it's likely that we would've ended up copying their republican system. (There would be other differences too, of course.) There's no necessity which ensured British victory, English triumphalism notwithstanding. It just kinda happened, and, as a consequence, we wound up organizing ourselves in one way rather than another. So, there's your variation process: the result of the complex interactions of many other, simpler processes will lead to different forms of social organization.

The selectional process is due, I think, to sub-social parts. Education is obviously a big factor here. If you teach people that their system of government is sacred, then they will tend to support it; if you teach people that their system of government is corrupt and horrific, then they will tend to undermine it. If you teach people that the Prime Minister is directly elected then, sooner or later, they'll act to make it true. And so on. Education should be understood broadly here: it need not be formal, but can also follow the implicit processes by which we learn many things (such as how to speak). Family background will be another: children of higher economic class will likely tend to trust the police, having few dealings with them; while children of lower economic class will likely not, having more dealings with them. (The claim here is not that the police are bad, but that they are human, and being exposed to police more frequently increases the chances that one will see them being human: such as making a colossal, costly blunder or two.)

So, there's something evolutionary going on here with social systems and organizations of various stripes. The variation occurs because of accidental collisions of simpler processes, and the selection occurs as those social organizations collide in turn with those (and other) simpler processes. And we go up the spiral because, as is the case with living organisms and as is the case with physical particles, the interactions are iterative. So, they tend to reinforce themselves, and lead to greater and greater specialization.

Why does this lead, inevitably, to capitalism, though? Because, I think, the people who are best served by a capitalist system are selected for by a particular set of variation/selectional processes, which simultaneously selects people who will tend to be in positions of power (and thus able to sustain the capitalist system). That is, as social organizations are selected for, so certain patterns of individual behaviour can be selected for. The patterns of individual behaviour which favour capitalism -- a certain callousness, self-aggrandizement, ruthlessness, arrogance (and, positively, self-motivation, self-assurance, social ease), among other traits -- are developed and favoured by certain selectional pressures. Those patterns also favour getting into positions of power. And being in a position of power, one will tend to reinforce those behaviours that one finds useful -- the behaviours one has oneself. And so the cycle repeats and iterates: people with the right behaviours and traits enter positions of power and develop capitalist systems in order to replicate themselves, and in so doing create more people who will further develop the systems of power and economy in order to replicate themselves, and so on, up the spiral.

In order for capitalism to fail, it's important to see that the people capitalism favours are the ones who have to be persuaded to change it. For the tendency is for them to favour their own interests, and thus perpetuate the capitalist system. That will be difficult, of course. And, I think that it hasn't yet been done, historically. My read on the Middle Ages is that the traits which got someone into position as a noble or clergyman are pretty much the same traits (although less developed and rarefied -- the benefit of the centuries of selectional pressure) that we see bankers and brokers (and politicians) displaying today. The traits which got someone into position as a captain of industry in the 19th century are similarly the same. And examples can be repeated easily.

I should not that I haven't said that capitalism and the tendency towards capitalism is bad. I think they are, but that's a separate point. I also haven't said that any of this is inevitable -- just that there's a tendency in this direction, which has to be resisted. (Which, for what it's worth, I think would be very, very hard to do.) But I think it's important to see that social organizations, like species, are not static categories. They are instead observable time-slices of dynamic interactions between dynamic processes and, as such, have a certain flow. In order to affect the flow, we first have to know what it is and how the system tends to flow that way rather than another. That kind of analysis, coupled with a well-grounded set of evaluative principles determining the type of system we think is good, are the necessary basis for improving society.

Monday, May 03, 2010

On local, healthy food.

Preamble

So, recently, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff proposed developing a national policy for providing healthy, local food to Canadians. (Couldn't find a link to anything on the party site, so here's a Toronto Star article. Maybe I just don't spend enough time on the Liberal Party's website, but I couldn't find a section on issues or policies or anything equivalent.) Since substance seems a bit thin on the ground, I thought I'd discuss what such a policy should look like -- and then later we can see if Ignatieff et al manage to live up to it.

There's obviously three points here. First, the local part. Second, the food part. Third, the health part. In order, then.

The Local Part

It seems against market logic to compel the purchase of local food. This is a long argument (one progressives and others on the left haven't necessarily absorbed), but let me just summarize it. Centrally-planned economies, unless very small-scale (I'm thinking household and smaller), are horrifically inefficient, and unable to achieve their own goals, let alone any reasonable goals. So, for example, if you're attracted to central planning because you want to ensure everyone gets the goods that they need, you have to face the fact that there's no incentive in a centrally-planned system to ensure that this actually happens. A centrally-planned system oriented towards need would depend on the good will of the central planners. You don't have to be nearly as cynical as I am to see how that's just a little bit of a problem. In a market system, by contrast, there are clear incentives: producers are motivated to create as many goods as they can in order to profit, and consumers are motivated to manage their resources efficiently, in order to obtain as much as they can. The collision of these two incentives plus the signalling function performed by prices should, in a fair market, get everyone at least what they need, as well as a substantial proportion of what they want.

Key here, of course, is that the market must be well-functioning; or (same thing), fair. This means, amongst other things, that every cost must be internalized to market transactions (i.e., that everything which is a burden is assigned a price proportional to the burden, and the price is paid in full by one or more participants in the market), and that every participant in the market is equal, in the sense of not being unduly advantaged, in comparison to other participants.

The first, I think, takes care of the worry that some jurisdictions favour local industries -- this is particularly true when it comes to food -- with things like tax breaks and government subsidies. If every cost must be internalized, then these breaks and subsidies must be factored in when allowing producers to move into a new jurisdiction. So, if a meat packer from Georgia wants to sell in Ontario, that meat packer must pay a duty equivalent to the subsidies and tax breaks he has received in Georgia, such that local Ontario meat packers are not left at a relative disadvantage. (Or, to say the same thing a different way: Ontario meat packers should get equivalent subsidies and tax breaks. I'm less in favour of this as a solution as it seems to create a race to the bottom and suck the tax base dry.) This would also cover things like pricing fossil fuels consumed in food production, and other environmental effects. The point is that we should actively internalize all real costs of food production into the food market. Right now, we're letting some costs -- environmental costs are the big ones -- fall outside the market, and thus onto society at large to take care of. (Or, really, to not take care of and hope they won't be nearly as bad as smart people are telling us they will be.)

The second, I think, takes care of the worry that a national food policy might serve as an excuse for protectionist propping-up of failing industries. (See industry, auto, American for an example.) The complex interplay of incentives and patterns of production and consumption in a fair market will breed some (not perfect, but some) innovation: the producer that doesn't innovate will eventually lose the competition. If we were to manipulate the market such that local producers -- of food, in this case -- had an advantage simply by virtue of being local, then we would be unfairly favouring local producers and, worse, harming local consumers (by depriving them of the most innovative, efficient, etc. means of food production). If a local producer earns an advantage -- perhaps some fruits and vegetables (I couldn't tell you which ones) happen to grow exceptionally well in Ontario -- then that producer should keep that advantage, and will likely be able to outcompete foreign producers. But local producers shouldn't be handed these sorts of advantages. After all, there may well be certain foods that non-local producers are just better at making, in the sense of being more efficient, having a longer growing season, being less exposed to diseases, innovating better technologies, etc, etc.

Necessarily, this will mean that some segments of the local food market will fail, even given that we are fair in our pricing (so, things like distance travelled, fossil fuels consumed, subsidies, tax breaks, etc. would be factored in) and fair in allowing competitive advantage. I'm not sure why that's a bad thing, though. Some might argue it's a matter of protecting local jobs, but protecting local jobs isn't done well by keeping a failing producer afloat. Protecting local jobs is done best by allowing workers the ability to move to new jobs when old jobs vanish, which is done best by ensuring workers are well-educated to take advantage of new opportunities, that the market functions well in producing new opportunities, and that business failures don't take down large segments of the economy. Dumping money into a local company "to keep local jobs" is foolish (economically) and harmful (morally). (I do acknowledge that a minimum income scheme is probably the fairest way to achieve the protection of local jobs, above and beyond the points mentioned above. But I don't think that's politically viable around here, for some odd reason best left to a psychiatrist's gentle touch.)

The Food Part

Lots of people don't have enough to eat. That shouldn't be a surprise. What seems to surprise many is that it's at least not clear that we don't have enough food; there are reasons to think that our food supplies are (in principle) more than sufficient to provide everyone with enough to eat. With Amartya Sen, I take the real problem to be a problem of entitlements. That is, people who don't have enough food to eat don't have enough food because they can't compete economically with those who have enough (including those who have more than enough). In all societies, this will include the ability to purchase food at market prices. In societies other than Canada, the entitlement problem might be solveable by providing the means to grow one's own food, apart from the ability to purchase it directly, but given that, at least in Canada, obtaining arable land (as well as the means to work it) is also a matter of economic entitlements, there's no difference between the two points that I can see. So, people who don't have enough to eat don't have enough to eat not because the food doesn't exist, but because the cost of obtaining the food is outside their means.

(In his "Property and Hunger", Sen gives some striking examples to make his point. He argues, for example, that during the Great Bengal Famine, more than sufficient food was available, but Indians were unable to compete with the British Army for the purchase of rice, and so millions died of starvation.)

So, if we want to ensure that people have enough to eat, then we need to adjust the economic circumstances, either by reducing prices or increasing incomes so that the hungry can get what they need. Just handing out food would be a failure for several reasons. The most obvious is that it's another centrally-planned system, with all the attendant problems. But, additionally, it would force the hungry into being debtors, petitioning for having their basic needs met, rather than equals who can take care of themselves.

Making sure the food market works fairly should help, to at least some extent, in making prices go down. (The other way to do it is to block exports entirely, as that floods the market with local product; however, that punishes growers quite harshly, as their profits would be decimated. So, I would suggest this only be used as an emergency measure, in cases of widespread and serious famine.) It won't really help the income issue, though. So, this touches on a broader issue of poverty reduction and fair levels of income; but, I really don't think there's an appetite, politically, for doing that in this country. I do note, though, that this would solve the problem quite neatly: if we provided a minimum income to all citizens, then there would be no need to worry about anyone who was unable to obtain enough to eat, for they would have failed to manage their own income sensibly. (It is legitimate to allow people to suffer the natural effects of their own poor choices.)

So, what are the alternatives? One is to directly subsidize those who are below a certain income level, providing them with income keyed directly to provision of sufficient food. A food stamps program is one way to accomplish this; direct income subsidies would be another. It has the debtor problem, unfortunately, but this is at least somewhat mitigated by the fact that the hungry would be given some autonomy to do what they like with the subsidy. This could be amplified with some direct provision of food to some segments of the population. A school lunch program, for example, would be a good way of ensuring that hungry children get at least one decent meal a day. It might also be possible to provide tax incentives to employers of low-income people for providing a similar sort of program for their employees -- although that should be all, so as not to single out the low-income folks. Similarly, public support could be provided to soup kitchens and food banks. These are not fantastic alternatives, but unless we're willing to face the problem of poverty in this country directly, we will be left with second- (and third- and fourth- and...) best options.

The Health Part

I suspect the above suggestions will already solve the problem of provision of healthy food. Unhealthy food is often attractive because it is cheap. But the cheapness is often a function of externalizing the true costs of producing the food. So, if we internalize the costs, then unhealthy food can't win out against healthy food in a fair competition. Furthermore, if we give the poor sufficient means to compete for food against everyone else, then producers of healthy food have an even larger market to appeal to than they otherwise would, thus opening up the possibility of crowding the unhealthy food producers out of the market. So, the cumulative effect may be that eating unhealthily would be a luxury reserved for the wealthy, rather than a burden imposed on the poor.

It's possible, though, that there might be sufficient consumer demand for unhealthy food that a robust market for it could be created and maintained. Two points here. First, what exactly is the problem with this scenario? And, second, what is the appropriate role for government in solving this problem?

With regard to the first, the problem is not just that people want unhealthy food. Health is, after all, only one good among many, and there are times when it may make sense to sacrifice the consumption of healthy food for other goods. (When one is grading exams, for example, and snacking keeps one's sanity intact.) The problem really is that people may eat just unhealthy food -- or, more exactly, a sufficient proportion of the diet may be unhealthy food such that it leads directly to avoidable and unjustified costs imposed on others. So, the consumption of unhealthy food should be done knowingly, such that the consumer is aware of the effects of what he or she is eating. And it should be discouraged, to the point at which diet is solely a matter of personal choice rather than public policy.

This means, then, with regard to the second, that government should not be banning any substance in food unless it is an immediate harm. (Lead contamination comes to mind.) Trans fats are not sufficiently harmful to justify government's taking the power to choose them out of an individual's hands, nor are high-fructose syrups. However, we should be made aware of the effects of over-consuming these substances. One option -- which I believe has had some success in its initial incarnation -- is to provide warning labels on food products similar to those on cigarette packages. Another would be to create a system of warning symbols similar to those that exist for poisons and corrosive substances, and place them on food products which have high levels of unhealthy substances like trans fats, etc. And another would be simplifying and clarifying the nutritional labels which currently exist. Such issues as repairing the "serving size" nonsense such that it fits actual habits of eating, rather than some rarefied Platonic Form of eating, and clear and strict limits on what can be branded a "healthy alternative". Recently, I picked up a Presidents' Choice "Blue Label" package of two-bite brownies, and compared the nutritional information to the regular PC two-bite brownies. The only difference of significance was about a 10% drop in fat. But they're still brownies, and thus still chock-full of fatty goodness. (Also, the serving size was 2 brownies, IIRC. Who eats just two two-bite brownies at a sitting?)

There is also a clear need for educational improvement here. Not all adults know how to read nutritional labels; I, for one, would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between all the various vitamins which appear on nutritional labels. If additional labelling is adopted, then there should be education to explain what those labels mean, too. And this should all be accompanied by elementary level education in making good food choices; and, if there is a school meals program, as I suggested above, this program should fit with those good food choices. (I see no objection to limiting the choices of children, unlike the choices of adults.)

It might be argued that those who willingly consume unhealthy food over the threshold should bear some, if not all, of the costs of their medical care that would normally be borne under provincial medical plans. I disagree, as there is a very dangerous slippery slope looming underneath that argument. If we charge those who eat unhealthily, then we should also charge smokers for the cost of treating their cancer, those who drive unsafely for the cost of treating their injuries, and those who spend hours working on computers for their eventual tendinitis. Manipulating the insurance system in this way is not a matter of cost control; it is, instead, a matter of lifestyle control, and is patently unjust. It is just to persuade, convince, or cajole someone into behaving more properly. It is not just to force an intelligent, competent adult into proper behaviour. And compelling adults to bear a significant portion of their medical care due to poor lifestyle choices amounts to just that sort of objectionable coercion. (That said, there may be an argument that some nominal cost should be borne by those who make poor choices, as a sort of penalty. My response to that would be that, ultimately, we all make poor lifestyle choices at some point or another, so this amounts to proposing a co-pay.)

Summary

So, here is where I would start in crafting a sensible national policy aimed at providing Canadians with local, healthy food:

  1. Measures to ensure a fair food market, including duties on foreign imports, internalizing costs, etc.
  2. Measures to ensure the poor can compete fairly for food, including provision of income or other subsidies, improvement of food programs, etc.
  3. Measures to educate the public regarding good food choices, including childhood education and behavioural modification, improved labelling, etc.


It's only a sketch, of course, but I think it balances the competing principles fairly well, and manages to be workable to boot.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging

Hypocrisy, "Weed Out the Weak"