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Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy

[Conflict of interest notice: I’ve volunteered for both private and public charities, but more often private. I received a small amount of money for work done for a private charity ten years ago. Some of the private charities have been partially funded by billionaires.]

From Vox: The Case Against Billionaire Philanthropy. It joins The Guardian, Truthout, Dissent Magazine, CityLab, and a host of other people and organizations arguing that rich people giving to charity is now a big problem.

I’m against this. I understand concern about the growing power of the very rich. But I worry the movement against billionaire charity is on track to damage charity a whole lot more than it damages billionaires. Eleven points:

1. Is criticizing billionaire philanthropy a good way to protest billionaires having too much power in society?

Which got more criticism? Mark Zuckerberg donating $100 million to help struggling schools in Newark? Or Mark Zuckerberg buying a $59 million dollar mansion in Lake Tahoe? Obviously it’s the schools. I’ve heard people criticizing Zuckerberg’s donation constantly for years, and I didn’t even know he had a $59 million Lake Tahoe mansion until I googled “things mark zuckerberg has spent ridiculous amounts of money on” in the process of writing this paragraph.

Which got more negative press? Jeff Bezos donating $2 billion for preschools for underprivileged children? Or Jeff Bezos spending $2 billion on whatever is going to come up when I Google “things jeff bezos has spent ridiculous amounts of money on?”.

Billionaires respond to incentives like everyone else. If donating to charity earns them negative publicity, and buying a private yacht earns them glowing articles about how cool their yacht is, they’re more likely to buy the yacht.

Journalists and intellectuals who criticize billionaires’ philanthropy but not their yachts, or who spend much more energy criticizing philanthropy than yachts, probably aren’t doing much to promote a world without billionaires. But they’re doing a lot to promote a world where billionaires just buy yachts instead of giving to charity.

2. If attacks on billionaire philanthropy decrease billionaires’ donations, is that acceptable collateral damage in the fight against inequality?

That depends on your values. But for most people’s values, the answer is no.

Nobody knows exactly how many lives the Gates Foundation has saved. The Guardian says it’s some appreciable fraction of the 122 million lives saved in general from progress fighting infectious diseases over the last few decades. This article says Gates has saved seven million people through his vaccination campaign alone, provided another seven million with antiretroviral treatment (usually life-saving), “tested and treated” twelve million people for tuberculosis (often fatal, but there’s a big difference between testing and treatment), and been responsible for a big part of the seven million lives saved from malaria. I expect these numbers are inflated, but even by conservative estimates the Gates Foundation may have saved ten million people.

Suppose Jeff Bezos is watching how people treat Bill Gates, and changes his own behavior accordingly. Maybe in the best possible world, when people attack Gates’ donations, Bezos learns that people don’t like ruthless billionaires, decides not to be ruthless like Gates was, and agrees to Bernie Sanders’ demand that he increase his employees’ pay by $4/hour. But Bezos also learns people criticize billionaires’ philanthropy especially intensely, decides not to be charitable like Gates was, and so ten million people die. You’ve just bought an extra $4/hour for warehouse workers, at the cost of ten million lives.

In my moral system, this means billionaire philanthropy is not acceptable collateral damage in the war against inequality. Even if for some reason you believe that criticizing billionaire philanthropy is a higher-impact way to fight inequality than criticizing billionaires’ yachts, you should stick to criticizing the yachts.

3. Do billionaires really get negative reactions from donating? Didn’t I hear that they get fawning praise and total absence of skepticism?

Vox quotes Rob Reich (not the same person as the former Labor Secretary), a prominent critic of bilionaire philanthropy. Reich writes that billionaires “ask everyone involved to bend over in gratitude for her benevolence and genius in sprinkling around some social benefits” and so we need to “stop being merely grateful to donors and instead direct our skepticism and scrutiny at their activities”.

How much gratitude vs. scrutiny do billionaire donors get?

The three most publicized recent billionaire donations were Zuckerberg to Newark schools, Bezos to preschools, and Gates to malaria. I looked at Twitter to examine how much fawning vs. scrutiny people were giving each. Specifically, I searched “Zuckerberg Newark”, “Bezos preschool” and “Gates malaria”. I then coded the first twenty-five tweets on the Top Tweets page for each as positive, negative, or neutral. I ignored mismatches that weren’t about the donations, and also ignored the genre of people using Zuckerberg’s donation as a way of criticizing Cory Booker (which was more than half of the Zuckerberg tweets).

Searching “Zuckerberg Newark”, I counted 2 positive tweets, 4 neutral tweets, and 19 negative tweets:

Searching “Bezos preschool”, I counted 5 positive, 7 neutral, and 14 negative tweets:

Searching “Gates malaria”, I counted 15 positive, 4 neutral, and 6 negative.

The same is true of Google search. I examined the top ten search results for each donation, with broadly similar results: mostly negative for Zuckerberg and Bezos, mostly positive for Gates.

But when people talk about “billionaire philanthropy” in general, they tend to elide this distinction and focus on the bad. A twitter search for “billionaire philanthropy” produced 2 positive, 3 neutral, and 20 negative tweets, more negative than for any individual donation. A Google search for “billionaire philanthropy”, and the top ten results contained 1 positive article, 5 neutral articles, and 4 negative articles.

Although some donors like Bill Gates are generally liked, others, like Zuckerberg and Bezos, are met with widespread distrust. This might be because Gates has worked harder to target his donations well, or because he made his money a long time ago and nobody is too angry about his business practices anymore. But on a broader scale, the media and social media consensus is already parroting anti-billionaire-philanthropy talking points.

If everyone were unreflectively praising philanthropic billionaires, there would be a strong case for encouraging skepticism. But if most responses to billionaire philanthropy are negative, we should worry more about the consequences of the backlash.

4. Is it a problem that billionaire philanthropy is unaccountable to public democratic institutions? Should we make billionaires pay that money as taxes instead, so the public can decide how it gets spent?

From Dissent:

Big philanthropy is overdue for reform. The goal should be to reduce its leverage in civil society and public policymaking while increasing government revenue. Some possible changes seem obvious: don’t allow administrative expenses to count toward the 5 percent minimum payout, increase the excise tax on net investment income, eliminate the tax exemption for foundations with assets over a certain size, and replace the charity tax deduction with a tax credit available to everyone (for example, all donors could subtract 15 percent of the total value of their charitable contributions from their tax bills). In addition, strict IRS oversight of big philanthropy—especially all the “educating” that looks so much like lobbying and campaigning — is crucial […]

Private foundations fall into the IRS’s wide-open category of tax-exempt organizations, which includes charitable, educational, religious, scientific, literary, and other groups. When the creator of a mega-foundation says, ‘I can do what I want because it’s my money,’ he or she is wrong. A substantial portion of the wealth — 35 percent or more, depending on tax rates — has been diverted from the public treasury, where voters would have determined its use.

This makes the same argument as some of the other articles linked above. Since billionaires have complete control over their own money, they are helping society the way they want, not the way the voters and democratically-elected-officials want. This threatens democracy. We can solve this by increasing taxes on philanthropy, so that the money billionaires might have spent on charity flows back to the public purse instead.

Two of the billionaires whose philanthropy I most respect, Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, have done a lot of work on criminal justice reform. The organizations they fund determined that many innocent people are languishing in jail for months because they don’t have enough money to pay bail; others are pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit because they have to get out of jail in time to get to work or care for their children, even if it gives them a criminal record. They funded a short-term effort to help these people afford bail, and a long-term effort to reform the bail system. One of the charities they donate to, The Bronx Freedom Fund, found that 92% of suspects without bail assistance will plead guilty and get a criminal record. But if given enough bail assistance to make it to trial, over half would have all charges dropped. This is exactly the kind of fighting-mass-incarceration and stopping-the-cycle-of-poverty work everyone says we need, and it works really well. I have donated to this charity myself, but obviously I can only give a tiny fraction of what Moskovitz and Tuna manage.

If Moskovitz and Tuna’s money instead flowed to the government, would it accomplish the same goal in some kind of more democratic, more publically-guided way? No. It would go to locking these people up, paying for more prosecutors to trick them into pleading guilty, more prison guards to abuse and harass them. The government already spends $100 billion – seven times Tuna and Moskovitz’s combined fortunes – on maintaining the carceral state each year. This utterly dwarfs any trickle of money it spends on undoing the harms of the carceral state, even supposing such a trickle exists. Kicking Tuna and Moskovitz out of the picture isn’t going to cause bail reform to happen in some civically-responsible manner. It’s just going to ensure that all the money goes to making the problem worse – instead of the current situation where the overwhelming majority of money goes to making the problem worse but a tiny amount also going to making it better.

Or take one of M&T’s other major causes, animal welfare. Until last year, California factory farms kept animals in cages so small that they could not lie down or stretch their limbs, for their entire lives. Moskovitz and Tuna funded a ballot measure which successfully banned this kind of confinement. It reduced the suffering of hundreds of millions of farm animals and is one of the biggest victories against animal cruelty in history.

If their money had gone to the government instead, would it have led to some even better democratic stakeholder-involving animal welfare victory? No. It would have joined the $20 billion – again, more than T&M’s combined fortunes – that the government spends to subsidize factory farming each year. Or it might have gone to the enforcement of ag-gag laws – laws that jail anyone who publicly reports on the conditions in factory farms (in flagrant violation of the First Amendment) because factory farms don’t want people to realize how they treat their animals, and have good enough lobbyists that they can just make the government imprison anyone who talks about it.

George Soros donated/invested $500 million to help migrants and refugees. If he had given it to the government instead, would it have gone to some more grassroots migrant-helping effort?

No. It would have gone to building a border wall, building more camps to lock up migrants, more cages to separate refugee children from their families. Maybe some tiny trickle, a fraction of a percent, would have gone to a publicly-funded pro-refugee effort, but not nearly as much as would have gone to hurting refugees.

The idea that we should divert money from freeing the incarcerated, saving animals, and reuniting families – to instead expanding incarceration, torturing animals, and separating families – seems monstrous to me, even (especially?) when cloaked in communitarian language.

5. Those are some emotionally salient examples, but doesn’t the government also do a lot of good things?

Yes, but the US government is not a charity. Even when it’s doing good things, it’s not efficiently allocating its money according to some concept of what does the most good.

Bill Gates saved ten million lives by asking a lot of smart people what causes were most important. They said it was global health and development causes like treating malaria and tuberculosis. So Gates allocated most of his fortune to those causes. Gates and people like him are such a large fraction of philanthropic billionaires that by my calculations these causes get about 25% of billionaire philanthropic spending.

The US government also does some great work in those areas. But it spends about 0.9% of its budget on them. As a result, one dollar given to a billionaire foundation is more likely to go to a very poor person than the same dollar given to the US government, and much more likely to help that person in some transformative way like saving their life or lifting them out of poverty.

But this is still too kind to the US government. It’s understandable that they may want to focus on highways in Iowa instead of epidemics in Sudan. Yet even on issues vital for the safety of the American people, the government tends to fail in surprising ways.

How much money does the US government spend fighting climate change? This 538 article explains why this is a hard question, but it tries to give the best answer it can:

The 2018 GAO report found that, while the Office of Management and Budget has reported that the federal government spent more than $154 billion on climate-change-related activities since 1993, much of that number is likely not being used to directly address climate change or its risks. Many of the projects reported as “climate-change-related activities” are only secondarily about climate change.

For instance, the U.S. nuclear energy program predates serious concerns about climate change and would likely exist in its current form even if it did not produce fewer greenhouse-gases than some other forms of energy production, like burning coal. But the nuclear program’s budget is counted as climate spending. All told, when the GAO evaluated six agencies that report their climate spending to the OMB, it found that 94 percent of the money was going to programs that weren’t primarily focused on climate change — things like nuclear energy. The money marked as climate spending wasn’t going to new initiatives. Instead, “it’s a bunch of related things we were already doing,” Gomez told me. Numbers like that $154 billion total can be used as political props, but that kind of accounting isn’t much good for understanding what the government is actually doing about climate change.

$154 billion * 6% primarily focused on climate change / 25 years = $369 million per year. It might be higher than the 25-year average now, because of increasing awareness of climate change, but it might also be lower, because Trump. I have low confidence in the exact estimate but I think this is the right order of magnitude.

In 2017, the foundation of billionaire William Hewlett (think Hewlett-Packard) pledged $600 million to fight climate change. One gift by one guy was almost twice the entire US federal government’s yearly spending on climate issues.

This isn’t some parable on how mighty billionaires have become or how much power they have accrued. The government’s budget is still 10,000 times bigger than Mr. Hewlett’s. It’s not that he’s anywhere near government-sized, it’s just that the government doesn’t care at all about solving these kinds of problems, so a billionaire can outspend them if he cares a little.

Thanks to Hewlett and a few other people like him, I calculate that about 3% of billionaire philanthropy goes to climate change, compared to 0.01% of the federal budget.

Not every billionaire spends their money on global health or fighting climate change. There’s a lot of criticism of billionaires who “waste” their donations on already-well-endowed colleges and performing arts centers, and I agree we should push them to think harder about their choices.

But charity, like investing, is in what Nassim Taleb calls Extremistan – almost all the value lies in getting it very right once or twice. An investment fund that picks a hundred duds plus 2004 Facebook is still an amazing investment fund. A form of philanthropy that produces a hundred duds, but also produces Bill Gates (and Dustin Moskovitz, and Cari Tuna, and Warren Buffett, and Ben Delo, and…) is still an amazing benefit to the world.

I wish I could give a more detailed breakdown of how philanthropists vs. the government spend their money, but I can’t find the data. Considerations like the above make me think that philanthropists in general are better at focusing on the most important causes.

I think this also makes intuitive sense. Charities are capable of laserlike focus on the most important and desperate causes. But give their money to the government instead, and it will get spent on building fighter jets, bombing brown kids in Afghanistan, shooting brown kids in Chicago, subsidizing coal companies, jailing anyone who tries to dress hair withoug a hairdresser license, and paying farmers not to grow crops – and then, at the end of all that, maybe have a tiny bit left over to spend on the desperately important problems that affect the most vulnerable people.

Governments are a useful type of organization that should exist. I don’t want to get rid of them. But right now we’re thinking on the margin, and on the margin an extra dollar given to a charity will do more good than that same dollar given to the government.

6. The point of democracy isn’t that it’s always right, the point is that it respects the popular will. Regardless of whether the popular will is good or bad, don’t powerful private foundations violate it?

Reich again:

The modern foundation is an institutional oddity in a democracy.

In a democracy, officials responsible for public policy must stand for election. Don’t like your representatives’ policy views? Vote against them in the next election. This is the accountability logic internal to democracy — responsiveness to citizens. It does not always work this way, but the logic has some real force.

But foundations have no electoral accountability. Don’t like what the Gates Foundation did with its $3.4 billion in 2011 grants ($9.3 million each day of the year), or what it has done with $25 billion in grants since its inception in 1994? Tough, there’s no way to vote out the Gateses.

I realize there’s some very weak sense in which the US government represents me. But it’s really weak. Really, really weak. When I turn on the news and see the latest from the US government, I rarely find myself thinking “Ah, yes, I see they’re representing me very well today.”

Paradoxically, most people feel the same way. Congress has an approval rating of 19% right now. According to PolitiFact, most voters have more positive feelings towards hemorrhoids, herpes, and traffic jams than towards Congress. How does a body made entirely of people chosen by the public end up loathed by the public? I agree this is puzzling, but for now let’s just admit it’s happening.

Bill Gates has an approval rating of 76%, literally higher than God. Even Mark Zuckerberg has an approval rating of 24%, below God but still well above Congress. In a Georgetown university survey, the US public stated they had more confidence in philanthropy than in Congress, the court system, state governments, or local governments; Democrats (though not Republicans) also preferred philanthropy to the executive branch.

When I see philanthropists try to save lives and cure diseases, I feel like there’s someone powerful out there who shares my values and is doing right by them. I’ve never gotten that feeling when I watch Congress. When I watch Congress, I feel a scary unbridgeable gulf between me and anybody who matters. And the polls suggest a lot of people agree with me.

In what sense does it reflect the will of the people to transfer power and money from people and causes the public like and trust, to people and causes who the public hate and distrust? Why is it democratic to take money from someone more popular than God, and give it to a group of people more hated than hemorrhoids?

And if the people want more money to be spent by private philanthropists instead of Congress – and they use the democratic process to produce a legal regime and tax system that favors private philanthropy – their will is being represented.

7. Shouldn’t people who disagree with the government’s priorities fight to change the government, not go off and do their own thing?

Suppose I was donating money to feed starving children, and it was going well, and lots of starving children were getting fed. Then you come along and say “No, you should give that money to the Church of Scientology instead”.

I say “No, I hate Scientology.”

You: “Ah, but you can always try to reform Scientology. And maybe in a hundred years, it won’t be awful anymore, and instead it will try to help starving children.”

Me: “So you’re saying that I should work tirelessly to reform Scientology, and then in a hundred years when they’re good, I should give them my money?”

You: “Oh no, you have to give them all your money now. But while you’re giving them all your money, you can also work toward reforming them.”

Why would I do this? Why would it even cross anybody’s mind that they should do this? I am not saying that the government is evil in the same way as Scientology. But I think the fundamental dynamic – should you give your money to a cause you think is good, or to an organization you think is bad while trying to reform it? – is the same in both cases.

Also, do you realize how monumental a task “reform the government” is? There are thousands of well-funded organizations full of highly-talented people trying to reform the government at any given moment, and they’re all locked in a tug-of-war death match reminiscent of that one church in Jerusalem where nobody has been able to remove a ladder for three hundred years. This isn’t to say no reform will ever happen – it’s happened before, it will surely happen again, and it’s a valuable thing to work towards. Just don’t hold up any attempts to ease the suffering of the less fortunate by demanding they wait until every necessary reform is accomplished.

8. Is billionaire philanthropy getting too powerful? Should we be terrified by the share of resources now controlled by unaccountable charitable foundations?

From Dissent:

Right now, big philanthropy in the United States is booming. Major sources of growth have been the wealth generated by high-tech industries and the expanding global market. In September 2013 there were sixty-seven private grant-making foundations with assets over $1 billion. The Rockefeller Foundation, once the wealthiest, now ranks fifteenth; the Carnegie Corporation ranks twentieth (Foundation Center). Mega-foundations are more powerful now than in the twentieth century—not only because of their greater number, but also because of the context in which they operate: dwindling government resources for public goods and services, the drive to privatize what remains of the public sector, an increased concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent, celebration of the rich for nothing more than their accumulation of money, virtually unlimited private financing of political campaigns, and the unenforced (perhaps unenforceable) separation of legal educational activities from illegal lobbying and political campaigning. In this context, big philanthropy has too much clout.

The yearly federal budget is $4 trillion. The yearly billionaire philanthropy budget is about $10 billion, 400 times smaller.

For context, the California government recently admitted that its high-speed rail project was going to be $40 billion over budget (it may also never get built). The cost overruns alone on a single state government project equal four times all the charity spending by all the billionaires in the country.

Compared to government spending, Big Philanthropy is a rounding error. If the whole field were taxed completely out of existence, all its money wouldn’t serve to cover the cost overruns on a single train line.

If this seems surprising, I think that in itself is evidence that the money is being well-spent. Billionaire philanthropy isn’t powerful, at least not compared to anything else. It just has enough accomplishments to attract attention. Destroying it wouldn’t enrich anyone else to any useful degree, or neutralize some threatening power base. It would just destroy something really good.

9. Does billionaire philanthropy threaten pluralism?

From Reich’s Vox interview again:

I am, by contrast, a pluralist; I want to champion the decentralization of what would otherwise be a majoritarian decision-making structure for the spending of tax dollars to produce various forms of social benefits. And I think part of what makes ordinary charitable giving a good thing is the conversion of every individual’s idiosyncratic, eccentric preferences into some civil society-facing project that by extension produces a diverse, pluralistic civil society, which is good for democracy.

I am having trouble following the argument. We need pluralism and decentralization. Therefore, we should ban anyone from doing their own thing, and instead force them to go through a single giant organization?

Consider the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). They sponsor research into mental-health-related uses of psychedelic drugs. You might have heard of them in the context of their study of MDMA (Ecstasy) for PTSD being “astoundingly” successful. They’re on track to get MDMA FDA-approved and potentially inaugurate a new era in psychiatry. This is one of those 1000x opportunities that effective altruists dream of.

The government hasn’t given this a drop of funding, because its official position is that Drugs Are Bad. MAPS writes:

Every dollar has come from private donors committed to our mission. The pharmaceutical industry and federal government have not yet supported our work, so the continued expansion of psychedelic research still relies on the generosity of individual donors and foundations.

Most of the funding for their MDMA trial came from the foundation of billionaire Robert Mercer. Because there were actors other than the government with enough money to fund things they believed in, we were able to get some great work done even though it wasn’t the sort of thing the government would support.

Or: in 2001, under pressure from Christian conservatives, President Bush banned federal funding for stem cell research. Stem cell scientists began leaving the US or going into other area of work. The field survived thanks to billionaires stepping up to provide the support the government wouldn’t – especially insurance billionaire Eli Broad, who gave $25 million to the cause, and eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar, who sponsored a California ballot initiative to redirect state funding to cover the gap. Time after time, the government has stopped supporting things for bad reasons, and we’ve been lucky that we didn’t bulldoze over the rest of civil society and prevent anyone else from having enough power to help.

Or: despite controversy over “government funding of Planned Parenthood”, political considerations have seriously limited the amount of funding the US government can give contraceptive research. It was multimillionaire heiress Katharine McCormick who funded the research into what would become the first combined oral contraceptive pill. More recently, it was Warren Buffett who funded RU-486 and the IUD. Together with similar work by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, these have prevented millions of unwanted pregnancies.

When there are hundreds of different actors who can pursue their own projects, we get hundreds of genuinely different projects, some of which go great. If we restrict individuals from pursuing their own projects, and everything has to be funded by a single organization with a single agenda, we reduce the possibilities for progress to a monoculture, vulnerable to any minor flaw in the hegemon’s priorities.

In other cases, billionaires and government agencies are performing the same tasks in parallel. For example, both Bill Gates and the CDC are fighting infectious diseases in the developing world; both Elon Musk and NASA are working on space exploration.

Both groups bring different institutional cultures and priorities to the fight. The Gates Foundation is not run along exactly the same lines as the CDC; SpaceX has a different institutional culture from NASA. When one organization gets stuck in a dead-end, or isn’t up to a certain task, there’s a chance that the other will have the right structure to succeed. Some of this is random variation, some of it is structural differences between the public and private sector. I think it’s really healthy to have multiple diverse institutions trying to pursue the same goal. Robustness against obvious failures like “the government just banned all stem cell research” is just a special case of this principle.

I am using Reich as a foil, but in other places he seems to agree with this. At the end of this article he writes about “the case for foundations”, and says:

I believe there is a case for foundations that renders them not merely consistent with democracy but supportive of it.

First, foundations can help to diminish government orthodoxy by decentralizing the definition and distribution of public goods. Call this the pluralism argument. Second, foundations can operate on a longer time horizon than can businesses in the marketplace and elected officials in public institutions, taking risks in social policy experimentation and innovation that we should not routinely expect to see in the commercial or state sector. Call this the discovery argument.

I agree with all of this (and am now confused about to what degree Reich and I disagree at all), but I take this as meaning that private philanthropy, far from threatening pluralism, exemplifies it.

10. Aren’t the failures of government just due to Donald Trump or people like him? Won’t they hopefully get better soon?

Billionaires sometimes do a better job than the government at funding things like stem cells and the fight against climate change. But this is because of bad decisions by bad government officials. Obama overturned the stem cell ban; hopefully the next Democratic president will fix the climate funding situation. Does this make it unfair of me to compare the government vs. billionaires on this axis when there’s a hopefully-temporary reason the government is as bad as it is?

No. My whole point is that if you force everyone to centralize all money and power into one giant organization with a single point of failure, then when that single point of failure fails, you’re really screwed.

Remember that when people say decisions should be made through democratic institutions, in practice that often means the decisions get made by Donald Trump, who was democratically elected. At the risk of going Civics 101, we’re not supposed to be a pure democracy. We’re a complicated system of checks and balances that uses democracy in some of its components. But we deliberately have other, less democratic components to deal with the situations when the demos f@#ks up. The demos seems to be f@#king up pretty regularly these days and I’m glad we still have those other institutions.

11. So you’re saying these considerations about pluralism and representation and so on justify billionaire philanthropy?

I’m bringing up these considerations as counterarguments to some of the things opponents say. But I think they’re the wrong thing to focus on.

The Gates Foundation plausibly saved ten million lives. Moskovitz and Tuna saved a hundred million animals from excruciatingly painful conditions. Norman Borlaug’s agricultural research (supported by the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation) plausibly saved one billion people.

These accomplishments – and other similar victories over famine, disease, and misery – are plausibly the best things that have happened in the past century. All the hot-button issues we usually care about pale before them. Think of how valuable one person’s life is – a friend, a family member, yourself – then try multiplying that by ten million or a billion or whatever, it doesn’t matter, our minds can’t represent those kinds of quantities anyway. Anything that makes these kinds of victories even a little less likely would be a disaster for human welfare.

The main argument against against billionaire philanthropy is that the lives and welfare of millions of the neediest people matter more than whatever point you can make by risking them. Criticize the existence of billionaires in general, criticize billionaires’ spending on yachts or mansions. But if you only criticize billionaires when they’re trying to save lives, you risk collateral damage to everything we care about.

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979 Responses to Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy

  1. GreenSamurai says:

    I feel this is one of your lesser thought out pieces. I mean false equivalencies are rampant in it.

    There is a difference between billionaire philanthropy versus government philanthropy and billionaire philanthropy versus the spending of the US government.

    I like Bill Gates against malaria foundation, and it has saved many lives but is it more than any other developed country with a universal health plan?

    But even that is a failure of equivalencies because the against malaria foundation is a global organization and any singular government statistic is just not global.

    You need to stop bringing up only the US and its problems for your argument to work at all.

    I am personally not against billionaire philanthropy, but this is just a bad representation of why it’s good.

  2. Mark Atwood says:

    All these posts about Amazon have been frustrating.

    I’ve written so many replies, and then rewritten them, and then deleted them.

    I’ve written even more, and never hit “Publish”, and just deleted them.

    And even more, I’ve outlined in my head, and then didn’t write.

    So many posts that were so incorrect, and so many that were almost correct but missed the more important parts.

    Most of Amazon’s “trade secrets”, we publish for everyone everywhere to read, but most other corporations either think we’re pretending, that we’re not actually serious about that stuff, or else realize that we are completely serious, but they they themselves can’t do them, mainly because it would break all the evolved principle-agent violations that have evolved into place in their own companies. The only other companies I’ve ever seen that can do it are startups founded and staffed by former Amazonians.

    The tech under AWS is pretty awesome, but none of it magic, there are other hyperscale cloud service providers. The tech under Retail is pretty cool but again it is not magic, and Kroger, Walmart, Target, and FedEx know how to do it, and they do it at larger scale.

    (I have linked all of these below) Read the Amazon 14 Principles. Read Steve Yeggie’s essay. Read the Amazon “document centric meeting” process. Find them and read them, and then realize that Amazon *really does those things*. Not perfectly, humans are human, but decently well enough. Think about what a company that actually does all that stuff, what it would be like.

    Or consider it this way: lots of geeks have had this fantasy “what if One Of Us started a company. Someone who was really smart, and who wasn’t stupid about actual economics, and who wasn’t stupid about computer science, started a company, it would be amazing!” Right? Well… (from Wikipedia) :

    He was high school valedictorian, a National Merit Scholar,[22][23] and a Silver Knight Award winner in 1982.[22] In 1986, he graduated from Princeton University with a 4.2 grade point average and Bachelor of Science degrees in electrical engineering and computer science and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.[24][25] While at Princeton, he was also elected to Tau Beta Pi and was the president of the Princeton chapter of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.[26][27]. After Bezos graduated from Princeton University in 1986, he was offered jobs at Intel, Bell Labs, and Andersen Consulting, among others.[28] He first worked at Fitel, a fintech telecommunications start-up, where he was tasked with building a network for international trade.[29] Bezos was promoted to head of development and director of customer service thereafter.[30] He transitioned into the banking industry when he became a product manager at Bankers Trust; he worked there from 1988 to 1990.[30] He then joined D. E. Shaw & Co, a newly founded hedge fund, in 1990 and worked there until 1994.

    So, computer science, Phi Beta Kappa, Tau Beta Pi, fintech, how telecoms affects trade networks, how to manage teams of teams of software developers, “director of customer service”, ….

    I’ve worked for a LOT of tech companies. I’ve been paid to be a tech geek since Gates’ company had a hyphen in the name and still put their Albuquerque address on things. Amazon is… peculiar. Really really really peculiar. And the peculiar works. Peculiar seems to mostly mean “don’t do useless or counterproductive things just because other corporations do them”.

    https://www.amazon.jobs/en-gb/principles

    https://gist.github.com/chitchcock/1281611

    https://www.businessinsider.com/bezos-admits-amazon-has-the-weirdest-meeting-culture-2018-4

  3. Plumber says:

    I still think billionaires are under-taxed, but my approval of their philanthropy has gone up upon finding that the Gates’ are helping a bit to fund a program to help their poor neighbors in Seattle instead of just that “effective” overseas stuff.

  4. googolplexbyte says:

    People would approve of a congress with a higher approval ratings, so congress should be selected by approval ratings.

    If congress was full of Bill Gates that would do the most good.

    Hard to do? Fargo already did it for their local government: https://reformfargo.org

  5. In Cell says:

    I think this is just missing the point.

    Are billionaires using charity to dupe the masses into thinking of them as friend, when they are actually foe?

  6. Reasoner says:

    This is good, also from Vox, re: evidence-based spending in government (spoiler: there isn’t much)

    A couple of years ago, former Obama and Bush officials estimated that only 1 percent of government spending is backed by any evidence at all. 1 percent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, evaluations of government-sponsored school and work programs have found that some three-quarters of those have no effect.

    I’m not opposed to socialism in principle, but as a practical matter it seems like the government spends its money horribly inefficiently. So I think we should solve this problem before we expand government spending. I’m not some kind of libertarian ideologue; there’s no real reason government spending can’t be highly effective, but what hasn’t worked in the past probably won’t work in the future.

    The best path most likely comes from projects like Glen Weyl’s Radical Markets, which are trying to do fundamental innovation on our institutions. In the same way living in a democracy reliably beats living in a dictatorship, there might be some other form of government which reliably beats living in a democracy. But few are doing the experimentation and research needed to try & discover it. With citizens getting increasingly fed up, now seems like a unique opportunity to work towards to something better–anything from sortition to prediction markets.

    BTW, this is the Rob Reich who used to be on the board of Givewell, right? It seems like he would be well-acquainted with considerations around efficiency? I’d like to see his response to your post, because as someone acquainted with EA stuff, all the considerations in your essay seem pretty obvious.

    • Murphy says:

      I do sometimes wish more policies were actually tested for effectiveness in some way.

      Too many turn out to be self-defeating or null. it’s not limited to government. A lot of charitable donations seem to have little good effect when people start examining them properly.

      But A/B testing is unpopular and politically hard.

      In a world of scientists the plan might work.

      but most people grasp onto a plausible sounding plan and then invest a lot of feelings in the idea that it must work and anyone who opposes it must be a bad person who hates whatever good effect they think it will yield.

      Imagine a country with a set of beta-testing-islands. Where policies get tried out on a smaller scale with predefined metrics for success. Or where every policy over a certain cost comes with oversight that tests for efficacy.

  7. albatross11 says:

    I think a lot of people just assume that the world they grew up in is the natural order of the universe, and they will argue against any improvement in that world being unnecessary. Lots of people will argue that aging is natural and shouldn’t be prevented, but hardly any of them are on board with going back to a 50% mortality rate for children under 5, surgery without anesthesia, or acute appendicitis being a death sentence.

    This is indeed silly, but then when they’re offered a chance at dodging some of that aging and death stuff, they overwhelmingly want it. A large fraction of the people over 50 in this country are taking a statin and a baby aspirin every day, in hopes of avoiding dying of a heart attack. If tomorrow some brilliant person invented a daily pill that dropped your probability of getting cancer by 50%, they’d make an obscene amount of money on that invention[1], and they’d deserve it. Basically everyone would be taking that pill every day. If next month, someone invented a daily pill that slowed the aging process down by 10%, they’d get even richer and everyone over 50 would be taking both pills (along with the statin and baby aspirin) every day.

    There’s some juice in making a contrarian argument against coming up with a cure for aging, but if such a cure were offered, essentially everyone including the people writing think-pieces about it would be lined up to take it.

    [1] Well, their employer would. They might get a nice bonus.

  8. hls2003 says:

    My natural inclination is to think that the people Scott is responding to are so wrong as to be nearly incomprehensible. But I feel like it is a failure of charitable imagination to simply accept the gulf is unbridgeable. So trying to put myself in their shoes, I think that Scott’s rebuttal does not engage with the idea of philanthropy as wartime propaganda.

    Take someone like Tokyo Rose or Lord Haw-Haw. If one constructed a careful analysis of what they could be doing with their time – committing atrocities, fighting as a common soldier, or serving a shift in a munitions factory – it is clear that materially speaking, talking on the radio is probably the least physically damaging thing they could be doing against Allied soldiers. But yet they were despised as much or more than anyone in those other jobs, because their role in propagandizing for their evil regimes helped the Axis war effort by boosting Axis morale and damaging Allied morale. They were the pleasant face (or voice) hiding an evil regime. If one starts from the premise that the capitalist system (or whatever systemic bogeyman you blame) is the enemy, then billionaire philanthropists like Gates are capitalism’s Lord Haw-Haw. They hide the true nature of the regime, prolong the war, and sap the will of the people to fight. Or take Potemkin villages, for a non-WWII example. Presumably a Russian peasant was legitimately better off (temporarily) for living in a clean, idyllic Potemkin village than continuing in their base-state filthy squalor. But just analyzing whether a few people were slightly better off clearly misses the main point that the Potemkin villages were hiding the truth and preventing change. Philanthropic billionaires are the Potemkin village, hiding the true impact of the capitalist bogeyman.

    While I don’t share the starting opinion of capitalism, it seems like – under this Conflict Theory rubric – Scott’s essay misses the point of the critics. Why get more angry at charity than extravagance? The same reason you hate Lord Haw-Haw more than an ordinary German soldier; the soldier is just doing what you expect, and is mostly neutral to the broader effort of wartime morale, while Lord Haw-Haw is an underhanded traitor eating away at the emotional war effort. And why ignore the good work that charity does? Because the “seen” charity is simply a prop masking and perpetuating the “unseen” squalor of the system. In either case, micro-analyzing on a purely material level (Tokyo Rose versus Tokyo factory worker, who makes more bombs?) doesn’t make sense because it omits the larger effects.

    Ironically I think the lesson of “seen” and “unseen,” per Bastiat, is more commonly missed by the revolutionary Utopians. But if one starts with unrealized Utopia as a postulate, then even charity can be propaganda, and propagandists are plausibly reviled.

    • Nornagest says:

      First decent post I’ve seen in these comments.

      I think you’re onto something. This issue wasn’t really on my radar — I’m not into EA, where I presume it’s coming from. But my theory after reading Scott’s post was that people were getting hung up on anything that makes the existence of billionaires more salient: that is, that the real objection isn’t to billionaire charity as such but rather to the existence of billionaires. I still think that’s the real objection, but stopping there doesn’t fully explain how the name of the Zuckerberg General Hospital draws flak that, say, L’Oreal ads don’t. The propaganda model ties that loose end off nicely.

    • sentientbeings says:

      I think your comment is insightful. Thank you for putting in the “charitable imagination” effort.

    • 420BootyWizard says:

      You’re definitely onto something. I’m personally not too upset about billionaire philanthropy (But I do think it’s something that should be accepted as the expected baseline default, and not treated as some act of extraordinary benevolence). I also don’t think that an unrealized utopia is a necessary starting assumption, merely that we could do be doing better, significantly better, and the entrenched interests of powerful billionaires are a major obstacle to getting there.

      But with those caveats aside, yeah, spot on.

    • Matt M says:

      I mean, sure, this is a very charitable view and makes some amount of sense.

      I think though, at some point, you can’t postpone the debate over “how much better is socialism supposed to be than capitalism, anyway?”

      What’s notable to me is that if you point out that the Soviet Union starved X million people, the likely response from socialists is something much closer to “That’s a lie! It’s a made up number! And capitalism is worse anyway!” The likely response is not, “So what, socialism is so much better than capitalism that in the long run, sacrificing X million people is worth it.”

      But that basically IS the response to billionaire philanthropy. That allowing 10 million Africans to die of malaria is “worth it” if it makes people around the world marginally more in favor if socialism. That’s a tough pill to swallow, even if you generally favor socialism.

      To extent the Tokyo Rose analogy, imagine that Tokyo Rose sent out a broadcast that warned a US ship of an imminent attack, that they were then able to successfully avoid, saving the lifes of hundreds or thousands of US Sailors. Then, she proceeded to talk about how she did that for propaganda purposes. Do we still hate her as much? How many American lives would she have to save to reach a point where we reconsider our prior that she is bad because enemy propaganda is bad? How much good would Gates and Zuckerberg have to do in order to convince socialists that maybe overthrowing capitalism isn’t worth the cost?

      • 420BootyWizard says:

        What’s notable to me is that if you point out that the Soviet Union starved X million people, the likely response from socialists is something much closer to “That’s a lie! It’s a made up number! And capitalism is worse anyway!” The likely response is not, “So what, socialism is so much better than capitalism that in the long run, sacrificing X million people is worth it.”

        My actual likely response is that starving X million people is in no way a necessary or central part of socialism, in spite of the concentrated US cold war propaganda trying to make it seem like it is. This is like laying all of the evils of Leopold II’s Congo Free State at capitalism’s feet (Which there’s an argument for; Colonialism starts to look mighty pointless if there isn’t a profit to be had at the end of the day). In the same way that your idealized capitalism doesn’t involve the genocide of a bunch of Congolese people, my idealized socialism doesn’t involve starving X million people.

        I wish we had a better example of communism to point to so people could stop talking about the soviet union, I really do. But the entire history of communism and socialism has been met with reactionary violence by those in power since before the time of Marx, even going back to proto-socialist religious movements like the cathars. I know “true communism has never been tried!” is a meme at this point, but it really would be nice to have some kind of test society that didn’t have to deal with cold wars and external enemies orchestrating attempted coups every other Tuesday.

        How much good would Gates and Zuckerberg have to do in order to convince socialists that maybe overthrowing capitalism isn’t worth the cost?

        An implausable amount of good, made all the more implausable by how unlikely their successors are to uphold their extraordinary policies of doing good and not revert to default capitalism. The enemy isn’t Gates or Zuckerberg, the enemy is Moloch, and Moloch is going to require a systemic response, not the goodwill of individuals.

        • sentientbeings says:

          This is like laying all of the evils of Leopold II’s Congo Free State at capitalism’s feet (Which there’s an argument for; Colonialism starts to look mighty pointless if there isn’t a profit to be had at the end of the day). In the same way that your idealized capitalism doesn’t involve the genocide of a bunch of Congolese people, my idealized socialism doesn’t involve starving X million people.

          That’s a common argument from the left, but the comparison is actually wrong in its entirety, not just as a matter of degree. It’s a conflation of any sort of self-interested pursuit of wealth, including via unrepentant plunder, with business profit, and then a further conflation with capitalism (or perhaps we should say markets, the price system, and private property to help avoid some of the linguistic baggage). It’s a critical error. Plunder involves the violation of property rights – it is an explicit example of anti-capitalist behavior.

          My actual likely response is that starving X million people is in no way a necessary or central part of socialism, in spite of the concentrated US cold war propaganda trying to make it seem like it is.

          Starvation might not be a central part of socialism, even a very near “true” socialism, as a fully-generalized rule, but it is a part of socialism at scale. It is not intended by advocates of socialism, but it is fundamentally a part of it, because a socialist system lacks the computational capacity to support systems above a certain complexity level.

          Historical evidence suggests the scale doesn’t have to be all that large, either.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            That’s a common argument from the left, but the comparison is actually wrong in its entirety, not just as a matter of degree. It’s a conflation of any sort of self-interested pursuit of wealth, including via unrepentant plunder, with business profit, and then a further conflation with capitalism (or perhaps we should say markets, the price system, and private property to help avoid some of the linguistic baggage). It’s a critical error. Plunder involves the violation of property rights – it is an explicit example of anti-capitalist behavior.

            Then we’re left scratching our heads wondering why so many explicitly capitalist nations commit an explicit example of anti-capitalist behavior so consistently then.

            Again, I’m not denying that your ideal capitalism doesn’t involve that, but at some point we have to take our heads out of the dictionaries and take a look around at the bleak reality on the ground.

            Starvation might not be a central part of socialism, even a very near “true” socialism, as a fully-generalized rule, but it is a part of socialism at scale. It is not intended by advocates of socialism, but it is fundamentally a part of it, because a socialist system lacks the computational capacity to support systems above a certain complexity level.

            Historical evidence suggests the scale doesn’t have to be all that large, either.

            Shiiiiiiiit, if that’s your biggest objection then we’ll have our socialist utopia in no time! We’re getting more and more computational capacity by the day!

          • Civilis says:

            Then we’re left scratching our heads wondering why so many explicitly capitalist nations commit an explicit example of anti-capitalist behavior so consistently then.

            I’m sorry for constantly beating the dead horse on this, but that’s because there are few if any nations founded on capitalist ideological principles (much less explicitly capitalist), if there is any such thing. It’s quite possible that there is no ideological underpinning for most of what states and world leaders do and have done, beyond perhaps a generic ‘national/ethnic/cultural interest’ common throughout history.

            The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a one party state, that party being the Communist Party. The original constitution of Soviet Russia declared its purpose to be “the establishment of a socialist society”. It’s not much of a stretch to identify those that call themselves Socialist with socialist ideology, and yet there’s still some that claim the Soviet Union to be ‘state capitalism’.

            Capitalism as ideology, if it exists, can not be a catchall for everything not explicitly Socialist and explicitly but not sufficiently Socialist. If all you are saying is that some non-socialist states are bad too, then it’s trivially true but useless.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            I’m sorry for constantly beating the dead horse on this, but that’s because there are few if any nations founded on capitalist ideological principles (much less explicitly capitalist), if there is any such thing. It’s quite possible that there is no ideological underpinning for most of what states and world leaders do and have done, beyond perhaps a generic ‘national/ethnic/cultural interest’ common throughout history.

            The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a one party state, that party being the Communist Party. The original constitution of Soviet Russia declared its purpose to be “the establishment of a socialist society”. It’s not much of a stretch to identify those that call themselves Socialist with socialist ideology, and yet there’s still some that claim the Soviet Union to be ‘state capitalism’.

            Capitalism as ideology, if it exists, can not be a catchall for everything not explicitly Socialist and explicitly but not sufficiently Socialist. If all you are saying is that some non-socialist states are bad too, then it’s trivially true but useless.

            Minor insignificant quibble about “founding” aside (Who cares? This kind of thing tends to change over the hundred-year multi-human-generational lifespan of nations anyway), I can kind of see where you’re coming from, and I’m not saying you’re wrong, but from that perspective it seems pointless to even talk about socialist states vs non-socialist states. If there is no ideological underpinning for most of what states and world leaders do and have done and it’s nationalism and realpolitik all the way down, then there’s nothing left to discuss and we should all go out and get some ice cream.

            Again without necessarily saying that you’re wrong, people say things like “The united states is a capitalist nation” all the time, or at least that feels like a phrase which fits in my ear like a foot in a comfortable well-worn old shoe. If I google “list of capitalist countries”, the United States will invariably show up on that list. The people saying these things aren’t just confused; They’re referring to something, some quality of the US government or culture or something to so consistently use that appellation. It may not even be consistently the same thing across different users! It’s from this perspective that I assumed this conversation was taking place thus far.

            If you have another paradigm you’d like to suggest that still lets us meaningfully compare “socialist” and “capitalist” (whatever those mean) countries, I’m open to hearing it.

          • sentientbeings says:

            @420BootyWizard

            You used the example of colonialism, specifically in Leopold’s Congo. Do not pretend I objected to calling the United States “capitalist.”

            For that different case, which is covered by Civilis’ reply, I’ll elaborate that capitalism is an economic system. The United States, like many other countries, exists on a spectrum between capitalist and socialist systems, closer to the capitalist end in most things, and so can be described as capitalist. Although I would prefer a political system oriented around it, there has not yet been such an attempt. Socialist states do not merely make an attempt at socialist economic systems. They also enforce a political order around them as a means of achieving economic goals.

            By the definition you are using for capitalism, you would have to describe essentially all political and economic orders – including socialism – as capitalist. Maybe some sort of acetic society could escape that umbrella, but it essentially renders the term meaningless and detached from what anyone who advocates for “capitalism,” or more specifically private property and markets with prices, actually means.

            Capitalism is defined by an actual set of institutions. Criticizing it for the flaws of other institutions is nonsense. Colonialism, and the mercantilist economics that dominated the time period, have flaws that have nothing to do with capitalism.

            If you have another paradigm you’d like to suggest that still lets us meaningfully compare “socialist” and “capitalist” (whatever those mean) countries, I’m open to hearing it.

            The typical definition used in economics for probably over a hundred years is something like:
            capitalism: private ownership of the means of production
            socialism: public (state) ownership of the means of production
            Those are a good starting point for direct comparison, and should make abundantly clear why the Leopold example, as used, was a bad one. In reality, “means of production” frames the discussion too narrowly, since capitalism really entails private property generally, and (at least in the old, serious form of socialism before it had been discredited) the existence of prices/money was also an important cleavage.

            At a slight tangent, with respect to describing the systems that existed in actual countries, a rule that one prominent 20th century economist formulated for distinguishing which side of the continuum most closely matched was whether the country allowed the existence of a stock exchange. I’m not sure it’s as good a rule of thumb anymore, but I think it still provides some good intuition.

            And finally, regarding

            Shiiiiiiiit, if that’s your biggest objection then we’ll have our socialist utopia in no time! We’re getting more and more computational capacity by the day!

            I don’t know if you thought I was being flippant, or if this response is meant to be flippant or serious. I’ll take it as serious and just say that no, that would not be adequate. My comment had nothing to do with banks of computers. Hardware is not the appropriate analogy, but rather algorithms and network properties.

          • Civilis says:

            If there is no ideological underpinning for most of what states and world leaders do and have done and it’s nationalism and realpolitik all the way down, then there’s nothing left to discuss and we should all go out and get some ice cream.

            Ideology is important when looking at why nations do things outside of their immediate national interest and leaders do things outside of staying in power, especially when it comes to big changes forced on society by government power. You don’t need ideology (beyond nationalism) to explain the Soviet invasion of the Baltic states or the US’s Monroe Doctrine. You do need ideology to explain why the United States went to a civil war to end slavery, and the ideology in question isn’t “capitalism”.

            Again without necessarily saying that you’re wrong, people say things like “The united states is a capitalist nation” all the time, or at least that feels like a phrase which fits in my ear like a foot in a comfortable well-worn old shoe. If I google “list of capitalist countries”, the United States will invariably show up on that list. They’re referring to something, some quality of the US government or culture or something to so consistently use that appellation. It may not even be consistently the same thing across different users! It’s from this perspective that I assumed this conversation was taking place thus far.

            And I’m willing to accept that the US is capitalist. It’s easy enough to come up with a working definition of capitalist: does a state allow people to own capital? The US obviously does, so the US is capitalist. The problem is this definition isn’t tied to ideology. It doesn’t take an ideology to allow people to own capital in the present day; people have owned capital for thousands of years. It does take an ideology to have the state (in the name of the people) suddenly up and one day say that people can’t own capital anymore, and in all cases they’ve had to walk that back when it proved unworkable (4th largest stock exchange? China’s Shanghai Stock Exchange).

            At its root, all modern countries have some capitalist characteristics (private ownership and control of capital) and some socialist characteristics (public ownership or control of capital), with the mix varying from country to country. It’s possible to shift gradually on this scale due to non-ideological politics, but people pushing big jumps require ideology. Two important things from history: all big jumps in the socialist direction have come with very high body counts, and countries toward the capitalist end of the spectrum do better than those at the socialist end of the spectrum.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            You used the example of colonialism, specifically in Leopold’s Congo. Do not pretend I objected to calling the United States “capitalist.”

            For that different case, which is covered by Civilis’ reply, I’ll elaborate the capitalism is an economic system. The United States, like many other countries, exists on a spectrum between capitalist and socialist systems, closer to the capitalist end in most things, and so can be described as capitalist. Although I would prefer a political system oriented around it, there has not yet been such an attempt. Socialist states do not merely make an attempt at socialist economic systems. They also enforce a political order around them as a means of achieving economic goals.

            By the definition you are using for capitalist, you would have to describe essentially all political and economic orders – including socialism – as capitalist. Maybe some sort of acetic society could escape that umbrella, but it essentially renders the term meaningless and detached from what anyone who advocates for “capitalism,” or more specifically private property and markets with prices, actually means.

            Capitalism is defined by an actual set of institutions. Criticizing it for the flaws of other institutions is nonsense. Colonialism, and the mercantilist economics that dominated the time period, have flaws that have nothing to do with capitalism.

            Beyond my invoking colonialism, I’m not sure exactly what you’re criticizing here. I haven’t been working off of some specific definition of “capitalist” or “socialist” (In this thread at least), In fact I’ve pointed out that it’s all pretty fuzzy and lots of people use lots of different definitions for both. People seem real unsure on whether or not Scandinavian countries qualify as socialist or not since they have market economies. Discussion of universal healthcare in the US will inevitably devolve into pearl-clutching concerns about socialism even though several market-economic countries have universal health care. Civilis points out that even the goddamn USSR is called “state capitalist” by some. Beyond capitalists calling things they don’t like “socialist” and socialists calling things they don’t like “capitalist”, concensus is thin on the ground. So when you say “By the definition you are using for capitalist”, I’m really not quite sure what you’re referring to. I don’t mean to be wishy-washy about this. If you really want to discuss my beliefs I’ll gladly go into detail, but it kind of seems like we’re mostly talking past each other so far.

            Except for this colonialism thing. In my mind it’s not quite so clean a line between colonialism and capitalism. Again, try and imagine colonialism without capitalism. What’s the point? Why bother, if it’s not going to result in riches and power for all your trouble? Why does a Leopold II plunder Congo of its Ivory, if not because market forces incentive and reward him for doing so? Why switch from ivory to rubber as he did, if market forces didn’t tell him to do so?

            If you find the example distasteful (and I don’t exactly blame you), then pick almost any other country. We’ve already agreed that the United States is a capitalist country, so let’s talk about manifest destiny and the treatment of native americans. Isn’t it interesting that the trail of tears relocates natives from the coastal regions to “Indian territory” in Kansas and Oklahoma, until about five minutes after oil gets discovered in “Indian territory” at which point it ceases to be “Indian territory”, right when oil starts to become actually valuable? What explains this, if not market forces?

            Plunder is certainly a violation of property rights, on this we’re agreed, but where do you get off on calling it anti-capitalist behavior? How does capitalist and anti-capitalist behavior work so closely together? Not only do you not get mutual annihilation as you’d expect, you seem to get one informing and guiding the other!

          • sentientbeings says:

            This paragraph is what we need to focus on, especially what I put in boldface.

            Except for this colonialism thing. In my mind it’s not quite so clean a line between colonialism and capitalism. Again, try and imagine colonialism without capitalism. What’s the point? Why bother, if it’s not going to result in riches and power for all your trouble? Why does a Leopold II plunder Congo of its Ivory, if not because market forces incentive and reward him for doing so? Why switch from ivory to rubber as he did, if market forces didn’t tell him to do so?

            Capitalism is a certain set institutional arrangements. Leopold II was part of the state. He was not a private actor. Self-interested behavior exists for all humans in any system. It exists in socialism. Seeking wealth does not imply capitalism. That seems to be the core of your framework. It is wrong.

            I think the reason people so frequently make this error, aside from just not having a great knowledge of economics, is that they reason through association rather than…well, reasons or syllogisms or what have you. The associative chain seems to follow one of these two patterns:

            (1) self-interested action –> economists talk about self-interest and coordination –> capitalism
            or
            (2) any attempt to increase wealth –> capitalism produces wealth –> attempts to increase wealth are capitalist, regardless of the “how” of the attempt

            That’s not reason. It’s utter nonsense.

            Everyone engages in what economists refer to as self-interested behavior. Everyone, excepting near-future suicides, tries to increase wealth to some extent, even acetics.

            The market forces you mentioned are always in play, and always will be so long as atoms have mass and humans have desires. They don’t appear or disappear depending on label. The way they play out differs across different contexts and sets of institutions, but the forces themselves are not capitalist or non-capitalist. That’s as much a category error as describing Boyle’s Law or operant conditioning as capitalist or non-capitalist.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            Capitalism is a certain set institutional arrangements. Leopold II was part of the state. He was not a private actor.

            I’m pretty sure that in the case of Leopold II in particular, the Congo Free State was his personal property as a private individual and not as part of his role as king of Belgium. The Force Publique was his private army totally unaffiliated with the military of Belgium. The riches plundered went directly to him, not to the Belgian treasury (beyond paying back the initial loan he took). When the Belgian parliament took over the colony in 1908, they had to pay him for it in compensation.

            Self-interested behavior exists for all humans in any system. It exists in socialism. Seeking wealth does not imply capitalism. That seems to be the core of your framework. It is wrong.

            I think the reason people so frequently make this error, aside from just not having a great knowledge of economics, is by reasoning through association rather than…well, reasons or syllogisms or what have you. The associative chain seems to follow one of these two patterns:

            (1) self-interested action –> economists talk about self-interest and coordination –> capitalism
            or
            (2) any attempt to increase wealth –> capitalism produces wealth –> attempts to increase wealth are capitalist

            That’s not reason. It’s utter nonsense.

            Everyone engages in what economists refer to as self-interested behavior. Everyone, excepting near-future suicides, tries to increase wealth to some extent, even acetics.

            The market forces you mentioned are always in play, and always will be so long as atoms have mass and humans have desires. They don’t appear or disappear depending on label. The way they play out differs among different contexts and sets of institutions, but the forces themselves are not capitalist or non-capitalist. That’s as much a category error as describing physics or psychology as capitalist or non-capitalist.

            Okay, fine. It’s not the forces themselves I object to but the way that capitalist institutions allow them to play out. It’s not Leopold II wanting to get rich that I object to, it’s that his capitalist institutions at the time allow him to commit atrocities to get rich and then get paid off for it when all was said and done because respecting private property is THAT important apparently. It’s not the forces that compel industrialists to employ child labor that I object to, it’s the institutions that sit by and let it happen. It’s not the desire for valuable oil that bothers me, it’s the institutions that eject the native americans off of their “Indian Territory” in service of that desire. Does that distinction change anything for you? Because it doesn’t do anything for me at all.

            If you’re telling me that none of those are real capitalist institutions then you can use whatever word you want instead, I’m anti-that. I’m anti the institutions that people cling to and prop up in opposition of universal healthcare and UBI, and if those people say something like “universal healthcare would be socialism, and we live in a capitalist country!” then I guess all the worse on them for not understanding what real capitalism is as well as you, huh?

          • dionisos says:

            @sentientbeings

            I think your point about self-interest behaviors existing outside capitalism, is really obvious.
            And the reasoning you said are utter nonsense…are.

            But I believe it is also a big strawman. (but probably unintentional and not malicious)

            Again, try and imagine colonialism without capitalism. What’s the point? Why bother, if it’s not going to result in riches and power for all your trouble?

            420BootyWizard will correct if I misunderstood him, but to me the idea is that you mostly can’t get personal wealth from that if you are living in a system not based on property right. (and not that egoism will magically disappear)
            If there isn’t any “connection point” where you go from having “wealth” outside the normal/legal system, to having wealth inside it, having wealth outside it is a lot less appealing.

            ps : my comment is super late in the debate, sorry for that, and the fact we can’t just answer to one message after some level of deepness is frustrating.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            420BootyWizard will correct if I misunderstood him

            No corrections, you understood me.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m pretty sure that in the case of Leopold II in particular, the Congo Free State was his personal property as a private individual and not as part of his role as king of Belgium.

            This is true… but it makes the Congo Free State a despotic state, not a capitalist one nor the post-feudal monarchy that Belgium was at the time. Leopold II might have held it as a private individual in some kind of highly technical international relations sense, but in socioeconomic terms it’s not the hat that makes a king, is it?

          • Murphy says:

            @420BootyWizard

            There’s the old joke about “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism for all!”

            If someone turned up with a system that could actually handle a planned economy extremely well and somehow take into account the weird desires, whims, wants and needs of all the people under it, I’d be like “sign me up”

            But short of some sort of singularity gifting us something like a Mind from Iain M Bank’s books… I can’t really see that happening any time soon. It’s not just a matter of raw teraflops.

            You need to be able to cope with the same kind of weirdness than individual humans can both cope with and generate. AI hasn’t reached that level yet.

            Capitalism isn’t some ideal magic. It’s solving the problem by passing the buck to billions of self-interested idiots. But it is durable and easy to build back up to from it’s failure modes. When it suffers system failures it typically falls back on slightly nastier versions of itself rather than total collapse. And it is very very good at translating the kind of detail-oriented ground-scale info to high-level resource management while lining incentives up fairly well most of the way.

            And it’s important to talk about more than intent.

            Missionaries visiting an isolated tribe may have the intention of helping the people there. But intentions are only that. Intentions. If 6 months later most of the tribe is dead from some disease they had no immunity to… the intentions count very little.

          • Civilis says:

            […]but to me the idea is that you mostly can’t get personal wealth from that if you are living in a system not based on property right. (and not that egoism will magically disappear)

            How well does this reflect the real world, though? The first generation of Socialist rulers after a revolution (Lenin, Mao, Kim il Sung, Fidel Castro, etc.) still end up living like kings compared to the mass of peasants who’s property has been liberated for the public good. Sure, that wealth nominally belongs to the people, it’s just that people that end up complaining about the way the wealth ends up benefiting the leaders rather than the people at large end up in a “re-education” camp or mass grave.

            Okay, fine. It’s not the forces themselves I object to but the way that capitalist institutions allow them to play out. It’s not Leopold II wanting to get rich that I object to, it’s that his capitalist institutions at the time allow him to commit atrocities to get rich and then get paid off for it when all was said and done because respecting private property is THAT important apparently. It’s not the forces that compel industrialists to employ child labor that I object to, it’s the institutions that sit by and let it happen. It’s not the desire for valuable oil that bothers me, it’s the institutions that eject the native americans off of their “Indian Territory” in service of that desire. Does that distinction change anything for you? Because it doesn’t do anything for me at all.

            If you’re telling me that none of those are real capitalist institutions then you can use whatever word you want instead, I’m anti-that.

            What you’re objecting to is the darker side of human nature, the temptations of power, something found in every human society and something immune to every ideology. Everyone thinks they’re against the lust for power, but only the saintliest of people are immune to it, and actually accomplishing things paradoxically requires power.

            This is why this thread terrifies me. “We never want to see abuses of power like King Leopold II’s again. This is why you must give us enough power to completely reshape society on our whims. Never mind that every time someone else had enough power to completely reshape society it ended up in disaster, it’ll work this time.”

            There isn’t a good answer in how to fix human nature. The best we can do is see what’s working at the moment, and what’s working at the moment are negative rights (including property rights), free markets, the rule of law, and democratic institutions.

          • Civilis says:

            If you find the example distasteful (and I don’t exactly blame you), then pick almost any other country. We’ve already agreed that the United States is a capitalist country, so let’s talk about manifest destiny and the treatment of native americans. Isn’t it interesting that the trail of tears relocates natives from the coastal regions to “Indian territory” in Kansas and Oklahoma, until about five minutes after oil gets discovered in “Indian territory” at which point it ceases to be “Indian territory”, right when oil starts to become actually valuable? What explains this, if not market forces?

            Isn’t it interesting how numerous Socialist governments have either directly clashed over oil reserves or propped up tyrannical despots willing to provide them with a steady source of oil? It’s almost as if securing strategic resources is something all nations with the power to do so do because it’s in their national interest.

            We can see this today in China’s Belt and Road investments in Africa… which also bears more than a passing resemblance to a modern-day colonialism in the old American banana republic model. I’m not going to blame the excesses of Chinese neocolonialism on economic ideology, even if a lot of people high up in the Chinese Communist Party are probably making out like robber barons. It’s explainable by China and its leadership trying to expand their power while remaining within the letter of international norms (as amoral as they are), something all countries and most people can be assumed to do.

            Both ‘countries seek to expand their power’ and ‘individuals seek to expand their power’ don’t require ideology to explain; they’re pretty much constant throughout history. What requires ideology to explain is countries and people going out of their way to do things that are not normal. It doesn’t require ideology to explain why Hitler wanted to be absolute dictator of Germany (although his ideology does explain it); plenty of rulers became absolute dictators when given the chance. It does require ideology to explain why Hitler committed systemic mass murder against the Jews and others and why a good percentage of the German people went along with it, and that ideological principle isn’t related to the economic system.

            If not socialist ideology, in the form of “public ownership of the means of production”, what motivation compelled the Soviets and Communist China to collectivize farming?

          • Aapje says:

            @420BootyWizard

            It’s not the forces that compel industrialists to employ child labor that I object to, it’s the institutions that sit by and let it happen.

            They didn’t sit by and let it happen. The Belgian government annexed Congo. So they actually did ignore property rights. They just didn’t do so right away.

            However, there have also been very many cases where property rights were ignored in ways that we now commonly consider unjust. So not being overeager to confiscate property seems like a good policy.

            Ultimately, your position seems to boil down to blaming capitalism for being imperfect, which seems based on a very dangerous Utopian delusion that perfection is possible.

            In actuality, such delusions often seem to be a hatred of humanity, which results in extremely unpleasant outcomes when people with Utopian delusions gain power.

          • sentientbeings says:

            @420BootyWizard

            Thanks for pointing out the distinction about Leopold. I strive for accuracy and it is worth noting. That said, I’d note that it’s difficult enough to separate the private actions of a head of government from his public actions. Separating a hereditary monarch head of state’s actions, when he still has actual ruling power, and is aided by other portions of the government, is more difficult still.

            I think the rest of my comments stand as they are.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            I missed this from earlier:

            I don’t know if you thought I was being flippant, or if this response is meant to be flippant or serious. I’ll take it as serious and just say that no, that would not be adequate. My comment had nothing to do with banks of computers. Hardware is not the appropriate analogy, but rather algorithms and network properties.

            We’re getting more of those by the day, too! I’m not sure how this objection changes anything.

            This is true… but it makes the Congo Free State a despotic state, not a capitalist one nor the post-feudal monarchy that Belgium was at the time. Leopold II might have held it as a private individual in some kind of highly technical international relations sense, but in socioeconomic terms it’s not the hat that makes a king, is it?

            Use whatever word you want, but all this re-shuffling of definitions seems to amount to “Destructive self-interest and self enrichment that I disapprove of is despotism (or whatever word you want to use), destructive self-interest and self enrichment that I do approve of is allowed to be called capitalism.”

            There’s the old joke about “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism for all!”

            I’m familiar with it, and for the record I support it. I look forward to the future where my decendents get to lounge around in space pajamas ordering “tea, earl gray, hot” from their replicators.

            If someone turned up with a system that could actually handle a planned economy extremely well and somehow take into account the weird desires, whims, wants and needs of all the people under it, I’d be like “sign me up”

            Me too! But I recognize that such a system would probably come about as the result of a lot of hard work and deliberative effort in spite of some serious opposition both natural and man-made. It seems pretty hopeless to wait for someone to “turn up” with such a system in hand.

            But short of some sort of singularity gifting us something like a Mind from Iain M Bank’s books… I can’t really see that happening any time soon. It’s not just a matter of raw teraflops.

            You need to be able to cope with the same kind of weirdness than individual humans can both cope with and generate. AI hasn’t reached that level yet.

            I probably agree with you. I agree with what I think you’re saying, at least. But just because we’re not there yet doesn’t mean that work shouldn’t begin earlier. Like, you brought up a singularity, that’s definitely one path between where we are and FALGSCFA, but that doesn’t mean that we should sit around with our hands in our pockets until the singularity happens.

            But I should point out that the extra “raw terraflops” that we’re accumulating by the hour don’t exactly hurt the situation. Or at least, they shouldn’t.

            Capitalism isn’t some ideal magic. It’s solving the problem by passing the buck to billions of self-interested idiots. But it is durable and easy to build back up to from it’s failure modes. When it suffers system failures it typically falls back on slightly nastier versions of itself rather than total collapse. And it is very very good at translating the kind of detail-oriented ground-scale info to high-level resource management while lining incentives up fairly well most of the way.

            I have some disagreements with you about exactly how well it lines those incentives up, but I suspect that’s not a difference we’ll be able to resolve in a comment thread.

            And it’s important to talk about more than intent.

            Missionaries visiting an isolated tribe may have the intention of helping the people there. But intentions are only that. Intentions. If 6 months later most of the tribe is dead from some disease they had no immunity to… the intentions count very little.

            Yes of course, but I don’t think the answer here is “pay less attention to intent” either.

            What you’re objecting to is the darker side of human nature, the temptations of power, something found in every human society and something immune to every ideology. Everyone thinks they’re against the lust for power, but only the saintliest of people are immune to it, and actually accomplishing things paradoxically requires power.

            This is why this thread terrifies me. “We never want to see abuses of power like King Leopold II’s again. This is why you must give us enough power to completely reshape society on our whims. Never mind that every time someone else had enough power to completely reshape society it ended up in disaster, it’ll work this time.”

            There isn’t a good answer in how to fix human nature. The best we can do is see what’s working at the moment, and what’s working at the moment are negative rights (including property rights), free markets, the rule of law, and democratic institutions.

            I think you’ve wildly misunderstood me. I’m not asking for absolute power, I’m not against the rule of law or democratic institutions, I’m merely gently suggesting that we can do better, and that socialism (and when you read that work, I want you to try your hardest to avoid jumping to Stalin and Mao, because this is not what I’m talking about) is probably a seasoning we could use a bit more of in our soup.

            They didn’t sit by and let it happen. The Belgian government annexed Congo. So they actually did ignore property rights. They just didn’t do so right away.

            (I think you quoted the wrong thing, by the way, but whatever)

            They didn’t annex Congo. They purchased Congo. Leopold II was given 50 million francs in exchange.

            Ultimately, your position seems to boil down to blaming capitalism for being imperfect, which seems based on a very dangerous Utopian delusion that perfection is possible.

            Utopian delusions are unnecessary, unless you’re stretching “utopian” to include any suggestion that the current situation can be improved upon in any way.

            In actuality, such delusions often seem to be a hatred of humanity, which results in extremely unpleasant outcomes when people with Utopian delusions gain power.

            Okay, buddy, you caught me. I hate humanity so much that I’m merely professing to care about humanity so I can later destroy it in a way of my choosing, which I will do once I gain all the power I can from typing in this comment thread.

            This is sarcasm, by the way.

            Thanks for pointing out the distinction about Leopold. I strive for accuracy and it is worth noting. That said, I’d note that it’s difficult enough to separate the private actions of a head of government from his public actions. Separating a hereditary monarch head of state’s actions, when he still has actual ruling power, and is aided by other portions of the government, is more difficult still.

            I agree, but I’ll further add that it’s not actually super important whether or not the person in question has the title “head of state” or not. This is the idea behind objecting to lobbyist groups and the existence of billionaires in the first place (to circle back to the topic of the main article). Power is power, and when you have a pile of money you can throw around and achieve your goals anyway, who needs titles?

          • sentientbeings says:

            @dionisos

            I don’t think it’s a straw man. I think there is a lot of confusion out there about what capitalism is, and that a great deal of that confusion is based on the associations I mentioned or on imputing goals to systems (some systems have explicit goals; some don’t, some are implicitly shared across many), and conflating economic and political systems. So someone observes accrual of wealth* or self-interested behavior, decides that’s what capitalism is about, then calls the behavior capitalistic AND does so in an internally inconsistent way that excludes the obviously self-interested behavior that exists elsewhere else.

            The dumbest form of the critique is usually something like “capitalism is about greed,” but I think the underlying failures of understanding are about the same.

            *It just occurred to me that it might be worth mentioning, “accrual of wealth” includes buying cans of tuna at the grocery store. Some people seem to have this idea of Scrooge McDuck swimming in gold whenever the word “wealth” is mentioned. This point doesn’t really change anything I’ve said, but if anyone’s mental image ever veered into Scrooge McDuck territory while reading, please take it as an indicator that you are not thinking clearly about these concepts.

          • LadyJane says:

            Use whatever word you want, but all this re-shuffling of definitions seems to amount to “Destructive self-interest and self enrichment that I disapprove of is despotism (or whatever word you want to use), destructive self-interest and self enrichment that I do approve of is allowed to be called capitalism.”

            Look, if you were arguing with some hardcore libertarian who was saying “only this purely theoretical ancap utopia that’s never existed in real life counts as real capitalism,” then I could sympathize with your attempts to call “No True Scotsman.” But you’re arguing that the Congo Free State was capitalist, and that doesn’t make any sense even using the broadest possible meaning of the term. There’s absolutely no meaningful sense in which the Congo Free State could be described as capitalist in any way.

            But I don’t want to get caught up on semantics, so let’s ignore the specific words and look at the concepts. What you’re basically describing is a set that includes [the modern United States] and [the Congo Free State]. I don’t think you understand the sheer vastness of the gulf between those two nation-states, in terms of their political and economic systems. The set you’re describing is incredibly broad, because those two entries have virtually nothing in common with each other beyond “existing as nation-states.”

            The Soviet Union and Maoist China had much more in common with each other than the U.S. does with the Congo Free State. It makes sense to describe a set that includes [the Soviet Union] and [Maoist China] and call it “communism,” just like it makes sense to describe a set that includes [the United States] and [Australia] and call it “capitalism.” But it doesn’t make sense to describe a set that includes [the United States] and [the Congo Free State] and call it anything, unless that set is “nation-states” (in which case it would also include Australia, the Soviet Union, and Maoist China).

            Also, a large part of your argument seems to revolve around the fact that the Congo Free State was considered “privately owned” in an extremely specific and technical international law sense. It reminds me of when conspiracy theorists make a big deal of the fact that the federal government is considered an “incorporated body,” as if that means the U.S. government is a private corporation in itself. In reality, it just means that the term “incorporated” has different meanings, just as the Congo Free State’s status as “privately owned” has absolutely no relation to the capitalist conception of private property.

            Okay, buddy, you caught me. I hate humanity so much that I’m merely professing to care about humanity so I can later destroy it in a way of my choosing, which I will do once I gain all the power I can from typing in this comment thread.

            I think you misunderstood Aapje’s point. What he seemed to be saying was that certain political idealists hate specific traits about humanity, which they believe to be separable from humanity itself. Unfortunately, they’re wrong about that fact, and so they end up behaving as if they hated humanity. For instance, if someone takes the stance “I hate greed, and all greedy people,” and virtually all people are at least a little bit greedy, then the end result is that they hate all people. In practice, what this means is that extreme political idealists are likely to commit atrocities and embrace authoritarian measures in an effort to bring actual humans in line with their ideal of what humans should be like.

          • bean says:

            Isn’t it interesting that the trail of tears relocates natives from the coastal regions to “Indian territory” in Kansas and Oklahoma, until about five minutes after oil gets discovered in “Indian territory” at which point it ceases to be “Indian territory”, right when oil starts to become actually valuable? What explains this, if not market forces?

            Objection: Indian Territory was explicitly Oklahoma, not Kansas. And the Land Rush of 1889 had nothing to do with oil. It had everything to do with it being the last piece of good land left for homesteaders, with the government eventually caving to popular pressure to open it.

            Source: Have lived in Oklahoma for two years now.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            Also, a large part of your argument seems to revolve around the fact that the Congo Free State was considered “privately owned” in an extremely specific and technical international law sense. It reminds me of when conspiracy theorists make a big deal of the fact that the federal government is considered an “incorporated body,” as if that means the U.S. government is a private corporation in itself. In reality, it just means that the term “incorporated” has different meanings, just as the Congo Free State’s status as “privately owned” has absolutely no relation to the capitalist conception of private property.

            Let me be clearer, then. The problem I have is the concentration of power. My issue with the Congo Free State being privately owned is that it could have been as great or as terrible as one person decided, and that person decided to make it terrible because making it terrible benefitted him personally. My hangup here isn’t with Leopold II (I mean I don’t think he’s a great guy, but this isn’t my point), my issue is with the system and institutions that allowed him to amass that power and rewarded him materially afterwards for his trouble. I would call these bad institutions.

            As far as I can tell, there’s nothing really preventing a Jeff Bezos type from buying up a strip of Africa and repeating the experiment (beyond I guess social pressures and the (relative to the 1800s) higher cost of acquiring a strip of Africa in the first place). I could be wrong about that, but even if I am it’s beyond a doubt that there’s nothing preventing private individuals from amassing a ton of power (Especially in the form of an unthinkably huge pile of money) and then using that power to further enrich themselves even if it makes the lives of those under them unpleasant (Although stopping well short of the misery of the Congo Free State). This is an improvement, for sure. A vast improvement even. But it’s not enough of an improvement to keep me from thinking that these are bad institutions. Better, definitely! But not good enough. Or at least, deeply flawed in a way that’s worth improving upon further.

            To sum it up; Private ownership leads to concentration of power, concentration of power is bad, therefore we should seek to limit private ownership.

            For the record, I’m not in favor of the USSR or Maoist china or any of that, in spite of their self-identification as “socialist”. This confusion is, to me, like critiquing democracy because the Democratic Republic of North Korea has “democratic” in it’s title. It’s a sham and everyone knows it, and has precious little to do with the thing in question.

            I think you misunderstood Aapje’s point. What he seemed to be saying was that certain political idealists hate specific traits about humanity, which they believe to be separable from humanity itself. Unfortunately, they’re wrong about that fact, and so they end up behaving as if they hated humanity. For instance, if someone takes the stance “I hate greed, and all greedy people,” and virtually all people are at least a little bit greedy, then the end result is that they hate all people. In practice, what this means is that extreme political idealists are likely to commit atrocities and embrace authoritarian measures in an effort to bring actual humans in line with their ideal of what humans should be like.

            I mean, obviously I would prefer if people were less greedy, and strive to limit greedy behavior at the expense of others in my own life where I can. But I don’t think the solution to humanity’s problems is to try to “cure” each individual human of their greed, or whatever. Much in the same sense that I don’t think climate change is going to be averted by individuals buying priuses. In the same way that the solution to the problem of murder isn’t “kill everyone who has ever had a murderous thought”, it’s invent the rule of law and enforcement mechanisms designed to make murder less likely. I don’t put my hope in individuals but in systems.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            Objection: Indian Territory was explicitly Oklahoma, not Kansas.

            Objection taken, but my point still stands.

          • LadyJane says:

            My hangup here isn’t with Leopold II (I mean I don’t think he’s a great guy, but this isn’t my point), my issue is with the system and institutions that allowed him to amass that power and rewarded him materially afterwards for his trouble. I would call these bad institutions.

            In that case, you should be very pleased to know that those institutions don’t exist anymore.

            As far as I can tell, there’s nothing really preventing a Jeff Bezos type from buying up a strip of Africa and repeating the experiment (beyond I guess social pressures and the (relative to the 1800s) higher cost of acquiring a strip of Africa in the first place).

            He can’t set up his own “Free State” in Africa because he lacks the political power to do so, regardless of how much economic power he has. Even if he bought up a comparable amount of land, he would be bound to obey the laws of whatever nation that land was located in. He would have no way of forcing people to labor for him; he would have to pay them for their labor (albeit at wages that are quite low by first-world standards), and even then, they’d still retain the right to quit whenever they wanted. Under capitalism, owning property doesn’t give you the right to do whatever you want to anyone on that property, nor does it give you the right to hold people there against their will.

            This is an improvement, for sure. A vast improvement even. But it’s not enough of an improvement to keep me from thinking that these are bad institutions. Better, definitely! But not good enough. Or at least, deeply flawed in a way that’s worth improving upon further.

            You’re still thinking about this the wrong way. You’re describing modern first-world capitalism as basically “the same kind of system as the Congo Free State, but better.” That’s not the case; the two are categorically different. They’re not merely different in quality, they’re fundamentally different in kind.

            To sum it up; Private ownership leads to concentration of power, concentration of power is bad, therefore we should seek to limit private ownership.

            There are different kinds of power: political power, legal power, social power, cultural power, military power, economic power. They’re not wholly unrelated to each other, but nor are they interchangeable. No amount of wealth, no matter how vast, could give an individual the kind of control that King Leopold had over the Congo Free State, because he also needed non-economic forms of power to do what he did.

          • Nornagest says:

            Use whatever word you want, but all this re-shuffling of definitions seems to amount to “Destructive self-interest and self enrichment that I disapprove of is despotism (or whatever word you want to use), destructive self-interest and self enrichment that I do approve of is allowed to be called capitalism.”

            The distinction I’m trying to draw has nothing to do with self-interest or self-enrichment, it has to do with the distribution of resources. The vast bulk of capital and human resources in the Congo Free State belonged to the state; that isn’t controversial. And even by Marxist standards, states organized that way are not well described as capitalist: the standard Marxist critiques of capitalism are rooted in his idea of the falling rate of profit, which only makes sense in a competitive environment. Marx would probably call it feudal; I have a different understanding of feudalism, so I’m calling it despotic instead.

            The fact that Leopold II somehow got the colonial rights to the area out of his own pocket rather than on behalf of the Belgian monarchy doesn’t change any of that. Whether or not Leopold II was recognized as a monarch internationally, whether or not money changed hands, he internally acted as a head of a despotic state. He wasn’t representative of a social stratum of capital owners with property rights enforced by the state but de-jure independent of it; he was the state. He personally monopolized everything in the state, by law. That’s what a despot does.

            And yes, he used it to enrich himself, brutally, but everything I’ve said would still be true if he was a much more enlightened guy.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            He can’t set up his own “Free State” in Africa because he lacks the political power to do so, regardless of how much economic power he has. Even if he bought up a comparable amount of land, he would have no way of forcing people to labor for him; he would have to pay them for their labor (albeit at wages that are quite low by first-world standards), and even then, they’d still retain the right to quit whenever they wanted. Owning property doesn’t give you the right to do whatever you want to anyone on that property, nor does it give you the right to hold people there against their will.

            My understanding is that Leopold II solved these problems with a private army, which he purchased as a private citizen entirely with his economic power. I don’t see why a Jeff Bezos type couldn’t repeat this.

            You’re still thinking about this the wrong way. You’re describing modern first-world capitalism as basically “the same kind of system as the Congo Free State, but better.” That’s not the case; the two are categorically different. They’re not merely different in quality, they’re fundamentally different in kind.

            I’m not really seeing it.

            There are different kinds of power: political power, legal power, social power, cultural power, military power, economic power. They’re not wholly unrelated to each other, but nor are they interchangeable. No amount of wealth, no matter how vast, could give an individual the kind of control that King Leopold had over the Congo Free State, because he also needed non-economic forms of power to do what he did.

            Is the claim here that economic power can’t buy political power? That it doesn’t regularly buy political power in the system we live in now? Can’t influence laws and doesn’t in fact do so on a regular basis? That private armies for hire don’t exist? That rich people haven’t been buying social and cultural power since the dawn of time? This strikes me as incredibly naive.

            The distinction I’m trying to draw has nothing to do with self-interest or self-enrichment, it has to do with the distribution of resources. The vast bulk of capital and human resources in the Congo Free State belonged to the state; that isn’t controversial. And even by Marxist standards, states organized that way are not well described as capitalist: the standard Marxist critiques of capitalism are rooted in his idea of the falling rate of profit, which only makes sense in a competitive environment. Marx would probably call it feudal; I have a different understanding of feudalism, so I’m calling it despotic instead.

            The fact that Leopold II somehow got the colonial rights to the area out of his own pocket rather than on behalf of the Belgian monarchy doesn’t change any of that. Capitalist organization is not defined by money changing hands on behalf of a private individual. Not by my standards, not by Marx’s either.

            1) I agree that the problem in question is the distribution of resources
            2) I honestly could care less what words you want to use to describe it, but
            3) I wholly disagree that the Congo Free State is some kind of unique state phenomenon. I’ve corrected numerous people about this already in this thread, I’ll refer you to those or just tell you to do more research on your own behalf. Leopold II was a guy who just happened to be the current king of Belgium who used the power he had to set up hell on earth to enrich himself. The parts of this story that I have a problem with aren’t the “happen to be king of Belgium” part. Titles are irrelevant, power was the driving force here. The lessening of “hell on earth” to something less terrible but still objectively sub-optimal is heartening but insufficient.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’ve corrected numerous people about this already in this thread, I’ll refer you to those or just tell you to do more research on your own behalf.

            Oh, so I’ve gotten to the “go indoctrinate yourself until you agree with me” phase of arguing with socialists? I’m gonna tap out, then.

          • LadyJane says:

            My understanding is that Leopold II solved these problems with a private army, which he purchased as a private citizen entirely with his economic power. I don’t see why a Jeff Bezos type couldn’t repeat this.

            Private security forces are still bound to obey the laws of their home nation as well as whatever nation they’re operating in. Something like Leopold’s mercenary army would be considered a criminal organization by virtually every modern nation-state. So sure, Bezos could decide to become a warlord, raise an illegal mercenary army, and go around kidnapping and enslaving people. I’ll admit, it’s an entertaining image! But at that point you can’t really blame the institution of capitalism, because he would be flagrantly violating the rules of that institution.

            And realistically, it’s not exactly a viable plan for Bezos. By becoming an international criminal, he’d be giving up his right to a lot of the assets he earned under the capitalist system, probably more than he stands to make from this venture you’re describing. Furthermore, he has to rely solely on mercenaries with no personal loyalty to him, which is a very risky prospect; money alone can only guarantee loyalty for so long, particularly in hostile, violent, unstable environments. There are actual warlords in various parts of the world today, and they have far less wealth than Bezos does, but they’re still more effective than he could ever hope to be, because they command social and cultural power.

            I’m not really seeing it.

            Capitalism merely allows someone to have ownership over a piece of land; it does not allow them to have sovereignty over that land. I can own a house, and that gives me the right to prevent anyone else from entering that house, but it does not give me the right to invite someone into my house and then kill them, or rape them, or torture them, or force them to work for me, or prevent them from leaving. This would even be true under an anarcho-capitalist system that didn’t have a government to make or enforce laws. (At least in theory. In practice, I’d imagine the lack of an enforcement mechanism would cause anarcho-capitalism to collapse into chaos, violence, and warlordism rather quickly, but that’s likely true for leftist forms of anarchism as well, and rather besides the point here.)

            King Leopold did not merely have ownership over the Congo Free State, he had sovereignty over it. That’s not capitalism, that’s feudalism. And if you think capitalism and feudalism are the same thing, or that one is simply a better version of the other, then you clearly don’t have a solid grasp on the socialist ideology you claim to espouse. Marx himself went over the differences between the two systems at great length, and he saw capitalism as fundamentally different from feudalism, to the point where he considered capitalism a rebellion against feudalism in much the same way that socialism was a rebellion against capitalism.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            Oh, so I’ve gotten to the “go indoctrinate yourself until you agree with me” phase of arguing with socialists? I’m gonna tap out, then.

            Fine, if you insist on being spoon fed? I’ll spoon feed you.

            Imagine some arbitrary person with an abundance of economic power. Maybe they got their economic power by being the head of the House Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, maybe they made a fortune in real estate or selling books and then eventually internet connected home speakers. That part doesn’t really matter (to me. If you’re hung up on this distinction then I don’t think I can help you).

            That person uses some of their economic power to buy a bunch strip of land somewhere where valuable resources are abundant but land is relatively cheap (maybe it’s not a nice place to live, for example). They then use another part of their economic power to buy the services of one of the many private military companies lounging around (Or better yet, starts their own entirely beholden to them!), and uses their newly-found military power to force the people living on their new land to labor for them extracting the valuable resources for their own gain.

            In what way is this resulting situation different from what Leopold II did?

            If you’re objection is “What you’re describing is a state”, then sure, I can respect that in a lot of respects the resulting mechanism looks pretty state-like. But I disagree vehemently with the notion that a pre-existing state’s power is required to build this enterprise in the first place.

            Private security forces are still bound to obey the laws of their home nation as well as whatever nation they’re operating in. Something like Leopold’s mercenary army would be considered a criminal organization by virtually every modern nation-state.

            Fine in theory, but PMCs regularly avoid legal consequences for their “criminal” behavior.

            So sure, Bezos could decide to become a warlord, raise an illegal mercenary army, and go around kidnapping and enslaving people. I’ll admit, it’s an entertaining image! But at that point you can’t really blame the institution of capitalism, because he would be flagrantly violating the rules of that institution.

            I can blame the institution of capitalism for enabling him (encouraging him even, as far as the cultural side of capitalism is concerned) to amass the economic power to make it a possibility in the first place.

            And realistically, it’s not exactly a viable plan for Bezos. By becoming an international criminal, he’d be giving up his right to a lot of the assets he earned under the capitalist system, probably more than he stands to make from this venture you’re describing. Furthermore, he has to rely solely on mercenaries with no personal loyalty to him, which is a very risky prospect; money alone can only guarantee loyalty for so long, particularly in hostile, violent, unstable environments. There are actual warlords in various parts of the world today, and they have far less wealth than Bezos does, but they’re still more effective than he could ever hope to be, because they command social and cultural power.

            Which is why he sticks to more acceptable behavior, and we have current Amazon and not diamond-mines Amazon. So… “The same situation, but less bad”, like I said earlier.

          • Nornagest says:

            If you’re objection is “What you’re describing is a state”, then sure, I can respect that in a lot of respects the resulting mechanism looks pretty state-like. But I disagree vehemently with the notion that a pre-existing state’s power is required to build this enterprise in the first place.

            I don’t support that notion either. It isn’t common, but reasonably long-lived states have sprung up from the actions of non-state actors — the Raj of Sarawak is the first example that comes to mind.

            All I’m arguing is that you’re describing a state, and in the Congo Free State’s case not a capitalist one. It’s conceivable, if not very practical, for a very rich contemporary actor to embark on a similar adventure, but that wouldn’t be a capitalist state either, despite resources gained under a capitalist system being used to kick-start it.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            I don’t support that notion either. It isn’t common, but reasonably long-lived states have sprung up from the actions of non-state actors — the Raj of Sarawak is the first example that comes to mind.

            “reasonably long lived” isn’t an important consideration for me, here.

            All I’m arguing is that you’re describing a state, and in the Congo Free State’s case not a capitalist one. It’s conceivable, if not very practical, for a very rich contemporary actor to embark on a similar adventure, but that wouldn’t be a capitalist state either.

            I don’t think that very rich contemporary actors are idealogically beholden to idea of capitalism. Power is power, and just because the very worst extreme abuses of power imaginable are outside the capitalist system as we understand it now doesn’t mean that concentration of power through economic means is a good idea and doesn’t regularly result in abuses on a smaller scale but still unacceptable (to me).

          • Civilis says:

            That person uses some of their economic power to buy a bunch strip of land somewhere where valuable resources are abundant but land is relatively cheap (maybe it’s not a nice place to live, for example). They then use another part of their economic power to buy the services of one of the many private military companies lounging around (Or better yet, starts their own entirely beholden to them!), and uses their newly-found military power to force the people living on their new land to labor for them extracting the valuable resources for their own gain.

            Right now, we’re seeing this scenario play out in the real world. A foreign entity uses its power to buy land, buying off the national government of the country in question (often with loans that need repayment, leaving the people supposedly helped in long-term debt), bringing in their own people to secure the work and oppressing the actual locals. Only the people doing it isn’t some theoretical billionaire, it’s the government of China, through corporations tied at the hip with the Chinese military. Trashing American billionaires does nothing to avoid that problem.

            If you want to avoid that scenario, what you want is some way to prevent anyone from doing this sort of exploitation, and the only way to do that is to empower the locals at the end of the scenario. The way to do that is, again, human rights, the rule of law, property rights, the free market and anti-corruption measures. Ironically, it’s that the US and the West have those same things that are the reason the US and the West has so many billionaires and so much economic power.

            The other irony is that China shows you what happens when you suppress the ability to amass power by economic means: all the power is further concentrated in the hands of those with political power. The same economic freedoms that allow people to amass economic power limit the ability of those with political power from stripping all economic power from those at the bottom.

          • sentientbeings says:

            @420BootyWizard

            My understanding is that Leopold II solved these problems with a private army, which he purchased as a private citizen entirely with his economic power. I don’t see why a Jeff Bezos type couldn’t repeat this.

            They still wouldn’t be the same, since LII was part of the state, and JB is not. But let’s be charitable and abstract it to “absurdly wealthy actor.” Do you know of any non-state cases for that? I can kinda, sorta, think of one, but it isn’t isn’t so much an army as a single, small-scale operation.

            [Ongoing unrelated point: You do not understand my point about computation. I don’t want to lay that on you. It’s hard to explain even when I know the the knowledge/educational background of my interlocutor and have an idea of how to frame it in the right way. Finding a better way to explain this point is probably my greatest intellectual goal. This computation and scalability argument cannot be escaped, though. It is the fundamental reason why central planning cannot – as opposed to does not – work.]

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            Right now, we’re seeing this scenario play out in the real world. A foreign entity uses its power to buy land, buying off the national government of the country in question (often with loans that need repayment, leaving the people supposedly helped in long-term debt), bringing in their own people to secure the work and oppressing the actual locals. Only the people doing it isn’t some theoretical billionaire, it’s the government of China, through corporations tied at the hip with the Chinese military. Trashing American billionaires does nothing to avoid that problem.

            If you’re under the impression that I love china because we both use the same word (“socialist”) to describe ourselves and that this is some kind of slam-dunk against socialism, then I don’t know what to tell you. I’m kind of sick of repeating “I don’t love Stalin! I’m not that kind of socialist!” over and over again at this point.

            If you want to avoid that scenario, what you want is some way to prevent anyone from doing this sort of exploitation, and the only way to do that is to empower the locals at the end of the scenario. The way to do that is, again, human rights, the rule of law, property rights, the free market and anti-corruption measures.

            You’re going to be hard pressed to find someone who is against human rights, the rule of law, and anti-corruption measures. “property rights” and “the free market” could mean a lot of things so I’m going to have to ask you to be more specific.

            Again, you seem to think I’m a tankie. I’m not.

            Ironically, it’s that the US and the West have those same things that are the reason the US and the West has so many billionaires and so much economic power.

            Personally I think the US is lacking a bit on the anti-corruption measures side. There’s been some significant backsliding on that in the past few decades, and it’s not like things were flawless to begin with.

            The other irony is that China shows you what happens when you suppress the ability to amass power by economic means: all the power is further concentrated in the hands of those with political power. The same economic freedoms that allow people to amass economic power limit the ability of those with political power from stripping all economic power from those at the bottom.

            I reject the dichotomy that you’re presenting where either we let billionaires have their way with society or we slip into totalitarianism.

            They still wouldn’t be the same, since LII was part of the state, and JB is not. But let’s be charitable and abstract it to “absurdly wealthy actor.” Do you know of any non-state cases for that? I can kinda, sorta, think of one, but it isn’t isn’t so much an army as a single, small-scale operation.

            “absurdly wealthy actor” is exactly the abstraction I was trying to invoke in the first place. I’m not implying that literally Jeff Bezos is literally an African warlord.

            As for specific cases, you’ll have to pardon me for not knowing the names of the warlords running conflict diamond operations and such, but I’ve heard they exist. I admit that I haven’t verified firsthand and have no interest in doing so.

            [Ongoing unrelated point: You do not understand my point about computation. I don’t want to lay that on you. It’s hard to explain even when I know the the knowledge/educational background of my interlocutor and have an idea of how to frame it in the right way. Finding a better way to explain this point is probably my greatest intellectual goal. This computation and scalability argument cannot be escaped, though. It is the fundamental reason why central planning cannot – as opposed to does not – work.]

            I might have an easier time understanding if you made an attempt at explaining rather than just saying “I can’t explain it to you, please trust me”. Right now all I’ve got is that you think it’s fundamentally un-compute-able like you’re talking about souls or something. You’ve given me nothing to go off of.

            If my education and background are important to you, I majored in math and have a more-than-passing interest in computers. I don’t know specifically what you’re looking for.

          • Aapje says:

            @420BootyWizard

            The parts of this story that I have a problem with aren’t the “happen to be king of Belgium” part. Titles are irrelevant, power was the driving force here.

            Leopold couldn’t have gotten control over Congo if he hadn’t been king. He was given control at a conference of nations, where the countries sought to organize colonialism.

            He didn’t buy control over Congo with money.

            Power is power, and just because the very worst extreme abuses of power imaginable are outside the capitalist system as we understand it now doesn’t mean that concentration of power through economic means is a good idea and doesn’t regularly result in abuses on a smaller scale but still unacceptable (to me).

            Power is indeed power, which is why vilifying one form of power and trying to replace it with a different kind of power is just going to result in new and quite possibly much worse abuses. It’s way more important to have checks and balances.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            Leopold couldn’t have gotten control over Congo if he hadn’t been king. He was given control at a conference of nations, where the countries sought to organize colonialism.

            He didn’t buy control over Congo with money.

            You misunderstood me. Belgium bought control of Congo from him afterwards, because as is a historical fact the Congo Free State was Leopold II’s personal property and not the property of the state. This is the crux of my objection, and this is what I’d like you to focus on. A man was allowed to personally own what no one man should be allowed to personally own, and the only way to stop that was to write him a check, rewarding him further for his evil. Private property at this scale (And I’m also extrapolating to include smaller-but-still-unthinkably-huge scales like Amazon) is a bad idea.

            But honestly I’m getting kind of tired of rehashing the details of the Congo with every new person that wants to join in on this thread, especially when it’s not at all central to the point I was making when I brought it up:

            My actual likely response is that starving X million people is in no way a necessary or central part of socialism, in spite of the concentrated US cold war propaganda trying to make it seem like it is. This is like laying all of the evils of Leopold II’s Congo Free State at capitalism’s feet (Which there’s an argument for; Colonialism starts to look mighty pointless if there isn’t a profit to be had at the end of the day). In the same way that your idealized capitalism doesn’t involve the genocide of a bunch of Congolese people, my idealized socialism doesn’t involve starving X million people.

            “But the congo free state wasn’t capitalist!”
            Great! And mass starvation isn’t socialist! Glad we agree.

            Power is indeed power, which is why vilifying one form of power and trying to replace it with a different kind of power is just going to result in new and quite possibly much worse abuses. It’s way more important to have checks and balances.

            1) I’m not against checks and balances. I’m not advocating a return to the USSR. Please stop assuming I am.
            2) What’s the “different kind of power” that you’re assuming I want to replace it with?
            3) What checks and balances is Bezos under, exactly?

          • LadyJane says:

            “But the congo free state wasn’t capitalist!”
            Great! And mass starvation isn’t socialist! Glad we agree.

            It’s a fallacious argument. When socialists claim that the Soviet Union wasn’t “real socialism,” it’s comparable to when libertarians claim that the modern U.S. isn’t “real capitalism.” Both of those are examples of No True Scotsman arguments.

            However, it’s not comparable to claiming that the Congo Free State isn’t capitalist, because virtually everyone with any knowledge of the subject (including actual Marxists!) would agree that the Congo Free State wasn’t capitalist! Saying that it’s an example of capitalism, even a noncentral example, is wrong even within the framework of the socialist worldview you claim to espouse. If you actually read any of Marx’s works (or even just summaries of Marx’s works), you’d realize that he considered feudalism to be entirely different from capitalism.

            And the reason people keep harping on the Congo example is because it displays your ignorance of the topic at hand. It shows that you really don’t understand the terms you’re using, and in fact deeply misunderstand them. There are other examples you could’ve chosen to make your point (e.g. Chile under Pinochet, which was an actual instance of capitalist economics paired with a highly repressive, brutal, authoritarian government), but instead you chose one that doesn’t work at all.

            Private property at this scale (And I’m also extrapolating to include smaller-but-still-unthinkably-huge scales like Amazon) is a bad idea.

            I already explained in an earlier post why it wasn’t just “private property,” but you conveniently ignored my explanation of the difference between ownership and sovereignty. King Leopold didn’t merely own the land, he had total sovereignty over it.

            The U.S. political-economic-legal system allows for private ownership of property, which means that in theory, there’s nothing to prevent someone from owning an equally large territory. But even if I owned a body of land comparable in size to the Congo Free State, and even if I had a team of private security forces, I still wouldn’t be able to do what King Leopold did, because I still wouldn’t have sovereignty over the land. I couldn’t keep people there against their will or force them to labor for me under threat of violence, because that would violate U.S. law. King Leopold didn’t have to worry about that, because he was the law – not because he owned the land, but because he held sovereignty over it.

            This is a crucial and fundamental distinction that you’re either missing or willfully ignoring.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            It’s a fallacious argument. When socialists claim that the Soviet Union wasn’t “real socialism,” it’s comparable to when libertarians claim that the modern U.S. isn’t “real capitalism.” Both of those are examples of No True Scotsman arguments.

            What I’m really making is an arguement against the noncentral fallacy. The USSR obviously has it’s faults which I’m pretty sure we agree on (Edit: In case we don’t agree on them, the faults I’m talking about are the mass starvations and “pile of bodies” that people casually refer to), but I disagree that said faults are in any way central to socialism.

            However, it’s not comparable to claiming that the Congo Free State isn’t capitalist, because virtually everyone with any knowledge of the subject (including actual Marxists!) would agree that the Congo Free State wasn’t capitalist! Saying that it’s an example of capitalism, even a noncentral example, is wrong even within the framework of the socialist worldview you claim to espouse. If you actually read any of Marx’s works (or even just summaries of Marx’s works), you’d realize that he considered feudalism to be entirely different from capitalism.

            Good for Marx, I guess? I have my fair share of disagreements with Marx and don’t consider myself beholden to his writings, so saying “This is what Marx would have said” is meaningless to me.

            And the reason people keep harping on the Congo example is because it displays your ignorance of the topic at hand. It shows that you really don’t understand the terms you’re using, and in fact deeply misunderstand them. There are other examples you could’ve chosen to make your point (e.g. Chile under Pinochet, which was an actual instance of capitalist economics paired with a highly repressive, brutal, authoritarian government), but instead you chose one that doesn’t work at all.

            Fine. Chile under Pinochet. Whatever. Can we get back to the point I’m actually trying to make now?

            I already explained in an earlier post why it wasn’t just “private property,” but you conveniently ignored my explanation of the difference between ownership and sovereignty. King Leopold didn’t merely own the land, he had total sovereignty over it.

            By the meaning of sovereignty specific to states, you’re absolutely right. By the meaning of sovereignty meaning “having power over”, it’s a difference of degrees not a difference in kind. It’s totally unimportant to my point that the Congo Free State was a state. For the umpteenth time, my problem with the situation is the concentration of power.

            The U.S. political-economic-legal system allows for private ownership of property, which means that in theory, there’s nothing to prevent someone from owning an equally large territory. But even if I owned a body of land comparable in size to the Congo Free State, and even if I had a team of private security forces, I still wouldn’t be able to do what King Leopold did, because I still wouldn’t have sovereignty over the land. I couldn’t keep people there against their will or force them to labor for me under threat of violence, because that would violate U.S. law. King Leopold didn’t have to worry about that, because he was the law – not because he owned the land, but because he held sovereignty over it.

            “It’s against the law!” is a thin fig leaf when history is littered with powerful people using their power (economic and otherwise) to break the law and get away with it scot-free. It’s an especially thin fig leaf when the US law-making process is as mired in lobbyist money as it is (For some reason, by tradition, we don’t call this corruption even though it’s pretty much exactly corruption). In light of all this, forgive me for not taking “It’s illegal” as some kind of silver bullet.

            This is a crucial and fundamental distinction that you’re either missing or willfully ignoring.

            I’m not willfully ignoring it. I’m disagreeing with you about how fundamental and important it is.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @420BootyWizard

            You are absolutely right and correct to use “socialist” to refer to Europeans-style social democracies. They parties that implemented those polices call themselves socialist, are part of Socialist International, ect.

            Since capitalism is defined as private ownership, Norway might the most socialistic country in the world. These are just the facts.

            Don’t let these people attempt to control your language. It is LadyJane and others who are motte-and-baileying by insisting that “socialism” be restricted to the USSR, Maoist China, ect.

            This is a very recent turn of rhetoric, used almost exclusively by the economic right, and doesn’t even apply in Europe.

          • Plumber says:

            @Guy in TN,
            That was an interesting link, thanks for that!

          • LadyJane says:

            @Guy in TN: That article you linked had some good points. For instance, I knew Norway had more state ownership of industry than the U.S., but I didn’t know it was by two orders of magnitude. So yes, Nordic economic policy is somewhat further left than I thought.

            But I still disagree with the conclusion that Norway is a socialist country in any meaningful way. State ownership of corporations is distinct from the type of industrial nationalization favored by socialists and implemented in socialist countries. In the former, the state is simply the sole or dominant shareholder in a company that’s still subject to market pressures; in the latter, the state has no such constraints and can dictate the economic functions of the entire industry as it pleases. The Soviet Union had the latter, while modern Russia has the former, which goes to show just how different they are.

            Norway is definitely more socialist than the U.S., but it’s still fundamentally a capitalist economy, in the same way that Yugoslavia was more capitalist than the Soviet Union but still fundamentally a socialist economy.

          • LadyJane says:

            @Guy in TN: Now, to address your own claims:

            You are absolutely right and correct to use “socialist” to refer to Europeans-style social democracies.

            The majority of political scientists disagree with you, as do most actual socialist organizations. I listed several examples above.

            They parties that implemented those polices call themselves socialist, are part of Socialist International, ect.

            I have no doubt that socialists will support left-liberal reform policies when it’s a choice between that or nothing, but left-liberal reformism is not their end goal. NY State Senator Julia Salazar – a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and one of the only genuinely socialist politicians in the U.S. – has expressed a willingness to work with Bernie-style progressives in the short-term. But she’s also made it clear that her long-term goals differ from theirs, since she seeks to dismantle capitalism altogether, rather than trying to create solutions within the capitalist system.

            Since capitalism is defined as private ownership, Norway might the most socialistic country in the world. These are just the facts.

            That’s a patently absurd claim, considering there are actual socialist and communist countries like Cuba, China, and North Korea in the world.

            And even if you’re only talking about first world countries, it’s debatable if Norway is really the most socialistic. There are many different aspects of economic policy, and Norway might be the furthest left on some, but that doesn’t mean it’s the furthest left on all of them. For instance, Britain is probably the most socialistic first world country when it comes to healthcare, given the scope and scale of the NHS, but it’s also one of the most capitalistic European nations in many other ways.

            Don’t let these people attempt to control your language. It is LadyJane and others who are motte-and-baileying by insisting that “socialism” be restricted to the USSR, Maoist China, ect.

            This is a very recent turn of rhetoric, used almost exclusively by the economic right, and doesn’t even apply in Europe.

            So now you’re just accusing me of bad faith? Not very charitable of you.

            And saying that I’m “motte-and-baileying” makes no sense. What would be the motte and what would be the bailey? If I was doing what you accused me of, that would be an example of the Association Fallacy and/or the Appeal to the Dictionary fallacy, but it wouldn’t be a Motte-and-Bailey.

            At any rate, you have it backwards. It’s the economic far-right that always conflates social democracy with socialism. The hardline fiscal conservatives are the ones who constantly claim that everyone and everything to the left of Reagan is “socialist.” It’s a propaganda tactic, their way of getting the masses to oppose welfare and taxes and common sense regulations by associating those things with socialism.

          • Guy in TN says:

            State ownership of corporations is distinct from the type of industrial nationalization favored by socialists and implemented in socialist countries. In the former, the state is simply the sole or dominant shareholder in a company that’s still subject to market pressures; in the latter, the state has no such constraints and can dictate the economic functions of the entire industry as it pleases.

            What do you mean by “subject to market pressures”? The revenue the government uses to purchase these shares comes at least partially from taxation, so it would be incorrect to say that they relied solely on market mechanisms. Not sure where the line is here for you. If the U.S. government raised taxed to purchase, for example, the largest telecommunications company (which includes of course raising taxes on the telecommunications company itself), this differs from from outright nationalization in what meaningful way?

            I have no doubt that socialists will support left-liberal reform policies when it’s a choice between that or nothing, but left-liberal reformism is not their end goal.

            Socialist parties have been in power in European countries on many occasions throughout the 20th century, yet they chose to implement what you might call social democracy. Are they hypocrites? Liars? Or perhaps, you simply misunderstood them? If they choose not to implement what you believed to be their “end goal”, even when they had the votes to do so, I’d say their actions speak louder than words.

            This whole semantic debate over “what is socialism?” incredibly exhausting. If you want to say that high levels of taxation, regulation, and state ownership is “capitalist”, great. I’m not sure what it takes for a country to be “socialist” for you, but apparently the bar is so high, I shouldn’t have to worry about it.

            So let’s implement Medicare for All, nationalize major industries (via taxation, of course), and regulate the billionaires out of existence. All in the name of “capitalism”, I guess.

          • LadyJane says:

            What do you mean by “subject to market pressures”? The revenue the government uses to purchase these shares comes at least partially from taxation, so it would be incorrect to say that they relied solely on market mechanisms. Not sure where the line is here for you. If the U.S. government raised taxed to purchase, for example, the largest telecommunications company (which includes of course raising taxes on the telecommunications company itself), this differs from from outright nationalization in what meaningful way?

            First of all, I want to make it clear that I don’t support state ownership either, with the possible exception of utilities. I just recognize that it’s far less extreme than outright nationalization.

            There are three major distinctions here: First, and most obviously, state-owned companies still need to make a profit, whereas government agencies have no obligation to bring in more money than they spend. Second, many (though not all) state-owned companies are publicly-traded and still have private shareholders, the state just owns a controlling interest in them. The behavior of other shareholders could still impact the company; for instance, a large group of shareholders could threaten to collectively pull out their shares if the company implements an unpopular policy. Third, state-owned companies still have to compete with other corporations in the market. Even if there’s no competition within the country, they’d still have to worry about foreign competition as long as the country engaged in some amount of free trade.

            Now, if the state had sole ownership over the company and existed in a closed economy where it didn’t have to deal with any competitors and kept the business artificially propped up whenever it ran out of money, then I’d agree that it would be almost indistinguishable from a nationalized industry. And if the state “only” owned 95% of the company, and “allowed” foreign trade but implemented prohibitively high tariffs that made foreign products virtually impossible to afford, that wouldn’t be too different. At that point, the only factor that would differentiate our hypothetical nation from a true socialist command economy would be that moving toward a market-based system would be possible without having to radically overhaul the entire structure.

            Socialist parties have been in power in European countries on many occasions throughout the 20th century, yet they chose to implement what you might call social democracy. Are they hypocrites? Liars? Or perhaps, you simply misunderstood them? If they choose not to implement what you believed to be their “end goal”, even when they had the votes to do so, I’d say their actions speak louder than words.

            “Power” in a democracy is far from absolute. Exercising power still requires a great deal of compromise, particularly in European parlimentary systems that have multiple parties competing for influence rather than just two. What typically happens is that one party will take power by gaining a plurality, and then it will form coalitions with other parties to pursue specific goals on specific issues. So the Socialist parties of Europe would’ve still had to compromise with the various Centrist and Liberal Democrat parties in order to get legislation passed.

            And no, I’m not accusing them of being hypocrites or lying, because they openly say exactly what I’ve been saying.

            https://www.thedailybeast.com/real-socialists-think-bernies-a-sellout
            https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/20/9767096/bernie-sanders-socialism-jacobin
            https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/07/julia-salazar-interview-socialist-new-york-senate

            This whole semantic debate over “what is socialism?” incredibly exhausting. If you want to say that high levels of taxation, regulation, and state ownership is “capitalist”, great. I’m not sure what it takes for a country to be “socialist” for you, but apparently the bar is so high, I shouldn’t have to worry about it.

            So let’s implement Medicare for All, nationalize major industries (via taxation, of course), and regulate the billionaires out of existence. All in the name of “capitalism”, I guess.

            The fact that you would conflate all of these policies together is a perfect example of the problem I’m talking about. The three of them are not comparable at all.

            Virtually every developed nation in the world has some form of universal health care. If you’re going to argue that only socialist countries have government-funded healthcare, then the entire first world is socialist and no country on Earth could be described as capitalist.

            Full nationalization of industries is something that almost never happens outside of socialist command economies and third world autocracies. Even if you’re counting state ownership of companies as a form of partial nationalization, that’s still fairly rare aside from utilities and infrastructure.

            Taxing and regulating billionaires out of existence is an extreme far-left position that literally doesn’t happen anywhere. Even China and Russia have billionaires now, due to the market reforms they implemented in the 80s and 90s. And as someone mentioned earlier in the thread, the Nordic countries that you keep bringing up have roughly the same amount of billionaires per capita as the United States.

          • Plumber says:

            @LadyJane says: “….Taxing and regulating billionaires out of existence is an extreme far-left position that literally doesn’t happen anywhere…”

            Anywhere?

            Well maybe not now, but I was born and remember a nation that compared to today had mostly taxed billionaires out of existence (or at least had far less and none with fortunes to the scale of Bezos, Buffet, Ellison, Gates, Thiel and others though it had some decades before I was born), and in the two years before I was born plus the three years after the rate of children below the poverty line dropped in half, and that nation sent men to the moon.

            Ninety to one hundred years ago great personal fortunes existed prompting men like Jay Could to say “I Can Pay One Half Of The Working Class To Kill The Other Half”, but after a stock market collapse and desperate subsequent unemployment just over 30 years before I was born top marginal income taxes were raised higher than they’d ever been in peacetime as many of my countrymen were desperately poor and “relief” and “make work” programs were implemented to a scale not seen before, and then war clouds gathered, peacetime conscription started, taxes were further raised (in place until 1947) munitions factories ramped up, and then the feared attack from overseas came and then an even bigger war footing began with more spending and more taxes collected than ever before, and income distribution between the rich and poor became much smaller than it had been previously, during the war and just after mansions in a place called “Long Island” were subdivided, and after the war thousands then millions of single family homes were built as the tenements of the cities emptied out, median hourly wages climbed until 1973, as did the percentage of wealth going to labor, the rich still existed but not to the scale they did before (and would again), then what later came to be called “the great compression” stopped in the wake of a trade embargo and the end of conscription among other things, both inflation and recession hit at the same time and a new President was elected who said “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”, taxes were cut, unemployment climbed even higher, then homelessness, many jobs came back later, but homelessness persisted, the murder rate climed high, from my bedroom I could hear gunfire and police sirens most every month for hears on end, drug abuse climbed, divorce climbed, more children were born never knowing their fathers, then the jails filled up to levels never seen before,  and at the same time great fortunes like those seen before the war accumulated again.

            And now here we are in the U.S.A.

            Oh, BTW for many years those ‘confistatory’ taxes were largely to pay for a military to contain the far left that was then on the march.

            The high taxes worked, government (and the labor unions it then supported) worked, a broad-based prosperous middle-class existed that didn’t before to that scale, and rockets went to the moon and planted our nations flag on it!

            It worked and I regard abandoning that model as shameful. 

            Clear?

        • lvlln says:

          I wish we had a better example of communism to point to so people could stop talking about the soviet union, I really do. But the entire history of communism and socialism has been met with reactionary violence by those in power since before the time of Marx, even going back to proto-socialist religious movements like the cathars. I know “true communism has never been tried!” is a meme at this point, but it really would be nice to have some kind of test society that didn’t have to deal with cold wars and external enemies orchestrating attempted coups every other Tuesday.

          But cold wars and external enemies orchestrating attempted coups every other Tuesday are just facts of life that any state is going to have to deal with, unless that state manages total world domination. If not those things, they’ll be other external factors that hamper and threaten to bring it down in some other way for some other people’s benefits. A political ideology that requires the absence of such factors in order to succeed is a complete dead end, even if it were empirically proven beyond all doubt that the ideology, freed from such real-world constraints, would create literal Heaven on Earth if implemented.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            But cold wars and external enemies orchestrating attempted coups every other Tuesday are just facts of life that any state is going to have to deal with, unless that state manages total world domination. If not those things, they’ll be other external factors that hamper and threaten to bring it down in some other way for some other people’s benefits. A political ideology that requires the absence of such factors in order to succeed is a complete dead end, even if it were empirically proven beyond all doubt that the ideology, freed from such real-world constraints, would create literal Heaven on Earth if implemented.

            There’s run of the mill external enemies and coups that run of the mill states deal with, and then there’s the kind of “This threatens the interests of the ruling class internationally” kind of response that socialism and communism got/gets. You may well be right, although I hope you’re not, but in either case I disagree that “these are just facts of life that all states deal with”.

          • lvlln says:

            There’s run of the mill external enemies and coups that run of the mill states deal with, and then there’s the kind of “This threatens the interests of the ruling class internationally” kind of response that socialism and communism got/gets. You may well be right, although I hope you’re not, but in either case I disagree that “these are just facts of life that all states deal with”.

            OK, let’s posit that states that attempt socialism and communism got/gets non- run of the mill external enemies by nature of threatening the interest of the ruling class internationally. These external forces are and will be above and beyond what a typical non-socialist/non-communist state has to deal with.

            Then clearly that extraordinary hampering is just a fact of life that any potentially successful socialist or communist state has to deal with. Again, if success requires a fantasy landscape where the international ruling class doesn’t take particular interest in socialist/communist states for threatening its interests and doesn’t put extraordinary hindrances in its way, then a successful such state is just a mirage. Either the ideology needs to adjust such that it develops ways to subvert those extraordinary hindrances and succeed in their face anyway, or it’s a dead end.

            So I still disagree that a test society that didn’t have to deal with cold wars and external enemies orchestrating attempted coups every other Tuesday would be at all a valuable example to point to; a test society that truly serves as an example needs to also test the real-world hindrances that such a society would face, and if those hindrances are extraordinary and above and beyond what any other typical society would have to deal with, then so be it.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            OK, let’s posit that states that attempt socialism and communism got/gets non- run of the mill external enemies by nature of threatening the interest of the ruling class internationally. These external forces are and will be above and beyond what a typical non-socialist/non-communist state has to deal with.

            Then clearly that extraordinary hampering is just a fact of life that any potentially successful socialist or communist state has to deal with. Again, if success requires a fantasy landscape where the international ruling class doesn’t take particular interest in socialist/communist states for threatening its interests and doesn’t put extraordinary hindrances in its way, then a successful such state is just a mirage. Either the ideology needs to adjust such that it develops ways to subvert those extraordinary hindrances and succeed in their face anyway, or it’s a dead end.

            There’s this weird defeatist stripe in anti-communist thought that you’re displaying here, where any suggestion that we can do better is met with “It can’t be done! This goes against the natural order of things! Any attempts to change the rules of the game are futile!”. It’s like giving up when you see how tall the pile of rocks you need to move is, rather than rolling up your sleeves and picking up a rock.

            Like, you’ve successfully identified a problem. Why is the correct response to that problem “It’s a dead end”?

            So I still disagree that a test society that didn’t have to deal with cold wars and external enemies orchestrating attempted coups every other Tuesday would be at all a valuable example to point to; a test society that truly serves as an example needs to also test the real-world hindrances that such a society would face, and if those hindrances are extraordinary and above and beyond what any other typical society would have to deal with, then so be it.

            Okay. I guess we’ll just have to jump headlong into our glorious socialist future without doing any testing at all, come what may. I’m not sure how this is a better state of affairs, but I’m not the one arguing for this.

          • lvlln says:

            There’s this weird defeatist stripe in anti-communist thought that you’re displaying here, where any suggestion that we can do better is met with “It can’t be done! This goes against the natural order of things! Any attempts to change the rules of the game are futile!”. It’s like giving up when you see how tall the pile of rocks you need to move is, rather than rolling up your sleeves and picking up a rock.

            Like, you’ve successfully identified a problem. Why is the correct response to that problem “It’s a dead end”?

            I never said that the correct response to that problem was “it’s a dead end.” I said that any ideology which requires a fantasy setting that bears no resemblance to reality is an ideological dead end. Either modify the ideology into a new ideology where you can demonstrate its efficacy by example in the real world with all its hostilities, or find a brand new one where you can do the same. But keeping the same ideology while just wistfully pining for a fictional world where you could convincingly demonstrate the efficacy of the ideology if only the rest of reality were to conform to your fantasies is a dead end.

            Okay. I guess we’ll just have to jump headlong into our glorious socialist future without doing any testing at all, come what may. I’m not sure how this is a better state of affairs, but I’m not the one arguing for this.

            I don’t think we’ll have to do that at all, and I have no idea how you concluded that; I’d be curious to know what line of reasoning you followed to reach that conclusion. I prefer making incremental and significant improvements to society based on empirical analysis. I think that’s been pretty well-established as a far better state of affairs than what you think we have to do.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            I never said that the correct response to that problem was “it’s a dead end.” I said that any ideology which requires a fantasy setting that bears no resemblance to reality is an ideological dead end. Either modify the ideology into a new ideology where you can demonstrate its efficacy by example in the real world with all its hostilities, or find a brand new one where you can do the same. But keeping the same ideology while just wistfully pining for a fictional world where you could convincingly demonstrate the efficacy of the ideology if only the rest of reality were to conform to your fantasies is a dead end.

            I guess you think I’m advocating that we should keep trying to retrace the exact footsteps of failed states in the past? And I feel like it should go without saying that I’m not advocating that.

            I don’t think we’ll have to do that at all, and I have no idea how you concluded that; I’d be curious to know what line of reasoning you followed to reach that conclusion. I prefer making incremental and significant improvements to society based on empirical analysis. I think that’s been pretty well-established as a far better state of affairs than what you think we have to do.

            What, exactly, do you think that I think we have to do?

          • lvlln says:

            I guess you think I’m advocating that we should keep trying to retrace the exact footsteps of failed states in the past? And I feel like it should go without saying that I’m not advocating that.

            Not at all. I think you’re advocating something similar to the steps followed by failed states in the past, but with differences you find significant and which you believe will allow you to avoid similar pitfalls as those failed states fell into. I’m just pointing out that pining for a fantasy universe in which you could prove by example that what you’re advocating really would end differently if only the rest of the world behaved the way you wished they behaved is useless and in fact does little but raise reasonable suspicion that you actually don’t have good empirical reason to believe that you’ll avoid those pitfalls this time. Because, again, if your ideology really were modified to not be a dead end, you wouldn’t need to pine for such a fantasy universe; you’d be able to demonstrate by creating an example that worked in this real universe in which we live, or at least you’d be able to propose a realistic way to create such an example starting from this real universe in which we live today.

            What, exactly, do you think that I think we have to do?

            I literally quoted your prior post in my post:

            Okay. I guess we’ll just have to jump headlong into our glorious socialist future without doing any testing at all, come what may.

            I disagree that we’ll “just have to” do this. I repeat, we ought to use empirical analysis to inform incremental and significant improvements. Complaining that the universe won’t conform with the fantasies required to produce the empirical evidence that you’re really sure would exist if the universe did conform isn’t a valid excuse for lack of empirical evidence.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            Not at all. I think you’re advocating something similar to the steps followed by failed states in the past, but with differences you find significant and which you believe will allow you to avoid similar pitfalls as those failed states fell into.

            I feel like there’s probably a lot of disagreement we could have over the word “similar” in “advocating something similar”, but sure, whatever.

            I’m just pointing out that pining for a fantasy universe in which you could prove by example that what you’re advocating really would end differently if only the rest of the world behaved the way you wished they behaved is useless and in fact does little but raise reasonable suspicion that you actually don’t have good empirical reason to believe that you’ll avoid those pitfalls this time. Because, again, if your ideology really were modified to not be a dead end, you wouldn’t need to pine for such a fantasy universe; you’d be able to demonstrate by creating an example that worked in this real universe in which we live, or at least you’d be able to propose a realistic way to create such an example starting from this real universe in which we live today.

            I wonder if you raised similar objections to Scott’s “pining” in his article about the archipelago. That’s basically the “pining” I’m doing here.

            I literally quoted your prior post in my post:

            Okay. I guess we’ll just have to jump headlong into our glorious socialist future without doing any testing at all, come what may.

            I disagree that we’ll “just have to” do this. I repeat, we ought to use empirical analysis to inform incremental and significant improvements. Complaining that the universe won’t conform with the fantasies required to produce the empirical evidence that you’re really sure would exist if the universe did conform isn’t a valid excuse for lack of empirical evidence.

            I feel like there’s quite a bit of evidence in the “just have to” front, the french revolution for example. If the options are “slow down/reverse the concentration of power within the system we have by changing the system, or insist that nothing can be done until the guillotines come out”, I choose the former.

            But I feel like in general you’ve read entirely too much into a throwaway line about wishing people would shut up about the USSR and pretending like that’s indicative of socialism (and socialists) everywhere.

          • lvlln says:

            I wonder if you raised similar objections to Scott’s “pining” in his article about the archipelago. That’s basically the “pining” I’m doing here.

            I don’t recall if I commented on that post; I don’t comment on most of Scott’s actual posts. But I recall I found all the libertarian pining over the fantasy archipelago to be at least as silly as all the communist pining over the fantasy socialist state that doesn’t cause massive amounts of unnecessary suffering and death. That may partly be from my bias due to having a pretty dim view of libertarianism in general (or anarcho-capitalism or whatever one wants to call that), but I like to think I was relying on the general principle that if your ideology can’t produce any meaningful examples without first positing a fantasy universe, then your ideology needs to, at least, be heavily modified.

            I feel like there’s quite a bit of evidence in the “just have to” front, the french revolution for example. If the options are “slow down/reverse the concentration of power within the system we have by changing the system, or insist that nothing can be done until the guillotines come out”, I choose the former.

            I don’t see how the French Revolution serves as evidence that we “just have to jump headlong into our glorious socialist future.” And No, those aren’t the options. Even if those were the options, “slow down/reverse the concentration of power within the system we have by changing the system” bears no resemblance to “jump headlong into our glorious socialist future.” There are a billion and one possible ways to slow down/reverse the concentration of power within the system by changing the system, many of them the complete opposite of socialist, and many others that are completely orthogonal to socialist.

            But I feel like in general you’ve read entirely too much into a throwaway line about wishing people would shut up about the USSR and pretending like that’s indicative of socialism (and socialists) everywhere.

            Fair enough, I guess. If you call it a throwaway line, you describe it aptly, as a line that deserves nothing but to be tossed aside by those people who you wish would shut up.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            I don’t see how the French Revolution serves as evidence that we “just have to jump headlong into our glorious socialist future.” And No, those aren’t the options. Even if those were the options, “slow down/reverse the concentration of power within the system we have by changing the system” bears no resemblance to “jump headlong into our glorious socialist future.” There are a billion and one possible ways to slow down/reverse the concentration of power within the system by changing the system, many of them the complete opposite of socialist, and many others that are completely orthogonal to socialist.

            You seem to be really, really, caught up in my use of the phrase “jump into our glorious socialist future”. If I, instead of using that shorthand, provided you with more concrete proposals things I support like “Join the rest of the civilized world in having universal health care”, “Limit the concentration of economic power, by ensuring it can’t legally buy political and legal power as easily”, “Tinker with UBI until we get it right, then expand it”, does that make you happier?

            If those aren’t socialist to you, tell that to the people who scream “Socialism!” every time they’re brought up.

            But I feel like in general you’ve read entirely too much into a throwaway line about wishing people would shut up about the USSR and pretending like that’s indicative of socialism (and socialists) everywhere.

            Fair enough, I guess. If you call it a throwaway line, you describe it aptly, as a line that deserves nothing but to be tossed aside by those people who you wish would shut up.

            I take it you’re one of those that likes to pretend, then? I can’t stop you.

          • LadyJane says:

            If I, instead of using that shorthand, provided you with more concrete proposals things I support like “Join the rest of the civilized world in having universal health care”, “Limit the concentration of economic power, by ensuring it can’t legally buy political and legal power as easily”, “Tinker with UBI until we get it right, then expand it”, does that make you happier?

            If you did that, then I’d accuse you of using motte-and-bailey tactics, and rightfully so.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            If you did that, then I’d accuse you of using motte-and-bailey tactics, and rightfully so.

            Fine. I formally apologize for using the shorthand “jump into the glorious socialist future”. I don’t support the attrocities of Stalin and Mao and such, and have no interest in seeing them repeated. I’m publicly renouncing all rights to use universal health care and UBI as a mottle for the bailey of amassing power for myself and disposing of my political enemies.

            Is everybody satisfied?

          • lvlln says:

            You seem to be really, really, caught up in my use of the phrase “jump into our glorious socialist future”. If I, instead of using that shorthand, provided you with more concrete proposals things I support like “Join the rest of the civilized world in having universal health care”, “Limit the concentration of economic power, by ensuring it can’t legally buy political and legal power as easily”, “Tinker with UBI until we get it right, then expand it”, does that make you happier?

            If those aren’t socialist to you, tell that to the people who scream “Socialism!” every time they’re brought up.

            Sure, of course that would make me happier. And yes, those aren’t socialist to me – I am 100% in favor of all of those things, and I don’t consider myself a socialist in anything other than the most milquetoast general meaning of that term – and I do tell that to the idiots who scream “Socialism!” every time they’re brought up. Those people are wrong and just as harmful to discourse with their diluting of what “socialism” means as the people who yell “White supremacy!” at every little thing that they perceive as unjust are with their diluting of what “white supremacy” means.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            Those people are wrong and just as harmful to discourse with their diluting of what “socialism” mean

            I think that battle is already lost. I don’t condemn you for fighting it, but personally I’ve given in and surrendered. If that’s what socialism means then fine, I’m a socialist.

            Sorry for the resulting confusion.

          • lvlln says:

            Fine. I formally apologize for using the shorthand “jump into the glorious socialist future”. I don’t support the attrocities of Stalin and Mao and such, and have no interest in seeing them repeated. I’m publicly renouncing all rights to use universal health care and UBI as a mottle for the bailey of amassing power for myself and disposing of my political enemies.

            Is everybody satisfied?

            It seems to me that you have the wrong idea of what the bailey consists of in this context. The bailey has nothing to do with what your motives are or how good a person you are or whatever. You could be a literal angel with nothing but good intentions who fully intends to achieve nothing but good things and even 100% successfully accomplish what you want and still fall into the bailey.

            Because the bailey isn’t about the power you amass and what you do with that power, but rather the infrastructure of power you build that someone is likely to abuse for disposing of their political enemies. Of course, no system is immune from abuse or even free from it at any given point in time, but different systems have different levels of ability of preventing abuse and mitigating their negative effects, and people are reasonable to be highly suspicious of an ideology that has been empirically shown to handle abuse from totalitarian strongmen pretty poorly.

            Especially when someone who swears that it will be different this time, honest! is complaining about how all those nasty outside factors – of which the international ruling class is one and abusive strongmen are another – are what’s keeping them from having real empirical evidence to point to. It seems to reflect a lack of proper consideration for the fact that any ideology or political system will have to deal with hostility from external sources all the time, and that an ideology that’s not a dead end must have defenses against such hostility, whether they be sabotage from entrenched interests or be some dictator with popular support coming along and using the infrastructure built by the ideology for disastrous ends. Again, perfect defense is both unreasonable to expect and impossible, but there needs to be some indication that such defense exists and is hardened against previously deadly attacks. Not just pining for a world where such attacks don’t exist.

          • LadyJane says:

            I think that battle is already lost. I don’t condemn you for fighting it, but personally I’ve given in and surrendered. If that’s what socialism means then fine, I’m a socialist.

            Except you were fairly specific about what you actually wanted earlier in the thread, and it went far beyond “just give everyone healthcare and basic income, and maybe get money out of politics.” It’s a bit late to play the “I’m just a Nordic-style social democrat, I only call myself a socialist because that’s what conservatives call me” card, so unless you radically changed your views over the last few hours, I’m still calling motte-and-bailey.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            Except you were fairly specific about what you actually wanted earlier in the thread, and it went far beyond “just give everyone healthcare and basic income, and maybe get money out of politics.” It’s a bit late to play the “I’m just a Nordic-style social democrat, I only call myself a socialist because that’s what conservatives call me” card, so unless you radically changed your views over the last few hours, I’m still calling motte-and-bailey.

            Earlier in this thread? Are you sure that was me? I’m not trying to be difficult but I’m not actually sure what you’re referring to at all.

            I literally ctrl-F’d my own name and looked through every comment I’ve made on this post and the only thing I’ve found that you could possibly be talking about is:

            There’s the old joke about “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism for all!”

            I’m familiar with it, and for the record I support it. I look forward to the future where my decendents get to lounge around in space pajamas ordering “tea, earl gray, hot” from their replicators.

          • LadyJane says:

            Just as an example:

            I know “true communism has never been tried!” is a meme at this point, but it really would be nice to have some kind of test society that didn’t have to deal with cold wars and external enemies orchestrating attempted coups every other Tuesday.

            I’m familiar with [automated luxury communism], and for the record I support it.

            I guess we’ll just have to jump headlong into our glorious socialist future without doing any testing at all, come what may.

            None of these quotes signal “actually just wants Nordic-style welfare capitalism,” they signal “wants to abandon capitalism as a system altogether and implement literal communism in its place.”

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            Okay, so

            I know “true communism has never been tried!” is a meme at this point, but it really would be nice to have some kind of test society that didn’t have to deal with cold wars and external enemies orchestrating attempted coups every other Tuesday.

            When I said this, I was (in my mind) directly referencing Scott’s archipelago.

            On a practical level, I don’t want a test society for communism because I believe communism has a great chance of succeeding, I want a test society for communism because I think that the real life USSR had some failures specific to the real life USSR that people bring up to smear the idea of socialism as whole (By association? I’m not sure how the logic works but I’ve seen it happen time and time again both in these comments and in my lifetime), and having a nice counterexample might finally get them to stop saying “But we’ll have mass starvation!” anytime someone suggests that maybe billionaires have too much money.

            This isn’t meant to be taken any more seriously than Scott’s endorsement of any of the societies of his archipelago.

            I’m familiar with [automated luxury communism], and for the record I support it.

            This is your dumbest “example” yet. Even the person I quoted in that comment noted it’s a joke, and the rest of my comment (Which you have mysteriously cropped out for some reason) acknowledges that the joke is a reference to Star Trek.

            And like, yeah. I’ll stand by that. If we can implement a Star Trek post-capitalist utopia, sign me up. But I’m not exactly holding my breath.

            I guess we’ll just have to jump headlong into our glorious socialist future without doing any testing at all, come what may.

            When I wrote this, I was honestly being flippant and short and writing off lvlln because I was pattern-matching them and their “it’s a dead end” to be a type of person I’ve encountered before who just says “socialism is hard, there are hard problems, it’s best to do nothing”. It’s an infuriating type of person to try and talk to, and I admittedly wasn’t putting in the effort I should have.

            I do believe that changes to the current system are necessary, and continuing down the trajectory of “tax cuts for the wealthy, widespread corporate welfare, billionaires (successfully) suppressing unions, etc” is bad for humanity at best and will lead to riots, etc at worst. That’s the assumption behind the “we’ll have to” part of that quote; in my eyes standing still (or continuing to move backwards) is not a good option, but I’m admitting that “glorious socialist future” should’ve been better defined and I should’ve put more effort in when addressing lvlln.

            None of these quotes signal “actually just wants Nordic-style welfare capitalism,” they signal “wants to abandon capitalism as a system altogether and implement literal communism in its place.”

            It feels weird to be told by someone else what I supposedly actually truly believe deep in my heart in spite of my protestations. Like, what kind of response can I give to say that I don’t want more Stalin other than saying directly “I don’t want more Stalin”? If that isn’t good enough for you, what then?

            Tankies I’ve interacted with in the past have been sort of loud and proud about their tankie-dom, presumably to seperate themselves and their use of “socialism” and “communism” from the far more common-in-discourse nordic-style socialism and the policies (UBI, etc) that hysterical detractors cry “Communism!” at. In my mind, the nordic style socialism is the base assumption when someone says “socialism”, especially in a post Bernie world. I wouldn’t immediatley assume that someone wants more Stalin unless they say explicitly “I love Stalin”. It’s downright bizzare to assume that someone wants more Stalin when they repeatedly say “I don’t want more Stalin!” like I have in these comments over and over and over and over.

          • LadyJane says:

            It feels weird to be told by someone else what I supposedly actually truly believe deep in my heart in spite of my protestations. Like, what kind of response can I give to say that I don’t want more Stalin other than saying directly “I don’t want more Stalin”? If that isn’t good enough for you, what then?

            I never accused you of wanting Stalinism. There are forms of socialism other than Nordic-style social democracy (which isn’t even an actual form of socialism!) and Stalinism. For example, I’ve seen plenty of anti-Stalin socialists endorse anarcho-communism, or syndicalism, or economic democratization. Personally, I consider all of those systems unrealistic and unworkable (and in the case of anarcho-communism, outright incoherent), but none of them involve a Stalinist dictatorship.

            In my mind, the nordic style socialism is the base assumption when someone says “socialism”

            That’s an incredibly strange and ignorant assumption with little basis in reality. I thought you were simply moving the goalposts or pulling a bait-and-switch, because I had no way of knowing that you were using a personal redefinition of the term “socialism” that means something wholly different than its actual definition. Honestly, it’s hard to take something like that in good faith.

            And regarding the Nordic countries, the Index of Economic Freedom lists Denmark and Sweden as having freer markets than the United States, and Norway as having only slightly less free markets. In other words, two of the three Nordic countries are more capitalistic than the U.S. is! The idea that they’re “socialist” because they have higher taxes and a better welfare system is mind-boggling.

            The whole concept of the Nordic countries being socialist is just a weird American misconception, and one that political theorists have repeatedly debunked:

            Andrei Markovits, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, defines democratic socialism as “an attempt to create a property-free, socialist society” and something that does not exist in Denmark or anywhere else in the world

            As for Bernie Sanders, just about every political scientist and policy expert in the world agrees that he’s not a socialist:

            Samuel Goldman, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, states that Sanders’ platform is not socialist and is better described as “welfarism” reminiscent of the 1950s that aims to regulate rather than to replace capitalism. Goldman notes that Sanders does not advocate public ownership of the means of production nor does he seek to abolish the profit system, both of which Goldman considers to be defining characteristics of socialism.

            Lane Kenworthy, professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, has stated that Sanders is a social democrat and not a democratic socialist, and that the two ideologies are fundamentally different from each other.

            Mike Konczal, an economic policy expert at the Roosevelt Institute, also characterizes Sanders’ positions as “social democracy” rather than “socialist”, noting that social democracy means support for a mixed economy combining private enterprise with government spending, social insurance programs, Keynesian macroeconomic policies, and democratic participation in government and the workplace—all of which are a part of Sanders’ platform.

            And if you don’t believe the academics, maybe you’ll listen to what the actual socialists have to say:

            American socialists and representatives belonging to the Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party USA have criticized Sanders, arguing that he is not a socialist because he aims to reform capitalism rather than to replace it with an entirely different socialist system.

            Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder, editor, and publisher of the socialist journal Jacobin, considered Sanders to be a social democrat and not a socialist.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            Are you really doubling down on this?

            I never accused you of wanting Stalinism. There are forms of socialism other than Nordic-style social democracy (which isn’t even an actual form of socialism!) and Stalinism. For example, I’ve seen plenty of anti-Stalin socialists endorse anarcho-communism, or syndicalism, or economic democratization. Personally, I consider all of those systems unrealistic and unworkable (and in the case of anarcho-communism, outright incoherent), but none of them involve a Stalinist dictatorship.

            Okay, fine. I also don’t support anarcho-communism (If only because I’m not exactly sure what that phrase means, this is possibly the first time I’ve come across it). I don’t know what I said that made you think I was in support of that, either, or why you won’t take me explicitly saying what I’m actually for at face value rather than trying to divine my “true” intentions out of Star Trek jokes.

            That’s an incredibly strange and ignorant assumption with little basis in reality. I thought you were simply moving the goalposts or pulling a bait-and-switch, because I had no way of knowing that you were using a personal redefinition of the term “socialism” that means something wholly different than its actual definition. Honestly, it’s hard to take something like that in good faith.

            I don’t see how I’ve been pulling a bait and switch when I’ve been basically repeating “Concentration of (economic) power is bad!” over and over, and people keep picking at peripheral non-central stuff like “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism”.

            As I’m writing this, I’m realizing what I obviously should’ve done all along is ignore these cheap attempts to score points altogether rather than dignifying them with a response.

            And regarding the Nordic countries, the Index of Economic Freedom lists Denmark and Sweden as having freer markets than the United States, and Norway as having only slightly less free markets. In other words, two of the three Nordic countries are more capitalistic than the U.S. is! The idea that they’re “socialist” because they have higher taxes and a better welfare system is mind-boggling.

            The whole concept of the Nordic countries being socialist is just a weird American misconception, and one that political theorists have repeatedly debunked:

            Andrei Markovits, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, defines democratic socialism as “an attempt to create a property-free, socialist society” and something that does not exist in Denmark or anywhere else in the world

            You’re the one who first brought up Nordic countries! I didn’t mention them at all, except to say that I’m more willing to assume someone is referring to them than to Stalin (or anarcho-communism or whatever other weird thing you’re about to bring up), unless they start talking about starting gulags (Or whatever it is that anarcho-communists do, I honestly don’t know).

            As for Bernie Sanders, just about every political scientist and policy expert in the world agrees that he’s not a socialist:

            Samuel Goldman, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, states that Sanders’ platform is not socialist and is better described as “welfarism” reminiscent of the 1950s that aims to regulate rather than to replace capitalism. Goldman notes that Sanders does not advocate public ownership of the means of production nor does he seek to abolish the profit system, both of which Goldman considers to be defining characteristics of socialism.

            Lane Kenworthy, professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, has stated that Sanders is a social democrat and not a democratic socialist, and that the two ideologies are fundamentally different from each other.

            Mike Konczal, an economic policy expert at the Roosevelt Institute, also characterizes Sanders’ positions as “social democracy” rather than “socialist”, noting that social democracy means support for a mixed economy combining private enterprise with government spending, social insurance programs, Keynesian macroeconomic policies, and democratic participation in government and the workplace—all of which are a part of Sanders’ platform.

            Look, the guy calls himself a socialist, people in mainstream discourse call him a socialist, both his supporters and detractors call him a socialist. All the experts in the world saying “well actually…” doesn’t seem to change any of that.

            And if you don’t believe the academics, maybe you’ll listen to what the actual socialists have to say:

            American socialists and representatives belonging to the Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party USA have criticized Sanders, arguing that he is not a socialist because he aims to reform capitalism rather than to replace it with an entirely different socialist system.

            Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder, editor, and publisher of the socialist journal Jacobin, considered Sanders to be a social democrat and not a socialist.

            I’m beginning to suspect that you may not be very familiar with the left if you think leftist infighting is evidence of anything at all.

            —————————————————-

            As far as I can tell, this entire disagreement is boiling down to perscriptivism vs descriptivism, which is a conversation I’m not really interested in having, but I welcome any discussion on a topic that isn’t “What ‘socialism’ actually means is…”

            Edit: The block quote system seems to be betraying me, and is resisting my attempts to bring it back into order. I hope this commend is still legible to you.

          • Plumber says:

            @@420BootyWizard, and @LadyJane, 

            Story time! 

            Back when I was in Junior High School (1980-1981) I picked up a back from the ’50’s in the school library called Today’s Isms: Communism, Fascism, Capitalism, Socialism by William Ebenstein which IIRC described “Communism” as Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia, “Fascism” as Hitler’s Germany, and Mussolini’s Italy, “Capitalism” as Eisenhower’s U.S.A., and “Socialism” as Attlee’s Britain – and I repeated my new learning to my Mom who told me I was wrong and dumped comic books about Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky on me to teach me about “socialism” and both definitions are correct! 

            The British Labour Party in the ’50’s was still a member of the “Socialist Internationale”, and was in favor of nationalizing the “commanding heights of the economy” (major railroads, coal mines, et cetera) as well as the ‘welfare state’, and Russia was part of the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”, so the term fits both (oh ‘fun’ fact, in the 19th century “postalization” was the American terms for “nationalization” and during World War One both railroads and telephone companies were briefly “postalized” in the U.S.A., and from 1941 to 1952 Presidents Roosevelt and Truman nationized railroads, mines, airplane factories, steel mills, and even Montgomery Wards department stores as well as other private businesses, and not just in times of declared war, the North American Aviation Company was seized in June 1941 before the declaration of war, and the railroads were under control of the Army from August 1950 to April of 1952, even as late as the 1970’s President Carter spoke of seizing coal mines).

            Anyway “socialism” is way too broad a term to be precise (so is “Left” and “Right” for that matter), if I’m saying something like what Sanders and Warren advocate I try to use “more like Canada”, or “mixed economy/social democracy/welfare state capitalism” to be more clear – frankly Truman’s “Capitalist” U.S.A., and Atlee’s “Socialist” U.K. were both more like each other than they were to Pinochet’s “capitalist” Chile, or even Gorbachev’s “socialist” Soviet Union, much less Stalin’s.

            But for what little it’s worth I’ll probably vote for Biden in the primary and the Democrat in the general election (I’m 51 years old and incrementalist dagnabbit!) so what do I know?

          • ec429 says:

            @420BootyWizard

            widespread corporate welfare

            I have to object here that corporate welfare is not capitalist. The billionaire can give his own money to Boeing (or to the banks), but the government can give your money to Boeing, and that’s what corporate welfare is. It is a mistake to blame Boeing for this (or at least, a mistake to blame them more than one blames government; for an analogy, theft is a greater crime than receiving stolen goods. Note that this is only an analogy, my argument here does not rely on any claim that “taxation is theft”).
            If you take away the trough, you won’t have any pigs feeding at it.

            It feels weird to be told by someone else what I supposedly actually truly believe deep in my heart in spite of my protestations.

            I don’t think you’re being told you want Stalin. I think you’re being told that you want things which, unbeknownst to you, inevitably lead to Stalin if implemented. That accusation may not be correct, but merely saying “but I don’t want Stalin!” does not address or refute it.

          • Plumber says:

            @ec429 > “…. I think you’re being told that you want things which, unbeknownst to you, inevitably lead to Stalin if implemented. ….”

            I just don’t buy the “Road to Serfdom” argument as it seems pretty damn well-proven by now that the mixed-economy/social-democratic/welfare-state nations are very much where most people thrive and prosper, Roosevelt and Atlee’s weren’t followed by Stalinist regimes, Swedan has no Gulags, et cetera – even Cuba which is far further socialist isn’t the worse place on earth (though it’s not the best either!), so even state-Communism doesn’t inevitably lead to North Korea or Mao and Stalin’s skull piles (though I wouldn’t advocate “going Cuba” and risking that!), the closest Scandinavia has had to a Stalin was Quisling who’s rule was imposed on Norway by the German army, which brings me to a places that are less social-democratic but their people do well: Costa Rica and Utah. 

            Costa Rica has no standing army (so it would have a hard time defending itself from invasion) and Utah is 55% Mormon and there in many ways a communalist church substitutes for a welfare state, give me a convincing way to export those models and I’ll pay attention, but going pre-New Deal U.S.A.?

            Just nope.

        • IrishDude says:

          @420BootyWizard

          I wish we had a better example of communism to point to so people could stop talking about the soviet union, I really do. But the entire history of communism and socialism has been met with reactionary violence by those in power since before the time of Marx, even going back to proto-socialist religious movements like the cathars. I know “true communism has never been tried!” is a meme at this point, but it really would be nice to have some kind of test society that didn’t have to deal with cold wars and external enemies orchestrating attempted coups every other Tuesday.

          We do have good examples of small-scale communism that don’t involve cold wars. Check out the history of communes, such as Kibbutzes in Israel (see this EconTalk podcast on the topic). They’re voluntary communities where people agree to live according to the “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” philosophy.

          The history of communes is that almost no one wants to live that way, and among the people that think they want to live that way, when they try it they often find they don’t like it and end up leaving.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            We do have good examples of small-scale communism that don’t involve cold wars. Check out the history of communes, such as Kibbutzes in Israel (see this EconTalk podcast on the topic). They’re voluntary communities where people agree to live according to the “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” philosophy.

            I’m aware of the idea of communes in general (although not all communes avoid war. See the Paris Commune (The 1871 one, not the revolutionary one)), but I hadn’t heard of kibbutzim before, thank you. It was a great listen and I’ve enjoyed reading up on the subject.

            The history of communes is that almost no one wants to live that way, and among the people that think they want to live that way, when they try it they often find they don’t like it and end up leaving.

            I don’t know that “communes” in general have enough in common to make any sweeping generalizations like that. Even kibbutzim apparently vary wildly from kibbutz to kibbutz. It would be like trying to talk about “churches” as a whole and sweeping differences between them under the rug.

            For example, as far as I can tell there are lots of kibbutzim around successfully doing their thing, and there are plenty of insights that are worth investigating for implementation on a larger scale. I don’t think that the conclusion to draw here is to say “Well, communes are a terrible idea”

          • IrishDude says:

            I hadn’t heard of kibbutzim before, thank you.

            You’re welcome 🙂

            I don’t know that “communes” in general have enough in common to make any sweeping generalizations like that.

            Take the totality of all the different types of communes that exist, and you’ll still find that only a very small minority will voluntarily try living in one, with an even smaller portion choosing to remain in one. I still support their right to live that way, and to continue to experiment, but it’s a niche preference.

            For example, as far as I can tell there are lots of kibbutzim around successfully doing their thing, and there are plenty of insights that are worth investigating for implementation on a larger scale.

            I think the best way for them to exist on a larger scale is to organically grow by getting more people to come voluntarily live there. Demonstrate that it’s an appealing way to live and it’ll scale.

            I don’t think that the conclusion to draw here is to say “Well, communes are a terrible idea”

            I don’t think they’re a terrible idea, just a niche preference for how to live. There’s all sorts of other niche preferences out there that don’t appeal to me, and I don’t call them terrible, just not for me. I oppose those preferences being imposed on others, but advocate for their right to live that way in peace.

      • hls2003 says:

        What’s notable to me is that if you point out that the Soviet Union starved X million people, the likely response from socialists is something much closer to “That’s a lie! It’s a made up number! And capitalism is worse anyway!” The likely response is not, “So what, socialism is so much better than capitalism that in the long run, sacrificing X million people is worth it.”

        I think it’s worth pointing out that the second – “it is worth it” – seems to have been pretty close to the justifications actually used within the Communist regime of the USSR. I mean, they also airbrushed, fudged, and lied about the numbers; but at root I think someone like Lenin did make those arguments. So did Robespierre and the Jacobins. Etc. Just from lurking on this board, in the occasional “communism vs. capitalism” skull pile debates, what I recall seeing is usually some level of minimizing Communist deaths (but not entirely denying) with the purpose of trying to bring them down to within striking distance of “deaths from famine in capitalist countries, like the Irish Potato Famine.” That is, I think there is an implicit acknowledgement that the system requires blood as a lubricant, but then claiming that capitalists ignore the deaths in their system because they’re “accidental.” So I think there is some willingness to haggle lives for the glorious future amongst anti-capitalists. Whether they properly account for all factors is, I think, a big weakness.

        To extent the Tokyo Rose analogy, imagine that Tokyo Rose sent out a broadcast that warned a US ship of an imminent attack, that they were then able to successfully avoid, saving the lifes of hundreds or thousands of US Sailors. Then, she proceeded to talk about how she did that for propaganda purposes. Do we still hate her as much?

        It’s kind of an interesting hypothetical, but I think that’s the time when the “wealth tax” arguments come into play. The anti-philanthropy folks would argue that it’s more like Tokyo Rose giving life-saving information, but only what the Japanese knew we had anyway from breaking their codes (if they knew). That is, seeming to “give” something that we already had the capacity to just take. If Japan knows we broke their codes, and tells Tokyo Rose to warn an American ship about something the American ship already knew, that’s not real help, it’s just claiming credit for something we could have done anyway, with the intent of tricking gullible sailors. If the billionaires give a little of the money that we could (should) have taken anyway to use on lifesaving causes, that’s not really saving any lives that we (the enlightened “we”) would surely have saved anyway if we had just confiscated their loot.

        Or imagine that Tokyo Rose had a “listen and win” sweepstakes – one lucky listener could mail in the secret word-of-the-day and get $100. And they actually paid out. (Obviously there’s some issue with wartime mail logistics here, but it’s an analogy). Over several years the Allied soldiers would be collectively thousands of dollars richer; but wouldn’t it be a small price to pay to have Allied men tuned in attentively, listening to the propaganda, and thinking of Tokyo Rose as a benefactor? Wouldn’t High Command vilify her even more for such dirty tricks? They’d say it was lies and there was no payout (i.e. the charity isn’t effective) or that it was a crude stunt to try to buy loyalty from our virtuous soldiers (i.e. it’s anti-democratic or undermines local autonomy or dignity).

      • Plumber says:

        @Matt M >

        ” ..I think though, at some point, you can’t postpone the debate over “how much better is socialism supposed to be than capitalism, anyway?”….”

        I think it depends on your definition of “socialism”, if you mean Denmark, Sweden, Canada, et cetera than comparing the contemporary U.S.A to them and keeping in mind the worse Hellscapes of history the answer is “Marginally better for most, a bit less good for the exceptionally well off”.

        If you define “socialism” as more North Korea than Norway than the answer is “Not better for most“, and at best (the very late ’80’s Soviet Union, maybe contemporary Cuba) it rises to “Not that bad” and “Could be worse”, and at worst (Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge) it falls to “Among the worst Hells man has made”.

        To be clear I do think that most Americans would be better off if the U.S.A. was a bit more socialistic (like Canada), but I’ve little fear that the further Left will triumph in the U.S.A., and more fear an increasingly caste-like class system and a further lack of a social safety net, if it did look like we were going too far “Left” I’d feel differently.

        I’m going to use a cooking analogy of socialism being like salt, a little bit may enhance a dish, too much may ruin it, right now I still think the U.S.A. could use more salt, and we’re far from when the U.S.A. was the most ‘salty’ it’s ever been (around 1944), I recognize that you feel otherwise (you moved to Texas after all!), and I think it’s a good thing that different areas of the U.S.A. have different amounts of ‘salt’, what I’d like is for different locations in the U.S.A. to be more diversely ‘seasoned to taste’ (I think a ‘Free State of New Hampshire’ next to a ‘People’s Commonwealth of Vermont’ would be neat), but it seems more has to go through the Feds now which is a shame.

        • albatross11 says:

          It seems like socialist is the wrong term here (that should involve government-owned means of production and centrally-planned economies), though probably that battle is long-since lost. Basically all wealthy democratic capitalist countries have social welfare programs and some level of redistribution from rich to poor. When we compare Sweden to the US, we’re comparing two different societies with different kinds and levels of redistribution and social welfare programs, but they’re both basically the same kind of thing. And the actual political argument in the US is about whether we should incrementally move a little closer to Sweden’s levels of those things, rather than our current ones.

          Socialism in the centrally-planned economy sense leads to a huge concentration of power in the state. I think that’s the driver for mass murder and widespread human rights violations that you see in Communist countries–you weren’t guaranteed to get a Stalin or a Pol Pot, but you were guaranteed to get a massive concentration of power in a small number of hands, and that enables the kinds of horrors you got under Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot. Concentration of power under fascist regimes or colonial regimes or god-king-hoods (North Korea) similarly enables mass murder/mass human rights violations.

          Sometimes, you get a Castro or a Franco and the concentration of power just leads to a police state and suppression of dissidents without genocide. Other times, you get a Mao or a Hitler and pyramids of skulls start appearing.

          • Plumber says:

            @albatross11,
            Your analysis seems completely correct and well said.

            I’ll add that over-large concentrations of power may come into the hands of non state actors as well @albatross11,
            Your analysis seems completely correct and well said.

            I’ll add that over-large concentrations of power may come into the hands of non state actors as well, whether the bullets come from Pinkerton, Baldwin–Felts, and Thiel “detectives”, Somali warlord “soldiers”, Luciano’s “made men”, or Stalin’s NKVD – dead is dead, but nothing matches the scale of atrocities that may be done by a totalitarian state.

            That said I don’t think eliminating the state to prevent it from becoming totalitarian is the right action, the power vacuum may be filled with gangsters, then warlords who may gather enough power to be tyrants.

      • Hoopdawg says:

        the likely response from socialists is something much closer to “That’s a lie! It’s a made up number! And capitalism is worse anyway!” The likely response is not, “So what, socialism is so much better than capitalism that in the long run, sacrificing X million people is worth it.”

        My response, which I actually think is the most likely one (at least among non-tankies, who without institutional backing of soviet propaganda can’t be a majority at this point), is as follows:

        “Of course it was ‘worth it’ in some kind of economic sense. Diverting the resources from peasants to heavy industry kickstarted USSR economy, helped the country ward off the Nazi invasion a decade later, and laid foundation for its post-war flourishing, which did result in a civilizational leap for its population. This, of course, does not justify the suffering and deaths the process caused, which can be attributed to blatant disregard of human life by the hierarchical, authoritarian structure of the government.

        The thing is, those are all things we oppose, and the exact reasons why socialists have been calling Soviet Union’s system “state capitalism” even before the country even existed, much less the famine happened. The real question is, why are pro-capitalists opposed to it, when they’ve been justifying capitalistic excesses with end results and economic efficiency since forever?”

        (I have assumed we’re talking about the Holodomor here. Other famines the USSR experienced are directly tied to preceding/ongoing wars and as such cannot directly be blamed on soviet leadership or social system.)

        • Civilis says:

          “Of course it was ‘worth it’ in some kind of economic sense. Manifest Destiny kickstarted the American economy, helped the country defeat the Nazis, Fascists, Imperial Japanese, and the Soviets, and laid the foundation for its post-war boom, which resulted in a civilizational leap for the world and provided the technological basis on which the entire world runs and the agricultural revolution which fed even its own ideological enemies. This, of course, does not justify the suffering and deaths the process caused, which can be attributed to callous disregard of human rights by a few of the imperfect humans actors involved.

          The thing is, we eventually came around to recognizing the value of human rights, and have been continually improving ourselves over time. It’s why we recognized the dangers of hierarchical authoritarian structures early on and called them out even back when the Communists and the Nazis were allies in opposing the free world. The real question is, why are Socialists so quick to right off every other flavor of Socialist as “not real socialism” when they have so much in common?”

          Please, before you make an argument that looks ridiculous because it does nothing and persuades nobody, spend five minutes thinking what the response is going to be.

        • Paper Rat says:

          Of course it was ‘worth it’ in some kind of economic sense. Diverting the resources from peasants to heavy industry kickstarted USSR economy, helped the country ward off the Nazi invasion a decade later, and laid foundation for its post-war flourishing, which did result in a civilizational leap for its population. This, of course, does not justify the suffering and deaths the process caused, which can be attributed to blatant disregard of human life by the hierarchical, authoritarian structure of the government.

          Something along these lines would be my response to the question as well, and I don’t even think I’m a socialist as such. Does thinking, that Scandinavian countries and Finland managed to build a pretty decent societies, makes you one?

          @Civilis

          Your argument is pretty weak as well. You’re comparing some poorly defined 19th century thingy, with a pretty specific set of policies implemented in USSR just about a decade before the WWII.

          You also make a somewhat common mistake to directly compare results achieved by US to those achieved by USSR. The state of the countries and their geopolitical situation were nothing alike at the start of the 20th century, and historical events that followed, made a very different impact on each of them. It’s like comparing the results of 100 m dash with one competitor being your average athlete and the other being a one-eyed, feverish, starving amputee.

        • abystander says:

          @hoopdawg, @Paper Rat

          Are you denying that Holodomor was a deliberate attempt to destroy ideological enemies as is commonly charged, but just an unfortunately misallocation of resources of an otherwise good record of industrialization?

          There are charges of seizing surplus grain and preventing gleaning don’t seem measures that would help industrialization.

          On a separate note more of the industrial capacity would have survived the Nazi invasion if Stalin hadn’t purge the military of most of its best leaders and listen to his spies saying that Hitler was planning to invade.

          • abystander says:

            Never mind I didn’t realize you were really saying the proper comparison is not the Soviet Union but Scandinavia.

  9. aashiq says:

    Accelerationists might say philanthropy is wrong because it is a bandaid that keeps the existing fundamentally flawed system chugging for longer than it would otherwise. I do not believe this, but I was hoping to see it addressed in this article. These people might argue that we should oppose philanthropy exactly because it makes the world better. By letting conditions naturally get worse as capitalism pursues its own inhuman ends, a necessary revolution becomes more likely. Thus, we should eliminate policies like tax deductability of charitable contributions.

    • Murphy says:

      Scott has written at length about the problems with the aproach of burning the system down in the hope that something better will be built in it’s place.

      Becuase it almost never works.

      Because burning the system down is 0.01% of the work and you don’t tend to get good systems build in the middle of a crisis where it’s more important to get something up and running than get something that’s good long term.

      • tfowler11 says:

        Because burning the system down is 0.01% of the work and you don’t tend to get good systems build in the middle of a crisis where it’s more important to get something up and running than get something that’s good long term.

        Very good points. I’d add the the current system is something that I would very likely prefer to most systems that would be put in place by those who would complain about “capitalism pursues its own inhuman ends”, would put in place of the current system, even if I thought they could get the 99.9 percent of building a new system done.

  10. Cory Giles says:

    Too much billionaire philanthropy is basically this:

    If this tweet gets 25K retweets I will pay for a inner city Baltimore student’s private grade school tuition for an entire year #TwitterPhilanthropy— Bill Pulte (@pulte) July 30, 2019

    This one is just more overt than usual about the quid-quo-pro going on.

    • tfowler11 says:

      Too much billionaire philanthropy is basically this:
      If this tweet gets 25K retweets I will pay for a inner city Baltimore student’s private grade school tuition for an entire year #TwitterPhilanthropy— Bill Pulte (@pulte) July 30, 2019

      Most of it isn’t. For the part that is, what’s the problem?

  11. An Fírinne says:

    The thing about billionaire philanthropy is that people like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates don’t care about people. Billionaire philanthropy is nothing but a PR stunt in order to get the public off their backs about wealth redistribution and to distract form how dreadfully they threat their employees.

    If you’re focused on looking good instead of doing good then that’s a problem.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Gates doesn’t run Microsoft any more, and in any case Microsoft was never known as a dreadful employer; people forget, but before the second coming of Jobs and when Brin and Page were just undergraduates, Microsoft was the tech company to work for. (Even if you did hate Windows.) So you can throw out half the “how dreadfully they treat their employees” thing. Further, it’s pretty arrogant to claim to have some insight into the workings of their minds.

      • Murphy says:

        Ya and I think people confuse “has some bad management practices” with “is a terrible employer”

        Some friends worked for Microsoft and they were quite aware of various self-defeating practices in effect there. Things like metrics that played teams and even team members off against each other such that making others fail was as powerful a tactic as making yourself succeed…

        but that doesn’t make them a terrible employer. Otherwise they paid well and apparently treated their staff pretty well.

        • Matt M says:

          Some friends worked for Microsoft and they were quite aware of various self-defeating practices in effect there. Things like metrics that played teams and even team members off against each other such that making others fail was as powerful a tactic as making yourself succeed…

          Probably also worth pointing out that many of these practices are hardly unique to Microsoft. They are employed in a large number of industries to companies of a wide variety of success. So any attempt to imply that Microsoft somehow became successful because of ruthless employee ranking policies is clearly and obviously wrong. Because a lot of not very successful companies have those same policies.

          • Murphy says:

            Nah, the ruthless employee ranking seems to have come in after they were already firmly successful.

      • An Fírinne says:

        Tell that to the poor Africans slaving away in factories for starvation wages. Regardless my point still stands.

        • Nornagest says:

          Well, since your claim was totally unsubstantiated in the first place, I suppose it didn’t get any less substantiated after Nybbler and Murphy’s posts…

          • An Fírinne says:

            Your snarky vapidness is always appreciated Nornagest.

          • Nornagest says:

            If you want a substantive response, you could try making a substantive comment. Inane communist rhetoric, I’ll give the respect it deserves — considerably more, really, since what it deserves would get me banned.

          • An Fírinne says:

            @Nornagest

            SSC isn’t about pompous condescending vapid comments. If you’re going to act this way then don’t comment at all, you’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own.

            So get a grip, this is not high school.

          • Nornagest says:

            SSC isn’t about pompous condescending vapid comments.

            I couldn’t agree more.

        • bonewah says:

          You can tell it to the ones who didnt die of malaria. You know because of the people like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates who don’t care about people.

          • An Fírinne says:

            Superfluous virtue signalling is not to be commended. Judge people by what they do on the down low, not what they announce to everyone they are doing. That’s naïve to put it lightly.

          • bonewah says:

            Ahh you got me. Nice trolling. I honestly thought you believed all that nonsense up until the point where you said that saving millions of lives was superfluous.

          • Murphy says:

            @An Fírinne

            Right….

            Have you thought through what you’re saying. really really thought through.

            I knew a kid who used to trick his 2 younger siblings when it came time to divide up sweets. “one for you and one for me, one for you, and one for me.” they used to really struggle to figure out how he seemed to end up with a sweet pile twice the size despite them watching him like hawks because the way it was being divided was obviously fair. His other favorite was “heads I win tails you lose”

            I find myself wondering whether you were the kind of person who loved those same kinds of tricks.

            I mean there’s a chance that you’ve been presented this worldview by someone else and naively carry it forwards like the younger siblings above… and I’m not sure whether assuming you see it or assuming you don’t is more charitable.

            If someone does something “on the down low”, genuinely “on the down low” then you’ll never hear about it.

            You’ve created a system whereby you can, with a wave, dismiss all virtue observed in the behaviour of people you despise. No need for thought. No need for any kind of reflection. You get to just dismiss it all.

            because if you’ve heard about it then it’s just ” virtue signalling” because they didn’t do it secretly. And if you never hear about it then you get to pretend they’ve never done anything good hence your hate is justified.

            It appears that people are right to dismiss everything you say because everything is a veiled “heads I win tails you lose” pile of hollow rhetoric.

    • sentientbeings says:

      If you’re focused on looking good instead of doing good then that’s a problem.

      Your grasp of irony rivals the great Alanis Morissette.

      • An Fírinne says:

        Care to explain?

        • sentientbeings says:

          If doing good is what matters, then the only important thing to assess is the results of the billionaires’ efforts. Your remarkable ability to peer into their hearts and minds and discern their motivations doesn’t actually end up giving us useful information. It’s only relevance is to how they appear to you, not anything actually done.

          Which is to say, the spirit of your final statement contradicts the rest of your post, and does so in such a way as to color yourself as committing the offense you’ve found in others.

          There is substantial irony in that, which I doubt you realized, which led me to suggest that you aren’t well-acquainted with the concept. Alanis Morissette was, perhaps is, famously confused about irony.

          • Matt M says:

            And additionally, people who write articles criticizing billionaire philanthropy are, themselves, engaged in an act that is primarily devoted to looking good, rather than to actually doing good.

            Your thinkpiece about how actually it’s really terrible that Bill Gates gave a ton of money to reduce malaria does absolutely nothing to improve the lives of poor Africans.

          • An Fírinne says:

            > Your remarkable ability to peer into their hearts and minds and discern their motivations doesn’t actually end up giving us useful information.

            God forbid we judge individuals based on their word and actions!

          • sentientbeings says:

            Not to belabor the point, but you might want to re-read your top-level comment.

          • albatross11 says:

            You mean actions like funding malaria vaccine research?

          • An Fírinne says:

            @albatross
            Saddam Hussein donated money to a poor christian community in detroit. What a fine human being!

    • tfowler11 says:

      The thing about billionaire philanthropy is that people about Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates don’t care about people.

      I would submit that they are about as likely to be caring about doing good as anyone else who might contribute money or participate in the political process on any level, or do any other activity that might try to allocate resources or control allocations of resources. I’d also submit that you don’t know their motivations and the inner workings of their mind. Its certainly possible that any particular contributor is primarily motivated by looking good, and its not unlikely that this is at least a secondary (perhaps not even conscious) motive, but at least as a secondary motive not perhaps even realized by the person so motivated, its extremely common and I don’t see any reason to think its more common in wealthy contributors then it is in politicians and political lobbying/pressure groups.

      Beyond that they often do really good. I don’t care so much about their motivations if the result is positive. If there trying to look good and doing so helps out a lot of people and results in a net positive overall benefit, then great.

      • Cliff says:

        The more they don’t care about people and only want to look good, the more important it is to laud their philanthropic activities

      • albatross11 says:

        Given that we’re going to have very wealthy people, I think we definitely want to cultivate norms and cultural role models that encourage them to engage in philanthropy once they’ve made their fortune and won all the toys. I think we do best when the norm mostly encourages almost-universally-approved-of good works rather than taking part in (say) partisan politics, but we also benefit from some wacky out-there ideas being funded by rich people trying to change the world.

        This is independent of the question of whether it’s good for our society to be arranged in such a way that 400-odd people in the country have a billion or more dollars. (I don’t think that’s an inherently bad thing, but I do worry about the concentrations of effective political and social power that go with the gigantic piles of money.).

        The biggest thing we want is for rich/famous/prominent people to only be able to get a reputation as great philanthropists by actually doing a lot of good. Make the virtue signaling actually require some significant good works, rather than just being some way of destroying wealth or wearing a hairshirt to show off their virtue.

  12. luispedro says:

    > I expect these numbers are inflated, but even by conservative estimates the Gates Foundation may have saved ten million people.

    This means that if the combined effect of Reich et al. is a 1% probability of discouraging the next Bill Gates (i.e., one of the billionaires agrees with them that the “yachts and parties with paid supermodels” route is better than the evil “science and malaria cures” route), this still implies an death toll of 100,000 in expectation from their efforts.

  13. Hackworth says:

    On your point 4, you don’t really refute the argument. You’re just saying why it’s ok for large-scale philantropy to be anti-democratic because you can point to what you perceive to be success stories of billionaire charity. You’re essentially saying that the end justifies the means or, less charming, might makes right.

    That doesn’t sit right with me, because it can easily be turned around on your position. So, street violence against peaceful protesters, or gerrymandering, or voter suppression is anti-democratic? Tough luck, we still do it because we can.

    In the long run, it IS better to reform the government you’ve given yourself. It IS better to elect who you to believe to be the right people, and give them, through taxation, the means to do the right thing, and it IS better to accept that sometimes, maybe even often, your federal government will spend it on the wrong things.

    If billionaire philantropy is a rounding error in the grand scheme of things, then it’s not worth accepting or promoting it, because it also comes at a cost, like everything. The cost is an increase in the belief that “taxation is theft”, that it’s ok for huge companies to not pay taxes through economic extortion and tax loopholes, that billionaires know best how to spend money for good causes. I don’t doubt that the USA have a barely functional democratic system against which an oligarchy of well-meaning, philantropic billionaires looks appealing, but it’s not nearly that bad in many other countries. Don’t be this kind of example to the world.

    • tfowler11 says:

      The cost is an increase in the belief that “taxation is theft”,
      That’s not a cost of allowing, even encouraging, billionaires to make large charitable contributions. One reason it isn’t is because its not a result of such allowance or encouragement. The other reason is that if it did happen (which is very unlikely) it would be a benefit not a cost. Recognizing reality is a good thing.

    • “Taxation is theft” is an anarcho-capitalist belief that represents a miniscule portion of the larger set of people okay with billionaire philanthropy. Most people who support billionaires voluntarily being allowed to give money also support billionaires paying taxes, they just don’t support the 100% taxation of their wealth that would be needed to stop billionaire philanthropy for good. Most progressives who aren’t full on communists (that is, the vast majority of them) can comfortably support this without somehow turning into hardcore anarcho-capitalists.

      It’s not that black and white.

    • Cliff says:

      Not so much anti-democratic as non-democratic, just like all private choices, right? Would you say it’s anti-democratic for you to shop for your own groceries?

      And you are making a lot of assertions without evidence or even argument. How does philanthropy promote “taxes are theft?”

  14. Murphy says:

    One to add to the pile:

    https://twitter.com/juliagalef/status/865661975677632512

    “Some people hate Zuckerberg so much that if he tried to cure cancer, they’d root for cancer.”

    “Ha, that’s ridic–“

    Sorry, Mark Zuckerberg. Your plan to put an end to disease is a sickeningly bad idea

    The article litterally sings the praises of death and suffering because Zuckerberg donated to anti-diseases casues

    I think Scott makes the assumption that most people can unite behind easy ideas like “death and suffering are awful”

    But if someone they hate enough sides against death and suffering they will side with it.

    • ana53294 says:

      Anything that kills people much too young, or much too painfully, can go. But we need the diseases of old age, however much we may rail against them.

      That article is just horrible.

      Even if we can’t cure death, I think a world where people live sprightly lives in their old age, without pain or informity, and just don’t wake up one morning, would be infinitely better, even if life expectancy stays the same. Why does my grandma need frail hips, and my mother arthritic hands that don’t bend?

      • dionisos says:

        Yes…
        And I like how it is just not “a risky idea”, or “a bad idea”, it is “sickeningly bad idea”.

        Or just to take some part of it

        Within a month of Mr Zuckerberg curing mortality, the first wars over water resources would break out.

        Oh yes, in a month, because we cured diseases, this seems totally reasonable :’D

        • Murphy says:

          To an extent that might be one of the less crazy statements.

          If something happened equivalent to a finger snap and everyone just stopped getting sick and dying but births continued with nothing else changed…. much like the financial markets people react as soon as information is clear. Not when it becomes a problem.

          So every country would be extremely aware that they’ll need 50% more water/food etc to cope in 25 years time…. then a lot of states probably would start trying to take control of resources they have enough of now but which they project they’ll need later.

          But on the other hand nothing like that is ever fast and gradual improvements in life expectancy doesn’t have the same effect.

          • dionisos says:

            But a month is a ridicule amount of time.

            And anyway I don’t buy it at all, it makes a lot of sense to react very quickly in a financial market when you have new information. (because you can earn or lose a lot of money in a short term)

            But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to die in a war to get resources because you just learnt than in few generations there will have more people than you expected.

    • sentientbeings says:

      I think Scott makes the assumption that most people can unite behind easy ideas like “death and suffering are awful”

      Sometimes I wonder when reading articles like that or seeing similar comments: Is it an artifact of selection/filtering online (or other public venues), or is it actually representative of a sizable contingent of the population?

      • Plumber says:

        @sentientbeings,
        I’ve little doubt that “on-line” isn’t representative of majority views.

      • Murphy says:

        There’s definitely a significant fraction of the population who follow a “whatever is ‘natural’ is also how things should be” ethic with broad exceptions for unnatural things people personally really like in life.

        Add in basically every cartoon villain seeking immortality being evil.

        Add in a billion “mad scientist” tropes where the origin story for the monster/zombies is people meddling with things like cures for cancer or life extension.

        The fraction of the population who take the opposite view … may be a small minority.

    • I think Scott makes the assumption that most people can unite behind easy ideas like “death and suffering are awful”

      This is one of the reasons I insist morality is about tastes interacting with associations. I doubt the majority of people construct their moral worldview from rationalist first principles, and I doubt their minds can be effectively changed by these logical programs Vs memes and social pressure.

      Terminal values matter, and unfortunately mother evolution didn’t homogeneously imprint them on humanity, but scattered them into broad typings that bleed into each other. “Who? Whom?” will remain the all important moral construct.

  15. ana53294 says:

    An example of a billionaire that achieved everything on their own is J.K. Rowling. She wrote a book, the book was licensed by a publishing house, it became super popular, movies were made out of that book, and a whole theme park was made.

    She didn’t step on anybody, steal ideas, do dodgy business, or snoop around anybody’s privacy to do that. She also donated big chunks of her wealth to charity.

    Should she be also taxed out of existence, for money she earned completely on her own, without exploiting anybody’s labor? Should she not be allowed to set her own charitably foundation?

    • Hoopdawg says:

      Note:
      #1: You say “the book was licensed”, “movies were made”, “theme park was made”, as if it happened by forces of nature, not by companies with thousands of people working in them.
      #2: All of this time, her continued stream of revenue was enabled and abetted by the law and policing regime that spends billions of pounds to protect her “intellectual property rights”. (This incidentally involves a lot of stepping on people, snooping around privacy, etc.)

      Those are the two exact arguments that can be aimed at any billionaire on earth. They did not just work and create their own wealth, they were abetted by work of multitudes of other people and benefited from laws and customs of the land they resided in, in particular entire government structures aimed at protecting them.

      Disregard the question whether it’s a desirable policy for a moment – it really should not be under dispute that it’s our entire society that let her achieve her billionairedom, and that it has every right and capability of taxing her out of it if it so chooses.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Disregard the question whether it’s a desirable policy for a moment – it really should not be under dispute that it’s our entire society that let her achieve her billionairedom, and that it has every right and capability of taxing her out of it if it so chooses.

        It turns out that claiming that something should not be under dispute doesn’t make it not under dispute. Our society (that is, various governments) have the capability of taxing anyone into pauperdom, even Bezos. But not the “right”.

        • 420BootyWizard says:

          Our society (that is, various governments) have the capability of taxing anyone into pauperdom, even Bezos.

          I’m not actually sure this is true.

      • Disregard the question whether it’s a desirable policy for a moment – it really should not be under dispute that it’s our entire society that let her achieve her billionairedom, and that it has every right and capability of taxing her out of it if it so chooses.

        Entire society? I see your general point, but let’s not go nuts. I, and very probably you and most of the rest of the commentators could effectively be replaced for all we contributed to Rowling becoming a billionaire.

        It’s not really a binary between billionaires pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and the entirety of society having an equally divisible claim to their wealth. In the case of #2 we can give more credit to lawyers and the police force than we can to janitors and cafe waitresses, and in the case of #1 thousands of people working at more directly related companies have larger relative contributions than less directly related millions of people in other institutions.

        The case against billionaires in most comments seems to be conducted on the basis of a societal debt, but if the argument is that a wider group of people were involved, then we should try and formalize the exact relationship going on and work out what portion of the returns should go where. Deconstructing the idea that billionaires mostly create their own value cannot be fulfilled with an abstract cop-out like “society”. If society has a claim to billionaire’s wealth, then society being heterogeneous requires of this a rather complicated settlement process that isn’t anything like appealing to a vague egalitarian democratic principle and calling it a day.

    • Aapje says:

      Rowling was actually on welfare when she wrote the first book, so she was exploiting the tax payers labor to allow her to write the book.

      Her book seems to have taken ideas from the works of Stouffer, who wrote a book about a bespectacled boy called Larry Potter and another book about muggles.

      Also, all of her (significant) earnings involve others, from publishers to Hollywood. Her money was not meaningfully “earned completely on her own.”

      • blacktrance says:

        The only way to literally make money on your own is to print it yourself. The normally intended meaning of “making money on one’s own” is that it’s received from others who give it voluntarily in exchange for transferring something of (actual or anticipated) value, as opposed to a gift, a transfer from the state, or charity.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          But she didn’t print the books herself. She didn’t grow the trees, and cut down the trees, and pulp the trees, and refine the chemicals that go into the paper making process, and she didn’t make the inks, and she didn’t make the printing presses, she didn’t run the presses day and night in some sweltering printing house, she didn’t pack them into boxes, she didn’t cart the boxes to the distribution warehouses, she didn’t haul them to the bookstores, she didn’t stock the shelves, she didn’t man the cash registers for $8/hour. An awful lot of those books were sold through Amazon, picked and boxed and shipped in Amazon’s infamous distribution centers, meaning some of her cash came her way by stepping on literally the very same people Jeff Bezos was stepping on.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            I’m not sure what your point is here. If it’s that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, the leftists already know. It’s been a meme for a while now.

          • Aapje says:

            @420BootyWizard

            The point is that if Bezos is called out for “stepping on people,” then Rowling stepped on people as well, because she actually benefits from the same system.

            The only difference is that Bezos created (part of) the system and that Rowling just uses it.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            The point is that if Bezos is called out for “stepping on people,” then Rowling stepped on people as well, because she actually benefits from the same system.

            The only difference is that Bezos created (part of) the system and that Rowling just uses it.

            That’s not an insignificant difference. If you’re on board with the idea that there’s something deeply flawed with the system, Rowling simply uses it, same as the rest of us. Bezos builds and perpetuates it, and uses his wealth and power to oppose (What some see as) attempts to fix it.

          • tfowler11 says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            The people who did cut down the trees, turn the logs in to paper, make the inks, run the presses, etc. got paid for what they did. And unless they were forced to do these things they weren’t stepped on by either Rowling or Bezos. To the extent that Rowling’s book increased the demand for their work it even exerted at least a very tiny bit of pressure towards increasing their compensation.

          • Aapje says:

            @420BootyWizard

            Demand and supply enable Bezos, though. Customers reward Amazon for quick shipping, even though that means that people have to work night shifts (which harm health) to make that happen. After Rowling became a literary superstar, she could have signed a contract with a publisher that forbid sales through Amazon and this would have driven buyers to other sales channels.

            Also, the initial claim was that Rowling was not “stepping on people.” If someone else builds a bridge out of people, then by using this bridge you will be stepping on people, even if you didn’t build the bridge. Of course, there may not be an ethical way to reach the other side or alternatives might be more costly/difficult, but that is a key part of ethics: do you choose to accept a cost to uphold your principles.

            Principles that you are unwilling to sacrifice for at all are not actually principles IMO.

      • Oscar Sebastian says:

        Her book seems to have taken ideas from the works of Stouffer, who wrote a book about a bespectacled boy called Larry Potter and another book about muggles.

        Bluntly speaking, this is complete BS. The “Muggles” of Stouffer’s work are a completely different concept than the muggles of the Harry Potter universe, and ideas aren’t, “My main character has this name and glasses”, they’re bigger concepts like “boy goes to wizard school and discovers he’s prophecized to fight an evil wizard”. Stouffer’s subsequent actions in pursuing legal action against Rowling were so egregious that in addition to the case being dismissed with prejudice, she was fined some $50,000 (and ordered to pay some of Rowling and Scholastic’s legal fees).

        There are enough clear references in Rowling’s work (outright quotes from the Bible, Hermione is named for a Shakespeare play, the dynamics of Bellatrix, Narcissa, and Andromeda are modeled after the real life Mitford sisters, Harry’s being a messianic archetype, candies from Monty Python skits, horcruxes are basically the One Ring, phone booths in garbage dumps that lead to places bigger on the inside…) that we don’t need to disparage her by saying her wealth has anything to do with the known fraud Nancy Stouffer.

        • Aapje says:

          My claim is not that Rowling directly copied Stouffer’s work or did so to an extent that should result in compensation to Stouffer.

          The fact that Stouffer sought to exaggerate the similarities in a dishonest way doesn’t mean that Rowling didn’t ‘take inspiration’ in a lesser way.

          My point is that Rowling did “steal ideas.”

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            My point is that Rowling did “steal ideas.”

            I challenge you to show me an artist that hasn’t.

          • John Schilling says:

            The fact that Stouffer sought to exaggerate the similarities in a dishonest way doesn’t mean that Rowling didn’t ‘take inspiration’ in a lesser way.

            The fact that Rowling almost certainly never read a word that Stouffer had written or even a word written by anyone who had ever read a word that Stouffer had written, means that Rowling didn’t ‘take inspiration’ in any way.

            Rowling almost certainly took inspiration from writers not named Stouffer, and this is a common and legitimate practice within reasonable limits. and we could perhaps discuss those limits in an appropriate context. But if the context is “threads discussing Nancy Stouffer and J.K. Rowlings”, then the subject is explicitly fraudulent claims of plagiarism and not anything to do with the normal range of literary inspiration.

          • Oscar Sebastian says:

            My point is that Rowling did “steal ideas.”

            Hence why I provided many examples of her having done just that: to leave the main point of your argument intact for you while still clearing away your misapprehension. Like I said, my objection was not, “Rowling clearly invented all of her ideas herself,” but, “Stouffer is a fraud and a liar and her claims should not be parroted.”

          • Aapje says:

            @420BootyWizard & Schilling

            My argument is not that Rowling did something wrong. My claim is that Rowling didn’t create a truly original work, fully based on her ideas, rather than ideas she took (‘stole’) from others.

            Note that Stouffer is just a fun example because there are these very obvious similarities. Rowling has admitted to taking ideas from many other works.

            @Oscar Sebastian

            I didn’t parrot her claims.

          • John Schilling says:

            Note that Stouffer is just a fun example

            However “fun” it may be, Stouffer is an incredibly bad example, because what actually happened there is so far removed from what you are trying to talk about that you break the dialogue.

            Talking about how Rowling took/”stole” her ideas, even with the latter word in scare quotes, is also a poor choice and particularly bad if you’ve already poisoned the discussion by going into Stouffer territory. It’s probably better to start over from scratch a few OTs from now, than to try and salvage what’s left here.

    • FormerRanger says:

      Obviously she should be taxed out of existence for levels of post-publication re-conning of her own work that Asimov would have blushed at.

    • zzzzort says:

      If by “taxed out of existence” you mean “taxed to a level where she remains comfortable enough to never have to work again,” then, yes?

  16. Brett says:

    My cynical take is that we’re seeing a lot more pieces skeptical of billionaires from online media journalists because they’ve been skewing leftward due to the unionization wave and the collapse of the VC-backed media bloom.

    But there also is a genuine fear that having such powerful individuals subverts democracy. My counter is that there have always been super-powered individuals in any political system of decent size (be it democratic or otherwise), and I don’t think it really matters if it comes from some guy founding a company versus some guy running a political machine or a powerful civic group.

    As for billionaires, I think any system that wants the type of business formation and entrepreneurialism that can create giant firms competitive in the modern economy has to tolerate the founders of such businesses becoming extremely wealth due to their share ownership. Otherwise, they just won’t form such businesses – and there’s little evidence that some alternative like cooperatives are going to substitute in that regard (it’s telling that there’s only the one Mondragon, and not 1000 of them).

    • onyomi says:

      I don’t think it really matters if it comes from some guy founding a company versus some guy running a political machine or a powerful civic group.

      I think there’s probably an important difference (with some overlap) in the skillset and incentives for becoming powerful through business and the skillset and incentives for becoming powerful through politics.

      Thus, even if given control over the exact same resources, we should expect politicians and businessmen to allocate them differently on average, and probably in systematic ways.

  17. Urstoff says:

    You can object to anything if your counterfactual is sufficiently fantastic.

  18. I feel like the institutions of democratic government can’t be very representative because by their very nature they must be broad on a national scale, and this causes issues to cleave into Yes/No opposition where you must have a stark left or right side. In democracies, you get a left or a right leaning government, and the only thing voters have control over is how extreme that slant is. Local government seems to be the only place where issue by issue politics can beat out highly coordinated philosophical blocks, perhaps if only because some level of the system has to address road repairs rather than whether huge binary moral issue is “wrong”.

    Billionaire philanthropy is one way for large amounts of money to get spent on idiosyncratic and highly specific things, rather than being converted into culture war issues and simplified. In non-democratic governments you see more of this idiosyncrasy play out in a bad way, as leaders, whatever side of the spectrum they appealed to for power initially, are able to act more in concert with their individual will. With billionaire philanthropists we’re getting more of a compensatory balance of huge finances sidestepping the philosophical down conversion of democracy, while being kept peaceable by that same government.

    • Plumber says:

      @Forward Synthesis,
      Why not strong small local governments instead of being ruled by the whims of plutocrats or remote officials in Sacramento or D.C. that we have only an attenuated vote to effect?

      Moving from a big city to a small town has delightfully shown me how much more responsive local government may be, but I also have in mind Richmond, California and it’s attempts to do right for its citizens in the wake of the foreclosure crisis that wereoverruled by the Feds, or Berkeley and San Francisco’s rent control laws overruled by the State.

      Police that come when I call is what I want, anarchy and big government don’t provide that, but small local government does.

      • albatross11 says:

        Plumber:

        Okay, but recall that Southern states and local governments could make exactly the same argument w.r.t. segregation of local public schools and Jim Crow laws.

        Now, maybe the upsides of local government/federalism are worth the downsides as long as we have free movement (vote with your feed). But that’s at least one example where the local governments were overridden by the national ones, and this seemed to make the world a better place overall.

        I don’t think there’s a formula for this that’s always right, though. Earlier, states’ laws w.r.t. not returning escaped slaves were similarly overridden from above (by the Supreme Court). And more recently, the feds have opposed legal marijuana in a variety of ways that violates federalism–mostly the set of people usually concerned with federalism were okay with that and the people usually opposed to federalism weren’t, because tribalism overrides consistency.

        • Plumber says:

          @albatross11,
          Your quite correct, the end of Jim Crow and especially the expansion of voting rights were good things that were achieved by Federal government power, and I really don’t have a way to reconcile them with my usual preference for strong local government.

          I admit that I’m stumped.

  19. Simon_Jester says:

    It’s fairly obvious to me that we need a way for someone like Jeff Bezos to become very rich by founding something like Amazon. It is in everyone’s interests if someone can get a mind-boggling pile of money for solving a mind-boggling coordination problem.

    It’s not at all obvious to me why the mechanism that makes him this rich needs to be calibrated so that he winds up with 100 billion dollars, rather than 5 billion dollars.

    • The Nybbler says:

      It’s not at all obvious to me why the mechanism that makes him this rich needs to be calibrated so that he winds up with 100 billion dollars, rather than 5 billion dollars.

      It’s not at all obvious to me that this objection wouldn’t be made, with different numbers, if the richest person in the world had $5B instead of $100B.

      • Randy M says:

        This is my impression too. I don’t see principle, I just see envy. Thus, while I might agree that 1 billion and 100 billion are both very efficient motivation, I don’t trust them to stop at 1 billion or even 1 million.
        They’d probably stop before they got to my levels of wealth, but I’m still quite worried about the second (and all subsequent) order effects.

        • Civilis says:

          On top of this is that a lot of the places that tried “solving” the “problem” of wealth inequality have ended up with massive inflation. If you set a statutory limit at $5 billion, you’re liable to find that soon everyone has more than $5 billion and that $5 billion is the cost of a loaf of bread.

      • tfowler11 says:

        The difference is the $100bil is the result of letting people give him what they think its worth to give him in exchange for what they get from him.

        The $5bil is either him actually getting $100bil and then having someone (probably the government) forcibly take the rest away from him, or even worse trying to assign some maximum payment levels and maximum value for assets throughout the economy.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think the strongest counterargument here is you either let the free market decide how much money people have, or you use some other mechanism. If you start using some other mechanism, you better hope it’s as reasonable as you are in deciding that $5 billion is okay.

      (I realize “the free market” encompasses lots of different possibilities, some of which make Jeff Bezos richer than others, but I’m not sure how you guarantee nobody ever makes more than $5 billion with it)

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Because $5B only buys you the coordination problem solving skills of Robert F. Smith, getting you

      Robert F. Smith founded private equity firm Vista Equity Partners in 2000. It focuses exclusively on investing in software companies. With over $46 billion in assets, Vista is one of the best-performing private equity firms, posting annualized returns of 22% since inception.

      Which is pretty good! I may have used some software developed by a Vista Equity Partners project at some point in my life..? Maybe..? But it’s not quite the same as building the world’s largest Internet company, cloud computing platform, e-commerce site, that lets me and everyone else buy just about any product we could want at 3a.m. and have it show up on our doorsteps approximately two days later (or less) for about the same price I would pay driving to a store. If you want that kind of coordination problem solving, you’ve got to cough up the big bucks. $5B just gets you some software projects or something.

      ETA: Alternatively, $5B also buys you the coordination problem solving abilities of John Paulson who made his money betting against subprime mortgages. Which I guess is useful..? Still, it ain’t Amazon.

      • Jake Rowland says:

        Another way of estimating what $5B buys you. According to business insider, prior to his divorce Jeff Bezos owned 16% of Amazon stock. $5B divided by 16% is about $31B. According to macrotrends, Amazon’s market cap first hit $31B in July of 2007. In August of 2007, the government informs him that he has reached his wealth cap and any further value he generates for his shares will result in his shares being seized and liquidated. It seems to me that the natural result is that in 2019 we still have 2007’s Amazon.

        Edited because I initially forgot that companies sometimes split their stock. Still possibly making other equally important mistakes, but I thought it was something interesting to look at at least.

    • stationarywaves says:

      This comment is fascinating to me, because its author is well-enough-versed in economics to use a phrase like “coordination problem,” but not well-enough-versed to know that coordination problems aren’t solved through calibration.

      The mechanism is calibrated to provide you with Amazon.com, and billions of other solved problems. It is not calibrated to provide you with existential satisfaction. You need a different mechanism for that.

  20. alwhite says:

    I’ve had conversations recently with friends around the concept that agreeing doesn’t lead to conversation, just agreeing while disagreeing leads to more interaction at least, if not conversation. Thus meaning, agreement is boring and disagreement is exciting and so things seem to always be divisive because that’s all that generates discussion. That seems kind of sad.

    To that end, I’ll just agree. I can’t see any negative reason why billionaires giving their money to good causes can’t be fixed by first preventing billionaires in a more equitable way.

  21. drunkfish says:

    Scott, you’ve almost certainly seen it already, but just in case you haven’t, Kelsey Piper (@Kelseytuoc) tweeted about this post and Rob Reich expressed what looks like a sincere interest in engaging with you, worth checking out his twitter (@robreich) if you haven’t seen this yet.

  22. Freddie deBoer says:

    When I see philanthropists try to save lives and cure diseases, I feel like there’s someone powerful out there who shares my values and represents me. Even when Elon Musk spends his money on awesome rockets, I feel that way, because there’s a part of me that would totally fritter away any fortune I got on awesome rockets.

    Something like this was going to be my initial comment, but then I changed my mind, because I thought I might get banned. But now I see you just came out and said it yourself.

    I like you a lot, Scott, but this is my issue with your project writ large: you are an elitist in every meaningful sense. You think like elites do; you share their values and their culture. Elon Musk is someone you identify with. Which, you know, is bad from my point of view but not from yours or from the vast majority of your readers, who also revere Musk. That’s not the problem. The problem is that you don’t think like the poor people of Newark who were expected to do Zuckerberg’s bidding and rose up against him.

    I was utterly flabbergasted when you approvingly cited the Newark disaster. “How could he possibly think this helps his cause?” I wondered. Control of Newark’s school system naturally and by right belongs to the people of Newark. That’s what democracy requires. Zuckerberg’s explicit intent was to helicopter in and use his sacks of money to violate that sacred principle of local control. And it failed. It failed catastrophically. Because the people have the right to control their own local institutions.

    How anyone could know the basic facts of the Newark fiasco and see it as a feather in the cap of billionaire philosophy escaped me. But it makes much more sense if you think like Mark Zuckerberg does, if you identify with him and not with the economically struggling mothers and fathers of Newark. People reject billionaire philanthropy because they see it, correctly, as yet another effort for the elite to assert more and more control over society’s institutions. And there’s no better example than Newark.

    • Matt M says:

      Control of Newark’s school system naturally and by right belongs to the people of Newark.

      They were free to refuse his money.

      I mean, control of how I spend my waking hours from 8 am – 6 pm naturally and by right belongs to me. My employer’s explicit intent is to helicopter into my life and use their sacks of money to violate that sacred principle of individual autonomy.

      Are they bad for doing this? Are they exploiting me? Would I be better off without them? Does my revealed preference mean anything at all, here?

      • Freddie deBoer says:

        Well the parents couldn’t have – Chris Christie and Corey Booker decided by fiat from above to take the money and give Zuckerberg’s people carte blanche. So perhaps we can meet in the middle and declare public-private philanthropy partnerships as destructive as any.

        • Matt M says:

          Well if you have a problem with the mechanism by which the public has to rely on Chris Christie and Corey Booker to make decisions like that, your problems go well beyond Zuckerberg and his attempt to purchase a public school district.

          • Freddie deBoer says:

            He should never have been facilitated by elected officials, I can’t deny; but then Zuckerberg should never have tried to buy a public school district in the first place.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Parents were as free to refuse Cory Booker’s decision to do school reforms the way he did as they are to refuse any other decision an elected official makes, ie not very.

          If Cory Booker had decided to double teacher pay, you’d be hailing him as a visionary, but the process involved – citizens elect Cory Booker, who does what he wants and what he campaigned on – would be exactly the same.

          (If Cory Booker had decided to double teacher pay and Mark Zuckerberg had agreed to provide the necessary funds, would you be in favor of that?)

          Given that Booker used the normal process, I think he should be judged on his success, which AFAICT was substantial.

          (also, do you have stats on what percent of Newark supported vs. opposed the reforms, and whether it was any lower than the percent who support the usual education reforms politicians make? All I can find is this poll which looks potentially biased)

          • Plumber says:

            @Scott Alexander

            “Parents were as free to refuse Cory Booker’s decision to do school reforms the way he did as they are to refuse any other decision an elected official makes, ie not very…”

            In my experience elected officials (especially local elected officials) are many times easier to meet and influence than are billionaires, and by easier I mean at all (no billionaires have knocked on my door and asked me my opinion, but a city councilman did).

            I far prefer democracy to plutocracy.

          • onyomi says:

            @Plumber

            Maybe part of the problem is that the options tend to be presented as: let billionaires control more of their own money vs. let the federal government tax billionaires more heavily.

            Effectively taxing billionaires at any level other than the national/federal may be difficult, but it might strengthen the pro-“tax billionaires more” case if there were a way for those taxed to e.g., earmark the surplus for the discretion of more local-level officials.

            Maybe something like the Japanese “hometown tax” I think was linked here not too long ago.

          • Plumber says:

            @onyomi,
            Your suggestion seems like a fine one.

          • Matt M says:

            In my experience elected officials (especially local elected officials) are many times easier to meet and influence than are billionaires, and by easier I mean at all (no billionaires have knocked on my door and asked me my opinion, but a city councilman did).

            This is a poor analogy. A city councilman isn’t the equivalent of Jeff Bezos. He’s closer to the equivalent of a random Assistant Brand Manager who may try to give you a survey on how much you enjoyed your purchase of an Amazon Basics iphone charging cable.

    • Plumber says:

      @Freddie deBoer,
      Well said, and bless you!

    • Urstoff says:

      The consequence of such localism seems to me to be the (reasonable) proposition that any particular individual should be able to opt-out of local institutions and not be forced to pay or participate simply due to geographical proximity; the most immediate and important location is myself. If it’s not localism (which would lead to the aforementioned individualism), then maybe it’s democracy fetishism, whereby control of any particularly individual (naturally and by right) belongs to the other individuals within a particular geographical proximity. That doesn’t seem to be particularly appealing.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        No, the logical consequence is straightforward.

        There are two kinds of activities and institutions: private, and public.

        Private institutions can be “up for sale-” it’s not a problem if Zuckerberg wants to buy out someone’s upstart little tech company for $20 million. A few specific individuals may get screwed over in the deal, but in the grand scheme of things, we accept that.

        Public institutions exist to supply things that everyone in the area needs to function, and that are supposed to function according to rules that prioritize “be good to everyone, or at least okay to everyone” over “be maximally efficient.” These are cases where it isn’t, or shouldn’t, be acceptable to screw over a small minority to maximize efficiency once broadly acceptable minimum standards of quality are met.

        As such, public institutions should not be up for sale.

        Thus, for instance, it is far more important that a court system be impartial than that they be efficient. Giving some private authority figure the power to decide guilt and innocence is unacceptable because even if this saves money on court costs, it makes it much harder for us to guarantee relatively uniform, relatively impartial coverage.

        Similar arguments can be constructed for schools.

        • albatross11 says:

          But then how do you deal with broken local systems? The current solution w.r.t. broken schools is that you either leave the local area for someplace with better schools, pay private school tuition, or send your kids to gangland high and hope they get some kind of an education and don’t get beaten up too often. Letting people opt out of something broken like that seems like it’s a big win.

          • Urstoff says:

            More local control, I guess; as Freddie asserted, Zuckerberg’s initiative failed (did it?) because people have a right to local control of institutions (still trying to figure out the causal web on that one). Maybe the school district needs to be exempt from any requirements by the federal or state departments of education; that would certainly be an increase in local control.

          • The Nybbler says:

            At the time Zuckerberg did his donating, the Newark schools were not under local control. They were under state control. They were under state control because the locals ran the district in a corrupt and incompetent way. The state was probably not less incompetent, but might not have been as good at corruption; in any case, they certainly didn’t make the Newark schools an exemplar of educational quality.

            Locality of control seems to have made not much difference in Newark’s case.

    • onyomi says:

      I don’t know enough about the Newark situation to comment on it particularly (maybe it was so badly executed as to be worth criticizing, even given the negative knock-on effect of potentially discouraging future billionaire philanthropy), but in order to justify criticizing billionaire philanthropy (rather than billionaire consumption) in general it seems like it would need to be the case not just that a hypothetical in-touch local government agency could have used the same money more effectively, but that billionaire philanthropy often makes the world a worse place relative to the world in which they spend the same money on awesome private yachts and island compounds. I wouldn’t rule out that possibility, including the possibility that billionaire philanthropy might sometimes affect public institutions for the worse, but it seems a pretty hard case to make given the examples Scott has cited.

    • John Schilling says:

      I like you a lot, Scott, but this is my issue with your project writ large: you are an elitist in every meaningful sense.

      You say that like it’s a bad thing, but between you and Scott it’s looking more like a defense of elitism. So I think the attempted insult falls flat. In any event, the opposite of elitism is populism, and since 2016 I’d think you’d have had enough of populism as a cure for what ails America.

      • stationarywaves says:

        Huh? The opposite of elitism is populism? No, it isn’t. The opposite of elitism is not-elitism, of which populism is only one of many possible variants.

        Put another way, since 2016 I’d think you’d have had enough of dichotomous thinking as a cure for what ails America.

        It’s bad to be elitist. It’s bad to think that a billionaire genius can swoop in with VC funding and an army of consultants and just fix stuff. Problems tend to be more complex than “can be fixed with VC funding, consultants, and a Python script.” I don’t think Scott looks at problems that way, but if someone were to suggest that he empathizes with the general ethos of elitists, I don’t think they’d be too far off.

        I think the more accurate criticism is that Scott places too high a faith in the Silicon Valley ethos, which is elitist in a sense and not elitist in other senses. A lot of good computing and categorization problems were solved by the Silicon Valley ethos, and that deserves to be said. But then we get to cuddle puddles, cryogenics, and LSD microdosing and the shortcomings of the ethos become self-evident.

        A lot of AI algorithms lack business acumen. The belief that the American public school system can be solved the way Silicon Valley trains AI to diagnose lung tumors from MRI imagery or by analyzing “metadata” is not going to get us very far. Debates about public schools are often proxy debates about zoning, income inequality, local economic policy, and so on. And that’s before we even get to the question of which method of teaching improves knowledge retention to the greatest degree, and which kinds of knowledge we want children to retain, and for what kind of future we want to prepare them, and how much of the budget ought to be spent on the “social experience” of schooling (e.g. recess, team sports, and so on).

        To think that Zuckerberg can just buy his way through all these enmeshed debates is naive, to put it lightly.

        • John Schilling says:

          Huh? The opposite of elitism is populism? No, it isn’t. The opposite of elitism is not-elitism, of which populism is only one of many possible variants.

          The opposite of X is not the set of all things that are not X. That simply isn’t what the word means.

          Of the many things that are not elitism (roughly, the concentration of authority and influence among the “best” people, modulo arguments about who the “best” are), the one that is most directly opposed to elitism and is thus its actual opposite, is probably the idea that authority and influence should not be concentrated at all and that the reason for this is that such concentrations produce Bad Elitism. And yes, that pretty much is the definition of populism.

          Alternately, the opposite of elitism might be considered the concentration of authority and influence among the “worst” people, but I don’t think we have a word for that because nobody is daft enough to advocate or admit doing it and the people who accuse other people of doing it mostly just accuse them of Bad Elitism. In terms of positions people will actually advocate or accuse, it mostly just is populism and various forms of elitism, all of the latter arguing about who the “best” people really are and trying to pass of the “elitist” label like a hot potato.

    • bonewah says:

      “People reject billionaire philanthropy because they see it, correctly, as yet another effort for the elite to assert more and more control over society’s institutions. And there’s no better example than Newark.”

      Do the victims of malaria count for nothing? Nor the people unable to make bail and forced to have a criminal record? Or the half dozen other things Scott sited?

      I get that you and education realist and some others are deeply against the whole Zukerberg/Newark thing, but isnt there a bit of baby out with the bathwater here?

  23. CthulhuChild says:

    I feel like Scott has honestly understated the case against taxing philanthropy here. The discretionary budget of the US is about 53% spent on military, and anyone arguing that we should channel 50 percent of philanthropy into increased military spending is either stupid or literally evil.

    And I say this as someone who works in the defense industry. Whatever your thoughts on military expenditures in principal, a lack of funding is not the #$&*ing problem.

    • Matt M says:

      Whatever your thoughts on military expenditures in principal, a lack of funding is not the #$&*ing problem.

      What about stuff like, say, the Wounded Warrior Foundation? It’s a very popular charity among the general public at large.

      In theory, there’s really no reason it needs to exist. Defense spending could presumably cover everything it does and then some.

      And I think if you asked the Secretary of Defense why the DoD/VA doesn’t cover *insert thing here that private military-related charities provide that isn’t covered by the DoD/VA*, they’d say something like “We don’t have funding for that.”

      • CthulhuChild says:

        VA is a separate pool of cash (largely from mandatory spending), which exists for a fundamentally different purpose from appropriations bills to pay for military expenses. DoD actually *can’t* spend money on ex-service members (except via fairly clever machinations). Nor can they spend money set aside for 1000 humvees (which no one needs) on improved retention of enlisted personnel (which is desperately needed).

        • Matt M says:

          A pointless technicality.

          The claim was that the sum of money the government spends on things relating to the army is so large that there is no need to channel additional private funds towards things relating to the army.

          The existence of popular army-themed charities implies that quite a few Americans disagree.

      • LadyJane says:

        And I think if you asked the Secretary of Defense why the DoD/VA doesn’t cover *insert thing here that private military-related charities provide that isn’t covered by the DoD/VA*, they’d say something like “We don’t have funding for that.”

        Yes, and that would come across as a lie, or at least a convenient half-truth.

        The claim was that the sum of money the government spends on things relating to the army is so large that there is no need to channel additional private funds towards things relating to the army.

        If military spending was raised, I doubt most of the extra money would go toward helping veterans.

        The existence of popular army-themed charities implies that quite a few Americans disagree.

        Not necessarily. Many Americans might prioritize veteran care over, for instance, funding overpriced boondoggles that largely just serve to redistribute money into the hands of defense contractors. Whereas the federal government likely disagrees with those priorities.

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      Not that I disagree with the conclusion or anything, but “discretionary” is doing an awful lot of work here.

      • CthulhuChild says:

        To be clear: I mean it in the technical sense, as separate from mandatory spending. Since mandatory spending is principally determined by the number of people eligible rather than what programs congress chooses to endorse, new money from a “philanthropy tax” would be spent via discretionary budgets, which basically means more than half would go to the military.

        • bean says:

          That is very much not how this kind of budgeting works. Congress decides how much gets spent and where. I have no idea where the money from a billionaire tax would go. But assuming that it would be 50% to the military because that’s the current discretionary budget seems simplistic. Maybe they decide to give it to education. Or to expand medicare eligibility (which is non-discretionary, but still something Congress has a lot of control over.) Or maybe they don’t spend the extra and use it to reduce the deficit. (OK, that’s not very plausible, but it could happen.)

  24. Lodore says:

    Though I agree that billionaire philanthropy is valuable, I don’t think Scott captures the two main reasons people object to it.

    The first reason is to do with concentration of power. The issue here is not so much quibbling about the good done by a specific billionaire; it’s the the fear that the said billionaire, should they have some weird set of values, cannot easily be stopped from successfully promoting these values. I can already think of one culture war surgical procedure for infants that was promoted by a billionaire philanthropist, and has been with American society since. Evidence for this view comes from the fact that charitable trusts are a hell of a lot more positively regarded than individuals. The Bill and Melinda Gates Trust most obviously, but also the Wellcome Trust, which funds nearly as much in health but is entirely well-regarded.

    The second reason is simply to do with fickleness. If a social problem is temporarily alleviated by charity, the pressure to permanently alleviate it is removed. Therefore, allowing impermanent agents like billionaires to address chronic problems makes us hostage to these billionaires continuing to solve these problems, when the State should do so.

    As I say, I agree that billionaire philanthropy is good, but I do think it triggers a lot of agency-centred tripwires that make people uncomfortable around it, and that we need to factor that in when we think about it.

  25. Ghillie Dhu says:

    A point missing from the discussion of taxing billionaires (and especially true if targeted at their philanthropic spending) is the concept of tax incidence. If the consumption of the billionaire is not reduced by a tax increase, then the tax is landing on somebody else.

  26. janrandom says:

    “In an association between a “big” and a “small” agent, observers tend to hold the larger agent to a higher “ally” standard. The larger agent is supposed to do more to help the smaller agent when they are in need, and to do less that might risk the safety of that smaller agent. ” — Robin Hanson http://www.overcomingbias.com/2019/04/complaints-by-relation-type.html

    By this, we can deduce that the charity by philantroph billionaires is seen by the complainers as either

    a) not actual cheritable helping but something else (e.g. a secret influence) or
    b) not actually helping the ally or
    c) not fairly distributed among the allies or
    d) spent on people not being allies of the billionaire (how unfair, he should help his allies first) or
    e) the billionaire is not an ally of the person complaining (and signaling toward his own group).

    Which is it?

  27. Manx says:

    You’ve just bought an extra $4/hour for warehouse workers, at the cost of ten million lives.

    Exactly! The people making this argument do not care about those lives in Africa. They care about income inequality in the United States. They want the income of the warehouse workers to go up, because then maybe their own income will too. I think many people would consciously endorse this trade.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think this is uncharitable; there’s not a lot of ways that a wage increase for Amazon workers could help the upper-middle class people who make these arguments, and many of them support other socialist policies that would probably raise their own taxes.

  28. ErnestSDavis says:

    “I’ve heard people criticizing Zuckerberg’s donation [to the Newark public schools] constantly for years, and I didn’t even know he had a $59 million Lake Tahoe mansion until I googled “things mark zuckerberg has spent ridiculous amounts of money on” in the process of writing this paragraph.” That’s a ridiculous comparison. Zuckerberg made the donation to the Newark public schools in 2010 to immense hoopla, with an announcement on Oprah. Zuckerberg and Chan bought the Lake Tahoe property secretly in 2019,. It is hardly surprising that you have not heard people criticizing the Lake Tahoe mansion for years.

    More importantly, you’re way underestimating how much payback billionaire philanthropists get. They are honored all over creation, by government, by universities, in the media, everywhere. Their names are plastered over everything and constantly on everyone’s lips. How many thousand times have you seen that this or that was sponsored by the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation etc. etc.? How many tens of thousands of times have you read about Carnegie-Mellon University, Stanford University, Cornell University? The negative journalism is the mildest counterweight to the huge PR apparatus.

  29. stationarywaves says:

    Since billionaires have complete control over their own money, they are helping society the way they want, not the way the voters and democratically-elected-officials want. This threatens democracy. We can solve this by increasing taxes on philanthropy, so that the money billionaires might have spent on charity flows back to the public purse instead.

    This is equivalent to removing the tax-free status of registered charitable organizations. Does anyone who believes that billionaires’ donations should be taxed also believe that non-profit organizations should be taxed? I imagine some of them do, but most of them don’t.

    Personally, I think the idea that rich people can’t give gifts because they’re super rich is morally abhorrent, but I’ve never been the kind of guy to dislike the rich for being rich, so here we are.

    • Viliam says:

      Personally, I think the idea that rich people can’t give gifts because they’re super rich is morally abhorrent, but I’ve never been the kind of guy to dislike the rich for being rich, so here we are.

      As a survivor of socialism, I can assure you that the sentiment is much deeper than that. Rich people giving gifts is a problem, but after that problem is solved, poor people giving gifts becomes a problem, too. Afterwards, simply “people doing something on their own” becomes a problem.

      The actual problem is doing things without the government approval. As a former socialist once said: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” This is exactly how it worked in socialism of my childhood. Individual initiative was a bad thing, regardless of its actual aims. The only good thing was to do what you were told.

      The journalists argue that rich people’s philanthropy is “against democracy”, but what they really mean is that it is “against the state” or rather “without the state”. This is why Scott’s argument that people actually trust billionaire philanthropy more than government spending, so in that sense it is kinda more democratic, isn’t going to convince anyone. It’s not about being more democratic in the sense of “plebs being happy about what happens”. It’s about someone acting on their own, which threatens those who identify with the state.

  30. Deej says:

    Not Scott’s best work, I fear. (Clearly not the against billionaire charity guys’ best work either.)

  31. thisheavenlyconjugation says:

    It’s unfair to count Borlaug as a win only for philanthropy, since he was also funded by the Mexican government.

    • sentientbeings says:

      Not that you’re wrong, but I think he might have also chosen that as an example because it’s an instance of enormous contribution to a larger effort driven by one man and because he is also criticized by some of the same sorts of people that levy these criticisms, with similarly flimsy-in-the-face-of-the-numbers critiques (i.e. they don’t like GMOs, so f*** those billion people). It’s part of a larger pattern of ignoring evidence, others’ agency, and the capacity for good outside of top-down government action because it doesn’t conform with one’s own perspective or objectives.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree (and admitted in the post) that government spending often funds the same kind of good work as billionaire philanthropy, but that a much lower percent of it goes to that kind of work.

      • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

        Sure (as in, I agree that you convincingly argued for that in the rigourous bits), but if you’re going to throw out individual examples to rhetorically illustrate your point it seems kind of dishonest to ignore that one of those examples also illustrates the opposing point.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I… don’t think that’s what I’m doing?

          Suppose (and I’m making up these numbers, but hopefully you get my point) that the government spends $4 trillion and gets X Borlaugs.

          Private philanthropy spends $10 billion and also gets X Borlaugs.

          Private philanthropy is purchasing 400x more Borlaugs per dollar than the government. It’s not surprising that the government eventually gets a Borlaug (though that it’s the Mexican government is actually pretty interesting), it is surprising that private philanthropy does.

          Suppose that using magic, I (ordinary person, not much money) managed to get to the moon, and I count that as a victory for magic. Saying “Yeah, but NASA also managed to get to the moon” is irrelevant; it’s not surprising that they did, but it is surprising that I did, so magic starts looking good.

          • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

            I’m not rejecting the overall claim that billionaire philanthropy is more effective than government spending (at least, not here). My objection is to the rhetoric in that paragraph.

            If Borlaug’s government funding is unsurprising/irrelevant, then changing the sentence to “Norman Borlaug’s agricultural research (supported by the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation and the government) plausibly saved one billion people” should not affect its rhetorical effectiveness. But I think it definitely would.

  32. Josiah says:

    1. I think you may be underestimating the extent to which foundations really do shape political outcomes. Big name philanthropists in the United States, at least, don’t just give money to your favorite charities; they work with municipalities, think tanks and the like to craft public policies. American philanthropic giving in the education sector is the most dramatic example of this (Exhibit A: the Common Core curriculum and the Gates Foundation’s other forays into reshaping public schools).

    2. The fact that you don’t particularly like Congress or feel represented by it misses the point of the comparison and the problem of philanthropist’s government influence. Congress is a multi-member, elected body that’s only one part of a multi-branch system, which (by design) makes it difficult for authoritarian rule to emerge in the U.S. Foundations follow the whims of the founders completely: there are no checks and balances to speak of in the big philanthropy world minus some nominal boards that can be stacked with the founders’ family members — I believe the Gates Foundation Board consists of Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates Sr. When philanthropists then go off and make government policy, they do so in a way that’s completely unaccountable.

    3. The focus on billionaire philanthropy is misleading, especially because the Gates have been so successful in their international work. Much of the most egregious philanthropy in the U.S consists of small family foundations with no real purpose other than to lower tax bills, and without the assets to accomplish anything of significance.

    • ksdale says:

      I know that people are constantly cycling in and out of Congress, but doesn’t the fact that approval ratings for Congress have been so low for so long indicate a unique sort of unaccountability?

      Besides that, the foundations are still required to operate according to the law, so they are not at all “completely unaccountable”. Scott has mentioned elsewhere in the thread that he wasn’t advocating replacing government spending with billionaire philanthropy, just that, at the margins, billionaires may currently achieve better outcomes with each dollar.

      • Matt M says:

        I thought it was fairly well accepted/understood that the issue with Congress is that everyone hates Congress in general, but most people don’t hate their Congressman specifically, which is the only Congressman they’re actually allowed to vote for.

        And as far as I can tell, this may a feature, rather than a bug. Congressional districts are far more diverse and distinct than the parties/tribes/whatever are. It makes sense that the people who like AOC not only don’t like Trump and Ted Cruz, but that they also might not like Joe Biden or whoever, and that the people who liked Ron Paul not only wouldn’t like Elizabeth Warren, but they also might not like Mitch McConnell or Tom Cotton.

        Ultimately speaking, it’s dumb to think of Congress as accountable to America, in aggregate. Because in a literal sense, they absolutely aren’t. Each individual Congressperson is accountable to their constituents and their constituents alone.

        • acymetric says:

          Right. Average approval rating for members of congress in their district (or state, for a Senator) will be much higher than approval for Congress as a whole. Realistically your cap is going to be somewhere around ~50% approval (straight down partisan lines) but in practice it will be lower because people don’t like some of their own party’s congressman either.

        • ksdale says:

          I completely agree with everything you say, it is dumb to think about Congress being accountable to America, which is why I said that Congress is uniquely unaccountable. Individuals in Congress are accountable to relatively small groups of voters, and Congress as a whole is accountable to no one, except kind of the other branches, which is all fine and good, I’m not questioning the architecture of the American system of government. I was attempting to point out that it hardly seems fair to criticize charitable foundations for being unaccountable when the democratic body they were being compared to is also unaccountable.

          • Josiah says:

            Congressional approval ratings are low, but Congress is still very much accountable to the whims of the public (however misinformed); I’m not sure I see why you think accountability and popularity have to be linked there.

          • ksdale says:

            @Josiah I think accountability and popularity are necessarily linked in any system designed to be accountable to “the people”. Congress makes policy that affects the entire country, but the very large majority of the entire country thinks that Congress is doing a terrible job.

            That doesn’t mean they’re not accountable to anyone at all, as people have pointed out, but at least in my opinion, having like 2/535ths of Congress as a whole be accountable to my vote as one vote out of several million in my state that always happens to vote for one party doesn’t make me feel like I have any more control over Congress than I do over the Gates Foundation. My personal opinions matter just as little to my Congress people as it does to Bill Gates, particularly where my politics diverge from those of my Congress people.

            Naturally, Congress was not designed to make me happy, and that’s fine, but it seems plausible (to me, anyway) that our system of government, being designed as it is to foster conflict in a way that prevents authoritarianism, may not be the best vehicle for making all manner of decisions related to the public good.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I agree with what you say, but one example is out of whack. The same people who elected Rand Paul also elected Mitch McConnell.

  33. DinoNerd says:

    WTF? There are two problems with billionaire philanthropy, and neither one is mentioned.

    1) The main one is how the money being donated was acquired. If the billionaire made his fortune by unethical rapacity, or worse, giving some of it away doesn’t fix any of his ethical failings.

    2) “Philanthropy” in support of things that make the world overall worse.

    We can argue abut the specifics of both (1) and (2) for days, on any CW thread, and not wind up with complete agreement. But those are the main problems I see.

    I suspect a lot of the public criticism is motivated by (1), and the authors would go after the mansions and yachts as well, if they thought they could get people to click on such stories.

    • Matt M says:

      This is a weird one in that I disagree strongly with your framing, but I think I mostly agree with your overall conclusion.

      As far as I can tell, literally nobody, anywhere, is arguing Point 1 or 2. Nobody is out there saying “Someone can make billions through evil and unethical practices, but once they give some portion of it to charity, their prior sins are forgiven and everyone must consider them a good and respectable person.” And, similarly, nobody on any side of any tribe/political division is in favor of rich people giving to causes they believe would actually make the world worse.

      Now, I think it IS true that authors are more inclined to go after the charitable giving than the mansions and yachts, possibly for logic related to Toxoplasma of Rage. Basically, “billionaire buys fancy yacht” is an uninteresting “dog bites man” sort of story. It’s the type of thing you expect billionaires to do, and whaddya know, nearly all of them do it (including the ones who rail against the excesses of capitalism). Everyone who hates billionaires already agrees it’s terrible, and even the people who think billionaires are generally good and cool will consider luxury purchases to be morally neutral, at best.

      But “billionaire donates millions to charity” is different. It defies our expectations of what billionaires are supposed to be like (they’re supposed to be Ebenezer Scrooge, remember?) So it’s a more newsworthy item in general. And then, for people whose job is to write provocative thinkpieces, “And actually this is really bad” is the only sufficiently edgey or noticeable response. “Donating to provide malaria nets is good” is also a “Dog bites man” sort of thinkpiece. Nobody writes it because nobody considers that it needs to be written.

      • 2181425 says:

        I don’t think I actually disagree with you, but I’ve not seen this mentioned and it hooks in with DinoNerd’s point #1.
        link text

        This kerfuffle over charitable giving/board membership and similar things such as BP’s involvement in the National Portrait Gallery illuminate, I think, thornier issues with charitable giving from sources with dubious connections (Kanders to weapons/tear gas, BP to oil/climate change). BP especially represents a corporation selling a product with tradeoffs and the inevitable purity spiral that will result from museums, etc refusing the dollars of the unclean will probably be a net negative, but these areas seem a bit more gray than the Gates Foundation fighting malaria.

      • FormerRanger says:

        People have written against “donating to provide malaria nets is good,” because sometimes the recipients of the nets decide to use them as fishing nets rather to keep mosquitoes from biting them. I suggest a quick google of “malaria nets used for fishing gates.” You will find pieces from the NYT, the Guardian, and New Scientist.

        • J Mann says:

          FWIW, my understanding is that the problem with malaria nets being used to fish is that they harm the fish, either because (a) anti-insect toxins in the net get in the water or (b) because the very fine mesh catches small fish that would normally escape fishing nets, throwing the ecosystem of the fishing areas off.

          So it’s a problem, but the solution might just be to provide fishing nets along with the mosquito nets.

        • Lambert says:

          The evidence for that issue is kind of limited.
          AMF studies show that 90% of bednets are still in use as bednets after a year. And that figure is factored into QALY calculations.

          https://blog.givewell.org/2015/02/05/putting-the-problem-of-bed-nets-used-for-fishing-in-perspective/

  34. Conrad Honcho says:

    Also, timely tweet/article.

    Only 22 percent of U.S. adults are on Twitter, and 80 percent of the tweets come from 10 percent of users. If you rely on Twitter for political information, you are being informed by ersatz pundits residing within 2.2 percent of the population.

    So I’m not sure how well a sampling of tweets about billionaire philanthropy represent public mood.

    • FrankistGeorgist says:

      Clearly not at all, since the polling proves the Billionaires are popular, and their charitable contributions – moderated by how much the average person knows about them – is already built in. This whole post feels like tilting at windmills.

    • Randy M says:

      If you rely on sources other than Twitter for information, you are being informed by pundits who rely on ersatz pundits residing withing 2.2 percent of the population.
      Journalists seem to love Twitter.

      • Dan L says:

        Check sources. Follow links. Read primary documents. And by all that is holy, stop relying on anything in particular. If you’re trying to decide who to uncritically trust, there has already been a catastrophic failure of media literacy.

  35. KristinRose says:

    I realize it’s becoming tiresome to point out the Scandinavian superiority in so many measures of societal goodness, but sometimes I can’t resist: All of the 6 Scandinavian countries *combined* have around 60 billionaires, while the US has over 600 billionaires. Point being how Moloch-ish it is to have individual amassed wealth undo all the problems which our government has created.

    (in an ironic aside, I believe the richest of the Nordic is the CEO of Lego, a platform that undoubtedly launched many of our own tech giants)

    • Matt M says:

      All of the 6 Scandinavian countries *combined* have around 60 billionaires, while the US has over 600 billionaires.

      The US population is over 10x that of the Scandinavian population.

      Try again.

    • The Nybbler says:

      I’m not sure what the sixth Scandinavian country is, after Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland, but unless it’s huge, that works out to about the same billionaire/population ratio as the US.

      • ec429 says:

        Finland isn’t Scandinavian (hence the delightful word Fennoscandia), and nor is Iceland.
        Perhaps you (and KristinRose) meant the Nordic Countries.
        See this handy CGP Grey video.
        Though KristinRose might have been counting Greenland and the Faroe Islands as countries, which technically does get you up to five if you define Scandinavia as the three kingdoms of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, rather than the countries of the same names. Six is right out, though.

      • EchoChaos says:

        The Faroe Islands? Greenland?

    • Randy M says:

      Unclear why having fewer billionaires is a point in your favor? I understand why having fewer poor people, on a global definition, would be, but it’s not argued how those are causally linked.

  36. salvorhardin says:

    Seems to me a lot of this dispute reduces to whether you think democracy has intrinsic value and thus making an institutional mix More Democratic ™ is a moral good in itself, or whether it has only instrumental value, and is a useful and necessary part of a healthy institutional mix but one which, like all other parts, must be strongly checked and balanced. Billionaires’ disposition of their wealth, philanthropic or not, absolutely does act as a check on democracy– just as democracy acts as a check on the power of billionaires. At least some of us think that’s a good thing, and should be stated explicitly as such.

  37. belvarine says:

    Billionaire philanthropy is a sweet-smelling salve applied to gangrene. It’s harmful because it masks the deleterious effects of systemic inequality. To quote Oscar Wilde, “But [charity] is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”

    Jeff Bezos donates $2 billion for preschools for underprivileged children. How did the existence of underpriviliged children come about?

    Bill Gates donates millions to finance pathology research. Why are those areas currently underfunded? Who convinced the government it should reduce funding?

    Who lobbied for ag-gag laws? Who spends money to lobby in favor of the carceral state, and how much do they spend? Who petitioned the state to subsidize factory farming? Why are billionaires fighting climate change now instead of in 1989 when oil companies developed internal models linking carbon emissions with global warming?

    Once you find the source of these problems, you won’t have to spend billions of dollars treating the recurrent symptoms.

    • jermo sapiens says:

      How did the existence of underpriviliged children come about?

      Poverty does not come about. It is the default state. The question is how wealth comes about.

      • Guy in TN says:

        Poverty does not come about. It is the default state.

        A lone man on an island: poor or rich?

        I would say rich, because he has unlimited access to all the known wealth in his purview (including any wealth he helps create in the future).

        Of course, humans as a species can’t exist as solitary individuals on islands. Instead we live in societies, where our access to wealth is limited by other people who also want to access that same wealth, and control it though economic institutions such as property law, or at least naked force.

        Which is to say, as long as humans society exists, there’s no “default state” pre-social distribution of wealth. It’s socially constructed institutions all the way down. Belvarine is correct to describe the situations as: if people are poor, its because we have decided to adopt economic institutions that make them poor.

        “Why are we choosing to make these people poor?” is absolutely the question we should be asking. To try to pass off our economic institutions as a “natural” state is to side-step the role we play in creating and maintaining them.

        • jermo sapiens says:

          Of course, humans as a species can’t exist as solitary individuals on islands. Instead we live in societies, where our access to wealth is limited by other people who also want to access that same wealth, and control it though economic institutions such as property law, or at least naked force.

          You seem to suggest that wealth is something that is just lying around and some people picked it up and kept it for themselves. Your access to wealth is not limited by other people or institutions. In fact, the only chance you have of acquiring any wealth is by leveraging other people and institutions. But everybody wants wealth and wealth is not just lying on the ground for you to pick it up, so it’s necessarily hard to acquire.

          as long as humans society exists, there’s no “default state”

          I recommend you visit Baltimore, or at least watch the Wire, and familiarize yourself with the second law of thermodynamics.

          if people are poor, its because we have decided to adopt economic institutions that make them poor

          Trying really really hard to avoid being snarky here, but this level of wrongness can only be achieved by working very hard at being wrong. Even your guy on an island is ok as long as there are coconuts and he is healthy. But if his island is subject to a hurricane, or he suffers a cut which gets infected, he’s screwed. Never mind that being isolated like that probably drove him insane years ago.

          “Why are we choosing to make these people poor?” is absolutely the question we should be asking.

          Because we are evil villains who just enjoy a good laugh at the stupid poor person, dont you know?

          • Guy in TN says:

            You seem to suggest that wealth is something that is just lying around and some people picked it up and kept it for themselves.

            Yes, this is exactly what I’m suggesting because its true. Does land not have value? Water, air, trees? Not all of the value of wealth is derived from exclusively from human labor.

            I recommend you visit Baltimore, or at least watch the Wire, and familiarize yourself with the second law of thermodynamics.

            I have no idea what a random US city, a TV show from ten years ago, and the laws of physics have to do with anything I said. Sentence reads like a Mad Lib.

            Even your guy on an island is ok as long as there are coconuts and he is healthy. But if his island is subject to a hurricane, or he suffers a cut which gets infected, he’s screwed.

            Healthy? That’s not the question. I asked if the man on the island was wealthy, with a “w”. The two words aren’t synonyms, obviously wealthy people die all the time.

          • Matt M says:

            Does land not have value?

            Without any labor? No, not much, really. What is the inherent value of an acre of land in Manhattan? Why is or isn’t the “correct” answer “a handful of glass beads”?

            The land itself was of little value to its original inhabitants centuries ago, but is of incredible value today – and it didn’t get more valuable on its own…

          • EchoChaos says:

            @Matt M

            No, New York has always had Magic Dirt. Baltimore HAD Magic Dirt, but some evil people took the magic and now it has Tragic Dirt.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Does land not have value?

            Yes, it does. Somehow though, a square foot of times square is worth more than an acre of Alaska wilderness. I recommend you meditate on why that is.

            I have no idea what a random US city, a TV show from ten years ago, and the laws of physics have to do with anything I said. Sentence reads like a Mad Lib.

            Baltimore is in the news recently for being “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” according to Trump. This is what happens to a place if no work is put into it, what was once wealthy becomes poverty. Decay. The Wire is a tv series which illustrates the sad state of Baltimore, ironically loved by the same people who are tweeting their faux outrage over Trump’s words. The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy always increases, which means that decay is built in to the very laws of the universe. It’s literally the physical law which corresponds to the point I’m making. You seem to think that everyone would be wealthy if they were not actively kept poor. In this case you’re not just wrong, the very laws of physics contradict you. Repent and sin no more.

            Healthy? That’s not the question. I asked if the man on the island was wealthy, with a “w”. The two words aren’t synonyms, obviously wealthy people die all the time.

            Thank you I’m aware. My point is that in any normal context you would consider access to timely healthcare as a good indicator of wealth. But your guy on the island is not really wealthy if he is at the mercy of infection 24/7. I’m not saying it’s impossible to be happy alone on an island, but he’s not wealthy.

          • Cliff says:

            I asked if the man on the island was wealthy

            A man on an island is living in the direst poverty and will likely die in short order after some misery.

        • baconbits9 says:

          I would say rich, because he has unlimited access to all the known wealth in his purview (including any wealth he helps create in the future).

          There is almost no wealth on islands as most ‘wealth’ requires labor to extract and one mans’ labor on its own is worth little.

          • Matt M says:

            Yeah, someone who has zero access to the division of labor and zero access to the accumulated savings and capital goods of prior generations is basically the poorest person on Earth, regardless of the unrestricted access to natural resources nearby him that he may enjoy.

          • Guy in TN says:

            There is almost no wealth on islands

            Compared to the wealth on the rest of the planet, sure. There’s almost no wealth on Earth, either, compared to all the wealth in the galaxy.

            Feels weird to describe the entire human race as “poor” though, considering the wealth in the galaxy is outside our scope of known reality (i.e., directly comparable to the man-on-the-island situation).

          • Matt M says:

            No. Even that framing is wrong.

            Even if you happen to wash up on an island that happens to be sitting on the world’s largest platinum deposit, you’re still desperately poor. Because the platinum is of little value to you without access to the capital goods needed to extract it and refine it into something usable, and the division of labor that has created markets willing to pay to use it for higher value stuff.

          • J Mann says:

            Guy in TN is defining wealth relatively – the lone castaway has 100% of the wealth in his area, so Guy defines him as wealthy.

            Alternatively, you can define wealth on a more absolute scale – a working class American has convenient access to food from around the world, access to the internet, a cell phone, a longer life expectancy, the ability to travel anywhere in the world, access to antibiotics, enough wealth to buy computer games, large screen TVs, a car, a boat (maybe not all at the same time), etc., which the castaway does not.

            I’d call the hypothetical American working class member wealthier than the castaway, because I see it in absolute terms, but if you define wealth as “percentage of resources located within 2 miles of you that you nominally own,” then the castaway looks better by that measure.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Even if you happen to wash up on an island that happens to be sitting on the world’s largest platinum deposit, you’re still desperately poor.

            He has unlimited access to all the wealth in his known existence, encumbered only by the restraints of his own physical limitations.

            I would not only describe a person in this situation as “wealthy”, but “as maximally wealthy as a person could conceivably be”.

          • Cliff says:

            I would not only describe a person in this situation as “wealthy”, but “as maximally wealthy as a person could conceivably be”.

            Well, now you know that is a highly idiosyncratic definition that no one else agrees with or understands

          • acymetric says:

            I mean, I understood exactly what he was saying. I think you’re all making this harder than it needs to be.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Cliff, is this your “non-idiosyncratic” definition:

            …you can define wealth on a more absolute scale – a working class American has convenient access to food from around the world, access to the internet, a cell phone, a longer life expectancy, the ability to travel anywhere in the world, access to antibiotics, enough wealth to buy computer games, large screen TVs, a car, a boat (maybe not all at the same time), etc., which the castaway does not.

            A definition where a Roman emperor is classified as “poor” because he can’t buy an iphone?

          • Cliff says:

            wealth
            /welTH/
            Learn to pronounce
            noun
            noun: wealth

            – an abundance of valuable possessions or money.

            antonyms: poverty, privation
            – the state of being rich; material prosperity.
            “some people buy boats and cars to display their wealth”
            – plentiful supplies of a particular resource.
            “the country’s mineral wealth”

          • EchoChaos says:

            @Guy in TN

            I have heard that exact argument before, yes.

            Succinctly, “The poor in America are unimaginably rich to a degree that the Pharaohs and Roman Emperors would envy”

          • jermo sapiens says:

            I mean, I understood exactly what he was saying. I think you’re all making this harder than it needs to be.

            No, Guy was using a very odd and idiosyncratic meaning for wealth in support of the proposition that “if people are poor, its because we have decided to adopt economic institutions that make them poor.” That proposition is wrong and dangerous.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            A definition where a Roman emperor is classified as “poor” because he can’t buy an iphone?

            A Roman emperor at least had forms of wealth that are still today recognized as wealth, namely access to finest foods, finest houses, infinite supply of women, and the world’s most powerful military at his beck and call. He may not have had an iphone, but he had other forms of wealth.

            The guy on the island has coconuts.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Succinctly, “The poor in America are unimaginably rich to a degree that the Pharaohs and Roman Emperors would envy”

            Right, but “wealth” in the sentence is used comparatively, between Americans to Roman Emperors.

            It is not normal, and in fact idiosyncratic, to insist on restricting the use of “wealthy” to the absolute sense, with relation to the United States in 2019 as reference.

            Evidence of people who, in normal language, are “not poor”:
            arcus_Licinius_Crassus

            Known for his enormous wealth

            Croesus

            Croesus was renowned for his wealth

            John of Gaunt

            his great wealth, ostentatious display of it

            Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel

            In 1347, he succeeded to the Earldom of Surrey (or Warenne), which even further increased his great wealth.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Guy was using a very odd and idiosyncratic meaning for wealth in support of the proposition that “if people are poor, its because we have decided to adopt economic institutions that make them poor.” That proposition is wrong and dangerous.

            My statement actually holds true no matter which definition of “wealthy” you adopt.

            Let’s say, okay sure, you want to go the absolute route and define “wealthy” as something along the lines of (for example) ingesting 2,000 calories a day. So if you can (and are willing) to consume that much, you are “wealthy”, but if you can’t then you are “poor”.

            Well, what keeps a person from being wealthy then? It’s not like there doesn’t exist 2,000 calories for each person on earth to consume that much. It’s not like the technology and infrastructure for food distribution doesn’t exist to ensure people could have access.

            Outside of fringe examples (uncontacted tribes, people who crash land in the Sahara) it seems pretty obvious that if people are failing to be able to consume 2,000 calories a day, its because we’ve set up our social and economic institutions to make it such that they can’t. If people are going hungry, even in the absolute, not relative sense, its because we’ve chosen for it to be this way.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            it seems pretty obvious that if people are failing to be able to consume 2,000 calories a day, its because we’ve set up our social and economic institutions to make it such that they can’t

            In what universe is this proper reasoning? If your argument rests on phrases like “it seem pretty obvious”, you need to read up on logic before you start tackling harder questions like “why isnt everyone wealthy?”

            Nevertheless, I will try and help you.

            It’s not like there doesn’t exist 2,000 calories for each person on earth to consume that much.

            These calories exist in edible forms because people worked hard to create them (by hunting, agriculture, raising cows, etc…) They only put in that work on condition that they would be compensated for their work. And compensation for their work implies work by someone else. So without work, no calories. That’s the default state. No work, no calories. Work, calories. You want wealth? Work. You want lots of wealth, work really really hard.

          • J Mann says:

            The popular definition is lacking in some senses.

            As to whether a modern working class American is wealthier than Louis XIV, well, she probably is in some senses, but I guess it requires some examination. Louis lived in bigger houses, had more servants, and had opportunities that our working class person didn’t.

            Certainly, if we move to the future and find a relatively poor member of that society who can still recreate Louis’s entire lifestyle thanks to the fabulous post-singularity wealth of the society, it might not be crazy to say she’s wealthier even if there are much wealthier members of that society than her.

            Similarly, if we take an American millionaire, then suddenly destroy all billionaires and their entire wealth, I don’t think most people would think of that millionaire as now being “wealthier,” even though her property not represented a higher relative share of total wealth.

          • Matt M says:

            As to whether a modern working class American is wealthier than Louis XIV, well, she probably is in some senses, but I guess it requires some examination. Louis lived in bigger houses, had more servants, and had opportunities that our working class person didn’t.

            The problem with trying to do this analysis is in how we approach leisure time, which is a very valuable asset/luxury good.

            In terms of “utils per hour of labor performed” Louis probably has me beat, even if my absolute standard of living is higher than his. The things I enjoy that he could not don’t come free. I have to work for them, and he didn’t have to work at all.

            On the other hand, the Walton heirs have Louis beat on every dimension. And I have “the average peasant during the time of Louis” beat on every dimension as well, that much is obvious.

            But since value is subjective, and the value of leisure time even more subjective, the question of “Am I richer than Louis” depends almost entirely on how much my leisure time is worth to me. And that’s hard to deal with. How much would I have to work to be able to afford a lifestyle similar to his? How expensive is it, really, to afford “Mansion + servants + food that was available in 19th century France – any modern amenity invented after his death?” It’s hard to even think about because it’s such a weird construct… nobody in modern times who could afford a mansion would be willing to go without an iPhone or modern medicine or whatever else. But it may be true that “mansion + servants – everything modern” is actually cheaper than the current lifestyle I live. Depends on where you put the mansion, I guess. And whether you care if the servants speak English or not.

          • Subb4k says:

            You want wealth? Work. You want lots of wealth, work really really hard.

            Sure. That’s exactly how things work. There is no such thing as wage slavery, inherited wealth, structural inequality, etc…

            If I only care about the basic levels of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, I, a white man with affluent parent’s, don’t need to work. On the other hand, some people work and still have to sleep in homeless shelters because they’re not paid enough.

          • Cliff says:

            There is no such thing as wage slavery, inherited wealth, structural inequality

            You’re right about the first one, maybe the last as well.

          • benwave says:

            Am I imagining things or is everybody using the labour theory of value here?

          • abystander says:

            There is a lone man on an island who can climb trees to get the coconuts and makes items out of coconut hulls but can’t swim. There is a lone woman on a different similar island who can swim can catch crabs and gather seaweed and makes items out of crab shells. There is a third similar island with a man who climbs trees to get the coconuts and a woman who can swim can catch crabs and gather seaweed. So they have crabs, coconuts and seaweed, make items that are a combination of coconut hulls and crab shells AND they get to have sex. The people on the third island are better off materially than either of the people on the first two islands. If you want to say the man on the third island is less wealthy than the man in the first island because he has to share the wealth of the island with another person that is idiosyncratic.

          • sentientbeings says:

            @benwave

            You are imagining things. Some people have erroneously used it elsewhere, but not in this particular sequence of comments. Labor is one of the three (sometimes four) traditional classes of economic inputs. Productions takes these inputs in different proportions to output something more valuable. The value is decided subjectively by actors, but the combining of the inputs, of which labor is one, is the process by which value is added. It’s trivially true even for immediately-useful raw materials, because you still have to go find the stuff, pick it up, etc.

          • RalMirrorAd says:

            ‘Standard of Living’ is probably the most appropriate way to compare people across time and between social classes. Rich and poor are always relative to something else but the metrics used to compare can be quantitative.

            The amount of hours of labor needed to acquire staples of living (Whilst making the difficult adjustment for differences in quality) is one way to do it. I’m specifically thinking of food, shelter, and heating.

            Life expectancy and literacy are also useful indicators.

            Comparing the richest [Relative to his contemporaries] person to a lower income person in a 1st world country is trickier. A roman emperor could probably acquire housing in square footage less time it takes the lower income person to do so. The lower income person probably has easier access to plumbing, heating, and lighting, but the richest person might have so much conscripted labor and money at his disposal that he can brute-force low tech versions of those things.

            But if you go a step below the rich antiquarian and a step above the poor modern the moderns will usually win out decisively simply because food/lighing/heating etc. was so much more expensive in the past.

            _____________

            I would caution using the term ‘Wealth’ in the context of rich and poor.
            An elderly pensioner may have more wealth than a young professional but the young professional may very well enjoy a higher standard of living in all areas because the professionals income and consumption levels are higher.

            In a market context assets generally only have value [in dollar terms] and can therefore be compared against eachother and used to measure “Wealth” if they at minimum have the potential to facilitate consumption. (A bit abstract but in the case of residential property you can think of the occupants as ‘consuming’ housing by occupying the property)

            This is also why measuring wealth in terms of quantities of raw materials fails. A lot of effort needs to be expended to turn those raw materials into something that someone is willing to buy. Someone who owns a small patch of tokyo real-estate is in that sense wealthier than a castaway on an island simply because their ability to turn what they own into income or consumption is much greater.

            Of course there are a lot of people who become rich by buying undeveloped property and developing it up to the point that it can start generating income, at which point the price they would get for selling it is much more than the sum of what they paid for the property and what money they spent to build up said property.

        • gettin_schwifty says:

          Gotta admit I’m confused here. A guy on an island is as poor as it gets: No money, no way to get money. I think I’d say he is neither rich or poor, the words don’t apply to him. I think you’re trying to say he’s rich because he has discretion over the island’s resources, but that’s not very helpful for him. He may decide that the trees shall be used to build a log cabin, and no one will stop him, but he’d better know how to build said cabin. Wealth only makes sense as a construct when other people are around. If you’re alone, you have everything, but you can’t do anything with it.

          Much love, Kyle

        • Another Throw says:

          A lone man on an island: poor or rich?

          I would say rich, because he has unlimited access to all the known wealth in his purview (including any wealth he helps create in the future).

          This is so wrong it is hard to know where to start, but I think the core problem is that it frames wealth purely in contrast to other humans. That because another human wont show up to hurl pointy sticks at you—perhaps at supersonic velocities—for taking something means that it is yours.

          This is not so. Every resource must be wrested from the jaws of the ferocious beasts of nature doing the God damn best to kill and eat you, and they are far, far more invested in the subject than another human that may lay claim to those resources could possibly be.

          Where other humans are prone to using pointy sticks to fend you off, the beasts of the field resist your attempts to exploit them with tooth and claw; the birds of the sky with pecks and scratch; the plants with thorn and poison; the air with its convective currents perpetually stealing your precious accumulation of heat and its noxious fumes being, well, noxious; the very earth with its incalculable army of pathogens probing, constantly probing for any opportunity to take you into its bosom as yet more dirt.

          You say that the act of holding something against other humans makes it yours and I say nay. The far more strenuous task is holding it against nature itself, and to ignore this task is to misconstrue possession altogether.

          But, to your point, a man alone is the poorest man. Bereft is he of the accumulated wealth of his progenitors; he is bereft of the 10,000 years of genetic engineering to compel the wheat of the fields to yield up their fibrous tissue; bereft of the 40,000 years of perpetual genetic engineering to tame the beasts of the field; bereft of the 2.6 millions years of innovation to fashion stone to his purpose; bereft of even the most basic balms to sooth the legions of infections tearing at his tissue; and bereft of the wise consul of an elder on how to steal meat from the jaws of the lions.

          It is only from a position of inconceivable wealth, with engineered lawns, and manicured parks, and central A/C that the ravenous bloodlust of nature can be forgotten. But venturing too far from that safety, heedless of the risks, is prone to tragic reminders.

          • Guy in TN says:

            This is not so. Every resource must be wrested from the jaws of the ferocious beasts of nature doing the God damn best to kill and eat you, and they are far, far more invested in the subject than another human that may lay claim to those resources could possibly be.

            Ownership is a legal construct, not a description of your physical relation to the object. For example: You can own a mountain you can’t physically climb, a fish you can’t physically catch, or a fruit you can’t physically pick.

            People do it all the time. No “wresting from mouths of beasts” required.

          • ec429 says:

            @Guy in TN

            You can own a mountain you can’t physically climb…

            But that doesn’t make you rich!

            Wealth is not “how much stuff can I lay claim to?”, rather it is “how ready and voluminous is my access to the necessaries and conveniencies of life?”
            If you’re alone on an island with all manner of fabulous resources which, however, you cannot wrest from nature (tasty meat inconveniently located inside an animal with big teeth and claws, useful ores inconveniently located deeper underground than you can dig plus you don’t have a blast furnace to make use of them, water inconveniently located in coextension with salt that makes it unfit to drink), then despite being able to claim all those resources as yours in legal-construct terms, you’re still poor because you can’t turn those resources into the necessaries and conveniences of life.
            The value of an object depends on its location and situation; if you can’t dig it up, ore in the ground is worthless.

            More to the point, the value of natural resources is barely a rounding error in the total world economy. Essentially all the wealth that makes large numbers of humans today well-fed, literate, internet-connected, able to travel between continents, etc. is the result of human action, turning those natural resources into goods and services. Our economic institutions are not there to decide that some people shall be poor (i.e. slightly less well-fed, only able to make intercontinental trips once every few years, etc.), rather they are there to coordinate all of that human action and allow it to produce all of that vast wealth, instead of producing a Five-Year Plan’s quota of tractors and then leaving them to rust in the rain because there are no tyres.

            (It really makes me seethe sometimes just how damned ungrateful people are to/for the free-market system. This utter miracle hath produced a cornucopia, and you’re complaining because some people have two. That’d be petulant and petty even if it weren’t an inevitable consequence of the process that produces the miracle.)

          • Guy in TN says:

            @ec429

            Our economic institutions are not there to decide that some people shall be poor […] rather they are there to coordinate all of that human action and allow it to produce all of that vast wealth

            Strong disagree. If we are interested in maximizing utility, our economic institutions should be ensuring the best distribution of wealth, not just maximization of production. Because obviously, production doesn’t matter much for utility if its concentrated in the hands of a few.

            But I know from past conversation that you don’t view interpersonal utility as a meaningful concept, so I imagine this will just fall on deaf ears.

            It really makes me seethe sometimes just how damned ungrateful people are to/for the free-market system. This utter miracle hath produced a cornucopia, and you’re complaining because some people have two. That’d be petulant and petty even if it weren’t an inevitable consequence of the process that produces the miracle.

            Trash comments like this are one reason why I am going to try to minimize posting on this blog. A whole paragraph calling me “dammed ungrateful”, “petulant”, and “petty” for…*checks notes*… not being a libertarian.

            We don’t even have a free market system, thank god. Our wonderful non-free market system has produced a cornucopia of positive utility, but libertarians want to tear it it down and watch the world burn in the name of maximizing economic value. Makes me seethe.

            I take some solace in this thought: Most of the public in their general beliefs (their ethical intuitions, if you will) have no problems with taxing your wealth, controlling your freedom of association, limiting your freely chosen contracts, and violating the free market in general. It’s what our society is built on.

            The vast, vast majority of people do not subscribe to the belief that economic value is a proxy for human utility, as evidenced by the revealed preferences of their voting behavior. The same can be said of the public respecting any Rothbardian notion of self-ownership. And they do not give one shit about Pareto Improvements (rightfully so.)

            So we don’t need the approval of libertarians to enact socialist policies, and we definitely don’t need your consent. With the socialist demographic wave coming, you will have to play along, and live in my world, whether you like it or not.

            And most importantly, and this really is the cherry on top of it all, I don’t have to care at all what you think. You can call me “petulant”, “petty”, and “ungrateful”, it doesn’t fucking matter. This isn’t a debate: I’ve already won. My side kicked your all’s ass.

            My continued interactions with libertarians is just to witness with amusement a failed ideology shrinking further into oblivion.

          • Plumber says:

            @ec429 > “…It really makes me seethe sometimes just how damned ungrateful people are to/for the free-market system…”

            It would be easier to be grateful if I didn’t see all these tents of the homeless, and I didn’t have a memory of the homeless being far fewer in the ’70’s before deregulation and neo-liberalism. 

            What comes to mind is a Soviet citizen being told to be grateful that they’re not in a gulag yet.

          • ec429 says:

            @Guy in TN

            If we are interested in maximizing utility, our economic institutions should be ensuring the best distribution of wealth, not just maximization of production. Because obviously, production doesn’t matter much for utility if its concentrated in the hands of a few.

            But equally obviously, equality of distribution don’t mean squat if you’ve got nothing to distribute. In the long run, an increase in the (compounded) economic growth rate will outstrip a less equal distribution for any quantile of that distribution. There’s no need to bring interpersonal utility into it; it is in everyone’s interest (even the poorest) for the past to have been growth-y rather than enforced-equality-ish, and equally it’s in the interest of even the poorest inhabitants of the future for us to favour growth today.

            A whole paragraph calling me “dammed ungrateful”, “petulant”, and “petty” for…*checks notes*… not being a libertarian.

            No, the damned ingratitude and petulant pettiness is for looking at the system that produces wealth, observing that it has produced only a finite amount of wealth, and condemning it for failing to provide each and every person with an amount of wealth which you have arbitrarily decided is enough not to be ‘poor’, notwithstanding that in the absence of said system such an amount would be considered scarcely imaginable riches.

            This isn’t a debate: I’ve already won. My side kicked your all’s ass.

            Heh, you’re funny. Meanwhile in the real world, the free-market liberals have just taken over the governing Conservative party in my country, replacing the dirigiste managerialist nanny-state wing who constantly pandered to socialist economic thinking. Also the rightward shift in the basic economic settlement produced by the Thatcher/Reagan years hasn’t been undone by the left-wing governments that followed them.
            From where I stand, it appears that the historical trajectory of the past 300 years, towards greater individual freedom, continues its slow but steady progress. Would I ’twere faster? Sure, but winning eventually is still winning.

            socialist demographic wave

            Cohort and Age effects.

            And even if your side were winning the political fight, that wouldn’t change the fact that implementing your side’s policies leads to economic stagnation ruin poverty death. You may not care what I think, but you’ll find you have to care what reality thinks. For nature cannot be fooled.

          • ec429 says:

            @Plumber

            It would be easier to be grateful if I didn’t see all these tents of the homeless, and I didn’t have a memory of the homeless being far fewer in the ’70’s before deregulation and neo-liberalism.

            Possibly that’s because (owing to rising wealth levels in general) homelessness is less likely to be fatal now than in the ’70s, so the homeless population is greater even with a smaller intake. Besides, a major chunk of the homeless are that way because of substance abuse, which can hardly be blamed on, say, insufficiently redistributive tax policy.

            What comes to mind is a Soviet citizen being told to be grateful that they’re not in a gulag yet.

            If gulags were a preëxisting force of nature, that’d be a fair comparison. But poverty is defined by not having things that, without free markets, no-one would have. Whereas the forced labour and privation of the gulags was created by the Soviet administration.

            Do you simply not realise how vastly better off you are than a pre-industrial peasant, or do you think that the Industrial Revolution could have happened without free enterprise?

          • Guy in TN says:

            There’s no need to bring interpersonal utility into it; it is in everyone’s interest (even the poorest) for the past to have been growth-y rather than enforced-equality-ish

            No way. I would be far worse off if the people in the past weren’t “enforced-equalishy”. I might even be dead, from the aggressive violence that capitalism inflicts.

            If gulags were a preëxisting force of nature, that’d be a fair comparison. But poverty is defined by not having things that, without free markets, no-one would have. Whereas the forced labour and privation of the gulags was created by the Soviet administration.

            The source of poverty in capitalism is the people who threaten to kill you in the name of the free market. This isn’t a “force of nature”.

          • Hoopdawg says:

            This utter miracle hath produced a cornucopia

            What is technological progress?

          • Plumber says:

            @Guy in TN,

            You are AWESOME!!!

            @ec429 > “…Possibly that’s because (owing to rising wealth levels in general) homelessness is less likely to be fatal now than in the ’70s, so the homeless population is greater even with a smaller intake….” 

            Less lethal than the ’70’s? 

            The rise in the visibly homeless in the ’80’s was far too fast for me to credit homelessness being “less fatal” and that goes double for the rise this decade. 

            @ec429 > “..Besides, a major chunk of the homeless are that way because of substance abuse, which can hardly be blamed on, say, insufficiently redistributive tax policy….”

            Tax policy? 

            No I blame the drug trade for the increase in addicts, especially the Purdue Pharma company

            @ec429 > “…If gulags were a preëxisting force of nature, that’d be a fair comparison. But poverty is defined by not having things that, without free markets, no-one would have. Whereas the forced labour and privation of the gulags was created by the Soviet administration….” 

            And the privation caused by the willful destruction of the welfare state was also caused by government officials, what’s your point?

            @ec429 > “…Do you simply not realise how vastly better off you are than a pre-industrial peasant…

            Yes I’m better off, and I’m better off than my grandfather was in the 1920’s and ’30’s, but I don’t much compare the U.S.A of today to medieval European society, I compare it to the U.S.A. of 1973, and to Canada. 

            @ec429 > “…or do you think that the Industrial Revolution could have happened without free enterprise?…

            As fast of an industrial revolution? 

            Probably not, but I could imagine a less brutal one if the guild system had been left more intact, you see I think the Luddites were right, living standards did improve for their great-great-grandchildren, but not for them, and I mostly credit the trade-union movement for the rise in median living standards in the 20th century. 

            I prefer something like Norway to both North Korea and neo-liberalism, but I’ll settle for February 1973. 

            @ec429 > “…the governing Conservative party in my country…” 

             Oh, you’re British. 

            @ec429 > “…the rightward shift in the basic economic settlement produced by the Thatcher/Reagan years hasn’t been undone by the left-wing governments that followed them…”

            Sadly not, but Thatcher had a far more social-democratic society to undo than Reagan did and you still have the NHS, so you still have more of a welfare state than here.

            I suspect that if the U.S.A. moved twice as “Left” as the U.K. moved “Right” we still would be less like Scandinavia than the U.K.

            Funny, but I’m guessing you like Ayn Rand while I prefer William Morris’, but any “utopia” is a bet, I’d advise reading your Burke before you get deep in dismantling societal institutions.

          • ec429 says:

            @Guy in TN

            I might even be dead, from the aggressive violence that capitalism inflicts.

            Capitalism doesn’t “inflict aggressive violence”. In fact, it tends to reduce it: if someone is your trade partner, it’s in your interests for them to prosper, and not in your interests to get violent with them. “When goods cannot cross borders, soldiers will” (Bastiat), and it’s not democracies but nations fully integrated into the global trading system who never make war on each other.

            The source of poverty in capitalism is the people who threaten to kill you in the name of the free market.

            Nonsense. The source of poverty is that wealth doesn’t create itself (except the de minimis case of natural resources requiring no effort to harvest and convert into useful forms), and if wealth were appropriated from its creators to give to those who have none, then no-one would create in the first place (the experiment has been run, and Soviet Russia starved).
            Have you any idea how many steps it takes, how many interconnected moving parts it takes to make something as simple-seeming as a loaf of bread, how the miracle — I stand by that word, it is a miracle — of capitalism smoothly directs and redirects all the inputs to produce it, and with such a low (opportunity) cost? Or do you think that if the Powers That Be decreed “all shall have bread” that it would just magically appear, if we weren’t so selfish as to enforce property rights?

            Capitalism does not create poverty, it destroys it — and it is churlish to condemn it for not yet having destroyed all poverty.

            What is technological progress?

            A form of capital. Which capitalism is remarkably good at producing. And markets themselves are a technology, perhaps the greatest of all.

          • Hoopdawg says:

            do you think that if the Powers That Be decreed “all shall have bread” that it would just magically appear, if we weren’t so selfish as to enforce property rights?

            This (bar “magically”, obviously) is pretty much what happened throughout history. If Powers That Be decree that all shall have bread, they do. Otherwise, many don’t, capitalism or not.

            What is technological progress?

            A form of capital.

            Calling everything capital seems awfully circular as far as reasoning goes.

          • Aapje says:

            @Guy in TN

            With the socialist demographic wave coming, you will have to play along, and live in my world, whether you like it or not.

            Waves in the sea actually break and then disappear when they reach the shore, without turning the land into sea 😛

            Your evidence is also consistent with people changing their views as they mature, for which there is quite a bit of evidence.

          • dionisos says:

            Nonsense. The source of poverty is that wealth doesn’t create itself

            It is a necessary condition for poverty. (but really it isn’t very informative).
            But there are a lot of other important causes.

            if wealth were appropriated from its creators to give to those who have none

            Wealth is appropriated from their “creators” to give to those who have none in almost all democracies. it seems their citizens don’t end-up staving.
            You don’t need absolute private properties to create motivations.
            And it is also possible to have completely different systems that don’t rely on private property, and still reward work and efficiency.

            Have you any idea how many steps it takes, how many interconnected moving parts it takes to make something as simple-seeming as a loaf of bread, how the miracle — I stand by that word, it is a miracle — of capitalism

            Except it isn’t a miracle of capitalism, it is a miracle of specialization, and a lot of accumulated human knowledge and wealth.
            And a lot of what we have today is much more about oil and crazy intellectual discoveries, than about the economical system itself.
            Capitalism is just ok for somewhat allowing it.

            And markets themselves are a technology, perhaps the greatest of all.

            I am not impressed

          • DinoNerd says:

            This is not so. Every resource must be wrested from the jaws of the ferocious beasts of nature doing the God damn best to kill and eat you, and they are far, far more invested in the subject than another human that may lay claim to those resources could possibly be.

            Meh. It seems to me that if you trace title to land back far enough, it will pass through one or more examples of invasion or other forms of theft. Why should I have title to my land in California? Sure I bought it from someone who bought it from someone… But it was previously occuppied by natives who did not sell it to European settlers – so somewhere deep in the past there’s title-by-conquest.

            This is clearer in Europe, where you may be able to trace multiple historical replacements of prior title holders, and where owership due to conquest is a more explicit legal doctrine. [The US likes to claim that since the natives often didn’t have private property in land, their (customary) organizations (tribes, clans, etc.) couldn’t possibly “own” it, even though modern corporations can and do own land.]

            Even in the US, it would be clear if I happened to own land taken from the Cherokees etc. during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

            It’s not practical in most cases to adjudicate claims of generations-ago theft, and award the heirs of the original owners at least some part of the value.

            But not doing that tends to vitiate a lot of claims about moral/ethical bases for property rights. I’d say they are a social creation, stickier in some societies than others, with nothing absolute about them.

            At the bottom, there is theft/conquest – not just wresting resources from nature.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Capitalism doesn’t “inflict aggressive violence”. In fact, it tends to reduce it: if someone is your trade partner

            I’ll stop you right there: Capitalism is defined as private ownership, not market exchange.

            Using capitalism as a synonym for “market trades” is a libertarian propaganda point designed to obscure the inherent violence in the system they advocate for.

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            Capitalism is defined as private ownership, not market exchange.

            If there is no ownership, what is there to exchange in a market? If everything is publicly owned, with whom can a market exchange occur?

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Capitalism is defined as private ownership, not market exchange.

            How do you exchange things you dont own? If you figure it out, I would gladly buy a ferrari from you for money I dont have.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            If there is no ownership, what is there to exchange in a market? If everything is publicly owned, with whom can a market exchange occur?

            How do you exchange things you dont own? If you figure it out, I would gladly buy a ferrari from you for money I dont have.

            In your rush to try and dunk on this guy, you’ve both missed his point. Exchanges require ownership, ownership does not require exchanges.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            In your rush to try and dunk on this guy, you’ve both missed his point. Exchanges require ownership, ownership does not require exchanges.

            If that is Guy’s point, I’m sure he can clarify it, but I dont think that was his point. I read his point as saying the obvious good that comes from trading is not unique to capitalism. And I must say, your interpretation seems even more nonsensical.

            Capitalism is defined as private ownership, not market exchange.

            Using capitalism as a synonym for “market trades” is a libertarian propaganda point designed to obscure the inherent violence in the system they advocate for.

            So, your interpretation is that this means “no capitalism -> no ownership, no trade”, and this is an attack on capitalism?

          • Guy in TN says:

            If there is no ownership, what is there to exchange in a market? If everything is publicly owned, with whom can a market exchange occur?

            There’s plenty to exchange on the market besides property ownership. For example, in most exchanges of land in the US, the nominal “owner” does not own the land in the libertarian/capitalist sense of the word. The state retains the highest usage rights.

            And anyway, that the total absence of private ownership would lead to no exchanges of property, doesn’t mean you can define your system as merely “exchanges”. The absence of flour leads to no bread, you that doesn’t mean you can use “flour” and “bread” as synonyms.

            How do you exchange things you dont own? If you figure it out, I would gladly buy a ferrari from you for money I dont have.

            Your conflation of ownership with possession underlies your misunderstanding. Of course you can exchange things you don’t own. If you show me the enough cash to buy my car, I don’t care whether you “own” the cash or not.

          • Controls Freak says:

            @Ghillie Dhu, jermo sapiens

            Guy is mostly playing a word game here. When pressed, he’ll accept that merely having everyone profess something like that Christian claim that, “God really owns everything,” but then go on to have everyone control/trade resources in exactly the same way as before is sufficient to break, “Capitalism is defined as private ownership.”

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            So, your interpretation is that this means “no capitalism -> no ownership, no trade”, and this is an attack on capitalism?

            My interpretation is that someone said “Capitalism is great, because capitalism means trade and that means less violence”, guy retorts with “Capitalism doesn’t mean trade, capitalism means ownership. Ownership means a lot of violence”. And indeed, a lot of ownership is predicated on, at some point in the thing being owned’s history, an act of violence cementing that ownership, as others have pointed out further up the comment thread.

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            @420BootyWizard,

            No I have not missed his point. He implied that the benefits of market exchange could be had without capitalism which he defined as private ownership. Pointing out that exchange requires ownership exposes a contradiction in his position.

            @Guy in TN,

            Rights are property; if I have the right to do something on a piece of land, I still own that even if I don’t own the land per se. Selling that right, in whole or in part, is still an exchange of property.

            The absence of flour leads to no bread, you that doesn’t mean you can use “flour” and “bread” as synonyms.

            Not synonyms, but synecdoche. The value of bread is an argument in favor of flour.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            And indeed, a lot of ownership is predicated on, at some point in the thing being owned’s history, an act of violence cementing that ownership, as others have pointed out further up the comment thread.

            Yes, you are absolutely correct. The fact that I own my home allows me to inflict violence (preferably by calling the police) to those who would come uninvited. Similarly, the fact that I own a car allows me to inflict violence, through the state apparatus, on those who would steal it from me. According to you, this is a bad thing, and I can therefore conclude that you are in favor of trespassing and theft.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Your conflation of ownership with possession underlies your misunderstanding. Of course you can exchange things you don’t own. If you show me the enough cash to buy my car, I don’t care whether you “own” the cash or not.

            So what is, in your mind, the difference between ownership and possession? Is it that if you own something you can call on a sovereign authority to guarantee your possession of that thing?

            In your world, where people possess things, but dont own them, and I see an old lady with a purse, I can just take her purse right? She doesnt own the purse, she just “possesses it”. If I go to buy the car with cash in hand, and I dont own the cash, you can just use a baseball bat to make sure to have possession of the cash and the car, and I would have no claim against you.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            Yes, you are absolutely correct. The fact that I own my home allows me to inflict violence (preferably by calling the police) to those who would come uninvited. Similarly, the fact that I own a car allows me to inflict violence, through the state apparatus, on those who would steal it from me. According to you, this is a bad thing, and I can therefore conclude that you are in favor of trespassing and theft.

            I’m referring to more how, unless you live in antarctica or some previously uninhabited island, you “own” your home because you bought it from someone who bought it from someone who built it on land that they bought from someone who they bought from someone who did an act of violence to get that land (Which some might accurately call theft). And I mean real actual violence, like murder and war crimes stuff, not the “calling the police” violence that libertarians like talking about.

            Without that act of violence the whole thread of ownership, the entire system of capitalism falls apart. You could say that, in order for any of it to function at all, that act of violence was necessary. According to you, this is a good thing because some exchanges also happened afterwards, and I can therefore conclude that you are in favor of murder and theft.

            Isn’t this a fun game? What a productive use of both of our time.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Imagine a system where the state retains (and occasionally uses) the power to tax, regulate, and confiscate essentially any possession within its borders. Land, houses, money. It can even control interpersonal human behavior (freedom of contract, association), and things you do when you are alone.

            Is this system capitalist or socialist? Controls Freak says I’m playing word games here. But I’m pretty sure 99% of libertarians and ancaps would readily describe such a system as “not capitalist”. This is precisely the sort of system they are against.

            Now imagine in this same system, the state allots out certificates to people for various privileges to use possessions within its border. The people are allowed to trade these certificates of usage between each other in a market setting. (The state, of course, retains the highest usage rights of taxation, regulations, ect)

            Of course, I’m describing the system we have today. Mainstream discourse calls this system “capitalist” with “private ownership”.

            But libertarians, wisely, see through this charade. They know that because of everything that happens in the first paragraph, the system we have isn’t actually truly capitalist, and you don’t actually have private ownership. They are accurate in this regard.

            The next move, however, is where they go off the rails. For various reasons, libertarians typically don’t try to define capitalism as having true private ownership (which would make sense), but instead try to define capitalism as having unencumbered exchanges.

            But we already know the exchanges, the market, readily takes place even the the absence of true private ownership. It’s what happens day-to-day in the modern economy.

            So,

            He implied that the benefits of market exchange could be had without capitalism which he defined as private ownership. Pointing out that exchange requires ownership exposes a contradiction in his position.

            Yes, exchange requires a form of property (a usage right), and I suppose you could even go so far as to say that you “own” this non-tangible right. But since this is all still fully compatible with a system of total state ownership of all possessions, which libertarians typically call “not capitalism”, I don’t think that’s what ec429 had in mind.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @ControlsFreak

            When pressed, he’ll accept that merely having everyone profess something like that Christian claim that, “God really owns everything,” but then go on to have everyone control/trade resources in exactly the same way as before is sufficient to break, “Capitalism is defined as private ownership.”

            Ideological memes, and the language we use are important. They have real-world side effects.

            How many libertarian arguments are built on the premise of “I own it, therefore I should control it?” How much much would that shift people if they were forced to attempt to justify “therefore I should control it” with some other rationale?

          • Guy in TN says:

            @jermo sapiens

            Is it that if you own something you can call on a sovereign authority to guarantee your possession of that thing?

            Would you be satisfied with that definition of private property? Would libertarians be satisfied with it?

            I’d love to return to a world where “private property” means “a legal allotment from the state that guarantees exclusive usage rights from other citizens, with the state retaining the ultimate right to unlimited taxation, regulation, and confiscation” but Rothbardian influence has poised the term beyond that, I fear.

          • Controls Freak says:

            How many libertarian arguments are built on the premise of “I own it, therefore I should control it?”

            Fewer than are built on the premise of, “I acquired it through a voluntary, legitimate transaction, therefore I should control it.” Or do you honestly think that your libertarian strawman will feel compelled to significantly change his position on capitalism after you’ve forced him to accede to the claim, “Sure, sure. God actually ‘owns’ everything or whatever”?

          • Guy in TN says:

            Fewer than are built on the premise of, “I acquired it through a voluntary, legitimate transaction, therefore I should control it.”

            That would be extremely weird. Do libertarians think they ought to have ultimate control over rental cars? I’m pretty sure “ownership” matters a lot more to them than mere physical acquisition.

          • Controls Freak says:

            I don’t know. I’m not a libertarian. But it would probably be really weird if they thought that the voluntary transaction, as spelled out by the rental agreement, included the type of control I think you’re trying to smuggle in with your use of the qualifier “ultimate”.

          • Guy in TN says:

            So…they don’t think they have ultimate control over the rental car, because the legal terms of ownership does matter to them?

            And this is supposed to be in contradiction to my position?

          • John Schilling says:

            Please define what you mean by the term “ultimate control”.

            But I expect that by your definition, my agreement with a rental-car agency will be roughly “While not challenging your ultimate control of this car, I exchange $X of my money freely given to you in exchange for temporary operational control of this car during period Y”. And my argument with just about anyone else in the universe who makes demands on me or the car would be “I acquired temporary operational control of this car through a voluntary, legitimate transaction, therefore I should exercise temporary operational control of it. If you are making a claim on ultimate control, whatever that is, you need to take it up with the rental agency. But for the most part, all forms of control of this car are rightly divided between me and the rental agency, and it’s not your concern how we divvy that up except that we didn’t choose to leave anything for you, so bugger off”.

          • Guy in TN says:

            my argument with just about anyone else in the universe who makes demands on me or the car would be “I acquired temporary operational control of this car through a voluntary, legitimate transaction, therefore I should exercise temporary operational control of it.

            With this framework, I am guessing you decide to respect the terms of the rental agreement because the person you are renting from owns the car (or is working on behalf of someone who owns the car).

            Because, imagine the same scenario where they didn’t own the car, and instead presented you with an terms agreement for a car you yourself owned. I imagine you would be like, “what the hell?”

            If so, then you believe that nominal ownership matters. You believe that the difference between you owning the car, and someone renting the car to you, are scenarios different enough to have different optimal responses.

            And this is exactly the sentiment that I’ve been trying to explain to ControlsFreak. It really matters to people whether we call it “state property” or “private property”, its not just a meaningless word game.

          • Controls Freak says:

            So…they don’t think they have ultimate control over the rental car, because they don’t see anything about your yet undefined ‘ultimate control’ in the agreement defining the scope of the voluntary, legitimate transaction.

            It’s more that your position is rather bizarre, ill-defined, and probably beside the point, rather than contradicted.

          • Controls Freak says:

            I imagine you would be like, “what the hell?” Would your argument against him be something along the lines of “I own this car, therefore I should control it?”

            That is likely a regular individual’s immediate response, given current legal language. However, that does not mean that it is the premise in a hypothetical libertarian’s philosophical position. I made that distinction extremely clear.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @John Schilling
            @ControlsFreak
            I’m sure you’ve this one before but it bears repeating. There is a serious problem with respecting not “ownership” per se, but voluntary transaction.

            Which is: that it doesn’t allow room for property to initially come into existence. Because initial acquisition isn’t a “transaction”, and it’s not “voluntary” for the people who previously had access to it and are now denied.

            Now, the typical Caplan-esque response to this, is to say that you just don’t care. Once property is acquired, voluntary or not, you decide to respect it from that point on because of Pareto Improvement reasons and such. You can still go after thiefs, sure, but there’s a statute of limitations on these things and we can’t re-litigate actions that took place hundreds of years ago.

            To which my response is: alright. The state acquired, through force, the right (the “property” if you will, to use Ghillie Dhu’s language) to tax, regulate, and even confiscate essentially everything (and everyone) that exists within its territorial boundaries. And they did this hundreds of years ago, with no living victims left who are alive to make a claim. As Caplan might say, we can’t re-litigate the past.

            I mean look, I’m a utilitarian, so I don’t even agree with all of this procedural deontological nonsense. But what’s funny to me, in this case, the internal logic of libertarians and ancaps can’t even support itself.

          • Guy in TN says:

            You may have voluntarily acquired through transactions the “property” to live in the house, but you haven’t acquired the state’s “property” to tax, regulate, and confiscate it.

            So this renders argument of “You can’t regulate this house, because I voluntarily acquired the right to live in it” a non-sequitur.

          • Dan L says:

            @ Aapje:

            Waves in the sea actually break and then disappear when they reach the shore, without turning the land into sea 😛

            God schiep de aarde, maar de Nederlanders schiepen Nederland. Results not typical.

          • dionisos says:

            I think the argumentation of Guy in TN is really well put and not bizarre at all.

            It seems to me than “acquiring possession” isn’t what matter, but what matter is “acquiring rights”.
            And the rental-car is a good example to show it. The contracts are based on the rights you have, not on the mere “possession”.

            And there is sometime a sort of motte and bailey from libertarians, where when we speak about taxes or laws, ownership means something near “having absolutely all the possible rights on something”.
            But when we speak about why ownership is important, it start to means “having some rights you can do stuffs with and exchange”.

          • tfowler11 says:

            @dionisos re”And there is sometime a sort of motte and bailey from libertarians, where when we speak about taxes or laws, ownership means something near “having absolutely all the possible rights on something”.
            But when we speak about why ownership is important, it start to means “having some rights you can do stuffs with and exchange”.”

            I’m not so sure that’s motte and bailey as it is different libertarians. Ancaps (if one considers them to be libertarian) wouldn’t have it as much of a motte and bailey, they wouldn’t need to find ways to accept that “yes I own it but the government can tax and regulate it” because they don’t want the government in the first place (considering it illegitimate or at least negative). Mild libertarians don’t need it so much either. They accept fully that government can control and tax, and even that it can be good for it to do so in some cases, they just want less of it. When they speak about ownership, in the light of government restrictions on it, they will be speaking about something that at least resembles your characterization of ““having some rights you can do stuffs with and exchange”.

            Some people in between might argue a long the lines of your motte and bailey idea of them but only some. And some of any large ideological group are going to make motte and bailey arguments (even if not always intentionally), they are fairly common.

          • ec429 says:

            @dionisos

            Except it isn’t a miracle of capitalism, it is a miracle of specialization

            Which you can’t have without the free market system, because Hayek’s Calculation Problem.

            You don’t need absolute private properties to create motivations.

            That’s not inconsistent with “the stronger private property is, the better the system works”. And it’s not just about motivation, it’s about allocation — the use of price signals to determine the highest-value use of any given resource, and (seemingly ‘automatically’, though in truth thanks to arbitrageurs always ready to profit by rectifying misallocation) bring that resource to that use.

            And it is also possible to have completely different systems that don’t rely on private property, and still reward work and efficiency.

            Objection, assumes successful implementation of communism not in evidence.

            @Guy in TN

            Using capitalism as a synonym for “market trades” is a libertarian propaganda point designed to obscure the inherent violence in the system they advocate for.

            Historically speaking, you’re wrong. “Capitalism” was a term invented by the Marxists to discredit the market-trade system by implying that it was equivalent to “rule of society by the owners of capital”. This is one reason why, upthread, I’ve been trying to avoid the word (despite your frequent return to it).

            There’s plenty to exchange on the market besides property ownership. For example, in most exchanges of land in the US, the nominal “owner” does not own the land in the libertarian/capitalist sense of the word. The state retains the highest usage rights.

            In principle, libertarians don’t have a problem with the idea of buying an estate in land (as opposed to allodial title). Indeed, we’re often far more comfortable with the idea of splitting bundles of rights and alienating part of them; to borrow an example from Alistair Young, if you lend someone your lawnmower for an afternoon technically you’re separating the right to use it that afternoon from the rest of your rights in it, and devising that right to them.

            @Hoopdawg

            If Powers That Be decree that all shall have bread, they do. Otherwise, many don’t, capitalism or not.

            Someone still has to make the damn bread! When common-misconception-of-Marie-Antoinette says “let them eat cake”, that in itself does not bring cake into existence.
            And any system other than market trade for determining who does each step of the process, with what tools and resources, when and where, runs straight into the Calculation Problem and — well, it might manage to come up with enough bread, if you’re lucky (or the Holodomor, if you aren’t), but it won’t supply much else.

            @DinoNerd

            But not doing that tends to vitiate a lot of claims about moral/ethical bases for property rights.

            Only if you’re a deontologist. While we often frame our moral discourse in natural-rights language, ultimately the reason property rights are “moral” is because they are an effective social technology for arbitrating the conflicting desires of volitional beings.
            If I drive a car to London, you can’t simultaneously drive the same car to Edinburgh, so there needs to be some system for determining which of us gets to use it; there are other systems like “whoever grabs it first this morning” or “whoever beats up all other aspirants does what he wants”, but they cause massive inconvenience and don’t support the kind of complex coöperative structures that private property (and its inevitable concomitant, price-signal allocation) makes possible.

            @Guy in TN

            But libertarians, wisely, see through this charade. They know that because of everything that happens in the first paragraph, the system we have isn’t actually truly capitalist, and you don’t actually have private ownership. They are accurate in this regard.

            Nope, you’ve completely missed the point.
            Libertarians’ problem with the system as it is today is that it is imposed from above by force, instead of having been created by voluntary contract — unanimous consent — of all the citizens it claims. Some libertarians argue this from a pure natural-rights basis, but the more usual motivation is the belief that governments created by contract — on the market — will tend to be better than governments created by force.
            Now in practice this also means that within any given framework of government, contract-based rules are also preferred to force-based rules (the latter including majoritarianism), and thus in (for instance) the Western democracy, libertarians tend to agitate for things like deregulation (‘let the customer choose’), lower taxes (‘the government would only waste it’), and free contract (‘if I can’t produce work worth $7.25/hr, why shouldn’t I be allowed to work for less, if I consent to it, instead of being forced into unemployment?’).

            Hence how we end up with:

            Now, the typical Caplan-esque response to this, is to say that you just don’t care. Once property is acquired, voluntary or not, you decide to respect it from that point on because of Pareto Improvement reasons and such. You can still go after thiefs, sure, but there’s a statute of limitations on these things and we can’t re-litigate actions that took place hundreds of years ago.

            To which my response is: alright. The state acquired, through force, the right (the “property” if you will, to use Ghillie Dhu’s language) to tax, regulate, and even confiscate essentially everything (and everyone) that exists within its territorial boundaries. And they did this hundreds of years ago, with no living victims left who are alive to make a claim. As Caplan might say, we can’t re-litigate the past.

            This is mixing meta-levels. On one level, the state could be said to own a property right in all its people, which propagates to their descendants whenever they reproduce. That, we attack on the natural-rights grounds that “a property right in people” is normally called slavery, but also on the utilitarian grounds that societies created by this kind of forcible-acquisition-of-the-people tend to be worse than societies created by free contract.
            On a different level, we apply the same “free contract produces better outcomes” logic to the question of how the society in which we find ourselves might be improved; and making arguments based on that is a legitimate thing to do in a democracy where one advances one’s policies by convincing others of their advantageousness.
            The two levels are connected by the belief that one of the things that makes societies produced by contract better is that they will tend to have more contract-based rules within the society. But strictly they’re two separate beliefs, and you could have someone who believes one level but not the other. You are conflating the two levels, and your argument against libertarianism derives entirely from that conflation.

          • Guy in TN says:

            “Capitalism” was a term invented by the Marxists to discredit the market-trade system by implying that it was equivalent to “rule of society by the owners of capital”. This is one reason why, upthread, I’ve been trying to avoid the word (despite your frequent return to it).

            The two terms aren’t even talking about the same subject. One is the question of who owns the property, the other is the question of how property owners interact with each other after it is distributed. If you don’t like the word “capitalism” then come up with another word like “zxcxZnnmb” for a system of private ownership, and I’ll use that when talking to you instead. Because “markets” aren’t a synonym of private ownership.

            Libertarians’ problem with the system as it is today is that it is imposed from above by force, instead of having been created by voluntary contract — unanimous consent — of all the citizens it claims.

            Identical to private property, which is imposed from above by force, and not created by unanimous voluntary contract.

            On one level, the state could be said to own a property right in all its people, which propagates to their descendants whenever they reproduce. That, we attack on the natural-rights grounds that “a property right in people” is normally called slavery,

            But the state does own a “property right” over all the people within its borders. “Property owner” isn’t a moral judgement, but an objective description. If you want to violate this property right due to some quasi-religious notion of natural rights, that’s fine. But it undermines basically everything else you said about the importance of upholding property rights.

            I, too, could squint really hard at the universe and deduce that capitalism violates “natural rights”, and my argument would be equally as weightless as yours.

            but also on the utilitarian grounds that societies created by this kind of forcible-acquisition-of-the-people tend to be worse than societies created by free contract.

            Except no states have “free contract”, all states have a “property right” over their citizens, and the best available evidence we have shows that states with high taxation and welfare spending have the highest-utility outcomes. (Not because they maximize economic value, but precisely because they destroy it)

          • Hoopdawg says:

            Capitalism is defined as private ownership

            If there is no ownership, what is there to exchange in a market? If everything is publicly owned, with whom can a market exchange occur?

            How do you exchange things you dont own? If you figure it out, I would gladly buy a ferrari from you for money I dont have.

            I don’t want to interrupt the impressive and important work Guy in TN was doing in the meantime, but I can’t help but notice that the whole conversation would have been cut much shorter if someone simply pointed out that “private ownership” is not merely any ownership, while your responses equivocate the two.

            To clarify, when anti-capitalists speak of “private ownership”, they specifically mean absentee ownership of capital or natural resources.

            Someone still has to make the damn bread!

            The bakers, yes. You’ll note that bakers are not capitalism, nor are they specific to capitalism.

          • ec429 says:

            @Guy in TN

            The two terms aren’t even talking about the same subject. One is the question of who owns the property, the other is the question of how property owners interact with each other after it is distributed. If you don’t like the word “capitalism” then come up with another word like “zxcxZnnmb” for a system of private ownership, and I’ll use that when talking to you instead. Because “markets” aren’t a synonym of private ownership.

            Of course they are! How can you have trade without ownership? Sure, I might be trading a bundle of rights associated with a physical object, rather than the physical object itself, but the-thing-that-I-am-trading is still a-thing-that-I-own. Thus, for instance, the market in realty (estates in land) is populated by citizens, whereas the market in the ‘sovereign rights’ in land is populated by sovereigns (cf. Louisiana Purchase). The participants in a market are always the owners of the things traded, because that’s necessary for the price signals to actually mean anything.
            Conversely, if I’m not allowed to sell something, then I don’t really “own” it, I just have (say) a usage right, or a life interest (fee tail).

            Identical to private property, which is imposed from above by force, and not created by unanimous voluntary contract.

            Private property isn’t imposed from above. It arises naturally as a Schelling point in an anarchy.

            But the state does own a “property right” over all the people within its borders. “Property owner” isn’t a moral judgement, but an objective description. If you want to violate this property right due to some quasi-religious notion of natural rights, that’s fine. But it undermines basically everything else you said about the importance of upholding property rights.

            And yet it remains hypocritical for the state to go to war over slavery while owning its citizens. If we believe that owning people is immoral, we should apply that universally. If not, then we should maybe start calling the ACW the “War of Northern Aggression”.

            Except no states have “free contract”, all states have a “property right” over their citizens,

            If it’s never been tried, how come you’re so confident it won’t work?
            The problem isn’t that the state has a property right in me, it’s that it acquired that right without me selling it — alienating my self-ownership without my consent. (Similarly, the really evil people in the slave trade weren’t the slaveowners, but those who sold people into slavery. The people who bought them and put them to work were merely ‘receiving stolen goods’, a lesser crime.)

            and the best available evidence we have shows that states with high taxation and welfare spending have the highest-utility outcomes. (Not because they maximize economic value, but precisely because they destroy it)

            I do not think the evidence shows what you think it shows. (There is, however, evidence that wealthy states tend to then redistribute that wealth, but the causality goes the other way.)
            I know it’s gauche to bring up Soviet Russia in these kinds of arguments, but maybe it only became gauche because it was too effective an argument to allow people to use it. They had the highest taxation possible — full redistribution “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” — and came up with some impressively low-utility outcomes. If you want to distinguish your position from them, you’ll need to come up with a principled reason why there’s a non-corner-solution maximum in the utility-vs-redistribution graph, and a way of determining its location relative to our current level of redistribution. Until then, the simplest hypothesis is that Econ 101 is right to favour private property and free contract.

            Also, since I’ve just noticed something you said earlier,

            The vast, vast majority of people do not subscribe to the belief that economic value is a proxy for human utility, as evidenced by the revealed preferences of their voting behavior.

            All their voting behaviour shows is that they would like to transfer others’ wealth to themselves, and they believe that a particular candidate will use the powers of the State to achieve this. Farmers vote for whoever promises farm subsidies; lawyers and doctors vote for someone who will maintain their particular occupational licensure cartels; bankers vote for someone who can be relied upon to bail out banks with taxpayers’ money.
            Be careful using “revealed preference” in contexts other than trade, for it only “reveals” that they “prefer” the-thing to the consideration. If I buy an apple for 50p, it reveals I prefer the marginal apple to 50 marginal pence; what is the price of voting?

          • Aapje says:

            @dionisos & Guy in TN

            The issue is that the alternative to property rights is not the free use of resources by all.

            It is impossible for many goods to be shared with everyone, either because of limited capacity or because using the good transforms it. If I eat the potato, you can’t also eat it. So then there needs to be an allocation mechanism to determine who gets to eat the potato.

            This seems to have been solved in prehistoric times by a combination of abundance (relatively few humans compared to the availability of potatoes resources) as well as ‘might makes right,’ primarily on the group level (with groups of humans and proto-humans fighting other groups over land/resources).

            The idea that individual property rights replaced “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is nonsense. It replaced group-level ownership, which was defended with violence.

            Of course, you can argue that the proper allocation mechanism is central control by the state, but this Marxist-Leninist solution has a poor track record.

          • ec429 says:

            @Hoopdawg

            To clarify, when anti-capitalists speak of “private ownership”, they specifically mean absentee ownership of capital or natural resources.

            What difference does absentee-ness make? The market system is still just as vital to producing large quantities of anything other than natural-resources-still-in-the-ground, whether the capital owner lives in his factory or on the other side of the world.

            Someone still has to make the damn bread!

            The bakers, yes. You’ll note that bakers are not capitalism, nor are they specific to capitalism.

            The bakers do not alone make the bread. Who grows the wheat, who makes the fertiliser and pesticides, who breeds the wheat to be far more productive than wild wheat, who makes the tractors used to grow the wheat, who transports the wheat to the mill (who makes the lorries used to transport the wheat), who makes the millstones, who uses them to grind the wheat into flour (who makes the power source, or does the grinder use his own muscle power), who transports the flour to the baker? Who makes the oven, who mined and who smelted the ore to provide the metal to make the oven, who makes the tools used to form the metal into an oven shape, who dug the coal or cut the trees to fuel the oven (who made the picks or the axes used to dig or cut respectively), who transports the fuel to the bakery?
            How does the baker know what kind of bread to make? And how much of the flour (that your society has somehow produced) should go into breadmaking, rather than to the confectioner’s down the road to make into cakes? (Similarly, how much of the metal should go into making ovens, rather than lorries — and similarly for every other link in the vast web of interdependent production.) How do we determine who should be a baker, and who should work a different job? If I decide I want to be a baker, do I get allocated some flour, an oven and fuel? What if I’m really bad at baking, so all that flour is wasted?

            Any non-market-based economy has a lot of calculation-problem questions to answer, even before you get to moral questions, such as How are you going to make sure the bakers bake, rather than sitting around all day, and will this involve an oppressive enforcement regime that sends lazy bakers to the gulag?

            It’s this kind of total blindness to the vast difficulty of the calculation problem that I’m talking about when I (per upthread) seethe at people’s ingratitude to the miraculous system that solves it.

          • ec429 says:

            @Plumber

            Funny, but I’m guessing you like Ayn Rand while I prefer William Morris’, but any “utopia” is a bet, I’d advise reading your Burke before you get deep in dismantling societal institutions.

            I actually haven’t read Rand (I’m told she’s pretty dull, so only worth reading if you don’t already know what she’s teaching).
            As for Burkean arguments, I know why socialist societal institutions are the way they are, it’s down to a kind of Molochian failure of non-market-based decision-making systems, best analysed by public choice theory. Each plank of the fence served the ‘use’ of imposing dispersed costs in order to confer a concentrated benefit on the particular coalition that placed it there, even though the fence as a whole has a greater cost than benefit to almost every individual; now will Chesterton please let me tear it down?

          • Hoopdawg says:

            What difference does absentee-ness make?

            For the purpose of this discussion? It signifies a property type consistent with non-capitalist (in this case, socialist) economic systems, thus denying the claim that property exchange (i.e. market) is unique to capitalism.
            In the real world? It gets rid of many problems with absentee property – decoupling profit from work, enabling rent, exploitation, accumulation of great fortunes. Which, in the long run, lead resources away from productive work and into, in no particular order, conspicuous consumption, financial instruments, long distance trade and war, ultimately destroying the host society.

            Who grows the wheat, who makes the fertiliser and pesticides, who breeds the wheat to be far more productive than wild wheat, who makes the tractors used to grow the wheat, (…)?

            Farmers, workers in chemical plants, agricultural researchers, workers in agricultural machinery factories, etc. etc.

            All of those things exist outside of capitalism. You seem to be saying that making those things work, especially together, is a difficult task that only capitalism can accomplish, but I grew up in what you’d probably call (and what called itself) a socialist state, and we’ve been eating bread.

            I mean, how would you feel if l argued that there can be no bread under capitalism because how do you transport flour to the bakery when there’s no roads?

          • Controls Freak says:

            @Guy in TN

            initial acquisition

            I am of the understanding that there are different methods of analysis for this by different libertarian philosophers.

            alright. The state acquired, through force, the right (the “property” if you will, to use Ghillie Dhu’s language) to tax, regulate, and even confiscate essentially everything (and everyone) that exists within its territorial boundaries. And they did this hundreds of years ago, with no living victims left who are alive to make a claim.

            This method of analysis, however, simply doesn’t work, even if you take the US Constitution to be the original claim. In it, the State specifically disclaimed a variety of rights in property within its territorial boundaries. Rather than reverting to the Divine Right of Donald Trump Stalin Kings, as you seem to think is the conclusion, the conclusion of your position is a sort of ratcheting down of State property rights. If we take some moment such as the adoption of the Constitution to be the original moment, from then on, your libertarian position would make later State divestment of property rights acceptable, but later State acquisition of additional property rights unacceptable. I think your libertarian opponent would be alright with that.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            I’m referring to more how, unless you live in antarctica or some previously uninhabited island, you “own” your home because you bought it from someone who bought it from someone who built it on land that they bought from someone who they bought from someone who did an act of violence to get that land (Which some might accurately call theft). And I mean real actual violence, like murder and war crimes stuff, not the “calling the police” violence that libertarians like talking about.

            I have some bad news for you. You, and every one else alive today, only “exist” because some of your ancestors did an act of violence to ensure their survival. And I mean real actual violence, like murder and war crimes stuff.

            The other alternative would be that all your ancestors somehow never encountered an enemy tribe.

            FTR: I’m not a libertarian.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Imagine a system where the state retains (and occasionally uses) the power to tax, regulate, and confiscate essentially any possession within its borders. Land, houses, money. It can even control interpersonal human behavior (freedom of contract, association), and things you do when you are alone.

            No need to imagine, this is how things work on indian reserves, here in Canada. I dont know how it is in the US, but in Canada the chief decides which house you live in, and how much of the government money you get. The result is 3d world corruption and squalor, with the chiefs regularly asking for more money, and using the dismal state of their reserve as a tool to guilt trip the government into giving them more money.

            Canada does not impose its “capitalist” system of private ownership to natives, that would be horribly colonialist and racist. Instead, natives are subject to their “traditional” system where the chief decides everything. So, because nobody’s house is really theirs, nobody really takes care of their house or improves them. Why would they? The chief can take it away on a whim. The result is complete and total devastation, poverty, and misery.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Would you be satisfied with that definition of private property? Would libertarians be satisfied with it?

            I’d love to return to a world where “private property” means “a legal allotment from the state that guarantees exclusive usage rights from other citizens, with the state retaining the ultimate right to unlimited taxation, regulation, and confiscation” but Rothbardian influence has poised the term beyond that, I fear.

            I would be yes. Libertarians, I dont think so, they dont seem to recognize any sovereign authority, which is completely nonsensical. Sovereignty is preserved.

            As I said in my previous comment, your utopia where the government can confiscate your land on a whim already exists. They’re called first nations reserves on Canada. The result is predictably perfect harmony between humans and nature, widespread happiness, and unimaginable wealth.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @ec429

            Of course they are! How can you have trade without ownership?

            You can’t! You also can’t build a swimming pool without water. But if you insist on using the two terms synonymously, you get to respond to objections to the swimming pool with “damn, you’re against water huh? you want everyone to die of thirst?”

            This sort of rhetoric you are proposing (“private property=markets”) not only hides the authority present in your system, but to preclude the possibility of any other sort of ownership of than private.

            And yet it remains hypocritical for the state to go to war over slavery while owning its citizens. If we believe that owning people is immoral, we should apply that universally.

            I understand that you may have difficulties conceiving of a morality beyond the libertarian notion of voluntarism, but that doesn’t make the rest of us hypocrites. The historical slavery is in a different ballpark than the “slavery” of having to pay taxes. Namely, the former reduces social utility, while the later increases it.

            Your conflation of the the two radially different ideas based on narrow libertarian principles, and expecting it to land an emotional impact, is veering towards what a young Scott might call The Worst Argument in the World. Taxation is only “slavery” in the most trivial, non-central usage of the term.

            The problem isn’t that the state has a property right in me, it’s that it acquired that right without me selling it — alienating my self-ownership without my consent.

            You never had the right to self ownership. The state already acquired the right of everything that is produced within its borders. No different from a landowner harvesting trees, or catching fish.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @Aapje
            To be clear, I’m not opposed to private property a modern legal construct (i.e., subject to taxation, regulation, ect). I am opposed to “private property” as advanced by libertarians/ancaps, which means something quite different.

            @Controls Freak

            If we take some moment such as the adoption of the Constitution to be the original moment, from then on, your libertarian position would make later State divestment of property rights acceptable, but later State acquisition of additional property rights unacceptable.

            But the state always retained the ability to call back any rights it allotted out. Specifically, by building in the idea that an amendment to the constitution would apply with equal legitimacy as the previous version of the constitution would. At no point does the state permanently disown the “property” to govern its citizens.

            If I, a landowner, write on some paper “you have the right to grow corn here”, it is commonly understood that I have not just divested my property right over the land, but rather I am letting you grow corn until I change my mind about it.

          • albatross11 says:

            The less confidence property owners have that they’ll be allowed to continue using/benefitting from any improvements on their land, the less they will be inclined to make them. This turns out to matter a great deal in terms of wealth creation and human well-being.

          • Controls Freak says:

            @Guy in TN

            Now we’re getting into where I think the interesting discussion actually is – political legitimacy, not memes and definitional tricks. It appears that you think that there is no philosophical impediment to the State repealing the 13th Amendment and subsequently exercising its claim on the people as its ‘property’. I really can’t see how your position is anything but defending the Divine Right of Kings and/or ‘might makes right’. Your libertarian opponent’s position doesn’t have this bug, regardless of whether they accept your initial condition.

            If I, a landowner, write on some paper “you have the right to grow corn here”, it is commonly understood that I have not just divested my property right over the land, but rather I am letting you grow corn until I change my mind about it.

            This example is little more than showing that we have a shared colloquial understanding of an underspecified statement. A statement that underspecified is going to leave a lot of room for interpretation. There’s a different space of interpretation if you had written, “I will do no thing to impede your right to grow corn here.”

            In any event, what this shows is mostly that these types of longer-term, more complicated, and remote examples tend to collapse more in line with one’s philosophy on political legitimacy, not economic systems… whereas personal property is often vastly simpler (though not without nuance).

          • Guy in TN says:

            It appears that you think that there is no philosophical impediment to the State repealing the 13th Amendment and subsequently exercising its claim on the people as its ‘property’.

            Exactly. If you are advocating for this particular form deontological libertarian ethics, the government repealing the 13th appears to be perfectly compatible.

            I really can’t see how your position is anything but defending the Divine Right of Kings and/or ‘might makes right’. Your libertarian opponent’s position doesn’t have this bug, regardless of whether they accept your initial condition.

            Wait, what? No, no, no. You misunderstand the argument. This isn’t my position. This “bug” is exclusive to the form of libertarianism advanced by people such as Caplan and ec429.

            This example is little more than showing that we have a shared colloquial understanding of an underspecified statement.

            This example is little more than showing that we have a shared colloquial understanding of an underspecified statement.

            Really, I was being too generous in conceding that the government has even temporarily divested its rights in any sort of way that would appease libertarians. For example, the taxing and spending clause in Article 1 authorizes the government to collect taxes to pay for the general welfare.

            So, right off the bat we have restrictions on market activity and a welfare state. And they have never divested this right, not even temporarily. There is really no ambiguity on this one.

            And once again, to be clear, I’m just playing with the absurd procedural ethics framework that is suggested by libertarians. None of this matters for my philosophy, at all.

          • Controls Freak says:

            You’ve really lost the plot, and your first two sections are just false. I think you might just need to re-read prior comments. We started off with initial state stuff. We put aside the variety of possible libertarian positions on that, assumed the Constitution to be the initial state, and then observed that the libertarian position was a one-way ratchet. You claimed, contrary to the libertarian position, that you could undo the ratchet. I noted that this results in the discussion dissolving into one of political legitimacy. You can’t now say that the libertarian position is one of undoing the ratchet. You’ve gotten things backwards.

            I was being too generous in conceding that the government has even temporarily divested its rights in any sort of way that would appease libertarians. For example, the taxing and spending clause in Article 1 authorizes the government to collect taxes to pay for the general welfare.

            Obviously, they don’t think that the USG has divested enough yet. I don’t see any sort of contradiction here.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Obviously, they don’t think that the USG has divested enough yet. I don’t see any sort of contradiction here.

            The “contradiction” is that there is a strain of libertrainism that claims the government’s authority to tax and regulate commerce is illegitimate, based on a procedural ethics framework of property. “Taxation is theft”, and “this shouldn’t be regulated, because I voluntarily acquired it” are a common ideas I’ve heard.

            If you want to say “well, its not illegitimate, I just think the government ought to do less for various reasons”, then it sounds like we both agree these procedural libertarian arguments are internally incoherent.

            Which means, to bring it all back, your original position of “I should control this, because I voluntarily traded for it” is no longer a viable argument.

          • dionisos says:

            @ec429

            I probably don’t agree with you on a lot of things.
            But I think some of your arguments and some of your links were really good. (and I feel like it is better to say it than not saying it)

          • Cliff says:

            Guy,

            You’ve gone from opposing capitalism, which is the economic system of most countries, to disagreeing with some proposals/arguments of hard-core libertarians. In other words, you have gone from disagreeing with at least like 75% of people, to disagreeing with about 0.5% of people.

          • Controls Freak says:

            If you want to say “well, its not illegitimate, I just think the government ought to do less for various reasons”, then it sounds like we both agree these procedural libertarian arguments are internally incoherent.

            Not really. As I said, there are a variety of methods of analysis of initial acquisition by different libertarian philosophers. Not all of them accept the US Constitution as the initial point, as I did here (to make the point about the ratchet). I think the strain that you’re frustrated with rejects this assumption on initial acquisition, and so is not necessarily internally incoherent. (As a reminder, I’m not a philosophical libertarian; I care more about a variety of questions concerning political legitimacy.)

          • Guy in TN says:

            @Cliff,

            If “capitalism” to you means “the modern mixed economy that most nations have”, then I have no objection with that. In fact, this definition not only leaves room to implement state ownership and welfare, it requires these features, since no modern nation lacks them.

            It also means you can’t object to industry nationalization, restriction on freedom of contract and association, or taxation on ground of it being less capitalistic, since all of these are features of the modern mixed economy (United States, Europe, Japan, ect).

          • John Schilling says:

            How can you have trade without ownership? You can’t!

            In fact, you can. It’s clumsy and there’s no good reason to do it unless you’re e.g. trying to work around some stupid intractable ideological roadblock, but it can be done. And we touched on an example a few OTs ago, that feeds in to the question of car rentals elsewhere in this thread.

            In North Korea, nobody is allowed to “own” an automobile. The state owns all of the automobiles, period, and you get tortured to death if you ever say that you “own” an automobile. Stupid ideological roadblock. But e.g. Mr. Park who operates the State’s Magnesium Plant #6 has been delegated operational control over three staff cars that the state owns. In order to meet his magnesium-refining goals, he needs to buy spare parts on the black market. So in exchange for a cash payment from Mr. Lee, who has no other connection to Magnesium Plant #6, Park delegates operational control of two of those cars to Lee, who gets to decide who drives them (Lee’s wife and son) and where. The Lees then use those cars to run a lucrative taxi service by day, and the son spends the evenings cruising the streets of Pyongyang for Hot Juche Babes. Real trade has happened, and yet “ownership” has not changed. And the state is cool with this, so long as someone remembers to bribe the police chief (i.e. “pay taxes”, because “taxes” are necessary to pay for law enforcement and good government).

            It’s stupid, inefficient, and prone to corruption, but it works. And while we often describe capitalism in terms of “private ownership of the means of production”, that’s an oversimplification based on the assumption that we aren’t going to be stupid about it. What matters is private operational control over the means of production, and the ability to buy and sell same. The North Korean system is a poorly-implemented edge case of capitalism, but it is closer to properly-run capitalism than e.g. the situation where Hank Rearden holds legal title to Rearden Steel but the nice government man hangs out in his office telling him in precise detail what operational decisions Rearden must make on every matter of significance.

            So, if you’ve really got some stupid ideological roadblock about “ownership”, we can do a global s/ownership/operational control, but it won’t change anything but to make it more confusing and cumbersome. Ownership means nothing without control, and sufficient control means something so close to ownership as to make no difference.

          • ec429 says:

            @Hoopdawg

            In the real world? It gets rid of many problems with absentee property – decoupling profit from work, enabling rent, exploitation, accumulation of great fortunes. Which, in the long run, lead resources away from productive work and into, in no particular order, conspicuous consumption, financial instruments, long distance trade and war, ultimately destroying the host society.

            If you don’t allow absentee property, you lose the ability to do anything requiring concentrations of capital greater than can be accumulated locally. So, to take just one of many examples, no semiconductor fabs (and hence no Slate Star Codex).

            Farmers, workers in chemical plants, agricultural researchers, workers in agricultural machinery factories, etc. etc.

            All of those things exist outside of capitalism. You seem to be saying that making those things work, especially together, is a difficult task that only capitalism can accomplish

            Yes. This is why, contrary to the expectations of basically everyone who wasn’t Hayek, central planning did not produce riches unheard of, but rather a vast and dirty ‘heavy industry’ turning good materials into outputs no-one wanted. Also, collective farms (“this agrarian nation, one of whose chief economic problems in Tzarist days was how to dispose of its grain surplus, was once more forced to buy millions
            of tons of grains from the Western capitalist world.” – Henry Hazlitt, in the introduction to Time Will Run Back).

            but I grew up in what you’d probably call (and what called itself) a socialist state, and we’ve been eating bread.

            How nice for you. The Ukrainians didn’t. And there is a sliding scale whereby the more individual economic freedom a country has, ceteris paribus, the more material wealth its inhabitants enjoy, which will become evident to you if you peruse the relevant statistics.

            I mean, how would you feel if l argued that there can be no bread under capitalism because how do you transport flour to the bakery when there’s no roads?

            I’d explain to you the specific coördination mechanism by which capitalism can produce roads (if there’s not a government undercutting it by subsidising their roads with their ill-gotten gains).
            I’m still waiting to hear anyone explain how a centrally planned economy is going to coördinate the things I mentioned (even ignoring things like variations in the quality of product, you’d need to collect vast amounts of preference data — which you somehow have to get people to reveal without the incentives of the price system — and vast amounts of production-possibility-set data, and then solve the resulting vast system of equations, just to know what the right thing to do is, before the question of how you force people to actually do it).

            @jermo sapiens

            Libertarians, I dont think so, they dont seem to recognize any sovereign authority, which is completely nonsensical.

            We’re mostly OK with the idea of things that look like ‘sovereignty’, as long as it’s acquired consensually (i.e. by free contract). For instance, you’d be hard-pressed to find a libertarian who wouldn’t want to live in this fictional society, purely on political grounds (i.e. ignoring all the whizzo sci-fi tech stuff), despite it being an Empire with a Government and even a Monarchy (well, actually a diarchy, because reasons, but the idea’s the important thing). Because every citizen positively chose to become one, and not under duress either.
            What we don’t recognise is the Divine Right of Kings A Plurality Of Inhabitants Of This Semi-Arbitrary Geographic Designation to impose their ‘sovereignty’ on people who didn’t agree to it as being a coördination mechanism useful to themselves.

          • ec429 says:

            @Guy in TN

            You can’t! You also can’t build a swimming pool without water. But if you insist on using the two terms synonymously, you get to respond to objections to the swimming pool with “damn, you’re against water huh? you want everyone to die of thirst?”

            This sort of rhetoric you are proposing (“private property=markets”) not only hides the authority present in your system,

            So much for short inferential distances, apparently I can’t even successfully communicate the form of my argument.
            I’m not saying that ‘private property’ and ‘markets’ are the same thing, I’m saying that private property is a necessary condition for markets to function; that that which is traded in a market is necessarily private property of the one that trades it. Which may not be the physical object itself, I emphasise: if one merely has an estate in land (say) for which the sovereign rights reside elsewhere, all one trades in the market is that estate (which estate itself you have complete title to), and not the land (to which you have, per assumption, incomplete title). Thus the market can only exercise its (miraculous) coördinating powers upon estates in land, and not upon the sovereign rights in the same land, because those aren’t private property. (Except possibly the private property of the sovereign, who might trade them with other sovereigns, but that tends to be a small and restricted market for various reasons.) And every time those sovereign rights get exercised, they mess up whatever the estates-market was trying to do there, and even the risk of them being used distorts the market and reduces its efficiency.

            but to preclude the possibility of any other sort of ownership of than private.

            Consider for example ‘ownership’ under the Communist system. In theory, a given factory (say) is owned by ‘the people’. But in practice, ‘the people’ cannot directly make decisions about, for instance, what the factory should produce, or how many machines (versus workers) it should use to produce it, because (a) there are lots of factories and each person can’t know about all of them and (b) even if you could find a debate hall large enough to hold ‘the people’, it would take forever for them to come to unanimous agreement. So there must be some system to divine the will of ‘the people’, and in practice this turns out to be a bureaucracy of Commissars and Secretaries-General and suchlike. The man tasked with directing the factory owns (as private property) certain rights pertaining to that factory (the right to make decisions and have them acted upon unless and until countermanded by his superiors). Now those rights are not, in themselves, ownership of the factory, merely a fragment thereof, but those rights are privately owned. In principle they could be traded on a market, although Communist systems in practice forbid this, and such a market would lead to better allocation of those rights (to the most skilled managers. There are complications, I won’t go into them now).

            So we see that private property is possible without markets, but markets are not possible without private property. And this is not equivalent to claiming that “private property = markets”.

            The historical slavery is in a different ballpark than the “slavery” of having to pay taxes.

            Again, you’ll need some kind of principled argument to explain why these are qualitatively different, or why the cut-off point between “good slavery” and “bad slavery” lies between them rather than on one side or the other.

            Namely, the former reduces social utility, while the later increases it.

            You’re pretty much assuming your conclusion, there.

            You never had the right to self ownership. The state already acquired the right of everything that is produced within its borders.

            It didn’t acquire that right legitimately, though. It obtained it by force; and rights obtained by force (rather than trade) tend to be inefficiently allocated (capitalist trucks again) as well as leading to rent-seeking (lots of competing force). And an economist will argue that those are also the reasons why theft is bad; that is, even if we count the utility of $10 to the thief the same as the utility of $10 to the victim, we can still mathematically obtain the result that theft is bad. Thus the economics thereof are a pretty good candidate for why we have the moral intuition that theft is bad, which would make them a good way to determine whether other things should be counted as theft or not-theft. Thus do I refute your accusation of The Worst Argument In The World.

            If I, a landowner, write on some paper “you have the right to grow corn here”, it is commonly understood that I have not just divested my property right over the land, but rather I am letting you grow corn until I change my mind about it.

            You might want to look into easements and estoppel before you make claims like that.
            Just ‘writing on some paper’ might not be enough to make it a contract, because in your example you didn’t mention any consideration, so it would need to be executed as a deed rather than a simple contract (in some jurisdictions). But once I start growing corn, I’ve relied on your promise (you never wrote anything about the ‘right’ being time-limited), so you may be estopped from withdrawing it. At that point your title is now admixed by an easement or usufruct, and that interest is itself property which I own (and, in some jurisdictions, can sell or lease). If you then change your mind, you may find yourself unable by law to stop me growing corn on the land.
            (After throwing around legal terms like that I guess I’d better put in a this-is-not-legal-advice-I-am-not-a-lawyer disclaimer, just in case.)

            At no point does the state permanently disown the “property” to govern its citizens.

            In the case of the US Constitution, it never really claimed that property in allodium in the first place; for the sovereign rights it governs were claimed by the Declaration of Independence, from which: “that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it”.
            Now, even if we grant that the original colonists unanimously consented (many didn’t) both to be bound by this new government and to so bind their descendants, they did not have the latter right to grant, for a man is not inherently the property of his father, for the latter to sell into slavery at his whim.
            Just a little side-angle courtesy of Lysander Spooner 🙂

            If “capitalism” to you means “the modern mixed economy that most nations have”, then I have no objection with that…

            It also means you can’t object to [… stuff…]

            You seem to be assuming that “capitalism” is a binary predicate. Now there is a binary-predicate meaning that “capitalism” can have, but it’s not “modern mixed economy”, it’s “an-cap”. It’s also not what most people mean by the word. The more usual meaning is a property that any given economy can have to a greater or lesser extent; the “modern mixed economy” is (to a libertarian like me) quite good because it is quite capitalist, but that doesn’t prevent a more capitalist society from being better.
            It’s funny, this kind of misapplied law-of-the-excluded-middle thinking is one of the main criticisms people level at Ayn Rand. Apparently the Objectivists had no monopoly on that particular error!

            @John Schilling

            In North Korea, nobody is allowed to “own” an automobile.

            I think you’ve successfully argued that there can be ownership without “ownership”. I don’t think that refutes my claim that trade requires ownership, or that what is traded is owned. (Of course the thing that’s owned, and thus traded, in your NK example isn’t the car, but some weird bundle of rights with contingent application to the car; hence the trade can only optimise within the scope of those rights.)

            Though I do wonder whether all this argument about the precise definition of ownership is really going to tell us anything useful about the causes of poverty (which was the original point at issue). We may all be off in the weeds with that particular sub-strand of the discussion.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I believe the answer is “coordination problems.” And the best answer to “why do billionaires deserve their wealth” is “they slayed temporarily distracted Moloch” which is very, very, very hard to do.

    • eyeballfrog says:

      It’s the Jews, isn’t it?

      But seriously, are these real questions or do you have an answer in mind that you don’t feel like defending?

      • belvarine says:

        Jeff Bezos can’t profit without minimizing expenses. One of those expenses is wages. Minimizing wages reduces the income of parents, thereby increasing the odds of children born into poverty.

        Now keep wages low, but also lobby for reduced taxes on the profit you just made. The loss in tax revenue impacts public services, forcing parents to spend more time and money seeking out necessary services. Stretching the resources of parents like this further increases the odds of children born into poverty.

        As long as your system allows owners to maximize individual profit by withholding surplus from parents while minimizing their public service contribution, society will continue to produce underprivileged children. Jeff Bezos has met both criteria by paying workers the minimum allowable wage and fighting tax increases in Seattle. His charity reduces the number of underprivileged children, but his other activities almost guarantee more children will be born into poverty.

        This cycle perpetuates itself:
        – In the absence of class mobility (which tends to decrease as income inequality increases), underprivileged children become underprivileged adults who are more likely to accept lower wage offers and become parents who birth underprivileged children
        – Jeff Bezos’s preference for extravagant displays of charity over more equitable compensation asserts that wealth is best allocated when given, not earned, which discourages parents from demanding higher wages
        – Underprivileged children selected by Jeff Bezos become privileged children, i.e. selective charity dispensation guarantees the existence of underprivileged children (who were not selected)

        The solution is to minimize how much profit Jeff Bezos is allowed to make at the expense of his workers. Allow workers to divide up the profit more equitably. Higher worker income means parents are less likely to live in poverty, which means children are less likely to be born into poverty. This goes beyond the moment of birth: maternity leave and healthcare plans hugely benefit parents and children, but these eat into Jeff Bezos’s profit so he’s incentivized to minimize them. Curtail his ability to profit and you free up resources for raising healthier, happier children.

        • albatross11 says:

          Without Amazon, how many of the people working for him would be making more money somewhere else?

          • benwave says:

            I think you’ve missed the significance of the first part: Jeff Bezos can’t profit without minimising expenses. Bezos donating to charity isn’t a solution to the problem because it doesn’t address the cause – ie, the rules under which amazon is forced to minimise worker pay and conditions and the lack of alternative incomes for people who are unemployed.

            The correct question is not “without amazon, how many of the people working for him would be making more money somewhere else?”, the correct question is “without rules forcing amazon (and all other companies) to lower employee wages and conditions, how many of the people working for him would be making more money?”

            I fully acknowledge that entirely too many people frame it the former way and would cheer if amazon were to disappear and Bezos were to become destitute, solving approximately nothing.

            Having said that, none of this addresses the post’s main point, and yes let’s keep taking the charity in the meantime.

          • albatross11 says:

            benwave:

            Bezos can’t run a business at all unless he offers every single employee, supplier, and customer a deal in which they believe they’re coming out ahead. To the extent he manages to pay workers or suppliers less, he’s mostly going to be giving customers a better deal. This is the same phenomenon as Wal-Mart–they get lots of customers by charging low prices for acceptable goods; they charge low prices by squeezing every penny out of their suppliers and paying their employees bottom dollar. The customers benefit from the low prices. But everyone involved thinks they’re getting an acceptable deal, or they’d walk.

          • benwave says:

            Right, but there’s no reason to suspect that the optimum determined by the current rules is anything more than a local maximum. Change the rules, and the position and value of the maximum change with it. Leftists tend to argue that better maxima exist that value workers contributions more. They’re not possible under current rules but that’s not to say they don’t exist.

    • Viliam says:

      Jeff Bezos donates $2 billion for preschools for underprivileged children. How did the existence of underpriviliged children come about?

      I know, I know!

      Jeff Bezos stole their knowledge and used it to build Amazon. And now he has the chutzpah to blame the educational system…

      • AG says:

        This is highly uncharitable. How many of the parents of those underprivileged children could use an extra $4/hour? That’s an extra $8320 a year! In some places, that could be a down payment for a house, or entirely cover rent! In some places, that could buy a car! Or as per education, in some places, that would cover tuition!

        • The Nybbler says:

          The OP implies that somehow Amazon caused the underprivileged children, and you claim the retort is uncharitable?

          • AG says:

            Well, yes, because there are definitely Amazon workers/sub-contractors who are getting paid less than they can afford. And/or people who lost their companies/jobs because they lost their customers to Amazon.

            It is highly uncharitable to take OP’s statements as “Jeff Bezos is the source of all underprivileged children,” when the charitable interpretation of “Jeff Bezos could use his donations to help those his company has harmed, or even better, harm less people in the first place” is RIGHT THERE.

        • albatross11 says:

          [deleted because it was snarky instead of helpful–sorry]

  38. gwern says:

    While we’re listing billionaire examples: to a greatly underappreciated extent, the whole Reproducibility Crisis and its very expensive replication efforts like the Many Labs projects, are bankrolled by a billionaire, John D. Arnold. You’d think the federal government would be more interested in this problem, but it’s not.

    • benjdenny says:

      My experience with the government is it’s a lot less concerned about whether (non-defense, non-engineering) science is right as opposed to whether it lets it do what it wants. A few years ago they funded a bunch of e-cigarette studies all pretty carefully selected to either have an un-published null result or prove something bad about e-cigs, basically just fishing for green jellybeans. The accuracy of the science was unimportant, building a bulk of scientific literature to protect certain interests was, through whatever means.

      Same here. The federal government isn’t sitting around fretting about the reproducibility crisis because it isn’t a mainstream enough concern to stop them from using it as a tool to influence public opinion. If people started acting in a way that implied “well, I won’t let this affect my support of certain projects because reproducibility” there’s be no end of funding in a week.

    • moyix says:

      Amusingly, I learned about this because of a tweet complaining about it on the grounds that billionaire philanthropy is undemocratic.

  39. DragonMilk says:

    No good deed goes unpunished, and haters gonna hate.

    It grinds my gears when people criticize others for not [doing ideal thing] rather than realize there’s a limited set of practical choices a billionaire would actually make, and their criticisms often lead to inferior choices being made.

    I have to imagine it stems from envy. If they only applied the same amount of scrutiny to bureaucracy, we might actually get more efficient government. But individuals are much more enviable.

    • Viliam says:

      I suspect there are many fans of ideology that killed millions of people, who criticize those who saved lives of millions. But in their minds that’s okay, because first we need to make things worse to make them better in the imaginary glorious future, therefore bad is good, good is bad, and effective altruism is worse than paperclip maximization.

      It’s also funny how only American billionaires get criticized. The article admiring a cool yacht, that was about a Russian billionaire. Somehow that leaves me unsurprised. (I would expect Arabic billionaires or royalty to get positive treatment by the same press, too.)

  40. RalMirrorAd says:

    Concerning the first mover advantage. For me it’s less whether a lot of skill, talent, and innovation for consumers went into putting a company at the top as whether those things are required to be *maintained* continuously for the company to maintain the dominant position. The alternative is a situation where an innovative first mover can rest on its laurels and then start engaging in what we would consider to be exploitative business practices.

    For example, Ford Motor company made a lot of early innovations, but ford is far from being a monopoly and we’re not still driving model Ts.

    I’m almost certain a company like facebook can maintain its dominant position because of social network effects. It doesn’t matter whether a duplicate version of facebook exists that has none of the flaws, since no one uses that network the platform has no value. Facebook’s monopoly power wouldn’t show itself in the form of higher prices because the users are not paying customers. However it would show itself in the form of the terms of service, and what facebook does with its user’s data.

    I’m on the fence about whether Amazon is in a similar position, because, in theory, online purchases can be conducted on any website, however there is still an advantage to one stop shopping.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I’m almost certain a company like facebook can maintain its dominant position because of social network effects.

      How do you explain MySpace, then? I kind of think 10 years from now we could be talking about how SoclMdiaPlatfrm obviously supplanted FaceBook because it was better and FaceBook was evil, but now nothing will ever displace SoclMdiaPlatfrm because the have “network effects.”

      • RalMirrorAd says:

        My impression had been that myspace had a couple million users while facebook’s userbase is in excess of 1 billion. Like i myself never had a myspace account. Social media was young and people were not as accustomed/dependent to using social media for information and communication.

        That said, if facebook is supplanted it will likely not be by a similar service with a better TOS but a service that offers something fundamentally different that makes it worth the switch.

        • Fishbreath says:

          As someone who participated in the Myspace->Facebook migration right around 2006, I concur with the assessment that Myspace’s position then is nothing like Facebook’s position now.

        • AG says:

          @RalMirrorAd

          You mean like Instagram or Whatsapp? Wait, who owns them again…Er, you mean like Twitter or Pinterest?

          A service that offers something fundamentally different becomes complementary, not replacing.

          Counterplans must compete.

  41. fluorocarbon says:

    Although some donors like Bill Gates are generally liked, others, like Zuckerberg and Bezos, are met with widespread distrust. This might be because Gates has worked harder to target his donations well, or because he made his money a long time ago and nobody is too angry about his business practices anymore.

    I don’t think this has to do with how they earn their money, but how they spend their money. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t just give $100 million to Newark schools, he gave the money on condition that the school district “welcome more independently run charter schools [and] close low-performing schools.”

    A lot of people disagree about the best way to run public schools. In a democracy, these kinds of conflicts over public institutions should be resolved through voting—every citizen should have the same say. The argument against Zuckerberg is that he’s subverting this process. Because he has more money, he can tell the school district how it should be run.

    Bill Gates, on the other hand, is spending money fighting malaria through the Gates Foundation. He’s not offering money to the CDC on condition that they have to run it the way Bill Gates wants.

    There will always be some people who are negative about everything, loud on Twitter, and who hate billionaires. But the reason Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are getting so much pushback for their giving but Bill Gates is not is because Zuckerberg and Bezos are (or at least seem to be) using their money to commandeer public democratic institutions. Even if good comes out of it on the whole in a utilitarian sense, there’s something a lot of people find unsettling and un-American about using money in this way.

    • ec429 says:

      The argument against Zuckerberg is that he’s subverting this process. Because he has more money, he can tell the school district how it should be run.

      No, he can’t. The school district is always free to say “no”; Zuckerberg can’t force them to take his money.
      This is basically the standard argument for freedom of contract: whatever conditions you might include in your offer, however onerous they may be, you’re necessarily only expanding, never limiting, the option set available to the other party.
      Would you prefer it if he’d instead used the $100m to endow a foundation that ran a bunch of private schools with zero fees, or with generous bursaries that make places affordable for the working class? Would that also be “subverting democracy”?

      • fluorocarbon says:

        This is basically the standard argument for freedom of contract: whatever conditions you might include in your offer, however onerous they may be, you’re necessarily only expanding, never limiting, the option set available to the other party.

        I don’t understand this argument. Freedom of contract doesn’t mean that people can’t be criticized for what contracts they offer or that all contracts are moral. If a rich person offers to buy an expensive gymnasium for a public school but only if the principal get a tattoo of the rich person’s name on his forehead, a lot of people would find that immoral, even through it’s only “expanding options” and both parties benefit.

        Mark Zuckerberg’s offer to Newark creates an opportunity cost of $100 million for not doing the things his foundation wants them to do. It’s true he’s not forcing them at gunpoint, but to a lot of people, that still counts as having an undue influence on public institutions in a way that Bill Gates fighting malaria doesn’t.

        Would you prefer it if he’d instead used the $100m to endow a foundation that ran a bunch of private schools with zero fees, or with generous bursaries that make places affordable for the working class?

        Less of this please. I never expressed a personal opinion in my comment. I’m trying to discuss why people would be angry at Mark Zuckerberg (and Jeff Bezos) but not be angry at Bill Gates for giving charitably. I thought this was an important point that Scott didn’t engage with in his original post.

        • ec429 says:

          a lot of people would find that immoral, even through it’s only “expanding options” and both parties benefit.

          Then “a lot of people” fail moral philosophy forever, as far as I’m concerned, and that failure is not only upstream of but possibly definitive of their anti-billionaire-philanthropy positions.

          Mark Zuckerberg’s offer to Newark creates an opportunity cost

          Ehhh, that’s really dubious economics. If you’re going to account the opportunity cost, then you have to also account the full $100m whether Newark takes the offer or not.

          I never expressed a personal opinion in my comment.

          My apologies for reading your comment with insufficient care and comprehension, and for accusing you of opinions you had not expressed.

          Would the people angry at Zuck prefer it, then? (The question was not meant rhetorically, but as an attempt to elucidate the values involved; i.e., is it about education, or the public-ed system as an institution?)

          • fluorocarbon says:

            Then “a lot of people” fail moral philosophy forever, as far as I’m concerned, and that failure is not only upstream of but possibly definitive of their anti-billionaire-philanthropy positions.

            I’m curious, are there any contracts that two people engage in willingly that you think are immoral? It seems like our society in general finds contracts that involve things like personal humiliation or sexual favors to be immoral.

            Would [the people against Zuckerberg] prefer it if he’d instead used the $100m to endow a foundation that ran a bunch of private schools with zero fees

            My guess is that people would be upset but less so. From what I understand, that’s what Jeff Bezos is doing with preschools, and there are complaints but fewer complaints than about the Newark schools thing.

            … or with generous bursaries that make places affordable for the working class? Would that also be “subverting democracy”?

            It probably depends on how it’s done, but I don’t think funding an organization that provides housing vouchers would create the same kind of pushback. Though maybe it would if certain conditions were attached to the vouchers because then it would seem like social engineering.

          • ec429 says:

            @fluorocarbon

            I’m curious, are there any contracts that two people engage in willingly that you think are immoral?

            No. (Well, performance of the contract still could be, e.g. hiring a hitman, but that’s because of the tort done to a non-party, and I don’t think that’s what you meant by your question.)

            My guess is that people would be upset but less so.

            Okay, that would suggest that they object both to billionaires providing free education and, separately to billionaires directly influencing the existing state education system. Which doesn’t seem to admit of many explanations other than them just objecting to billionaires whenever said billionaires do anything to come to their attention.

            Though maybe it would if certain conditions were attached to the vouchers because then it would seem like social engineering.

            To be honest, I’d be far more comfortable with social engineering done by billionaires on a voluntary-contract basis, than done by the government (as it is now) on a we-have-the-guns-so-do-as-you’re-told basis. That many people seem to think otherwise is just another aspect of state-worship whereby people seem to think anything is A-OK as long as it’s a Democratic Government™ doing it *sigh* </rant>

          • RobJ says:

            I have a hard time with saying any contract is necessarily moral if willingly entered into. If you only offer me money on condition of my humiliation and I need the money, sure we are both better off at the end. But humiliating someone is still an immoral act and should be discouraged. Letting something like that become the norm is plausibly more destructive overall than can be made up for by the individual tradeoffs in the contract.

          • ec429 says:

            @RobJ

            If you only offer me money on condition of my humiliation and I need the money, sure we are both better off at the end. But humiliating someone is still an immoral act and should be discouraged.

            This looks like another example of the Standard Leftist Mistake. In this particular case, it’s to leap from the (obvious) “no-one should have to sell their dignity to meet their expenses” to the (fallacious) “no-one should be allowed to sell their dignity to meet their expenses”.
            Which means that whatever you “need[ed] the money” for, even if that’s food-to-a-starving-mouth or lifesaving medical care, the Leftist Mistake means that you now can’t have that thing. Hey, you starved to death, but at least no-one’s selling their dignity, right? Yay society.

            I mean, sure, we can still condemn the guy offering the deal for blatantly cacophilic and entropic desires, as evidenced by not instead asking for something more productive; but we don’t condemn the contract.
            (By the way, quite a lot of entertainers, from circus clowns to actors in sitcoms, are essentially paid to humiliate themselves. Society on the whole seems to be okay with this, for some reason.)

          • Jiro says:

            By the way, quite a lot of entertainers, from circus clowns to actors in sitcoms, are essentially paid to humiliate themselves.

            They are paid to humiliate themselves in the sense of making jokes with themselves as the target, but this sort of “humiliation” does not result in a loss of status outside, at most, the humor routine itself.

          • RobJ says:

            I mean, sure, we can still condemn the guy offering the deal for blatantly cacophilic and entropic desires, as evidenced by not instead asking for something more productive; but we don’t condemn the contract.

            I don’t understand what you’re getting at with this. It’s like saying, “sure condemn the wife beater for wanting to hit his wife, but don’t condemn domestic violence“. Why not? Just because in some super rare circumstance it might be better than some alternative? And just as a matter of practicality, isn’t it much easier to police the act than the intent behind it?

            And I don’t buy the thing about entertainers either… I wouldn’t describe sitcom actors or clowns as “humiliating themselves” because we are all in on the joke. Maybe some reality show participants would qualify, but even there it’s usually all in the sense of fun. It’s not like any of these shows make homeless people do gross things for money, it’s only people who don’t desperately need the money. Why, when they would need it most? Because most peoples moral intuition (I think for mostly good reasons) finds it objectionable to laugh at people huniliating themselves because they think they need to, but not objectionable if they are doing it because they really want to.

      • Subb4k says:

        No, he can’t. The school district is always free to say “no”; Zuckerberg can’t force them to take his money.

        That’s not how society works. If you refuse what looks to most people like free money for the community (with extremely worrying small print), you won’t hold onto your elected office for much longer. Your opponents can bash you repeatedly with the fact that you turned away free money and the small print is a way more complicated issue that won’t stick in people’s minds nearly as much.

        • Cliff says:

          It sounds like you are saying democracy works and the government is democratically accountable?

        • Loriot says:

          Empirically, this isn’t true. Remember all the Republican governors who refused “free money” to expand Medicaid? Most of them didn’t face any negative consequences for it.

    • Randy M says:

      Bill Gates, on the other hand, is spending money fighting malaria through the Gates Foundation. He’s not offering money to the CDC on condition that they have to run it the way Bill Gates wants.

      Bill Gates is offering money to poor African countries on the condition they use it to fight Malaria–or offering the Malaria fighting directly, which is about the same thing. Maybe those poor countries would rather spend that money a different way.
      Sure, those African countries may not be Democratic, but has the Gates Foundation done polling to find out how the locals would prefer to spend his money?

      I’m not sure the two situations are so distinct, other than you agreeing with Gates and disagreeing with Zuckerberg. I think you are may be right to do so, but there’s not necessarily accountability in either case.

      • Subb4k says:

        Gates is asking governments to spend the money he is giving them to further a goal (malaria eradication). If the people doesn’t want malaria eradicated, they have no incentive to take the money. They might things some things are more important than eradicating malaria, but Gates doesn’t ask that they stop doing any of those things to receive his malaria eradication money, only that they only spend his money on malaria eradication.

        Zuckerberg is asking Newark to spend the money he is giving them to further a goal (education) and at the same time to stop doing some of the things they were already doing with the money they had. You can be pro-education but be against the government having to close some schools in order to have a higher total education budget. So Zuckerberg is creating a hard choice, where one side has arguments that are a lot less audible in a public debate. Because of how society works, he’s basically forcing the choice to “accept the money”.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Not sure how seriously I believe this, but couldn’t you make an argument that Zuckerberg made Newark an offer – “Do X and Y and I will give you lots of money” – and the democratically elected government of Newark chose to accept that offer?

      How is it more democratic for non-Newarkians like us to exert social pressure to veto this agreement that the democratically elected government of Newark has agreed to and wants?

      • Lambert says:

        Suppose I went some drought-ridden part of Africa and offered people a load of money to take my mystery experimental drugs to test for side effects, for example.

        Sure, they’re perfectly within their rights to say no and starve.

        When peoples’ hands are forced, we should give extra scrutiny to people bemefiting from that situation.

        See also: Uber surge pricing
        It’s a case-by-case thing. One can argue that in Uber’s case, ‘price gouging’ during extreme weather is necessary to compensate drivers for riskier and more difficult driving.

        Or the National Minimum Drinking Age Act

        When one party has a reduced ability to turn help down, we shouldn’t accept ‘but it’s consentual’ as justification without looking deeper.

        • Matt M says:

          Without surge pricing, Uber doesn’t exist. Or at least, Uber becomes the exact same as a taxi just with a slightly better UI for hailing a ride.

          Also of note: My car was destroyed in Hurricane Harvey and I was reliant on Uber for transportation after the storm passed. I suspect a lot of other people were as well, because I noticed that while prices stayed dead flat, rides that used to take 2 minutes to show up started taking 30-60. It would seem that in order to avoid charges of price gouging, Uber turned off its surge pricing in Houston for a time. Whether this actually made anyone better off is hard to say (I don’t know what I would have had to pay for rides at the normal time interval if surge was enabled) but the drivers I talked to didn’t seem to like it at all. I talked to at least one who explicitly said “It’s really not worth it for me to be out here driving at all in this traffic under these conditions at the base fare rate.”

        • Jake Rowland says:

          Sometimes there are no good options. In your first example, the alternative is not hungry people being fed, it’s hungry people starving to death. I think a starving African is in the best position to determine for his or herself the relative risks of experimental drugs or starvation. We shouldn’t punish people for offering a less-bad alternative to the status quo just because it isn’t maximally good. The alternative to Uber surge pricing is walking home in the rain.

          • ec429 says:

            Sometimes there are no good options.

            This gets close to what I think is going on here (and more generally in a lot of Copenhagen-interpretation-of-ethics situations).
            Any moral person agrees that ‘no-one should have to choose between experimental drugs and starvation’. But the anti-free-contract side leaps from that to ‘no-one should be allowed to choose between experimental drugs and starvation’, thus making the choice (‘starvation’) for them. (Then smugly pats itself on the back for being so much nicer than those free-contract folks.)

          • Jiro says:

            Allowing people to choose between experimental drugs and starvation may only benefit people in the immediate case, but it reduces the incentives to create drug testing that has less of a bad effect. The overall effect counting these incentives may be negative.

            I really ought to write a LW post “Pareto Improvements Are Bad”.

          • ec429 says:

            I really ought to write a LW post “Pareto Improvements Are Bad”.

            Please do, I could use a laugh.

            More seriously, I’d actually love to know how you (and by extension, others making similar arguments) think this works, and whether we can turn this into a mathematical economic model (e.g. maybe whether the overall effect is good or bad depends on some ratio of elasticities) that lets us analyse meta-rules objectively rather than falling back on our moral intuitions.

            My mathematical intuition, for what it’s worth, is that in a frictionless market at least, it’ll always be good: forbidding it means more money spent on developing drug tests, less available for African charity, and unemployed Africans; if the gains from the better drug test were enough to offset the costs and leave enough left over to give food to the Africans, then it would be developed even if the trade were allowed.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I’m afraid I bite all of your bullets. I’m in favor of all those things.

          My policy is – if someone is so desperate that they’re willing to take destructive deals, we should let them take the destructive deals (on the grounds that they know what they need better than we do) and we should also try to help them become less desperate.

          Like if someone is living in a filthy shack because they can’t afford anything better, we should try to help them afford something better, but we shouldn’t just ban living in filthy shacks and walk away saying we’ve solved the problem, because that just leaves them homeless.

          • Plumber says:

            @Scott Alexander >

            “……:if someone is so desperate that they’re willing to take destructive deals, we should let them take the destructive deals (on the grounds that they know what they need better than we do) and we should also try to help them become less desperate.

            Like if someone is living in a filthy shack because they can’t afford anything better, we should try to help them afford something better, but we shouldn’t just ban living in filthy shacks and walk away saying we’ve solved the problem, because that just leaves them homeless”

            Why not use taxes to alleviate those conditions instead of hoping someone will be charitable?

          • John Schilling says:

            What part of “we should try to help them afford something better” did you not understand?

            But we haven’t helped them afford something better yet, and it is exceedingly unlikely that we are going to have everybody in the country living in nice apartments by the end of the week. The question that matters here is, while we are working to “alleviate those condtions”, which will take time even with the magic of tax money, do we allow poor people to live in the filthy shacks (tents, whatever) they can afford, or do we kick them out on the street?

          • The Nybbler says:

            Why not use taxes to alleviate those conditions instead of hoping someone will be charitable?

            Because it doesn’t work. You see the results in those homeless tent cities you object to. Subsidizing homelessness gets you more of it.

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            It’s all well and good to say “we should also help them to become less desperate”, but I can’t fail to notice that people offering exploitative deals aren’t also altruists who want to improve the situation of the people they’re exploiting.

            Maybe it’s your recent article on the SF pride parade rife with allusions to Roman History that’s making me think of The Gothic War of the late 4th century, which begins with desperate Goths crossing the danube to flee genocidal huns only to find their supplies running low, and after running out of money buying grain from local Roman nobility at exorbitant markups, the Romans graciously offer gothic families the opportunity to sell their children into slavery to pay for food.

            Defending the actions of the Romans here and saying “…And also we should help the poor displaced goths!”, and then expecting anyone to take you up on your addendum is ignoring the fact that humanity has, over it’s history, shown a preference for exploiting goths to helping goths, even when it directly leads to destructive wars and the first sack of Rome in 700 years and eventually the fall of the western empire. Laws and policy should be made with this in mind.

          • acymetric says:

            @Scott Alexander

            Is there any point at which you believe destructive, predatory, deals should be disallowed by law?

            With regards to contract law, are you in favor of getting rid of the idea of unenforceable contracts due to (among others) capacity, duress, or undue influence?

            If your answer to both is yes, then there is probably such a wide gulf between you and those who disagree with you that I don’t expect we’ll bridge it in this comment thread.

            If the answer is no, then I have to ask why you think the line you draw for where those things apply is more reasonable or valid than the line someone else draws, which is perhaps more restrictive but no more based on the person’s own intuitions rather than any concrete facts than yours?

            Edit: I’ll add that the bit about banning shacks is a bit of a non-sequitor, the post you responded to was specifically about agreements reached between two parties that might be destructive to one of the parties.

            Whether to allow destructive behavior in general (living in dilapidated shacks, if you grant that such behavior is destructive) is a slightly different discussion because it doesn’t involve any coercion and nobody really stands to benefit.

            In other words, I think it would be helpful to stay focused on transactions specifically, not behaviors generally, since I believe that was what @Lambert was talking about in their post.

          • ec429 says:

            @420BootyWizard

            I can’t fail to notice that people offering exploitative deals aren’t also altruists who want to improve the situation of the people they’re exploiting.

            No, but the people who want to ban the ‘exploitative’ deals are, or at least profess to be, and the argument we’re making is “hey, these people you want to help? This particular way you try to help them is hurting them, try redirecting that effort.”

            @acymetric

            With regards to contract law, are you in favor of getting rid of the idea of unenforceable contracts due to (among others) capacity, duress, or undue influence?

            Not Scott, but I’ve been making similar arguments elsewhere in the comments, so…

            The trouble with incapacity is that we don’t have an objective measurable standard of capacity, and since being held incapable, and thus unable to make binding contracts, severely limits one’s economic options and opportunities, getting the standard right is important. (For instance, one of the ways in which women were kept in a subjugated state through much of history was by incapacity.)
            I quite like the scheme in Alistair Young’s Eldraeverse, where minority (and thus incapacity) is defined as not holding a specified amount of tort insurance, “adequate to cover the full risk spread of routine activity”. Thus, if you can convince anyone you’re sane enough to be a good risk (at a price you’re willing to buy at), you’re capable — and if it turns out you shouldn’t have been, hey, there’s this insurance money to pay for what you broke / defaulted on. (Though you’re still likely to suffer reputational costs for default — that being outside the law’s purview — but arguably that’s a feature, not a bug.)

            A contract signed under duress, isn’t “unenforceable” but void: it was never made at all, there was no meeting of the minds. While being unable to contract for your life in a duress situation (because the counterparty knows any contract you did make would be void) can be harmful, it’s widely agreed that the harm of making duress profitable (thus encouraging more of it) is far greater.

            “Undue influence” seems to be a blurry stirring of duress, abuse of trust, and the unconscionability doctrine, in an attempt to give to “unequal bargaining power” arguments a respect they do not deserve. Everything within it that does deserve respect is properly covered by duress or fraud (though not necessarily by the provisions English law historically made for those, which is why the courts of equity felt it necessary to invent undue influence).

            I think the important distinction (for both ‘duress by circumstances’ and ‘unequal bargaining power’ generally) is whether the circumstances were created by the offeror of the contract, or whether he merely took advantage of them. A car hire company at an airport may be taking advantage of the desperation of its customers, but it didn’t make the bus service into town be rubbish, so declaring parts of the hire contract void through unconscionability (the ‘contracts of adhesion’ argument) is harmful (it’ll raise prices by more than removing those clauses is worth to the customer).

          • 420BootyWizard says:

            No, but the people who want to ban the ‘exploitative’ deals are, or at least profess to be, and the argument we’re making is “hey, these people you want to help? This particular way you try to help them is hurting them, try redirecting that effort.”

            Redirecting it to what? Take the example I gave above about the gothic war. Self-interested people are making a fortune on the misery and desperation of others, up to and including buying their children into slavery in exchange for that night’s dinner. I’m suggesting “Hey maybe this shouldn’t be allowed”. What do you suggest should be? Keeping in mind that if you say “nothing”, on the grounds that any intervention would be harmful, that the historical outcome is a bunch of ill-will generated that leads to the sacking of Rome and the fall of the west.

            Or if you don’t want to work within that framework, imagine something similar with any modern refugee crisis. What should efforts be redirected to? The one potential answer I see is charity, to which I reply:
            1) Duh. What else?
            2) It’s not good enough. Any system that relies on the goodwill of some to balance out the ill will of others is going to be unreliable at best. If you’re happy with the charity of Bezos or Zuckerburg in the main article, then imagine that a (pre-presidency) Trump is instead the one that steps up to the photo-op.

            (For the record, I’m not against billionaire charity. Billionaires should give away as much of their wealth as they can / want. I see it as necessary but insufficient)

      • fluorocarbon says:

        I think one way to frame the arguments against billionaires’ charitable giving is to consider what kind of power individuals are allowed to have in society under the social contract.

        Everyone accepts that if someone earns billions of dollars, they can buy huge yachts and crazy expensive houses with their money. That’s just money being money. Everyone also accepts that billionaires aren’t allowed to literally buy votes—Mark Zuckerberg could probably do a lot of good if he paid people in close elections to vote for certain candidates. But we see that as a violation of the social contract, even though every party agrees willingly, because money is being traded for power.

        In cases like Newark, or what Jeff Bezos is doing with preschools, I don’t know if there is a clear answer. In our society, should having billions of dollars let you influence these kinds of things? If you offer a community money only if they do things a certain way, even though the elected government isn’t compelled to agree by force, the end result is that one person has more say in something important to the community than everybody else because of the amount of money they have.

        The best I can tell, the (reasonable people) who are against billionaire charity aren’t against billionaires giving money in general, or giving money to established charities, but specifically against billionaires trading in their money for power. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t giving money to school districts to spend as they like. He’s giving money to school districts to spend the way Mark Zuckerberg likes. Jeff Bezos isn’t giving money to communities to open whatever preschool they want. He’s using his money to build the particular preschool Jeff Bezos likes.

        Personally I don’t know the right answer. I think Zuckerberg and Bezos are probably doing good from a utilitarian perspective and I’m a supporter of charter schools and Montessori schools. But I’m also skeptical of billionaires using their money to try to shape society the way they think it should be shaped.

        • benwave says:

          Mark Zuckerberg could probably do a lot of good if he paid people in close elections to vote for certain candidates. But we see that as a violation of the social contract, even though every party agrees willingly, because money is being traded for power.

          This is an interesting point. In charity discussions, I usually prioritise a utilitarian lens of some kind but this is a pretty strong example of where our norms explicitly reject that.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          “Mark Zuckerberg isn’t giving money to school districts to spend as they like. He’s giving money to school districts to spend the way Mark Zuckerberg likes.”

          Genuine question: is this true? I thought Newark (in the form of Mayor Booker) already wanted these reforms, asked Zuckerberg for the money to do it, and he said yes.

        • albatross11 says:

          fluorocarbon:

          In our society, should having billions of dollars let you influence these kinds of things? If you offer a community money only if they do things a certain way, even though the elected government isn’t compelled to agree by force, the end result is that one person has more say in something important to the community than everybody else because of the amount of money they have.

          I’m also interested in the correlation between thinking that this is bad when it’s Zuckerberg funding his choice of school reforms, and thinking it’s bad when it’s large companies threatening boycotts of states that pass laws restricting bathroom use to your birth gender. Basically, is it okay for wealthy and powerful individuals to use their wealth and power to try to impose their will upon democratically elected governments?

          It’s not so clear how you’d prevent this, in either case. (Do we ban rich people giving donations to schools? This sounds like kind of a hard sell.).

          My intuition is that there’s a lot of who? whom? thinking in this sort of discussion, but I may be being uncharitable.

          • Plumber says:

            @albatross11 >

            “…It’s not so clear how you’d prevent this, in either case…”

            Raising taxes enough so only millions instead of billions of dollars are owned by a single individual would be a start.

          • fluorocarbon says:

            I’m also interested in the correlation between thinking that this is bad when it’s Zuckerberg funding his choice of school reforms, and thinking it’s bad when it’s large companies threatening boycotts of states that pass laws restricting bathroom use to your birth gender. Basically, is it okay for wealthy and powerful individuals to use their wealth and power to try to impose their will upon democratically elected governments?

            People definitely apply their principles selectively. LeBron James is doing something pretty similar to Zuckerberg but he’s getting mostly good press.

            Also compare same-sex marriage and states’ rights.

            But just because a lot of people apply their principles inconsistently doesn’t mean that we should ignore all arguments from principle. We shouldn’t dismiss states’ rights arguments made by thoughtful writers because most people only use them when it helps their side. Similarly, we shouldn’t dismiss criticism of certain types of billionaire charity just because Twitter users post “yasss” when Nike comes out with a political ad or whatever.

            It’s not so clear how you’d prevent this, in either case. (Do we ban rich people giving donations to schools? This sounds like kind of a hard sell.).

            I don’t think it can be prevented entirely. Maybe restricting the type of charitable giving that’s tax deductible would be a partial solution?

  42. ana53294 says:

    Is it even possible to tax billionaires out of existence, while staying a democratic country with human rights, freedom of movement, private property rights? Would it even be constitutional in the US, with the Fourth Amendment?

    While I personally am not too happy about the existence of billionaires, I think a world where billionaires are taxed out of existence is worse than the one we live in.

    And if billionaires are going to exist anyway, like they do in Russia or China, isn’t it better to have socially conscious billionaires than the Russian type? While China does produce some socially conscious billionaires, they are conspicuously absent in Russia. And if being more like Russia is your goal, go ahead.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Is it even possible to tax billionaires out of existence, while staying a democratic country with human rights, freedom of movement, private property rights?

      You could tax billionaires out of existence without doing anything different in kind than what’s done now. So either current countries lack freedom of movement and private property rights, or you could tax billionaires out of existence without eliminating them, or quantity has a quality all of its own.

      Would it even be constitutional in the US, with the Fourth Amendment?

      It would not be constitutional if the Federal government did it (because of the prohibition on unapportioned direct taxes other than income). However, states can institute wealth taxes, and (alas) confiscatory taxation doesn’t implicate the Fourth Amendment.

      • ec429 says:

        So either current countries lack… private property rights

        There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
        A tax on income implies that I do not hold allodial title to my own labour (and thus, perhaps, to my own body) but only fee simple (thus making me property in allodium of the sovereign government).
        A tax on wealth similarly implies that not only my real but also my personal property is in truth only a fee simple estate held in items to which the sovereign has allodial title.

        The existence of taxes, and also of a thousand-and-one other reserved powers (e.g. eminent domain), which are not created by any contract but merely asserted, is, as far as “difference-in-kind” is concerned, an abrogation of private property rights.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Thomas Hobbes could have told you that. You hold allodial title only in that which you can hold against all comers.

          • ec429 says:

            Hmm. Hypothetical: if the equilibrium of “we all respect each other’s title” is sufficiently obviously beneficial that any potential ‘comers’ with strength against which I cannot hold are sensible enough not to come, is my title allodial or not? Does that change if we institutionalise that equilibrium through freely-contracting up some private protection agencies?

            I think in both cases that is still allodial title, and that the only reason sovereigns today have the strength is because everyone else treats a sovereign coming for me as something other than a defection on the equilibrium. If people (and other nations) responded to Croatia’s treatment of Liberland the way they respond to an invasion of a neutral state (which is what, legally speaking, it is), then it wouldn’t be in Croatia’s interest to do it.

            But that’s beside my point, which is that there isn’t a difference in kind between today’s social-democratic states and totalitarian hellholes that treat the citizen explicitly as property of the State, let alone mere social-democratic states that tax away billionaires. In all three cases, your title to any realty, personalty, or even your own body is always admixed with “if the sovereign doesn’t like what you do, they can force majeure your ass”.

            And yet, to bring this around to OP’s question, taxing away billionaires is still a bad idea; you don’t need a difference in kind for “lots of evil” to be worse than “some evil”.

      • ana53294 says:

        So either current countries lack freedom of movement and private property rights, or you could tax billionaires out of existence without eliminating them, or quantity has a quality all of its own.

        My point is, unless all countries act in concert in introducing a wealth tax, any individual US billionaire could move to NZ, or any other country of their choosing. The only way to stop it would be to remove their freedom of movement and their right to move their property.

        My definition of “tax billionaires out of existence” is to tax billionaire’s economic activities so heavily that they stop being billionaires, and the money goes to the government. Chasing all the billionaires to the Bahamas is not it. But if “tax billionaires out of existence” means making sure there are no more billionaires in the US, then sure, that is trivially easy.

        • dionisos says:

          The only way to stop it would be to remove their freedom of movement and their right to move their property.

          I think it should be a or, not a and

          You can let the billionaires move where they want, and even take a lot of their properties with them.
          As long as they don’t relocate their factories, you can continue to taxes it.
          And it seems to me that the actual means of production is what really matter.

          • Matt M says:

            You can let the billionaires move where they want, and even take a lot of their properties with them.
            As long as they don’t relocate their factories

            Ironically enough, current policy is basically the exact opposite of this. It’s easy enough to move business assets around to take advantage of favorable tax structures.

            Much harder and more punishing to renounce one’s citizenship in order to escape personal income taxes.

          • ana53294 says:

            But the factories are not what brings money, it’s the IP. The IP mostly has already been moved to the Caymans or whatever.

            And no, they don’t continue to tax them, at least not at the same rate.

            As a US citizen/resident, you will be taxed for your factories in China, mines in Chile, and other businesses abroad. As soon as you move away and renounce your citizenship, you don’t have to pay those taxes anymore. So yes, stopping physical movement is a requirement to tax the billions away.

          • Subb4k says:

            Ironically enough, current policy is basically the exact opposite of this. It’s easy enough to move business assets around to take advantage of favorable tax structures.

            Much harder and more punishing to renounce one’s citizenship in order to escape personal income taxes.

            Citizenship is linked to taxes in exactly one country : the United States. There are minor exceptions with some bilateral agreement (i.e. country Y with a very lax fiscality agrees to tax more heavily its residents which are citizens of country X to discourage them moving here), but mostly people only pay taxes in places where they are residents or have assets.

            And while assets are easy to move around now, it’s a thing that countries could change : say that a company isn’t allowed to do business in a country unless it pays taxes based on its activity here (not its income, as that is easy to shift around). Maybe free-trade treaties prevent this, but treaties can be denounced when they are clearly not in the favor of one of the parties. I do think it’s better if possible to cooperate with other countries to establish the same taxation regime (if only because it makes it a harder prospect to forgo business in several countries at the same time).

          • dionisos says:

            ana53294, The factories bring money, they bring money to all the people working in them, to the suppliers, and to a lot of others . But more important it bring real value (I mean, at the end of the day it is what bring the actual stuffs we need, money is just a tool).
            I feel like the system is really broken if the real stuffs end-up not mattering for whatever reason.

            What you say is mostly true but it is mostly just political choice. Not easy to change, but not harder than the other stuffs we are talking about.

          • ana53294 says:

            ana53294, The factories bring money, they bring money to all the people working in them, to the suppliers, and to a lot of others . But more important it bring real value (I mean, at the end of the day it is what bring the actual stuffs we need, money is just a tool).

            Sure, a factory brings revenue. And then they have to pay a licensing fee to the mother corp in the Netherlands or Luxemburgh and it turns out the factory does not make money, so taxes are 0.

            The only taxes that are guaranteed from a factory are payroll taxes.

          • dionisos says:

            I am unsure of what is your point and I am maybe a little confused. (I mean, sorry I didn’t get something)

            My point was that we can just continue to taxes everything that go in and out of the factory exactly the same way if the billionaire is in the country or not.
            And we can even consider the intellectual properties and the licensing fee and all that, is forsaken as long as they left. (even if I think we just need to taxes the same way)
            It seems less extreme to me than to forbid people to leave.

          • ana53294 says:

            @dionisos

            So let’s imagine a factory that makes, say, phones.

            The phone itself has parts that cost 90 dollars, and the factory assembles them, at a total assembly cost (factory depreciation, labor, electricity, etc.), of 10 dollars, for a total phone cost of 100 dollars.

            It then sells the phone to the mother company for 100 dollars.

            The mother company then sells the phone for a profit. At no point is there a requirement for the factory to do more than break even, because it’s not supposed to make money.

            And the factory cannot not sell the phone to the mother company, because the mother company owns all the IP related to the phone, and nobody else is allowed to sell the phone.

            Removing IP and copyright would be radical, especially considering it’s the US who’s pushing it down everybody’s throats.

          • dionisos says:

            @ana53294

            Removing IP and copyright would be radical, especially considering it’s the US who’s pushing it down everybody’s throats.

            Sure, I was not thinking about removing the system completely.

            It then sells the phone to the mother company for 100 dollars.

            But either the phone is sold to the customers in the same country as the factory, or another one.
            If it is sold in the same country, we just get the taxes normally, on the selling price.
            And if it is sold in another country, we still taxes it proportionally to the final mother company selling price. (or a reasonable price if it is hard to know it).
            And this taxes is directly added to the 100€ of the factory price.

            Now imagine the mother company refuse to buy the phone if it have to pay the taxes on it, so :
            – Either they doesn’t want because in fact the product isn’t really profitable anymore. (or profitable only without the taxes which end-up being the same thing)
            – Or they use it as a kind of economical blackmail to evade taxes.

            And in both cases, then we just let the factory sell to whoever want, and continue to taxes it normally.
            It doesn’t really hurt the intellectual properties system, because everybody is assured to have complete priority on their licenses and not end-up with a competitor taking all their technologies without having to pay for the R&D.
            But if they defect we don’t close the factory.

            Do you see a reason that would go completely wrong ?

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            @dionisos,

            Do you see a reason that would go completely wrong ?

            Very yes.

            And if it is sold in another country, we still taxes it proportionally to the final mother company selling price. (or a reasonable price if it is hard to know it).

            As the mother company, I’d do everything I could to keep you from that data, possibly through such shenanigans as a two-part tariff (sell the right to buy the phone at my cost for the difference between that and my intended market price); and there’s no such thing as “reasonable price”, so you have no fallback.

            And in both cases, then we just let the factory sell to whoever want, and continue to taxes it normally.

            Who is we? It’s not the government of the host country that prevents the factory from selling to other than the mother company in the first place. If you’re talking about expropriating the subsidiary factory altogether (or the IP a contracted factory is licensing from the mother company), you’re going to lose far more tax revenue due to the economic destruction that accompanies expropriations than you could gain from the phones.

          • ana53294 says:

            The only reason you can sell phones worth 100$ for 200$ is that you can put a logo on the phone that makes the phone worth 100$ more. The IP for that logo is very easy to take to the Caymans or whatever.

            And the mother company (through obscure mechanisms) can make sure that they buy 100$ phones from the factory, charge a licensing fee to the company that transports the phones, then the phone gets sold in the daughter shop, which has cost of 5 $ per phone sold, and they get the phones that cost 195$ and sell them at 200$, with no profit at all.

            All profit is kept in the mother company. All daughter companies barely make money, some of them lose money. That’s the whole point. And if one year they make money, they have all those years of accumulated losses to offset.

            So they barely pay any taxes, and all the profit is in the Caymans/Luxemburgh/whatever.

            And no, I don’t see how you can prevent that to a multi-national company.

            Shipping is usually done by Panama/other low tax low wage country registered ships. Since profits for the shipping are taxed there, you could also get the cut in the shipping instead of licensing.

          • dionisos says:

            As the mother company, I’d do everything I could to keep you from that data, possibly through such shenanigans as a two-part tariff (sell the right to buy the phone at my cost for the difference between that and my intended market price); and there’s no such thing as “reasonable price”, so you have no fallback.

            I think there is a thing as “a reasonable price”. You could use the history of the phone price, or the price of phones of approximately the same quality.
            It is far from perfect but you don’t end up with the factory price or a order of magnitude wrong.
            If it is possible to buy the phone in your country, you can also use this price.

            Who is we?

            The government.

            It’s not the government of the host country that prevents the factory from selling to other than the mother company in the first place.

            What prevent the factory for selling to others (if the mother company refuse to buy), if not the laws of the government of the factory ? (genuine question)

            If you’re talking about expropriating the subsidiary factory altogether (or the IP a contracted factory is licensing from the mother company), you’re going to lose far more tax revenue due to the economic destruction that accompanies expropriations than you could gain from the phones.

            I am talking about allowing the company to sell the phones even if the mother company didn’t agree with it.
            It isn’t completely a expropriation because the mother company still have the priority if they decide to buy the phone to the factory. (or directly sell the phones in the same country)

            Why would it makes the country lose far more revenue ?

          • ana53294 says:

            @dionisos

            Determining the real cost of producing something is not straightforward at all, especially for the government.

            In Spain, the government regulates the prices of electricity.

            Determining what the legitimate cost of electricity is is very confusing, because the government uses this as an opportunity to add on whatever things they like.

            So when you pay an electricity bill in Spain, you pay for: the electricity you used and the infrastructure you used; electricity for poor people; the green electricity; the nuclear moratorium; the debt from the freezing of electricity prices; and lots of other stuff.

            Spain’s electricity prices, as you may guess, are some of the highest in Europe.

            Do you seriously want to do that with phones, too? Because the government will decide that everybody should pay for phones to underprivileged kids, and whatever dumb idea the government gets.

            The government will run down any company it owns, except for monopolies such as electricity.

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            What prevent the factory for selling to others (if the mother company refuse to buy), if not the laws of the government of the factory ? (genuine question)

            Quibble: I see a distinction between object-level direct government action (which I took you to be suggesting) and corporate action taken within the meta-level legal system (of which IP laws previously enacted by the government are part).

            It isn’t completely a expropriation because the mother company still have the priority if they decide to buy the phone to the factory.

            The ability to exclude use by others, even if you do not make use yourself, is part of property ownership; taking that ability from the mother company is still an expropriation.

            Why would it makes the country lose far more revenue ?

            Expropriations dramatically reduce the expected value of future investments, driving the growth which depends on them into a ditch.

          • dionisos says:

            Do you seriously want to do that with phones, too? Because the government will decide that everybody should pay for phones to underprivileged kids, and whatever dumb idea the government gets.

            I think it is completely different.
            I am not proposing the government to choose the price of the phone, but to try to evaluate it if the company try to hide the actual selling price.
            If the phone is sell in a open market and everybody can in fact buy the phone at this price [and it isn’t just a scam], we just use this price.

            The ability to exclude use by others, even if you do not make use yourself, is part of property ownership; taking that ability from the mother company is still an expropriation.

            Yes, but it is still not complete expropriation, and it is not complete in a way I think is important.
            Taxes are also a thing that make property ownership not complete in the first place.

            Expropriations dramatically reduce the expected value of future investments, driving the growth which depends on them into a ditch.

            Expropriation in general, yes, but why this particular kind would ?

            I mean, except if you are actually planing to build a factory, then leave, and then refuse to actually buy the phones of the factory with the taxes added to it.
            And letting them evade taxes is really bad because it means they get a big competitive advantage, and so could out-compete companies which are as good or better, but which accept to pay the taxes.

            You are still assured than nobody can sell the phones, if you are paying the factory price to build it + the taxes. (And if you do not because it end-up too costly, it just means investment in the factory is a loss even without this rule.)

          • dionisos says:

            Do you seriously want to do that with phones, too? Because the government will decide that everybody should pay for phones to underprivileged kids, and whatever dumb idea the government gets.

            I think it is completely different.
            I am not proposing the government to choose the price of the phone, but to try to evaluate it if the company try to hide the actual selling price.
            If the phone is sold on a open market and everybody can in fact buy the phone at this price [and it isn’t just a scam], we just use this price.

            The ability to exclude use by others, even if you do not make use yourself, is part of property ownership; taking that ability from the mother company is still an expropriation.

            Yes, but it is still not complete expropriation, and it is not complete in a way I think is important.
            Taxes are also a thing that make property ownership not complete in the first place.

            Expropriations dramatically reduce the expected value of future investments, driving the growth which depends on them into a ditch.

            Expropriation in general, yes, but why this particular kind would ?

            I mean, except if you are actually planing to build a factory, then leave, and then refuse to buy the phones of the factory with the taxes added to it.
            And letting them evade taxes is really bad because it means they get a big competitive advantage, and so could out-compete companies which are as good or better, but which accept to pay the taxes.

            You are still assured than nobody can sell the phones, if you are paying the factory price to build it + the taxes. (And if you do not because it end-up too costly, it just means investment in the factory is a loss even without this rule)

            Is there a scenario I am missing, where it would reduce the expected utility of the investment, other than by making evading taxes harder ?

    • Swami says:

      Just for another perspective on the issue, I think the world would, all else equal, be substantially better if their were more billionaires. Indeed, I look forward to the day when there are trillionaires.

      This of course implies that we have a reasonably free market system where people are rewarded for creating value for other humans. When this is the case (as it is in general in the western world) then the emergence of wealth is a sign of greater levels of consumer surplus (thus greater wide spread prosperity).

      Good for thought.

    • AG says:

      As my comment above, it doesn’t have to be taxes that eliminates billionaires.
      A common opposition to them is that they extract that value via exploitation of labor, so rather than that value going to taxes, it should go to labor. Rather than increasing taxes, fix labor laws. Force an actual “rising tide lifts all boats” by making the take at the top dependent on the take at the bottom. I have no problem with billionaires if the poorest people have their own capital to not need to spend more than 25% on housing costs.

      Another solution to force the distribution of wealth is to introduce more competition. If no corporation makes billions because the industry revenue is split across so many other corporations, then there are no billionaires.

      • ana53294 says:

        Force an actual “rising tide lifts all boats” by making the take at the top dependent on the take at the bottom.

        If by this you mean that CEOs should be paid a max of D x lowest salary, it’s trivial to avoid: the company just hires everybody via contractors.

        Another solution to force the distribution of wealth is to introduce more competition.

        A lot of the amazing things about Amazon are only possible due to the scale. When Amazon started selling Kindles at such low prices, they basically created the ebook market; people bought them, or got them as gifts, and then they started looking for content.

        Nobody else could afford selling a product at or below cost just to create a market. I am not sure the ebook explosion could have happened without the Kindle.

        • AG says:

          If subcontractors aren’t included in the “lowest salary” count, then it’s a badly written standard. Ditto for a potential full-time/part-time loophole. But even then, there are incentives that make the situation better than now: the subcontractor company has a CEO trying to max out their own take, too.

          I’m not convinced about your ebook example. Tablet computing and smartphones would still be on the way.

          • Lambert says:

            There’d still be ways around it.

            Microeconomics doesn’t really care how integrated the supply chain is, or even where one firm ends and another begins.

            If you limited that kind of thing, the top earners in companies would find a way to carve themselves off and sell their labour as IP or consultancy to the company that does the gruntwork.

            Compare Apple, who design, manufacture and sell products to ARM, who design CPUs, then license their tech to manufacturers.

      • Plumber says:

        @AG,
        I like your plans!

    • Brett says:

      You could apply punitively high taxes on asset holdings (say a 100% tax on share holdings greater than $100 million) that would force them to expand ownership of any companies they have that climb above that valuation. Of course, what you would probably do is just kill off a bunch of businesses and kill the stock market in the process (since firm valuations fluctuate and there’d be a ton of risk of firm capitalization rising above the “confiscatory” level). Rich people would also do really complex ownership stuff to try and get around the limitation as well (assuming they don’t just renounce citizenship and move abroad).

      • ana53294 says:

        Would that be legal for the US federal government to do, according to the constitution?

  43. bagel says:

    Total tangent, but SpaceX’s Falcon program is profitable and made Elon Musk a billionaire, along with Tesla. He was “merely” a hundred millionaire after PayPal. His is the first space company to accomplish this without major government subsidy (and at a much lower cost than any public or private competitor, and with better technology).

    Arguably, becoming a billionaire doing good works is an even higher plane of existence than becoming a billionaire doing evil and then ploughing some fraction of it into charitable causes.

    • Brett says:

      We can quibble over what counts as a subsidy, but SpaceX would not be profitable without their government contracts – both the NASA commercial crew contract, and in general being able to carry government (especially military payloads).

      In fairness, the non-government space launch market is comparatively small.

      • John Schilling says:

        The government contracting to buy goods and services in the market is not in itself a subsidy. And that is not a “quibble”, that is a definitional fact.

        It is possible to use a services contract to deliver a subsidy, but that is a specific allegation that requires specific evidence.

        • gbdub says:

          But SpaceX doesn’t just contract for an off the shelf service they only used their own money to create.

          The COTS program gave SpaceX a big chunk of NASA money to develop Falcon 9 itself, not just Dragon.

          Raptor engine development has been largely funded by an Air Force contract.

          SpaceX is currently suing the Air Force for not awarding them several hundred million dollars to develop Starship.

          Incidentally (other than Starship) I think these are excellent investments. But they are the same sort of contracts other government contractors are getting.

          The idea that SpaceX never took a dime of government money to develop Falcon, unlike all those other rockets that were government boondoggles, is a self aggrandizing myth started by Elon and spread by his loyal army of fanboys.

          Orbital Sciences developed Pegasus in the early 1990s and was at just as “privately developed” as Falcon.

  44. smilerz says:

    “dwindling government resources for public goods and services”
    Under what definition of ‘dwindling’ are government resources dwindling?

  45. Subb4k says:

    Unsurprisingly, given that I think billionaires shouldn’t exist in the first place (i.e. they should be taxed into merely being very rich rather than having more money than the vast majority of people even in Western country can hope to make if they lived ten thousand years.), I disagree with you. But I’m not going to convince you of that.

    I think your post makes a mistake by not sufficiently distinguishing between two modes of billionaire charities. Bill Gates is the kind where they do it right : set up a foundation, give them resources, and ask them to figure out what needs to be done and do it. He does get publicity out of it, but it seems that the main goal is actually solving a problem that he thinks needs solving. It’s sort of the same thing for George Soros : he’s clearly not doing what he does to be popular, although in his case detractors could argue he’s doing it to convert his dollars into political power (incidentally, calling the Koch brothers philanthropists as you seem to do implicitly by comparing them to Soros is laughable : they are billionaires spending a lot of money in causes that don’t directly bring an RIO, but those causes are designed to hurt humanity, not help it).

    The other way billionaires love to spend their money is to identify a trending problem and “solve” it by extremely publicly throwing money at it. Or, more likely, claiming that they will throw money at it and then not doing that because their feelings got hurt (Elon Musk) or because the cameras aren’t rolling anymore and they got the advertising they wanted (billionaires who offered to pay to rebuild Notre-Dame de Paris, see for example https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/18/ruins-notre-dame-billionaires-french-philanthropy)

    • ec429 says:

      but those causes are designed to hurt humanity, not help it

      I think you misspelled “but I disagree with their politics, so them doing it is evil whereas Soros doing it is good”. From someone with different politics, Soros’s causes might be seen as ‘hurting humanity’. Claiming that they’re designed to hurt humanity is ridiculous: adherents of every political philosophy (yes, even the Godwin-level ones) believe that their means serve good ends; caricaturing your opponents as cackling villains may be emotionally satisfying but it’s epistemically irrational.

      claiming that they will throw money at it and then not doing that because their feelings got hurt (Elon Musk)

      Could you please substantiate this accusation? I’m not aware of him ever doing anything like that, in spite of the huge amounts of vitriol that are the media’s standard response when he tries to help.

      • Cliff says:

        The Kochs donate a ton of money to traditional charity as well. Opening a charitable hospital at a cost of $100M was designed to make things worse and deserved to be picketed?

      • Subb4k says:

        adherents of every political philosophy (yes, even the Godwin-level ones) believe that their means serve good ends; caricaturing your opponents as cackling villains may be emotionally satisfying but it’s epistemically irrational.

        They’re designed to hurt fractions of humanity these people don’t regard as having moral relevance. Since you bring up Godwin’s point : Hitler didn’t want to destroy all of humanity, just all of humanity that wasn’t identified as aryan (or at the very least reduce them to slavery). Nevertheless I think characterizing Hitler’s policies as “aiming to hurt humanity, not help it” would not be hugely controversial.
        The Koch brothers are not quite on Hitler’s level, but they are definitely funding policies designed to hurt members of the outgroup which includes most of humanity. They’ll fund things that are likely to cause people to be hurt (from pollution, for example), rather than things actually likely to save people. I am ready to believe some of their donations fall under the traditional definition of charity/philanthropy, but those probably aren’t the ones people are mad about, or the ones which fall under the umbrella of reforming the government.

        Could you please substantiate this accusation? I’m not aware of him ever doing anything like that, in spite of the huge amounts of vitriol that are the media’s standard response when he tries to help.

        Actually I went back and checked, I misremembered and mischaracterized what happened. My apologies. Musk did call a “pedo” the person who mocked his uncalled-for submarine in the Thai cave rescue, but he did eventually make good on his (related) promise to help Flint, MI.
        I still think Musk is the *wrong* kind of billionaire charity (mostly doing it for the publicity), but he’s not the *worst* kind of billionaire charity.

        • Cliff says:

          The Koch brothers are not quite on Hitler’s level

          The understatement of the year right here.

          I am ready to believe some of their donations fall under the traditional definition of charity/philanthropy, but those probably aren’t the ones people are mad about

          Yeah, I hope you are ready because it’s true and can be verified with a Google. By the way, yes protesters protested their donation of $100M to open a hospital.

          The Koch brothers are definitely funding policies designed to hurt members of the outgroup which includes most of humanity. They’ll fund things that are likely to cause people to be hurt (from pollution, for example), rather than things actually likely to save people.

          Let’s see your links, bro

        • ec429 says:

          They’re designed to hurt fractions of humanity these people don’t regard as having moral relevance.

          Or fractions of humanity these people think are, in turn, hurting humanity.
          Hitler believed (well, probably; psychoanalysing historical figures is a mug’s game) that Jews were an x-risk to civilisation (I’m paraphrasing, obviously). Now sure, he made an error of morals (separate to his error of fact) in concluding that that gave him the right to exterminate them, but it’s an error of morals he shares with a lot of heads of state throughout history, many of whom have fairly good reputations. (To be specific, the moral error is treating your (necessarily unreliable) beliefs about omelettes as justification for breaking eggs.)

          And leaving Godwin’s realm, the Koch brothers (presumably) believe that social liberalism, leftist economics, environmental regulations etcetera do net harm to humanity, and thus that opposing such things politically will help humanity. Since you mentioned pollution: economic growth can ‘pay for’ a lot of pollution in utilitarian terms, not least by providing the capital needed to fund the development of greener technologies.

          Claiming that the Kochs are just “trying to hurt their outgroup” is conflict-theory thinking.

          I still think Musk is the *wrong* kind of billionaire charity (mostly doing it for the publicity), but he’s not the *worst* kind of billionaire charity.

          I don’t think Musk typically does things ‘for the publicity’; I think it’s motivated by his sense of aesthetics (‘wouldn’t it be awesome if XYZ happened? wait a minute, I could make it happen’). This can often look like publicity stunts, because things that appeal to Musk’s aesthetics also appeal to quite a lot of other people’s aesthetics, whether that’s cave submarines or space Roadsters.

          • teageegeepea says:

            I don’t think the Koch brothers are quite so opposed to “social liberalism”. For example, social liberals tend to think there’s too much incarceration, and the Kochs are with Soros on that. They’re also pro-immigration.

          • ec429 says:

            @teageegeepea
            Huh. I’d somehow gotten the idea (doubtless from endless Leftist propaganda about how eeevul they are) that the Kochs were social conservatives (particularly on ‘bedroom issues’). But apparently (even Wiki says so) they’re classical-liberal/libertarian. Awesome.

    • dionisos says:

      Or, more likely, claiming that they will throw money at it and then not doing that because their feelings got hurt (Elon Musk)

      I don’t know about the specific thing you are talking about. But it seems like one of the reason we should not discourage billionaires from giving, and rather praise it.

      This doesn’t prevent us to be allowed to say something about rich pretending to give but not actually giving.
      Or about causes we think are negatives.
      Or about increasing taxes, or even having a very different economical system where it is impossible to become billionaire.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      It sounds like you’re complaining about lack of billionaire philanthropy, which I agree is bad.

      • Subb4k says:

        First I want to note I mischaracterized the thing with Elon Musk (see cousin comment replying to ec429). I really hate the near-cult worship he’s got going on and I guess that got me to not checking that my memories of the incident were accurate. Apologies for using a falsehood as an argument.

        Second, yes, I agree with you that all other things being equal, if a billionaire donates money to a worthy cause it’s better than if that billionaire uses the same money to build a giant yacht, at least in the short term (there may be adverse second-order effects).

        But I think our agreement stops here : you seem to advocate a policy of encouraging billionaire charity, which means probably supporting some spending in order to have more of it (unless I completely misunderstood your position). I think that while philanthropy should not be outright discouraged, we shouldn’t rely on it. I don’t care if the state is 100 times less efficient than billionaire charities : billionaires spend less than 1% of their wealth on charities on average, so if we tax it all we can achieve at least the same results with less inequality.

        I’m not concerned about your argument that worthy causes that are currently being funded by billionaires would be ignored. If progressives manage to get enough power to tax billionaires into oblivion, it’s extremely likely the government will have someone who remembers it’s a good idea to not torture people because they smokes marijuana once.

        • LadyJane says:

          If progressives manage to get enough power to tax billionaires into oblivion, it’s extremely likely the government will have someone who remembers it’s a good idea to not torture people because they smokes marijuana once.

          Based on what? The assumption that the tenuous alliance between economic leftists and social liberals will hold forever?

          • Subb4k says:

            I’ve never met an economic leftist who was not also socially liberal (insofar as those categories have any meaning), so I wouldn’t call that a tenuous alliance.

          • Plumber says:

            @Subb4k > “I’ve never met an economic leftist who was not also socially liberal (insofar as those categories have any meaning), so I wouldn’t call that a tenuous alliance”
            I’m far more “economic left” than I am “social liberal” (I’d let the “social conservatives” win almost all they want for bringing back “Welfare as we know it”, the WPA, and 1935 to 1946 labor law.

            If your near Berkeley/Oakland/San Francisco, California and want to meet me e-mail: HOJ [dot] plumber [at] gmail [dot] com (no spaces)

          • LadyJane says:

            @Subb4k: The fact that you’ve never met people like that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. It just means that your social circle is mostly limited to people who mostly share your views.

            Statistically, though, there are plenty of people who are socially liberal but fiscally conservative – they’re called libertarians, you see them on the internet all the time. Likewise, there are plenty of people who are left-leaning on economic issues but right-leaning on social issues; there’s no generally accepted term for them in political science, but I’ve seen them referred to as “hardhats,” “communitarians,” or “populists.”

            According to FiveThirtyEight, 22% of Americans have broadly libertarian (socially left, economically right) views, while 20% of Americans have broadly “hardhat” (socially right, economically left) views. So these aren’t small fringe minorities by any means. As Nate Silver points out in the article, “the rigidly partisan views of political elites should not be mistaken for the relatively malleable and diverse ones that American voters hold.”

            But even leaving aside statistics, you can already see the cracks forming between the economic and social left, and likewise between the economic and social right. For instance, the ongoing tension between leftist proponents of identity politics (who largely focus on the problems facing racial minorities, women, and LGBT people) and the traditional labor leftists and socialists and Marxists (who believe that the class divide is the only form of social division that matters). During Pride month, I saw constant back and forth arguments between social progressives celebrating the fact that queer people were finally being recognized and accepted by corporate society, and economic leftists denouncing “rainbow capitalism” as a form of cheap pandering and criticizing LGBT advocates who “sold out” to corporations. You can find plenty of thinkpieces and social media posts debating the issue. And that’s without even getting into the myriad conflicts between social justice advocates and “Bernie bros” back in 2016, and to a lesser extent now.

            Or on the other side of the fence, just look at the fact that far-right social conservative Tucker Carlson recently denounced capitalism, having (correctly, in my view) deduced that it’s responsible for the very multiculturalism and libertinism that cultural conservatives are so vehemently opposed to. Trump himself is obviously right-wing on both economic and cultural issues, but many of his supporters are “hardhats.” In fact, a large part of the reason he won the 2016 election was because he successfully appealed to hardhats in the Rust Belt who traditionally voted Democratic. (It’s not a coincidence that many Trump voters preferred Sanders to Hillary, a phenomenon that makes no sense if you’re looking at a purely one-dimensional political spectrum.)

            It should be pretty clear to anyone who’s paying attention that political alliances are shifting, so I wouldn’t take it for granted that the victories of economic leftists will bring about social liberalism, or vice-versa. Especially since a lot of socially progressive leftists are millennials or zoomers whose political views may change as they get older.

          • albatross11 says:

            If progressives manage to get enough power to tax billionaires into oblivion, it’s extremely likely the government will have someone who remembers it’s a good idea to not torture people because they smokes marijuana once.

            So, we elected a Democrat president and also had Democratic majorities in both houses of congress in 2008-2010. But somehow, I’m not remembering the part wher we got rid of the marijuana laws and reformed our prisons.

          • Plumber says:

            @albatross11

            “So, we elected a Democrat president and also had Democratic majorities in both houses of congress in 2008-2010. But somehow, I’m not remembering the part wher we got rid of the marijuana laws and reformed our prisons”

            Sure we did, while still nominally against federal law, anti-marijuana laws were ordered a “low priority”, California’s medical exemption made it depends facto legal with every dime-store quack selling “medical cards” (both my father and my brother got them) and the number of inmates in the building I repair jails dropped to half its capacity despite “re-alignment” and the State changing felonies to misdemeanors so they could move inmates from the State prisons to the County jails, and smoking weed in front of court houses and police stations became regular and the stench harder to avoid.

          • Subb4k says:

            Statistically, though, there are plenty of people who are socially liberal but fiscally conservative – they’re called libertarians, you see them on the internet all the time.

            You must have misread my comment. I know libertarians exist (I’m not going top debate their sincerity now), as well as liberals who are not leftists. I am not saying social liberal implies economic leftitst. I am saying that in my experience so far economic leftist implies social liberal.

            So, we elected a Democrat president and also had Democratic majorities in both houses of congress in 2008-2010. But somehow, I’m not remembering the part wher we got rid of the marijuana laws and reformed our prisons.

            Not American, but I think I also missed the part where Obama taxed billionaires into oblivion. To argue against “A implies B” you need to show that A happened but B didn’t.

          • LadyJane says:

            I am saying that in my experience so far economic leftist implies social liberal.

            What do you mean by “in my experience”? If you’re simply talking about the people that you personally know, then your statement could very well be true, but it’s irrelevant; all it means is that the people you personally know aren’t a good representation of the populace as a whole.

            But if you’re trying to make any kind of broader claim about people’s political views, then you’re just flat-out wrong. Again, statistics consistently show that roughly 20% of Americans are “fiscally conservative but socially liberal,” and another 20% are “socially conservative but fiscally liberal,” compared to roughly 30% of Americans who are conservative on both fiscal and social issues, and 30% of Americans who are liberal on both fiscal and social issues. 20% is far from irrelevant in politics, and ignoring the existence of those groups is a glaring flaw in any political analysis. And it’s short-sighted to think the current political status quo (i.e. economically right-wing and socially conservative Republicans, economically left-wing and socially liberal Democrats) is some kind of unchanging absolute, especially since these alignments have changed before and are showing signs of changing again.

        • Cliff says:

          billionaires spend less than 1% of their wealth on charities on average

          What, like, per year?

          • Urstoff says:

            Billionaires probably spend a very small percentage of their wealth per year in the first place given that wealth is not income, not always liquid, tied up in stocks, investments, etc.

          • Subb4k says:

            Uh, yeah, brainfart.

            Accounting for how billionaires get return on investments the state would need to be way more efficient than 1% the efficiency of billionaire charities, but can still probably afford to be several times less efficient.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          “But I think our agreement stops here : you seem to advocate a policy of encouraging billionaire charity, which means probably supporting some spending in order to have more of it (unless I completely misunderstood your position). I think that while philanthropy should not be outright discouraged, we shouldn’t rely on it. I don’t care if the state is 100 times less efficient than billionaire charities : billionaires spend less than 1% of their wealth on charities on average, so if we tax it all we can achieve at least the same results with less inequality.”

          Again, I’m not arguing against wealth taxes, I’m arguing against (Reich and Dissent’s idea of) specific philanthropy taxes. If the government just taxes the philanthropy money, and it’s 100x less effective at spending it, then that’s just outright 100x worse for the causes.

          “I’m not concerned about your argument that worthy causes that are currently being funded by billionaires would be ignored. If progressives manage to get enough power to tax billionaires into oblivion, it’s extremely likely the government will have someone who remembers it’s a good idea to not torture people because they smokes marijuana once.”

          I think this basically reduces to the idea that we’re one Democratic victory away from utopia. I don’t buy it. I think it’s way more likely that the government builds a coalition around taxing billionaire philanthropy than that it builds a coalition around solving all the problems billionaire philanthropy currently helps with.

          Also, at some point the Republicans will get back in power, and what then?

          • DinoNerd says:

            Wow – people are really arguing for taxing money that is donated, while not taxing money that is kept?

            Or are they just arguing for putting a cap on the deductability of donations? Or a floor for that matter – must be at least x% of AGI or some such, like the medical deduction?

            Trump and other elected American politicians have chosen to tax me on money that went straight from my income into someone other jurisdiction’s taxes, beyond a certain level. In that context, limiting the charitable deduction to e.g. the same amount as the now-limited deduction for state and local taxes makes a kind of sense.

            Note that I’m not arguing that either decision is good public policy. Just that if you suspect folks making huge donations of not supporting your causes (as with folks in high tax states not tending to support Republicans, the logical reason for the state-and-local-tax change), then who cares about encouraging them to donate to causes you won’t in fact agree with. (An alternate approach is to insist that the charitable donation only applies to worthy causes, and work hard to gerrymander the definition of “worthy”.)

          • Subb4k says:

            I don’t think the US is one democratic victory away from utopia, because “taxing billionaires into oblivion” is not a mainstream idea among Democrats. Even Warren doesn’t suggest more than 1% marginal wealth tax, which is not enough to erode accumulated capital (although it does significantly slow its growth).

  46. Deiseach says:

    You’ve just bought an extra $4/hour for warehouse workers, at the cost of ten million lives.

    That is not true. Consider: Bezos has so much spare cash, he’s setting up his own private space jaunt project. That is from the profits made by things like screwing over the workers. Whether Bezos decides to blow the dosh on yachts, space ships or photogenic African moppets, is purely up to his whims. He’s already made money off misery.

    What is really going on is: by squeezing blood from a stone, Bezos is generating obscene levels of personal wealth. That he then throws relative crumbs from his table to ‘good causes’ is not an either/or scenario, much less praiseworthy; let him treat his workers well first, that will increase their standards of living and have the beneficial knock-on effect economically for their families, the businesses they patronise, the towns where they live, the national economy which in turn can devote extra money from tax revenue to taking care of social ills and overseas aid. Then, from the excess he will still have remaining, let him engage in charity. When it bites, that is when he is doing something praiseworthy. Not when it’s “I have so much left over even after building my own private spaceship, I can afford to throw something to the beggars”.