Libertarianism: Duncan 4

In this chapter Duncan propounds a tedious, meandering, and economically naive interventionist fantasy. There is no rhyme or reason to it; for example, he writes that "lesser constraints, such as reasonable taxes, red lights at intersections, anti-pollution laws, and so on, will leave citizens largely free to choose the shape of lives." (90) By "reasonable" our author means what he, Duncan, personally finds reasonable according to his own peculiar fancies. Yet though his notions are many, rational defenses of them are scarce. I will therefore focus on some of his clearer arguments.

Duncan calls his system "democratic liberalism." He exalts democracy, saying that it blurs the distinction between the rulers and the ruled. Democracy "recognizes in a significant way [the citizens'] equal status as beings capable of responsible choice." (90) But democracy is neither necessary nor sufficient for liberty. There can be sharp conflicts between the two. After all, democracy is not each individual ruling himself; it's the majority ruling the individuals, including those who are in the minority. What happens when a democratically elected government takes away individual liberties? What's to guarantee that the voters in a democracy will prefer a free society? In addition, in my personal life, I internalize the costs of my mistakes; in a democracy, a single vote never matters in an election. This dramatically weakens the incentive to each citizen to vote correctly. Finally, democracy is entirely useless at limiting large states.

Duncan lists the right "against discrimination (as a job-seeker, employee, or consumer)" as one of his "basic economic rights." The problem here is twofold. First, why is it that only the employer is burdened with punishments for choosing his employees as he sees fit? If worker Smith does not want to work for an Asian boss, he is perfectly free to reject a job offer from him for any reason or indeed none at all. But manager Jones who dislikes Asians cannot legally refuse to hire Smith. Similarly, why is Smith allowed to discriminate between the buyers of his labor, while Jones is not allowed to discriminate between the buyers of his wedding cakes? Why the asymmetry, given that, as I mention in a post below, every economic actor makes the same general moves of exchanging goods and services for money? Duncan must be guided by some version of the (false) Marxian exploitation theory. Second, this alleged right conflicts with Duncan's own "personal right" prohibiting "interfering with a person's choices regarding friends, sexual relations, and children." (92) What is the reason both for forbidding the state from telling me who I should befriend and for giving it the authority to micromanage who I should hire?

Duncan makes several exceptions to freedom of speech. "Incitement to riot," libel, slander, censorship of TV sex and violence, and others can be banned. (94) Regarding the first of these, Rothbard disposed of it in Ch. 12, "Self-Defense" of Ethics of Liberty:

Should it be illegal, we may next inquire, to "incite to riot"? Suppose that Green exhorts a crowd: "Go! Burn! Loot! Kill!" and the mob proceeds to do just that, with Green having nothing further to do with these criminal activities.

Since every man is free to adopt or not adopt any course of action he wishes, we cannot say that in some way Green determined the members of the mob to their criminal activities; we cannot make him, because of his exhortation, at all responsible for their crimes.

"Inciting to riot," therefore, is a pure exercise of a man's right to speak without being thereby implicated in crime. (81)

Libel and slander are dissected competently in Ch. 16, "Knowledge, True and False":

Smith has a property right to the ideas or opinions in his own head; he also has a property right to print anything he wants and disseminate it. He has a property right to say that Jones is a "thief" even if he knows it to be false, and to print and sell that statement. The counter-view, and the current basis for holding libel and slander (especially of false statements) to be illegal is that every man has a "property right" in his own reputation, that Smith's falsehoods damage that reputation, and that therefore Smith's libels are invasions of Jones's property right in his reputation and should be illegal.

Yet, again, on closer analysis this is a fallacious view. For everyone, as we have stated, owns his own body; he has a property right in his own head and person. But since every man owns his own mind, he cannot therefore own the minds of anyone else. And yet Jones's "reputation" is neither a physical entity nor is it something contained within or on his own person. Jones's "reputation" is purely a function of the subjective attitudes and beliefs about him contained in the minds of other people. But since these are beliefs in the minds of others, Jones can in no way legitimately own or control them. Jones can have no property right in the beliefs and minds of other people. (126)

Regarding the alleged right to privacy, Rothbard argues:

But is there really such a right to privacy? How can there be? How can there be a right to prevent Smith by force from disseminating knowledge which he possesses?

Surely there can be no such right. Smith owns his own body and therefore has the property right to own the knowledge he has inside his head, including his knowledge about Jones. And therefore he has the corollary right to print and disseminate that knowledge.

In short, as in the case of the "human right" to free speech, there is no such thing as a right to privacy except the right to protect one's property from invasion. The only right "to privacy" is the right to protect one's property from being invaded by someone else. (121-2)

Why won't Duncan read the requisite introductions to libertarian thought? If he had bothered to engage Rothbard's arguments, this might have been a far more interesting book.

Following Rawls, our author distinguishes between "formal equality of opportunity" defined as the demand "that jobs be granted to people on the basis of their qualifications, regardless of how they came by these qualifications," and "fair equality of opportunity" which "requires that job seekers have equal opportunity to obtain qualifications in the first place." (101-2)

Regarding the former, we've already dealt with freedom of association-destroying "anti-discrimination" laws.

Regarding the latter, in my book I write that economist Paul Davidson

has a faulty view of competition. His reasoning is that competition, if it is to be legitimate, must be somehow fair. Everyone must start out in the same conditions.

Davidson does not grasp that the purpose of market competition is to improve consumer welfare, and this purpose is served even if entrepreneurs have varying amounts of starting capital, and even if the prices of the nearby factors of production differ for them.

Second, real-world competition is marked by the rivals' attempts not only to win under "fair" conditions but precisely to position themselves better relative to others even at the onset of any productive endeavor. That, too, serves consumers.

Moreover, American entrepreneurs have no duty to pay high wages to American workers. Escaping overseas into China and collecting the benefits of cheap labor are not a violation of any plausible moral law. The notion of fairness of catallactic competition is nonsensical. (SAtK, II, 26)

Duncan agrees that because of numerous accidents in a person's life, including the quality of the family he is born into, "economic opportunity... will never be equal." (103) But why strive for it at all? I share the sentiment that we as a society want to squeeze the most productivity out of each individual in order for all of us to grow in wealth at the fastest possible speed. The question, however, is not of ends but of means. How can each person best realize his potential and in so doing enrich the rest of us? For example, we know full well that government schooling reliably destroys both the minds and morals of the kids. Based on this result, fully privatized and unsubsidized education is recommended.

Duncan fares better at describing the argument that market producers "deserve" what they earn:

The better one is able to produce goods that consumers desire, the more money one will typically earn; the producing of goods that consumers desire is a type of social contribution; hence, one's financial rewards in the free market match one's social contributions. ...

An individual's contribution to the firm should be measured by whatever price his skills can command on an open labor market. (106-7)

His own objections to these points are lacking. For example, after presenting some irrelevant statistics, such as that the ratio of the average wages of top 100 CEOs and all workers has undergone "a tremendous increase in less than a generation," Duncan concludes: "America's increased prosperity in the last thirty years has not been shared with average workers." (109-10) But insofar as his complaint is justified, it is merely an inevitable consequence of his own anti-market interventionist policies.

Duncan predictably blames what remains of the free market in our economy for the faults of government interventions into the free market. So typical is this behavior among statists that we must agree with Mises that interventionism is intellectually an internally inconsistent and futile system: it tends to slouch toward full-blown socialism.

I don't, as a matter of fact, think that basing a defense of the free market on "desert" is fruitful. Desert works for contracts -- if you've done your part of the bargain, you deserve it that the other party does his, too; for torts -- when wrongfully injured, say, you deserve restitution; and for crimes -- if you've committed a crime, you deserve punishment. But to say that I deserve my life or fortune or income in general, as if God owed me something or life could not turn from pleasant to awful on a dime, seems unhelpful.

At the same time, as Machan pointed out in Part 3 of this book, one has a right to his kidneys or his wages despite perhaps not deserving them in some general sense. The argument making use of the idea that people do not "deserve" their incomes is like replying to the exhortation "But he's innocent!" with "Who's innocent?! I'm sure he's a sinner in something!" Fine, I admit that many of our blessings are not 100% the work of our own hands. Does that mean it's suddenly Ok to plunder and pillage one's fellow man?

Libertarianism: Machan 3

There is little of value in this essay, although a few useful points can be distilled from it.

First, some communitarians hold that "people are by their very nature parts of a larger whole -- society, tribe, humanity, the ethnic group or the community -- and so belong to a group the members of which are owed loyalty and solidarity from them." (68) But as adults, we choose our associates. We are not perpetually beholden to any particular community. The nature of man as a social creature manifests itself in his decisions which specific relationships and friendships to cultivate and which to neglect.

Second, there is the familiar argument that "that one does not deserve one's assets does not mean that others may take them away. One does not deserve a lot of things that others have no authority to take from one -- say, an extra kidney, a good second eye, one's labor and talents, etc." (70) However, Machan does not discuss merit or desert in any detail.

Third, under laissez-faire capitalism, rich people earn their fortunes mostly by faithfully serving the consumers and improving the living standards of the masses. "Unlike... many... who have earned and kept earning their wealth through innovation, wheeling and dealing, or other honest means, the bulk of the rich in the past gained it mainly by way of conquest and subjugation. ... Getting wealthy honestly is, then, relatively new. It may take a while before we will all consider it as clean and treat poverty as filthy -- since very few of the poor will have any excuse for being poor any longer." (71-2)

Fourth, Robert Nozick had a theory of why intellectuals opposed capitalism:

Only the sense of unrecognized superiority, of entitlement betrayed, produces that animus. ...

Schools became the major institution outside of the family to shape the attitudes of young people, and almost all those who later became intellectuals went through schools. There they were successful. They were judged against others and deemed superior. They were praised and rewarded, the teacher's favorites. How could they fail to see themselves as superior? Daily, they experienced differences in facility with ideas, in quick-wittedness. The schools told them, and showed them, they were better. ...

To the intellectually meritorious went the praise, the teacher's smiles, and the highest grades. In the currency the schools had to offer, the smartest constituted the upper class. Though not part of the official curricula, in the schools the intellectuals learned the lessons of their own greater value in comparison with the others, and of how this greater value entitled them to greater rewards.

The wider market society, however, taught a different lesson. There the greatest rewards did not go to the verbally brightest. There the intellectual skills were not most highly valued. Schooled in the lesson that they were most valuable, the most deserving of reward, the most entitled to reward, how could the intellectuals, by and large, fail to resent the capitalist society which deprived them of the just deserts to which their superiority "entitled" them?

Machan proposes a slightly different explanation: general demands for equality are a childhood atavism: "children grow up being treated rather fairly by parents, who owe all of them (in the family) decent treatment. ... parents have basically promised their kids to treat them equally well, provided they have the wealth to do so. ... Yet having grown up with the justified expectation, based on the promise, of equally good treatment or fairness from parents and teachers, it makes some psychological sense that this expectation be extended to governments... Yet... the government is not a parent..." (69)

I think we need to grow up.

Libertarianism: Duncan 2

Duncan begins by making a distinction between positive law and natural law:

There is no illegal crime of stealing involved with taxation. Instead, Machan must argue that taxation is the moral equivalent of stealing.

Hence he must argue that people have a moral right to keep and control all their earnings -- that is to say, a right that exists independently of any government-created laws or other conventions, much like the human rights not to be murdered, tortured, enslaved, and so on. (46)

I fully agree that taxation is illegal, if by "legal" we understand not an arbitrary and feeble mental spasm of a corrupt legislature but eternal and immutable natural law.

He counters by saying that the owner of a mall can charge the individual mall store owners rent, and "something similar is true of government taxes." (46-7) But the analogy is spurious. First, libertarianism does not prohibit charging rent by a private property owner from a tenant. It's a perfectly legitimate business arrangement. Unlike the mall owner, however, the government does not implicitly own all the land in the country as if some sort of feudal super-overlord with the concomitant ability to tax people while calling the taxes "rent." For example, if the state were such an overlord, then no moral objection could be advanced to letting it own even the air close to the ground. It could then legitimately tax breathing. We might all have meters forcibly installed in our throats to measure the amount of oxygen we consume, and pay taxes proportionate to their output. How could Duncan argue from a deontological point of view against even a tax that monstrous?

Governments can claim to own both the land on which my house stands and vast untouched tracts of virgin land, but such an ambition is both vain and false according to libertarian theory. This point is relevant, because Duncan raises the question of initial appropriation: "How did the whole process [of voluntary exchange] get going? There must have once been a point where some unowned resource -- a parcel of land, say -- came to be owned by someone, in an act of initial acquisition. But how should this acquisition have happened ideally?" (49-50) Well, there is a canonical libertarian answer to this question: it happens through the act of mixing one's labor with the land or natural resource. It will be sufficient to mention Rothbard's exposition:

Crusoe, landing upon a large island, may grandiosely trumpet to the winds his "ownership" of the entire island. But, in natural fact, he owns only the part that he settles and transforms into use.

Or... Crusoe might be a solitary Columbus landing upon a newly-discovered continent. But so long as no other person appears on the scene, Crusoe's claim is so much empty verbiage and fantasy, with no foundation in natural fact.

But should a newcomer -- a Friday -- appear on the scene, and begin to transform unused land, then any enforcement of Crusoe's invalid claim would constitute criminal aggression against the newcomer and invasion of the latter's property rights. (EoL, 64)

The government, in claiming allodial ownership over the entire realm in its dominion, as though an ultimate landlord, is acting illegitimately from the libertarian point of view.

Duncan's argument is then distinct from this obviously unhappy analogy. The government can tax, he says, because "the existence of our economic opportunity is highly dependent on the government's activities of enforcing contracts, protecting legal property rights, keeping the peace, maintaining the national defense, printing currency, insuring bank deposits, preventing monopolies, fighting inflation, negotiating trade agreements, maintaining transportation infrastructure, and so on." (47)

Duncan has bought into the interventionist fraud that is modern statism. How, for example, can the government both print currency and fight inflation at the same time, when printing currency (through fiat money and credit expansion) is what generates inflation?!

Government on the local level may have a few legitimate functions -- libertarianism is not synonymous with anarcho-capitalism -- but they are far smaller in number and ambition than Duncan imagines. For example, they hardly involve insuring bank deposits -- a pathetic and dishonest attempt to instill into the populace confidence in the state's vicious money and banking regime; negotiating trade agreements, when economic theory recommends that each country adopts unilateral free trade, regardless of the trade policies of other nations; or for that matter maintaining national defense, when the correct policy of each state is unconditional pacifism in foreign affairs and absence of any standing military forces, again regardless of what other states do.

Further, he argues that "to insist that one has a moral right to all of one's income earnings is to ignore the efforts of one's fellow citizens who work in government or who as taxpayers contribute to the support of the government. ... The exploitative nature of this is obvious..." (47) But asserting that I'm obligated to other people who are paying taxes begs the question of whether they, too, are obligated to pay taxes. And even if they have via an explicit contract agreed to contribute to a common treasury, it ought still to be my choice whether similarly to agree or not. Finally, that other people are held in serf-like bondage to the state does not entail that I, too, ought by duty to join them.

However, I like Duncan's point that even if the kinds and amounts of taxes are arbitrary decisions of the legislators, once taxes have been extracted, it is possible for the after-tax income to be spent freely by the sovereign consumers. "How many of us, after all, currently have our lives blighted by uncertainty as to whether the actions we take with our possessions are legal or illegal?" (48) Legal uncertainty and taxation can merge to the extent that future changes in tax policies are hard to predict which can affect the entrepreneurs' longer-term business plans. Nevertheless, these are separate issues.

Compared to the owner of a field, says Duncan, "other people lack the negative liberty to use the field except by her permission." In a fully privatized society, "a poor person who could not afford road tolls, admission charges, and the like, might have no negative liberty to go anywhere whatsoever." (49) But the meaning of "negative right" is freedom from violent interference by other people with one's use of his body or justly acquired property. Since "other people" do not own the field, this freedom is simply inapplicable to them. Smith has negative rights to his, Smith's property; Jones has similar rights to Jones' property. It is true, further, that a bum would have to find some charitable relief or become a drifter who would move from one private property to another until in each case he's chased out when he's outstayed his welcome. But why is that a bad thing?

Duncan has an answer. "There is after all such a thing as economic power over others. The power to hire a person (or not) is obviously a significant form of power. Additionally, being fired from one's job can be a serious disruption to one's life. A failure to be promoted as expected can also seriously disrupt one's plans." Etc. This economic power "can be abused." (51) No, it cannot be abused, because there is no such thing as economic power. The situations of every member of the economy are 100% symmetrical. Everyone, be he a worker, an entrepreneur, or consumer, simply exchanges goods and services for money.

There is no right, not just under libertarianism but in any sane system, to be hired or to receive a wage for services not wanted or to be promoted. I mean, is Duncan serious? Has he never worked in the private sector? Does he imagine that "promotions" like, I guess, from assistant professor to associate professor in the academia, are guaranteed?

Our author fears that employees will be "threatened with job loss or lack of promotion unless they dispense sexual favors, perform unreasonably dangerous tasks, work an insane number of hours, or do other humiliating things they would never do but for their employer's power over them." (51) Suppose a consumer demanded that a businessman perform a sexual favor in exchange for the consumer's buying her product. (The consumer with money stands in the same relation to the entrepreneur with a product as the entrepreneur with money to the worker with his labor.) Would that be objectionable, too? Even if it is, why must the businessman obey the demand and agree to "humiliate" herself?

The source of Duncan's confusion is revealed in the section entitled "Insufficiency of Charity." He posits a "race to the bottom" within the unhampered market, apparently some sort of Marxian-style immiseration of the workers:

Suppose you are a charitably disposed factory owner who wants to make his or her factory safe.

The problem is that safety devices often cost a significant amount of money, and safe procedures may be slower at producing goods. Hence your goods will be more expensive to produce, and you will be unable to sell them as cheaply as your competitor, Joe Sleazo, who cares nothing for the safety of his workers except insofar as this affects his profits margins. Thus you will likely lose sales to Joe Sleazo, forcing you eventually to choose between cutting your factory's safety standards or going out of business. ...

As a factory owner you may wish to pay your workers a decent wage, give them decent working hours, avoid polluting the environment, and so on, but if Joe Sleazo pays his workers subsistence wages, works them ragged, and pollutes, then decent behavior on your part may make your enterprise uncompetitive and put you out of business.

His remedy?

What a society needs to avoid this pernicious downward spiral is a change of the rules of the game, in the form of workplace safety regulations, minimum wages laws, overtime regulations, anti-pollution laws, and so on. (59)

Now first of all, no appeal to "charity" whatsoever is made by the libertarian in regard to employment. Therefore, Duncan has erected a straw man which he then proceeds to knock down that charity is "insufficient" to raise wages or improve working conditions.

Charity is not even part of the libertarian argument. We fully admit that no businessman wishes to pay his workers a decent wage or give them decent working hours. He wishes to keep his costs as low as possible. No charitable intentions need to be assumed.

However, it is precisely through the competition between entrepreneurs in the free market, including Joe Sleazo, however selfish he may be, that incomes to workers are bid up. The workers are free and mobile; they are not attached to any business firm as slaves or even permanent serfs. If they were slaves, then competition would indeed bring about immiseration. For free workers, competition between wage-offering entrepreneurs for labor raises wages and equilibrates the economy while diminishing profits. Workers are always on the lookout for better offers elsewhere in the economy.

Further, higher wages can be offered in multiple ways. A businessman who has an opening for a risky job has a choice: he can either try to attract workers by offering higher monetary compensation while keeping the job dangerous, or invest directly into safety to decrease the risks to the future employee. By doing the latter he loses some money directly but gains indirectly because the supply of labor for the now safer job increases and the wage he needs to offer declines. In different situations his calculations will support different courses of action, but his self-interested profit seeking, if correctly estimated, will conduce to the greatest good for the greatest number.

In short, entrepreneurs compete for workers including by advertising better working conditions, such as safety and shorter workday. No government interventions are needed to encourage such improvements; economic progress takes care of that adequately.

Pollution is a separate issue, but libertarians have generally interpreted it as a violation of one's neighbors' property rights. It is simply unjust to dump one's factory's industrial waste onto another man's property. Complications arise for water and air pollution, but I think that very little really can or should be done about such externalities.

In the market, Duncan proposes, many exchanges "are not appropriately reciprocal; in them, one party is treated more as an instrument for another's private gain, rather than as a person in his own right." (51) I reject both parts of this statement. First, all voluntary exchanges are fair and properly reciprocal. Second, the free market is the preeminent institution in which we all use each other for our "private gains." I use society; society uses me; under laissez-faire, such use reaches the peak of its possible efficiency:

Everybody acts on his own behalf; but everybody's actions aim at the satisfaction of other people's needs as well as at the satisfaction of his own. Everybody in acting serves his fellow citizens. Everybody, on the other hand, is served by his fellow citizens. Everybody is both a means and an end in himself, an ultimate end for himself and a means to other people in their endeavors to attain their own ends. (Mises, HA, 257)

Let me end on a positive note. Duncan is correct in denying that taxation is like forced labor. "Under a scheme of taxation, and unlike a scheme of forced labor, you get to choose what sort of career you will pursue and where you will live. You can choose whether you value material goods more than leisure time, or vice versa, and choose between more demanding and less demanding jobs accordingly." Yes, a tax state does not keep slaves but paying taxes is still like feudal serfdom, as long as the costs of moving out of the state's jurisdiction are high. Duncan concludes: "It surely shows a serious lack of proportion to think of some multimillionaire -- who may well at this moment be sipping scotch on the deck of his yacht in the ocean waters near his second home -- as anything like an indentured servant." (57) I see. Well, our author really despises the rich. He caricatures and dehumanizes them. Fine. But even he should realize that if a poor person robs a rich one, our sympathy should still be with the latter. An unjust act like robbery or taxation does not become Ok if the person who suffers the injustice is rich.

Libertarianism: Machan 1

In Libertarianism: For and Against, Tibor Machan who defends libertarianism squares off against Craig Duncan who objects to it. Machan and Duncan's essays alternate for six chapters.

Of note is Machan's definition of government regulations as "prior restraint" or "imposing burdens or restrictions on the conduct of someone who has not been convicted of having violated or threatening the violation of someone's rights. It is only right-violating conduct... that justifies restraining a person." (19) By this clear deontological standard, almost all regulation stands easily condemned.

Machan's second useful point is that "positive rights" are simply privileges. They can never be universal; they one way or another constitute legal plunder. "Fealty to positive rights requires that we be provided with goods and services at the expense of other persons, which can only be accomplished by systematic coercion." (22) "The alleged positive rights of the citizenry must clash constantly," both with negative natural rights to life, liberty, and property and even with each other. (25)

The political arena then is a battleground among the connected pressure groups for the booty the government steals each years through taxes and borrowing:

Government [becomes] arbitrary and incoherent. As long as some people are getting resources that were earned by somebody else, that's all that counts.

One day it's aiding AIDS research that tops the to-do list; the next it's fostering the arts by splurging on PBS; the next it's curing everyone of smoking and plundering the tobacco companies.

No principles, no logic, no standards of restraint tell us from day to day what one will be free to do and what one will be prohibited from doing; there is no surefire way to know.

As under fascism, whatever the leaders say, goes, so long as they continue to genuflect mechanically before the altar of democracy. (29)

Now a privilege can be granted either to a minority or to a majority. In the first case, we have, to quote Will Durant, the elites exploiting the masses through "ability or subtlety"; in the second case, it's the masses who exploit the elites through "violence or votes." (Who loots who how gets complicated quickly, but the gist is correct.) As a result, positive rights should be anathema to Duncan who exalts rights to "fair treatment."

Machan also points out that affirmation action (such as for blacks) strengthens racism by making anti-racism seem unjust when government coerces entrepreneurs into not "discriminating." The book was published in 2005, and it is obvious by now that racial strife has increased, and anti-racism has been discredited beyond hope.

Big Questions: Conclusion

Landsburg has undergone a massive change for the worse since writing Fair Play.

In that book, he is a gentle, inquisitive, and tenderhearted creature. In Big Questions, he is an angry agitated maniac. And the casual contempt for all opposing views makes him stupid.

However, his many mistakes (and a few nuggets of wisdom) are entertaining and instructive. I hope in this review, I have provided some remedy for them.

Big Questions: Miscellaneous Notes

1. Regarding Bill Gates and loud music on p. 166-7, I agree that Coasian bargaining will ensure that the music will play one way or another, but whether money does or does not change hands depends on who owns the air around their property. The question of ownership is prior to any negotiation; I oppose the idea of having judges assign rights to property including air based on any "economic efficiency" criterion as per law and economics.

2. Regarding being a leech while profiting from a tariff on p. 178,

here's the accounting: A foreign sheet of plywood is available for (say) $5 plus $2 tax. Therefore American suppliers can get $7 a sheet, and they do.

If you can produce plywood at $6 a sheet, you make a $1 profit -- but only by costing the U.S. Treasury (and ultimately the U.S. taxpayers) $2 worth of revenue. Your $1 profit comes at a $2 cost to your neighbors. That's a no-no.

Replace the $2 tariff on imported plywood with $2 worth of transportation costs to deliver the plywood from a foreign country into the US. Won't Landsburg's argument then prove too much, since my $1 profit will come "at the expense" of $2 revenue to UPS?

Therefore, we need to elaborate; for example, deprived of income, the shipping industry will shrink, and the firms in it will release their resources that will go elsewhere to overall social benefit. This is quite unlike the US Treasury which will simply raise other taxes.

But perhaps it will not be able to, since that's a political issue. Perhaps the government will hire fewer unproductive bureaucrats or misallocate fewer resources by retrenching its war machine.

3. Founding economics on "human beings' natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another" (194) sounds like founding biochemistry on the proteins' natural propensity to react with, bind to, and transport molecules. Landsburg clearly has no interest in acknowledging teleology, i.e., that human are different from proteins.

4. Landsburg's discussion of free trade, discrimination, racial privileges, and gratitude in Chapter 20 is wonderful and is the best part of this book.

5. The market economy works, says Landsburg,

because (and only because) all [producers] face the same price. Otherwise we get bad outcomes. Suppose, for example, that Farmer Jones sells his wheat for five dollars a bushel while Farmer Brown sells for ten. Then Jones' six-dollar-a-bushel field sits idle while Brown's eight-dollar-a-bushel field gets planted, driving up the total cost of the world's wheat supply.

I want to repeat that: The key to efficient production is not just that we face prices, but that we all face the same prices. (225)

Monstrous! We need not and often do not face the same prices. One "miracle of the marketplace" is precisely that when prices diverge, human entrepreneurs detect cash on the table or easy opportunities to profit via arbitrage and through their actions, equalize prices.

For example, Speculator Robinson can buy up all of Jones' wheat at $6 and resell it to Brown's customers at $9. As Green, Black, and Armstrong notice the easy money, too, they likewise get into the act and willy-nilly equilibrate the economy.

The second miracle is disequilibrating entrepreneurship.

Farmer Smith plants a genetically modified crop which is resistant to pests and disease (assume that it's good for health, and demand is unchanged) and outcompetes all of these guys with such low costs of production than he can profit by selling the wheat at $3. This wheat price, too, is new and temporarily found nowhere except for Smith's product.

Jones and Brown, terrified of losing money to Armstrong, invest into R&D to improve wheat production still further. The market thus flows and will flow swirling on forever.

6. Landsburg complains of environmentalists who tell you that

we have to preserve our wetlands or our rain forests because the ecology is a delicate interconnected system that ought not be lightly disrupted -- especially if it's coming from someone who has no qualms about disrupting our delicate interconnected economy with price controls, minimum wages, equal-pay legislation, and fuel-efficiency standards.

To be simultaneously an ecological preservationist and an economic interventionist tends to require a substantial ignorance of economics. (226)

But there is simple explanation of this phenomenon. An environmentalist wants to intervenes into the economy with the express purpose of harming it and slowing down or even reversing economic progress. He supports global human impoverishment precisely in order to protect the environment. By depopulating the earth and reverting the few remaining survivors toward subsistent living, the environmentalist aims to stabilize the ecology.

7. Landsburg compares the market for novels with the Olympic games, saying that both are winner-take-all:

The key difference is that, at any given time, a circus clown can entertain only a few thousand people and a doctor can operate on only one patient. Therefore we can always use more clowns and doctors, and their wages are a good measure of how much we need them.

But a single athlete or a single author can entertain the entire world. Along the way, they capture a lot of income that would otherwise have gone to their competitors. That income represents a transfer of wealth, not a social contribution. ...

... the swimmer you beat in the hundred-meter butterfly will still have spent years training for the hundred-meter butterfly. Instead of turning him into a welder, you've merely turned him into a loser. (176-7)

I'm not sure this analogy is especially valid. On the one hand, the market for novels would seem to fail even more spectacularly than the market for Olympic swimmers, because regarding the latter, we can at least enjoy the sight of the competition itself.

Yet novels are also relevantly different, because each tries to entertain people by being a beautiful thing. But artistic beauty is extremely varied. The marble as material cause is an important part of a statue. But a novel is almost entirely pure form. In digital form, it occupies almost no matter. As a result, there are numerous genres, writing styles, plots, characters, etc. There is no single scale for this stuff, like the time it takes each swimmer to finish the race. Consumers can have sophisticated and highly specific tastes. Therefore, far more than a single novel should be able to find success in the marketplace.

Case Against Mass Immigration

Landsburg makes cogent points in defense of freedom of immigration. His main line of reasoning is utilitarian:

When we admit an unskilled Mexican immigrant, his wage typically rises from about $2 an hour to $9 an hour -- call it a $7-per-hour gain. ...

He bids down wages, but that's a two-edged sword: It's bad for his fellow workers, but good for employers and good for consumers. (182-3)

I will continue the argument in a few seconds, but let me interject that the costs to the American workers outweigh the benefits to them. This is because the amount of capital goods per capita declines at least in the short term which lessens marginal productivity and makes Americans poorer. (The Mexican by Landsburg's own assumption migrates without any real, money, or human capital.) Mises points out, for example:

There is only one way to improve the standard of living of the population -- increase capital accumulation as against the increase in population. Increase the amount of capital invested per capita.

Landsburg estimates "from the labor-economics literature" that the Americans collectively incur a $3-per-hour loss. "To oppose that, you'd have to count an immigrant as less than three-seventh of an American." Even worse, under even the most conservative assumptions about "how to value a poor man's dollar against a rich man's, ... the immigrant's $7 gain is worth about five times the Americans' collective $3 loss. By that calculation, to justify keeping the immigrant out, you'd have to say he's worth less than one-fifth of an American citizen. In other words, you'd have to be a pretty enormous jerk." (183-5)

What makes the anti-immigrationist "Goofus" so callous? Landsburg has the following theory:

Usually we care about our loved ones more than strangers, and to some extent we care more about the poor than the rich: I'd rather help my daughter than help yours, and I'd rather help a starving Bangladeshi than a Microsoft vice president.

But Goofus favors neither his loved ones nor poor people; he favors relatively rich American strangers over relatively poor Mexicans.

Moreover, he favors them by at least a seven-to-three ratio, which is huge. (186)

Let me first concede the deontological argument. Americans cannot lawfully keep their wages up by doing what is unjust, namely, forcibly preventing migrations. It is everyone's natural right to walk the earth. Further, I agree with Landsburg that "Goofus, by denying American landlords the opportunity to rent to José, is violating a property right (not to mention the rights of all those Americans who want to hire José, or sell him groceries)." (185n5)

The situation is relevantly different with mass immigration, however, which will inevitably be unleashed if the US borders are fully opened. I'm saying that within months, 100 million poorest Africans will land in the New York City.

Open borders are an extremely egalitarian institution, especially now with very low transportation costs and efficient language learning. It equalizes wages for the same work done over all the earth, unless some areas are naturally suited for certain specific factories or farms. Landsburg's chief moral principle demands that Americans lower their own standard of living to that of Sudan, because the benefits to the Sudanese, etc. immigrants outweigh the costs to the natives, and on the net there is benefit, too. (Well, not really, since the population of Sudan will be restored in a short order, as its citizens mindlessly have more children; their plight will be quickly reintroduced.)

But Landsburg himself admits that his ethics "does not require Gallant to open up his living room" to strangers, because "Gallant values his privacy more than José values a spot in Gallant's living room." (185n4) In other words, turning one's house into a refugee camp is too great a sacrifice to be casually demanded of people. Why then can't we similarly argue that abject self-impoverishment on the part of the American people through 100% open borders is not an unequivocal injunction of morality itself?

As a result, Goofus can counter that he has his own interests not to become poor. It's not that he loves an American stranger more than a Mexican or African one; it's that all American strangers have an interest in common, namely, not to be crushed into grinding poverty by the huddled masses of immigrants. I love myself; every American loves himself, too; and these are sufficient reasons for all of us to limit immigration.

Look, the land in the world is parceled out among states. It so happens that although in my opinion all large states are illegitimate, some large states are better than others, even much better. Americans have through a Herculean effort managed to create a political and legal regime that, despite its numerous lamentable flaws, permits a measure of economic growth. Sudan, on the contrary, is a failed nation. I see no reason for Landsburg to punish success and reward failure by inviting mass migrations from Sudan to America.

How would that even differ from a military invasion of the Sudanese army into the US? Does Landsburg think that the Africans will be coming to America while clutching copies of Big Questions under their arms? What's to prevent these hundreds of millions of barbarians from recreating here the exact sort of inhuman system from which they fled?

The situation is very different when it comes to private communities or even cities. If company X is being run incompetently and is losing money, it is a very good thing that the rats can start abandoning the sinking ship. A more profitable company Y and society as a whole will benefit from the resources thereby released. But for large states, there is a contrary argument: the Sudanese are poor not because they lack technological knowledge or even capital, but because they lack capitalism, and easy immigration gives them a chance viciously to free ride on other people's economic wisdom.

My argument is valid not universally but only in our present unique situation of billions in great poverty and only a few countries with a decent standard of living. Since the ultimate cause of this tragic state of affairs is faulty ideologies on the part of the people, I would fully support open national borders in a world with universal laissez-faire capitalism.

If it is admitted that immigration will have to be limited, the only question that remains is whom to admit and how many. Relevant to this, there are factors that would greatly exacerbate the damage of mass immigration into the United States. These are:

  1. the welfare state;
  2. pressure on public services such as roads and emergency rooms which have not been designed to accommodate so many new arrivals;
  3. initial shortage of housing: where are these 100 millions wretches going to live?
  4. widely incompatible cultural practices that will lead to serious violent conflicts between immigrants and natives, i.e., an uptick in crime;
  5. political consequences -- again, when Mexicans come here and begin to influence government policy, won't they end up recreating here the very corrupt political system in Mexico?

In short, there will be a massive and terrifying disruption in our everyday lives as the immigrants try to settle in. Therefore, a case can be made for significant restrictions.

On the other hand, when businesses leave the US in search of cheap labor, I am unperturbed despite the apparent symmetry, because that, in addition to the net economic benefit of the sort Landsburg describes, encourages Americans to improve their country's political system to give these firms an incentive to stay.

Open borders for wealthy nations here and today and the resulting mass immigration waves are not a rational policy in the age of cheap transportation and deep poverty in many parts of the world that remains largely brutal, cruel, and dark.

Why Is Theft Wrong?

Landsburg's idea on this question is fully in tune with his consequentialism:

A well-executed theft takes time and energy, which could have been used productively. If I spend an hour stealing your bicycle, we still have only one bicycle between us; if I spend an hour building (or earning) a bicycle, we have two. By diverting productive resources from useful activities, theft leaves the world an unnecessarily poorer place. ...

"Don't leave the world worse off than you found it." ...

You are productive when the benefits of actions (to everyone, including you) exceed the costs (to everyone, including you). (164-5)

Now there are other utilitarian reasons why theft it bad. First, it sows fear and panic among the populace, diminishes the security of property rights, and, if widespread and undeterred, may harm both consumption and production with severe disincentives to both.

Second, awareness of the danger of being robbed causes potential victims to spend money pro tanto on defending themselves. A pointless "unproductive" arms race is initiated between the thieves and their prey in which scarce resources are wasted.

Third, theft is a particularly inefficient form of predation. The thief may even kill a person in order to enable himself to take his stuff. Sporadic theft is an instance of a war of all against all. A more sophisticated and prudent system, for example, is serfdom, wherein the thief imposes permanent taxes on his victims. Everyone gets to live, and the victim even retains an incentive to accumulate wealth, while the thief is enjoying a permanent stream of looted income in relative safety. After all, the richer the people are, the more there is to steal. But ordinary theft just kills the goose that lays the golden eggs.

All these, however, are minor considerations.

As I have argued, utilitarianism is not an ethic. More specifically, utilitarianism is addressed not to the citizen but to the legislator. A good illustration is traffic regulations. (The government is the organization that issues them because it owns the roads.) These regulations are utilitarian in the sense that they are meant to maximize the overall efficiency of traffic, perhaps with a few other requisite goals, such as avoiding deadlock and starvation, thrown in for good measure. But an individual driver is supposed and even required simply to look after himself and seek only his own advancement on the road.

Landsburg's argument provides a reason for the government to outlaw theft, to threaten to punish potential thieves, and actually to punish thieves that are caught and convicted. This is so, again, especially if the costs of law enforcement are smaller than total expenses the citizens individually would make to protect themselves from thefts. But it provides no reason for any individual thief to become an honest man. For we may indeed imagine (falsely) the government to be in charge of "general welfare," such that its laws are utilitarian. But an individual citizen is asked not to be a utilitarian but simply to seek his own self-interest. For the thief, the benefits of stealing may outweigh the costs. The calculation proper to him as a citizen and not a legislator impels him to steal. Therefore, a different argument is needed if one wants to prove that the thief is acting immorally.

Landsburg urges us to consider our neighbor's interests on par with our own: "A cost is a cost and a benefit is a benefit, whether they're felt by you, your neighbor, or a stranger in Timbuktu." (165) But when one does that, the most he can muster is disinterested benevolence, and when animated by this type of love, one acts as a legislator. As a citizen, one can only realistically love himself and closest friends and family. This love is no longer disinterested but deeply personal. In such a case, in one's personal life, one privileges his beloved and treats all others as strangers according to mere deontological natural law.

In other words, for a large community, utilitarianism will take the form of general rules created by a prudent lawgiver. Practicing act utilitarianism can be done successfully only in the tiniest of communities, most plausibly one's own family.

Landsburg’s Take on Some Utilitarian Dilemmas

Our author is a fanatical consequentialist, saying for example, "I'd cheerfully cut off the ears of a small child to cure malaria." (155) Fortunately, there is an interesting method to his madness. For example, he considers "the Headache Problem":

A billion people are experiencing fairly minor headaches, which will continue for another hour unless an innocent person is killed, in which case they will cease immediately. Is it okay to kill that innocent person? (161)

The first question is: would you as one of the headache sufferers personally be willing to enter into a compact with others likewise afflicted to have one of you randomly sacrificed to the headache god in order to cure everyone's headache immediately? But that depends on whether other people, too, agree to enter this compact. If only I and no one else agrees, the probability of me dying is 100%. If only 1 other person out of the 1 billion agrees, then I have a 50% chance of dying for the sake of curing our headaches.

What's the "rational" decision here? In the absence of coordinated decision-making, I may think it's too risky to agree. But everyone else is in the same position I am. So everyone reasons similarly and declines to enter the compact.

On the other hand, if my decision "determines" everyone's, I may as well say "yes" and magically, everyone will agree, too.

Alternatively, it may be agreed that the compact will come to be in force only if no fewer than 100 million people enter it. In any case, such a compact, when entered into or refused voluntarily, does not seem to me to be morally problematic.

Second, what Landsburg in fact is proposing is that we make him a benevolent despot and force everyone to enter. Even if the answer to first question is "no agreement," he judges that government coercion can in this case produce superior results for the following reason:

First, virtually nobody will pay a dollar to avoid a one-in-a-billion chance of death. (We know this, for example, from studies of willingness to pay for auto safety devices.)

Second, most people -- at least in the developed world, where I will assume all of this is taking place -- would happily pay a dollar to cure a headache. (I don't actually know this, but it seems probable.)

Third, this tells me that most people think a headache is worse than a one-in-a-billion chance of death.

So if I can replace your headache with a one-in-a-billion chance of death, I've done you a favor. And I can do precisely this by killing a headache sufferer at random. (161-2)

Landsburg seems to be able to avoid the charge that he is illicitly weighing utilities interpersonally by saying that he is straightforwardly respecting our own preferences and is simply helping us overcome some coordination problem. And if the answer to the first question is "everyone agrees," then there is no need even for that.

In other words, Landsburg, upon making some plausible assumptions, is initiating a Pareto-superior move, i.e., getting every member of the compact from a worse to better situation unanimously.

At the same time, the answer "yes, it is Ok" to the original question seems somewhat morally controversial. It may be because no man can be a benevolent despot capable to maximizing total utility, and we all understand that and refuse to do an obvious injustice such as killing an innocent person for the sake of an unknown outcome. Again, however, Landsburg's reasoning that the outcome is easily known seems persuasive.

Note that by joining the compact, I impose nothing on other people. I bear the full costs -- the chance of dying by being randomly picked to be sacrificed to the headache god -- myself, yet benefit all other headache sufferers by lowering their probability of dying in like manner. After all, the more people enter the compact, the smaller the probability of each person's getting unlucky. Thus, my entering is a socially virtuous act which again suggests that there is nothing morally problematic about such a compact.

If the answer to the headache problem is that it is Ok to execute the killing, then replace

"1 billion headache-sufferers-for-an-hour" with "all the children sick with malaria now or in the future"; and replace

"killing one innocent person with the headache" with "cutting off the ears of one child with malaria." Then a fortiori (i.e., for an even stronger reason), it is fully permissible to get cutting.

The only issue is whether Landsburg would still cut off the ears even of a child who is not (nor ever will be) sick with malaria; or, which is the same thing, whether he would sacrifice a person who does not have the headache. For such a child / person would obviously not agree to enter the compact of his own free will. The "economic" logic would then break down, and his rights would be straightforwardly violated. Then Landsburg could indeed be accused of playing God, as in weighing lives or at least utilities interpersonally against each other yet without the essentially divine ability to do so competently.

Correlation, Causation, and Economics

That Landsburg confuses economics with natural sciences is further confirmed in his discussion of correlation and causation. Now his ideas on this subject are also poorly thought out:

Cigarette smoking is correlated with lung cancer. It would be easy to invent many theories consistent with this observation. Maybe smoking causes lung cancer. Maybe cancer causes smoking. (That is, maybe cancer typically sets in decades before it's detected, and the first symptom is a craving for tobacco.) Maybe a single gene causes both cancer and an addictive personality.

But there are ways to settle this. The gold standard for establishing causality is a controlled experiment. Randomly assign some people to smoke and others not to; monitor them to make sure they follow orders; track them for several decades, and see who gets sick. If the correlation holds up..., you can be confident that smoking causes cancer. (125-6)

But an announcement that "smoking causes cancer" is vain unless we know the precise physical / biochemical mechanism according to which cigarette smoke induces cancer in full detail down to individual cells, molecules, and atoms in all its über-complex glory.

Suppose an oncologist has observed that smokers comprise 10% of the population but 50% of his patients. He intuits and hypothesizes that smoking has something to do with cancer. He then commissions a study whose only effect is to formalize and make more precise his hypothesis. If the doctor's suspicions are confirmed, then the study provides a rationale and direction to seek actual causes. One such cause might be what Landsburg himself proposes: cancer damages lungs, and damaged cells bring about cancer.

Again, grasp of causation entails exhaustive knowledge of the exact mechanism linking the events. Once causation is established, the number of unknown variables diminishes, which restarts the anecdotal evidence-correlation-causation cycle at a deeper level.

Finding correlations is not merely a means to uncovering causation but is useful in man's active life in its own right. For example, I've learned recently on the Internet that large doses of vitamin D synergize with vitamin K2 nicely. Now vitamin D is an extremely "broad spectrum" chemical; it influences a large variety of reactions, genes, and problems in the body. The causal relations are far from being mapped out. But I can't afford to wait until everything is known scientifically. I need to decide whether to take D3 + K2 and how much of it now or not. The knowledge of the correlation may be sufficient to make an intelligent practical choice. But it's no substitute for speculative scientific knowledge of causation.

For example, the fact that there is correlation between smoking and cancer provides no decisive reason for me personally to quit smoking. Perhaps my lungs happen to be especially robust and provide adequate defense against smoking. The study of the sort Landsburg describes makes the search for actual causes (how does smoke damage lungs? how does the body counteract the damage? etc.) a disciplined and rational effort, but does not replace it.

Landsburg then proceeds from natural sciences to econometric analysis, as if the two were the same. A certain structural model by James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics, he writes, "reckons that $15,000 spent on preschools prevents more crime than $80,000 spent on police departments." (132) How does he dare just to leave it at that? What Heckman has determined is a unique and non-repeatable historical fact: that for some particular group of people in some particular place and time, this relation held. But in the field of human affairs, there are no constant relations between variables. The gravitational constant in physics assists in the calculation of gravitational effects and has a precise numerical value, specifically 6.67408*10−11 m3kg−1s−2. It's an aspect of universal laws of nature. But that spending on preschool is exactly 5.3 times more efficient at deterring crime than spending on the police is emphatically not a fundamental constant of any kind. Therefore, any conclusion allegedly arrived at by an empirical economist must also answer three extra questions that need not bother a genuine naturalist: for whom did you make your prediction and for that person, where and when? It would be unhelpful if after a laborious series of experiments, a scientist has deduced that only this atom or this pendulum would have behaved in a certain way and only then.

In advising the state in this manner, Heckman is being not an economist but a bureaucrat, and a fatally conceited one at that.

Dubious Methodology of Neoclassical Economics

In several places in Big Questions, Landsburg explicitly contrasts the method of physics or natural sciences with the method of economics:

The case against creationism relies largely on facts about the fossil record and geological strata, while the case against protectionism relies primarily on logic.

The facts that refute creationism are discovered and reported by scientists; the rest of us have to take it on faith that those scientists are being truthful.

By contrast, the logic that refutes protectionism is available for anyone to evaluate from scratch. (51)


You don't have to know anything about potbellied pigs to know that if bleeding annoys the neighbors, there's too much of it.

You don't have to know anything at all about actual pollution levels to know the world has too much pollution.

You don't have to know anything at all about STD transmission rates to know that high-risk people have too many partners and that low-risk people have too few.

All these things follow by pure logic. (121)

And finally,

I made the (I thought) pedestrian observation that if houses came with free flood insurance, they'd be more expensive. I was immediately challenged to offer evidence for this apparently remarkable assertion.

Well, there's plenty of evidence: A shave and a haircut costs more than a shave; a soup and a sandwich costs more than just soup...

When you throw in a free extra, you increase demand, and when you increase demand, prices are bid up. The same forces clearly exist in the housing market, so of course a house and insurance will cost more than a house. (124)

Regarding this last quote, let's avoid any misunderstanding. If an entrepreneur sells a soup + sandwich combo, the sandwich is not free to the consumer, because the entrepreneur would want to up the price (if the market will bear it), and it's not free to the entrepreneur who would presumably produce it at some cost to him. I found this example so confusing that I initially thought that Landsburg was talking about a situation in which the government forced house builders to bundle and sell insurance along with houses, in which case his reasoning would of course be erroneous or no longer apply. Fortunately, Landsburg clarifies what he means shortly thereafter: "the federal government effectively provides free flood insurance when it adopts a policy of assisting flood victims." Then he is fully correct both in his conclusion that "because of that policy, houses on floodplains are made more expensive" (125) and in his derivation of it.

Now as a result of making the distinction between empirical sciences and logical sciences, it would seem that Landsburg would be led to adopt the methodology of the Austrian school which is axiomatic-deductive. At first glance, Landsburg likes economic deductions which he calls applications of logic. But neoclassicals generally do not believe that the foundations of economics are self-evident axioms. For example, Rothbard establishes the shape of the demand curve in Man, Economy, and State through a rigorous deduction from the axiomatic laws of diminishing marginal utility and increasing marginal cost. But neoclassicals tend to think that the shape of the demand curve is obtained rather empirically, from numerous observations which all for whatever reason conveniently happen to turn out the same way. However, once the basics have been thus observed, all the economic theorems are from then on derived logically. The neoclassical economic methodology would seem to be an empirical-deductive chimera.

If that were all, then we could forgive Landsburg. But he contradicts himself readily:

I believe you have an aorta not because I've seen it, but because I've heard that other people have been found to have aortas, so I'm guessing you do, too. ...

We know that grass is green partly because we've seen green grass and partly because we have a theory that allows us to generalize from one blade to another. (123-4)

In these example, Landsburg is using induction, an inference from particular observations to general laws. These are inductive generalizations. Suppose I assert: "All emeralds are green." There are, let's say, a million emeralds in the entire world. We randomly pick 990,000 of them, and they all turn out to be green. Simple calculations show that the probability that all of them are green is high, because if even one out of the 1 million was blue, say, then it would very likely have found its way into the sample, and we would have detected it. The probability of a non-green emerald drops with every green emerald we inspect. (The sample has to be really random; it will not do to conclude that "All swans are white" by looking everywhere except Australia however thoroughly.)

Similarly, we examine a large random sample of living human-like objects, find all of them to have aortas, and conclude with some probability that all humans, including me and Landsburg, have aortas.

But consider a somewhat fanciful scenario. In the Bible, the Lord says to king Saul: "Go, now, attack Amalek, and put under the ban everything he has. Do not spare him; kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys." (1 Sam 15:3) NABRE comments: "This terminology mandates that all traces of the Amalekites (people, cities, animals, etc.) be exterminated. No plunder could be seized for personal use. ... this injunction would eliminate any tendency toward syncretism." I asked a Jewish Facebook friend why the Amalek were condemned to such an extent. He replied, because they were Israel's implacable enemies who would never stop attacking them. "But why kill even the animals?" I pressed. "Because according to Jewish lore, the Amalek were shapeshifters who could hide among their flocks and such." Nice one. But can it be that those guys might not have had aortas, despite appearing perfectly human?

Some plants like poinsettia can have red leaves; perhaps there can be non-green grass, too:

In any case, these analogies are Landsburg's reason for his conclusion that for any item, if demand increases, prices rise. This is exceedingly induction-like: the more of the same phenomenon we randomly observe, the smaller the probability that we've missed something.

The proper "generalization" is as follows: houses, haircuts, and soups are all goods. Therefore, economic logic applies to all of them with equal mastery.

Now "good" is not anything found in the material nature. It's not a natural kind like "silver," "aorta," or "grass." It's a special interpretation that humans make of or impose on material things. It's nothing even objective or mind-independent. We say that X is as much a blade of grass as Y because they look and function the same (have the same material and efficient causes). But "goods" need have no physical properties in common. A soup and a house are completely different materially and efficiently but both can be goods. Conversely, the very same physical object can be different goods or be used differently by two consumers or entrepreneurs (have different final causes).

Landsburg's analogies fail at illustrating the manner in which we classify soup and houses as species of the genus "good" about which economic propositions can be affirmed. It's not as if we carefully study a variety of things (like emeralds before), experiment to assure ourselves that for lots of different objects, increased demand results in higher prices, and generalize from these observations to all objects. Our reasoning is not an empirical generalization at all. It's a deduction, an a priori inference from general to particular, of a theorem from axioms we find self-evident.

Thus, Landsburg cannot be considered to be even an empirical-deductive economist, however self-contradictory that idea is, too; he publicly teaches that economics is empirical-inductive, just like physics. He disavows in theory his own practice of his science.

A person may proclaim that utilitarianism is true, but in his own personal life would refuse to sacrifice his child in order to cause mild sexual gratification in a warehouse full of rabbits. Or one may claim to be a materialist but be fully in touch with his feelings and thoughts. Landsburg's philosophy is false through and through, yet somehow he is alive and sane and not in prison. One is a hypocrite when he sins while knowing or teaching the truth. Landsburg, on the contrary, acts virtuously (including by employing deductive economic logic in this book) but teaches nonsense. It is clear that he cannot possibly take his own theories seriously. He is simply a liar, and he knows it.

Whether There Is Too Much Air Pollution?

Landsburg claims to prove that there is by treating pollution as a negative externality and assuming that the marginal social cost curve lies to the left of the marginal private cost curve.

These are, of course, assumptions. Perhaps the extra social harm of pollution is exactly zero: no one actually cares about air pollution one bit. In such a case, the two curves are identical, and the amount of pollution is exactly right. Landsburg can escape this difficulty by saying that it is enough for his thesis if even a single person in the entire world finds pollution objectionable, and this person definitely exists in the form of Landsburg himself. But all he'll have proven then is that with billions of people on the planet, the pollution levels could well be almost perfectly optimal, in which case any realistic measure to curb pollution may well drive it unbecomingly below optimal.

In addition, we may then question the other assumption. Perhaps air pollution has or will be discovered to have sizable benefits, such as moderating climate change.

The real purpose of this exercise, as engaged in by actual neoclassical economists, is not to prove that there is too much pollution but to assert a far more ambitious statement: that the government incorporated in the form of some Externalities Control Bureau has the right to tax us; that it is the ECB and only it that decides the amount of the tax according to the value judgments of the bureaucrats as to the most pleasing amount of pollution; that the actual consequences of the taxes are irrelevant, and all that matters is to invest the bureaucrats, the economists' bosses, with greater powers.

However, neither the economists nor the bureaucrats can ever know the optimal amount of pollution according to the criterion of the greatest good for the greatest number, as Landsburg himself readily admits. A given tax has the same chance to improve the situation as to make it worse from the point of view of general welfare.

To re-post a point already made, "there are two kinds of taxes. One kind is meant to raise revenue for the government; that people change their behavior in response to them causes such taxes to be non-market-neutral, produce deadweight loss, and is an undesirable side effect. The other kind is the exact opposite: it is meant to alter behavior; any revenues indicate only that the offending behavior has in some part persisted, and it is this that's an undesirable side effect. Some taxes then are meant to be paid; others, entirely avoided." Surely, taxing pollution (in order to equalize marginal benefits with marginal social costs) is a tax of the second kind. But it will inevitably generate some revenues and thereby impose definite costs on society. These costs, too, need to be taken into account by Landsburg, but he neglects even to mention the problem.

Re: Incomplete Thinking

In Chapter 11, Landsburg briefly describes the Gödel's incompleteness theorem. He touches on an especially interesting aspect of it: whether one consequence of this theorem is that humans are fundamentally superior to computers.

As it happens, in my book in (Appendix, 7), I take on this very problem, asserting "that Gödel's and Tarski's theorems suggest a way in which human and machine intelligences differ." I conclude:

A system TA called "true arithmetic," whose axioms consist of all true statements about natural numbers and no false statements, is both consistent and complete but not decidable. Now a formula is a theorem, if it is provable from the axioms. The axioms are the "reality," to which the theorem "corresponds" or "conforms" and because of that is counted as true. There is no mechanical algorithm that could be programmed into a computer to verify or falsify every formula of true arithmetic.

However, there is a way to get all three properties, but only if we resort to a meta-language to describe the object language of S.

The non-mechanical way of deciding S is precisely to construct a meta-language S' to speak about the object language of S. For true arithmetic, TA' might be second-order arithmetic.

Now we come to the main claim. Machines are limited to the object language whose axioms they have been programmed with. Any ability of a computer to create a meta-language for object language S1 must itself be part of S1. Computers cannot generate meta-languages to infinity. But humans can.

Unlike machines which are (a) finite, then, humans are (b) potentially infinite: the (c) actually infinite totality of all truth will forever escape them, but there is no limit to how much knowledge they can aspire to. This constitutes the key difference between human and artificial intelligences.

Landsburg seems to understand this argument, saying that "there is no limit to my principles... No matter what computer you build, I've got a principle you didn't build into it. So no computer can be as powerful as I am." (108) He rejects it probably on materialist grounds: he does not want concede that humans are not merely material objects. "... the principles you're really comfortable with are probably not unlimited, and if they're not unlimited, I can build them all into a computer. And nothing Gödel says can stop me." (109) Well, case closed for our author, I guess. So much for his respect for logic and math.

Diogenes’ Unnecessary Nightmare

In Chapter 8 Landsburg propounds an amazing argument. This one bears a long quote:

Suppose I have good reasons for betting on the Yankees; you have equally good, but entirely different, reasons for betting on the Red Sox. I don't know your reasons and you don't know mine. Nevertheless, the instant I hear you're betting on the Red Sox, I should question my faith in the Yankees. True, I don't know why you're betting on the Red Sox -- but surely you have some reasons. So, to put this bluntly, why should I trust my own opinion any more than I trust yours?

Well, here's why: Maybe I have some very good reasons to stick with the Yankees. (Maybe I met a doctor who's treating the Red Sox's best starting pitcher for bursitis.) That's fine. So I stick with the Yankees. And as soon as I announce that I'm sticking with the Yankees, you can infer that I've got some very good reasons for my opinion. You have no idea what those reasons are, but you know I find them quite convincing -- convincing enough to overcome the momentary shock of hearing that you favor the Red Sox. Now your faith is shaken. Are you sticking with your opinion? If so, that tells me that you must have very good reasons, which shakes my faith even further. Do I still stick with the Yankees? Only if my reasons are very very good, in which case you know that my reasons are very very good. So our conversation goes something like this:

You: I'm betting on the Red Sox.
Me. I hear you. But I'm betting on the Yankees.
You. Well I hear you, but I'm still betting on the Red Sox.
Me: I still say Yankees.
You: I still say Red Sox.
Me: Yankees.
You: Red Sox.
Me: Yankees.
You: Red Sox.
Me: Okay. Red Sox.

Appearances to the contrary, new information is conveyed at every stage of the conversation. (77-8)

Remarkable. Every discussion motivated by honest truthseeking must, according to our author, end in some kind of equilibrium through just this sort of abjectly trivial dynamics.

Really? But one's confidence in the truth of one's opinion is an emotional component of the opinion. It's a feeling of the intensity of certitude. And a feeling cannot be evidence of any kind.

Your confidence that P is not a rational argument against my belief that ~P. "Conversing" with each other in the above manner need not make me doubt my own beliefs; for all I know, your confidence, a feeling, exists for all the wrong reasons, namely because you've made a mistake you have not discovered. And I cannot help you to discover your error (or you, mine) simply by vomiting my conclusion at you however many times.

Even if I pause to wonder what makes you so sure, without a refutation of the actual argument that convinced me, I see no reason for me to change my opinion. In fact, the more times the Landsburgian exchange is repeated, the less -- not more -- value I should place on your opinion, because you show yourself increasingly more emotionally committed to your belief, more fanatical, more devoted, and this attitude, I would judge, is a sign precisely that your rational judgment is clouded.

The "information" that "is conveyed at every stage of the conversation" is not about the strength of the argument but only about the vehemence of the emotion accompanying it. It is of the will not the intellect. Therefore, it is entirely useless for "honest truthseeking."

Further, even if the intensity of feeling or the fire and fury in one's heart mattered in a rational argument, there would the problem of comparing such intensities interpersonally. In an illustration, Landsburg assigns cardinal numbers to them: my 7 out of 10 vs. your 8 out of 10, but this is obviously hopeless in the real world.

Finally, suppose that one party is actually lying. You claim that the three angles of a triangle add up to two right angles. Your interlocutor pretends to passionately disagree forever. The exchange continues until you concede that you are wrong. This seems unhelpful.

It is clear that Landsburg has confused contemplative life in which we seek not the truth but rather good reasons to believe things, with active life in which we just need the truth regardless of whether we are well-justified in believing it or not -- since basing our actions on false beliefs is almost guaranteed to cause us to fail. The former activity utterly precludes the Landsburgian "equilibration." The latter activity does not.

That Landsburg's theorem applies only to active life, i.e., to the human pursuit of happiness, becomes obvious when he uses it to (viciously, unjustly, and exasperatingly) condemn both gamblers and entrepreneurs as irrational:

Why do professional gamblers bet against each other, rather than treating each other's opinions as seriously as their own? ...

The answer, I guess, is that gamblers aren't in it only for the money. They're in it also for the prestige of being right when the other guy is wrong. You can't earn that prestige without staking out a contrarian position now and then.

Ditto for stock-market investors.

Virtually all economists agree that if you're out to make money, it's crazy to try to "beat the market"; lionizing the man who does beat the market is like lionizing the man who manages to flip heads twenty times in a row.

Nevertheless, men and women who beat the market are lionized. If you want to be admired for your investment prowess, you've got to act as if you disagree with the crowd -- and then hope for good luck. (84)

In the first place, then, Landsburg likens entrepreneurship to gambling. This is an astonishing, shameful, even inhuman mistake. Is Landsburg autistic?

Humans prudence, the virtue that governs the active life, takes as inputs both physical causality provided by knowledge and teleology provided by understanding. One understands human actions; since present understanding, no matter how deep, does not allow perfect prediction of future human actions, these actions create a surprising world; and one must be courageous, as well as adaptable, confident, quick-witted, and in possession of presence of mind in order not to be dismayed by any sudden development, come what may. If it is an opportunity, then one must seize it before others catch on; if it is a disaster, then one must minimize the damage and turn things around ASAP.

Regarding knowledge, one may know something with 100% certainty or be completely ignorant. In between, there are probabilities. Persons who count on their power to estimate probabilities accurately and use them in their favor to obtain profits are called gamblers.

Regarding understanding, things are analogous yet different. One either understands another human being very well and can surmise his next moves, or that other person is a complete stranger. In between, there is "discernment of spirits," insight into another's soul, his character, motivations, aptitude, etc. Whenever one is counting on his spiritual insight to guide him toward profits, whatever he is doing, it cannot be called gambling. One who counts in addition on his emotional intelligence and acuity to help him deal with his customers and beat his rivals is not a gambler but an entrepreneur. Now it will immediately be pointed out that an entrepreneur performs a social function: he rearranges production in such a way as to improve consumer well-being. That is correct, but in order to do that, the entrepreneur must have precisely insight into the moods and mental states of both his customers and his competitors. It is his deep understanding that makes an entrepreneur successful and a servant to the people at the same time.

We can see that speculation on the stock market and suchlike can in no wise be called gambling but must rather be labeled entrepreneurship. How has Landsburg been able to have a career as an eminent economist without understanding the difference? But in his defense, it probably stems from his unthinking commitment to the methodology of his Chicago school of economics, as well as from his materialist monism.

Now as a matter of fact, the modern stock market has unfortunately partially deteriorated into a gambling machine (1) in which people place bets on their estimation of business cycles, and (2) through which they hope to protect their savings from inflation. In my book I criticize the culture of mass investing as a grotesque reaction of the people precisely to these two economic perversions. Still, the general point stands.

Even Keynes argued in a letter: "Is not the rule [for an investor] to be in the minority? It is the only sphere of life and activity where victory, security, and success are always to the minority and never to the majority. When you find anyone agreeing with you, change your mind." Keynes was a better entrepreneur than he was economist.

Of course, Landsburg's answer proves too much. Forget the stock market; why do people start their own privately owned (as in, not traded publicly) businesses at all if it's impossible to beat the market? But what is the "market" if not existing firms operating close to equilibrium, i.e., the economic status quo? Small companies routinely grow and become big; big companies implode and disappear. Great profits are garnered and soon are arbitraged away. Factors of production flow from one business owner to another; from one purpose in the economy to another, as businessmen plot and plan their moves and countermoves; Schumpeter considered it the essence of economic progress that entrepreneurs find novel uses for old things. New products appear and if successful, are imitated and improved upon. In this market process, unimagined new wealth is created.

There is certainly no need to ascribe strange motives to people like the vainglorious desire to humiliate their rivals. Entrepreneurs put their own lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the line. They want to succeed and profit. They are in it for the money. Of course, there is competition, but success in business is not a random win like in roulette in a casino; every firm, every business plan, and every human action that executes the things planned are perfectly unique and uniquely differentiated from all others of their kinds.

It's a sad state of affairs that an economist of Landsburg's stature would consider men to be machines and economic science to be a kind of applied physics. But we'll have a chance to discuss this problem later on in this review of Big Questions.

Landsburg’s Careless Reductionism

Landsburg finds the fact that there are such phenomena as "extrasensory perception" (ESP) and free will self-evident. As examples of the former he gives the "perception that the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter is somewhere between 3.1415 and 3.1416" and like mathematical truths (70). Now he uses this term non-standardly. Merriam-Webster defines ESP as "perception (as in telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition) that involves awareness of information about events external to the self not gained through the senses and not deducible from previous experience." What Landsburg has in mind is not ESP but the human ability to come to know things by reflection as opposed to sensation. We can call it introspection, contemplation of a priori truths, understanding, or self-knowledge. One sees things not with his physical eyes but with the "mind's eye." There is nothing new in Landsburg's appreciation of this capacity.

Yet it has nothing to do with the "6th-sense" perception of real-world "events external to the self." Mathematical propositions are neither "events" nor are "external" to the thinker, being rather aspects of the logical structure of the mind itself.

Similarly, the human appetite is divided into sensual and intellectual. Before understanding "freedom" of the will, it is necessary to define the "will" itself. And that's the intellectual appetite, the thing that feels emotions, generally "spiritual" joy and sorrow as distinct from sensual delight and pain. The difference is two-fold.

First, the latter comes through the five senses of the body: touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. The former comes about through the exercise of the intellect or mind.

Second, there is a phenomenological difference in the kind and quality of experience of these two kinds of pleasures. The experience of eating a candy bar and enjoying its sweetness is different from the experience of being honored or solving a difficult problem. For no one really rejoices from eating a candy; on the other hand, though one's soul is elated at being honored by a community or one's peers, the senses are silent.

Again, let Smith resolve to follow a diet. Yet on one occasion he overeats. Here Smith's delight produced by the sense of taste co-exists with intellectual sorrow of realizing that he has sabotaged his own project. Smith is upset even though he genuinely enjoyed the food.

Calculation of profits and losses can occur despite the fact that there are in man two appetites. For sensual pleasures are fed into the will which then tallies up the pleasures and pains, whatever their source. Mises agrees:

Acting man also rationalizes the satisfaction of his sexual appetites. Their satisfaction is the outcome of a weighing of pros and cons. Man does not blindly submit to a sexual stimulation like a bull; he refrains from copulation if he deems the costs -- the anticipated disadvantages -- too high. (HA, 668)

This distinction sheds light on the virtue of temperance as a kind of liaison, a middleman arbitrating between the delights of the senses and joys of the will. It moderates animalistic sensual pleasures, so as to not cause any harm to conscious purposive plans of the will -- plans that may include abstaining from a given pleasure entirely.

Of the vices opposed to temperance, two are of note, both occurring when it is not the senses that are controlled by the will but the reverse: the will is a slave to the senses. The will can be such a slave involuntarily or voluntarily.

In the first case, a man constantly gives in to passions which ultimately harm him either in happiness or holiness, yet always regrets this giving in. This vice is called "incontinence." The man is always tempted with pleasures or avoidance of pain and "cannot help himself." Though he understands that he is so impulsive and easily dominated by lust or rage and resolves to moderate his passions again and again, he often fails. He knows overeating is bad for health but cannot resist delicious food. Etc.

In the second case, the man has deliberately chosen to pursue only sensual pleasures. He decided to order his life in such a way that he does not care for work or achievement or other people or wisdom but has lowered himself to the rank of animals, purposely seeking nothing but sensual gratifications: food, alcohol, drugs, sex, games, the pleasures of anger and vengeance, and so on. This vice is called "intemperance" and is much worse than incontinence, because the will has consented to being degraded like this.

A third vice has the name of "insensitivity," wherein the senses are so weak that it is not worth for the will to govern them. An insensitive man does not even attend to the necessities of life like food and sleep and so forth; he is like an inanimate object, passionless, not caring for pleasures. He is not interested in sex. He never gets angry, even when anger is perfectly justified, e.g., if he has been cheated. This is also inhuman and bad.

Free-will, in contrast with the will, is the power of choice. If one desires x, then that which desires is the will; but that which chooses (the pursuit of) x, while setting aside y and z, is the free will. But both will and free will are the same faculty.

Free-will adds two differentiae to the will: first, the fact that not all desires can be satisfied, and therefore, desires have to be ranked according to urgency or subjective importance; second, the fact that no single state of the trinity within -- i.e., ends chosen, knowledge of how to attain those ends, and the powers to make one's dreams come true -- is essential to man. Any material entity, if it stopped obeying its own natural laws, would cease to be what it was. It would instantly corrupt, and some new substance would be generated. It is true that the will seeks happiness by necessity, but a man is able to pursue happiness in a wide variety of ways: no particular manner of this pursuit is essential to him. A man can switch from pursuing x to pursuing y and remain a man, what he is.

(As a consequence, God in Himself, sans creation, has a will -- in fact, each person of the Trinity has His own unique will, but not really free will, because God, being perfectly happy, is under no necessity to make choices between various satisfactions.)

All the human emotions experienced by the will, too, are ideal, except as already noted, they are not objective like proposition-expressing thoughts but subjective.

With these considerations out of the way, let's examine Landsburg's attempt to reconcile "ESP" and free will (i.e., reflection and a priori deduction for the intellect and feelings and a priori synthesis for the will) with his materialism. He sets up the problems as follows: "Physics, at least at the level of neurons, is essentially deterministic: If you know the state of a system on Monday, and have sufficient computational power, you can predict with certainty the state of the system on the following Friday. Human beings are physical objects. Ergo, ... Where, then is there room for free will?" (68)

Unfortunately, there is very little substance here. Just as before, Landsburg blithely resorts to the deus ex machina of "complexity." Thus, he writes:

What caused Hurricane Katrina?

Water vapor rising from the ocean's surface condensed to form clouds, releasing heat and causing an area of low pressure, sucking in air and creating winds that caused still further evaporation and fed the cycle. ... [It's] just a shorthand term for an indescribably complex process involving trillions of air and water molecules. ... But that doesn't mean evaporation isn't real.

He issues a similar explanation for freely chosen human actions:

What caused your decision to get drunk and watch Mystery Science Theater the night before your philosophy final?

Free will. ... [This, too, is] just a shorthand term for an indescribably complex process involving trillions of neurons, which in turn can be described in terms of quadrillions of atoms and quintillions of subatomic particles. So what? You still have free will, and you know it. (69)

We both agree there is free will. We even agree that determinism is true. But Landsburg does not, as I do, ultimately distinguish between physical causation proper to merely material objects and teleological causation proper to human beings. The former is roughly illustrated by one billiard ball hitting another; the latter, by the situation in which a person's future expected utility causes him to act for the sake of achieving his goal.

Note one crucial difference between these. In physical causation, the cause is before the effect: the first ball is in motion before it moves the second ball; in teleological causation, it is after the effect, as one's projected pleasure in the future motivates one to spring into action in the here and now. Landsburg reduces teleology to physics implausibly on its face and without doing any work of supplying the alleged missing mechanism that causes the physical "process involving trillions of neurons" to give rise to a human action. Apparently, he expects me to treat his "complexity" as a sort of god and simply agree with him on pure faith. But I already have my own faith; I don't need this one.

Again, as a materialist and unlike a dualist, Landsburg is required, as already shown, to put forward a well-grounded and testable theory of how his reduction works. For Hurricane Katrina, he does. For one's decision to get drunk, he conspicuously does not. Therefore, his analogy from the hurricane to free will is inadequate and fails.

Landsburg’s Non-Idea of God

On pages 34-5 Landsburg considers and rejects, incompetently, the ontological argument for the existence of God. It's his only attempt at atheology.

But what is it whose existence he denies? What is God, as far as Landsburg is concerned? A god for him as a materialist might be some giant flying brain in the sky. But I, too, agree that this god is implausible. He already admits that there are some ideal things (that "are not made of atoms"), math propositions, say. But he considers the idea that there are immaterial minds crazy. How math propositions can exist outside of minds, outside of being thought or expressed by thoughts, he does not tell us. But regarding God, he is fighting an illusion. No theist actually believes in the giant brain in the sky. If materialism is true, then God is probably a hopeless notion. But that just begs the question.

Suppose I asserted, "Frood does not exist." The obvious immediate question is, "What is Frood?" What is the nature of this thing which I insist does not exist? Until this question is answered, my original claim is entirely meaningless. Yet Landsburg proposes no idea of God of his own which he nevertheless is sure is not instantiated. There is nothing to go on here.

The correct method of theology is to note first that if God were like any creature, then it would be part of the created world and detectable by ordinary means. But such a thing would hardly be divine. In order to prove God's existence, it is therefore necessary to show how something very much unlike creatures at least in degree but more important, in kind, must exist. We prove God's existence by uncovering His astonishing attributes one by one until the idea of God or meaning of the term "God" has been (1) to the greatest possible extent elucidated and (2) rigorously demonstrated to refer to something real.

Landsburg shows no awareness of this procedure, which is why his efforts are lacking.

And of course, he contradicts himself with his fantastic theory, already dealt with in a previous post, that "every possible universe exists. ... This idea... obliterates the distinction between possible existence and actual existence. ... Any universe that can exist does exist... They're all real." (16) For surely, God is logically possible and can exist. According to Landsburg's own half-baked philosophy, God then does exist.

Why So Few True Believers?

Landsburg continues his argument that most believers are hypocrites by making some predictions.

Believers in hell should commit fewer crimes;

believers in heaven should take more risks;

believers in one religion should interact in predictable ways with believers in another;

believers in God should have a powerful interest in the alternatives.

And he is "confident that carefully gathered statistics could refute the hypothesis that religious beliefs are widely or deeply held," contrary to spurious "survey data [that] indicate that a good 90% of Americans believe in God." (63-6)

Let's consider each prediction in sequence. As to crime, Christianity is divine grace that builds on and perfects human nature. There are unique moral precepts for Christians that do not apply to heathens. Abstaining from committing violent crimes and fraud, however, are not those. They belong not to the castle of grace but fully to its foundation of purely natural morality. "You shall not murder" is to be heeded by all men, whether religious or not, and of any religion whatsoever. Now Christianity holds that even the nature of man and the world is wounded. Therefore, there is an extra prerequisite for getting grace bestowed on one, namely, that his natural faculties must be healed first.

Nevertheless, synderesis or the habit of actual understanding of first principles, such as of ethics, is independent and prior to religion. Therefore, we should expect both believers and atheists to abide by the basic justice more or less equally.

In other words, both Christians and atheists risk being condemned to hell equally for doing evil. It is true, however, that only Christians know this. By virtue of this, they should be deterred much more efficiently. If a self-proclaimed Christian does commit a crime, he by that very fact demonstrates deep irrationality on his own part.

As to risks, belief in the afterlife should make believers cling less to this existence, says Landsburg. But what if an explicit general condition for salvation is this life prudently and shrewdly lived? Christianity has always maintained that martyrdom is not to be sought for its own sake. Jacob did not live to be 147 years old and to beget the twelve tribes of Israel by neglecting his physical health or life or earthly affairs. However, I agree that Christians should be willing to take extra risks for the sake of heavenly glory. St. Thomas adds: "if a man through fear of the danger of death or of any other temporal evil is so disposed as to do what is forbidden, or to omit what is commanded by the Divine law, such fear is a mortal sin: otherwise it is a venial sin." (ST, II-II, 125, 3)

The reason to engage in "interfaith dialog" is to learn and try to reply to the objections that other faiths have against one's own. St. Thomas explains it this way: the Christian

doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else...

Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another.

If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections -- if he has any -- against faith. (ST, I, 1, 8)

As for learning, I fully agree that it is a shame that so few Christians seek to understand their faith, especially by engaging with modern science. At the same time, Landsburg needs a reality check if he thinks that "true religious believers should have a passionate interest in fundamental physics..., but the bookshelves of the average churchgoer are no more likely than anyone to contain a good survey of, say, quantum chromodynamics." (62) Does he really expect an average bus driver to understand such arcane subjects as advanced physics? The miracle of the Church is that it supplies everything needful for salvation even to the dullest of men while permitting a vast amount of freedom to the intellectuals. Landsburg of all people should approve of the division of labor.

This suggests that knowledge of "chromodynamics" is not necessary for true faith.

Further, let's suppose Landsburg knows his chromodynamics. How has this helped him to learn more about God? Or at least which arguments has this knowledge supplied to him in favor of the non-existence of God? St. Thomas condemns the "sin of curiosity" in part "when a man desires to know the truth about creatures, without referring his knowledge to its due end, namely, the knowledge of God: 'in studying creatures, we must not be moved by empty and perishable curiosity; but we should ever mount towards immortal and abiding things.'" (ST, II-II, 167, 1) Landsburg demonstrates mighty curiosity in his heart indeed in this book, but it seems to have borne no useful fruit for him.

This suggests that knowledge of chromodynamics is not sufficient for true faith.

It's true then that most Christians fail to live their faith. It's not a novel observation. God destroyed thousands of Israelites for murmuring against him and being "stiff-necked":

The riffraff among them were so greedy for meat that even the Israelites lamented again,

"If only we had meat for food! We remember the fish we used to eat without cost in Egypt, and the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now we are famished; we have nothing to look forward to but this manna." ...

The Lord became very angry: "Therefore the Lord will give you meat to eat, and you will eat it, not for one day, or two days, or five, or ten, or twenty days, but for a whole month -- until it comes out of your very nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. For you have rejected the Lord who is in your midst, and in his presence you have cried, 'Why did we ever leave Egypt?'" ...

There arose a wind from the Lord that drove in quail from the sea and left them all around the camp site, to a distance of a day's journey and at a depth of two cubits upon the ground. ... But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it could be chewed, the Lord's wrath flared up against the people, and the Lord struck them with a very great plague. (Num 11)

Jesus Himself called Jews hypocrites at least a dozen times, such as in Mt 23.

How many physically healthy and fit people are there? How many are bodybuilders? They are a small minority. But saints are soulbuilders, and there are still fewer of them. Jesus pointed out: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few." (Mt 7:13-14) What's the surprise?

I'll go even further than Landsburg. From Monday to Saturday, an average Christian should be expected to lose his faith until on Saturday, he is a semi-atheist.

The Catholic mass on Sunday is supposed to remind the people busy with their lives and problems why they are here, what God is, and of the means to salvation. It arrests the slide into apathy, ignorance, cynicism, and hopelessness.

At the same time, while the sacraments do signify via corporeal means the spiritual realities, they are no substitutes for them. The priests and teachers can only do so much.

Curiously, in Fair Play, Landsburg thought that Jesus was not divine for a non-trivial reason, namely, because Christianity is false and Judaism is true. Now that he's become an atheist, he believes that for a completely trivial reason: because no one is divine, there is no such thing as divinity. That's fine, but is he trying to make himself feel better by claiming that Christians don't really believe, either? Don't be so insecure, Steven.

Landsburg on Living the Faith

Landsburg lodges a powerful accusation against even (on the surface) devoutly religious people. Suppose, he says, you could take any such person and "ask him, 'Are the tenets of your religion true?' and somehow convince him that the life of his child depends on getting the answer right. I'm guessing that nine times out of ten, you'd find yourself confronting a born-again infidel. The only reason that rarely happens is that there's rarely an occasion when getting the right answer actually matters." (56-7)

He is probably right. But it's that one case out of ten that changes everything. Now there were at least two figures in the Bible who did not become infidels upon facing grave danger to their children: Abraham and God the Father. Both sacrificed their only sons, Abraham for the sake of his fidelity to God; God for the sake of His fidelity to the world. And there are other instances, such as in the Golden Calf episode:

Moses' anger burned... Moses stood at the gate of the camp and shouted, "Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!" All the Levites then rallied to him, and he told them, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Each of you put your sword on your hip! Go back and forth through the camp, from gate to gate, and kill your brothers, your friends, your neighbors!"

The Levites did as Moses had commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people fell.

Then Moses said, "Today you are installed as priests for the Lord, for you went against your own sons and brothers, to bring a blessing upon yourselves this day." (Ex 32)

Aaron loyally remained Moses' second-in-command even after God killed two of his own sons Nadab and Abihu. (Lev 10)

Again, Moses commanded the people of Israel:

If your brother, your father's child or your mother's child, your son or daughter, your beloved spouse, or your intimate friend entices you secretly, saying, "Come, let us serve other gods," whom you and your ancestors have not known, any of the gods of the surrounding peoples, near to you or far away, from one end of the earth to the other:

do not yield or listen to any such person; show no pity or compassion and do not shield such a one, but kill that person. (Deut 13:7-10)

In the New Testament, Jesus declared that "I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man 'against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's enemies will be those of his household.' Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me." (Mt 10:34-38)

Landsburg then suggests that most people do not love God more than family. Well, sure. Who can doubt that most Jews and Christians pale in comparison with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus?

Why Recite the Articles of Faith?

In Chapter 6, Landsburg makes a number of claims, some of them false, and others rather good.

He begins by describing his Orthodox Jewish friend Misha proclaiming every day that "I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may tarry, nevertheless I believe." Landsburg objects in reply: "I believe with perfect faith that the square root of two is an irrational number, but I have never felt an ongoing need to announce that conviction to the Universe. That's why I suspect that Misha is a liar." The reason is that Misha must be brainwashing himself: "the 'beliefs' I echo are those I might want to believe, or those I'm trying to talk myself into, or those that I'm trying on for size. But when I pass the threshold to actual belief, I stop reviewing the matter." (55-6)

But this confuses reason and faith as sources of belief. Thus, I believe that Christ is Lord with "perfect" faith, while Landsburg believes that "the square root of two is an irrational number" not with perfect faith but with perfect reason.

What is faith? It's an assent of the intellect to the revealed knowledge of God. Specifically, "to faith those things in themselves belong, the sight of which we shall enjoy in eternal life, and by which we are brought to eternal life." (ST, II-II, 1, 8) There are secret things that are of God that humans cannot discover by reason alone but that can only be known through divine revelation. Thus, the Bible relates: "Jesus spoke to them only in parables, to fulfill what had been said through the prophet: 'I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation [of the world].'" (Mt 13:34-35) Of course, Christianity itself is not an esoteric religion at all; all its gems are hidden in plain sight.

St. Thomas writes that faith stands midway between science and opinion. This becomes clear if we compare the relative strengths of the influences that impel a person to come to believe. A scientific demonstration of a conclusion will move the mind to accept the conclusion as true inexorably. Scientific evidence is seen either by sensation or reflection and hence has intrinsic power to convince. For example, seeing chlorine produced from salt is sufficient to persuade anybody of the correctness of the chemical reaction

2NaCl + 2H2O → Cl2 + H2 + 2NaOH.

On the other hand, faith requires an act of choice to give in to God-given disposition to believe and to accept the unseen knowledge revealed to one by God -- knowledge that cannot be obtained by scientific investigation. One can go either way, but when the assent is given, the falsity of the propositions opposite to those that are the object of faith is not in doubt, precisely as is the case with scientific demonstrations.

By contrast, opinion is changeable and readily accepts the possibility of the opposite and so can at any time be swayed by new arguments: "the intellect assents to something, not through being sufficiently moved to this assent by its proper object, but through an act of choice, whereby it turns voluntarily to one side rather than to the other: and if this be accompanied by doubt or fear of the opposite side, there will be opinion, while, if there be certainty and no fear of the other side, there will be faith." (ST, II-II, 1, 4)

Here is the clincher: this choice must be made anew every day, and therefore the confession of faith must be recited every day as a sign of one's preference.

I find no need to keep declaring that God exists, either; I know it in the same way in which Landsburg knows the properties of the square root of two. I do not "announce to the Universe" that "there is a God, and He is simple, eternal, perfectly happy, all-knowing," and so on. I already have excellent reasons for believing all this, having proved it to my satisfaction through philosophy. I may still invoke these facts in my prayer, anyway, insofar as "things which can be proved by demonstration are reckoned among the articles of faith, not because they are believed simply by all, but because they are a necessary presupposition to matters of faith, so that those who do not known them by demonstration must know them first of all by faith." (ST, II-II, 1, 5, reply 3) Note, however, that the Nicene creed is only about faith-based knowledge, e.g., "We believe in... the Father, the Almighty, Maker of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God..." That God is a Trinity is a revealed truth.

Again, "the existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected," says St. Thomas (ST, I, 2, 2, reply 1). This natural foundation for faith requires perfect intellectual consistency and coherence of natural theology. Any flaw in our metaphysics, concept of God, meaning of life, and so on can cause the entire structure of nature + grace to collapse. An intelligent person already suspicious of faith who perceives mistakes in our reasoning is unlikely to believe.

The choice to believe is neither irrational nor a type of violent self-brainwashing. It is aided from below by lack of contradictions in the purely rational conception of God and related matters, by how well the faith builds on natural knowledge, and by personal virtue that does not cloud the intellect through sin and hypocrisy; and from above by divine grace which creates a lyrical enchantment with the articles of faith. Faith and science are similar in the sense that assenting to true beliefs and rejecting false beliefs, as a rule, leads to happiness, while the opposite actions lead to misery.

Now science is amenable to new evidence. But then so is faith. Like science, faith improves with time and always has, both "in the number of articles believed explicitly, since to those who lived in later times some were known explicitly which were not known explicitly by those who lived before them" (ST, II-II, 1, 7); and in our understanding of them.

Finally, faith is not a purely speculative subject but is also a master plan of the life-long project of saving oneself, of earning heaven. Reciting the confession is a way to re-affirm one's commitment against every temptation and evil. We can see that Misha, though a Jew and not a Christian, is acting 100% reasonably and honestly.

Whether Immortal Souls Are Beyond the Purview of Science?

Landsburg asserts that they are on p. 31 of his Big Questions.

I take exception to this. They are certainly not beyond the purview of human and social sciences, of which economics is one. An economist distinguishes at least as a matter of methodology between intelligent beings who act with conscious purposes and unintelligent ones. A simple way to describe this difference is to say that humans, unlike all other earthly creatures, have intellectual souls. The study of these souls and their interactions is the domain of sciences like psychology, history, and economics.

It is true that these sciences do not need to assume or prove that human souls are naturally immortal, i.e., that once it has flared up, the light of reason can never be put out. But they can and ought to study, among other things, the consequences of the enduring popular belief that life and consciousness go on after physical death.