Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Ancient Financiers Invented Written Language

Book Review: Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible By William N. Goetzmann 

Stuart K. Hayashi

Me with the book (this is a copy from the library).

Finance professor William N. Goetzmann -- son to the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning historian William H. Goetzmann -- has come out with a fascinating book titled Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016). It purports to be a comprehensive history of finance from the very time of its founding. Except for suffering from two large and regrettable shortcomings, it does a good job.

Best Definition of Finance I’ve Come Across
It begins by providing a definition for finance, better than any I heard in business school. According to Goetzmann, finance has three components. First is trade. Two parties agree to some exchange of values. The second component is time -- finance is all about the future. In the financial give-and-take, one party agrees to a specific action in the present whereas the other party agrees to a specific action in the future. When you receive a value in the present in exchange for promising to do something of value in the future, you are the debtor; the debt is settled once those commitments are met. The party that provided a value in the present and that is to receive another value in the future is the creditor. Also possible is that one party agrees to perform a specific action of value in the near future as the other party agrees to perform another specific action of value in the farther future. That finance is about promises to perform specific actions in the future is the reason for the third component: documentation. So that both parties can be held to the promises they made, the agreement must be written out for future reference, and the values exchanged are to be quantified so that there is precision in the measurement of values in case of future dispute among the parties.

Indeed, the words finance and finish come from the same root. It refers to paying off all of a debt at least, thereby finishing the debt.  That is also how, in the European Middle Ages, the term of governmental fine arose -- the fine is what the government declares to be the debt you owe the government.

Goetzmann’s explanation of the definition of finance also helped clarify a matter that had long nagged at me -- the distinction between economics and finance. People frequently get economics and finance mixed up. Both sciences involve money and the exchange of values and other resources in the service of satisfying marketplace demand. However, here are some differences.

First, in economics the emphasis is on the past and present. Economists look at what happened in the past and they tell you what is going on in the present. Economists are indeed frequently called upon to forecast future conditions, but forecasting is not essential to the profession -- that is, you can still practice economics even if you don’t make forecasts. Moreover, even when an economist does forecast future conditions, he or she is not necessarily planning for that future -- it is the parties planning for the future who pump the economist for predictions. By contrast, planning for the future is inherent to finance; if no promises for future actions are made, then it’s not finance.

 Secondly, finance is a much more normative science than is economics. An economist can tell you that, under specific economic conditions, there will be specific results, but the economist doesn’t have to conclude that this is good or bad; the economist does not necessarily tell you what ought to be done. By contrast, finance is perforce normative: to be a practitioner in finance means that you either know which specific procedures a good financier ought to follow, or you are looking to discover what are the best specific procedures.  Those procedures in finance are ultimately for the purpose of reallocating resources where they are in lower demand, transferring them to where they are in higher demand.  Every financial instrument serves at least one of the following functions.

  1. Directly reallocating resources, taking them where they are in lower demand, and placing them where there is greater marketplace demand for them.
  2.  Transmitting data to participants in the market about changes in supply or marketplace demand so that they can make better-informed decisions on how to maximize the satisfaction of marketplace demand.

Finally, finance -- usually more so than economics -- focuses on what a specific party ought to do. Economists look at multiple participants in a market -- the consumers and vendors -- and recognize that the conditions in the market are the accumulated sum of many individual choices. By contrast, when you think about finance, you are thinking specifically about how your own household or firm in particualr ought to plan for the future and meet its commitments as you manage its resources.

If Finance Bores You, Perhaps This Re-Interpretation of It Might Help...
I know that many people find finance boring; with just one glance at numerical figures on a page, their eyes glaze over. Too many people dismiss finance as merely crunching numbers and pushing papers around. They find it tedious at best and incomprehensible at worst because they don’t recognize what the numerical figures represent. Finance is actually not fundamentally about money as such, but the values for which the money is traded.

A moneylender is not fundamentally using money to make more money, but is performing the service of providing you with values and resources in the present, at a time much sooner than they would otherwise be available to you; the interest you pay to the moneylender is the fee you pay to the lender for the service of availing these values to you more promptly than they otherwise would be availed.  It is often said that time is money; when you pay interest on a loan, what you are purchasing is time.  When you examine financial documents, it’s helpful to visualize what those figures represent: the resources being reallocated, made accessible, to entrepreneurs for the production of goods and services for your benefit. Visualize how those numerical figures make it possible for you to take the vacations you love. When you see it that way, finance becomes much less boring.

I am thankful to Goetzmann for helping clarify this for me. However, this is a book on history, so let’s get to that.

How the Written Word Began With Finance
Right from the first chapter, Goetzmann offers important observations that too many historians, economists, and financiers have overlooked for too long: finance was integral to the invention of written language itself, as the ancient Mesopotamians first invented writing for the purpose of documenting contractual agreements whereby at least one of the parties had to fulfill an obligation -- a debt -- at a future date. The first written characters were standardized pictograms -- a particular symbol would represent a single unit of grains. As the transactions grew more sophisticated, though, the pictograms ceased to be adequate; they were replaced by a much larger number of wedge-shaped symbols that came to be known as cuneiform. The fact that writing was first invented for the purposes of bookkeeping, accounting, contracting, and finance has been well-known among archaeologists for decades, but not even they have fully understood the ramifications this fact has had for our modern life, and hence they had not phrased this point as clearly as Goetzmann has. Today we read so many essays that amount to screeds about the evilness of commerce and finance. Yet it is to commerce and finance that we owe the very existence of writing, the original information technology.  These ancient Mesopotamians likewise invented arithmetic for the purpose of adding precision to their production and trade of goods and of their settlements of debts.

Goetzmann even goes as far as arguing that because finance and contracts developed the abstraction skills of the ancient Greeks, it is the case that, however much the ancient Greek philosophers disdained financiers, it was the abstraction-building of the ancient Greek financiers that made ancient Greek philosophy possible.

Atlas Shrugged in Ancient Babylonia; Ancient Athens Was Where the First Antitrust Trial Took Place
I have read histories of ancient Greece and ancient Rome before, but this was the first book I remember reading that adequately explained how finance and usury were integral to their development. The book even elaborates on how the archaeologist Marc Van de Mieroop discovered that, as a consequence of King Rim-Sin imposing price controls -- specifically, caps on interest rates -- on the Mesopotamian city-state of Ur, the city-state's economy stagnated and never truly recovered. Atlas shrugged even in ancient Babylon! Moreover, Goetzmann goes over the testimonies of a trial of grain merchants in ancient Athens who were threatened with the death penalty upon being accused of forming a cartel to drive up grain prices -- history's earliest recorded antitrust trial. In these respects, I learned much.

This Book Acknowledges That Ayn Rand’s Contribution Is an Important Part of the History of Global Finance(!!!)
Goetzmann even has a section near the end titled "Seeds of Objectivism." In his history of finance -- that goes all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia and the invention of writing -- Goetzmann properly recognizes Ayn Rand's writings as essential to this history. Predictably, Goetzmann doesn't agree with Ayn Rand, of course; he admits that she is too idealistic for a cynic such as himself. Political conservatives, being cynics about human nature, routinely find Ayn Rand too idealistic for their taste. And, also typical for a political conservative, Goetzmann tritely says Ayn Rand is in the same category as Karl Marx on account of being "utopian."

Despite Goetzmann's silliness there, I have to give him credit for being honest enough to admit that rejecting Ayn Rand's philosophy is an act of cynicism. On some level, the left-wing writers who trash Ayn Rand are aware of this, but they prefer to put on the pretense that Rand’s defense of peaceable self-interest actually makes her too cynical for them -- they want to posture as the truuuuuuuuue idealists. At least here, with Goetzmann, we find an author fessing up to the actual reason so many authors are uncomfortable with Ayn Rand's ethical theories.

Book Becomes Less Interesting the Closer It Gets to Modern Times, Thanks to the Lip Service to Keynesianism
When it comes to giving a full history of finance, the book has two major weaknesses. First, the author blindly accepts the Keynesian (mis)interpretation of the events of the twentieth century. Goetzmann properly points out how medieval Chinese central banks failed to sustain the command economy simply by printing money and devaluing each monetary unit, and yet this same Goetzmann presumes that a sprawling central government can sustain itself forever by borrowing money to fund its myriad programs. Anyone who presumes that the U.S. federal government’s present method of financing itself through debt can be sustained in the long term has no business accusing Ayn Rand or anyone else of being impractical.

You Can’t Have a Complete History of Finance If You Avoid Addressing Antisemitism
The other major weakness is much larger: Goetzmann glosses over the topic of antisemitsm altogether. For what is supposed to be a grand overview of the history of finance throughout the world, since pre-Biblical times, this is conspicuous. You actually cannot have a well-integrated history of finance if you overlook the involvement of antisemitism.

Many people are familiar with the stereotype that Jews are savvy about finance in general and moneylending in particular, but very few people ask themselves how this stereotype came to be -- there wasn’t even anything voluntary on the part of Jews when it came to this association. This came about during the high Middle Ages. After centuries of economic stagnation throughout the early Middle Ages, nobles and royals came to admit to themselves that, if they wanted to build up their palaces and armies, they had to allow some liberalization when it came to finance. They had an enormous dilemma: the church still proclaimed it a terrible sin for Christians to loan money to other Christians at a profit; that was usury. One of the first loopholes to this rule that nobles exploited was their decision to have it legal for Jews to loan money to Christians at a profit. They considered this sinful as well, but they figured that Jews were going to go to hell anyway for not being Christian, so what additional harm could there be?

At the same time, Jews wanted to enter many other professions, but this was forbidden to them by law. Jobs were controlled by craft guilds -- government-enforced cartels. If you were in medieval Europe and wanted to become a blacksmith, you had to join the blacksmith guild . . . and Jews were barred from them. For this reason, from the high Middle Ages to the Renaissance, Jews loaned money at a profit to Christians because that was the only work available to them -- and, for centuries thereafter, people throughout the Western world ignorantly presumed that Jews were moneylenders solely because they had some innate preference for that profession over all others!

Incidentally, a similar phenomenon happened with Jews in motion picture productions and in publishing. Anti-Semites carp about Jews being prominent in Hollywood and even in business of publishing comic books, but those anti-Semites don’t bother to ask themselves why Jews ever became prominent in these industries. It was that in the early 1900s in the USA, Eastern European Jews still faced a lot of discrimination when it came to looking for work. Hence, they had to start their own businesses. In the early 1900s, the industries of comic book publishing and motion picture production were just emerging. Jews that faced heavy discrimination noticed these nascent enterprises and thus jumped at those opportunities, starting motion picture production studios and comic book publishing houses that eventually became the leaders in the respective industries.

The association of Jews with finance was even a major contributing factor to the ascension of the Nazi movement and the outbreak of the second World War. Adolf Hitler first joined the Nazi Party, back when it was still called the German Workers Party, on account of this association. In September 1919, Hitler's employer, Karl Mayr, tasked him with attending a lecture by German Workers Party member Gottfried Feder; Hitler was to report back to Mayr about this. The topic of Feder's speech was the evilness of Jews for lending money to Aryans and then charging them interest for those loans. Intrigued, Hitler chatted with party founder Anton Drexler, who handed him a pamphlet, titled My Political Awakening, arguing these same points about how there needed to be political action to curb the financial activities of Jews. Hitler joined the German Workers Party, got its name changed to the National Socialist German Workers Party and, with Drexler, co-authored a new platform for the party that made it a special point to demand that the State restrict what Jewish financiers could do. The widespread hatred for Jewish financiers was a great part of the Nazi Party’s appeal throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The antisemites’ association of Jews with finance was so instrumental among the factors contributing to the causes of World War II that no history of the war would be complete without it. Likewise, for a purported complete history of world finance -- going all the way from pre-Biblical ages to the present -- to ignore this topic, makes for the most glaring omission.

And yet, when Goetzmann goes over finance during the Middle Ages, he only talks about the Knights Templar loaning money. The Knights Templar were indeed interesting -- especially with respect to how King Philip cited Biblical doctrine against homosexuality as he leveled trumped-up accusations against the Knights Templar in his effort to seize their wealth -- but replacing the history of Jewish financiers with the history of the Knights Templar is hardly excusable in what is supposed to be an exhaustive history of finance.

Aside from those two major errors, the history of finance in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome is engrossing. As is typical of books that claim to give a comprehensive economic histories of the world, the book is most objective in discussing early history but increasingly adheres to the conventional statist interpretation as the text gets closer to the twentieth century.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween, Monsters, and Outsiders

Stuart K. Hayashi

Stuart K. Hayashi's drawing of a werewolf
from May 15, 2016.
Some of my fellow free-marketers have this uptight notion that monster shows, per se, are nihilistic. The proper response to such derision is: "Too bad! I like what I like!" But I will go farther and say something more.

Monsters represent not merely fear, but fear of the weird outcast. People are often under the misapprehension that someone being a bullied outcast is an indication of weakness. But part of what people most fear about a monster is that it is strong -- strong enough to overcome them in a struggle. And such people not only fear the weird outcast; they fear still more fiercely the possibility that they themselves one day might become that weird outcast.

But there are times when corruption comes to pervade mainstream society, and standing up for moral principle will cause one to be regarded as the weird outcast, the monster. In such instances, one should stand up for principle anyway; being rational involves making peace with this fact.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon is the true hero. He was minding his own business and then normal society intruded on his stewardship. By dressing up on Halloween, children take control over what society usually fears; the ritual of children costuming themselves as the much-feared monsters reminds our children that they need not fear the weird outcast, nor should they think that being regarded as the strange outcast will render them weak. If necessary, exercise the courage to be that weird outcast, that lone wolf . . . that monster. 🐺🐲🐉🎃😈👿👾

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Railroad Industrialist James Jerome Hill Was an Inventor Too?

Historians at James J. Hill House Say the Patent I Found Might Be His...

Stuart K. Hayashi

As U.S. patents are public information, for several years now they have been searchable on Google Patents. Some years ago, back when Google Patents had a more user-friendly interface, I decided to take a look at the patents of some famous figures, such as Walt Disney; Steven Spielberg; George Lucas; Jamie Lee Curtis (of Halloween fame); and Herbert Hoover, Jr., son to former U.S. President Herbert C. Hoover. Then I decided to look for the patents of nineteenth-century industrialists. I found those of John "Jack" Jacob Astor IV and Cornelius "Neily" Vanderbilt III, both of whom have long been recognized as inventors, though neither were or are as famous as their respective namesakes, the entrepreneurs who founded their respective family dynasties.

Photo of James Jerome Hill from the Pach Brothers,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Then, on a whim, I decided to see if there were any U.S. patents issued to James Jerome Hill, immigrant from Canada and builder of the Great Northern Railway, even though I did not recall any of the history books I had read about him having mentioned that he had any patents to his name (more about this near the bottom). Hill is often remembered for having constructed a transcontinental railroad across the northern United States without any federal subsidies, in contrast to the Northern Pacific Railroad and the connecting Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads that came much earlier. Hill is renowned for his railroad, but not for any inventions.

There are many U.S. patents which list, as their inventor, a "James Hill" that was obviously not this late-nineteenth-century railroader. However, one U.S. patent in particular caught my attention:  U.S. Patent Number 227,434.   The patent, issued in 1880, was for a new type of railroad dumping car.  Such dumping cars transported freight such as coal, and, similar to today's dump trucks, they can be tilted in order to dump the freight into a pile. Such an invention was certainly directly related to the industry for which Hill is most well-known.  And there were other several details concerning this patent that gave me reason to suspect that the listed inventor was the same man known for the Great Northern.

Figures 1, 2, and 3 from U.S. Patent 227,434,
with the inventor's signature on the bottom.
The patent went to a "James J. Hill" of St. Paul, Minnesota. St. Paul is the location of Hill's mansion: James J. Hill House, still existing to this day and managed by the Minnesota Historical Society, which gives tours of the place.  The timeline also matches:  it was just two years prior to the granting of this patent that Hill purchased the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, which would serve as the basis for the line that would eventually come to be known as the Great Northern. Moreover, the witnesses whose names appeared at the end of the patent were those of Reuben B. Galusha and Edward J. Schurmeier. Men named Galusha and Schurmeier have been involved in the history of the Great Northern.

Still, how could I be sure that this railroad dumping car was not the invention of yet another St. Paul resident named James J. Hill?  I am no expert on how common that name was in St. Paul at the time.  I had not remembered, earlier in September, this being a major topic in the biographies of Hill that I had read (again, more about this at the end). When I googled for "james j hill great northern patent dumping car," I couldn't find any websites specifically about the patent, other than Google's page on U.S. Patent 227,434 itself.  (Here are three internet archives of the results for when I googled "james j hill great northern patent dumping car" on September 30, 2017: 1, 2, 3.)

As you can see in the archive from September 30, 2017 (10:56 p.m. Hawaii time, which would be October 1, 2017 in all the other time zones), as well as in the archives from 2004, 2009, 2012, and 2016, the patent has not been mentioned on James Jerome Hill's Wikipedia page prior to the first publication of this blog entry (September 30).

At Corey Baum's recommendation, I asked the historians at James J. Hill House if they could comment on whether they thought it was plausible that the James J. Hill who received U.S. Patent 227,434 was the same James J. Hill responsible for the Great Northern Railway. On September 20, 2017 -- just four days following Hill's birthday -- James J. Hill House replied. With James J. Hill House's explicit permission, I share part of the reply:
While I think it would take a little more investigating on our part to say for certain (we're not immediately familiar with this patent), I think it's pretty safe to assume that the James J. Hill mentioned in the patent is the same James J. Hill who created the Great Northern Railway, and whose house we operate for tours. You're right that the timelines do match up nicely, as 1880 is two years after he and other investors purchased the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific which he then expanded and renamed to the Great Northern, and we've never heard of another man of that name living in St. Paul contemporaneously with our Jim Hill. Your research is to be commended! Great work, and thanks for reaching out to us!

In the the days that followed, I looked further into this. It turns out that this invention might have been mentioned in a known biography after all, though as no more than an afterthought of the author. Albro Martin's James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1976), says on page 217, "...he had gratified his ego by taking out a patent on an idea he had for converting flat cars into dump cars for spreading gravel."  Anyone who has read this book can be forgiven for forgetting that sentence -- the author, sadly, treats this bit of information as a rather trivial detail.

We cannot yet affirm it with absolute confidence but, as James J. Hill House says, the chances are quite good that the two James J. Hills are the same man.  It appears that not only was James Jerome Hill the mastermind behind one of the USA's most efficient railroad operations, but -- similar to George Westinghouse -- he patented a device of his own design that was highly pertinent to the railroad industry. Besides being a great entrepreneur, it is possible that the James Jerome Hill of history was an inventor as well. Though this dumping car did not impact the railroad industry with anything close to the same magnitude as Westinghouse's air brake did, U.S. Patent 227,434 belonging to the builder of the Great Northern would serve as yet another example of the mind of the Great Northern's builder always being at work, actively employing both imagination and logic in the search for new methods of improving productivity.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Our Immigration Laws Are Corrupt, and DREAMers' Parents Were Right to Break Them

Stuart K. Hayashi

Screen shot from the motion picture "Born in East L.A.,"
prod. Peter Macgregor-Scott, dir. Cheech Marin (Universal Pictures, 1987).

The news over the past few weeks has been President Donald J. Trump’s decision to reverse Barack Obama’s implementation, controversially over executive order, of the program known as DACA — Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals.  This refers to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States with their guardians while under the age of sixteen.  Even many people who have supported clamping down on adults who came to the USA without a visa — and President Obama has been harsh on such people — concede that such childhood arrivals into the USA are innocent; it is not as if one could reasonably expect them to defy their parents’ decision to bring the families here.  There are at least 800,000 such childhood arrivals, including the members of the team of then-high-school-students who beat MIT in a national competition to construct a submersible robot.

These childhood arrivals are DREAMers — so named after proposed pieces of legislation called DREAM Acts, an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, pieces initially opposed at the state level and soon to be introduced at the federal level.

The White House announced it would discontinue the Obama-instituted DACA program but has made it a point to add that it supports the idea of Congress introducing a federal DREAM Act to protect the Dreamers from deportation.  This recommendation, the White House adds, indicates that President Trump is actually not hostile toward the Dreamers; he merely objected to Obama arrogating so much power to himself through executive order, which is unconstitutional.  Allegedly, for the same program to be instituted by legislation is the proper and constitutional procedure for serving the same ends as DACA, ends to which Trump does not object per se.

There is substantial reason to doubt, however, the claim that the White House's alleged support for a federal DREAM Act indicates the administration is sympathetic toward immigrants after all.  Many anti-immigration activists who have aligned themselves with Trump, such as Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, announce they will encourage Congressional Republicans to support a federal DREAM Act provided that they can pressure Congressional Democrats to vote for the RAISE Act — a piece of legislation aiming to cut legal immigration by reducing significantly the number of the skilled work visas that can be issued.

That is, Krikorian would have it that the Dreamers be treated as hostages, being left unharmed on the condition that aspiring legal immigrants be harmed through being denied H-1B visas they would otherwise receive.  What Krikorian proposes — in places such as National Review Online — is an extortionate measure whereby Democrats must “choose” which set of immigrants are to be sacrificed at the point of the federal government’s guns. On account anti-immigration Trump allies such as Krikorian prioritizing passage of the RAISE Act above their calls to deport the Dreamers, there are rational grounds to suspect that the main priority of the anti-immigration movement was not to curb “illegal immigration,” as they frequently claimed, but to reduce legal immigration all along.

On Twitter, many enemies of immigration and supporters of Trump — far less shrewd and sophisticated than Krikorian — sound as if they do not even want that sort of Congressional compromise.  Nay, they sound perfectly happy with armed federal agents forcibly deporting the Dreamers.   Upon learning that among Apple’s personnel are Dreamers now under threat of deportation, Stefan Molyneux gloats, “Upcoming job openings at Apple.”

More representative of the Dreamers’ enemies, though, is Samantha Janney, better known as PolitiBunny, who tweets, “DACA is like a parent stealing a bike, giving it to their child[,] and then pretending they should keep the bike because they’ve ridden it.”

Yikes; we can spot so many grammatically incorrect uses of a singular they in that tweet.  A mom is a she and a dad is a he; neither is a they; nor is a child a they.  If all the people who don’t articulate themselves in proper English were deported, that would include PolitiBunny herself.

Much more importantly, PolitiBunny’s conflation of peaceful migration with theft is vacuous.  I don’t have children, but let’s imagine that I do.  Suppose I stole your bicycle and handed it to my child, who then rode it around.  That theft was an initiation of the use of force — my arms employed physical force to abscond with the bike and deprive you, the rightful owner, of control over it. Hence, I employed force to create an immediate and direct victim, you.  Now suppose instead that I invite a Mexican family to lodge on a parcel of land that I own.  I invite a Mexican couple and their son.  They stay on my land, minding their own business.  And they do this without obtaining a visa first.  That is contrary to federal law, but there is no victim upon whom the use of force has been initiated.

In her denunciation of Dreamers, PolitiBunny cites the value of the law, and yet the very justification for law itself seems to escape her.  That has to be addressed.

I wish I could say that the alleged defenders of the Dreamers had a significantly better understanding than PolitiBunny.  Sadly, the Dreamers’ “defenders” on Twitter have usually said something along the lines of, Yes, the Dreamers’ parents were wrong to disobey federal immigration law, but the Dreamers, having been innocent children when their parents brought them to the USA, should not be punished for their parents misdeeds.

I will not endorse that viewpoint.  People who make that argument do so on the false premise that the Dreamers’ parents’ flouting of immigration law was something corrupt.  No.  The federal immigration laws that the Dreamers’ parents broke were what were truly corrupt, and, in trying to benefit their children in the flouting of such corrupt statutes, it is the Dreamers’ parents who rightfully claim the moral high ground.

That is what I shall argue of the remainder of this essay, which is a revision of an older post, “Symbolater Syndrome, Part 3 of 4.”

Ask Yourself What Is the Proper Justification for Law in the First Place
Exactly because we need law and order, we should ask ourselves why we need them. They are not ends in themselves; they are intended to serve a greater value and, therefore, the enforcement of any law must be justified by the standard of whether it actually succeeds in serving that greater value. Insofar as the U.S. republic continues to be about freedom and the other ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the law is to serve the greater value that is the safeguarding of individual rights —   meaning that the law protects peaceful people from the initiation of the use of force and that it does not itself initiate the use of force upon peaceful people. After all, the Declaration of Independence does not say that the right not to be aggressed upon belongs to citizens alone; it says the right not to be aggressed upon belongs to “all men,” meaning all peaceful people.

Therefore, although suspected criminals are to be judged before courts of law, the law itself is still not the ultimate standard by which the respective moral statuses of people’s actions are to be judged. We must ask whether the ordinance or statute in question deserves to be kept on the books. As such, the law itself must be judged by the ultimate standard of whether it succeeds in protecting peaceful people against the initiation of the use of force and refrains from initiating the use of force itself. Nonviolent people do not exist for the purpose of obeying America law; American law exists to protect any and all nonviolent people within its jurisdiction. Accordingly, when statutes are not properly crafted — and when their errors go uncorrected — the statutes themselves become corrupt. “[...L]aw and order,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, “exist for the purpose of establishing justice[,] and...when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” This is what has happened to federal U.S. immigration law.

Those Who Say “They Should Just Come Legally” Should Learn What It Takes for a Mexican or South American to Do So
Starting in the 1920s, federal immigration law was openly racist, imposing strict “caps” on the number of immigrants who could come in from Eastern Europe and from countries with majority nonwhite populations, while being less strict toward immigration from Northern and Western Europe. A reform in federal immigration law in 1965 genuinely corrected many of these injustices but, on account of some poor planning on the part of the reformers, the reform instituted a new injustice. I cannot fault the reformers much for the poor planning, as it would be difficult for me to anticipate all such negative consequences. Where I do find moral fault is that, in the subsequent decades, this problem has been pointed out many times and many people — mostly on the political Right — refuse to acknowledge the need to rectify this inequity, instead rationalizing the continuation and perpetuation of the injustice.

The issue is this: although the 1965 federal reform on immigration abolished what were the formal quotas on national origin based on race, they still require that to immigrate lawfully to the USA for a long-term period, you need a license from the U.S. federal government. That license is a piece of paper called a visa. There are three basic categories for visas: student visas, family reunification visas, and work visas. Student visas are for foreign nationals attending university in the United States — the sort of visa most familiar to my former classmates at Hawaii Pacific University, most of whom were from Northern and Western Europe. (Interestingly enough, it turns out that at least one Hawaii Pacific University alumnus who has resided in the USA for much of his life is among the Dreamers.) You can receive a family reunification visa if you already have family members in the United States. In some respects, the family reunification visas were part of a compromise with the anti-immigration, pro-racism lobby. Since whites still were the majority in the USA in 1965, they figured that most family reunification visas would still go to white people, or that at least nonwhites who did not have family members already in the USA would be at a disadvantage (and that is indeed the case).

The third type is a work visa. The most famous sort is the H-1B visa, which is for immigrants who can provide skilled labor. The H-1B visa is most famously associated with Silicon Valley information technology workers, but it goes to members of all sorts of skilled professions, such as doctors and university professors. H-1B visas seldom ever go to persons lacking a university degree; an exception is made for fashion models; a fashion model lacking in a university degree can still obtain an H-1B visa.

There are categories of visas for unskilled laborers; these are respectively H-2A visas and H-2B visas. These visas are for much shorter-term stays in the USA than are H-1B visas; an H-2B visa lets you stay in the USA for two years before renewal. Conspicuously, they are even less accessible to unskilled people in poor countries than are H-1B visas to skilled visa applicants.

A relatively new form of visa, introduced under the Obama administration, is the entrepreneurship visa. This is for established business owners wishing to immigrate to the USA to set up new business operations here. As you can imagine, this is not a visa applicable to most unskilled people in developing countries who do not have university degrees.

The problem with current federal immigration law is this: the 1965 reform placed a new “cap” on the number of visas that could be issued to particular countries annually. No more than 7 percent of all visas issued in a year can go to applicants from any one country of origin. This rule failed to anticipate that because Mexico is a poor country that is directly adjacent to the United States, it would make sense that a disproportionately large percentage of the people wishing to come to the United States would be from Mexico. Annually, 30 percent of all visa applications arrive from Mexico. You can see how this mismatch would bring forth a dilemma.

People from Bangladesh desire very much to come to the USA too, but they know that in any attempt to travel to the USA they would face geographic obstacles that a Mexican would not. The biggest obstacles for Mexicans in coming to the USA are not geographic but legal barriers imposed by the U.S. federal government.

The backlog for yet-to-be-approved visa applications is a nightmare. If the U.S. federal government received no new applications, it would still take over 19 years for it to clear its entire backlog of visa applications waiting to undergo full processing. On average, it takes a Mexican more than five years, from the start of the process to its end, to receive a family reunification visa. If you are in Mexico and are the spouse or minor child of a permanent U.S. resident (U.S. citizen or green card holder), you can expect to wait no fewer than six years. If, as a Mexican, you are the sibling of a U.S. citizen or green card holder, it is sixteen years.

This is from Stuart Anderson, “Family Immigration: The Long Wait to Immigrate,” National Foundation for American Policy Brief, (Arlington, VA: National Foundation for American Policy, May 2010), 1.

And if you are a thirty-year-old Mexican with a high school diploma and you have a sister who is already a U.S. citizen, the average length of time you must wait to become a noncitizen U.S. permanent resident — one of those green card holders — yourself is . . . 131 years.

This is from Philippe Le Grain, “Let Them In,” Forbes, June 10, 2010.

For a flow chart on what it takes to immigrate to the USA legally, see the one from Reason magazine over here.

How Laws Restricting Immigration Threaten Immigrants With Violence and Death
Most poor countries are poor exactly because their governments are kleptocracies. This means that the government usually refrains from protecting its citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and private property but, more often than not, violates them, and can actually violate them on the whim of the governments’ officials. People cannot count on building up productive businesses without all their wealth soon being confiscated, and that is why poverty is rampant. Only those who are well-connected with the government can operate any business securely at all. Under this system, with most people unable to count on the government for protection, many of them turn to gangs instead. For this reason, rates of starvation and murder are disproportionately high in comparison to what goes on in the First World. When someone in a kleptocracy that is south of the USA tries to migrate to the USA, it’s not a matter of someone greedily wishing to come to the USA to go on welfare; it’s a matter of someone trying to avoid dying from starvation and murder.

As Steven Sacco informs us,

One study found that between January 2014 and September 2015 eighty-three deportees who were sent back to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador were murdered after their return. They were people fleeing the killers who eventually took their lives. People like José Marvin Martínez, who fled violence in Honduras and made it to the U.S. when he was 16, but was deported and four months after his forcible return was shot to death. Or Juan Francisco Diaz, also deported back to Honduras, where he too was murdered a few months later. Or Giovanni Miranda, who, after spending most of his life in the U.S., was deported to El Salvador to be murdered in front of his wife and son in June 2015. Or Edgar Chocoy, 16, who ran away from a gang to the U.S. only to be murdered by that same gang seventeen days after he was deported back to Guatemala in 2004. Or an unnamed teenager who was shot to death hours after being deported back to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Moises, 19, was murdered after he was deported to El Salvador. And there are too many more names we’ll never know. 
What’s more, the number of deportees delivered directly to their killers does not include those who survive attempted murder or other violence because of their deportation — a number no one knows. Isais Sosa, who was 19 when the Los Angeles Times covered his story in 2014, survived being shot by a gang days after his deportation. The 19 year old daughter of Dora Lina Meza fled to the U.S. from the same gang that, after she was deported back home, raped her at gun point. After Juan Ines Alanis was deported he was kidnapped and held for ransom while his fingers were smashed with a hammer.

Many apologists for these coercive deportations claim to admire the well-known immigrant and political refugee Ayn Rand.  Note that if Ayn Rand had been deported back to the Soviet Union — and the legality of her immigration status was “iffy”  — she likely would have suffered the same fate as the aforementioned deportees.

Remember that when someone is being deported, he is being supervised by federal agents who have guns at the ready. They point guns at the immigrant to coerce her to return to a place where there is a high murder rate. As far as I am concerned, those who condoned the repatriation of the aforementioned people to their nations of origin at gunpoint are, morally, accessories to what happened to the deportees upon return to their countries of origin.

When most people in a country are poor, very few of them can afford university educations. Therefore, except for the fashion models, H-1B visas are seldom an option for them. And the work visas for the unskilled are even less accessible. This means that if you are poor and unskilled, with no university education and no relatives in the USA, you don’t have many options available to you if you wish to migrate to the USA legally. And it’s not realistic for anyone to expect you to wait over five years for any sort of application to be approved; the threats of starvation and murder are immediate concerns. This is why so many poor people come to the USA without any visas. It is not an accident that {SPOILER ALERT} a virtuous character in We the Living tries to cross a national border illegally.

Well-Deserved Sympathy for the  “Third-World Migrants”
The deportations are anti-life for other reasons. As I wrote of it months after the incident, on September 12, 2015 — as the Syrian refugee crisis was beginning to make headlines — when I was reading Rebecca Stott’s book Darwin’s Ghosts, about thinkers who had laid the intellectual groundwork for the theory of natural selection. Near the beginning, Professor Stott points out that because so many Athenians feared Aristotle as some sleeper agent for their military enemies, Aristotle had to flee Athens as a “political refugee.” This struck me because, although I had previously read of Aristotle leaving Athens for this reason, it didn’t dawn on me that the term “political refugee” applied to Aristotle, and yet, upon reflection, it fit. Not thinking that it necessarily had any implications for the Syrian refugee controversy, I tweeted out that there was a point in Aristotle’s life when he was a political refugee. Evidently finding the idea interesting himself, Prof. Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “The Instapundit,” retweeted me, himself adding, in words that can easily and understandably be interpreted as sarcastic, “Any Aristotles in this crowd?”

 I was then barraged by a number of belligerent tweets from generally right-wing people who presumed that my tweet was some thinly-veiled defense of the Syrian refugees. The belligerent tweets were along the lines of, But Aristotle was a civilized man; Syrians are unreconstructed savages, and there is not one scientist among the Syrian refugees, is there? As one anti-immigrationist put it to Professor Reynolds, “find one illegal like Aristotle.”

It had not occurred to me that my tweet could be misconstrued as me sticking up for them, but, after reading the bigoted derision of them that was directed toward me, it ironically became easier for me to sympathize with the Syrian refugees. Incidentally, there are scholars among the Syrian refugees. Rolling Stone magazine chronicles the travails of one of them, a former agricultural engineering major trying to finish his education. One Syrian refugee who did complete his education is Nedal Said, now a microbiologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research. Frankly, though, if there were zero scholars among them, the Syrian refugees would still be deserving of our sympathy. If a group of people are to be kept out of the USA on the basis that the USA is presently at war against their country, that is one matter. Even in that case, though, it would not be just to attempt to write off everyone from that country and of that ethnicity, with a broad brush, as inhuman. After all, there was a moment in history when the wartime enemies of the United States looked a lot like me.

Nedal Said’s story reminds me of another. Decades ago, an impoverished boy in Mexico named Alfredo illegally climbed over a fence to get into the USA. Consistent with the stereotypes, he started out as a migrant farm worker. He saved his money and sent himself to medical school. This was Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, and he is presently one of the world’s foremost brain surgeons. Prolific in the number of operations he has performed, he has saved the lives of native-born Americans. These are native-born Americans who might have died had it not been for Alfredo illegally entering our country years ago. Coercive deportations of nonviolent immigrants may not only result in the deaths of more immigrants, but also of more native-born Americans. Incidentally, Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa was the answer I gave to the anti-immigrationist who challenged me to “find one illegal like Aristotle.”

Many people who come to the USA without visas have committed no felony other than the ones directly concerning their having come to the USA without a visa.  For instance, Andres Magana Ortiz — who owned and ran successful coffee farms in Hawaii — is under threat of deportation when, aside from having arrived in the USA without a visa, his only brushes with the law involve two charges of having driven under the influence. Similar to this is the case of Joel Colindres, who faces deportation when his only instances of lawbreaking were (1) migrating from Guatemala to the USA without a visa and (2) missing a court date. And even before Donald Trump made his decision on DACA, the Savaria brothers — both Dreamers — were repatriated to El Salvadaor. Contrary to hysterical right-wing scare stories, you are statistically likelier to be killed by a native-born American than you are by an undocumented immigrant to the USA. Therefore, a legal system committed to freedom and justice — one that serves its original purpose of protecting the peaceful from the violent — would refrain from sending armed men to detain and deport peaceful persons whose acts of lawbreaking all pertained to the mere act of coming to the USA peacefully without a visa.

“The Law,” As This Rationalization for Rights Violation, Must Be Repealed
Yet I frequently come across anti-immigrationists on the political Right — Rush Limbaugh is one of them (I take him to task for it here and here) — who insist that simply coming to the USA without a visa is an act of evil that warrants condemnation and violent retribution on the part of the U.S. federal government. Apologists for that viewpoint shout, “Do you think people should be able to break the law with impunity? The Law is The Law and we gotsta follow The Law!” I remind such people that deportations are backed by armed force. Remember my reply to PolitiBunny at the start of this essay. When they transport Mexican immigrants back to Mexico, federal agents have their guns in case the immigrants to flee their custody and return to my private plot. Again, the anti-immigrationists merely chant that The Law is The Law and we gotsta follow The Law!

People who preach that someone coming to the USA long-term without a visa is sufficient grounds for sending armed men to detain and deport him are practicing their own symbolic ritual. They shout about the need to respect and enforce the law because this ritual of chanting about it has symbolic significance for them. They say that it is their way of reminding everyone of the importance of the law — that if people can flagrantly disregard the statutes, then all order and society breaks down. But that assertion is disingenuous; those who keep chanting about the need to crack down on illegal aliens are not primarily reminding other people about anything. Rather, these people partake in this symbolic ritual — the ritual of reciting their platitudes about the sacredness of federal law — to convince themselves that they passionately care about the law and everything the law represents.

And yet they don’t. The law is not the end but the means to a greater end that the law is to serve. That greater end is the principle that no peaceful person is to be subjected to the initiation of the use of force by any party, least of all by the federal government. In proclaiming their love for American law, many people are asking that American law violate the moral principle that American law was initially established to uphold. Those who demand a government crackdown on undocumented immigrants qua their lack of documentation, are those calling for violence against peaceful human beings for the proclaimed purpose of defending an institution whose only justification was to prevent violence against peaceful human beings. If you do not value the greater end that U.S. law was first established to serve, then you do not understand what U.S. law is about.  And by disrespecting the one valid purpose in establishing law, such people disrespect the very concept of law itself.

Having Been Deprived of the Go-To Rationalization of “The Law,” Many Fall Back on These Other Rationalizations... 
Of course, anti-immigrationism has its arsenal of rationalizations for this. Stefan Molyneux rationalizes that people from Africa and South America are just programmed to go on welfare, and, by collecting welfare, such immigrants are the ones initiating the use of force against native-born whites. This is just another instance of Molyneux’s ignorance and presumptuousness (a more polite way of referring to Molyneux’s prejudice).

When you say “welfare” in the United States, the first program that normally comes to mind is federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and, since 1996, an immigrant needs to be a U.S. resident for five years before so much as applying for this.

Moreover, the biggest entitlement programs in the USA is, by far, are Medicare and Social Security. At $800 billion per year, they are the only programs that rivals the U.S. military in annual cost. Because undocumented immigrants use fake Social Security numbers, the farms and other businesses employing undocumented immigrants take money out of their pay and put it into the Social Security system. Indeed, a report from 2013 finds “more than half of undocumented immigrants have federal and state income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes automatically deducted from their paychecks.” (If you object to how an impoverished immigrant fleeing the high murder rate of his country of origin is using a fake Social Security number to obtain employment, remove the legal barriers that drove him to this desperate resort in the first place.) And this is Social Security that the undocumented immigrants will not collect — the recipients of the undocumented immigrants’ money are retired native-born Americans and retired naturalized citizens, the native-borns greatly outnumbering the naturalized. It is therefore, on a net balance, the undocumented immigrants who are paying taxes to support welfare that goes to native-born Americans. (As for both legal and illegal immigrants, they make a net contribution of 85 billion U.S. dollars to government coffers each year.)

Among the recipients of taxpayer money, native-born citizens outnumber immigrants by far; it is therefore disingenuous to single out undocumented immigrants as being the major contributor to the rising costs of the welfare state. If collecting taxpayer money is an initiation of the use of force, then repelling it would mean cutting taxpayer funding for all private parties. To target immigrants, on the pretext that they are primarily what drive up government spending, is to prioritize one’s hostility toward immigrants over any lightening of the tax burden.

Nor is there a long-term threat of mass migrations causing overcrowding throughout the country; people underestimate the quantity of land available in the United States. If there were eight billion people on Earth and they all relocated to Texas, Texas’s population density (27,923 people per square mile) would be less than the present population density of the city of Paris, France (55,673 people per square mile). At present, no more than twelve percent of the land in England is developed for urban use and no more than nine percent of the land of the United Kingdom is.

To demand that an immigrant having arrived in the USA without a visa is sufficient grounds to send armed agents after her, out of a purported respect for American law and order, is therefore a symbolic ritual paid to American law and order that, in practice, desecrates the greater value that American law and order were designed to safeguard. It is a symbolic gesture that pretends to pay heed to American law and order as it sullies the basis of that American law and order. To do this, one must love the symbol of a particular value more than one loves the concrete existence of that very same value.

By supporting governmental initiations of the use of force against undocumented, nonviolent immigrants, these right-wingers have relinquished any rightful claim to the concept and value of “American law and the very basis of American law.” Yet, as they do this, they try to claim custody over the concept and value of “American law and the very basis of American law.” As Rush Limbaugh has done this in various tirades against undocumented immigrants, Rush himself is not innocent of the very charge he lays at the feet of left-wingers, of putting symbolism over substance.

When I point out that undocumented immigrants are fleeing starvation and murder and couldn’t wait over six years to “do it legally,” the anti-immigrationist sneer that what I have said is but a rationalization for lawbreaking. It is actually those who cite “The Law” — as if it is God — who are delivering a rationalization. Law deserves respect only insofar as it protects the peaceful, and these anti-immigrationists cite the prestige of The Law to justify sending armed men to manhandle peaceful people. It is the anti-immigrationists’ thumping of “The Law” that is the rationalization for unethical behavior.

Yes, the Dreamers are innocent and do not deserve to be deported at the point of the government’s guns.  But we must go further and acknowledge that the Dreamers’ parents did nothing wrong when they violated the corrupt statutes that have been obstructing such peaceful people from peaceably making a better life for their children. Not only were the  Dreamers’ parents not wrong, but they deserve to be commended. Had I been in the their situation, I would hope I would have the courage to do what the Dreamers’ parents did — peaceably take my children to greater freedom and safety, corrupt federal statutes to the contrary be damned.

On January 15, 2018, I added the quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr.; I added the point that more than half of undocumented immigrants have money withheld from their pay checks as taxes paying for Medicare and Social Security; and I added the point that both legal and illegal immigrants make a net contribution of $85 billion to U.S. government coffers annually. 

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Immigrants Don't Depress Wages

Supply and Demand Explain This

Stuart K. Hayashi

I keep hearing the cliché, from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and alt-righters alike, that if a large number of new people enter the workforce -- often immigrants or people still in foreign countries but are hired by U.S. firms -- they will try to out-compete one another for jobs, either dragging down wages or causing massive unemployment. This cliché comes from T. Robert Malthus, Karl Marx, and a socialist named Ferdinand Lassalle (Lassalle coined night watchman state as a pejorative). I point out Jean-Baptiste Say -- the most pro-capitalism of all of the classical economists -- refuted this misconception with Say's Law of Markets. When I do this, anti-immigrationists call me a leftist. But someone who cites this Marxist cliché about "dragging down wages" has no business accusing anyone of leftism.

This is my 17-minute video explaining that.

This is my infographic about it:

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Laws of Nature Disprove Free Will? The Internal Contradiction in Claiming That

Invoking His Sophisticated Understanding of the Law of Causality, Spinoza Commits the Stolen Concept Fallacy

Stuart K. Hayashi

Portrait of Spinoza from 1665; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Roderick Fitts’s essay on free will, “The Freedom of Human Action,” has given me new insight. It pointed out that at least some understanding of the Law of Causality — of the causal link between cause and effect — is implicit in long-term decision-making. I want outcome Y instead of outcome B. I ascertain that doing X will result in outcome Y, whereas doing A will result in outcome B. Therefore, choose to do X instead of A.

This conflicts with Spinoza’s argument that the Law of Causality precludes free will. If Spinoza is correct that the Law of Causality precludes free will, how can Roderick Fitts argue that some recognition of cause-and-effect connections is implicit in exercises of free will?

Brief Summary of What Spinoza’s Argument Is and What It Overlooks
I have already summarized Spinoza’s argument and given my rebuttal to it. But I will review briefly here. (This link to all my blog posts on free will.)

Spinoza’s argument against free will is as follows: when you observe objects and come to understand the nature/identity of each object observed, you find that one event will yield an easily predictable outcome. The event is an entity — a storm cloud — raining down on another entity, a rock. The rock erodes. Moreover, the storm cloud raining down on the rock caused the rock to erode. Due to the respective natures of both storm clouds and rocks, in any instance wherein a storm cloud drops rain on a rock, the rock will erode. That is because of the nature of rocks; the rock could not do anything else. For a rock to respond to any other manner under those conditions would be contrary to the rock's nature as a rock, contrary to the Law of Identity. If you understand the Law of Identity, and the respective natures of each entity in a situation, you know how the entity being acted upon (in this case, a rock) will act in response.

Spinoza then points out that human beings are also entities — we humans are entities no less than rocks are. Accordingly, the Law of Causality is just as applicable to human beings as it is applicable to rocks. To Spinoza, it follows that human beings are just as predictable as rocks are when heavy rain falls on rocks. It also follows that no human being is proactive but is only reactive to outside stimuli, just as a rock only reacts to outside stimuli. For a human to have free will, that human would have to be proactive, not merely reactive.

As Spinoza puts it,

...nature is always the same... ...that is, nature's laws and ordinances, whereby all things come to pass and change, from one form to another, are everywhere and always the same; so that there should be one and the same method of understanding the nature of all things whatsoever, namely, through nature's universal laws and rules. Thus the [human] passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from this same [metaphysical] necessity [meaning the same mechanistic determinism of cause-and-effect] and efficacy of nature; they answer to certain definite causes, through which they are understood... I shall, therefore,...consider human actions and desires in exactly the same manner...as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids.

Spinoza’s argument overlooks (1) in Nature, an unprecedented effect can occur (this is called an Emergent Property) and (2) that the respective Laws of Identity and Causality are valid does not preclude an unprecedented phenomenon (an Emergent Property) from occurring. What an Emergent Property means is this: when particular physical components end up arranged in most particular arrangements, usually nothing new happens. However, when those physical components end up arranged in a particularly fortuitous matter, something unprecedented can occur.

As an example, all of the chemicals that make life possible were already on Earth for billions of years before there were any organisms. When those chemicals ended up being arranged in most possible arrangements, nothing new happened — and that was for billions of years. But one day, those chemicals ended up in an arrangement that resulted in something unprecedented: the first primitive organism emerged. Hence the respective Laws of Identity and Causality being contextual absolutes, which apply consistently in most circumstances for millennia, does not preclude unprecedented phenomena from occurring. And the presence of volition in organisms started off as an Emergent Property. That is why the respective Laws of Identity and Causality can apply consistently in most contexts and remain contextually absolute even if there are natural phenomena that are not as predictable as what happens to a rock when it is rained upon heavily.

Now I will get to how, when Spinoza invokes the Law of Causality to deny free will, he falls prey to the Stolen Concept fallacy. Objectivists are familiar with how a commentator such as Sam Harris engages in this fallacy when he tries to persuade you to reject the idea of free will. (My longer rebuttal to Sam Harris is over here.) If everything you do is a foregone conclusion — being the result of unconscious processes (Sam Harris says your conscious mind only rationalizes taking the action that your unconscious reptilian brain compelled you to perform) — then it is pointless for him to try to convince your conscious mind to change its opinion. Any time a debater tries to convince you to reject the idea of free will, it is premised on the implicit recognition that what your opinion will be by that argument’s end is not a foregone conclusion. Furthermore, when it comes to Sam Harris’s case in particular, it is self-contradictory for him to attempt to appeal to your conscious mind when he argues that it is not the conscious mind that is behind the steering wheel anyway.

Objectivists are familiar with that argument, but that argument only places emphasis on the implicit fact that the person to whom the appeal is being made is the person who possesses free will. I want to point out the other side. The person pitching his own argument against free will — be it Sam Harris or Spinoza — also relies on the implicit recognition of free will as he comes to that anti-free will conclusion. Indeed, Spinoza would be relying on an implicit recognition of his own free will even if Spinoza kept his own conclusions against free will in his own head and never tried to sell anyone on those arguments.

For a Philosopher to Gain a Sophisticated Understanding of the Law of Causality, He Must Recognize Free Will, At Least Implicitly

The reasons are:

  1. To make any major philosophic inquiry is a long-term decision. That means:
  2. To make a philosophic inquiry is an exercise of free will. And:
  3. To reach a sophisticated philosophic understanding the Law of Causality is a philosophic inquiry. That means:
  4. To reach a sophisticated philosophic understanding of the Law of Causality, one must exercise free will.

It is not merely the case that when Spinoza tries to convince you that you have no free will, Spinoza is implicitly recognizing that you do have free will after all. It is the case that even if Spinoza tried to convince no one else — if he only sought to form his own conclusions and keep them to himself — the very act of launching into an erudite inquiry about the Law of Causality itself is an exercise in free will. Before Spinoza initiated his inquiry about the Law of Causality, he recognized there were two possible outcomes:

  • Y – Spinoza has a confident, philosophically sophisticated conclusion about whether there is a Law of Causality, a conclusion supported by solid reasoning.
  • B – Spinoza has no firm conclusion about whether there is a Law of Causality; he is agnostic on it.

Spinoza wanted outcome Y instead of outcome B. And he recognized that action X led to outcome Y whereas action A led to outcome B. These are the two possible options available to him:

  • X – Spinoza initiates a philosophic inquiry on whether there is a Law of Causality, meaning whether causality — cause-and-effect — applies consistently.
  • A – Spinoza refrains from launching into a philosophic inquiry on this.

Per Roderick Fitts’s explanation, Spinoza wanted outcome Y instead of outcome B, and therefore he chose action X over action A. And that was an action of free will. The exercise of free will is a prerequisite into a sophisticated philosophic investigation of Causality — this applies even if the investigator never discloses his findings to anyone else. Spinoza invokes his sophisticated understanding of the Law of Causality to deny free will, and yet one must exercise free will to acquire a sophisticated philosophic understanding of the Law of Causality. Hence, even if Spinoza did not try to convince anyone else about the invalidity of the idea of free will, for Spinoza even to conclude in the privacy of his own mind that there is no free will, he must implicitly recognize his own free will and act on that free will.

Wait; Am I Contradicting Myself Over Whether It’s Recognition of Free Will or Recognition of Causality That Comes First?
At this point, a critic might say that I am the one who is contradicting himself. The critic can say,

First you stated agreement with Roderick Fitts that within every act of free will there is, at least on an implicit level, a recognition of the Law of Causality. That would imply that someone understands causation before one exercises free will by choosing one alternative over another. But then you argue that for someone to arrive at a sophisticated, philosophically literate understanding of the Law of Causality, one must both exercise free will and, at least on an implicit level, acknowledge the existence of one’s own free will. But that would imply that someone acknowledges his own free will before coming to understand causation. Well, which is it?

Here is the difference: you do not need to engage in a conscious, long-term decision-making process to grasp causation on a primitive, implicit level. However, for you to gain a sophisticated, philosophically literate comprehension of the Law of Causality, you do need to engage in a conscious, long-term decision-making process while recognizing, at least on an implicit level, that this is an implementation of free will. Therefore, this is what happened: Spinoza first understood causality on a primitive, implicit/unconscious level. It was with that primitive, implicit/unconscious acknowledgment of causality that he first exercised free will. Then he exercised free will in order to gain his sophisticated, philosophically literate comprehension of the Law of Causality.

As noted by child researcher Alison Gopnik in her book The Philosophical Baby, psychologists have conducted controlled experiments on babies that evince that this is the case. In both the control and experimental samples, a baby is placed under a mobile. In the experimental sample, the mobile is tied to the baby’s leg and, when the baby moves her leg, it moves the mobile. In the control sample, nothing ties the baby to the mobile; the mobile moves independently. The babies in the experimental sample stare at the mobile for longer periods of time than do the babies in the control sample, and it is always after the baby has caused the mobile to move. From this, the psychologists infer that the babies in the experimental sample show more interest than those in the control sample exactly because the babies in the experimental sample are first coming to grasp, at least implicitly, that it is their own movements that are causing the mobile’s movements.

This suggests that when a person first comes to understand causality on an implicit, primitive level, that was not the result of some conscious decision. However, we do know that when someone gains a strong and sophisticated philosophical understanding of the Law of Causality, such as Spinoza’s, that is attributable to that person making the conscious long-term decision to study the Law of Causality. And we know that that conscious, long-term decision, picked among various possible options, was an exercise in free will.

Hence, Spinoza both exercised free will and implicitly (but not consciously) understood his own free will in order to come to his sophisticated, philosophically literate comprehension of the Law of Causality. But then he improperly invoked that sophisticated, philosophically literate comprehension of the Law of Causality to deny the existence of free will. That is how his argument commits the Stolen Concept fallacy.

And here is another way that that happens: recognition of any entity as an object that is impacted upon is contingent on the presence of a subject (a conscious observer, such as you) observing that entity as an object. In this context, “object” refers to an entity being observed and the “subject” refers to the consciousness that is observing the object. That is, the subject is a conscious person doing the observing (in this case, you in particular). In this context, the “subject” has agency; it can choose which particular objects it does or does not place its focus upon. In Spinoza’s argument, all conscious, decision-making humans are treated only as objects that are acted upon; his argument overlooks that there are any subjects possessing any agency. But no entities could be recognized as objects if not for there being a subject — you — to focus on them. And which objects you do or do not focus on, depends on your agency — that is, your exercise of free will.

No, Spinoza, an understanding of causality does not preclude free will. On the contrary, a recognition of causality, at least on an implicit and simple level, is what helps someone exercise free will.

On September 2, 2017, I changed every use of the word causation to the word causality.