Sunday, January 30, 2011

Coercion and the English Language

Coercion involves forced action. Maybe.

In the case of a monopoly, a company can hike its' prices all it wants so long as it does not force people to buy. So lets have a concrete example; A company that supplies a medicine one needs to survive suddenly increases prices %1200. Is the company killing the customer that is unable to pay? Or is the customer killing themself with their own 'inability'? This is a fuzzy point that I'm sure many of us cannot define quite easily, but I am able to make a guess at something Hayek's ideas are depending on here: The company is not holding a gun to the persons head and forcing them to buy the medicine, but due to the situation, that gun is implied. I think Hayek believes "passive aggressive" coercion doesn't count.

The thing is that this passive aggressive coercion (as I'm calling it) is what makes the world go round. Where do we draw the line? is exercising actual force coercion? Pure force is an inefficient and stupid way to exercise power. Countering my own counter point; action implies an immediate reaction. When the passive aggressive coercer acts they have to wait for a response. That response may be, going back to the pharmaceutical, a competing business. The best way for the coercer to counter this is with pure force. Muscling out the competition if you will. They are no longer being passive. Hayek talks about the state as a coercive tool that is used to limit coercion. This is just a prelude to 'the Rules of the Game'. Or as mentioned in the chapter, "known rules".

Hayek says that the precise definition will be formed in the second half of the book but I'm having trouble forming my own version now. Perhaps it has to do with the time but maybe the concept is just a little foggy.

I look forward to your opinions on Thursday,

La libertad

Hayek won my interest within the first paragraph of this book. We too often forget that ideas are dynamic, based on the particular setting of debate, and not necessarily fixed to the response of an economist (or any specialist). I don't know how I thought the book would have opened, but I cannot adequately express my satisfaction with Hayek's simultaneous assertion of authority and acknowledgment of limitations. One especially poetic statement caught my eye:
"I want to make it quite clear here that the economist can not claim special knowledge which qualifies him to co-ordinate the efforts of all the other specialists. What he may claim is that his professional occupation with the prevailing conflicts of aims has made him more aware than others of the fact that no human mind can comprehend all the knowledge which guides the actions of society and of the consequent need for an impersonal mechanism, not dependent on individual human judgments, which will co-ordinate the individual efforts." Or more concisely, a short while later: "It would be contrary to the whole spirit of this book if I were to consider myself competent to design a comprehensive program of policy."

I believe that intelligent decisions can be made by individuals with an open view of the system. I further believe that non-interference is most often the intelligent decision to be made, precisely because no amount of knowledge presents an adequate view of the full system. It is simple to believe one can learn everything; Hayek is bold enough to admit this is not possible. The fool in a discussion refuses to see the limits of their abilities.

Hayek dives into liberty, the first of his critical freedoms and apparently an idea which demands interference to maintain. Apparently, liberty is a complicated idea. We have a word that flows well from the tongue (in several languages) and elicits generally positive feelings. This means the word will be misused and abused. We are presented with several definitions of liberty. I found the liberty:wealth/power discussion most fascinating. Hayek asks us to recognize that "we may be free and yet miserable." This is critical! We are better off flirting with missed opportunities than mandating actions. Intentions might be great, but it is too easy to take away freedom in attempts to increase wealth.

These questions call to the point in the introduction that no individual is best suited to prescribe what is best. Attempts to spread wealth can directly contradict efforts to spread freedoms. This is made convoluted when the word "liberty" is used to describe both conditions!
Hi fellow SWEAPP (Students Who Enjoy Austrian Political Philosophy) scholars.

As we're just starting this work, and my education in this area is more lacking than I'd like, a lot of what I have to say is limited to first impressions, and hopes for the rest of the work.

Forgive me if I start by recapping the intro and chapter 1:

My understanding of the introduction, is that Hayek believes the beliefs of the West are poorly defined, that the West is unsure of itself, and that this work will try to be general (and not referring to specific nations) while clarifying a number of vague things like "liberty."

Unfortunately, his initial statement that old truths be restated in modern terms to be most effective holds true, as he makes too many allusions to "others" and the Not-West that I'm left a bit confused at times. If he'd have just said communism when he meant it, people like myself who weren't alive until decades after this work was first published might understand it a bit better.

For the first chapter, Hayek discusses the four different kinds of liberty or freedom: Individual, Political (which in the form of democracy has been the West's most firmly held belief in the last few decades), Inner (e.g. free from judgment affecting addictions), and the kind that Hayek hates to call liberty: power, or the ability to affect an end that one wants.

Alright, now that's over with, there's a few things I want to know a little bit more about at this point:

1. What's coercion and what's not?
I feel freedom and especially coercion are kind of poorly defined at this point. Hayek says freedom is solely in relation to other men, but does that include an environment created by other men? A environment of penalties and fees with regards to a basic service such as cellular or land-line phone could easily be described as coercion, as could a larger system of chronic debt or disincentives to capital acquisition that encourage chronic poverty. Yet I get the sense that we're only going to discuss direct "do it or I physically restrain you" coercion with malovent and equally direct intent, even though Hayek specifically mentions environment creation as counting, too.

Say I need Internet to continue to perform my job both as a student and as an IT worker, as well as do things like post in this blog. Then I need to pay GCI (a local monopoly for broadband Internet) a certain amount to do so, and their monopoly status lets them charge an exorbitant rate. I'm still free in the sense that the rock-climber who has the choice between falling and a grueling climb is free, except my situation is an environment entirely engineered by man. Yes, I'm likening my need/want of the Internet to the need/want to die (hey, I chose fast Internet over running water, after all). Or, ff your boss threatened to fire you unless you worked you worked overtime, would that not be coercion? You may object that I placed myself in this situation by choice, but then that objection applies to just about real-life situation I can imagine; if you drive, you expect a possibility of getting pulled over, or if you don't move into International Waters, you expect to pay taxes and be part of civil (as in political) society.

Is taking away wealth taking away liberty? I've certainly gotten that impression from a number of self-professed Austrians who seem to care more about their control over their wealth (specifically protection of it from government) than social issues like gay rights, or more political liberty issues like immigration and citizenship.

For that matter, how is property itself not a restraint? In my econ 101 class, I learned how property is not a relationship between a person and a thing, but a relationship between two or more people (with regards to a thing). E.g. government or other people tell you that you can't do something with regards to an item, such as whether it's eat bread that's not "yours" or a small portion of wages that is "the government's"

2. A constitution solely about liberty? Or Who cares about liberty?
At this point, I hope Hayek isn't going to propose maximizing just the one variable, individual liberty, in creation of a constitution.

The only reason that liberty and freedom from coercion are important is because they protect and promote outcomes on higher indifference curves, right? I may be naive, but right now the only thing people seem to actually care about is the ability to affect ends that they want, right? I'll be watching to see if a different definition of moral "rightness" comes up.

Alright, that's all I have time for, see you folks Thursday.

Hayek's Disclaimers

Overall, so far I’m liking “The Constitution of Liberty.” Hayek’s introduction successfully gives a conceptual framework for both what he is to be discussing and in what manner he is going use to tackle the topic of Liberty, while using the tool kit of not only economics, but of other social sciences such as philosophy and political science.
I found though, that in his introduction two of what I’ll call his disclaimers has really sparked an interest in me. These disclaimers are specific approaches that Hayek notes he is to use throughout the work. Both of these points have multiple reasons as to why they capture my attention. It may simply be that I don’t really understand why Hayek wants to take, that particular approach or that it is an approach in itself sounds very difficult to use.
1.) The answers to the “pressing social questions of our times…are to be found ultimately in principles that lie outside the scope of technical economics or any other discipline.” For this reasoning Hayek apologizes for not venturing deeply in economics in his journey to define and explore liberty. I find his statements about the idea of our personal willingness to accept a specialist’s view without question as threat to freedom, most interesting. He states that this is one of the most important lessons had he had learned in his work on this book (pp4). Perhaps I am taking this the wrong way, but my mind found itself ultimately going to the idea of specialization. Specialization, though, I thought was one of the few ideas that economists typically agree on and you know….really like. I don’t know if any of you guys took the passage differently. I was thinking that it would be very interesting to elaborate on this point.
2.) The statements regarding that this entire work will be completed with an approach, which is to cut out emotions when dealing with the ideas of freedom and liberty. I find this a very interesting disclaimer for Hayek to make. I understand that it might be an effort to make sure this work is not to be labeled as propaganda and looked at in an academic manner. However, for me I think it will be interesting to see how Hayek or anyone in particular could ever possibly do this. I mean liberty is an emotionally charged topic. The word alone is filled with strong connotations for anyone who sets their eyes upon it. I was thinking about all the quotes that are used at the beginning of each chapter of the work and how these are in themselves filled with emotions. I will have to keep reading and see how the heck Hayek achieves this approach, as I would think that it is impossible not to bring emotion into the picture of liberty.

Freedom and Liberty: Hayek week 1

Hayek makes some very good points in the Introduction of the Constitution of Liberty, some of my personal favorites are:

"Though the sentiments which are expressed in such terms as the 'dignity of man' and the the 'beauty of liberty' are noble and praiseworthy, they have no place in an attempt at rational persuasion" (6)
"The meaning of some of the indispensable words has become so vague that it is essential that we should at the outset agree on the sense in which we shall use them. The words 'freedom and 'liberty' have been the worst sufferers. They have been abused and their meaning distorted until it could be said that 'the word liberty means nothing until it is given specific content, and with a little massage it will take any content you like.' " (7)

This book was originally published in 1960, so television was around but nothing like today, but I find it interesting that in 1960 before we got hit by the cable news networks Hayek makes these points about 1.) how appealing to a persons emotion has no place in rational arguments and 2.) words like freedom and liberty have been used so much and in so many different contexts that they have lost their meaning, or even value some might say.
Today it seems like politicians and others (but the main guilty party is most definitely politicians) mindlessly throw out words like freedom and liberty to appeal to peoples emotions, and because these are the kind of words that have been "massaged" into meaning whatever the author wants them to mean, they become more effective tools in winning audience members. This has a short term and long term effect.