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eyes black and white

Socialist fable

“Imagine a parent with one flute and three children, each of whom wants the flute. The first child says ‘I made it’; the second says ‘I’m the only one who can play it’; the third says ‘I have no other toys.’ Who should get the flute?” – Amartya Sen

Ah, the typical neo-communist tales that my friends link to! All the more telling since Sen passes for a freedom-friendly philosopher amongst the general public. To top it all, the tale is meant as a metaphor of society, with government being the parent of the citizens, and the unwitting listener being tricked into emotionally identify with said parent, whereas in actuality he will be compelled to play the role of the kid. Of course, when you accept the State as parent, don't be surprised to see citizens treated as kids rather than adults, and deprived of all rights. Just as with the "free fox in the free henhouse" fable, the story is way more enlightening about the evil point of view of the storyteller than about the reality it purports to describe.

In the private discussion, one commenter to the link even suggests:

The parent asks all three the same question: "Do you mind if the other children and me share this flute with you?" If one says yes then the flute is handed to that one. If none say yes the parent says: "This is mine since none of you wants to share it with the others. I'll share it with you though."
She doesn't understand how evil is her proposal. Even when faced with my remark that "that's how, in a communist countries, the leaders keep everything for themselves, accusing the people to not be communist enough", she can see how said leaders are evil, but still wants to find excuses to the parent that would have genuine "good intentions", rather than be "lying". But "intentions" are just pretenses we broadcast to the world. Consequences are what matter. And her parent is just as evil as any communist leader. You judge a tree by the fruits it bears, and here are the fruits (my response to the tale):

The single parent is obviously overwhelmed by her kids and morally crippled.

After she abuses the first kid by confiscating the fruits of her labor, then “redistributing” it away, the kid stops making anything new that is worthwhile until she can leave the home; she can then start a productive life, but remains scarred by the abuse, with a deep emotional insecurity whenever she is creative.

The second kid eventually learns to sell her talents at performing, with the proceeds of which she buys a new, better flute (how did she learn to play, anyway?); but from her childhood she has acquired a twisted sense of morality in which the above abuse was somehow justified, and she spreads more of that evil around her.

The third kid, who already behaves as a beggar towards his own family, has no self-respect, and becomes a low life drug addict and petty thief. All money spent on him is utterly wasted. He eventually joins a sect that gives him the ersatz of a moral compass he failed to acquire from his dysfunctional family.

Ideas have consequences. Raising your children while depriving them from a sense of their self and their property is incredibly destructive. If instead the parent has solid moral foundations, here's what will happen:

The parent rejects with disgust the evil notion that she may dispossess one child for the sake of another one. She encourages the first child to create more things, the second child to develop her talents, the third child to learn how to create, perform or otherwise be productive. The first child grows up to be an inventive creator, the second a great performer, and the third learns self-reliance and eventually discovers his own talent.

Incidentally, the first child, having more flutes than she has use for, is happy and unafraid to share them with her siblings, out of her own free will, because she's not crippled by a sense of insecurity in her property. The flute is worth more to the fluteless player than to the flute-possessing non-player; therefore, soon, the children learn how they can mutually benefit from sharing and exchanging with each other, under formal or informal terms.

Why introduce violence, confiscation, and mutual enmity in what should be a peaceful family? That's how socialists are evil, seeking to destroy everything, from families to societies, in the name of their fanatic egalitarian utopia.

PS: Interestingly, Sen's answer to his fable-question is scarily typical of the totalitarian propagandist intelligentsia. Can you guess what it is? Just you remember that his is a metaphor of the rulers as parents and the ruled as children, and then recall what is the ultimate claim of the totalitarians...

Comments

One commenter to the link even suggests: The parent asks all three the same question: "Do you mind if the other children and me share this flute with you?"

Was that comment deleted? It's not at the post you link to. I assume that post was linked from another post?

Also important context: How does Sen answer that question?

To top it all, the tale is meant as a metaphor of society, with government being the parent of the citizens, and the unwitting listener being invited to identify with said parent (whereas in actuality, he plays the role of the kid).

Which kid?

If it's meant to be a metaphor for a democratic society, at the very least, the metaphor is poorly chosen. Democratic governments are both controlled and funded by the people they govern, families are (generally) neither controlled nor funded by the children.

Sen-ile

I assume that post was linked from another post?

Facebook private discussion.

Also important context: How does Sen answer that question?

1- Make a guess. 2- JFGI "Amartya Sen flute children".

Come back after you do 1 then 2, then we'll discuss. All I can say is his answer is typical of the totalitarian intelligentsia.

Which kid?

Depends on whom you're talking about, but it doesn't matter that much, really.

If it's meant to be a metaphor for a democratic society, at the very least, the metaphor is poorly chosen. Democratic governments are both controlled and funded by the people they govern, families are (generally) neither controlled nor funded by the children.

Oh my! You've completely drunk the democratic kool-aid, and are confusing the propaganda with the reality. I'm always amazed to see such parasites eat someone's brain yet the brain still looks like it's working mostly normally.

Re: Sen-ile

Come back after you do 1 then 2, then we'll discuss.

My guess was that Sen would argue that no one prevailing theory of justice covers the entire hypothetical (given that the post you linked to is titled "the limits of justice" and the usual habits of philosophers). That guess seems to be more or less correct (Sen has a bone to pick with Rawls in particular, evidently, but I don't think I'd understand those arguments well without actually reading the book). Of the Google results, I couldn't find anything that suggests that Sen gives a definitive answer to the hypothetical. Maybe he doesn't, or maybe that's just the vague nature of book reviews. You seem to be confident otherwise, so perhaps you have a better link?

Either way, I agree with your answer to this particular hypothetical. However, I'll note that in your own evaluation, you don't stop at libertarian principles and move on to appeal to consequentialism. In the hypothetical, the libertarian and the utilitarian analyses actually line up pretty well. So do others.

There are a lot of reasons why the hypothetical is a poor metaphor. Presenting the flute as a toy makes it a poor analogue for resources in general. I would expect the presumption of readers is that the children are generally well-cared-for by their parent, the child with "no other toys" is not particularly impoverished. Etc.

and are confusing the propaganda with the reality

My assertion stands apart from the question of whether allegedly "democratic" societies are in fact democratic. I assume the modern philosopher of justice intends to discuss democracies and that such is the context the hypothetical will likely be read in.

But that aside, I've always found the libertarian tendency to insist that modern democracies are in fact undemocratic quite bizarre. It's as odd as the Marxist version of class politics. I suppose that given the popularity of democracy, it's a lot easier to argue that a society is not democratic than to argue against democracy in principle.

I'm always amazed to see such parasites eat someone's brain yet the brain still looks like it's working mostly normally.

The perception is mutual, of course. But I know intelligent people who span the gamut of political beliefs from anarchism to neo-feudal authoritarianism. So it goes.

Totalitarian Sen

Indeed, Sen's answer is that it's a complex question for which all answers can be justified in theory based on various conceptions of justice, and to be resolved in the end by experts such as him. In other words, the Government is almighty, its decisions absolutely arbitrary, it can say whatever it wants as long as it employs ideologists such as Sen to produce a justification to its deeds, and mere citizens such as you and I have no say whatsoever in the matter. Can you spell TOTALITARIANISM? Example link: http://www.mirroroftomorrow.org/blog/_archives/2009/7/17/4257431.html

Truth is one and consistent, ergo, consequentialism can never contradict it and is a valid stance, from whichever end you go. If you find a contradiction, check your premises. See Bastiat for the Harmony of multiple points of views, Rand for checking your premises, etc.

The hypothetical may be a poor metaphor - but it's the one that Sen proposes, the one through which he frames the debate.

As for what "democratic" means - hypotheses that can't apply to reality are irrelevant. And those that do, do. If you're interested in Democracy, have you read about Public Choice Theory? And even further, Bryan Caplan's "The Myth of the Rational Voter".

For libertarian democracy, see http://www.panarchy.org/anonymous/democracy.1962.html

I'm glad you realize the perception is mutual. Most people are not able to see that.

Re: Totalitarian Sen

and to be resolved in the end by experts such as him... Can you spell TOTALITARIANISM?

Is it possible in your view, for a philosopher discussing justice to not be totalitarian? Must they add the caveat "but my ideas should never ever be taken into account when making political decisions"? Reading just your comment, I'd think that Sen was advocating rule by philosopher kings, but I see that nowhere else, including the link you provide as example.

If you're interested in Democracy, have you read about Public Choice Theory?

I have not. Is The Calculus of Consent worth reading? (I assume Collective Choice and Social Welfare would not be your first choice on that front.)

For libertarian democracy, see http://www.panarchy.org/anonymous/democracy.1962.html

I suppose that covers the idea pretty well, though the can-of-beans example seems to be tilting at a strawman. The idea of panarchy is interesting, though, most of what I've heard from libertarian circles has been minarchy this and an-cap that.

Re: Totalitarian Sen

A few non-totalitarian philosopher who discuss Justice: Bastiat, Rothbard, Hoppe, Jasay, etc. They don't start with a metaphor of the government as the parent and end concluding that whatever the government does can be justified by the anointed moral authority.

The Calculus of Consent is great, I'm told.

Panarchy or democracy with a small d are the same thing as anarcho-capitalism, modulo the name and associated explanation.

Where exactly did you get the certainty that there somehow exists some concept of "democracy" that is both achievable and desirable?

Re: Totalitarian Sen

end concluding that whatever the government does can be justified by the anointed moral authority

I still see no evidence you're not making that conclusion up out of whole cloth and stuffing it in Sen's mouth. But perhaps reviewers just leave that conclusion as a surprise for the reader?

Where exactly did you get the certainty that there somehow exists some concept of "democracy" that is both achievable and desirable?

Achievable as the perfect realization of some ideal? I don't expect real-world societies to exactly match any social theory.

If you mean achievable in a looser sense, it's an odd question, like asking whether there somehow exists some achievable concept of "capitalism" and then cashing your paycheck and going to the privately-run grocery store to buy some milk. Can policies be passed by referendum or ballot initiative and enforced by elected officials? Can legislators be elected by majority vote? From what I've seen, that's routine in the US and other "democratic" nations. It seems more plausible to me that democracy is achievable (given approximate examples) than that (stable) anarchist-capitalism or minarchism is achievable (given lack of approximate examples). At the very least, I haven't heard examples of an-cap or minarchist states persuasive enough to convince frustrated American libertarians to try to move there.

As to desirable, that wasn't part of my argument that Sen's "fable" is a poor metaphor for democratic government. But I'll take that digression: I don't argue that democracy is best in some theoretical sense. (I won't repeat that Churchill quote, that would be trite.) But I think constitutional democracy has worked pretty well for the US. I personally would rather live in a democracy (even an approximate democracy) rather than in a country ruled by a dictator or monarch or under an oligarchy (one where the vote-buying is literal, not just "it's easy to persuade people when you can buy TV advertising").

(My main disagreement with minarchism is mostly an of-degrees kind, since most minarchists I've talked to are also in favor of constitutional democracy. My main worry about anarchist-capitalism would be whether it would devolve into de facto totalitarianism, especially for those unlucky enough to become indebted/impoverished, but arguments about that tend to devolve into the "would not" / "would too" variety.)

Re: Totalitarian Sen

1- Can't you see the essence of the metaphor of government as parent, society as children???

2- You seem to have this usual false dichotomy between theory and practice. If some theory doesn't apply, it is false and stupid to accept the theory and say it's "just theory" that only applies to "perfect world" (i.e. not at all), the correct stance is to reject the theory as false and look for a better theory. If your theory of democracy doesn't apply to reality, it's false, you've just been drinking propaganda. For a better theory, see Public Choice Theory.

3- Once equipped with a proper theory of what democracy IS, in reality, you'll realize that it's nothing good, was never good, cannot possibly be good. That's what I mean when I claim that no achievable notion of democracy (i.e. that matters in practice) is ever desirable (i.e. there are much better and cheaper options). To cite Hoppe, Democracy is a God that Failed.

Sen's is a fable to totalitarian power, disguised as democracy. The rulers can do anything, they can spin anything as "justice", the only constraint is to get away with it.

As for the Churchill quote, maybe you or I should translate this to English:
http://fare.livejournal.com/158090.html

Constitutional Democracy has killed over a million americans in a civil war and foreign wars. It has brought a government far more taxing and invasive that whatever existed before. It has destroyed the rule of law. The constitution is a lure that doesn't protect anyone but the rulers themselves.

Re: Totalitarian Sen

Can't you see the essence of the metaphor of government as parent, society as children???

I clearly don't see it the same way as you. Do you think that it's obvious that "whatever [parents] do can be justified by the anointed moral authority"? (Which is who, exactly?) What is that, the divine right of parents? Makes no sense under any moral philosophy I'd ascribe to.

I'll stick to my point: I see no reason to believe that Sen is concluding that "anything is justified" or that readers would be reasonable in taking his statements that way.

If your theory of democracy doesn't apply to reality, it's false, you've just been drinking propaganda. For a better theory, see Public Choice Theory.

Models are approximations, but they still apply to reality. As to whether public choice theory is the best model for the situation in question, I'll have to hold off until I learn more about public choice theory.

As for the Churchill quote, maybe you or I should translate this to English

I'm sure you could do a better translation than I.

It has brought a government far more taxing and invasive that whatever existed before.

Does that imply that you're disagreeing with my preference? If so, I wish that you'd bite that bullet explicitly.

It mystifies me to see libertarians decry democracy as tyranny, but baffles me to see them decry democracy as the worst form of tyranny. Is it just that if the idea of democracy never existed (or never became popular), a libertarian/anarchist revolution would be a lot easier to promote? Or is there something else to it?

It has destroyed the rule of law.

Odd statement. Which law?

Re: Totalitarian Sen

1- Parents decide for their children. Children don't get to disagree. Oh sure, parents can't be abusive and must be "just", otherwise other parents may do something. Except there are about no other parents available, and that's where great wisemen like Sen come and promise to find a justification for whatever the parent does. Because you see, even at the end of a 400 page treatise, the only conclusion is that the matter is complex and that you should never claim that you're right unless you paid the Harvard Professor to pick the justification that suits you rather than a different one. How deliciously self serving!

2- Readers are meant to be confused, not enlightened, by the lies of Sen. Sen goes to great length to assert that all "conceptions" of justice are equally valid depending on the context, and that it requires a great mind and soul like his to discover which should be picked in any given context.

3- If the approximation applies and yields useful answers, then clearly it's not to be dismissed as "mere theory". If it's to be dismissed, then your model is FALSE FALSE FALSE, not "mere theory". Your model seems right out of government propaganda, with ballots cast being mystically transsubstantiated into the will of the people, anointing rulers into representing the nation.

4- I'll translate some day I'm even more depressed than now.

5- It's not a matter of subjectivist preferences. And why should yours matter more than mine or anyone else's? In the end, subjectivism is but dismissing reason and calling for force.

6- Democracy is tyranny. It's a form of tyranny that has brought hundreds of megadeaths on earth, unimaginable before. Way worse than any of the kings it replaced. Of course, those kings were doomed by inbreeding, guns and the printing press.

7- If you want to understand the Law, read Bruno Leoni "Freedom and the Law". It's free online.

Re: Totalitarian Sen

otherwise other parents may do something

So that's the be-all/end-all of "morally justified" to you?

Everything you say about Sen in that comment still has the problem that it's not connected to anything he actually says or does.

with ballots cast being mystically transsubstantiated into the will of the people, anointing rulers into representing the nation

Now you're putting words into my mouth. There's nothing magical about making policy or appointing policy-makers by majority vote.

It's not a matter of subjectivist preferences.

"I, personally, prefer to live under a democracy as opposed to a monarchy or dictatorship" is not a preference?

And why should yours matter more than mine or anyone else's?

It shouldn't, you'll find no argument from me there.

In the end, subjectivism is but dismissing reason and calling for force.

Easy to think you're the only reasonable one when you replace your opponents with ones made of straw.

It's a form of tyranny that has brought hundreds of megadeaths on earth, unimaginable before.

If that's the comparison you're using, you should compare democracies to contemporary monarchies, dictatorships, and the like, with similar levels of population and technology.

Of course, those kings were doomed by inbreeding, guns and the printing press.

Doomed to be replaced by what? And you realize there are still hereditary monarchies, right?

If you want to understand the Law, read Bruno Leoni "Freedom and the Law".

And then I'll understand why democracy in particular "destroyed the rule of law"? All right.

Re: Totalitarian Sen

So that's the be-all/end-all of "morally justified" to you?

We libertarians distinguish Justice from Morality, amongst other concepts. See Christian Michel's classic: Ought We To Obey The Laws Of Our Country?

Everything you say about Sen in that comment still has the problem that it's not connected to anything he actually says or does.

It's exactly about what he says and does. Words are actions, not descriptions. Who is invited to take what action by his book, with what justification? Who is invited to take no action, and denounced as unjustified?

Rulers are invited to do whatever they damn please, but to first seek the approval of someone such as Sen who'll invent a justification for what they do. Citizens are invited to obey, and never act but by trying to influence government through the myth of "democracy". That's the end of it. Sen denies that any objective principle that binds rulers. He's offering his services as an intellectual whore who will justify anything.

Re: Totalitarian Sen

We libertarians distinguish Justice from Morality

I don't deny that statement, but how is that an answer to my question?

Who is invited to take what action by his book, and with what justification? Who is invited to take no action, and denounced as unjustified?

The reviews don't say, and I haven't read the book, so I couldn't comment. But as to your answers, I reiterate that I wish you'd cite something more specific than your imagination.

Re: Totalitarian Sen

1- Morality is largely a matter of subjective preferences that has no bearing on Law. Justice is a matter of objective respect for property rights, and commands that there be no confiscation. By confusing the two, Sen and his ilk negate justice and use pseudo-morality to justify objective Evil.

2- Parents, not children are invited to act and decide in a "just" way. And the metaphor is of rulers as parents, the rest of society as children. It's not my imagination - it's correctly reading the metaphor Sen uses to frame his debate.

You can try to read his book "An Idea of Justice" (with plenty of excerpts on Amazon). It's mostly emotional hogwash and pop philosophy, written from the point of view of a hypothetical philosopher king in charge of designing society. No, you won't find such assumptions explicitly laid out. The guy is obviously an anti-rationalist incapable of clear conceptualization. You'll have to decode. Too bad for you if you can't.

What next, you want him to admit to having to intellectual integrity? Not only does the guy not have it, the very concept is foreign to him. I have to reckon he has a talent in presenting pop culture as if it were advanced scholarship, and thus letting his ignorant readers believe they are intelligent and deep. I guess this talent is worth a Nobel Prize - making the jury think it thinks.

Re: Totalitarian Sen

Justice is a matter of objective respect for property rights

Ah, I see. Your irregular capitalization above was "I am using this word in a way substantially different from what most people mean" capitalization. (Same denotation as scare quotes, opposite connotation.)

(Alternately, that is the Grammar for Speaking from deontological moral Authority.)

Implicit messages

you'll find no argument from me there [about your [l33tminion]'s preference mattering more than anyone else's]

Then why mention your preference at all? You seem to argue as if words have no subtext and context, as if their logical content is all that matters, and there isn't a message in the selection of what is said. Just like Sen's message is all in his framing of the "problem" and not in the indecisive (lack of) logical content in his (non-) answers, your choice of framing matters, and what more is the main message of your comment.

Re: Implicit messages

Then why mention your preference at all?

If "desirable" doesn't have to do with preferences, I'm not quite sure what you mean by the word. If you prefer living in a (nominal) democracy to a monarchy or dictatorship, I wonder how that can fit with your statements implying democracy is the worst tyranny possible. And if you would prefer living in a monarchy or a dictatorship rather than a democracy, I'd be curious as to why (and why you didn't act on that preference).

subtext and context, as if their logical content is all that matters, and there isn't a message in the selection of what is said

Sure, I'm only objecting to you jumping to the wild conclusion that Sen implies anything is justified. And now you're doing the same thing to me: I say "I don't see where that conclusion is coming from," you say, "Are you saying I can't draw any conclusion?"

Subjectivism

Easy to think you're the only reasonable one when you replace your opponents with ones made of straw.

Your framing the issue in terms of preferences (a.k.a Subjectivism) is what makes your stance not just unreasonable but anti-reason. If subjective preferences are to decide the discussion over objective arguments, then only force is left to determine who's to win. And indeed, that's the ultimate conclusion of Sen: that justice is subjective, and that government force is legitimate to settle what in the end are but diverging preferences.

Re: Subjectivism

Your framing the issue in terms of preferences (a.k.a Subjectivism) is what makes your stance not just unreasonable but anti-reason.

If "reason" is defined as making decisions in strict accordance with the axioms of libertarianism, than I agree.

And indeed, that's the ultimate conclusion of Sen: that justice is subjective, and that government force is legitimate to settle what in the end are but diverging preferences.

Now that, unlike your previous characterization, seems mostly accurate. You don't hyperbolically accuse Sen of being willing to justify anything (e.g. puppy kicking, genocide) for a price, but instead focus on the essence of your disagreement.

Edited at 2010-09-25 07:49 am (UTC)
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