Patreon Account and Youtube Channel Created!

Hello loyal readers,

Good news! In addition to maintaining this blog, I have created a Youtube channel and a Patreon account. Patreon is a platform for those that want to contribute to creators efforts with monthly donations, and on my Youtube channel I will be doing a weekly videocast called “The One in the Many.” On this show, I will discuss the headlines from the week in a principled manner and distill the principles that are involved.

If you wish to contribute to my Patreon, visit that here:

https://www.patreon.com/RobertoGuzman1

If you are interested in checking out my Youtube channel, you can see that here:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAbQmArNH83wfpSuHdEnm6g?view_as=subscriber

I will be posting full episodes of my show here on this blog for your enjoyment.

Thanks for your continued interest and support!

Rob

 

 

Virtue-Signaling and Altruism

A term that has gained widespread currency online, particularly in political discussions, is “virtue-signaling.” In this essay, I would like to share some thoughts regarding the philosophic origin of this phenomenon, particularly its roots in the moral theory of altruism. To begin, let’s consider what the concept “virtue-signaling” designates.

Virtue-signaling is the attempt to gain the approval of others by visibly supporting a cause in which one does not actually believe. Even more succinctly, it is the conspicuous support of a value that one does not hold. Those who virtue-signal are trying to gain unearned moral approval from their friends and colleagues. Let’s consider some concrete examples comparing “true believers” with virtue-signallers.

A shopper that routinely patronizes more expensive “mom and pop” stores to save them from Target and Wal-Mart is not virtue-signaling. A Park Slope resident that signs an e-petition to ban “big box stores” from their neighborhood between Amazon shopping sprees, on the other hand, is.

The environmentalist that actively lobbies the state legislature to ban straws and puts out propaganda pamphlets decrying plastic is not virtue-signaling, but the soccer mom that helps circulate a video of a tortoise with a straw in its nose on Facebook while relying on plastic products for her kids’ school lunches is.

A Christian that goes to church every Sunday, observes Old Testament dietary practices, and reads the Bible regularly is not a virtue-signaller. The “Christian” that never goes to church and has never read the Bible, though he brags about being godly and wears a golden crucifix on his neck, is virtue-signaling six ways from Sunday (and especially on Sunday).

American millennials that advocate for socialism in online polls via their iPhone web browser, otherwise apolitical people that denounce Donald Trump because they want their co-workers to like them, and people who superimpose flags on their Facebook profile pictures after some national disaster are also cases of virtue-signaling. None of these people think about the causes that they “support” when nobody is watching. Without a crowd to please, these people would be lost at sea like a ship without a functioning compass.

Now that we have a feel for what virtue-signaling is, the next question to ask is: what does this phenomenon have to do with altruism? Altruism is the ethical theory that mandates self-sacrifice as a moral ideal. The good, for the altruist, is what is good for other people, and the essence of immorality is selfishness. Altruism has two implications which are crucial to our analysis of virtue-signaling.

The first is that nobody can be a consistent altruist, because a person that is entirely unconcerned for their own welfare would be dead faster than a fish in a volcano. Human beings, as living things, have specific requirements that must be met for them to remain alive, such as food, shelter, love, purpose, etc. People working in soup kitchens don’t have the energy to carry out more trays if they do not eat on occasion. A man who donates his penicillin to the first afflicted soul he meets on the road will not be well long enough to continue the practice. Perhaps the most eloquent example is that of Francis of Assisi, who famously despaired that he could not cease eating entirely and made sure to sprinkle his food with ashes to destroy its flavor when he did permit himself a meal. We can call this difficulty the “consistency problem.”

The second result of altruism is that its practitioners require someone who is not an altruist to serve. To see this, imagine the following scenario. An altruist, Adam, is urged to sacrifice for the good of his neighbor, Bob. Eager to do good, Adam goes to Bob’s home and knocks on the door. Bob answers the door, and Adam asks, “What can I do for you, Bob?”

What happens next in our story depends on whether Bob is an altruist or not. If he is, then he might say: “I don’t know, my idea of the good is helping other people. My neighbor Carol might need our help, let’s go over to her place and see what she needs.” Should that contingency obtain, then Carol will have the same dilemma on her hands. If the neighborhood is sufficiently populated with altruists, this may go on for quite some time, with the posse having to visit Dan, Eleanor, Fred, and many more before they reach someone who is happy to accept the sacrifice. Of course, if Bob is not an altruist, he would gleefully have asked Adam to trim his hedges or mow his lawn.

The difficulty inherent in this story is that the altruist defers the question of what is good to the person for whom he is supposed to sacrifice. Altruism turns people into do-gooders with no real idea of what “good” even means. Another way of putting the same point is that where there is a person offering sacrifices, there is an entity (whether real or imagined) that is reaping sacrifices. We can call this issue the “infinite regress problem.”

Now for the payout. Virtue-signaling allows people who have adopted altruism as their ethics to cope with both the problems discussed above. It provides an answer to the “consistency problem” in that it gives people an ability to save face as altruists even though they do not wish to make sacrifices. It provides an answer to the “infinite regress problem” by serving as an example to others who want to showcase their altruist bona fides and have no idea how to do so. Virtue-signaling thus appears to be an adaptation made by people who are wary of the onerous demands of altruism, yet are unable to challenge its ethical premise. It is not surprising that a practice such as virtue-signaling would evolve in a culture which mixes Christian, Kantian, and Aristotelian premises the way that ours does.

How to Fight the Leftist Cultural Hegemony

A frequent question I hear in Meetups and other forums dedicated to ideas is: why do people assume that the actions of leftists are noble and motivated by morality, while those of conservatives and libertarians are viewed as cynical and immoral?

The answer is that ethics is more fundamental than politics because all political positions presuppose some ethical framework that its advocates seek to realize. Governments institute policies to achieve particular ends, according to what the prevailing ethics espouses.

The fact is that the dominant ethical theory across the entire political spectrum is altruism. Altruism, meaning “other-ism,” is a coin termed by French philosopher Auguste Comte which describes the view that ethical actions preclude selfishness. On the altruist premise, ethics consists in sacrificing your interests to the interests of the group, the community, the nation, the occasional neighbor, or an entity in another dimension. The beneficiary of any action, for an altruist, must not be the person acting. More consistent altruists, such as Immanuel Kant, even go so far as to say that actions cease to have “moral import” to the extent that they are self-interested.

It is important not to confuse altruism with benevolence. Opening a door for someone with full hands or giving up your seat on the train for an old lady are not instances of altruism. Nor it is altruism if you treat your friends to dinner, or cancel and stay home with your sick child if she needs your help. These are not sacrifices but trades, motivated by the fact that one’s resources and time are finite.

The essential difference is that while self-interested people trade lesser values for higher values, altruism demands that people exchange lesser values (or even non-values) for actual values. Such an act is not a trade, but a sacrifice. If you enter a burning building to save your wife because you love and her and would not want to live without her, then it is not a sacrifice to brave the flames to try and pull her out. If, on the other hand, you go in and risk your neck to save your neighbor’s wife, only to let yours burn to ashes, then you have committed a heinous crime against your own life.

Democrats today advocate a mixture of fascism and socialism in their politics, both of which rest on the moral framework of altruism. A politics based on altruism elevates need above all else and cashes in on the fact that people will go to great lengths to help the “have-nots,” as mandated by their morality. When this happens, objectivity and context go out the window, and all that remains is emotionalism based on helping those who are in need.

When leftists advocate taxing the rich, it is altruism that conjures the image of Oliver Twist asking for just a little more porridge, rather than the faceless businessmen who expended their effort to create the wealth in the first place. When leftists hurl invective at police officers for allegedly targeting innocent blacks, it is altruism that sparks the memory of Bull Connor and his hounds, rather than the paranoid cop who is afraid to draw his gun when threatened for fear of being called a racist. When leftists push for a ban on fracking or DDT to stop corporations from despoiling the land, it is altruism that brings to mind Bambi’s mother rather than the millions of people who will die of malaria and insufficient heating oil.

The social justice warriors have moved the needle in this country, and they have done so in a relatively short span of time. It was not too long ago that movies made fun of men dressed as women, and today people who think it odd when full-grown men elect to use the lady’s restroom are made to feel like bigots. It used to be the case that Martin Luther King’s famous quote about the content of one’s character being more important than the color of one’s skin was the essence of anti-racism. Today, Black Lives Matter tells whites that they have privilege because they are white. Then there are the women clad in “pussy hats” who march through New York City, a metropolitan hub for the freest country in history, demanding an end to “patriarchy” while simultaneously calling people “Islamophobic” for criticizing theocratic regimes in the Middle East when they treat women like Sharia Barbie.

Today’s society is a microcosm of what has gone on historically. Institutions dominated by the left assume that socialism is not immoral but impractical and that those who advocate it are idealists who get carried away. According to this view, Ho Chi Minh was not a Marxist zealot seeking to enslave Vietnam under totalitarianism but was a freedom fighter trying to prevent his country from turning into another banana republic. According to this view, Castro may have gone too far in some respects, but he brought health care to Cuba. According to this view, Stalin screwed up what Lenin started, and if only Trotsky or Bukharin were in charge, then we would have had “true socialism” and paradise on earth. I used to know a fellow software developer who told me that he thought communism was ideal, but that people are too greedy and lazy to make it work.

The explanation for all of this is that altruism has provided the left with the moral currency that they need to get their agenda passed. Even those traditionally opposed to the left cannot help but look at the lunatic, vacant face of a former barista advocating for socialism and think: “she is young and naïve and we have the same goals, even though her methods differ from mine.”

This brings me to the conservatives. Many are religious and accept altruism, except that they make allowances for the free market often on pragmatic grounds. Even when they argue that capitalism works better than socialism, they cling to the altruist ethics that lead to a socialist conclusion. A famous example is Adam Smith, who claimed that while individual selfish actions are not moral, they give rise to something that is, in aggregate, moral. One cannot defend capitalism by moral alchemy; nobody but a Machiavellian pragmatist believes that two wrongs make a right.

The conservatives are incessantly put on the defensive because the fundamental debate is moral, not economic and they support the altruist ethics. It was Herbert Hoover, a conservative, who initiated the policies that would later develop into Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” It was Eisenhower, a conservative, that gave rise to the lie that big business was corrupting America’s angelic legislators via something called the “military-industrial complex.” It was Richard Nixon, a conservative, who gave us the EPA and finished off the gold standard. It was Ronald Reagan, a conservative, who introduced the term “social safety net” to the political lexicon. It was George W. Bush, a conservative, who argued that America’s proper foreign policy was to serve other nations and bring them “democracy,” without noticing that democracy is not the American political philosophy. Conservatives had one job: oppose the left, and they failed miserably.

If one wants to oppose the leftist cultural hegemony, one must challenge the ethical framework on which it depends.

Now one might reasonably ask: What does this entail, exactly? Does it mean that we advocate for lying, cheating, and stealing if we reject altruism? Do we promote Nietzsche’s ubermensch doctrine, and cull the weak like the Nazis? Do we laud people like Bernie Madoff, who was able to work the system and get away with it for a long time? No.

The proper ethical position today for those concerned with our political trend is to point out that the current moral debate is a false alternative. The choice is not between sacrificing oneself to others nor sacrificing others to oneself, but whether you are for or against sacrifice at all. Rather than grant that the left is doing the right thing the wrong way, one must assert that they are doing the wrong thing the wrong way.

Since conservatives (and non-leftists generally) have not embraced this, they have failed to gain significant political ground because of it. While leftists are consistent altruists, conservatives are hypocritical altruists, and this is why they always seem to glide along while the leftist agenda continues, unopposed. For those religious conservatives, in particular, Anita Dunn, one of Obama’s communications directors, offered a stark concretization for the left’s dependence on altruism when she remarked that Mao Zedong and Mother Teresa were her favorite philosophers. If you accept Mother Teresa, don’t be surprised when your opponent turns into Mao.

The Obama Economy: A Study in Keynesian Stagnation

The first in a series of posts about Obama’s legacy.

This is the first in a series of essays on the Obama presidency and its long-term consequences on the United States.


President Obama entered mainstream politics by reviving the rhetoric of class warfare. The community organizer-turned-President promised everyone that the key to prosperity was for “the rich to pay their fair share.” His initial policy was to raise taxes on everyone who made at least $250,000 a year or more in order to fund more entitlement spending. He equated “millionaires and billionaires” with “lottery winners” further cementing the well-known sentiments in his “you didn’t build that” speech. Rather memorably, Obama opined that wealth is largely a matter of happenstance that we as individuals have little control over. In his 2008 victory speech, I sat in a Cornell dining hall and listened to Obama tell throngs of cheering Democrats that the United States has “never been a mere collection of individuals” and that we prosper to the extent that each person “resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.” Now I look forward as an adult in New York City to his departure from the White House.

It is not difficult to make the case that Obama is a believer in collectivism, but the exact nature of his economic philosophy is not total socialism. Recall that socialism occurs when the government is the sole owner of the means of production and is responsible for allocating goods and services to the general public. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Maoist China, Castro’s Cuba, and numerous other Soviet satellite states are historical examples of socialism in practice.

President Obama, like his predecessor George W. Bush, believes in the mixed economy. A mixed economy is capitalist in its basic structure but with significant government intervention on behalf of various pressure-groups within society. Another term for a mixed economy is a “hampered free market” economy, because people are free to own property and engage in trade but on a far more limited basis than that of a laissez-faire capitalist society. Even in a pure capitalist society it is proper for the government to limit the free actions of its citizens in order to protect individual rights; capitalism is not anarchy. In a mixed economy, the state will exceed this legitimate function and act with expediency to do “good” according to some non-objective standard, often at the behest of the ruling class or some politically powerful democratic majority.

The narrative favored by mixed economy advocates to justify such intrusion is that government is needed to restrain the excesses of the free market. The economist most responsible for formulating the principles of the mixed economy in the 20th century is John Maynard Keynes, whose work was the inspiration for Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies in the 1930’s.

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Keynes argued that the private sector, left to its own devices, was bound to fail without occasional intervention by the public sector. In particular, the government is obligated to “invest” in infrastructure to stimulate growth.. There should be a central bank, said Keynes, to control interest rates and strictly regulate the money supply. Keynes even advocated deficit spending in the short term to fund large projects if the money was not forthcoming in the present, remarking that “in the long run, we’re all dead.” This is the economic theory that the Obama administration adopted and sought to implement during its tenure. What are the results?

The United States has experienced economic stagnation under Obama, with growth rates less then 3% per year. The percentage of American households with at least one person receiving government benefits has reached an unprecedented 52%, up from 44% in 2008. There is at present a shocking 97,000 pages of federal regulations after Obama’s rule, up from the 79,000 pages that we had under George W Bush. Though these regulations no doubt vary widely in their objectives, the result is a complicated hodgepodge that makes it difficult for upstart firms to compete with more established players. In order to survive in the business world companies cannot afford to ignore lobbyists.

Now some might ask: shouldn’t Obama get a pass on the bad economy since he inherited Bush’s mess? It is true that the economy was in a tight spot at the end of the Bush years thanks to the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 (which, by the way, was caused by the government and not the free market). All this proves, though, is that George Bush was not a champion of the free market. It does not exonerate Obama, who pursued policies in line with what Bush started and took them much further.

It is no secret that the United States experienced a recession in 2007 that Obama inherited. Before he left office, President Bush signed into law the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in order to bailout the large banks that were deemed “too big to fail.” Congress then passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 in an effort to “stimulate” the economy with a cash injection of $831 billion into the arteries of American business. The subsequent Dodd-Frank legislation in 2010 was also passed to further tighten regulations on the financial industry, which was held responsible for the whole affair. Obama, following traditional Keynesian doctrine, signed these bills into law and initiated a largely phony “recovery.”

Despite the lack of results, there is a cost. The stimulus and the later attempt to nationalize the health care industry have resulted in a dramatic increase in the national debt. Under Obama, the debt increased from $10.6 trillion to nearly $19 trillion. Even more alarming is that in 2008 the debt was approximately 65% of the GDP of the US, meaning that it was approximately 2/3 of what the United States produces as a country in a given year. Today, the national debt is 104.5% of GDP if you include external debt! The conclusion that we can draw from this figure is that the US economy is heavily over-leveraged, a fact that is ironic considering Obama and his followers criticized the banks for the same sort of risky behavior when the financial crisis of 2008 hit.

Supporters of the president will sometimes make the claim that Ronald Reagan had a higher percentage change than Obama in the national debt, but this is dishonest rhetoric. When Reagan took office, the total debt was about $1 trillion and by the time he left the debt stood at $2.1 trillion. Overall Reagan added a total of $1.1 trillion to the debt, compared to Obama’s nearly $9 trillion. Even if we adjust the Reagan number to 2016 dollars with the CPI, this leaves you with close to $3 trillion, which is still 1/3 of what Obama inflicted. Economists have also pointed out that aside from the existing national debt, the US suffers from over $127 trillion in unfunded liabilities.

Americans also experienced the so-called Debt Ceiling Crisis of 2011 under Barack Obama. Congressional Republicans, keen to slow down the administration as much as possible in its expansive spending, refused to raise the amount of money that the government could borrow. The result was a political standoff that did little stop the Obama administration’s spending. The “compromise” that ensued promised future tax cuts in exchange for an increase in the national debt by the largest amount in a single day in US history. S&P even went so far as to downgrade the United States credit rating from AAA to AA+.

The truth is that stimulus spending by the government is nothing more than a short term palliative and is not a viable long term solution. Government is funded by tax money that is collected by citizens who participate in the market economy to produce goods and services; it has no money of its own. The fiat money that we use in trade today has only nominal value so long as it can be traded for real goods and services that have actual value to consumers on the market. If the government increases the amount of fiat money in society without a corresponding increase in the number of goods, the result is inflation. Inflation occurs when the purchasing power of money decreases, often due to an increase in the money supply. Inflation functions as an indirect means of taxation, since it devalues the existing savings that existed prior to the money creation. If printing money fails to fix the issue, the government can kick the can down the road with Keynes’ preferred deficit spending alternative.

What about employment, that old Keynesian bellwether?  Supporters of the president claim that he “created” 11.3 million jobs throughout his entire administration and continue to evoke favorable comparisons with Ronald Reagan. There are several things to keep in mind with regards to these misleading statements.

To begin, the comparison to Reagan is specious since the overall labor participation soared under Reagan while the opposite has occurred under Obama. Indeed, there has been an 18% uptick in the number of people who have stopped looking for jobs since Obama took office in 2009. As it turns out, the unemployment statistics only account for people who are actively looking for work; those who choose to remain unemployed are not counted in these statistics. Further, statistics on job creation do not focus at all on job quality and treat full-time jobs with paid benefits as the equivalent of part-time jobs. One could arrive at 100% employment by having half the population dig ditches and the other half fill them; in the meantime, little to no economic value is created.

These quibbles notwithstanding, there is a more fundamental reason to reject the positive picture painted by the Obama administration with regards to jobs. The fact is that the president, like any government organization, simply cannot create jobs. The reason for this is that government does not produce wealth, it merely redistributes existing wealth that is generated by the private sector by force in the form of taxation. Capitalists create jobs when they defer their consumption to invest in a business and serve a market need. Customers patronize the business and the proceeds are used to pay individuals that wish to sell their services without having to take on the risk of the investment. Job creation is one of the many improper functions taken up by government in a mixed economy.

Obama, like many leftists, does not understand that it is private savings and investment on the part of capitalists that expands the economy. When entrepreneurs invest in capital goods, the result is lower good prices and a subsequent increase in the purchasing power of money. The tragic but instructive Obama legacy on economics is a case study in outright Keynesian stagnation.