To appreciate what gives the pic the meaning I want it to convey, take your eyes off the lady and note that the dog is being naughty.
As I try to argue below, a feature adhering to all political convictions is that they are always in danger of being too good to be true. But then this danger (of being inordinately open to fiction) is a matter of dose. Hence, there is hope that the danger may be kept at a manageable level.
Last week, Harbinger Capital filed a major lawsuit against the United States government for breach of contract arising out of its March 26, 2010 acquisition of a valuable portion of the spectrum known as the L-Band. The deal originally represented a major breakthrough in telecommunications policy, but now it sadly represents how government misconduct leads to major losses for society.
Thus argues Richard Epstein, but he is being challenged by commentators of his article. Writes one of them:
A more than somewhat disingenuous presentation here - Lightsquared negotiated for low powered spaceborne emitters in a band adjacent to the GPS band, then tried to move that allocation to high-powered ground-based emitters. That these would interfere with pretty much every GPS receiver installed in every device imaginable - smart phones, personal distress beacons, automotive navigation systems, etc. was a fore-gone conclusion. Lightsquared tried (using political means) to push this conversion through the FCC, who, to it's credit, refused. At issue is "who would accept responsibility for allowing a system that instantly rendered the vast majority of GPS receivers currently in operation useless?" Yes, new receivers could have been designed and built with the required increased filtering (at a significant monetary and volumetric cost), but all the existing receivers would be in trouble.
The FCC has made many mistakes over the years, generally whenever politics enters it's arena - but this wasn't one of them.
Hartley Gardner's comment on this article by Richard Epstein.
I am too far away from the nitty gritty of the issue to count as a qualified participant in the discussion. However, both my initial intuition and my conclusion after reading all comments favour Epstein's opponents. My initial intuition was that the plaintiff had taken business risks that had a good chance of eventuating in a manner "lethal" to him. It made me wonder why anyone would be so reckless. I suppose, there must be ways for businessmen to hazard bankruptcy knowing they will come out of it unscathed or even with some profit.
At any rate, over and above the specific case at hand, I enjoyed being a witness to a process whereby controversy widens one's view of the matter, triggering self-reflection and perhaps even an awareness of the inevitably ideological character of one's world view.
The Gap of Intermediary Conditions
The controversy that unfolds in the comments section reveals what I call "the gap of intermediary conditions", by which I mean: the premises and predictions of your belief system fail to link up conclusively; the consequences of adhering to your principles take a different path than predicted, owing to the influence of overlooked intermediary conditions.
Say, you argue that private property is an absolute, in which case your theory of freedom may end up being blind to intermediary conditions under which private property is in actual fact second-best or even dysfunctional and dangerous relative to the specified characteristics of the common weal.
Freedom becomes a fetish rather than a way of alleviating the human condition.
The devil is in the details, but so is betterment.
As Epstein himself explains in Free Markets under Siege one of a million instances of highly intricate intermediary conditions:
[I]f the law seeks to determine a very complicated issue such as the
optimum duration of a patent, it is easy to identify an infinite set
of permutations. The question of patent duration cannot be effectively
decided in isolation, without reference to patent scope, itself
a highly technical area. To make matters worse, the field of patentable
inventions might be too broad for a general solution to the
problem. The answer that seems to work well for pharmaceutical
patents may not be as sensible for software. But the moment we
decide that different patents classes should have different lengths,
someone will be faced with the unhappy task of classifying a new
generation of inventions that regrettably straddles a pre-existing
set of categories established in ignorance of the future path of
technical development: such is the case with computer software,
for example. Given this shifting background, it is very difficult to
authoritatively conclude that one patent length rather than another
is the best. Of course, we can make credible arguments that patent
duration should be far shorter than copyright duration, but that
does not fix an appropriate length for either form of intellectual
property. In the end, the best answers rely on educated hunches
by persons who work within the field, who may differ substantially
in their conclusions.
Liberalism's predetermined breaking points ( = unconvincing arguments) derive from one of its strengths: a passion for coherent theory. From which, in turn, springs the ambition to capture the world completely in a system of principles, lemmata and their logical implications.
But theories are only approximations, ephemeral stages in the process of accumulating new insight. In the end, theories lead us to discover their dark, uncharted side, calling for their own revision. They make us see and understand intermediary conditions that we had been unaware of before. If a theory can hold its own in the face of new and more intermediary conditions, it has earned itself another lease of life. Otherwise it ought to be discarded or it can survive only in the form of an unreasonable ideology.
Freedom as Method
These are only preliminary thoughts which I hope to expand into a theory of "freedom as method" - by which I mean a method of looking into genuinely open ended issues in such a way that the presumptions of liberty help understand better and convincingly, though not exhaustively, issues contested in the public arena. There are plenty of questions that we liberals do not have conclusive answers to - but we may have an excellent method to improve on these problems asymptotically. I feel, there are many occasions where the liberal should give up his posture of rowdy opponent (in possession of the final answer) in favour of a role as intelligent contributor (adding to cumulative improvements).
Ambivalence and Inevitability of Ideology
I do think that ideology is an important and indispensable part of human existence, and that there is good and bad, useful and useless ideology. For instance, I cannot think of a legal system that is not based on some kind of ideology (a belief in how human affairs hang together).
In fact, I do think that liberalism is an ideology of the conducive kind, especially as espoused by Richard Epstein in much of his work, but probably not in his article referred to above. Mind you, the liberal ideology is conducive precisely because it is undogmatic in nature, being ever on the outlook for real actions and their consequences, and in that manner trying to discover patterns and principles underlying the kind of behaviour that tends to benefit all of us in an endurable fashion.
We all support some mishmash of an ideology; you cannot be a human being without ideological attachment. Hence it is important to recognise that
ideology can be
- a method to better understand the world in which we live and a repository of useful insights, in which capacity it resembles science with its revisable hypotheses.
But ideology can also be
- a panoply used to protect oneself against alien views and to prevail over people with differing convictions.
Even the panoply function of ideology is not without its merits. Some of our convictions deserve to be robustly defended, and no one can be effective it she calls all of her views into question all of the time. The great art is to build an ideology-house in which the building blocks of stable conviction and refutable conjecture are in reasonable balance.
In the present instance, Richard Epstein may have argued too rashly from first principles, relying on accusatory stereotypes preferred by the liberal rather than facts about actions and consequences.