Anarchy, State, and Capitalism

Anarchy is the absence of central government and there are two kinds of definitions.

  1. A society without a large-scale government hierarchy that has a monopoly on legitimate force. By this definition, most tribal foraging societies and other small-scale societies have lived in anarchy. Although those societies had little hierarchy, they were still highly political and individuals were deeply constrained by norms and beliefs that are bizarre to outsiders because they were inculcated through extremely sheltered upbringing.
  2. A society of free individuals living without rules nor norms imposed by others. This is highly unstable and cannot last long because more organized societies are more productive and better at taking resources from “free” individuals and imposing rules upon them. When a government breaks-down, the social norms that had prevailed do not immediately vanish and rather than society descending into a chaos of free individuals, various forms of coalitions and gangs immediately organize.

Anarchists are utopians who generally idealize something like the first type of anarchy in which they imagine that consensus can organize social affairs. Anarchists unrealitically deny the coercive and violent nature of tribal societies and/or imagine that it might be possible to achieve an extreme form of direct democracy that eliminates coercion someday.  This is best viewed as a hypothetical idea because it has never existed outside of small-scale groups and it isn’t even particularly common nor durable in small-scale groups:

[“Anarchy”] mostly takes the form of an extremely slow-moving and highly rule-bound process of collective deliberation. Anarchy, paradoxically, means more rules, not fewer, and more collective responsibility, not less… The term “anarchy” literally means “without [a] ruler,” and not, as many believe, “no rules.” Although many anarchists want radical change, the change that most envision is not societal breakdown but rather people learning to collectively rule themselves (or in other words, direct democracy).

The basic premise guiding anarchist political philosophy is simple: Humans are fundamentally cooperative by nature and, when given the chance, flourish in …self-governance… in which every person has an unalienable right to participate fully in any political decision… and to leave any association that makes a decision they find unconscionable…

attempts at anarchist societies or collectives over the last two centuries have been numerous and persistent, if often short-lived. However, as anthropologists like to point out, humans organized themselves in stateless societies with great success for much of ancient history, and many continue to do so in various ways, without using the label “anarchy.” In fact, “state-level” societies have existed for only a fraction of the roughly 300,000 years modern humans have thrived—emerging an estimated 5,000 years ago—and should still be regarded as an experiment, with mixed results… meetings and planning sessions are characterized by complicated strategies and procedures aimed at establishing complete consensus.

There are several problems with this conception of human nature. Yes, humans are fundamentally cooperative by nature, but humans are also selfish at times and there are assholes that need to be coerced to prevent them from wreaking tragedy. Humans are also prone to cooperate in groups for the purpose of dominating other groups. This is one of the reasons that stateless societies have been mostly displaced by large-scale societies around the globe. Stateless societies cannot defend themselves from bigger and more productive societies. For a stateless society to be viable long term it has to be able to fend off domination from other societies like Russia that are run by imperialist assholes.

Thomas Hobbes famously claimed that life in stateless societies was “nasty, brutish, and short,” but he was 1/3 wrong. Tribal societies have always loved their way of life and clearly never considered it “nasty”. Although life was mostly pleasant for the short time tribal people expected to live, it was brutish and short with a high rate of violent death and brutally constraining tribal and religious social norms that shackled individual freedoms. People worried about witchcraft and evil spirits and endured numerous indignities of traditional initiations and small-scale hierarchy. There are abusive family relationships in all societies, but in tribal societies, family is all you have and it is much harder to escape an abusive relationship.

Modern people would not say that stateless societies were a “great success for much of ancient history”, because all stateless people have always endured lives of poverty and life expectancy in small-scale societies rarely exceeds the low 30s.  Stateless peoples have always had very little lifestyle choice because of extreme ignorance about the world and other possible ways of life.  Traditional peoples have had very limited knowledge about anything other than what they learn from the small number of people around them.  Although stateless people rarely leave to voluntarily join large-scale societies, that is partly due to their ignorance about other possibilities.  Nevertheless, across history there has been much more movement away from stateless societies than vice versa.  Today, almost nobody from a large-scale society would willingly trade places permanently with an average person in any small-scale society.

The other form of anarchy is in large-scale societies.  This can happen when governments break down, but the absence of government rules and enforcement is anything but liberating for most people because living standards plummet. In a long-term government breakdown, violence rises to the sort of high levels seen in tribal societies.  This doesn’t happen overnight because social norms and expectations take time to change so a temporary anarchy can be quite peaceful.  For example, when anarchy is temporarily caused by a natural disaster, humans commonly tend to be motivated to cooperate to help each other survive (although nonviolent looting is common). But in situations where people do not expect that the government will return, gangs and warlords typically arise to fill the political power vacuum.

Indeed, tribal societies are similar to gang societies, but tribal societies are typically spread out over a large geographic area which limits their opportunities for conflict. Rising population density increases the potential for conflict and hierarchies (governments) tend to arise to manage it.  Modern gang societies are different because they tend to originate in denser communities with towns and cities and they establish hierarchies to compete with other gangs and government forces.

In all the stable forms of social organization that have ever evolved, there is always some amount of hierarchy and rules that limit individual freedoms. There are three basic paradigms:

  1. Stable hierarchical national government.
    • Examples include all the modern nation states today that are members of the United Nations. Some are much better than others at producing health, prosperity, and individual freedoms. Some anthropologists argue that some early hierarchical chiefdoms arose before agriculture in some of the rare areas that supported high population density due to large concentrations of migrating salmon or other similarly dense food stocks.
  2. Unstable government where there is competition between warlords and/or gangs and/or stable neighboring governments. Critics of anarchy often point to this as an example of the problems of anarchy.
    • Examples include areas like Somalia that have no recognized national government or in parts of nations where there is weak government control such as in the jungles of Colombia where drug cartels operate with impunity.
  3. Tribal societies with low population density and little hierarchy, but strong constraints of social norms. Proponents of anarchy often idealize a sanitized version of tribal societies while ignoring problems like short lifespan.
    • Examples include nearly all of human history before the dawn of agriculture and many small-scale societies after agriculture. Today, tribal societies are rare and mostly only hang on in landscapes that have been incompatible with more intensive agriculture and which are still geographically isolated from major transportation and trade routes. Today, tribal societies exist within land that is formally claimed by national governments, but where there is very little actual government control.

In a way, all three of these paradigms are different forms of government. Every society is either a stable national government/chiefdom, a tribal government, or an unstable government/warlordism, or some combination of the three.

For example, the Italian mafia is an example of an unstable government because it arose as a substitute for weak government institutions in Southern Italy. Donald Cressey argues that that the US government recognizes that organized crime is a form of government because it has, defined territories, negotiated settlements and peace treaties with organized crime. Cressey says, “that because organized crime provides illicit goods and services demanded by legitimate society, it has become part of legitimate society.” US history arguably arose out of an unstable government according to John W. Tyler’s history of the Boston Tea Party. He claims that this group of patriots was a kind of loosely organized crime ring of tea smugglers and merchants who only became patriots rather than criminals when they won the war and were able to tell their history in a more favorable light.

Some regions of Colombia have been run by drug gangs for decades and those gangs fulfil many of the functions of government. They even use alternate forms of money because they don’t have enough government currency to run their economy:

…the only pharmacy in the stiflingly hot jungle town of Camelias, deep in southern Colombia, looks ordinary, with wide glass counters and shelves stacked high with medicines. Then the customer pays the bill.

The customer produces one of the clear plastic bags in which people here carry around coca paste. The pharmacist, Socrates Solis, scoops out a bit of the paste, weighs it on a digital scale and gives back change — the excess he had ladled out.

Welcome to the Caguan River valley, a swath of jungle towns and coca fields in …a part of Colombia with no government presence, only guerrillas. The economy is built on coca production, and coca paste has become a main currency.

In the pharmacy, for example, everything is priced in grams. Expensive antibiotics retail for 45 grams, worth roughly $36; a bottle of aspirin costs a little more than a gram, or $1; medical exams are given to prostitutes for 12 grams, or $10.

”I was speechless when people would drop by the pharmacy and pay for the doctor’s bills or their medicines with coca instead of money,” Mr. Solis, 35, [said]. ”The first three months I worked here [at the pharmacy] we collected six and a half kilos of base.” [Worth $6,500]

In this part of Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia run things, patrolling roads, punishing law breakers, even building bridges over creek beds. Perhaps most controversially, the rebels regulate and tax a thriving trade in coca leaves and coca paste. Traffickers buy the paste, process it into cocaine and ship it by the ton to quench the United States’ insatiable appetite for the drug. It is a business that …fortifies the rebel army and helps fuel Colombia’s brutal civil conflict.

But in … the region, coca paste is seen in much less nefarious terms. Paper money is in short supply, since conventional businesses are few. Instead, everything revolves around coca, as evidenced by thousands of acres of coca fields and the coca-processing laboratories in the jungles…

It feels quite normal for Wilber Rozas, 34, of Peãs Coloradas to spend 1.08 grams (worth 90 cents), for a large glass of juice at the Peñas Juicery. Or for villagers at the annual festival in Santa Fe to lug bags of coca paste to buy clothing from traveling salesmen or to bet in the cock fights. ”I would like to always take cash, but if I do not receive coca base I might as well shut down my restaurant,” said Selmira Vasquez, who owns the Buenos Aires restaurant in Peñas Coloradas.

As a currency, the coca paste is as good as gold. When traffickers arrive every few weeks to buy coca paste, they pay with a wad of bills — and soon money is flowing again. The merchants have cash. So do workers. The value of the paste, however, is unpredictable.

”The price of paste can go up or down…” explained Ms. Vasquez. ”When the dealers show up, the prices could be lower or higher than when I bought, so it is like gambling.”

The region’s bartering system does not mean the inhabitants themselves are cocaine addicts or gang members. The rebels keep the peace by prohibiting drug consumption. Those who violate the ban end up on road-paving or bridge-building duty.

The guerrillas also forbid those most susceptible to drug use — the young, single men who have come from across Colombia to pick coca leaves — to be paid in coca paste. They receive coupons they can cash once the traffickers arrive with money.

”That is the way it works in the Caguan river region,” explained Jose Sosias, 28, a villager. ”We are a coca culture. Our money, sometimes during the year, is coca base but we just use it as currency. No one here consumes the drug.”

The drug cartels sometimes impose the death penalty for disobeying their laws, including for drug addiction. During the coronavirus pandemic, the drug cartels imposed lockdowns to halt the spread of infection and they torched the vehicles or killed people who disobeyed. Other times they ordered sick people to leave:

“They have shut down transport between villages, and when someone is suspected to have Covid-19 they are told to leave the region or they will be killed,” one community leader in Colombia’s southern Putumayo province told the Guardian, on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “And people have no choice but to obey because they never see the government here.”… The [Colombian] government has imposed lockdowns, both nationwide and locally, but they have never been as strict as those decreed by armed groups, and the consequences for breaking them nowhere near as grave.

Liberal anarchists vs. conservative anarchists

At the beginning of this essay I quoted a liberal anarchist who is inspired by diffuse tribal societies and hopes that someday our crowded cities can be ruled by pure consensus without any coercion. Confusingly, other anarchists have very different opinions about what true anarchism is because anarchists have a very difficult time achieving consensus about how to define anarchism nor even agree about common goals. Anarchists disagree about the fundamental nature of anarchy and it is hard to pin down what anarchists believe because anarchists have no central authority that could hope to define what they are about.

Communism was originally a form of liberal anarchism.  Communists believed that communism would cause the state to wither away until everyone just lives cooperatively without coercion. Today this sounds like a sick joke because the actual communists produced totalitarian societies that are as far away from anarchy as it is possible to get! Nobody ever achieved as much government coercion as communists (although some fascists came close).

Whereas the collapse of Soviet communism destroyed that particular utopian dream for many liberal anarchists, it boosted the utopian dreams of many conservative anarchists who call themselves  libertarians or anarcho-capitalists. Again, it is hard to pin down what libertarian anarchists believe because they are just as bad at reaching consensus as liberal anarchists, but conservative anarchists also dream that the state should wither away and leave only pure markets of capitalism.

Again, this is utopian because capitalism itself is dependent upon government to survive and there has never been a prosperous, innovative market society without a strong, stable government. Some libertarians recognize this and only want to minimize government in a way that they hypothesize would increase prosperity, but there has never been a libertarian paradise with as much prosperity as the US enjoys today with less government than what the US (or possibly Singapore) has.

Although libertarians are the polar opposite of communists, they both wish for the state to wither away.  Neither group can point to successful real-world societies that have a better economic record than places like the US, Canada, Singapore, and Switzerland.

The Banana Problem for anarchy

Could the free market get a banana to someone in Ohio in anarchy without government? There are many problems:

  • Without government there is no stock market and no limited liability corporation. Some argue that corporations are essential to capitalism, and this is one reason why capitalism requires government. Without corporations, who will produce, transport, and retail bananas?
  • Without government there are no public roads nor ports. How would we transport the bananas to Ohio?
  • Without government there is no electric power grid nor pipeline grid to bring the gas and electricity required to transport and refrigerate the bananas until they are ready to ripen at the store.
  • Without government there are no secure property rights to prevent bananas from getting stolen in route or to give entrepreneurs the confidence to build a supermarket.
  • Without government there are only mafias to provide finance, banking and insurance to help entrepreneurs amass the capital to build a supermarket and buy the refrigerated trucks to transport bananas. Mafias do produce these financial products, but they produce less than in any society with a stable government.
  • Without government there aren’t patents to give incentives to invent refrigeration, shipping technologies nor is there government research funding to do most of the basic agricultural research that has helped boost agricultural productivity.

I could go on and on, but the fact is that government-free markets couldn’t even get you a banana, much less support more complex economic activities like the automobile industry or public health innovations that have doubled life expectancy over the past century. Until an anarchist can explain to me how I can enjoy bananas in Ohio under anarchy, I’m not going to believe in anarchy.

Market failure IS government failure

Many liberals like to talk about market failures and many libertarians like to talk about government failures, but they are really one and the same.

Like the banana market, almost all markets depend upon government to exist, and that is why capitalism cannot exist without government. Even illegal markets like cocaine require airplanes and other machines that wouldn’t exist without capitalism and monetary systems that are created by governments and prosperous citizens in nations with stable well-run governments who can afford to buy cocaine. Without government, even something as simple as pencils would become nearly impossible to get.

Because capitalist markets depend upon governments, market failures are government failures. The markets wouldn’t fail without government because they wouldn’t even exist without government. Most people think pollution is a classic market failure, but there would be zero industrial pollution without governments, so it is really the government’s fault at root.

Posted in Development, Globalization & International, Public Finance

Yuval Noah Harari says a simple story can save the planet


It’s important to have human enemies in order to have a catchy story. With climate change, you don’t. Our minds didn’t evolve for this kind of story. When we evolved as hunter-gatherers, it was never the case that we could somehow change the climate in ways which were bad for us, so it’s not the kind of story that we were interested in. We were interested in the story that some people in the tribe are conspiring to kill me. So we have a narrative problem with climate change. But the good news is that it’s not too late or too difficult to overcome. According to the best reports I’ve read, if we now start investing 2 percent of global annual G.D.P. in developing eco-friendly technologies and eco-friendly infrastructure, that should be enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. The beautiful thing about 2 percent is that even though it’s a lot of money, it’s completely feasible. If it was 20 percent then I would tell you forget about it, it’s too late. But 2 percent? The job of the average politician is to shift 2 percent of the budget from here to there. We know how to do it. We need to stay away from the apocalyptic thinking that it’s too late and the world is ending and move toward a more practical thing: 2 percent of the budget. That’s it.

Is shifting 2 percent of global G.D.P. a sufficiently compelling story? The thing about 2 percent of G.D.P., it’s not very impressive, but that’s the whole point. It’s hopeful. It’s not like we have to completely change the entire economy and go live in caves. We just need to shift 2 percent. That’s all. So I think it’s a powerful message. And there are other stories: If you look at movements like Greta Thunberg’s and the whole youth movement, what the young people are telling the world is that you are sacrificing us on the altar of your greed and irresponsibility. It’s no longer something hazy like CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s a human drama of the old sacrificing the young. That’s powerful.

Posted in Environment

You can’t get no satisfaction from reducing your own personal carbon footprint.

Almost all moral reasoning concerns ideas about how we treat one another (including other sentient beings). Hence, what is moral depends upon what other people do. Driving on the right side of a busy highway is moral (and driving on the left side immoral) in North America because that is what good people are socially expected to do for public safety. But driving on the left side is moral in the UK and Japan because that is the norm there. Whether it is moral to drive on the right or the left side of the road entirely depends upon what other people do. Similarly, whether it is moral to take something another person possesses depends upon whether that person obtained the possession morally or not. It depends upon that person’s actions and the effects upon other people. Even violence against another person can be moral depending upon the context. For example, forced imprisonment is a form of violence that is justified based on its effects on society. Even more extreme, it is moral to squeeze a tiny infant’s body so hard that her heart has difficulty beating, her skull deforms, and she cries from extreme physiological stress. This is a description of a routine natural childbirth which is painful for everyone involved and yet it is moral to cause such violence even though a C-section is an available alternative that would do less violence upon innocent babies.

Morality is a form of game theory in which the morality of any action depends upon the actions of other people. For example, suppose that I am the only person on earth who understands climate change and everyone else on earth is ignorant about the problem. Thus they will continue producing greenhouse gasses no matter how much greenhouse gasses I produce. Is it moral for me to continue to produce greenhouse gasses because my emissions have essentially zero effect on the planet by themselves? By comparison, it is clearly much more immoral for me to do nothing to spread information about climate change to others so that we might have a chance to collectively stop global warming. It would be better to produce massive carbon emissions flying across the globe every day to spread the information about global warming in that case because the only solution is to get billions of people involved in collective action to stop climate change. One jet-setter’s high carbon emissions would be negligible in comparison with the potential benefits of teaching the globe about climate change.

Unfortunately, this kind of ignorance problem is the main impediment to solving climate change today. Most people simply don’t care enough about climate change to make more than the tiniest sacrifices to solve the problem. They should care more and until we solve that problem, we won’t solve climate change.

Because most of the people on earth do not understand that we should invest more in averting global warming, climate change is mostly an information problem and individual sacrifices to reduce carbon emissions don’t matter except for how they affect other people’s behavior. Indeed, it is even possible for one’s personal sacrifices to make climate change worse if one’s self-righteousness about it makes other people feel inferior and causes them to reject the entire idea.

In a democracy, we need support for policies that can endure partisan changes in government because if an issue is only important for one side of the political spectrum, it can easily be overturned by the other side when elections shift power to the other side. Self-righteousness harms coalition building across partisan divides.  The impulse to achieve personal moral purity on climate change by eliminating one’s personal carbon footprint also risks alienating the people who haven’t yet been convinced that we should do anything at all.  Our most important job as environmentalists is to convince them.

It would be very different if we lived in a world where most people were making sacrifices for the climate. Then it would be moral for each individual to make personal sacrifices to reduce their own carbon footprint because that would help uphold the social norm.  (Plus it would have a negligible direct effect too, but and even a negligible effect is still an effect.)  What makes an action moral or immoral is the effect on other people and my personal carbon footprint, although it is larger than the global average, has a negligible direct effect on people compared to my political actions because I live in a society where most of my compatriots don’t care about making sacrifices to prevent global warming.

Unfortunately, the moral logic of global warming works against our evolved intuitions of self-righteousness. We tend to get a lot more satisfaction out of our personal actions than out of the moral sacrifices of others and this has led to the problem that many environmentalists spend a lot more money on minimizing their personal carbon footprint than on working for a collective reduction in carbon emissions. I know environmentalists who get tremendous satisfaction out of their personal achievements in approaching a zero-carbon footprint. But they shouldn’t get any satisfaction!

There are so many humans on the planet that if we all held hands in a line, we could circle the globe hundreds of times. Of course, we would also have to build millions of flotation devices to support humans across the oceans, but it is technically possible to do. Suppose someone has the goal of holding hands around the world and he decides to do his part to accomplish the goal by making a float and getting in the ocean with his arms raised up east to west with hands outstretched ready to hold hands with someone adjacent. Then he is stuck with an epiphany that gives him a sense of having accomplished something globally significant. His insight was that if every other person in the world would also make the same kind of effort that he did to reach out and hold hands, they could collectively hold hands and reach all the way around the globe hundreds of times. Then with great satisfaction having accomplished his part in the global effort, he proceeds to go about his everyday life having felt like he did his part to accomplish the collective goal.

The fight against climate change is like the goal to have all humans hold hand simultaneously around the world. Each individual’s footprint is insignificant by itself, and the main effect of individual actions is what effect we have on other people’s actions. There are some people who are responsible for millions of times more carbon emissions than the average human, but it isn’t due to their own personal consumption. It is due to their power over our collective actions. For example, our political leaders are responsible for policies that affect hundreds of millions of people’s carbon footprint and our fossil fuel lobbyists are responsible for manipulating said politicians as well as their direct influence on our public culture via their disinformation campaigns.

There is an asymmetry between the efforts of climate-change environmentalists versus big carbon. Environmentalists spend a lot of our moral resources to increase our personal moral purity and reduce our individual carbon footprint. On the other side of the political divide, big carbon doesn’t waste any resources on personal moral purity and so they can devote all their resources to influence the public spere to stop policies that would actually make a difference.

Big carbon loves the moral purity of a zero-carbon footprint. They wish environmentalists would entirely focus on our individual moral purity rather than on collective action to solve the problem. But don’t let them distract you into navel gazing about our own individual carbon footprints. That is just a distraction and one of big carbon’s strategies is to promote it. Even though big carbon doesn’t care what environmentalists do about their personal carbon footprints, they love to chastise environmentalists for hypocrisy when they have a positive carbon footprint and want our global carbon footprint to fall. This is a common critique of prominent environmentalists like Al Gore and even Greta Thunberg. Don’t let them distract you. Hypocrisy is often the first step towards morality and in this case, there really isn’t hypocrisy in both having a big carbon footprint AND wanting everyone to make more investment to reduce our collective footprint.

Greenhouse gasses have been produced for generations and even a high-emission person is unlikely to produce more than one-billionth of the total problem in the atmosphere. When an individual reduces his footprint and solves one-billionth of the problem, he should get only one-billionth of the satisfaction of achieving the goal. It is hard for ordinary people to sense just how trivially insignificant that it is. It is less than one strong stroke of an arm on a swim that circumnavigates the globe. People are hardwired to get enormous righteousness satisfaction out of our own personal actions relative to the actions of others, but our own carbon footprint really doesn’t matter. Getting satisfaction out of reducing one’s personal carbon footprint is just as logical as holding hands with one person and feeling the satisfaction of accomplishing one’s part to hold hands around the globe.

A collective goal cannot be accomplished without collective action. To have any chance of making real progress will require collective action that gets billions of people to change their actions for the common good. Nothing we do as individuals matters except insofar as it also influences others to join the cause.

Our own individual efforts to reduce personal carbon footprint are bad if:

  1. They divert our resources away from doing more important things that shift our culture. This is my primary objection to Bluffton University making big financial sacrifices to reduce our institution’s carbon footprint.  We have a comparative advantage in education and our biggest moral failure is that we don’t do more to teach the facts about climate change.
  2. They create moral license which causes us (or others) to burn more carbon in other parts of our mental accounting.
  3. They create a tribalistic partisan dynamic in which people on the other side of the issue just reject the whole issue. This is particularly problematic in the USA.

Otherwise, everyone should reduce our own personal carbon footprint because if it doesn’t harm the culture than it may be slightly better than nothing.

Posted in Environment, Globalization & International, Philosophy and ethics

We need a better concept of collective morality to be able to deal with climate change

Suppose God told you that you would go to hell if the median human faith of humanity is insufficient when you die. If the median faith of humanity is good enough, then everyone goes to heaven, but if not, than everyone goes to hell. That would be a radically different kind of religion than any the world has seen; it would be a religion with a universal collective morality rather than focused on individual morality. Collective issues like climate change are like this because mother nature will judge every individual based on humanity’s collective actions and ignore how people behaved as individuals.

Westerners are particularly individualistic and most try to focus upon the morality of each person’s individual actions. We are taught that we should mind our own business about other people’s morality because other people’s choices are their individual personal responsibility. Western moral philosophers have neglected collective moral responsibility and when they do identify it, it is often disparaged because some forms of collective morality are problematic including:

  1. Intergenerational moral guilt is an idea that is in the Old Testament. It condemns descendants for the sins of their fathers “unto the third and fourth generation.” Even more dramatically, it says that all humans are collectively punished for the original sin of Adam and Eve. Some of the calls for reparations for slavery are based upon ancestral sin to atone for ancestral trauma. A better justification for reparations would be to forget about intergenerational moral guilt and just look at intergenerational wealth inheritance. People don’t inherit wealth due to any moral merit and if someone inherited something that is stolen, then that should be returned even though there is no moral guilt upon the possessor unless they knowingly try to keep stolen goods.
  2. A more common instinct for collective morality is moral tribalism. For example, Russian-speaking kids who live outside of Russia are being bullied around the world because of being blamed for Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. This kind of collective morality comes all too easily to human instinct, and it is one of the motivations for nationalistic wars and racism. This kind of collective morality leads to the guilt by association fallacy such as when Putin bombs Ukrainian civilians because they support the Ukrainian resistance and so they are partly guilty by association.
  3. Corporate anthropomorphism wherein people act like a corporation (or other group) is a moral person that is separate from the individuals that run it. This is frequently used to shield decision makers from moral responsibility as illustrated by the concept of limited liability.

Now we need a new kind of collective morality to help address global problems like climate change. Individual morality isn’t enough and inter-generational morality won’t suffice and tribalistic morality just creates strife and pulls peoples apart when we really need for everyone to pull together. We need a universal collective morality because global warming is a moral issue unlike any the world has faced before. With previous moral issues, each individual’s harms created identifiable victims because the harms were much more concentrated. For example, untreated sewage had the biggest impact on the nearest neighbors downstream and reducing it immediately increases their chances of staying healthy. But no individual* creates enough greenhouse gas to have any effect on anyone whatsoever. Humans will be judged collectively for the total greenhouse gasses and the amount any individual contributes is too small to have a measurable impact.

It doesn’t matter whether I stop producing greenhouse gasses entirely or whether I produce 100 times more. My carbon footprint affects nobody. Nonetheless, most people cannot stop thinking selfishly about their own individual responsibility for global warming. When someone entirely stops producing carbon emissions, that just means that they are doing nothing to solve the real problem. We need a collective response to solve climate change, not just individual responses. You might quibble that the collective response is just the sum of individual responses, but even a lot of individual responses are not going to be enough. For example, a large nation like the US cannot solve the problem by eliminating our greenhouse gas emissions because that will just delay the inevitable by about 11%. Even if all the rich countries in the world completely eliminated their greenhouse gas emissions, it would only delay climate change because the majority of greenhouse gas emissions are now being produced by developing nations and their emissions are growing rapidly. What the planet truly needs is a way for developing countries to grow economically without the massive carbon emissions that rich countries relied upon to get rich. It isn’t fair that rich nations got rich by burning massive amounts of fossil fuels and the globe cannot afford to let everyone else follow the same path too. What we really need is an alternative path to solve climate change. Rich nations simply cannot solve the problem by cutting emissions without finding a way for developing nations to develop without burning lots of carbon.

Another way to illustrate the moral issues is to think of it as a trolley problem. Suppose you are on a trolley together with eight billion people, and it is careening toward a precipice. Nearly every single person on the trolley is pushing it towards the cliff. Some are pushing it harder than others, and you are have been pushing harder than most, but If you stop pushing the trolley, it isn’t going to make any difference at all. If you stop pushing, there is no reason at all to feel smug about it because you have done literally nothing to solve the problem. To solve the problem will require everyone else to stop pushing the trolley too, so your primary moral responsibility is to convince as many people as possible to stop pushing. That matters much more than how much you yourself are pushing the trolley.

When Greta Thurnberg came to America to campaign for greenhouse gas reductions, she sailed across the Atlantic rather than flying in an airplane because she felt a personal responsibility to avoid the carbon produced by buying an airplane ticket. But the carbon produced by an airplane trip literally makes zero difference and humans will ultimately be judged for our collective greenhouse emissions, not for anyone’s individual emissions. If her voyage helped convince the world to collectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then it doesn’t matter if she rode on an airplane. Even worse, her sailing trip caused some of the sailors to fly across the ocean, so even though Greta could feel virtuous that she hadn’t flown herself, she actually caused more flights than if she had just bought an airplane ticket for herself. A focus on individual moral purity solves nothing. The important question is whether the sailing trip helped her influence the world to find a collective solution or whether it made her less influential because it allegedly made her seem elitist and out of touch.

Each person needs to transfer more resources away from thinking about our own carbon footprint and put more resources into solving the collective carbon footprint. Reducing your own carbon footprint is only worth doing if it also helps influence others to do the same. For example, buying solar panels can help develop economies of scale which will help lower costs and hasten the day when solar is cheaper than fossil fuels. But when people focus on their own individual carbon footprint there is a danger of falling into moral license in which they feel like they have done their part and don’t have to worry about what other people are doing about global warming. Another danger is self-righteousness which could alienate other people who we need to join the effort. The priority for Americans who are worried about climate change should be to influence their fellow Americans to care. So far we cannot even get a majority of Americans to agree to make any sacrifice to reduce global warming and if we can’t even get most people in rich nations to care, then individual sacrifices are doomed to failure.

To return to the original thought experiment, if you want to go to heaven and eligibility is entirely dependent upon the collective faith of humanity rather than your own individual faith, then you would put most of your efforts into building up other people’s faith. The only effort you would put into maintaining your own faith would be the bare minimum necessary to keep up your efforts for helping others build the collective faith. Global warming is the same kind of moral issue. Don’t worry about your individual carbon footprint except so much as it helps you influence the carbon footprint of the rest of the world.

As Jesus might say based upon Matthew 7:5:

If having a log of wood in your own eye helps you remove specks from other people’s eyes, then don’t worry about the log in your own eye. Only worry about the log in your own eye if it impacts how much you can reduce the total wood in all eyes.

This is the kind of universal collective morality we need to deal with global issues like climate change.

*If you believe the corporate anthropomorphist idea that corporations are people, then the 25 largest fossil-fuel corporations produce 50% of carbon emissions! But they couldn’t do it without the cooperation of billions of customers, and millions of workers so the individual responsibility is still very diffuse.

Posted in Environment, Philosophy and ethics

The campaign to change our pronouns is partly caused by the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistics

Updated 3/31/23

If people used the pronoun ‘ki’ when referring to the earth, would that make people treat the earth more environmentally? That is the hypothesis of Robin Wall Kimmerer the author of Braiding Sweetgrass. She doesn’t like calling the earth an ‘it’ nor a ‘she’ because she doesn’t think those pronouns are special enough and she thinks that we’ll respect the earth more if we invent a special new pronoun for the earth.

This idea is a product of the theory of strong linguistic determinism, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  This theory claims that “language determines thought” and “linguistic categories …determine cognitive categories.” Sapir-Whorf is wrong and it is easy to see evidence.  For example, this theory created the bizarre myth that “Humans Didn’t Actually See Blue Until Modern Times” based on the idea that people couldn’t see blue because most languages didn’t have a word for it.  Language has zero impact on the ability to distinguish colors.  The average person can distinguish between about a million colors even though most languages have less than a dozen words for colors.  The myth that language determines thought is so pervasive, John McWhorter wrote a book to refute it, called The Language Hoax.

Part of the effort to change how we use gendered pronouns is motivated by the Sapir-Whorf idea that that will change how people think about transgender people, but pronouns have approximately zero effect on how well people treat others. Consider spoken*  Chinese.  Chinese has no gendered pronouns for the Earth nor anyone else.  That hasn’t stopped China from causing more pollution than any other nation on earth today. Similarly, Chinese culture is not less sexist nor it is friendlier to transgender people than cultures with extremely gendered languages.  In a survey of 1,640 Chinese transgender people, nearly 100% reported experiencing violence from their own parents (or guardian)!  A UN report found that transgender people in China experience more discrimination than any other minority group.

In contrast, Spanish is extremely bi-gendered because every noun and adjective is either male or female.  Nothing is gender-neutral in Spanish.  Every book is male and every table is female and even adjectives like ‘red’ and articles like ‘the’ have to be either male or female in Spanish grammar.  To add gender neutrality into Spanish will require changing all adjectives, articles, and pronouns!  Although Spanish is an extremely gendered language, transgender people in most Spanish-speaking nations have had a much easier life than in China where the language has no grammatical genders.

Inventing a new gender-neutral pronoun for the earth isn’t going to make people treat the earth differently any more than gender-neutral pronouns will end transgender discrimination. But language does affect how individuals think about our own identities, so a gender-neutral pronoun for people can help them feel differently about themselves.  Identity isn’t important for the earth, but identity is important for people and pronouns are important for one’s identity which is one reason why many nonbinary people have recently been using ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

Words reflect what we think and the pronouns “you” and “we” evoke very different perspectives.  The fact that women use the words “I,” “me,” “we,” and “mine” a lot more than men is because the genders tend to think differently.  Men use more articles like “a” and “the” partly because men talk more about things and women talk more about people.  Some cultures are more communal and use the word “we” more than individualistic cultures that focus more on “I”.

I wish English speakers would invent a new gender-neutral singular pronoun because using ‘they’ is not particularly cognitively kind.  ‘They’ is traditionally a plural pronoun and it becomes less specific to also use it as a singular definite pronoun that overlaps with the meaning of ‘it’.  People who claim ‘they’ has always been used for singular references are mistaking a definite pronoun for an indefinite pronoun.  ‘They’ was only used for indefinite references which could be referring to multiple different people because the reference is indefinite.  Thus the indefinite ‘they’ is cognitively plural even when it is referring to an unknown singular because that individual could be many different possibilities.  Changing ‘they’ to mean a definite singular individual makes English a wee bit less specific and more confusing.

Sometimes people want to make their language more indefinite such as: “I have a friend and they are eating.”  Traditionally, this meant that, ‘I don’t want you to know who my friend is” and the “they” was to avoid revealing the friend’s gender to help conceal their identity.  An indefinite they never means that a person is nonbinary.  It erases gender entirely.

We could clarify things if, when ‘they’ is used as a singular pronoun, we would conjugate the verb as a singular to demonstrate that ‘they’ is singular.  For example, if ‘they’ is a singular nonbinary person, then it is clearest to say, “I have a friend and they IS eating.”  Unfortunately, that isn’t current practice.  People say “They ARE eating,” even if there IS only one specific nonbinary person that IS eating.

The whole point of having multiple pronouns is to make references more specific which makes them more useful.  Nearly all languages have both singular and plural pronouns and even when a language doesn’t have separate words for both, speakers often create modifiers to distinguish between the two kinds of pronouns. For example, the plural form of you in English was ‘ye’ and when some English dialects lost that word, people created new plural versions of the pronoun like y’all, you guys, yinz, yous, or you people. So if ‘they’ becomes a gender-neutral singular pronoun, we are going to need to create a new plural pronoun such as ‘they-all’ or ‘those guys’ to distinguish from they-singular. Lots of languages, like Chinese, have no gendered pronouns, but plurality is ubiquitous because it is particularly useful for communication.  Reducing the specificity of ‘they’ reduces its usefulness, so we will need additional modifiers to make English accommodate a ‘they’ that means singular-nonbinary.

I’d prefer to create a new 3rd-person singular gender-neutral pronoun to reduce confusion, and there are at least a dozen different proposed gender-neutral pronouns, but they have all failed, so it is hard to change such fundamental units of language as a pronoun.  Plus, I suspect one reason why nonbinary people prefer the pronoun ‘they’ over alternative gender-neutral pronouns is that it is hard to turn ‘they’ into a term of abuse. English already has a gender-neutral singular 3rd-person pronoun–‘it’– which has insulting connotations when used to refer to a person.  It is easy to see how a new attempt at a gender-neutral 3rd-person pronoun could end up becoming a term of abuse too. As long as ‘they’ is an ambiguous pronoun, it cannot be turned into a term of abuse because it is too much of a linchpin of the language to be converted into an insult.  But if ‘they’ becomes specific to nonbinary people, then we will  invent another word that will be specific to plural 3rd-person and ‘they’ may come to have the same connotations as ‘it’.

More importantly, as long as ‘they’ is predominantly used with a plural meaning, that very plurality tends to confers additional status.  Many cultures have independently invented the tradition of using plural pronouns as honorifics towards respected individuals of status, so perhaps human brains tend to associate plural pronouns with status. Calling a singular person by a plural pronoun is known as the majestic plural. The one difference between the singular ‘they’ and honorific pronouns in other languages is that honorific pronouns are usually limited to 2nd-person or 1st-person pronouns like the royal we. In many languages honorific pronouns derive from 3rd-person plural pronouns, so the new singular-definite ‘they’ might be seen in this light.

Furthermore, linguistic difficulty is also a sign of status which is why elites often have longer, more complex names and titles than commoners.  For example, honorific speech in Japanese is much longer and more complex than speech between equals.  The additional complexity of new grammatical genders also helps confer status upon those new categories which may feel somewhat equalizing for traditionally marginalized groups.

Again, contra the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, there is no evidence that honorific pronouns like the royal we cause other people to feel more respect toward the object of the pronoun, but the pronouns you use certainly affect your own identity.  You can try it for yourself.  Use the majestic plural pronouns (like ‘we’ and ‘us’) when referring to yourself for an hour and the change in pronouns will make you feel differently about yourself (uh, sorry, I mean, about yourselves).  The importance of pronouns for expressing identity and status is why Japanese has 18 different pronouns for the word “I” plus at least 10 additional pronouns for “I” that are no longer common, but are part of the literary tradition.  Pronouns are part of our identity and identity has a big impact on how we feel.  Other people may also feel differently about you, but not necessarily in a good way.  

Another evolving tradition in gender identity is how people announce their gender identity beside their name.  English speakers used to use gender specific honorifics like Mr., Ms., and the married-female gender, Mrs.  This has been going out of fashion and English speakers have increasingly been writing multiple different grammatical cases of the same pronoun such as “he/him/his”.  It is odd that multiple cases are used when gender is communicated perfectly well with a single pronoun case such as just “he”. Writing multiple pronouns would seem to imply that some people have a different gender identity depending on the grammatical case! It would only make logical sense to list “he/him/his” rather than just “he” if it were possible that some people’s preferred gender changes with grammatical case such as, “they/his/her”!

Furthermore, why use “they/them/their” rather than “we/y’all/they”?  If we are going to use the plural “they”, then why not also  use plural first/second/third-person pronouns too.  Making all the pronouns exclusively plural could augment a feeling of respect because, as mentioned before, numerous linguistic traditions use majestic plural pronouns to signify high social status for someone so big that singular just seems too small.


Adjectives are words that are designed for describing more details about nouns whereas pronouns are words that are designed for hiding some details about nouns, so it makes more sense to write an adjective to identify gender rather than a trio of pronouns as is current practice. Instead of a woman writing ‘she/her/hers,’ someday she will probably just use an adjective like ‘female’ or perhaps a gendered honorific like Ms. lists adjectives for 68 different kinds of genders whereas we only have three common pronoun genders (so far), so our adjectives are already much more descriptive because they encompass dozens of different kinds of gender identities.  And an adjective is a more natural grammatical structure than a trio of pronouns for specifying classifications like gender.

Right now people prefer to identify gender using “they/them/their” rather than an adjective because the point is to change the English language more than to identify gender.  Once everyone gets the pronouns they want for their genders, we will probably use adjectives to describe our genders instead of pronouns, or perhaps we will go back to using gendered honorifics next to our names. That was the traditional way to announce the gender of an ambiguous name like Mr. Robin Hood or Ms. Robin Wright.  The most common gender-neutral honorific is Mx. which is pronounced various ways.

It will be interesting to see how gender norms evolve regarding infants.  Traditionally the first question people have commonly asked about new babies is, “Is it a girl or a boy?”  Oddly, the pronoun ‘it’ has never been insulting in this context.  But this question assumes a binary conception of gender and we cannot ask about all 68 possible genders, so perhaps the polite way to ask the question will become, “What gender is they?”  Or as norms change, parents might prefer to not identify their baby’s gender at all, or some will say they don’t know yet because the baby is too little to choose.

*Note that although SPOKEN Chinese has no gendered pronouns, WRITTEN Chinese pronouns became gendered about a century ago.  Thus, there have been recent efforts to create a non-gendered written Chinese pronoun for nonbinary folk.  Still, all the pronouns for he, she, it, and the new pronoun for non-gendered people would still be pronounced the same way: “ta”.  But it is difficult to add written words to the Chinese vocabulary and one of the most popular proposed pronouns for the nongendered human version of he/she/it contains a fundamental symbol (called “radicals”) that doesn’t exist in Chinese:  the Latin letter X.  This seems likely to be inspired by same group of Western cosmopolitans who invented the word “latinx” which also uses “x” the way it is used in English rather than how it is used by native Spanish speakers!  Proposing to add a non-Chinese element to the language adds to the challenge of getting the new pronoun accepted into Chinese.  It would be the only word in all of Chinese that has ever adopted any part of a foreign alphabet.  Similarly, native Spanish speakers instantly recognize that “latinx” is an obviously foreign word which helps explain why it is rejected by most Spanish speakers and primarily only used in English.


Ironically, for all of Chinese history until a century ago, there were no gendered pronouns.  Gendered pronouns in Chinese writing only began about a century ago with the New Culture Movement which was partly brought about by feminist activists who wanted to celebrate female distinctiveness by adding new gendered pronouns, so in some ways, it was a similar social movement to what is happening today.  Plus, translators also wanted to have a better way to translate foreign languages with ‘he’ and ‘she’ into written Chinese.

Posted in Philosophy and ethics

The BA.2 Covid variant is spiking. But it is still a good bet that the Pandemic will be over this spring.

Two months ago, I wrote that the pandemic would be over this spring. We are now officially in the second day of spring and my prediction does not look good at first glance because Covid BA.2 infections are spiking in Europe and Asia. But I still feel good about the celebratory essay I wrote and I’m sticking with my optimistic stance that Covid will move into the endemic phase this spring because almost 95% of Americans have either had a Covid vaccine or been infected by the virus according to the CDC and we still have three months to go until the end of spring. I think we are witnessing the end of the Pandemic!

Unfortunately, most vaccinated Americans have not had their booster, but even just two doses of vaccine reduce the chance of hospitalization and death. So the virus is running out of the easiest targets to kill. But get your booster now if you haven’t done it yet!

The new variant is likely to be a serious problem in Asian nations that haven’t already had lots of infections, but Americans have already been sharing infections with each other like there is no tomorrow. The official count of Covid infections in America (shown above) is a severe undercount because it only includes people who tested positive with PCR tests in states like Ohio where I live and most of the people I know who got infected just diagnosed the infection with an at-home test which goes unrecorded with the public health statistics.

So get prepared for another spike of Covid this spring, but it will be less deadly than the last one and infections will come crashing down again before summer. Plus warmer weather will soon bring reduced virus transmission because of more airflow in buildings and more outdoor socializing. I am still optimistic that the end is in sight and we will see record low infection rates this summer in America.

Posted in Health

The rise of the Passport Bureaucracy

For most of history, passports and visas were two words for the same thing and in Europe and the US they were only occasionally required during wartime in order to exclude dangerous foreigners. In 1941, the US was again at war and congress again created the authority to deny entry into the US of foreigners who were deemed dangerous to the Republic and this time the authority was never revoked. In 1979, the US government made it illegal for Americans to travel abroad without a passport (except to Mexico and Canada). Until around this time there was essentially no de-facto controls over people crossing America’s land border with Mexico and Canada. That gradually began to change and as a result, Mexican migration became a lot more permanent. Mexicans had been accustomed to just doing seasonal work in the US and then returning home to Mexico because they could cross the border freely and after border crossings started to be regulated, they started to put down roots in America in much larger numbers.

In the early 2000s, the government started talking about requiring passports for travel to Canada and Mexico for the first time. In 2006, about 75 million travelers crossed the US-Canadian border by land and about 87 million by air. By contrast, there were 234 million crossings of the US border with Mexico. In June 2009, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) started requiring passports (or related international travel documents) for movement across these borders and the percent of U.S. citizens owning a valid passport has nearly doubled since the government started talking about requiring passports for travel to our nearest neighbors:

One reason passports are becoming more popular is that international tourism has been growing, and the other reason is that government bureaucrats have been increasing their control over international travel over the past century. The Statue of Liberty is undoubtedly happy about the first reason and sad about the latter.

Posted in Globalization & International

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