War and Nonhuman Agency

Mike is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog Omniorthogonal.

There are no men, only artillery, infantry, cavalry. Huge masses and the instruments of their direction. Each member of these masses remembers everything and completely forgets himself. In this there must be and is pleasure…

— Tolstoy

Warfare is about killing people. Everyone seems to acknowledge that normal rules of moral behavior go out the window during war, but also that war is not completely free of rules – there are different codes of conduct that hold, and violating those rules gets will get you in trouble, especially if your side ends up losing. Nobody is quite sure what those rules are, and even less sure how such they are to be enforced. Soldiers are trained to kill, yet expected (at least in the modern era) to keep their killing carefully circumscribed. Killing civilians is a criminal atrocity when done at ground level, but perfectly acceptable when done from above. Or maybe the distinction is not altitude but scale, or whether the killing is authorized by someone who went to college.

There is a large sub-industry of philosophers and others who claim to have a theory of moral conduct of war. I am mostly unimpressed with this body of work, and I think the endless nattering hides a set of more interesting questions around the issue of agency. The military, like other institutions, has techniques for subduing or harnessing the agency of individuals and replacing it with a constructed group agency. The military has been at this longer than most other institutions and so has a set of well-established and finely honed techniques (eg basic training and drilling) for doing so. The desired end result is a structure for projecting controlled and overwhelming violence that is not hampered by individual morality, fear, or particularity.

At a larger scale, even the institutional agency of military organizations fades into the larger dynamics of conflict that are beyond their control. This can be seen most clearly in the political history of run-ups to major conflicts, which take on an autonomy of their own, beyond the control of any of the parties:

The emergence of a self-reinforcing cycle of heightened military preparedness and more acute political conflict…was an essential element in the conjuncture that led to disaster.

— David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War: Europe, 1904-1914

The masters of war seem to have almost as little control over it as the grunts or hapless civilians in the way. War itself seems to have an agency; conflicts arise when conditions are right, like tornadoes, and like them just end up creating a vortex of violence that sweeps up everything in its path.

Remote Control

Drone warfare seems to horrify people in a special way, as if it breaks one of the intuitive rules of war. It’s not that it is especially destructive; in fact it is far more “surgical” than accepted techniques of war such as high-altitude carpet bombing, so far less likely to cause massive civilian deaths. I assume the horror of drones lies in the fact that the killer removes himself from risk – he has no “skin in the game” (this is an ethical concept I picked up from Taleb’s Antifragile). In normal war situation, the two sides are putting themselves at a roughly equal risk footing. Even with extreme technical superiority of one side, such as the bombers that were napalming the Vietnamese countryside, the bomber crews were still at some risk of being shot down and killed or captured. In drone warfare, the killers reside in suburban office parks and drive home for dinner like any other cubicle worker.

The concept of moral hazard tends to be invoked to explain why drones are objectionable, but war always involves moral hazard – the people making the decisions to go to war are not, in general, the ones who stand to lose their lives. No, it’s more like the same unease generated by the concept of “friend” on Facebook – just like there is something inescapably inauthentic about Facebook relationships, there is something inauthentic about killing people by remote control. Something is missing, and we mourn the old days when killing involved actual presence.

Autonomous Killing Machines

Even more challenging to conventional theories of war-morality is the possibility of autonomous military robots. This science fiction staple seems poised to become reality in the near-term future:

The key issue identified by Heyns in his UN submission is whether future weapons systems will be allowed to make the decision to kill autonomously, without human intervention. In military jargon, there are those unmanned weapons where “humans are in the loop” – ie retain control over the weapon and ultimately pull the trigger – as opposed to the future potential for autonomous weapons where humans are “out of the loop” and the decision to attack is taken by the robot itself.

Autonomous killer robots will take life not because Joe Soldier pulls on a little piece of metal (or clicks his mouse on a screen) but because a rule has been matched (aka ‘triggered’, a salient little coinage there). This little rule-machine, although built by men, runs without their intervention or control. The ethics of such devices are clearly problematic – they don’t have any, so any ethics built into them has to be at the meta level, that is, in their designers and programmers. (We might imagine robots that do implement ethical reasoning; indeed, that was the central conceit of Asimov’s classic robot stories, but that seems extremely unlikely to happen in real life any time soon).

Fortunately we don’t have to look to science fiction for examples of autonomous lethal warfare, since devices like this have been in common use for hundreds of years – the land mine. These devices, like the more sophisticated robots of SF, implement a single rule: if someone steps on you, blow him up. The history of such devices shows that they are both irresistible and problematic. The problem of course is that they can’t be turned off, and so are likely present a risk to their creators as well as their intended targets.

System agency escapes from human agency

The main slightly original point of this post is this: none of these developments are all that radical. Rather, they are natural extensions of what militaries have done for thousands of years – that is, for creating structures that have their own agency and powers that are different from the agency and powers of the individuals that constitute them. The military has always been very conscious of the need to replace the normal agency of autonomous individuals with the constructed nonhuman agency of a command structure.

In the past, these techniques were institutional and psychological, but if the same results can be achieved through technology, then you may be sure that avenue will be explored. Thus drones and autonomous warfare are just another step along the path to ensuring that the normal human moral decision making rules do not gum up the machinery of aggression. They don’t raise any new moral issues; just take old ones to a new extreme.

The military is another example of what I recently identified as “hostile AI” or perhaps more accurately, human-hostile systems. These systems are social constructs that, despite being created and powered by human action, act in ways that are generally inimical to human interests. This idea is, to be sure, in danger of being applied in a facile manner. Who decides what is inimical? These systems provide a benefit for some humans, or they wouldn’t exist. Nonetheless, there are some pretty clear cases. The military system (consisting of all the armies and armed aggressors in the world), is clearly inimical to human life. It exists because one part of it can justify itself by pointing to another part. This is clearest in cases of arms races and especially the nuclear arms race. Perhaps aggression and defense are inescapable aspects of human existence. But regardless of whether or not that is the case, once a military exists, it acts to strengthen and perpetuate itself far beyond whatever original purposes it may have served.

This is not to say that the military is uniquely evil or that people whose livelihood depends on the military are bad people. If they are, then all of us citizens who enjoy the benefits of their protection are also morally complicit. These institutions are part and parcel of society and we would be something else without them (for one thing, we wouldn’t have the internet). Corporations and other institutions also are created to serve genuine human needs, but as they become more powerful they pose the perpetual threat that their own self-aggrandizement will override the welfare of the individuals they ostensibily serve. Solving this problem is sadly beyond the scope of a blog post, but may be essential to the future welfare of the human species.

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About Mike Travers

Mike Travers is a software engineer based in the Bay Area. His ribbonfarm posts explore the nature of consciousness, community, and varied other themes. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. This question interests me a lot since it was my area of research as a postdoc. Around 2000-2003 there was a lot of active discussion in the UAV community about models of human-machine shared agency (the term was “mixed initiative”).

    The big piece that I think you didn’t address is the comprehensibility of Agent 1 by Agent 2. So while I agree with your assertion that land mines are in principle not different from a complex killer robot governed by a complicated AI, this mutual comprehensibility makes a big difference. Reports of the Kasporov vs. Deep Blue encounter talk of how Kasporov fell into the trap of unconsciously modeling Deep Blue the same way as a human opponent and paid the price.

    We all do this when we do things like screaming “Windows won’t do what I want!” at our computers. But I think it is crucial to distinguish three kinds of agent-agent modeling relationships.

    1. Agent 1 can completely model Agent 2 (landmine, subsumer-subsumed relationship)

    2. Agent 1 and Agent 2 cannot mutually model each other (see Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat” kind of thinking… bats “sonar cognition” is beyond our modeling even though it is a simpler creature by some measures).

    3. Agent 2 can completely model Agent 1 (subsumed-subsumer relationship).

    We can also add a sort of “order of magnitude” effect in the case of 1 and 2… how big is the gap? What fraction of the subsumer’s cognition is consumed by modeling the subsumee?

    Friendly/hostile modelings of AI I think assume case 3 for the most part. I think though, most cases are likely to be Type 2+Type 3 (some non-subsumption, but huge degree-difference for the subsumed part, like raw depth-of-search capability for Deep Blue vs. Kasporov).

    The difference is that the moral hazard is *far* higher for an agent unleashing a potentially “supersuming” agent on others. It’s the Frankenstein/creating-a-monster effect. It’s like the Bane vs. rich guy John Daggett in the Dark Knight Rises:

    John Daggett: I paid you a small fortune.
    Bane: And this gives you *power* over me?

    What’s your culpability when you unleash a malevolent force that is potentially smarter than you? I think this case deserves separate treatment from moral hazard in Type 1 agency relationships.

    The Type I moral hazard question is enough for current drone capabilities, but I think is ultimately fairly simple, and the solution is along the lines you mention. If drones are legitimate, so is terrorism. Citizens who legitimize military action at a distance (be they voters in booths or trigger-finger pilots at Creech AFB) are complicit in morally hazardous action of a certain degree of severity.

    Type 2+Type 3 moral hazard++ is the tough one. I don’t think friendly vs. hostile AI is the right framing there somehow. Call it “Frakenstein Hazard” (or if you want to make fun of Singularitarians, call it “Roko’s Basilisk Hazard.”)

    Incidentally both Ender’s Game and Use of Weapons, which I read recently, have interesting things to say about this question of agency relationships in war. In the former, the protagonist Ender has a prodigious capacity for modeling alien agencies in his head. In the latter, you have these huge, incomprehensibly powerful AIs (“Minds”) that run the ships of the Culture and seem almost indifferent to the minor time they devote to getting involved in human-scale conflicts by the Culture’s “Special Circumstances” group (a kind of “third world CIA” interventionist intelligence arm of the Culture).

    • Chang Lee says

      Perhaps we can draw the lines of moral hazard in a slightly different way.

      1. Its repertoire of actions is entirely known to you, even if it has some limited agency (e.g. smart weapons) – it is a tool.
      2. Its repertoire of actions is mostly known to you – it is a slave.
      3. Its repertoire of actions is somewhat known to you – it is a pet.
      4. Its repertoire of actions is mostly unknown to you – it is a genie.
      5. Its repertoire of actions is entirely unknown to you – it is a god.

      For type 1, it will function as you expect, so moral responsibility seems transitive unless there is a breakdown, in which case it depends to what extent you knew it might break down.

      For type 2 and 3, you share moral responsibility if it acts as you intend. If it doesn’t, then it depends if that was caused by another agency or failure of function. But you take a higher proportion of blame if failure occurs in this case.

      For type 4, you take responsibility if it somehow behaves as you intend, and also if it doesn’t, because you know the danger involved. This is sort of the opposite of Taleb’s optionality then, because either way you are responsible for the damage, just that you would be vindicated if the damage was desirable to your side.

      For type 5 it seems you can take no responsibility. It’s like prayer. You can only take responsibility for having prayed, so only if the effects induced are in response to your prayer will you be responsible. In practice it can be hard to tell, e.g. the shaman praying for rain and getting it.

      Anyway, the first part of the post sounds like Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of the war-machine, which is appropriated by states to form military institutions, where war then becomes its object, but in the end the states end up constituting a global war-machine, where peace is conditioned by war, and politics becomes the continuation of war by other means.

    • That modelling problem is becoming stark in trading; if you’re an old-school trader, you’re trying to get a mental model of what the market is going to do, but “the market” isn’t just human anymore, and its actions are occasionally jarring, as artifacts of the algorithms issuing the trades seem to better explain an action than more human-sympathetic explanations based on emotions or self interest.

  2. I think you are conflating the ideas of indoctrination and automation.

    This is hinted at by your choice of examples; despite, the current trend in America to pull any and all discretion or personal choice from individual action the laws can’t help but recognize that individual discretion remains. An indoctrination does not strip one’s individuality. While, automation, on the other hand, ironically, in the context of modern technology, often reduces the data that one has for a given situation: VTC, Camaeras etc.

    The drones vs boots on the ground is the perfect example, as the boots on the ground are in the moment and are contingent to it, while the drone is above the moment with fewer eyes and less situational awareness is arguably unable to act upon certian similar contingencies.

    I don’t know what it is about those who work with the military but never serve in it. They seem unable to grasp what it means, from an indiviual perspective, AFTER basic training. As any soldier will tell you that basic training is just a beginning and is more or less an exercise of character under stress. It’s not a cake walk, but it isn’t something that reduces individuals to automatons either.

    The military has always been very conscious of the need to replace the normal agency of autonomous individuals with the constructed nonhuman agency of a command structure.

    See this is the the spit and polish military facade that all civilians see from a comfortable distance; it looks like an imposing and massive structure of conformity. However, as one approaches one would start to notice that the imposing structure looks a lot more like a jungle gym with ample room for individual iniative, expression, and action. Once you “know the ropes” you realize that this is a place where more free ideas are aired, and more individual characters are developed then any other organization.

    A simple examination of history will prove that many of the most forceful and inspired individuals got their start in the military; Vonnegut, Salinger, Fitzgerald to name just a few writers. The skills taught in basic training don’t strip away an individual ,rather they re-enforce those individual’s innate character qualities instead.

    As I’ve argued in the past compliance takes many forms from the classroom to the Internet and these varied “command structures” are not singular to the military, or corporate worlds. I think there is a long and calcified history of looking at soldiers as “mindless”. It’s a worn out, disingenuous motif that sags, with undue pride, in the lobby of academia.

    Indoctrination and automation are two completely different ideas and I think the examples you picked bear this distinction well.

  3. First post on Ribbonfarm, found via recommendation of a close friend whose first initial is A.

    The claim that “war is about killing people” is an over-simplification. The goal of war is to defeat the adversary’s will to fight. Killing people and breaking things are means to that end, but a range of other means is possible, from a credible threat of mass destruction (e.g. nuclear deterrence), to the inverse neutron bomb of cyberwar, that destroys infrastructure without causing direct casualties to humans.

    As with much in nature, human societies are more stable when they operate at the fine and fuzzy border between clearly-defined states. A society of complete pacifism does not last long: it gets invaded and taken out of the meme pool (or in earlier times, taken out of the gene pool). A society of complete aggressivism does not last much longer: it may be perceived as a danger by its neighbors, who cooperate to take it out pre-emptively, or it may over-extend itself in one too many conquests that turns to crushing defeat. One of the most stable conditions is a reluctance to fight combined with the credible preparation to fight ferociously in self-defense, as for example in Switzerland. Another stable configuration is deterrence through overwhelming strength, the only viable use of nuclear weapons. In general, a fine balance between the desire for peace and the capacity to win wars quickly and conclusively, is what works. Those two elements are most effective when they are woven throughout the fabric of a society, including within its military, rather than being polarized into ideological camps.

    As for drone warfare, keep in mind that drone pilots and operators experience PTSD in equal numbers to their fellow warriors on the ground. The latter face overt personal danger but do so in a social milieu of mutual understanding. The former finish their shifts and go home to the civilian world, where the unique moral and other circumstances of warriors are barely understood. “Hi honey, I’m home, how’d it go today?” “Pretty good, the company scored a new major account, how’bout you?” “We took out a dozen Al Qaedas, but there were a couple of civilian casualties and I’m still sick to my stomach…” Imagine spending the day in the mountains of Afghanistan by remote-control, and the evening at a shopping mall with your teenagers as they talk about fashion trends and popular music. The disconnect is crazy-making.

    It is not possible to separate the moral nature of warfare from the motives of decision makers. But in a representative democracy, WE are ultimately the decision makers, and the moral consequences fall to us. For good reason we prefer a society in which civilian elected officials have ultimate command authority, and the military is a professional organization that is by law and tradition and deeply-held values subordinate to civilian command. The scary alternative would be a military that could at its own choice act against civilian command. But the direct implication is that WE are responsible for our wars. The blood that is shed, is on our hands, and we are obligated to think clearly as we mark our ballots.

    Re. nonhuman agency, it would be an “interesting” world if competing powers’ aerobots did battle overhead whilst city-dwellers looked on through binoculars, half fascinated and half terrified. One could envision a science fiction short story, perhaps in the style of Ray Bradbury, where the world was engaged in such combat as that, oblivious to the looming threat of a large space-rock on a collision course to smash into an ocean and thereby wipe out the surrounding coasts.

    The ultimate evil of nonhuman agency having power of life and death, is not only that it would undoubtedly make unjust fatal mistakes. The evil is that it would represent, in a very real way, the deliberate and willful subordination of humanity to _things_. Yet there are those who revel in precisely that: the prospect of ceding control to objects, usually in the form of consumer baubles, but none the less.

    The great-ape instinct of humans to grasp at shiny objects, could prove our undoing, in so very many ways.

  4. Dr. Edward Morbius says

    You’ve begun with a mistaken premise: “War is about killing people.”

    Read your Sun Tsu.

    No: war is about winning objectives, either by defeating the enemy in battle (which may or may not involve killing him), or before the battle begins (by convincing him that victory is not possible or that the cost of fighting is worse than the cost of either conceding or continuing as things are).

    Killing people, where it occurs, is a means to that end.

    War may very well be about _not_ killing people, if that killing itself creates more problems in the long run — see the activities of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the emphasis has been on _neutralizing_ threats, but not on wholesale death, or even accidental/incidental death, though this can and does occur.

    Different times and conflicts call for different tactics, and in all-out existential resource conflicts, slaughter of opposing military and civilian populations may well occur. It’s also a tactic in asymmetric or terrorist modes of conflict (which despite increased awareness in recent decades is an ancient tradition itself).

    And hand-wringing about “modern means of warfare” have been going on for millennia as well. As long as there have been people in conflict, there have been new ways of conducting that conflict. Including new ways of killing or otherwise defeating the enemy while reducing risk to oneself.

    Read over the debates during WWI and WWII about the use of aerial power. Of machine guns and trench warfare. Of gas. Go further in the past to read of rifles, muskets, cannon and various shot which can be used from them, of making presents to the Native Americans of smallpox-infected blankets and alcohol (both of which they lacked defenses against), of how the Black Death spread through Europe (siege warfare and infected bodies heaved over city walls, in part). Of sowing the ruins of Carthage with salt. Of Atilla the Hun and Genghis Khan.

    War is hell. Always has been, always will.

  5. G and with Dr. Edward Morbius correctly point out that the author’s statement “war is about killing people” is an oversimplification. G’s point that the “goal of war is to defeat the adversary’s will to fight” is close to the doctrine taught by the U.S. Marine Corps; they say it is “to destroy the enemy’s capacity to fight,” which seems right to the point.

    I’d add to that aphorism the observation of Clausewitz, that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Politics is at bottom about conflict, and conflict, at its heart, is manifested through violence. War and politics are two sides of the same coin, and the stock in trade of the state. Politics is just a relatively restrained sort of conflict compared to war.

    Even the terminology of war is applied to politics. “Campaign,” used in parliamentary politics to denote the season of speechmaking and other propaganda before an election, originally referred to the movements of an army in a theatre of war, e.g., “Wellington’s Peninsular campaign.” Politicians, equally with generals, are said to have “strategies” and to employ “tactics.” The incumbent president of the United States has provided excellent examples of metaphors of warfare in politics, referring to “punishing” his “enemies” and describing voting as an act of “revenge.”

    It is odd, therefore, that the author, in his concluding paragraph, after stating that the military is not uniquely evil, says “Corporations and other institutions also are created to serve genuine human needs, but as they become more powerful they pose the perpetual threat that their own self-aggrandizement will override the welfare of the individuals they ostensibily serve. ” Why does he sidestep politics – the other side of the state, and if we may say it, the continuation of warfare by other means?

    Corporations are merely legal entities that permit people to associate themselves for various typically economic purposes. Their power to “override the welfare of the individuals they ostensibily [sic] serve” is a tiny fraction of that belonging to the state. We should fear and mistrust institutions in proportion to their ability to do us harm – and politicians, with all the resources of the modern state at their disposal, have that ability to a far greater extent than does any corporation. If examples of “hostile AI” in politics are wanted, the now-admitted domestic use of drones for observation and the NSA’s vast electronic eavesdropping on American citizens are excellent ones. They manifest a political class and a state that is increasingly at war with its own citizens.

  6. All reasonable enough, up to but not including SCW’s last paragraph, which is “not even wrong.”

    In an ideal world, corporations would be “merely” legal entities for conducting business. But what you miss entirely is the question of size and scale, and the blunt fact of power: Beyond a certain point, capital translates to power: the power to gain effective control of the apparatus of government and utilize it for one’s own ends irrespective of the interests of the voting public; and this is exactly what has occurred. The evidence for this is beyond any reasonable doubt, and only the ideologically-blinded argue the contrary.

    Compare: The US government response to copyright violations, vs. its response to spam and cyberfraud directed against individuals (let us not forget that over 99% of email traffic is spam, and has been for almost two decades). Consider: Despite overwhelming scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change and the convergent nature of technical solutions (nuclear, renewables, efficiency), the US government remains gridlocked on this issue, as a direct result of the influence of the fossil fuel lobby and its captive politicians (just say Inhofe, among others). Compare: the prosecutions and prison sentences for any other category of crime, vs. those for the vast financial frauds of the 2000s that crashed the economy. Consider: the deep implications of the phrase “too big to fail.” Case closed, and the surface barely scratched.

    So now we come to drones and the NSA, the twin bugbears of much recent paranoia.

    Show me any evidence that drones have ever been used for oppression of Americans, or that the NSA’s capabilities have been used for oppression of Americans since the reforms enacted after the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s. Show me any evidence of real consequences to our liberty.

    Contrast to: 42% of employers today, use Google and Facebook to screen prospective employees and take action against current employees. According to a recent news piece by Charles Osgood for the CBS network, a Facebook photo of someone drinking alcohol, or any indication that they have “badmouthed” a previous employer, is sufficient to get them blackballed. “Badmouthing” a current employer can become grounds for termination, even where nothing is said that violates NDAs. (In other words, the modern equivalent of casual chat at the pub, is now watched and penalized with Stasi-like efficiency.) In many states in the US, political affiliation is not a protected category in civil rights law: so a photo of someone working at the campaign office of a locally-disfavored candidate can also become grounds for non-hiring or firing, and this has already occurred during the 2012 election.

    If you ask any randomly chosen sample of Americans, what they fear more:

    a) Getting arrested and prosecuted by the feds, and getting sentenced to prison or sent to Gitmo, or

    b) Losing their jobs, their homes, and their health insurance,

    what you will find out is that the overwhelming majority are in much greater fear of (b).

    Search for news articles about unjust application of intelligence capabilities against Americans, and search for news articles about unemployment and foreclosures. Compare in quantity and consequences.

    In an economic depression (let’s avoid the common euphemisms), the pervasive fear of becoming an economic unperson adds up to an enormous chilling effect on speech, association, and other activities that are the unalienable rights of every person. Strictly speaking, the Constitution only forbids Congress, and not private employers, from infringing those rights. But that has become a loophole big enough to drive a tractor-trailer through, and to the person who steps off the sidewalk and gets run over, it matters not the least whether it was a speeding police car or a speeding trailer truck that squished them.

    The root cause of the problem is the combination of three factors:

    One, incorporated entities are immortal: they do not die through natural aging.

    Two, the exponential function, which both Einstein the pacifist and Teller the cold-warrior agreed, is the most dangerous piece of math in our society. (Einstein: when asked what was the most dangerous mathematical equation in the world, this in the context of an interview about relativity and the atomic bomb, replied “(the equation for) compound interest,” using that as shorthand for the exponential function. Teller, when asked a similar question in relation to his key role in the development of the hydrogen bomb, replied, “the inability of the public to grasp the meaning of the exponential function.”)

    Three, incorporated entities trading on public equity markets are required by law to “maximize shareholder value.” Compose any equation you choose, and “maximize” the value of any single variable in that equation. Tell us what happens to the value of every other variable. The answer is, the only way to maximize the value of one variable is to minimize the values of all other variables as far as possible. This is inescapable. And it sets up an inexorable pressure against any attempt to limit the minimization of other values in the equation: such as return to labor, internalization vs. externalization of costs, value to consumers, impact on citizens and representative government, and the limits of statute law itself.

    Putting those three factors together results in the creation of a nexus of power that, by multiple orders of magnitude, dwarfs the worst nightmares of the Founders of this republic. And it is that nexus of power that has come to capture control of the apparatus of government, to use for its own ends, while creating a political chilling effect, about which any tyrannical regime in history would have been proud.

    The traditional apparatus of warfare is hardly needed to defeat the will of a people, when psychological warfare by instilled fear of unemployment, homelessness, and sudden or chronic illness without treatment, will work just as well. All the better when the big stick is combined with tempting carrots of consumer baubles, and with a pervasive ideology that obscures the underlying relationships.

  7. G – did your father, or one of your teachers, never tell you that “the world does not owe you a living”? Well, that’s true – it doesn’t. The fear of losing a job – for one that works for others – is no worse than the fear of his employer of losing his customers. I’ve been a business owner all my adult life and can attest to that. This is simply a normal condition that everyone faces.

    As for “the vast financial frauds of the 2000s that crashed the economy,” what inflated the economic bubble, then burst it, were two things:

    1) The injection, then the withdrawal, of liquidity from the economy by the Federal Reserve (a governmental entity) between late 2001/early 2002 and 2006 (the discount rate fell, in response to the 9/11/2001 attacks, from 3% between 9/17/2001 in steps to a low of 0.75% in November 2002 – then rose by steps to a high of 6.25% in June 2006)

    2) An insane policy of making mortgage loans through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (government-sponsored enterprises) for as much as 97% of appraised value, to persons who should not have qualified for the loans.

    Yes, there were private-sector operators, such as Angelo Mozilo, who were active participants. However, to blame crony capitalism, and by extension, the crash, on corporations, while excusing the politicians, is like blaming the patrons of a bordello for corrupting the whores.

    Politicians become worth corrupting because they have the power to deliver lucrative favors, which in turn they exercise because of the bloated size and scope of government. To reduce the corruption of the state, reduce its size. We had nowhere near as corrupt a government when it consumed less than 5% of GDP.

    • Re. SCW:

      Minus two points for opening with an ad-hom. I’ve been in biz all my adult life as well, in a highly competitive field, with a steady client base some of whom go back over a decade, but I haven’t fallen for social darwinist illusions along the way.

      There is extensive discussion in the area of human rights, as to whether there is an unalienable right to livelihood. This is not yet a wholly settled question, but neither was the issue of slavery or religious discrimination at various points in human history, and the inexorable trend is toward the expansion rather than contraction of human rights. So history is on the side of the idea that while the world doesn’t “owe people a living,” it owes them the right to earn a living, on a truly level playing field, free of prejudice and discrimination and suchlike.

      Or to put it slightly differently, from where do you get the idea that any employer has the right to control what his/her employees do when they are not on the job, and enforce that control with hiring and firing decisions? Seems to me that’s quite a stretch, right back into the era when people were more or less a form of property.

      The fact that government set out conditions that enabled fraudsters to commit fraud on a vast scale, does not relieve those who committed the fraud of their moral responsibility for having done so, nor does it shift the blame to government. Have you ever seen an automobile sitting in a parking space with the windows down and the keys in the ignition? Were you compelled to steal the car as a result? And if you did, then when you were arrested, did you blame the crime on the fact that the car was so easy to steal?

      If you wish to shrink government such that it can’t confer favors, then you shall have to do away with the entire set of legislative and judicial functions, since by their nature the passage of laws and rulings upon them are “favor-able” to some and “un-favor-able to others.” But the debate over the _size_ of government is a red-herring, a propaganda-meme intended by those who created it to produce foregone conclusions. It’s also associated with the ” drown it in a bathtub” meme, that was disgraced after its most literal demonstration in the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

      Government is the only instutition that has the capacity, in any practical sense, to defend a nation against all aggressors foreign or domestic.

      Government is also the only institution that has the capacity, in any practical sense, to defend the rights of individuals against the power of other instutitions, most notably those in the private sector, corporations as well as churches, that would otherwise arrogate unto themselves degrees and types of power that would add up to an unprecedented totalitarianism.

  8. What you say in your last paragraph is basically that the state (government) is in competition with corporations, churches, and other institutions of civil society for the exercise of power. You are making a point that Albert Jay Nock did many years ago.

    The difference between state power and what Nock called “social power” is that the state has a near-monopoly on the use of force, up to and including deadly force. The other institutions – what the late Cardinal O’Connor called “mediating institutions” – exercise it by moral suasion. Thus, if you behave in a manner objectionable to the state, it may kill you or imprison you – whereas if you behave in a manner objectionable to your employer, he may fire you; if you do something your church doesn’t like, it may excommunicate you; if you act in a way your neighbors find obnoxious, they may shun you and make you unwelcome in their company. None of these responses rises to the level of offense against your liberty that killing or imprisoning you does.

    You write: “where do you get the idea that any employer has the right to control what his/her employees do when they are not on the job, and enforce that control with hiring and firing decisions?”

    As an employer, it seems quite reasonable to me that I should be able to hire the people that I wish to hire, and to retain them in my employ at will. If they behave in a fashion of which I don’t approve, there is no reason I should be forced to continue employing them. The worst that could happen is that someone might have to find another job. A prudent fear of the difficulty of doing so instils an appropriate self-discipline.

    “The fact that government set out conditions that enabled fraudsters to commit fraud on a vast scale, does not relieve those who committed the fraud of their moral responsibility for having done so, nor does it shift the blame to government.”

    Government – or its officers – did not just “set out conditions.” It was particeps criminis. How else can you explain, for example, the “friends of Angelo” who received special financial favors for “regulating” the activity in which Mozilo was engaged in a manner so favorable to his interests?

    However, such episodes are mere side-shows to the main event, in which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, creations of government, operated according to guidelines set by Congress that specified the percentage of loans that they were to hold that were made to persons with below median incomes, or below 60% of median – persons who should not have been extended credit at all – all in the name of bringing about an “ownership society.” Their influence over the mortgage market is evident in that the two GSEs between them held, and hold, a substantial majority of all residential real estate mortgages in the United States.

    This was a failure of policy, not a fraud. It seems a mighty odd way of improving the lot of a poor person to saddle him with debt that he can’t afford and probably won’t be able to repay. Yet there in the early years of this century everyone from George W. Bush to Barney Frank was pushing to cut down-payments to nothing, and to “roll the dice on subsidized housing.” The crash of 2008 was caused by the bursting of a credit bubble that had been inflated by a combination of monetary policy and this housing policy. Any fraud that accompanied these events was incidental. Frauds typically begin in booms and are discovered during the ensuing busts, but are not causes of either the former or the latter phenomenon – they are merely symptoms.

    • OK, let’s go there, and hopefully somewhere along the way, bring this back to the subject of warfare (I suspect it won’t take long;-).

      Your use of terms here is muddied. Gov has an effective monopoly on the use of _violence_, but not on the use of _force_.

      Force: “Coercion or compulsion, especially with the use of violence,” but note that “especially” is not identical with “exclusively.” Force can be exercised without the direct or even indirect threat of violence. All that is needed is an effective means by which one person can impose their will upon another, regardless of the latter’s will.

      The threat of violence is but one example; there are many others; all that matters is that the means are effective in subjugating the other person’s will to one’s own. The goal of coercion, as with the goal of warfare, is not to kill, but to “defeat the opponent’s will or capacity to fight.”

      Suasion: “Persuasion as opposed to force or compulsion.” Persuade: “Cause someone to do something through reasoning or arguement.” Reasoning and arguement are predicated on the assumption that the other person will come to agree _freely, of their own will_, but that there is also the chance that they may not come to agree. Persuasion is predicated on the condition that both parties to an arguement have equal standing in their capacity to agree or disagree without further consequence.

      The pastor preaching a sermon is exercising moral suasion. The pastor threatening a congregant with excommunication and shunning, is exercising moral coercion. The peer-reviewed literature on the effects of shunning demonstrates conclusively that it is a form of coercion: not only upon the person being shunned, but also upon their family and friends who are required to participate in the shunning.

      As employers, it seems reasonable enough that you or I should be able to hire and fire individuals at will. It seems reasonable until the exercise of that ability is used as a means of discrimination or of coercing behaviors that are in no way related to the economic transaction of work performed for wages or salary (and optionally, benefits) received.

      The discrimination issue is settled law. When an employer sets up conditions of employment that effectively discriminate against protected classes (race, religion, gender, etc.), they are violating the law. For example “Our days off are Sunday and Monday; all employees are expected to work Friday and Saturday without exception,” is operationally equivalent to “no observant Muslims or Jews need apply,” and will be treated as such by the courts.

      So now we come to the issue of coercion, re. your statement “If they behave in a fashion of which I don’t approve, there is no reason I should be forced to continue employing them. The worst that could happen is that someone might have to find another job. A prudent fear of the difficulty of doing so instils an appropriate self-discipline.”

      As it stands, that statement is wholly unqualified and unlimited. So let’s start by taking each part of that statement separately and ascertaining whether you truly mean it that way, and I’ll stick to the logic of the statements for now and save the moralizing for later.

      “If they behave in a fashion of which I don’t approve, there is no reason I should be forced to continue employing them.” Does this include _any_ behavior of which you don’t approve, particularly _any_ such behavior that occurs outside the time and place of work?

      “The worst that could happen is that someone might have to find another job.” It’s simply not credible that any business owner today is ignorant of the difficulty of “finding another job” in a chronically high-unemployment economy. What remains is the issue of symmetry of power. The symmetrical condition to “find another job” is “start another business.” Thus the symmetrical statement is “The worst that could happen is that someone might have to start another business.” Are you willing to recognize the symmetric right of an employee to cause you to have to “start another business”?

      Lastly, “A prudent fear of the difficulty of doing so instils an appropriate self-discipline.” Here we come to the nexus of coercion: “prudent fear” as motivator. Once you go there, you’re engaged in the use of force. So, are you also willing to recognize the symmetric right of an employee to subject you to “prudent fear” of having to “start another business”, as a means of “instill[ing] an appropriate self-discipline” in you?

      (Don’t worry, Mike and Venkat, the relevance of this to war and nonhuman agency will become apparent shortly;-)

  9. Sorry if my pet troll has followed me here. Do not feed (unless you want to).

  10. The word “discrimination” is almost always used now in a deprecatory sense, when it should not be. Are we not to discriminate between good and evil, between beautiful and ugly, and is this not acceptable discrimination? Is it not a praiseworthy condition to be a person of discriminating tastes?

    You write, “Does this include _any_ behavior of which you don’t approve, particularly _any_ such behavior that occurs outside the time and place of work?”
    Let us say an employee of mine commits a felony. Should it concern me only if it were committed during the time he was on the clock, and should it be forbidden for me to terminate said employee as long as “such behavior … occurs outside the time and place of work?” I think not. I believe that I have a right not to employ felons, out of a concern for the safety of my own and my other employees’ persons and property.

    As for the purported lack of symmetry – you do not seem to consider the possibility that I, as an employer, might value an employee’s services enough to wish to retain him, or to fear the possibility that he, in leaving my employ, might (for example) go to work for competitor, or into business for himself, taking my customers with him. It is more of a two-way street than you allow, especially in the case of employees having particular skills or inside knowledge of a business. Non-compete agreements are very limited in their effect and offer little protection against such actions.

    • Re. “discrimination.” There are a number of other words that express the meanings of choosing between good and evil, ascertaining beauty and ugliness, and having refined tastes. As you can see from those examples. The word “discriminate” has taken on the specific connotation of exercising prejudice over issues of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and so on, just as the word “Negro,” once a purely neutral term, is now viewed as condescending by black Americans. On the other hand, one can use words in a manner that is calculated to skirt the edge of socially acceptable discourse, as a means of demonstrating one’s position on an issue, such as using “girls” for “adult women.”

      Re. felons: Lets not forget misdemeanants as well, since a conviction for petty theft would be reasonable ground to terminate someone who is trusted with inventory or cash, or in my industry, trusted to work unsupervised on client sites where stealable items abound in large numbers. (Including in banks where there are drawers of cash immediately below the telephone equipment on which we’re working at any hour of day or night. Having the keys to a bank is fun;-)

      But we both know we’re not talking about employing criminals. The question was whether you recognize _any limit_ to the right to hire and fire at will, having to do with, as you said, “behavior of which you don’t approve” that occurs outside of work, and that question still stands unanswered.

      Symmetries: Yes, in some industries, employees have sufficient skills as to be difficult to replace, and sufficient insider knowledge as to be able to go into biz for themselves or offer extra benefits to any competitor who hires them. (Been there, got screwed by that, learned the lesson, got the T-shirt.) And non-compete contracts often prove unenforceable as equivalent to contracts of indenture, unless there is extraordinary compensation for future unemployability in one’s field of expertise.

      But that does not describe the situation of the typical Joe or Jane Average, in an average customer service or office or laborer position. So here I’ll have to moralize just a little. The relevant test isn’t how one treats someone who has ample capacity to defend themselves. The test is how one treats someone who does not have the capacity to defend themselves.

  11. There are certain rights that inhere in the ownership of property, from which the unpropertied do not benefit. Hence the relationship between a business owner and an employee, or a landlord and a tenant, is not evenly balanced. However, there are many other situations in which the relationships between persons are similarly unbalanced. The exercise of liberty always ends in unequal results. The proper response to this is – so what?

    An alternative system was tried in the former Soviet Union, a state founded on official egalitarianism. The private ownership of property, apart from negligible personal possessions, was forbidden. Yet even there, a managerial class (the nomenklatura) arose, which lorded it over the “typical Joe or Jane Average” as thoroughly as the most rapacious business owner or landlord imagined by Karl Marx. While they did not actually own the “means of production,” the nomenklatura enjoyed effective control over it. In a society governed on the basis of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” someone has to decide what the ability and need of each is – and this person is a member of the nomenklatura, a “boss,” if you will. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” – if not the same person, the same in his ability to direct the lives of others.

    Mankind is hierarchical in nature. There will always be those who govern and direct, and those who submit and obey; those who manage great undertakings, and those that never rise beyond being hewers of wood and drawers of water. There is no more pernicious notion than that “all men are created equal.” They are not, and the evidence of our senses confirms the fact daily. You might as well get used to it.

    As for invidious discrimination (which is what you, and most people, understand by “discrimination” tout court), yes, indeed, it exists – but it does not remain the same. The invidious discrimination represented by Jim Crow laws reflected a strong non-economic social pressure which has now disappeared. The civil rights laws of the 1960s prohibiting invidious discrimination by race, creed, etc., were responses to the customary social atmosphere of the time. While their continued operation might be strongly supported by some today, it has to be admitted that no one within the broad spectrum of political viability seriously seeks or expects to witness the reimposition of Jim Crow laws.

    Absent such a political force, as we re-examine the civil rights laws, we must recognize that they represented not only a serious infringement on the rights of property owners, but also an infringement on the freedom of association. In addition, there is no economic rationale for invidious discrimination. By refusing to hire, rent, or sell to a particular group of persons identified by race, creed, etc., an entrepreneur is only denying himself access to a potential market, and hence is forgoing profits he might otherwise accrue. Invidious discrimination carries its own adverse consequence. Is this not, now, enough? Given the changes that have taken place in society since the 1960s, it is perhaps appropriate that the civil rights laws be revisited, as the Supreme Court has recently done in the case of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    Turning to your point in an antecedent post: ‘For example “Our days off are Sunday and Monday; all employees are expected to work Friday and Saturday without exception,” is operationally equivalent to “no observant Muslims or Jews need apply,” and will be treated as such by the courts.’

    Perhaps a more useful and interesting example to consider would be one that arose a few years ago in a city near me. The city has a significant community of Somali immigrants, who are Muslim. A Somali woman took a job as a check-out clerk at a supermarket, which sold non-halal meats. She then objected to touching any pork products that customers brought to her check-out station, even if they were securely wrapped to prevent her fingers coming in direct contact with the “unclean” meat. Obviously this caused problems for her employer’s customers, whose check-outs could not be completed until another non-Muslim employee could come to her station to scan the package of bacon, ham, or what have you.

    I do not recall to what resolution the issue eventually came, but here was a case in which a person willingly applied for a job that she subsequently found objectionable for religious reasons. Is the employer in such a case guilty of invidious discrimination because he expects a check-out clerk to do a job that includes handling all the products on sale in his market? Or, maybe, ought it to be the case that someone whose religious scruples prevent him from having contact with objects he deems “unclean” simply avoid any employment that involves such contact? We would not expect a Muslim to seek employment in a liquor store. It is not the liquor store owner’s fault that Muslims do not regard alcohol with favor, and it is not in society’s interest to compel him to make some sort of place in his enterprise for the employment of persons who regard his lawful trade with repugnance. Yet it is to such an absurd conclusion that the line of reasoning behind the civil rights laws eventually leads us.