Sunday, March 4, 2018

The best way to reduce gun violence is to legalize drugs

(Note: I took pains to substantiate each claim at the expense of brevity, so for those in a hurry, the boldfaced sentences provide a nice summary of my argument.  There is also a TL;DR at the bottom).

I always dread gun control week.  I partly dread it because it’s precipitated by the killing of innocent people, and of course that’s awful to hear about.  But unfortunately, mass killings of innocent people happen every day, and if we’re honest with ourselves, they aren’t typically enough to interrupt our lives for long.  For me, the more direct implication of these particular incidents of horrific violence is that my Facebook News Feed will be cluttered with angry people talking past one another. 

This bothers me for two reasons.  First, most of these are people I like, and it’s unpleasant when people you like start acting like dicks.  But moreso, it bothers me because I devote a considerable portion of my spare energies in life to advancing the public discourse on issues I care about.  When people talk past one another as inevitably as they do about guns, that hobby feels futile and ridiculous.  At the very least, it’s a sign the discourse needs some stewarding.

So far as I can tell, the reason my friends are talking past one another is that they’re talking about different problems, with different solutions, that they’re calling by the same name.  The so-called “epidemic of gun violence” in the United States is more like a composite of at least four separate problems: two big ones, and two tragic but sporadic distractions.  In a more sensible world, we’d try to solve these problems independently – one at a time, and in order of urgency – instead of pretending there were a quick fix for all four at once.  And if we were to do that, we’d find that the best way to achieve the largest and fastest reduction in overall gun violence is almost definitely to simply end the war on drugs, which hardly anyone talks about in this context.  If nothing else, I hope this post gets more people thinking of it in that way.

Every year, about 35,000 Americans are killed by guns.  My argument proceeds from the assumption that the “best” way to reduce gun violence is whichever way most reduces how many of those people are killed by any means (the last three words are important, because morally speaking, it does us no good to reduce gun deaths if those previously shot dead are instead merely stabbed or beaten to death, etc.) 

I’ve chosen this measure for its simplicity and universality: people of all political persuasions should be able to agree that saving lives is morally important.  More subjective moral considerations – such as constitutionality, the impact on recreational shooting, the impact on one’s capacity for self-defense, the importance of self-defense from nonfatal threats, or the importance of reducing firearm injuries as well as deaths – are deliberately omitted from this measure, to prevent the aforementioned problem of “talking past one another.”  Were they included, however, it’s worth noting that my case becomes even stronger.

Simply framed, gun deaths occur when someone motivated to kill chooses a gun as their killing tool.  As such, there are three primary strategies for reducing gun deaths, under which most policy proposals can be categorized:

1.     Reduce the motivation to kill in the first place.

2.     Restrict the sorts of people who have access to guns.

3.     Restrict the sorts of guns people have access to.

The first strategy is rarely easy, and not always possible – but when it is possible, it is objectively best.  This is because it’s the only strategy without risk of a substitution effect. Removing certain types of guns from the hands of certain types of people leaves those people free to enact violence with any other weapon they can acquire, whereas eliminating the motive to commit violence in the first place solves the problem at its root.  Strategies two and three may still be worth pursuing until such time as strategy one proves effective, but strategy one is the only permanent fix.

If strategy one is not effective, strategy two is the next best thing.  A very large percentage of American gun violence is committed by a very small percentage of Americans.  If it’s possible to identify who those people are likely to be in advance, restricting their access to any guns at all would save more lives than merely restricting the types of guns those people have access to (if you doubt this, be patient, the data I present later on will prove it). So the strategies are listed in rough order of intuitive preference.

However, each strategy will be more or less effective depending on the type of shooting it’s intended to reduce.  When we break down that 35,000 figure according to the shooter’s motive and intended target, we see there are four primary types of gun violence:

1.     Suicide.  Of the 35,000 annual gun deaths, about 21,600 are suicides; 62% of the time, the shooter’s intended target is oneself.  The motivations for self-harm are complex, but they’re easy enough to distinguish from what motivates violence against others.

2.     “Discriminate homicide,” which is homicide targeting specific individuals other than oneself.  This kills at least 12,500 Americans a year, for 36% of gun deaths.  The particular motivations in this category vary (hatred, rivalry, jealousy, money, etc.)  and as such, you could break this down further into similarly-motivated sub-categories.  Gang violence, for instance, kills roughly 2,000 a year, almost entirely with guns*;  domestic violence kills roughly 1,000-1,200 a year with guns**; and the Washington Post counts about 1,000 police shootings a year.  Also included are shootings in the course of robbery or other crimes, as well as second-degree shootings, often after fights at bars or nightclubs. But what ties them all together under my banner of “discriminate homicide” is that the killer discriminates: he attempts to kill a chosen one or few, but not others.

3.     Unintentional shootings.  About 500 Americans are killed each year by guns that were fired accidentally.  These have no motive nor intended target at all.  They account for 1.4% of gun deaths.

4.     “Indiscriminate homicide,” in which the intended target is everyone (or everyone of a targeted demographic) that happens to be at a chosen place.  These are the killings that make the national news, and fill my Facebook News Feed with angry people talking past one another.  They are also the only sort of homicide likely to be enacted with so-called “assault weapons.”  They are essentially what the average person thinks of when they hear the term “mass shooting”: a Columbine-style incident where a deranged gunman goes on a rampage in a crowded public place with the intent to kill as many people as possible.***

The Washington Post has
meticulously catalogued these narrowly defined “mass shootings” all the way back to 1966, when it argues the first such shooting took place at the University of Texas. Over the 51 years which have followed, it counts 150 mass shootings total (about 3 per year) having killed a total of 1,077 people (about 21 per year).  In fairness, these shootings have become slightly more common in recent years, as might be expected with the increase in population.  Over the eight years from 2010 to 2017, the Post counts 42 such incidents (5 per year), killing a total of 424 people (53 per year).  The deadliest single year for mass shootings was last year (2017) with 117 dead, thanks mostly to the 59 killed in Las Vegas.  Even taking this record-high as the new normal, mass shootings account for just 0.3% of all gun deaths in our country.  That they so dominate the media coverage of America’s “gun violence epidemic” strikes me as part of why Americans are talking past one another.

By combining the four types of gun violence (in order of prevalence) with the three primary strategies for reducing gun violence (in order of preference), we can create a nifty little strategy chart, wherein the upper-left-hand corner has the maximum potential for violence reduction, and the bottom-right-hand corner has the minimum potential for violence reduction.

Reduce motivations to kill
Restrict who can access guns
Restrict the sorts of guns available
Suicide – 21,600/yr
Worthwhile due to the sheer volume of suicides, but very difficult.  Depression has no easy legislative fix.
How to know who is suicidal? We don’t want to discourage depressed people from coming forward; restricting their legal rights contributes to mental health stigma. Besides, there’s likely a massive substitution effect.
Useless; any gun can be used for suicide, and even a complete ban would merely would spur a massive substitution effect with other means of killing oneself.
Discriminate Homicide – 12,500/yr
Bingo. Ending the War on Drugs is an easy policy change extremely likely to reduce several varieties of discriminate homicide (including gang violence, armed robberies, and police shootings) by considerable margins.
Mostly already done (Lautenberg Amendment, background checks, etc.). Closing loopholes is worthwhile, but the additional impact is likely marginal.
Most firearm murderers use handguns.  Gang violence is more likely to have unregistered/black-market guns anyway – criminals don’t turn their guns in.  Domestic violence can use any sort of firearm just as easily.
Accidents – 500/yr
No motive to reduce.
Mandatory training or storage laws might help a little, but it would restrict the rights of many to save a very small number (often from themselves).
Useless; all firearms equally likely to discharge accidentally.
Indiscriminate “Mass shootings” -    < 120/yr
Like depression, the mental health issues which cause deranged men to go on killing sprees have no easy legislative fix. Rarity makes impact tiny.
Mostly already done (Lautenberg Amendment, background checks, etc.). Closing loopholes is worthwhile, but the additional impact is likely marginal.
(The color of this block is what most Facebook gun control arguments revolve around. No matter who is right, indiscriminate mass shootings are such a tiny sliver of the overall problem, and “assault weapons” are so rarely used in crime, that even confiscating all of them with zero substitution effect would have minimal impact on overall gun death figures.)

As you can see, I’ve taken the liberty of filling in this chart, with my impression of each strategy’s effectiveness towards reducing that variety of gun violence.  Blocks colored red strike me as unlikely to work.  Blocks colored purple could plausibly work to some extent.  And the block colored green is extremely likely to work to a large extent. 

To expand on this, let’s look at each type of gun violence individually, like I said in the beginning:  one at a time, and in order of urgency.

1. The most urgent source of gun deaths is suicide.  The best way to reduce suicide is to combat the stigma of depression and encourage suffering people to seek mental help, but this is difficult to achieve through legislation. 

Suicide is tragic, but it is equally tragic no matter how it is committed, which means the relevant question is not “how do we reduce gun suicide?” but “how do we reduce suicide in general?”  Unfortunately, there is no easy answer, and the most compelling answers involve deeper cultural changes than government policy can produce.

Strategy #2 (restricting depressed people from owning guns) is problematic for several reasons.  First, equality under the law means we cannot take away people’s constitutional rights unless it’s as punishment for a crime.  It’s plainly discriminatory to withhold legal rights from an entire class of people just because some tiny minority of them are stereotyped as violent and crazy.  That violates the 5th and 14th amendments as well as the 2nd (and although I said I’d omit constitutional considerations, this makes it practically difficult to enact such legislation even if you don’t care about the ethics of constitutional questions).

Second, a law which deprived gun ownership from anyone with a history of mental illness would exacerbate the problem of mentally ill people declining to seek help – especially in the South, and especially among veterans.  There are enormous swaths of this country in which gun ownership is seen as an indication of manhood – where owning a gun is right up there with driving a pickup truck, drinking beer or watching football as a culturally important social outlet for men to talk about.  Not coincidentally, it is often these same social circles of conservative southern men who most struggle with a) PTSD from combat experience, and b) stigma about appearing weak by expressing their emotions, making them both the MOST in need of mental health treatment and the LEAST likely to seek it out.  That is a toxic combination.  A world in which seeking help means forfeiting their guns and appearing even more feminine in their social circles would make it more toxic.  To the extent that suicide is a problem caused by both the availability of guns and the mental health crisis in this country, we need to ensure that the solutions we pursue to one problem do not worsen the other.

Restricting the types of guns available is even less likely to help, because any gun can be used for suicide just as easily.  Also consider that Japan and Korea have almost no guns at all, but much higher rates of suicide than the United States.  Perhaps mandatory waiting periods before the purchase of new guns might help reduce the lethality of impulsive suicide attempts, and I’m open to that idea; but, the impact would likely be marginal with such a steep substitution rate, making the incidental reduction in “gun violence” rather hollow.  The bottom line is that a country’s suicide rate is more closely linked to underlying cultural factors than it is to the tools available to those considering it.  Therefore, the most sensible approach to reducing gun violence through legislation is to set aside suicide as a distinct social phenomenon unrelated to guns, and focus instead on reducing the remaining 13,000 annual gun deaths.

2. This is where my four pages of prelude mercifully end and I finally dive into the heart of my thesis: the best way to reduce discriminate homicide is to end the war on drugs. We have excellent intuitive and empirical reason to believe that doing so would substantially reduce the number of homicides in our country.  Estimates as to the number of homicides which are drug-related range from 5-50% (with the best studies splitting the difference).  But ultimately, ending the drug war could reduce even those types of discriminate homicide not directly related to gang or drug violence, like robberies or police shootings, for at least three reasons.

First, legalizing drugs would defund organized crime.  Prohibition gives a monopoly to those willing to break the law by shielding them from competition and taxation. This inflates the price of drugs and sends lucrative profits to gangs and cartels – including the same Mexican drug cartels that have killed an estimated 166,000 people in drug related violence since 2006.  The Federal Office of National Drug Control Policy states that marijuana alone “now earns cartels about $8.5 billion, or about 61 percent of their annual estimated income of $13.8 billion.”  The New York Times reports that while “no one knows exactly how much money Mexican traffickers make…reasonable estimates find they pocket $30 billion every year selling cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth to American users.”  These profits are used to fund activities far more sinister than drug use; the cartels are known to dabble in kidnapping, extortion, weapons smuggling, human trafficking and child sex slavery, and hired assassination. Legalizing drugs would divert money away from these thugs by eliminating the underground demand for their most popular product, which the same New York Times Op-Ed claims would inflict more financial damage than soldiers or drug agents have managed in years and substantially weaken cartels.”  Reductions in gun violence would very likely correspond, in both Mexico and the United States.

Second, legalizing drugs takes them off the black market, which opens up peaceful avenues for conflict resolution.  As mentioned above, at least 2,000 people a year are killed in American gang violence.  A substantial portion of these deaths result from bloody turf wars between rival drug distributors.  These killings are characteristic of black markets, because participants in such markets lack access to the court system as a means of resolving disputes.  If drugs were legalized, consumers would no longer need to buy their weed from professional criminals, and the black market would turn into a white market with access to judicial recourse.  The business of neighborhood drug dealers would dry up, and so too would the disputes those dealers previously resolved through violence.

Thirdly, legalization would help rebuild America’s poorest families and most desperate communities. Imprisoning peaceful people for victimless crimes destroys families and inhibits economic advancement, which in turn actually increases crime.  When poor fathers are thrown in jail or killed in an unnecessarily dangerous drug world, their families become even more desperate and dysfunctional.  Studies show that children growing up in these broken households are more likely to demonstrate aggressive behavior, to be delinquent, suspended or expelled from school, and to turn to crime themselves.  An infuriating 46 percent of our federal prison populations consists of non-violent drug offenders, 54 percent of which are parents with minor children, while an astounding 70 percent of gang members grew up in single-mother homes.  You do the math.

Additionally, having a criminal record decreases one’s employment opportunities and lowers one’s earnings potential going forward. This ensures that people convicted of drug crimes have fewer places to turn besides crime upon their release. And by making the illegal drug trade so lucrative, prohibition has only increased the temptation to engage in illicit activities.  This is part of why four of ten released prisoners wind up back in jail within three years of their release. Legalization would reverse both of these incentives. First, it would reduce the appeal of crime by removing the underground marijuana trade as a profitable option. And second, it would reduce the necessity of crime by decreasing incarceration, and thereby increasing the legal employment alternatives of would-be convicts.

In summary, legalizing drugs would defund organized crime, eliminate dangerous black markets, prevent hundreds of thousands of arrests per year (which in turn reduces recidivism due to having a criminal record, reduces how many children grow up in broken households) and generally help America's poorest and most desperate communities become much less violent places. The overall reduction in gun violence would be tremendous.

Restricting who has access to firearms cannot hope to achieve the same degree of homicide reduction, in part because it’s already been tried.  The Lautenberg Amendment makes it illegal for those convicted of domestic violence charges to possess a gun.  Criminal background checks are already required for licensed firearm vendors in all 50 states, and even from private vendors in 19 states. Closing the so-called “gun-show loophole” in the 31 states where it exists is a reasonable proposal, as is adding temporary restrictions on gun purchases for those with restraining orders.  But in a nation with 300 million guns in the country already, preventing criminals from getting their hands on one is easier said than done.  Besides, this strategy overlaps with ending the war on drugs anyway, since the black market criminal underworld in which drugs are peddled is also the largest source for buying illegal and unregistered guns.  Shrinking that market would make it tougher to circumvent the existing background check process.

Likewise, strategy #3 does not make sense for discriminate homicide, because when discriminate homicide is carried out with a gun, it is usually a handgun.  Handguns are used in nine times as many murders as all other sorts of firearms combined.  However, they also make the lease sense to prohibit, because a) they are the least powerful sort of firearm, b) they are the most practical for legitimate defensive use, and c) they are the most commonly owned sort of firearm, as well as the easiest to conceal or hide, which makes mass confiscation essentially impossible.  Consider that Brazil has a homicide rate four times greater than ours, with less than 10% of our gun ownership rate, and you realize that the degree of confiscation necessary for this to be effective is extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

3. Compared to the likeliest impact of legalizing drugs, the best ways to reduce accidental or indiscriminate shootings barely even matter.  Set aside for the moment how indiscriminate and accidental shootings are among the most difficult to prevent, and simply recall that all of these shootings combined account for less than 2% of American gun deaths, whereas discriminate homicide (committed overwhelmingly on black men, with handguns) accounts for 36%.  If your proposals for reducing gun violence are primarily geared towards reducing the 0.3% covered by the media, ask yourself why that is.  Are you really convinced those proposals would make a dent in the broader problems afflicting our country?  Or are you merely reacting to whatever frightening anecdotes our sensationalist media throws in front of your face?  Are you treating all lives with equal moral weight?  Or do you mostly care about keeping the issue out-of-sight, out-of-mind?

And more importantly, if you advocate gun control, but are NOT yet ready to join the rising majority of Americans who favor the legalization of marijuana (at least), ask yourself how much of your gun-control rhetoric ought to be thrown right back in your own face.  You blame the NRA for “clinging” to guns at the expense of human life; but when will YOU, clinging to prohibition for God knows what reason, let go of your own sacred cows?  How many innocent lives will it take for YOU to have a serious conversation about America’s drug war problem?  When will YOU say “enough is enough?”

TL;DR: American gun violence can be broken down into four broad categories: suicide, discriminate homicide, accidental shootings and indiscriminate shootings.  Suicide is a complex social phenomenon which cannot be easily reduced through legislation.  Accidental and indiscriminate shootings are an isolated phenomenon, which amount to a drop in the bucket of overall gun violence.  Therefore, efforts to reduce gun violence will be most effective if they focus on discriminate gun homicide.

The largest cause of discriminate gun homicide is gang violence, and the largest cause of gang violence is the black market for illicit substances created by the war on drugs.  Ending the war on drugs by legalizing these substances would cause that market to vanish, and the systemic violence associated with it to plummet.  Consequently, ending the war on drugs would reduce gun violence in our country to a greater extent than any other feasible proposal (and certainly to a greater extent than all proposals aimed at reducing the death toll from indiscriminate mass shootings combined).


*According to the National Gang Center, gang violence killed roughly 2,000 a year from 2007-2012, which was 13-15% of the annual average murder rate over that time.  This is likely an understatement, since not all precincts track the total claimed by gang violence; over half of these deaths came from Chicago and Los Angeles alone, for example.

No breakdown was provided as to what portion of these gang-related homicides were committed with a gun; however, intuition suggests this portion would be considerably higher than the portion of domestic violence homicides committed by gun (which is 50-60%) since a) domestic violence victims are much likelier to be women than gang-violence victims, and thus more easily overpowered without firearms by male perpetrators, and b) by virtue of cohabitation, intimate partners are more vulnerable to short-range weapons than rival gang members.  An 80%-with-guns estimate makes 1,600 gun deaths a year from gang violence our low-ball estimate, which is 13 times more than the deadliest year ever for indiscriminate “mass shootings.”

**Everytown USA says more than 600 women per year are killed by an intimate partner with a gun.  This Associated Press study says “nearly 75% of the victims in domestic violence shootings are the current wives or girlfriends of the men who killed them.”  If both are correct, it would put the floor number of domestic violence shooting victims around 800.
However, this source puts the number slightly higher, saying that 2,000 are killed by domestic violence overall per year, of which “more than half” are killed with a gun.  If it were much more than half, they’d likely have said so (“more than 60%,” etc) because the source is arguing for a strong link between guns and domestic violence.  This, combined with the differing data above, leads me to suspect it’s not much more than half, so I’m estimating 1000-1200 a year.  If you have better data, please send it my way in the comments.

***Some media outlets and advocacy groups employ much broader definitions of the term “mass shooting, like “any shooting leaving four or more dead, including the shooter” or “any shooting with four or more shot, not including the shooter.”  I’m cynical of these broader definitions because they seemingly “conflate to inflate;” that is, they clump together a wide range of categorically different sorts of crimes under the same label, so as to create the impression that the indiscriminate, Columbine-style incidents so ingrained in national memory are much more common than they really are.  For example, according to the Huffington Post’s definition, 57% of “mass shootings” are domestic violence related, which runs contrary to the widespread perception of mass shootings as highly public incidents, and therefore contributes to the problem of “talking past one another” that I find so lamentable.

I opted for the term “indiscriminate homicide” to remove this ambiguity.  Cases where the shooter selects his targets at random in public places plainly constitute a distinct phenomenon from the sort of targeted homicide that happens every day. They warrant their own category.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Why am I “still” capitalist?

A shares this link on wealth inequality, and asks:

“Serious question- I feel like most people I talk to don’t identify as communists but have come to the realization that capitalism is bad and cannot be reformed.  For people who still think capitalism is a workable system: Why? How can a system this cruel be reformed within the context of an economic structure that prioritizes profit over social welfare? How can it be sustainable in the context of rapidly accelerating climate change?

I think a lot of Hopkins students, politicians, public figures and the media continue to talk about radical change like it’s absurd or unrealistic. But they fail to recognize the reality that the general population has become completely disillusioned with the idea that politicians are trying to help them or protect their interests. I think most people genuinely believe that the economic and political system are fundamentally rigged against them and even if they haven’t articulated an alternative yet they don’t think that the current system will ever actually change or improve things regardless of who’s elected.”
Appreciate the sincere questions, (friend).  I share your impression that there’s widespread distrust and disillusionment with American politicians and a feeling that “the economic and political system” are rigged against them.  I think most people are right to feel that way, so I also share your frustration that the people pulling the strings are so out of touch with that dissatisfaction, and so reluctant to consider radical change.

We just disagree on which specific parts of “the current system” are causing those problems.  It isn’t capitalism – to me, that’s a uselessly broad villain.  Describing our system as merely capitalist is like describing ISIS’s ideology as “religious”: technically accurate, but not specific enough to be a meaningful identifier of what’s wrong.  Likewise, private property ownership and the profit motive are not fair stand-ins for what Americans are so fed up with.

Wondering how we can support tinkering with “an economic structure that prioritizes profit over social welfare” presupposes those things are in contrast.  They’re totally not!  Profit occurs in a capitalist system when people help each other through trade, making mutually beneficial transactions that leave them both better off (in their own minds) than they were before.  In other words, profit is the RESULT of incremental improvements in social welfare.  It is the proof that some degree of social welfare was created.

I can quibble with the way they calculated this “report” in another comment if you’re interested, but my main point is that Jeff Bezos making billions of dollars is not in contrast with the welfare of society.  It is the byproduct of his launching an online interface that has made an enormous diversity of products conveniently available to billions of people at cheap prices and fast shipping times.  It is the result of his technological and logistical innovations vastly improving the world and making all of our lives easier – our welfare, enhanced.  That he makes boatloads of money from it is just a happy side effect, not the main story.  And were he prevented from doing so – taken from “according to his ability” before Amazon got so big, and Bezos so rich – the result would be more poverty, not less.

As for how it can be environmentally sustainable, we have to impose costs on behavior that damages things nobody can own, so as to simulate the same protections capitalism affords the things we can own.  If we punish carbon emissions in proportion to the harm they inflict on others, we can capture the cost of the externality into the price of engaging in those activities. 
The plan Jason shared the other day is one sensible way to do this.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The startup cost of communism is too damn high - and other closing words (part IV)

(this is a continuation of the conversation which began here, and left off here)

Me: Regardless of which system is preferable once established, overthrowing existing capitalist institutions would require such massive bloodshed and economic upheaval, and be so unlikely to succeed for long, that attempting the transition is highly irrational.

Communism as most of you seem to be defending it (as opposed to more moderate intermediary states like socialism) is necessarily an all-or nothing proposition. It requires revolution. It requires that capitalism be overthrown, and that private property be abolished or seized. It requires a “dictatorship of the proletariat” incompatible with existing government institutions. And if it is to last, that dictatorship requires defense from neighboring states, domestic uprisings and internal corruption that threaten to re-impose class domination.

All of the above requires violence, and all of the above can fail. Because capitalism is the dominant economic system in the status quo, this risk and startup cost to communism has to be factored in to it’s merits on the aggregate. If the only way to get to communism is to BOTH overthrow the existing state AND prevent any other capitalist state (either internal or external to the revolutionaries) from eventually replacing it, and only a handful of countries have ever successfully done this for long, the odds of successfully communist implementation appear pretty slim.

Furthermore, the consequences of falling short in armed revolution against capitalist states are likely to be tragic: thousands if not millions of deaths, millions impoverished, only for capitalism to stay in power or ultimately return anyway. So now we have a high risk of failure + severely negative consequences for that failure. In order for attempting communist revolution to be rational, the potential marginal improvement in quality of life for humankind must be so large as to outweigh a cataclysmically high risk of disaster; literally “give me the complete dissolution of class inequality, or give me millions of deaths.” Is that a noble gamble?

From my view, libertarians (and most other enemies of the existing political order, for that matter) can offer a much more appealing sales pitch, because our ideology is compatible with incrementalism. Even if I prefer anarchy in the abstract, for the time being I’ll settle for ending the drug war and isolated deregulation of some economic sectors. Liberty exists on a spectrum, and we can make things better in our lifetime by gradually nudging in that direction. If our kids and grandkids can keep doing that, great: the final transition to anarchy or classless society will go almost unnoticed. But if they fall short somewhere along the line, and the capitalist state proves too stubborn to dissolve entirely, we’ll at least have made things better for the effort. We can erode and contain oppression by stages without resorting to bloody revolution. Isn’t that a more promising model for enacting social change?

Daniel: communism doesn’t necessary require revolution. The idea is we go from feudalism to capitalism to socialism to communism, not necessarily murdering everyone.

I agree that armed global communist revolution became a very bad idea since like 1945.

For now can I please just live in a globalized Keysian utopia with a robust welfare state, free education, free medicine and mars colonies and y’all will peace out with your extreme stuff

Steve: Communism does require revolution, it just doesn't necessarily have to be bloody and violent (though it is silly not to expect that very real possibility.

You are correct that nobody ever said a revolution would be easy though.

Sean: Andrew are you familiar with mutualism? Its a way of coordinating labor between individuals still mediated via labor units or credit of some kind, in a fully decentralized or distributed manner. This in combination with workforce relations being co-operative rather than competitive, can be one of the various non-violent forms of revolutionary activity or transformation of the mode of production.

Me: I read the Wikipedia page on mutualism and mostly, I like it. I’m admittedly skeptical that different sorts of labor can be fairly broken down into comparable units, with widely accepted exchange rates across all the immense diversity of skilled and unskilled labor conducted in the modern economy. I think currency as we understand it today probably does a better job of facilitating mutually beneficial exchange, by removing the need for a double-coincidence of wants if two people are to help one another, while also compensating people in proportion to the value of the work they do (rather than just the duration or difficulty of the work they do). And, I think the distinction between “private property” and “personal property,” revolving around whether the property is being currently used, is a bit contrived (although it’s also almost Lockean!).

But, I do like it’s reliance on markets of some kind, relative to the competing forms of communism I’ve seen. And mostly, I love that it’s wholly voluntary, which from my view makes it compatible with the libertarian world I envision. I’d be excited to see how it works, so long as (like you suggested) that segment of society wishing to try it pursues it peacefully, without wielding violence against whichever segment of society remains un-enticed.

(My OP) 3. I’m arguing that even if you disagree passionately with points 1 and 2, libertarians and communists trying to reach their ideal worlds have a common enemy in a powerful state, and thus a shared interest in containing and dissolving state power.

Steve: To address your third point, you don't understand what function the state serves. So long as class antagonisms exist, which is to say so long as classes themselves exist, a state will exist to enforce the will of the ruling class. Communists, while aiming for a stateless and classless society, recognize that there will be need for a state so long as these class antagonisms remain present. Maybe it is true that the state is an obstacle to both our political objectives, but it is for different reasons. In my case, the state is an obstacle because it serves as the organized class interest of the bourgeoisie and I seek to replace it with a state organized around the class interest of the proletariat. In your case the state looks like an obstacle because you don't understand that you can't have stateless capitalism.
Me: I don’t quite want stateless anything; I’m more a minarchist than an anarchist, and I’m glad to at least have a night-watchman state to arrest murderers and rapists, etc. You are right that capitalism cannot exist without clearly defined and enforced property rights, which probably requires a state too.

But supposing you meant I “don’t understand that you can’t have capitalism without extensive state involvement to the benefit of the rich,” you’re right again – I don’t understand that. Enlighten me: why is that so?

Steve: Because a state that enforces the property rights required for capitalism (i.e. bourgeois property rights) is one controlled by the bourgeoisie (which very roughly translates to the rich, for clarity's sake). They will inevitably use that state for their benefit.
Daniel: Your final point isn’t something I’m interested in arguing, because again, I like strong state. I think it doesn’t stand though, because in classical Marxism you need to increase state power, get into socialism, and wait for state to dissolve voluntarily, while libertarians wanna just jump straight into anarchy?Sean: One of the most important facets of Marx’s critical project was the exposition of the systematic logic of capital accumulation; what can be called the “systematic dialectic” of capital. Actually taking the commodity form as a given in the beginning, he unfolds the logical development of the contradictory character of the commodity form (the contradiction between a commodity’s use-value and its exchange-value) and shows how the capital-labor class dialectic is a result of the transposition of value from labor to capital (exploitation). The capital-labor dialectic is a contradictory one because of the contradictory interests of each aspect of the polarity, but capital is the superior pole that continues to subsume labor into itself, moving towards absolute subsumption and the elimination of labor (though “labor” is cognized as “variable capital” from the horizon of the valorizing perspective, as if it doesn’t exist, as if it’s another part of capital inputs). However, since capital and proletarian labor co-constitute each other (since it is precisely the extraction of surplus value that allows capital to appear as though it generates value from its own moving being, to have the pretension of being self-valorizing value), the dialectic by which capital subsumes labor is also the means by which it destroys the conditions for its own possibility; the logic of capitalist development is also the logic of its self-negation.

Yet this is only the systematic dialectic of capital; it exists in the abstract, and as such it is the “pure” logic of the process of capital accumulation. This is different from the “pure free market” ideology of right-libertarian thought because it employs a dialectical way of thinking about processes, which is to say that it identifies contradictory logics behind actual processes and builds a systematic totality to understand the whole and how these contradictions unfold in the whole, and how the whole and parts reinforce each other. The actual analytic process behind the systematic uncovering of the dialectic is not concerned with the unfolding of these logics in a linear causal framework but actually performatively validates each developed category through the retroactive evaluation of the antecedent category via the efficacy of the consequent one (for example, the capital-labor relation not only results from the contradictions of the commodity form but the former also retroactively supports the latter in a systematic way; the development of the class relation out of the commodity form retroactively reinforces the hegemony of the commodity form) The systematic logic of capital is timeless, though its exposition occurs in time.

The error of right-libertarian thought is the upholding of an abstract conception that is grounded in time; that we only have “crony” capitalism and that “true free market” capitalism will develop in time, and that the state is an entity external to market forces which appears as an obstacle to capitalist development. This is to confuse an internal logic of a system of particular forces with the way that it plays out externally, in history, with the totality of relations not immediately related to the economic; this is why Marx’s project is a critique of political economy, not merely “economics”.

The historical dialectic of capital accumulation reveals that the function of the State was always to reconcile contradiction by mediating between the capital-labor polarity, prioritizing one over the other depending on the historical moment in question. This is why I would generally differ from state-centered interpretations of communism or even socialism, since I think the retroactive historical account of the function of state-socialism in the development of global capitalism could show that state-socialism provided the ideological and geo-political countervalence that allowed neoliberalism to emerge. There is no going back to that interpretation of socialism and any apparently “actually existing socialism”, while probably immediately beneficial to the national proletariat (only in the sense of fending off capitalist imperialism & extractivism), only functions to mediate between the capital-labor dialectic and thus cannot hope to transcend the system, which is a transcending of the dialectic itself. In fact, I would think that the state-socialist line of thought wrongly identifies the primary contradiction of capitalist society as the class division, rather than the abstract relation to time which allows for the possibility of extracting surplus value (since nominal time is the lowest common denominator that commensurates the otherwise incommensurable; by time we quantitatively relate qualitatively different labors that otherwise can’t be compared). Fixing this issue is a matter up to labor itself with its own capital in its own hands, not an abstract state mechanism (“proletarian” lead or not) which can only register labor in terms of some quantifiable unit; utils in bourgeois economics or “abstract labor” in marxism. The immanent forces of liberal market relations is replaced by a transcendent management of capital by the party-state; both are two sides of the same coin.

Communism is an ideal, but this ideal is approached scientifically. Revolutionary activity is the science of socio-technical craft, of the development of socialistic relations of production in an efforts to generalize and universalize these relations until they overcome relations governed by the logic of capital (what is called the “law of value”), much in the way that mercantile/trade relations existed in feudalism but it wasn’t until their eventual generalization that capitalism emerges as the hegemonic system. And as with all experimental activity, this science will necessarily have failures, but ones it can only learn from. So there is no “ideal” against “ideal”, there is only lofty mystification v.s. praxical science. You talk of ideality, actuality, but no talk of what these really entail. Don’t repeat memes, think for yourself.

Me: So my first observation is that this is written in a different language. I don’t say that dismissively: it’s a fair critique of my ideology, and I appreciate the time and thought you put into levying it. But on my end, considering your critique required some serious translation. I’ve read the Manifesto enough (once, quickly, for a class) to recognize and decode Marx’s language, but not enough to respond in it, and I don’t think I should have to (just as you may or may not have thoroughly scoured FA Hayek or Milton Friedman or Robert Nozick, and shouldn’t have to). To expect debates between Marxists and non-Marxists to take place on Marx’s terms is to slant the tables from the outset. I hope we can proceed a bit more colloquially, not just for my convenience but for the sake of any undecided third-party that may be reading with interest.

My second observation is that the labor theory of value is hogwash. Value is just a word people dreamed up to describe how badly they want things. Not everyone wants things equally badly, so it isn’t contradictory for a commodity to be objectively worth one thing on a market (what you call its “exchange value”), but subjectively valued higher or lower by a given user (what you call its “use value”). Neither are fixed. Likewise, labor has no inherent value. I could labor as much as I please making snow angels or mud pies in my backyard right now, but if there is no demand for my labor and no demand for my mud pies, both remain worthless. As such, “the extraction of surplus value” is a nonsensical phrase. Value has no physical existence, and cannot lie latent in a thing until it is extracted. Capitalism most certainly generates things people want “from its own moving being,” and there are many more of those things lying around today than there ever could be without private property rights.

My third observation is that communism is no more objective than competing ideologies. You closed with a certain conceit among communists, that Marx and the adherents of his “project” are just dispassionate social scientists describing provable facts, while his enemies are puppets on a string, reciting the lullaby theories our masters ingrained in us. Any opinions not “rooted in history” are dismissed as absurd – as if your own interpretation of history were anything more than opinion!

The study of history is not a lab experiment. There is no controlled environment, and no mechanical cause and effect replicable in different environments. The interaction of social forces is not comparable to the interaction of physical forces like gravity and friction. The progression of history is neither natural nor inevitable. “Historical materialism” is just a fancy term for Marx’s highly subjective interpretation of historical causation.

You say my error is: “upholding of an abstract conception that is grounded in time…to confuse an internal logic of a system of particular forces with the way that it plays out externally, in history, with the totality of relations not immediately related to the economic.”

*played. Ftfy.

The way something *played* out externally, in history, with the totality of relations not related to the economic, is an objective fact. The way it *will play out*, in the future, with a NEW totality of relations not related to the economic, is conjecture. The function of the state in relation to capitalism historically is not determinative of its function moving forward. Observing “the historical dialectic of capital accumulation” can at best inform your guess about how the internal logic of my system would play out in a future world. But my having a different guess than yours, or a different interpretation of historical causality, does not amount to an error in logic. It amounts to you and I having different biases.
I applaud you for differing from “state-centered interpretations of communism”. But if history is determinative of how these internal logics play out externally, doesn’t the “retroactive historical account of the function of communism” show that a state is inseparable from it?

Why is saying “I differ from state-centered interpretations of communism or even socialism” different than saying “I differ from state-centered interpretations of capitalism,” considering that both have only proven possible in state-centered versions thusfar?