Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ownership of the Genome Challenged in Court

I have no illusions that we yet understand the foundational concepts and justifications of property well enough to go traipsing off into current legal disputes, but this article touches on an interesting and hot topic that is likely to shape the future to a significant extent.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hau We Do Business

On page 20, Mauss comes close to suggesting that gift, as a quintessential mixing together of lives, is the prototype of all trade, even contract and exchange.

In partial defense of this bold thesis, consider the degree to which a written contract is little stronger than a simple verbal commitment. I agree to mow your lawn once a week all summer in exchange for $450, paid out at $40 weekly. There is not much either of us can do if the other doesn't follow through with the commitment, so we decide to put it in writing, formalizing it in hopes of making both the activity and the payment more secure. But notice how much time, trouble, and money it would cost either of us to enforce the contract -- certainly more than it could possibly be worth to either of us.

You might think that a contract with much larger stakes, say between large corporations, would be more worthwhile to litigate, and of course this often happens. However, the process is hugely expensive for both sides, and frequently drags on for many years in the courts, while both sides must do without whatever the contract promised them.

We might re-conceive a contract, then, as a kind of collective prayer that we don't need to litigate it -- an act of shared trust in each other, whether out of good will or the expectation that both sides will see compliance as in their interests. A contract may be, at root, merely an agreement to mingle our lives in a conjoined faith, offered to each other as a gift.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Ancient usury meant the loaning of money (or anything) at interest, and was fiercely proscribed or severely limited by several major religious traditions. As transactions of this sort became imperative for the development of large-scale economies and international trade, however, the definition of what was proscribed morphed into excessive rates of interest (which, as a scalar rather than an absolute notion was susceptible to vagueness and hence upward creep -- consider ruinous 21% credit card rates that are not illegal). It is tempting to blame usury, traditionally a sin, for many of our modern economic inequalities, but though it is certainly an enabling condition, its demise as a social constraint on economic exploitation is at least as much a consequence of present economic arrangements as a cause of them.

It has both downsides and upsides. For example, The fact of easy credit for home buyers puts upward pressure on the cost of homes, thus forcing everyone who wants to own a home to borrow at interest (the rates may be modest, but the amortized outlay over many years is often two or three times the sale price of the home, or more). Those who would have preferred to save their money until they could buy a home outright are mostly priced out of the market by this process, and by the steady march of inflation to which it contributes. On the other hand, the increased price of homes makes it possible for them to be better designed, more energy efficient, etc. than they would otherwise be, since the greater market value of homes permits builders to invest more in their design and construction. Unless this just leads to larger homes (which it sometimes does), it can substantially improve the housing stock, and the quality of life of those connected to the building trades.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Hyde and the Gift Economy

Among the many things I find fascinating about Lewis Hyde's analysis is the suggestion that the modern world has taken a dangerous turn in reducing all exchange to commerce, thereby devaluing the many sorts of human activity, including perhaps the most important (arts, nurture...), that cannot survive such reduction.

Unlike Marx, Hyde does not envision a revolutionary future in which bourgeois property is abolished and all resources are shared freely according to need. More modestly, he hopes to carve out an economic sphere parallel the commercial one in which precisely those activities and goods which we value most highly, but which are not economically viable according to monetary cost-benefit analysis, have space to flourish.

This is an appealing image, though I need more detail about how it works in practice, and what progress it has made in the third of a century since Hyde wrote this. Also of interest, however, is whether once we construct such an alternative economy we would be able to stop there. Perhaps, once we seriously consider what is most valuable, we could no longer allow the commercial economy free reign to ravage the planet and our souls in pursuit of shareholder profit. Perhaps a National Institute of Arts, Letters, Motherhood, and the Creative Commons would have to regulate and democratize the commercial economy to ensure that it stopped fomenting war and served, rather than undermine, genuine need -- and something akin to Marx's revolution would have taken place after all. I wouldn't expect Exxon, Microsoft, Archer Daniels Midland et al. to cooperate quietly, however, so Marx might also have been correct about the process not being pretty.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Measuring Happiness

In light of our discussion of Bentham and Mill, you might enjoy this exploration of some of the new sociological research on self-reports of happiness:


This research raises many questions, including what people might really mean when they report on their own happiness. The deeper question, however, which Kolbert touches on at the end, is whether happiness really is the only thing that matters, as utilitarians insist. For example, if radical income or wealth inequality does not seem to make people unhappy, does it follow that we have no reason to treat it as a problem?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

What part of 'know' don't you understand?

In the owner’s manual to my new (used) car I encountered the peculiar sentence: “Substances used in the manufacture of these components are known to the state of California to be carcinogenic.” Aside from the epistemically odd subject – can states know things? – the use of the term ‘knowledge’ here is at first a little jarring. One wonders how exactly California comes to know something of this sort, and if it has achieved such knowledge, why must it be qualified by geography? Surely if California knows something, Kansas and New Hampshire know it as well!

On second thought, of course, it is clear that this proposition must be the outcome of a legislative process, which ratifies what a majority of the legislature or the electorate take to be compelling clinical research demonstrating the products’ carcinogenic properties. Shy of banning the products outright, the state issues a warning based on what it knows – an informative nudge rather than a mandate. This is in fact a kind of precising legal definition of knowledge, and I think it is a useful one. We might at first have expected the sentence to say “the State of California believes these products to be carcinogenic,” but that way of putting the point seems too hesitant, as though it were a matter of personal opinion (are states persons now, too?) rather than the appropriate cognitive response to a preponderance of evidence.

The reason I think this is a good use of the term ‘know’ is because, though it sounds a little odd at first, it exhibits a healthy grasp of most knowledge as the best inference honestly drawn from the available evidence, regardless of the effect of that inference on convenience or commercial interests. We do not properly restrict the word ‘know’ to those few cases (tautologies, excluded middles…) where we cannot logically be wrong. Climate change deniers are using such an unrealistic standard of knowing to prevent us from taking action. But we know too much already about where that will lead us.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Is Marx a Lockean?

Marx is deeply critical, both of the Smith/Bentham utilitarian axis, but also of Locke. Some of his animosity for the latter may be more a matter of attitude than of actual disagreement, however, as he regularly invokes the essentially Lockean principle that the product of labor properly belongs to workers.

Marx’s critique of Bourgeois capital is at root a critique of the system of industrial labor, whereby those who do the work do not control the means of production (materials, machinery, organization) or reap its benefits. In this respect he thinks industrial capitalism is no improvement on feudal serfdom (or perhaps even worse, because of urbanization, pollution, the disruption of social structures, and traditional relationships to the land), simply changing one kind of slavery into another. Yet his alternative vision of workers not alienated from the process and product of their labor would in its own way constitute a kind of ownership society. The slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” echos in several ways an essentially Lockean vision of responsible ownership grounded in need, limited by reason, and deeply egalitarian in spirit.

Marx might well protest that, unlike Locke’s view, his rejects private property, but as the Manifesto makes very clear, he is not at all opposed to the autonomy of individuals or their right to provide for themselves and craft/express their identities through their work. Rather it is Bourgeois property he rejects – the right to use one’s resources as capital to subjugate others for profit. The property he defends, then, is not very far from what one might glean from one interpretation of Locke. But even if this interpretation of Locke is too generous, Marx would still have to supply some account of why workers are entitled to control the means of production and enjoy the product of their labor. It is difficult to see how he might do this without Lockean presuppositions.