Archive for the ‘communication’ Category

A Matter of Interest

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Eugen Ritter von Böhm-Bawerk, an important economist of the second generation of the Austrian School, produced a theory of interest rates based upon the interplay of time-preference with the significance of time in production. (Previous theories had either looked towards just the one or towards just the other, or sought explanation in terms of social power.) This theory was adopted by Knut Wicksell and by Irving Fisher. Fisher translated most of the theory into neo-classical, mathematical terms. Hans Mayer provided one important element that Fisher had missed. I was exposed to this neo-classical translation by J[ames] Huston McCulloch in an undergraduate course on money and banking.

Years later, towards creäting a fuller explanation, I played with relaxing some of the assumptions. And some time after that, I wrote a paper for a graduate class in which I extended Fisher's two-period model to handle continuous time (by way of a space of ℵ1 dimensions). I've occasionally thought to write-up that aforementioned fuller explanation, but mostly been put-off by the task of generating the involved graphs to my satisfaction.

Recently, I was sufficiently moved to begin that project. I wasn't imagining doing anything much other than fleshing-out a translation previously effected by others, so I was considering publishing the exposition as a webpage, or as a .pdf.

But, as I've labored it, trying to be clear and correct and reasonably complete, I've seen how to talk about some old disagreements amongst economists that I don't know were ever properly settled — perhaps these quarrels were not even properly understood by any of the major disputants, who each may have been talking past the others. So I may steer towards producing something that I can submit to an academic journal. (The unhappy part of doing that would be identifying and reviewing the literature of the conflict, with which I currently have only second-hand familiarity.)

Perhaps I'll produce both something along the lines that I'd originally intended, and a paper for a journal.

On the Meaning of Racism

Monday, 3 October 2016

The original definition of racism, and the one still found in standard dictionaries, is a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of race

However, a few decades ago, some social theorists began insisting upon a new definition of racism, under which one could not be called a racist unless one not only were prejudiced against some racial group, but had social power. Devotees of this new definition variously baldly restate it, as if the restatement makes it so, or cite the theorists, as if such citation makes it so.

Those who make a special study of a subject sometimes take a term in popular use, and give it a peculiar, somewhat new definition. (For examp!e, we see that in physics, with the uses of energy, force, and work; and we see that in economics, with the definition of unemployment.) But what usually characterizes these redefinitions is that somewhat loose notions are replaced with more explicit, more precise, and otherwise more workable definitions. (For example, when an economist uses unemployment, she usually excludes people who have quit one job for another, but have not yet started that next job, because joblessness of this transitory sort is not typically considered to be a social ill.)

Alarms really ought to go-off about the redefinition of racism. The original concept was quite coherent and useful; if it were not coherent, then the redefinition (which essentially adds a condition) would inherit the incoherence. Racism on the part of people with little social power still has significant social consequences; any legitimate use of the new concept is far more sharply limited than that of the original concept.

Let's imagine that someone prejudiced against those outside his own major racial group makes a solo walking tour of Los Angeles. As he travels from one neighborhood to another, he gains or loses social power as the ethnic compositions of those neighborhoods vary. His beliefs about the relation between race and merit needn't change (and should not be expected to do so much if at all). Yet by the mere act of travel through a large city in which ethnic groups are not uniformly distributed, under the redefinition he would repeatedly go from being a racist, to not being a racist, to again being a racist. It would be extraordinary and dangerous to make a solo walking tour of all of Los Angeles, but a great many people regularly move across communities of different ethnic composition. Application of the proposed redefinition of racism would routinely become unworkable, under circumstance in which the standard definition remains quite workable.

There are certainly legitimate applications of the concept of socially empowered racism, but in those applications we can call it socially empowered racism or something similar.

When a concept loses its associated symbol, it becomes harder to discuss or even to think about that concept. Further, the response to symbols is largely emotive. Whether people learn by reason that something is good or that it is bad, or they are simply led to accept some valuation by imitation of those in their society, people come to associate positive or negative feelings with the words used for those things. Old concepts given new words don't provoke the same response; old symbols given new meanings carry with them some or all of the old feelings. Those who have adopted a new redefinition of racism can thus escape the recognition of racism, and the felt need to condemn some instances of racism, by allowing themselves to believe that some people simply cannot be racists, by virtue of their social standing.

We are simply dealing with an attempted hijacking of language, for purposes of subverting clear thought and discussion. That is most plain when the word racism has been introduced into some discourse with its standard definition, and in response it is insisted that something conforming to that original definition is not racism because it does not conform to the proposed redefinition. But any non-standard use that is not flagged as such is still a subversion of rationality. Those who have participated in the attempted hijacking are knaves or fools or both.

Accuracy, Exactitude, and Precision

Monday, 5 September 2016

Dictionaries and thesauri often treat accuracy and precision as synonymous, or as nearly so. But the words accuracy and precision and their coördinates[1] are each most strongly associated with a distinct and important notion. The word exactitude (often treated as synonymous with the previous two) and coördinates are most strongly associated with something rather like the combined sense of those other two, but with a notable difference.

When we say that a specification is precise, we do not necessarily mean that it were correct when judged against the underlying objectives. We may merely mean that it were given with considerable explicit or implicit detail. If I tell you that a musical show will begin at 8:15:03 PM, then I am being precise (indeed, surprisingly so). But the show may begin at some other time; in fact, it may never have been planned to begin at that stated time; I can be both precise and wrong.

If your friend tells you that the show will begin shortly after 9 PM, then she may be accurate, though she was far less precise than I.[2] The word accuracy and coördinates are associated with closeness to the truth; and, in everyday discourse, she might be said to be more accurate were she to be more precise while remaining within the range implied by shortly after 9 PM. But the word is also associated with encompassing the truth; if the precision seemed to narrow the range of possibilities in a way that excluded what proved to be the truth, then she might be regarded a having become less accurate. (If one is told that the show is to begin at 9:15 PM, but it begins at 9:05 PM, then one might feel more misled than had one been less precisely told shortly after 9 PM.)

(Note that it would be seen as self-contradiction to say that someone were accurately wrong, though we sometimes encounter the phrase precisely wrong. The latter carries with it the sense — usually hyperbolic — that the someone had managed to be so wrong that even the slightest deviation from what he or she had said or done would be an improvement.)

Although some people might jocularly, eristically, or sophistically pretend that one truth were somehow truer than another, any meaningful proposition is either simply true or simply false (though which may be unknown and there are degrees of plausibility). If Tom and Dick each go to the store, then it is true that one of them has gone to the store. It is not closer to the truth that two of them have gone to the store. It might be said that it were more accurate that two of them have gone to the store, but this seems to imply that it is truer that two went than that one went, and this implication is false. Fortunately, we have a word and coördinates that can carry with them a particular sense of accuracy and precision, with exclusion. These words are exact, exactly, and exactitude.[3] It is true that one person has gone to the store, but it is not true that exactly one person has gone to the store.[4]

(The expression exactly wrong is usually in hyperbolic contrast with exactly right, but is sometimes applied elliptically, when there is believed to be exactly one way in which to have been wrong.)

Even if one is not greatly concerned with rigor, these distinctions can be important. Asking members of an audience to be more accurate when one wants them to be more precise may inadvertently suggest to the audience that one thinks them to have been untruthful! Typically, risking that inference brings no benefit. It would then be better to ask them to be more precise or more exact.[5] The latter may work best with the passive-aggressive or with the autistic, who might otherwise be more precise while less accurate.


[1] The coördinates of a word are simply the other parts of speech built of the same root and carrying the same general sense adapted to a different grammatical rôle. For example, the adjective accurate and the adverb accurately are coördinate with the abstract noun accuracy.

[2] In discussions of computer science, the everyday distinction between accuracy and precision is made more emphatic, because the mathematics of computing is discrete, and limitations in detail have important implications. For example, ordinary floating-point encoding imperfectly represents numbers such as 1/10. That's why calculators and computers so often seem to add or to subtract tiny fractions to or from the ends of numbers. Number-crunching scientist who do not themselves recognize this issue have generated spurious results by proceeding as if computers have unlimited precision, and thus by mistaking artefacts of limited precision for something meaningful within the data. I strongly suspect that a major reason that so many reported econometric results were not subsequently found by other researchers poring over the very same data was that the original researchers (or, sometimes, the later researchers!) were not taking into account the implications of limited precision.

[3] The words just and only can carry the same meaning, but often bring normative implications.

[4] In mathematics, x translates to for some x, while ∃!x translates to for exactly one x.

[5] Asking a person to be more just or more only would almost surely provoke bafflement.

Styling Programs

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Just as in a natural language there are issues of style on top of those of grammar, of orthography, and of syntax, there are issues of style in computer languages.

For example, in some languages, var = 3 sets var to 3, while var == 3 tests whether var is (already) equal to 3. Omit an = in a test, and the test accidentally becomes an assignment; many programs silently fail as a result of such an omission. But adopt the style of always putting any constant on the left side of the test (eg, 3 == var) and the error (eg, 3 = var, which attempts to set 3 to something) is noticed as soon as the compiler or interpetter reaches it. (There are compilers, interpretters, and separate utilities that will spot possible instances of errors of this sort. It's good to use tools with these features, but best not to be dependent upon them; and one doesn't want the notice of a genuine error to be lost in a sea of largely spurious warnings.)

The specifications of some computer languages, especially of those that are older, significantly limit the lengths of names and of labels; but it's otherwise stylistically best to chose names and labels that clearly identify the nature of whatever is named or labelled. Transparent names and labels then function as integrated documentation. One identifies a lazy or thoughtless programmer by the needless use of opaque names and labels. In Java, the stylistic convention is to name things in ways that clearly identify them; and the convention is to camel-case the names of variables, methods, and classes (eg, countOfBadBits); other languages also allow names to be clearly identifying, but the convention is to separate naming words with underscores (eg, count_of_bad_bits). One uses the naming convention that prevails amongst programmers of that language, so as not to throw-off other programmers who have to deal with the code; it is literally uncivil[1] to use the convention prevailing amongst programmers of one language when writing code in a language where a different convention prevails. (Had it been up to me, then we'd use a different naming style in Java; but it wasn't up to me and I abide by the prevailing convention.)

Many languages end statements with ;. When I helped other students debug SAS programs, I found that the error that they most often made was to omit that semicolon. Sometimes the program wouldn't compile, but sometimes it would compile and silently do something unintended. So I told them to put a space just before the semicolon. The program would still compile just fine if otherwise properly done; but, with all the semicolons visually floating instead of being up against something else, an omission would more easily be spotted. I don't myself use this style for every language in which it would work, but I adopt it for languages in which I notice myself or others omitting the semicolon.

(I was reminded of the general issue of coding style when working on some code written in Python, and wondering whether to put a space before each semicolon.)


[1] Civility is not conterminous with pleasantry; but, rather, a matter of behaving to avoid and to resolve conflict in interaction with other persons.

On the Concept of Ownership

Monday, 23 May 2016

I have long and often encountered discussion that implicitly or explicitly involves notions of property or of ownership, which discussion is rendered incoherent from a failure to consider what it means for something to be property, what it means to own something.

Some confusion arises because we have come often to use the word property casually to mean an object (physical or more abstract) to which some sort of ownership may apply, without our considering whether the object is well conceptualized for purposes of considering property rights,[1] and without considering that actual ownership associated with that object might be distributed in some complicated ways amongst multiple parties.

One might, for some reason, associate a plot of land with an object imagined as beginning at the center of the Earth and extending to some sort of limits of the atmosphere (or beyond); from such an association, and then from a presumption that the whole object were property, farmers were once known to shoot at airplanes as trespassing vehicles. Yet other folk would assert that owning a plot of land as such only entitled one to control things to lesser depths and heights, in which case the rights could be associated with a smaller object, representing a sub-object as it were. One person might be thought to have the right to farm the aforementioned land, and another to extract its mineral resources so long as he didn't thereby interfere with the farming. Possibly others would claim peculiar easements, allowing them to travel through some or all of the object without thereby trespassing. There might be purported rights entitling still others to flows of resources such water, air, and electromagnetic radiation travelling through the object. In the case of sunlight (an electromagnetic radiation), the rights would typically be presumed to involve only some space above the soil, and the farmer might both have claims against her neighbors doing things that reduced her sunlight and be constrained by similar claims for her neighbors.

If we are thinking in terms of one object, and then change to thinking of an object within it, previously relevant rights of ownership may become irrelevant. If we instead think in terms of an object of which our original object is but a part, then new claims may become relevant. Two objects, neither of which is completely contained in the other, may share some third object as a part; so that any thorough consideration of ownership involving these two objects containing the third may involve rights that are literally identical and rights that are different. The minimal object relevant to describe some asserted set of property rights might not be sufficient to describe other rights none-the-less associated with that object. The minimal object in each of the previously mentioned cases (of farming, of easement, of mineral extraction, and of unobstructed resource flow) is somewhat different from the minimal object in the other cases.

A farmer who somehow forfeits her right not to have sunlight artificially obstructed may still be imagined to own the plot of land on which she grew her crops, yet she doesn't own what once she owned. Likewise, a house-holder who somehow surrenders his right to come and go from the plot on which the house sits doesn't own what once he owned. And, though it would perhaps seem very unsual, one might imagine these rights not transformed into claims for those who have prior rights to surrounding spaces, but instead coming into possession of third parties. For example, perhaps I speculate that I can buy whatever rights I need to build a skyscraper, on the assumption that I can buy a right to block the sunlight to a neighboring farm; I could purchase that latter right first, then discover that I am thwarted as to other purchases. This might work nicely for the farmer, but she no longer has a right that she once had; she no longer owns something that she once owned.

We can still express what things are owned as if they are objects, but we must then select our objects to match our rights of use. And our discourse can become strained and unnatural if we insist on always treating the thing owned as a distinct object rather than as a right of use. For example, if Timo is exclusively entitled to inhabit a cabin in the Winter and james is likewise entitled to inhabit it in the Summer, and we must express them as owning distinct objects, then we must treat the cabin in Winter as one object and the cabin in Summer as another. Indeed, we will surely have to be far more contrived in our construction of objects to account for what the two jointly do not own of the cabin! On the other hand, we can say that each has a right to use the cabin in some way without necessarily specifying how other rights of use are distributed; the concept of the cabin is available without first settling questions of ownership.

I don't propose that we generally stop using the word property as in the ordinary sense of a piece of property, merely that we understand that this everyday use may be misleading. Nor would I suggest that we should somehow stop thinking in terms of objects when we carefully consider ownership. But we must be alert to the fact that our choice of objects with which to think is largely taxonomic and to some degree arbitrary, and we should not take results that are no more than artefacts of that taxonomy as anything more profound.

In fact, the right of use may be recognized as itself an object of an abstract sort, but the right to use a right of use is not distinct from simply that right of use, and thus cannot be dissociated from it.[1.5]


My laboring of the relationship of ownership to objects and their uses isn't quibbling nor pirouetting. People who imagine an object as such to be owned tend all too often to imagine it somehow being owned beyond any of its various possible uses. They thus imagine that it can remain the property of one person or group even as another party — most often those in control of the state — appropriate its use, and even as this second party seizes every right of use. It then also becomes absurdly thinkable that one person might retain every right of use that she had, associated with an object, yet transfer ownership to some other party. Ownership would be reduced to absolutely nothing more than something such as a formal title.

When the state regulates property, it is taking rights of use and hence ownership. This transfer is relevant to questions of compensation (as in the case of the guarantees of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution[2]), and of whether state regulation of the means of production is a form of socialism.


[1] The word object comes from the Latin ob-iacere, meaning throw-before, and referred originally to that thrown before the mind. What we now call objects are, however, mental organizations of what is thrown before us. Thus, to use a classic example, we can talk about my hand as an object, and my fist as an object; they seem to be the same object, yet only sometimes. (We may still, in good conscience, use the word objective for perceptible external reality. And extending it to include unperceived and imperceptible external reality shouldn't cause more than mild discomfort; the rightful demands of etymology are not unlimited.)

[1.5] This paragraph was added on 24 May.

[2] That Amendment (with an underscore by me) reads

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

My 2½ Votes

Saturday, 27 February 2016

During the 2000 Presidential race, I was told by some Democrats that not voting for Al[bert Arnold] Gore [jr] were the same thing as voting for George W[alker] Bush. And I was told by some Republicans that not voting for Bush were the same thing as voting for Gore. Somehow it seemed that, by not voting for either man, I were casting a vote for each.

On Election Day or on the day after, one of those Republicans who'd claimed that I voted for Gore by not voting for Bush learned that I'd also refused to vote for Harry [Edson] Browne (the Libertarian candidate) and that Republican then declared That's even worse! For it to be worse would mean that I'd effectively done even more voting for Gore, though perhaps not a whole further vote. I didn't interact on that day with any Democrats, so I don't know whether they would have creditted me with still further support of Bush in my refusal to vote for Browne. But it seemed as if, by not voting for anyone, I had voted more than twice.


Well, enough of that nonsense. People who make such claims don't know much about the mathematics of voting, and either just lack mathematical sense in general, or allow their emotions to overwhelm their intellects.

My refusal to vote in Presidential elections, which predated that race and has continued since, doesn't stem from resignation, from laziness, from apathy, nor from ignorance.

It comes in part from my extreme reluctance to support one evil in an attempt to stop another. I won't vote for a candidate unless I think him or her truly fit to be President, and I've not seen such a candidate in decades. Browne, for example, represented a watering-down of classical liberalism, when a pure expression was needed (as remains the case).

Further, when it comes to the two major parties, I am acutely aware that, in most of these elections, one candidate doesn't win so much as the other loses; the winners aren't loved by the typical voter; rather, the principal opponent of each is detested. Yet the victor usually claims a mandate; even when he barely squeaks past the other creep and even when voters give the other party a Congressional majority.

We get these detestable candidates because the institutional structure is corrupt at a deep, infrastructural level. But those who vote, even for the loser, are demonstrating some hope, however faint, in the process, and from that demonstration legitimacy is persuasively claimed for that structure.

It is, of course, difficult to sort-out who fails to register to vote from dissatisfaction and who from lack of concern; likewise for those who register but do not go to the polls. But I am registered, and I do go to the polls. I take and submit a ballot. But I do not vote for a Presidential candidate. I vote on the issues that I feel that I properly understand, and I occasionally vote for a local candidate. It would be absurd to dismiss people like me as uninterested. Our numbers are presently tiny, but our message is far more clear than would be votes for whomever we thought the least objectionable candidate.

In the up-coming Presidential election, the major parties are going to offer the very worst candidates that they have in my lifetime. We didn't get here by virtue of people who didn't vote for nominees, but by virtue of those who did.

Common Sense about Names and about Descriptions

Monday, 1 February 2016

The entry in Sibley's Birds for Common Raven begins Uncommon.

This case illustrates the important distinction between names and descriptions. Common raven is a name; it was surely intended to be a name that worked as a description, but it presently fails as the latter while continuing to be the former.

A description can be usefully analyzed. It has components, each of which has independent meaning, and considering those meanings allows one better to understand the thing described.

A name as such is not analyzed; sometimes it might usefully be analyzed; sometimes it cannot be analyzed; sometimes analysis is misleading (as in common raven).

Often, what we call description is no more than naming. For example, if someone points to something and asks What is that?, and I say an urn, then all that I have really done is to provide a name, perhaps trusting the other person to know what urn means. On the other hand, if I say an ancient urn or a ceramic urn or an empty urn, then I have described it (though surely not as thoroughly as it might be described).

Notice that all description is constructed of names. The audience might subsequently ask for descriptions corresponding to names used, but eventually one reaches a point at which the names are of things that cannot be described (though alternative names might be offered).

Occasionally, I read something mocking someone for not understanding a description, such that a more perspicacious observer would recognize that the someone being mocked was treating the description as a name. This error may be no more foolish than wondering whether the common raven is a common bird.

Theatre of the Absurd

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

It is often asserted that the current President runs a continuous campaign; that, even now, when he can no longer be reëlected nor get a Congress more to his liking before his Administration ends, he campaigns.

Well, more generally, his Administration has been theatre. The apparent campaigning is a manifestation of that. And to-day I read that he has produced a trailer for his up-coming State of the Union Address. A trailer. It makes perfect sense, because the Address is theatre. It has long been theatre, but he does theatre as did no President before him.

He's been concerned to posture and to act in ways that he expects to be made to look good by to-day's mainstream media and by that bloc of historians who decided, even before he took office, that they would depict his Administration favorably almost without regard to whatever he ended-up doing.

The recent climate accord, for which there was so much build-up and from which nothing came but loose and unenforceable promises, was theatre. The negotiations with Iran, in which many meetings were held to agree that the United States would throw up its hands (something that it could more simply have done unilaterally) were theatre.

Even the Affordable Care Act has become theatre. As costs spiral out of control it approaches its implosion, but it will be portrayed as a Noble Effort, ruined by Republicans and by the inherent wickedness of market forces.

And it was theatre when the man who has killed so many children with his drone strikes wept for the murdered children of Sandy Hook.

Theatre. The cost of the ticket is very high.

Class Time

Thursday, 3 December 2015

At a site whose content seems intended to entertain, I read of a teacher who is said to have challenged his or her students to explain time and to define time. The words explain and define are treated in the narrative as if referring to the same task, which suggests something about the sort of answer sought. None of the students succeeded in doing what the teacher asked.

While we might perhaps have different conceptions of time, the essential concept of time is not one that we assemble from and with other concepts. Time is fundamental in our experience. Thus, when we seek to define time, the best that we can do is to find synonyms that might seem to put us into loops. For example, The Oxford Shorter English Dictionary defines time with duration, and duration with time. But to define a term is to coördinate it with a concept; so either definition actually works just fine as a definition, on the assumption that we have a concept for the complementary term.

Definitions often involve conveying a concept by showing how to assemble it from and with other concepts; that is perhaps what one expects when asked to explain a concept or a word. But disassemblies that somehow never reached an end would never reach a concept. We must at some stage somehow point to a concept without further use of definition. In the case of time, we have reached a concept that we cannot disassemble; in the case of time, we have found a word for which we can find only either simple synonyms or assemblies in which its concept lurks undisintegrated, even if unrecognized.

Slavery, Slavery, and the Political Left

Monday, 2 November 2015

While the word slavery gets used in many ways, its core meaning is that of a personal condition of being property of another person or of a group of persons

However, there are recurring attempts to redefine slavery, insisting that a person who reaped only subsistence from his or her labor were by definition a slave. Now, this proposed definition is really orthogonal to any proper definition.

  • On the one hand, a person only reaps subsistence when living with a minimal technological infrastructure in a world of markèd scarcity. Much of humankind for most of history lived with little or no production above surplus, regardless of whether someone else were making ownership claims against them.
  • In some cases, people have had lives of relative material comfort, and yet would have been tortured or killed by their masters had they sought different employment.

(Compounding the problem with the redefinition, people who are consuming commodities far in excess of their needs for survival like to redefine subsist to include various comforts, such as electronic entertainment.)

Perhaps most of the people who abuse the world slave in this manner do so thoughtlessly; but it ties-together with an aspect of left-wing thought to afford them a significant evasion, deceiving others and deceiving themselves. That aspect is a resistence to acknowledging a relationship between wage-rates and the amount of labor employed in an economy.

One sees this failure in present support for an increase in statutory minimum wages. What these laws really say, to put things quite simply — yet perfectly truthfully — is that if an employer or would-be employer is unwilling or unable to employ a worker at or above the statutory minimum, then the employer must fire the worker, or not hire the worker in the first place. Most advocates presume that the employer will neither fire nor refrain from hiring, as if demand for labor were perfectly inflexible.

A rather pure expression of this dissociation of wage-rates from labor employment is found in the economic model of Piero Sraffa.[1] Sraffa's work is utterly unknown to most lay-people, and unfamiliar to most economists, but to economists on the far left it is an important benchmark, exactly because it claims so much of what they want to claim. However, its persuasive success is largely a matter of subscribers failing to note or to acknowledge a great deal implicit in the model. Perhaps most remarkably, in his model, the very same amount of labor is produced and consumed with absolute disregard for the wage-rate. That is to say that workers deliver the same labor (imagined as a scalar quantity) whether they are offered literally nothing in return (not even subsistence), or all of production is given to them as wages (with the same wage-rate for each worker).

When I look at the Sraffan model, I see workers behaving as if they are slaves. When their wages provide them no more than sustenance, they are as miserable slaves; when their wages provide them less than sustenance, they are as dying slaves; when their wages provide them far more than sustenance, they are as materially comfortable slaves. What makes them seem to be slaves is that they never exercise, and thus appear not to have, any freedom of choice in where they work nor in how hard they work.

(In those states of the United States that allowed private ownership of slaves, slaves were expected to deliver some fixed quota to their owners. They were not typically offered rewards for exceeding these quotas; they were punished, sometimes horrifically, for failing to meet them. I know of no other way, in the real word, to get the sort of labor production that Sraffa describes.)

In Sraffa's model, whatever production does not go to workers, goes to the owners of the other productive resources — essentially to the capitalists.[2] If one embraces Sraffa's model or something very much like it, and if one waves-away the proper meaning of slavery and instead uses it to mean one who is paid no more than sustenance, then it is easy to insist that, in a system that most favors a distinct class of capitalists, workers would be slaves, whereäs alternatives decreasingly favorable to such capitalists move workers ever further away from slavery. And if one imagines the workers getting an ever greater share exactly as production is administrated on behalf of the worker, then the movement away from slavery is a movement towards socialism.

However, if one continues to accept a model along the lines of Sraffa, yet restores the proper meaning of slavery, then one begins to see one why it had been doubly convenient to redefine the term. Because, in imagining a world in which workers never, one way or another, exercise freedom of choice in labor regardless of how production is distributed, the left has come perilously close to suggesting that workers, under socialism, would be slaves.

The underlying truth is that labor is one of the means of production. If an economy is fully socialized, then the potential worker must be employed however and wherever the best interests of the community as a whole are served, and his or her interests count no more in this decision than do those of anyone else.

This grim principle has repeatedly been illustrated in communities that have attempted a very high degree of socialism. Sometimes the attempt has been hijacked by leaders with less that sincere interest in communal well-being, but these leaders were able to make the populace their slaves because socialism required slavery of the populace. Trotsky's observation that

The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.[3]

was true under Stalin because it or something like it would, as a practical matter, have been true under any fully realized socialism.

Meanwhile, as much as many people living in more market-oriented economies like to imagine themselves as slaves to their employers, they're fully aware that these employers cannot send agents to recapture them should they quit their jobs. To the extent that any group of persons other than ourselves exercises such ownership over us, that group is the state — the very institution usually entrusted to effect socialistic measures.

A movement towards socialism is a movement towards slavery, rather than away from it, and if one is going to bring the subject of slavery into an honest defense of socialism against all alternatives, then it is necessary somehow to make a case for slavery.


[1] The Production of Commodities by Commodities; Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory (1960).

[2] Note how advocates of higher statutory minimum wages point with outrage at those who amass great wealth while paying workers less that some proposed statutory minimum wage, as if there were a zero-sum game being played between employer and employee.

[3] The Revolution Betrayed, ch 11 Whither the Soviet Union? § 2 The Struggle of the Bureaucracy with the Class Enemy.