I don’t usually do moral philosophy on here; except, that is, when I’m pointing out the implicit moral philosophy inherent in certain economic concepts. However, I recently came across something that I found so interesting that I felt I had to comment on it. The only way I can justify this is that I know that some of my readers — or at least one of them — gets very uncomfortable when I make criticisms from this point-of-view and what follows may be of interest in this regard. I will try to tie this back to economic by the end, I promise.
The ‘something’ in question that I found so interesting was the following video on Youtube. It is an interview with Cody Wilson; the man most responsible for distributing software packages online that allow people to create firearms using 3d printers. I suggest watching the whole video before reading the rest of this post.
Wilson’s Wikipedia page gives the impression that he is some moron anarcho-capitalist but watching the video you can clearly see that this is probably not the case at all. Rather he is quite clearly a Nietzschean of some form or other; this is confirmed by the following clip in which he, rather hilariously, suggests that Glenn Beck should read Michel Foucault. I think that Wilson’s Wikipedia page reads the way it does because it was edited by pro-gun advocates in the US, the majority of whom, as everyone knows, are on the libertarian Right.
First I should say: Wilson does support some nonsense, such as the internet fad known as Bitcoin. Bitcoin is based on a naive view of the world where the Believer convinces themselves that a system of interacting, ‘free’ people can self-regulate (usually based on some fantasy ‘non-aggression principle’). Implicit in this view is the idea that people are Naturally Good. All the turmoil in the Bitcoin market should be seen as a modern version of Robert Owen and the Utopian Socialists’ attempt to create a perfect society. What actually happens in such situations is that selfish people come in and basically start stealing and wrecking stuff and those that are naive enough to believe in the Natural Goodness of people get the short end of the stick.
Oh well. Man is not Naturally Good and requires Laws and enforced moral norms to ensure that He doesn’t do awful things. The reality of Unbridled Human Freedom is probably closer to a lynch mob than to a harmonious commune. Truth is the butt of a soldier’s rifle when the commander turns the other way. Lesson learned. Everyone go home.
Tied to this Wilson believes — and it is a belief with no real evidence — that innovation will spring up if intellectual property laws are done away with. Presumably, being an anarchist, he is also against state-funding for innovation. All he has is his belief. Again, there is no evidence for what he is saying at all and it based on some Utopian fantasy about the Infinite Potentialities of Man.
Anyway, I don’t really want to focus on that; if those particular revelations have not yet occurred to you they either will in later life or will never occur to you at all. Rather I want to focus on the way Wilson speaks in the interview. It is quite impressive. He completely avoids any of the moral questions as to whether what he has done by putting the instructions to make weapons on the internet is Right or Wrong. Rather he simply approaches the question of what he has done in a purely matter of fact way. He has, he says, completely circumvented the debate around gun control through a sort of Pure Symbolic Act. And he is correct. He has done just that. What’s more, in doing so he has given us a really interesting piece of television.
What Wilson has succeeded in doing throughout this interview is to completely avoid moral issues and instead speaks a pure language of Power. This is something that Foucault and Nietzsche mastered too and it can be read in their writings (and seen when the former appeared on television; relevant discussion starts at around the 36 minute mark, English subtitles available by clicking the ‘captions’ button on the right-hand side of the video).
As we can see in the Wilson’s interview, the language of Power is very strange when you encounter it directly in the formal Public Sphere. I do not mean by that ‘in public’ — the Foucault debate above is indeed ‘in public’ — rather I mean in a formal authoritative setting where everyone is supposed to behave and speak ‘properly’, like the BBC.
There is something disconcerting about the language of Power when it is presented in such a forum. The reason for this is because Power generally requires a cover behind which it operates in public. This is why, for example, politicians and lawyers are well-known dissemblers. Because they are engaging with Power directly and speak the language of Power, they always have to hide what they are really saying behind a sort of veil. Something similar operates on television shows like the one that Wilson is appearing on but that all breaks down when Wilson makes his appearance and the interviewer seems completely unable to get a handle on it.
Of course, in private politicians, for example, speak quite differently. They speak far more like Wilson in the interview than like the interviewer. This is not to say that either Wilson or politicians are wholly amoral. I don’t believe that Wilson is and I think most politicians do, in fact, have a moral compass (even if this may be badly oriented due to nonsense and ideology). In the case of politicians they tend to decide which way they want to lean on an issue but then understand that their main duty is to simply carry it out. That is where the language of morality falls away and the language of Power kicks in.
With Wilson the situation is more complex. He clearly does not want to consider the moral ramifications of what he has done by putting plans for weapons on the internet. If someone was shot tomorrow with one of the weapon designs he would not want to know anything about it. Rather he is interested in doing something that will, through a pure Symbolic act of Power, shake up the Power Structure as a whole. Once again, that is what the language of Power is all about. It is about changing, as it were, the objective coordinates that everyone finds themselves in. Beyond a certain point the language of Power avoids all moral considerations and simply intervenes to change the frame of the debate itself.
In principle, I think that this is very interesting. Interviews like Wilson’s really do, in a sense, give us a glimpse behind the mask. They scramble the circuits of the formal public space in which they are presented and the aesthetic effect, to me at least, is very pleasing. But the language of Power can never operate in a vacuum. Every intervention in the objective coordinates of a situation will channel more Power to one group and less to another. In undertaking any such intervention you are implicitly siding with those who gain more Power through your action. Those that will gain more Power by Wilson’s actions will be the ones who use Wilson’s weapons designs to gain Power over other people.
Who are these people? We have no way of knowing. But something tells me that they will not turn out to be anarchist liberators. Rather they will likely be people who hold Power over others through direct and very immediate and brutal acts of violence. Is Wilson responsible for their actions? Not really. But he has tipped the scales in their favour by releasing weapons designs to them. Looked at from the point of view of Power, Wilson is like a biased referee letting one side get an edge over the other. What they do when he turns his back is ultimately (and legally) their responsibility but you can’t avoid the feeling that in manipulating the game and implicitly favouring one group over another Wilson has some culpability in the outcome.
Perhaps this is where we can bend this discussion back to economics. Macroeconomics is, to a very great extent, a language of Power. (It is not a truly objective ‘science’, don’t be fooled by that guff!). When we make suggestions as to policy prescriptions a good economist should be weighing up how the action is going to distribute Wealth and Power. What people like Wilson can show us is that behind the moral facade of Rational Agents and Pareto Optimality, just as behind the language of television and politics, there resides a hidden language of Power. And every use of that language in real policy situations is an act of Power. Ignore that, and you’re a slave to your own intellectual constructions or, worse still, to intellectual constructions that you have been spoon-fed. And while I am by no means an anarchist, I do believe that people have a right and a duty to think for themselves.