Theory, Meet Practice

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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99 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Dude, great piece. But why is this in the Cuff? Should be front and center.Report

  2. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Excellent post, Jason. A few things jump out at me. One is that in practice most of us find ourselves appealing to any and all of the existing moral theories to justify our views when it’s convenient to do so. I don’t find that inherently a problem. I don’t think any single moral theory in practice provides us all the answers we want, and each theory has its own merits, again, in practice. Moral life and reasoning is what it is, and we do the best we can with the incomplete theories at our finger tips.

    Another thing I like is that your conception of libertarianism works from the outside in, in clear case where we can do better according to a certain pretty obvious metric or standard. I like that. As a liberal, I’m all in favor.

    A third thing, tho, is a worry. You write

    even if they are “bad” choices, and even if these choices will occasionally cost me, the taxpayer, a few pennies.

    What you’re invoking here is a mix between value theory (or even deontology) and utilitarianism. That’s ok, I don’t have a problem with that. What I am a little unclear on is the relationship between an action and an external harm. In the case of the soda tax, you’re against it because the harm (cashed out in terms of cash, ie., property) isn’t sufficient to justify treating people as less than an end in themselves by permitting them to make their own decisions without interference).

    Question: How is that in principle distinguished from environmental and other types of externalities which we do think government has a role to play in mitigating or preventing, when the relevant moral properties in play appear to be exactly the same but we come to different conclusion? It seems to me the difference can only be accounted for on utilitarian calculus.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Stillwater says:

      What you’re invoking here is a mix between value theory (or even deontology) and utilitarianism.

      I would say I’m invoking a choice between two choices that are both deontologically unpalatable. I accept that taxation reduces the liberty of the taxpayer; I find arguments to the contrary nonsensical.

      From that point, the question is whether it is more liberty-reducing to pay the tax or to impose the prohibition. My sense is that prohibitions tend in general to be worse than taxes, particularly when the taxes are very small (and here, it’s not at all clear that “pennies” even captures how small the cost savings will be). So the prohibition and the tax both somewhat disrespect personal autonomy, but I side against the prohibition.Report

  3. Avatar Roger says:

    When the consequentialists responded to Rose we warned her about the other type of libertarian. I’ve tried to grok this deontological mindset for years, and it still comes across as nonsensical. I’m not saying it makes no sense, just that it makes absolutely no sense to me. When I read Rand or Rothbard or discuss the issue with Tim or Jason it is as if they are speaking in tongues to me. In fact we are so unable to have a meaningful discussion, that they have tended to just ignore my questions as if I was a troll.

    I wish I could understand where they come from.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Roger says:

      I don’t consider you a troll. I’ve been asked a lot of questions recently, and on a lot of them I’ve thought, “I’d really like some time to think about this, write up a full response, and post it.” But I’ve not had that opportunity. It’s not that you’re a troll. I’ve really been very busy.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Sometimes it almost seems like the deontologists have a sense that I miss. As if they are describing a color to a color blind person. What do you mean Green? There is no such thing as green? Just light and dark.Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    A well-written piece. I like this very much.

    You may have argued yourself into a circle, Jason. Retail accounting has a place on the Chart of Accounts for shoplifting, euphemistically called Shrinkage. Shrinkage directly affects retail prices. While Rose can argue the anti-consequentialist side of the theft debate, the practical reasons for laws against retail theft are strictly consequentialist: theft directly affects those who don’t steal.

    Moral imperatives are abstract. Abstraction in software arises from semantics and meaning. Form follows function. If we respect some people we do not respect others, not because we are necessarily bigots but because they do not conform to our abstractions about respectability.

    When I write an abstract class, I am defining behaviour. Consider the problems of “startup” and “shutdown”. My abstract class knows it needs these verbs and will invoke them but has already obliged the implementing class to write both of them. Thus the implementing class can be controlled in a larger framework.

    The Murray Rothbards of the Everything is Easy School would tell us we don’t need frameworks for government. Run off and implement whatever silly classes you want and we’ll work out the integration later: as the need for policy arises, we’ll just write an intermediary. I’ve come into systems implemented along those lines.

    There’s really no fundamental quarrel between the deontologists and the consequentialists. Not every framework is wise or good. The deontological argument is entirely sound: to return to the software analogy, anyone who wants to implement an abstract class can rely on the modern toolkits to automatically and correctly insert the method signatures for an abstract class, informing the developer of what blanks need to be filled in. Extending a concrete class, in other words “The world would be great if everyone was just like wonderful me!”, is exceedingly bad practice. You shouldn’t be like me. But if we’re to cooperate, maybe we ought to implement the “acquire” verb with a dependency on the “payment” method.Report

  5. Avatar MFarmer says:

    For me this all has a lot to do with short term and long term consequences. Without guiding principles established through reason, knowledge and experience, a person can mistake a short term consequence of an action for a good, when, in reality, it’s a mirage that will lead to long term negative consequences. A lot depends on how far down the road a person can see, and what they’ve learned about cause and effect. Often, people will act and the immediate consequences will reward them, then they find themselves in a pickle, not knowing how they got there. The orginal cause of the pickle is often far removed in time from the effects, so it’s difficult to make the connections — it requires much thought and understanding regarding principles that survive the test of time. You might not always be right going by a set of well-thought-out and earned principles, but you will do better than being led my immediate consequences. It appears to be a negative consequence for a junkie to stop using heroin, but if he goes through the pain there will likely be positive consequences. Allowing the market to adjust from un-productive investments to productive investments in a recession creates negative short-term consequences, but will likely create positive long term consequences.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to MFarmer says:

      Sounds like an argument for rule utilitarianism.

      I continue to believe that there is a subclass of rules that are so important that they are best thought of as sacrosanct. We have evolved to view them as sacrosanct, both culturally and biologically. The deontologists feel this evolved sense and assign it a Platonic reality.

      But I could be wrong.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Roger says:

        A lot of this can be brought out of the clouds by simplifying the nature of integrity. I see libertarianism as an attempt to integrate and maintain a philosophy of liberty, understanding that liberty is vital to human flourishing, but also understanding that not violating the rights of others is as important as others not violating your rights. Economic liberty could lead to a lower standard of living, but for the libertarian who values liberty more than wealth, that would be okay, because with liberty, from the libertarian perspective, the quality of life would be superior, and integrity would be maintained. If I had to give up liberty to acquire wealth, I would choose liberty.Report

        • Avatar Roger in reply to MFarmer says:

          Good insights. I would add that freedom is one of those things that is a means and an end. But it is not the only means or the only end.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to MFarmer says:

          Economic liberty could lead to a lower standard of living, but for the libertarian who values liberty more than wealth, that would be okay, because with liberty, from the libertarian perspective, the quality of life would be superior, and integrity would be maintained.

          This touches on the issue of utility/value. What does a person value (what is their utility)? If, at the margin, they value liberty more than economic well-being, then their actual well-being is improved by opting for a unit of liberty over a unit of economic improvement.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

            they value liberty more than economic well-being

            It seems to me – tentatively! – that this is where the theory might break down, no? This type of person is a living, breathing counterexample to Homo-economicus. Surely it’s a counterexample to the narrow rationality of the butcher who provides us meat only out of material self-interest.

            Thoughts?Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

              I guess the question is this: to what extent are classical models of economics consistent with your conception of a rational actor?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                In short, perfectly consistent.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

                “Rational”, as used in economics, says nothing about the goals you rationally pursue. It’s perfectly rational to blow the rent money on booze and hookers,. You’ve simply revealed a preference for booze and hookers now over sleeping indoors tonight.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Exactly. As I say below, “what” we value (our preferences) are exogenous to the theory.

                It’s frequently criticized for that, but it’s at least quite honest about it; there’s no pretense of doing otherwise.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                You’ve simply revealed a preference for booze and hookers now over sleeping indoors tonight.

                With one alternative so obviously preferable to the other, can this really be called a revelation?Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                “The rule is, pay the rent to-morrow and pay the rent yesterday – but never pay the rent to-day.”
                “It MUST come sometimes to ‘pay the rent to-day’,” Alice objected.
                “No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s pay the rent every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know. To-day we get booze and hookers.”Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                “I’m gonna build my own amusement park. But with gambling and hookers! Ah, forget the amusement park.”

                -BenderReport

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

              Stillwater,

              No. Absolutely not. As I’ve pointed out before, economics is about choice, not about dollars. We normally use dollars as a shortcut for talking about value/utility because it puts difficult to compare values onto a common scale. For the same reason trading coins is easier than bartering, talking about dollar values is easier than comparing a day at the ballpark to a night at the opera.

              So economics is about the choices we make between different things we value. And homo economicus is short hand for a creature that makes rational choices between those things it values. Those things don’t have to be material. The butcher may require exactly $4.99 a pound for steak from me, but may give the pretty girl who smiles at him a discount because he values having her come into his shop and smile at him. That’s not a material gain on his part, but it’s a utility gain.

              In other words, homo economicus pursues what homo economicus values. What he values is exogenous to the theory, and being exogenous it can be anything, material or not–it need not even be real, so long as homo economicus believes it is real (e.g., pursuing God’s favor is rational, even if God does not exist, if one believes God exists and his/her favor is of utmost value).

              In truth, I think one of the fundamental misunderstandings liberals have about economic conceptions is that it’s all purely about material things. I think they’d be more open to it if they understood that it’s truly more broad than that. But I don’t simply blame them; economists tend to write misleadingly, knowing that they understand the shorthand and being too careless about whether the shorthand gives others the wrong impression. Not all, but the discipline as a whole is overwhelmingly that way, imo.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

                Thanks for the answer. I may be one of those liberals who misunderstands the subject matter. I’ve always understood classical economics as being concerned with proposing models to explain how individual preferences express themselves in material transactions: dollars for good/services. In fact, I’ve always understood them as trying to eliminate subjective values from the calculus entirely, since they cannot be measured.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Stillwater says:

                Stillwater, you should read Mises.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to MFarmer says:

                My recommendation is to skip Mises and read Hayek.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

                And if you don’t read Hayek, at least watch the 30 Rocks where she’s dating Alec Baldwin. Especially the one about the Generalissimo.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

                Salma is my favorite Heyek and Groucho is my favorite MarxReport

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

                And John my favorite Lenin (even if he can’t spell.)Report

              • I’m sorry, I heard someone say Salma Hayek, and then I missed everything after that.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                OK, I’ll bite the bullet. I despise Salma Hayek. Nobody’s good looking enough to make such conceit attractive.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

                Nobody’s good looking enough to make such conceit attractive.

                You and you’re a priori principles. The evidence suggests otherwise.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Ah, you young folks. You’ll find out someday that a woman you can’t have a decent conversation with can never be truly beautiful.Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to James Hanley says:

                OK, I have been trying to come up with a joke reply to James about how he doesn’t know *my* utility, but every one sounds far dirtier than actually intended, so I’ll give up on that.

                But on Stillwater’s link to the collected images, one stands out (scroll down to the 3rd pic):

                http://www.pop-culture.net/S/Salma-Hayek.html

                It’s a testament to the hotness of Salma Hayek that not only does this photo only reduce her hotness by 20%, it actually *increases* Mike Schilling’s gravatar’s hotness by approximately 4%.Report

              • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to James Hanley says:

                She is so hot that the internet can’t concentrate well enough to follow that link.Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to James Hanley says:

                Huh, weird, that link still works for me (FF on a Mac if that matters).

                Google ‘Salma Hayek beard’ and you’ll see what I mean.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to MFarmer says:

                What would each of you recommend, respectively?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                For Hayek I’d recommend Individualism and Economic Order. For my money, his single most important piece of writing about economics is “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Understanding it, though, requires some backgrounding on the socialist calculation debate. But nearly everything I say here about subjective valuation and measuring values through prices derives from it.

                For the big long-project read that goes way beyond economics, his Law, Legislation and Liberty is his magnum opus. Road to Serfdom is his most accessible book and has a good core, but in many ways doesn’t hold up well and makes him look a bit of a crank. It has to be read in the context of the time it was written.

                Whether you read Mises or Hayek (or both), don’t expect a light read. They both make you work for the payoff.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater says:

                Hayek, yes. Mises, no. Been down that road. Thousands of pages later, I felt the same way about Mises as I did about Marx. Ingenious arguments but his conclusions are complete and utter bullshit.

                Hayek’s well worth the read, though.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Stillwater says:

                James, I’ve got the “Road to Serfdom” with the Milton Friedman intro here and read it a few times with an eye to its context and actually thought it held up very well. I thought the intro made Milton Friedman sound like a crank. I’ll check out “Individualism and Economic Order.”Report

              • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Stillwater says:

                Stillwater,

                I just saw this — “What would each of you recommend, respectively?”

                For this topic I would suggest Mises’ book — Socialism.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Stillwater,

                It partly depends on whether we’re talking about macro or micro. Macro isn’t much concerned with subjective values, but micro is almost wholly concerned with subjective values. It just assumes that in some cases those subjective values are so widely shared we can treat them as objective–i.e., a business trying to maximize profits by ensuring marginal costs equal marginal price.

                On the one hand, that’s a legitimate simplifying assumption for those limited purposes. On the other, it’s one of the ways in which micro is generally taught badly, so that students walk away thinking it’s about business decisions, not about how people conduct their lives.

                But the basic understanding of utility in micro-economics is that it’s subjective. That can of Mountain Dew on a hot day might be worth $2 to you, but only 50 cents to me. When we aggregate our preferences in the market in a way that maximizes the manufacturer’s profits, it all looks mighty objective, but the underlying values that constitute the input to the aggregate are resolutely subjective.

                As David Friedman writes in Hidden Order:
                The value of something is what you are willing to give up for it….The value of goods to you depends not only on your preferences but also on how much of those goods you have. (Emphasis added)

                It’s all about you, baby!Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

                Sure, I get that. It seems to me, tho, that the prevailing thought in economics is that just because a preference is subjectively determined doesn’t mean that it cannot be objectively measured. That’s the purpose of using money as a proxy for utiles: to make any one individuals subjectively determined preferences objectively measurable. Eg., I’ve read economists argue that moral values can be objectively measured by how much a person would be willing to pay to realize them. I find that problematic on a few different levels, but what I think the writer of those types of articles are assuming is that subjective values actually are objectively measurable. That they are in principle reducible to monetary values.

                By saying that, I’m not necessarily disputing the theoretical utility of doing so as much to highlight that it seems to lots (most?) economists think that subjective utility is in fact objectively measurable. By money. And that brings us back to homo-economicus.

                Now, I’m sure I made some huge mistakes in the above, so help me out, eh? (Maybe read Hayek and Mises to get the Whole Story?)Report

              • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Stillwater says:

                Mises was a true classical liberal — Hayek more like a modern liberal — so take your pick — and yes maybe bothReport

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Yes, they are objectively measurable in principle. Do you buy Fair Trade coffee? Whatever the premium is compared to the alternative coffee you would buy (Folgers, Yuban, Organic Bob’s Gourmet Grind), we know you value doing good for some anonymous third-world coffee farmer at least that much. We could, in theory, increase or decrease the price until we find exactly how much you value it (today–tomorrow your valuation might change a bit).

                This actually agrees with what I noted above, about putting things into a common value system. If I ask you to trade off your concern for the coffee farmer vs. your desire to go see the latest Spider Man flick, you might have a hard time knowing just how to compare them, but by seeing how many dollars you’re actually willing to sacrifice, we can compare them. (The reality is that you’re not sacrificing dollars, but whatever else you could do with those dollars; the dollars are just a measuring device.)

                You didn’t actually make any mistakes at all in the above. But the crucial point is that our values are still subjective, so mine are different from yours, and the only way to compare my utility to yours is to put them into a common measure. And as a general rule, the most useful common measure–about the only one we can normally employ–is market prices. Thus, when you and I go to an auction, the fact that you outbid me for an item objectively demonstrates that you value it more.

                But while my willingness to bid up to a certain point and not beyond might identify my valuation pretty precisely, we don’t actually know your precise valuation, because you aren’t dumb enough to say, “Well, my competitor stopped bidding at $100, but I’m actually willing to pay $100+X.” No, you’ll stop at $100 and we know you’re willing to pay at least that much for it–we don’t have a precise objective measurement.

                And we almost never do, so the idea of objective measurement is a bit iffy. For example, if you went out to lunch and bought pizza by the slice, one by one, each slice would cost you the same, but you wouldn’t actually value them the same. The first one you are likely to value the most, the fourth much less. And tomorrow you might be in the mood for Chinese and have a completely different valuation of those pizza slices.

                What this means is that the objective measurement of values occurs sporadically, unpredictably, incompletely, is accurate only for that moment in time, and can only occur when there are market prices (which don’t have to be in dollars/Euros/Yen, but usually are). So as a guide to policy decisions, the objective measurement of values is of limited use. Not no use–we can take what people in the aggregate are, on average, willing to pay for X and use that as an input into our cost-benefit analysis, and it’s almost certainly better than just making up numbers, or not doing a c/b analysis at all–but it’s only a proxy measure, not one that can be relied on with excessive certainty to determine how much the public will value a particular public policy that actually doesn’t provide X, but at best X1.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

                I say read Human Action by Mises. I think you can get free digital versions online. If it is too long, skip the stuff that doesn’t interest you.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Good call by Roger. That’s probably what I’d recommend from Mises if I recommended him.

                In general, the big value of the Austrian theorists is not in their business cycle theory or their theory of money, but in their insistence that economies were made up of human actions; that the real economy was not the equilibrium order analyzed by the neo-classical economists but a constantly shifting and changing process of interactions by individuals. Not as amenable to mathematical analysis as the neo-classical guys like, but a better description of what’s actually going on.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

                As a further tease… The alternative title to Human Action that Mises considered was “Social Cooperation.”

                That is what this book is all about. It is about cooperating for the mutual gain of mankind.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

                You know what we should do… We should have a favorite books discussion topic.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                You know what we should do… We should have a favorite books discussion topic.

                So after we’ve discussed the 21 books in the Aubrey/Maturin series, what do you propose we discuss? 😉Report

              • Avatar Rose in reply to Stillwater says:

                Who’s up for Jane Austen?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater says:

                Jane Austen? Seems right on topic with the Romantic Fiction of Mises.Report

              • Avatar Rose in reply to Stillwater says:

                I totally agree that believing in objective value says nothing about imposing your views on anyone else. Isn’t it the core objective value of a major version of Kantian ethics that one shouldn’t interfere in another’s decision-coming.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer in reply to James Hanley says:

                It’s only when utilitarianism becomes a method used by the few for the betterment of the many because the few have decided that the greatest happiness is achieved through a certain course of actions that I have problems. What I was discussing, yes, is what I value, and through the non-aggression/coercion principle attempt to achieve by my choices.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to MFarmer says:

                Agreed. This is what happens when we think utility is objective, so that we–the governors–can say what is best for everyone.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                Utility is never objective, but neither is human suffering.Report

              • Avatar Rose in reply to James Hanley says:

                What he values is exogenous to the theory, and being exogenous it can be anything, material or not–it need not even be real, so long as homo economicus believes it is real (e.g., pursuing God’s favor is rational, even if God does not exist, if one believes God exists and his/her favor is of utmost value).

                It’s hard to see how anyone would have an irrational value if that were true.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Rose says:

                Correct. In standard economic theory, the concept of an irrational value has no meaning. Rationality doesn’t relate to values/ends, but to means/methods, and to the ordering of values (transitivity).Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

                To follow up on Rose’s complaint, I’m wondering about something else: if what you say is the case, it seems impossible to for an individual to hold irrational beliefs. Does the concept of rationality make any sense at all in preference theory? Or is rationality analyzed only in terms of the agent’s subjectively determined judgment that his choices will promote his desired ends?Report

              • Avatar Rose in reply to Stillwater says:

                What Stillwater said.

                Also, although objective list theories have serious problems, I can’t buy into total subjectivism about well-being. Is it really just as good for someone to spend her life counting the number of blades of grass in Nassau County if that’s what she values than for someone to be, say, a doctor who saves lives, be charitable, have warm, loving, sustaining familial relationships, etc.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Generally rationality doesn’t apply to preference theory (except that it can be rational to try to shape others’ preferences–i.e., advertising, seduction, persuasion). There’s nothing irrational about being a masochist. Rationality applies to how you pursue your preferences, and whether you can rank order them transitively (preferring pizza to burgers, burgers to hotdogs, and hotdogs to pizza would, technically, be irrational; but being wholly ambivalent between them (liking them equally) would not be).

                I’m not sure about the “subjectively determined judgement that his choice will promote his desired ends,” though. Granted that there’s nearly always some degree of uncertainty about how well a choice will promote a desired end, so we have to make judgement calls, I think objectivity comes into play here, too. If there’s no good evident to support the belief that chanting “death to Hanley” will actually kill me, but you do believe it and stick to that method instead of picking up the loaded gun just at hand, you might be acting irrationally, because you haven’t made a reasonable effort to figure out how to achieve your preferences. On the other hand, if you’re part of a culture where it’s overwhelmingly accepted that spells can kill, so that you’ve never been faced with reason to doubt it, you may not be acting irrationally. So I’d say when it comes to decision-making, there’s a mixture of subjective belief about cause and effect and objective truth that feeds into whether a person’s being rational. Without really knowing the details of a person’s decision-making, we may not always be able to tell.

                I know that’s not entirely satisfactory, but I always like to point out that biologists still quibble over the definition of species, too.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                I can’t buy into total subjectivism about well-being

                Agreed. That seems a stretch. I also don’t buy the idea that a person is the best judge of their own utility without some identification of what constitutes an acceptable level of individual rationality. It seems at a minimum that a person will be the best judge of their own utility enhancement only if, for example, they are not delusional, they understand the basic facts in play, they can reason effectively, they aren’t biased by external influences, etc etc.

                Why think that a paranoid schizophrenic, or Christian Scientist, is the best judge of their or their children’s utility enhancement without some objective conditions having been met in advance?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Rose, keep in mind that “rational” is being used in a technical sense, not the colloquial sense. At the very least, there is a real difference between having a substantive preference and choosing methods of satisfying it. To use the same term for the preference-having and the method-choosing would be sloppy. A distinction needs to be made.

                Is it really just as good for someone to spend her life counting the number of blades of grass in Nassau County if that’s what she values than for someone to be, say, a doctor who saves lives, be charitable, have warm, loving, sustaining familial relationships, etc.

                What’s your standard for “just as good,” and what’s your justification for substituting that standard for the person’s own standard?

                Stillwater,
                It seems at a minimum that a person will be the best judge of their own utility enhancement only if, for example, they are not delusional, …

                We’ve been over that before. That’s a given. The theory applies to the normal person.

                they understand the basic facts in play,
                That’s more complex than you think. Before you’re going to substitute your judgement for someone you don’t think understands the basic facts in play, you need to know the basic facts informing their preferences. Few of us have anywhere near that much understanding of just about any other people.

                they aren’t biased by external influences,

                Are you kidding me? First, we’re all biased by external influences; there’s damn few significant decisions you’ll ever make that aren’t biased by external influences. Second, you’re proposing to replace individual judgement biased by external influences with judgement by….external influences.

                Why think that a paranoid schizophrenic, or Christian Scientist, is the best judge of their or their children’s utility enhancement without some objective conditions having been met in advance?

                The child also is an individual, so it’s inherently dubious that anyone really knows their subjective utility valuations. You’re assuming something the theory doesn’t actually say.

                Unfortunately, kids aren’t normal adults, either, so it gets difficult deciding what to do with them. But the theory absolutely doesn’t say a parent knows their kid’s subjective utility.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                Before you’re going to substitute your judgement for someone you don’t think understands the basic facts in play, you need to know the basic facts informing their preferences.

                Is there any judgment that justifies getting diabetes?Report

              • Avatar Rose in reply to Stillwater says:

                There’s no question that there’s a big bullet to bite with the “who’s to say” question in any objective view of value (of any value, even, to a lesser degree, means/ends!). I think there’s a bigger bullet to bite to say that Ted Bundy’s values and pleasure are just as rational/irrational/non-rational as Abraham Lincoln’s. Or, if you want to take the morality out of it, the counter of blades of grass.

                This is not to say, as you imply, that I think everyone should take my standard as the end-all be-all. Even if I’m wrong, which is almost certainly the case about something, doesn’t mean there isn’t a correct answer. There is some broad agreement in, say, about finding pleasure in work well done or close maintained relationships. I’d would start there.

                John Stuart Mill, for what it’s worth, suggested an ordering of pleasures based on the fact that anyone who had experienced both tended to prefer certain kinds. So anyone who had experienced both hookers and booze, or self-control and close relationships, would prefer the latter.Report

              • Rose, self-control and close relationships beats hookers and booze? Charlie Sheen’s had more hookers, more booze and more close relationships than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

                And that takes a lot of self-control especially when you ain’t got any.

                Bill Clinton or Mitt Romney? Hah!Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Rose,

                Again, rationality is used in a technical sense; it’s a term of art, because we need to evaluate ends and means differently. To say we don’t use the term “rational” to evaluate Ted Bundy’s preferences does not imply any normative approval or even disinterest in them. I’m sure every economist finds him as horrifying as you, and believes there’s something mentally wrong, but would argue that using the term irrational confuses the normative status of his preferences with the positive question of how effectively he pushes them.

                To call a monster like him irrational implies he is making ineffective choices as well as having perverse preferences. But what’s really frightening is that someone can be demented enough to have such preferences and yet still be rational in pursuit of them, which is what makes them hard to catch and enables them to satisfy their sick preferences for so long. I think understanding that distinction and not obscuring it is vital, hence we need different terms for preferences than we use for method/choice.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Stillwater, why do people need to justify what they do to themselves? I disagree with your assumption that they need to justify themselves.

                What justification is there for getting ling cancer? Ban all smoking.

                What justification is there for getting cirhossis of the liver? Ban all alcohol.

                What justification is there for getting heart disease? Ban al red meat.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Rose,

                Mill asserted that people who had experienced both preferred the one to the other, but it was only an assertion. He did no laborator study or survey, but at best had a casual overview of one particular class of British society. I suspect a more comprehensive study would find that for a great number of people, pushpin really is better than Pushkin.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Stillwater says:

                It might help to replace “rational” with “optimal,” in that in economics they mean roughly the same thing (something like, maximizing given the available information, but “optimal” is shorter). It will at least help avoid confusion with philosophical conceptions of “rational,” which are muddled enough to be confusing by themselves.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Chris,

                Maybe, but it’s probably a bit late for that. And I wouldn’t expect economists to be too willing to let philosophers dictate their usage of terms; academic turf and all that.

                “optimal” is shorter
                By one letter. Or do you pronounce it opt’mal? *grin*Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Stillwater says:

                I mean optimal is shorter than “maximizing given available information,” or other relevant economic conceptions.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                But so is rational. 😉Report

              • Avatar Rose in reply to James Hanley says:

                Tom, John Stuart Mill said that, not me. That is, about orderi.g pleasures. But I will say that Charlie Sheen likely did not have much in the way of close relationships in be sense I’m using.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Rose says:

                Rose,
                “Also, although objective list theories have serious problems, I can’t buy into total subjectivism about well-being. Is it really just as good for someone to spend her life counting the number of blades of grass in Nassau County if that’s what she values than for someone to be, say, a doctor who saves lives, be charitable, have warm, loving, sustaining familial relationships.”

                My simple answer is of course not. That is why you and I would rather do the latter than the former, and if we saw someone doing the former we would attempt to convince her that she was mistaken. However we would be really reluctant to impose our preferences upon her, even for her own good.

                I would compare it to a scientist repressing another scientists hypothesis. The former may scoff and roll her eyes, knowing full well that the other is wasting his time, she may even try to talk him out of it, but she trusts the process enough to never try to force him to stop. He might be right. He might prove to be wrong in a way which leads to new insights. But most importantly, everyone admits that we can never be completely sure that any theory is perfect. We value the process.

                Of course even the process may not be perfect, so the same recursiveness needs to apply here.Report

      • Avatar BobbyC in reply to Roger says:

        This account of deontologists and how they come to know which rules are the good stuff is compelling. It forces me to ask what you meant when you said that you wondered if deontologists had some special sense that you lack. Why wonder when you have a solid explanation that is far more plausible than that you are rule-color-blind.Report

  6. Avatar b-psycho says:

    If the pennies become more important than the choices, then we are treating people as a means to an end, and that’s wrong.

    This has an implication outside of the specific subject you aimed it at, one that I expect someone will probably chime in with.

    Not me though. I’m gonna go make a sammich.Report

  7. Avatar bob rich says:

    Thanks for the article. The issue is coercive government programs and making them legalized. Taking Rothbard out of context only gets one confused.

    For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization @ http://?www.Libertarian-Internation?al.org ….Report

  8. Avatar Rose says:

    Jason, thanks so much for responding! A really thoughtful and interesting piece.

    I was surprised that there were as many utilitarian libertarians as there seemed to be!

    So, if I understand you correctly, you’re with the categorical imperative in all things except incommensurability, right? That is, in traditional Kantian thinking, many persons can never outweigh one. Whereas, for you it can, but not in terms of eudaimonia. Rather the needs of protecting the most autonomy (or the most people’s autonomy) is what separates you from, say, an anarchist.

    This makes sense to me as a deontological libertarianism that may permissibly tax.

    I’m not sure I’m with you that the state is just a group of people. Do we owe, then, the state the same respect that we would owe a group of people?Report

  9. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Jason writes,
    Some libertarians, like James Hanley, have no use for [a deontological approach] at all.

    That is generally quite true enough, but I would like to note that I do staunchly agree with the following:

    Why is Bloomberg-style nannyism wrong? I would say it’s because it shows disrespect for persons, who ought in principle to be able to make their own choices in life,

    While I would put more emphasis on the general impossibility of making choices for others as a practical matter, since none of us can know another person’s utility as well as he/she can, I do think disrespect is an issue as well. Making decisions for others is an attempt to co-opt their lives to our own ends. We all hate controlling spouses/parents, yet if we gussy up the control with the name “public policy,” it somehow acquires a patina of decency. I just don’t get that.Report

    • Avatar BobbyC in reply to James Hanley says:

      I’d add, along similar lines, that the practical objections to both utilitarianism and any deontological ethics are pretty devastating. For me, they are analogous to Hayek’s critique of socialism, ie that economic calculation is impossible outside the market system. Likewise, moral calculation and moral rule-following are hopeless as practical guides to action. I don’t mean that they lack any force in guiding action, just that they are laughable as reliable guides to right action. They are however reliable systems for justifying one’s preferred actions AS right! So I see such approaches to moral philosophy as laughable, and useless on their own terms, but quite useful in less exalted sense.Report

  10. Avatar Erik Kain says:

    Quick note: please never include block quotes above the more tag in a minipost. It screws up the formatting for the rest of the miniposts. Gracias!Report

  11. Avatar BobbyC says:

    Jason – I like this post very much. It is earnest. I would pose some radical questions though. It’s not meant as obnoxious. Each question is like a whole bunch of questions which amount to one question like a cluster bomb thrown at you.

    1 – can you actually use moral rules and utilitarian calculation to make decisions? Do you? Or do you have the answer, and then seek to construct such arguments by way of explanation? Do they explain much to you or do such arguments distance you from understanding your views of right conduct?
    2 – I like your objection to strict deontology that one may find oneself a “choiceless deontologist” – that’s a powerful objection. But then you embrace an incremental pragmatism, as if this is a sort of prudent band-aid. Isn’t your objection to strict deontology actually devastating to the whole idea that you have useful and reliable rules? You are trying to decide how to deal with problem X. You have rules Y. You cannot figure out how to map X and Y into correct action Z. You are SOL my friend. So you say, “hey, let’s just work on the margin” … isn’t the reality that your rules are a story and it works nicely for some situations and not for others. When it doesn’t work nicely, it doesn’t help. When it does work nicely, does it help you to KNOW the mapping or to follow along faithfully. Are your rules to help you decide or to keep you in line?
    3 – Presumably you live at an American std of living. So do I. How do you justify this morally? Do your rules say it is immoral for the single mom to shoplift baby clothes? Do those say it is immoral for you to buy premium scotch and not buy baby clothes for her kids? Do you eat mammals? How do we know we got the good rules again?

    Last a general comment – to the consequentialists, how can you believe in property rights and call yourself a consequentialist? And you DO believe in property rights, like it or not, so you ought to give up on the consequentialist stuff. To the deontologists, are you really going to hold onto your rules in the face of reality? If your rules are subject to revision when they come face to face with real life, what good are they (I mean in the way you want them to have force)? You may like your rules; have them to yourselves. Please reconsider whether you really trust them, much less can recommend them without big disclaimers (such as “don’t use these rules when they clearly stop working; you’ll know”).Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to BobbyC says:

      Hi Bobby,

      I consider myself a consequentialist, and I think your questions are fascinating.

      I believe people desire such things as life over death, freedom over slavery, nourishment over starvation, entertainment over boredom and so on. In other words we seek to thrive. But life is an endless series of problem solving; we need to take action to solve these problems and get the results we desire. When we take an action which leads to a desired outcome, it is successful, or good at solving a problem.

      Humans can solve more problems together than apart. However, solving problems can create “wakes” that affect others. Wakes can even bounce back and hit us. In a complex world with lots of people, we have an evolved sense of how to cooperate and interact with others that allows us to monitor and control the effects of these wakes. These are known as such thing as obligation, gratitude, empathy, pride, shame and vengeance. They allowed hunter gatherers to cooperate together and thrive. We became moral creatures, with a sense of how our actions affect others. Actions which harm others tend to be viewed as immoral or bad morally (with interesting exceptions).

      As societies grew larger with the advent of agriculture, we developed various cultural solutions to the more complex problems of coordinating more people. These are things such as institutions, protocols, mores, rules, laws and even “rights.” Good institutions and rules are ones which tend to lead to human flourishing. Interestingly, I suspect some rules are better when they are viewed not instrumentally, but as absolutes. Thus I believe we have evolved a tendency to perceive some rules or codes as sacrosanct. This helps keep us from straying and alienating our society for short term gain.

      Do I believe in property rights? I believe in good property conventions. These designate who gets control over property or ideas and they align the incentives around protecting, developing and leveraging the property for the benefit of mankind.

      By the way, I do not consider myself a utilitarian or rule utilitarian. I don’t take actions that are consistently aimed at optimizing human flourishing. However, I think that good societies are places which are heavily influenced by the insights of rule utilitarians. I believe that when society aligns the interests of the egoist the altruist and the utilitarian, that great progress will tend to follow.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to BobbyC says:

      I’m going to have my own replies to these questions/comments soon. They will likely be in a standalone post.Report

  12. Avatar BobbyC says:

    Ok – there is a lot there. You may have been fascinated with my questions but you didn’t really go at them directly. I’ll try to respond super-direct, which is hopeless.

    Your first paragraph gives a sort of naturalistic account of how humans act; this is very much how I think. “Thriving” and “human flourishing” are words that I use all the time when well-meaning Americans try to quiz me on moral issues. We are sympatico so far. I’ll quote Calvin Coolridge: “Work is not a curse. It is the prerogative of intelligence, the only means to manhood, and the measure of civilization.”

    The next paragraph extends the naturalistic account to make it clear that words like “obligation” have a substantive meaning and are socially useful, real concepts. I agree with this. I don’t think such concepts are particularly well-defined of course, and that IS a problem for many moral theories which claim too much. But I’m making a more substantial challenge than just saying that since we cannot exactly say what moral terms mean that all accounts of human morality fail trivially. That’s weak. I do not however fully subscribe to this part of your historical / natural account. I would emphasize that we developed moral emotions, which helped us be successful. This is different from saying that we became moral creatures insofar as I think that our morality is USEFUL to us, but is not our GUIDE. The roles are quite reversed. Our limbs help us to do stuff. So do our moral emotions. The important evolutionary constraint on moral development was that it be successful, not consistent or even coherent.

    Next you move to the advent of civilization, aka agriculture based societies. Here you make the point that taking rules as “absolute” simply works better. I agree entirely. We learn how to bake cookies by following a recipe. We do not learn how to be moral by following rules. We are definitely taught rules and made to follow them, but this is to condition culturally preferable behavior, not to instill moral conduct. I’m not saying that we don’t learn moral behavior in a social setting, just that we don’t learn it by learning to follow the recipe for moral conduct. To me this shows that deontological approaches get it backward – the rules purport to proscribe behavior but really they are cultural practices reflecting much more complex social relations than what I think of as our moral sense.

    Property rights. Hmm. We may be passing as ships in the night here. My point was consequentialist theories have to look to outcomes to judge what is right. But we all do believe in property rights (I struggle to see it as social convention really). If I work to make a plow instead of taking leisure, then I have the right to use the plow. It is my plow. But what if we both agree that you need the plow more than me. Or that the group would be better if I let others use the plow. I’m not sure how a consequentialist approach to right conduct can tell us much about how to behave if it doesn’t declare that it is morally right to share the plow. Which is not believing in property rights. Basically property rights, in either the libertarian or natural law way of looking at them, are not consistent with consequentialist approaches to right conduct. Can you reconcile them? I think the response you offer is that “property rights as social conventions work towards human flourishing, and I’m a consequentialist, so I like ’em.” The problem with that is that the micro, 1-on-1 , situation is at odds with the move to the societal level. How do you know which consequentialist reasoning is the correct guide to right conduct? To share the plow because it will lead to a better outcome or defend property rights because that will lead to a better outcome. In fact, which outcome is better – the one where property rights are respected but incomes are very unequal, or the one where property rights are trampled but incomes are flatter? Saying that you believe that morality consists in making such moral calculations is nice. But what is the content? Does it help you decide what to do? My view is that such theories take the natural phenomenon of human action and attempt to restate it as a sort of deductive process, which it just is not. I view human action and our moral sense as integral phenomena; morality is not a map from the space of possible situations into the options “right” and “wrong”. Instead morality is a complex web of emotions which exist both in response to past action and in anticipation of possible action, and which condition our behavior. This is basically what you said in a different way in paragraph two.

    Last paragraph. Two things. First, I cannot help but think of the impossibility of serious moral calculation when I try to evaluate simple English words like “good societies.” In a normal setting, that would be an annoying nitpicking comment, but in the context of me telling moral theorists to fold their hand, cut their losses, it can be forgiven. Second, I actually see it differently, despite your interesting description of how society may flourish when the various personalities are aligned. I view rule utilitarians as silly dangerous people. Thankfully most people who claim to be rule utilitarians are probably just moralistic people who are in no way a real-life version of what utilitarianism calls for. My objection is captured in the quote, “God save us from people who mean well.” The problem being that they tend to do some calculation and then act with great assuredness. This tends to wreak havoc on a pluralist society. It’s not dissimilar from Wall St bankers abusing elementary statistics. My preference is for a classical liberal order – yes, I am one of those.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to BobbyC says:

      Thanks for the response, Bobby

      “I do not however fully subscribe to this part of your historical / natural account. I would emphasize that we developed moral emotions, which helped us be successful. This is different from saying that we became moral creatures insofar as I think that our morality is USEFUL to us, but is not our GUIDE. The roles are quite reversed. Our limbs help us to do stuff. So do our moral emotions. The important evolutionary constraint on moral development was that it be successful, not consistent or even coherent.”

      I agree 100% with (my interpretation of) this paragraph. Our moral senses are useful adaptations to life in social settings.  Part of their usefulness, is they can help to guide us. 

      “To me this shows that deontological approaches get it backward – the rules purport to proscribe behavior but really they are cultural practices reflecting much more complex social relations than what I think of as our moral sense.”

      I agree.  I suspect the adaptive solution of viewing certain important moral tendencies as sacrosanct is useful in that resists violating norms that would offer short term gains, but risks catastrophic retaliation if discovered. It is useful to view things such as killing or stealing from fellow tribesmen as something that should never be done, even when you can probably get away with it.  I suspect deontologists feel this force and mistake it for some kind of Platonic absolute. 

      “Basically property rights, in either the libertarian or natural law way of looking at them, are not consistent with consequentialist approaches to right conduct. Can you reconcile them?”

      I’ve spent years thinking about this and I believe I can. I will let you judge though. The reason property rights work is that they align the incentives of the originator/owner and the property.  Property rights encourage the creation of the plow, as the creator reasonably expects to benefit from it.  The rules of voluntary exchange allow the original owner to identify who values it the most based upon the price they offer.  Prospective buyers can be sure that plow owners are not extracting privileged “rents” because if the original owner does so, it incentivizes others to create competing plows for sale.  Thus supply meets demand and creators are incentivized to gain advantage by building better plows cheaper and by selling them with better service. 

      Thus effective property rights lead to a virtuous cycle.  They foster productivity. They get us all aiming our efforts at serving others to serve ourselves.  They help to direct the allocation of scarce resources.  They align the interests of egoists, altruists and utilitarians. 

      “I think the response you offer is that “property rights as social conventions work towards human flourishing, and I’m a consequentialist, so I like ’em.” The problem with that is that the micro, 1-on-1 , situation is at odds with the move to the societal level. How do you know which consequentialist reasoning is the correct guide to right conduct?”

      This is where economics comes in. 

      “To share the plow because it will lead to a better outcome or defend property rights because that will lead to a better outcome. In fact, which outcome is better – the one where property rights are respected but incomes are very unequal, or the one where property rights are trampled but incomes are flatter?”

      Societies have been testing this for the last few centuries.  The data reveals that free enterprise leads to widespread prosperity, long lives, freedom, ample safety nets, and to poor people that have higher standards of living than wealthy people of earlier eras.  Grossly violating property rights leads to early Jamestown, the various failed communistic communes, the USSR, Communist China, North Korea and East Germany.  People still do not have equality, but they are poorer, with even less opportunity and freedom.  I recommend we let people choose which of these models they prefer for themselves.

      ” I view rule utilitarians as silly dangerous people. Thankfully most people who claim to be rule utilitarians are probably just moralistic people who are in no way a real-life version of what utilitarianism calls for.  My objection is captured in the quote, “God save us from people who mean well.” ”

      Like I said, I am not a utilitarian, and would never suggest someone else either be one or not be one. However, a society which has rules and institutions which align with rule utilitarianism is a useful perspective to measure a society. The reason is that it allows us to fairly evaluate the likely  extent of flourishing of ourselves behind a veil, as well as of our grandchildren. It is like a game.  Before I enter a game, I want to know the rules are clear, simple, fairly consistent and not biased or arbitrary.  Better yet, society is a positive sum, win win game. Thus I seek rules which foster positive sum actions and interactions. My experience is that it is preferable to focus on expanding the pie than fighting over the pieces.

       When given a choice, people tend to choose fair games. Well, they may choose ones where they are privileged, but they won’t find anyone else volunteers to play with them.  Whatever rules we create, they will need to evolve and adapt slowly and fairly over time.  I say fairly meaning that the idea isn’t to prefer one player over another, but instead to ensure the game is as unbiased behind the veil as possible. In general this means changes need to be near unanimous. 

      And I consider myself a classical liberal too. Report

      • Avatar BobbyC in reply to Roger says:

        That was very clear. I think you believe in property rights. We are in remarkable agreement in terms of political philosophy from what I can tell. But we may have a difference in our moral philosophy – it’s either a substantive difference and you are a consequentialist-in-my-meaning or it’s a purely semantic difference and you are a consequentialist-in-your-meaning but not a consequentialist-in-my-meaning.

        I do not consider myself a consequentialist. A consequentialist-in-my-meaning (henceforth just consequentialist) looks only at the outcomes of behavior to judge them. In a way, I therefore see consequentialist thinking as ignoring intentions and history and reasonable expectations and all the counterfactuals embedded in a statement like “I hit him because I thought he was going to hurt me.” Consider drunk driving. I think it is wrong conduct. Obviously this has something to do with the fact that it can and sometimes does hurt innocent people. But I take consequentialism as a moral theory to insist that one’s actions can be judged based on outcomes. So if you drive drunk and kill someone that is wrong, but if you drive drunk and don’t hurt anyone you were not wrong (maybe you were “at risk of being wrong” or “stupid” but not wrong). You can say all this is nonsense, and that you are consequentialist in the sense that you think we should prefer political and social and personal arrangements that lead to good outcomes. I’m consequentialist in that sense, as even I suspect deontological thinkers are. I don’t think there is much content to that kind of theory, meaning that it doesn’t really say anything about how to act because it tells us little about how to tell good outcomes from bad ones. I think these are very standard objections to consequentialism so I don’t think I am being unfair to the theory in treating it so roughly.

        So if I’m not a consequentialist, how do I think we ought to judge actions as right or wrong? I offer a terribly unsatisfying account, but I think an unassailable one. This is characteristic of my philosophical views! Judging actions is something humans do quite naturally. They don’t do it consistently and there is no definitive way to settle differences. Right conduct as opposed to wrong conduct should not be thought of as well-defined states into which actions can be mapped. Rather humans talk about action in this way and such talk is useful and culturally conditioned as we both discussed. There just isn’t any way to condemn certain types of behavior as wrong in a stronger sense than saying “that’s wrong.” So I agree with the existentialists here and reject both the consequentialist and deontological approach. In fact, both theories try for too much, and for the reason that you said, which is that they want morality to be more than just a human mess of assertions. The deontologists want to believe the rules are written in the stars. The consequentialists want to give human values moral import by having a rational framework in which to judge actions. I find the deontological view useful for keeping people in line. I find the consequentialist view useful as a basis of legal doctrines (since at least the outcomes are observable). Neither is attractive to me as a philosophical account of what morality is.Report

        • Avatar Roger in reply to BobbyC says:

          Bobby,

          I agree that an action that is likely to lead to bad results can be considered a bad action even if it did not actually lead to bad results. If this makes me something other than a consequentialist, then I am indeed something other than. Obviously I am untrained in philosophy.

          BTW, was my argument for property at all convincing?Report

          • Avatar BobbyC in reply to Roger says:

            Yes, I find your argument for property convincing. The argument is both theorectical and empirical. First you explain why a free exchange system with property rights accommodates a social group with heterogeneous values. Then you point out that looking at the cross-section of civilizations strongly supports property rights and free exchange when measured as human thriving. I see it the same way.

            To add a couple things – one, it is really counterintuitive for many people that property rights are among the most social of human practices. The American system has done a better job than others of respecting property rights and instilling a deep respect for property rights in the people. Maintaining this attitude in the face of technological, economic, financial, and demographic challenges will be critical to our continued success. It is in this way that I think the recent emphasis on income inequality marks an important moment – Americans are questioning property rights on the basis that the system has been corrupted to the degree that property too often reflects ill-gotten gains. I think Americans still believe in property rights, but the Marxist critique of property rights as essentially an instrument of class rivalry is gaining wider acceptance (and is even in Obama’s response to Republican charges of class warfare!). The solution is a programme of anti-corruption reform (eg tax reform, cutting govt spending, enforcing fraud laws), and not redistribution of property via the political system (which is the primary source of the unfairness anyhow!).

            Two, while I don’t subscribe to the Marxist view of property rights, I do think the environmentalist perspective here is interesting. Basically, classical liberals like us think that property rights are a good idea because they have worked well for human civilizations. But we don’t have a strong argument why human civilization itself is sustainable aside from its 5,000 yr track record of recorded progress. And if we are talking about a liberal order, which really cranks up the real growth rate, then we’ve only been doing it for hundreds of years. On the long view, they have a point: extending property rights broadly in society may lead to current economic prosperity, but without rules to enforce sustainable use of resources we are just coming up with the system that let’s the current population run wild with the accumulated capital of mankind, not one that can be trusted to grow that capital in the truly long run. I’m not an environmentalist, but I think there are some insights in that perspective.Report

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