Month: July 2010

The Recession Lingers…

…by my definition of a recession:

  • two or more consecutive quarters in which real GDP (annualized) is below real GDP (annualized) for an earlier quarter, during which
  • the annual (year-over-year) change in real GDP is negative in at least one quarter.

Here’s how real GDP has fared from the first quarter of 1947 through the second quarter of 2010 (recessions are denoted by vertical bars):


Derived from “Current dollar and real GDP” spreadsheet published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Commerce.

This picture is misleading, of course, because it fails to depict the length and depth of America’s mega-depression, which is now more than a century old and deepening every day.

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Science

I just came across Ron Rosenbaum’s “An Agnostic Manifesto.” Much of what Rosenbaum says accords with my many posts on the subject of atheism, agnosticism, and science:

Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Three Perspectives on Life: A Parable
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
The Thing about Science
Evolution and Religion
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
The Legality of Teaching Intelligent Design
Science, Logic, and God
Capitalism, Liberty, and Christianity
Is “Nothing” Possible?
A Dissonant Vision
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
Science, Axioms, and Economics
The Big Bang and Atheism
The Universe . . . Four Possibilities
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
Pascal’s Wager, Morality, and the State
Evolution as God?
The Greatest Mystery

Modeling, Science, and Physics Envy

Climate Skeptic notes the similarity of climate models and macroeconometric models:

The climate modeling approach is so similar to that used by the CEA to score the stimulus that there is even a climate equivalent to the multiplier found in macro-economic models. In climate models, small amounts of warming from man-made CO2 are multiplied many-fold to catastrophic levels by hypothetical positive feedbacks, in the same way that the first-order effects of government spending are multiplied in Keynesian economic models. In both cases, while these multipliers are the single most important drivers of the models’ results, they also tend to be the most controversial assumptions. In an odd parallel, you can find both stimulus and climate debates arguing whether their multiplier is above or below one.

Here is my take, from “Modeling Is Not Science“:

The principal lesson to be drawn from the history of massive government programs is that those who were skeptical of those programs were entirely justified in their skepticism. Informed, articulate skepticism of the kind I counsel here is the best weapon — perhaps the only effective one — in the fight to defend what remains of liberty and property against the depredations of massive government programs.

Skepticism often is met with the claim that such-and-such a model is the “best available” on a subject. But the “best available” model — even if it is the best available one — may be terrible indeed. Relying on the “best available” model for the sake of government action is like sending an army into battle — and likely to defeat — on the basis of rumors about the enemy’s position and strength.

With respect to the economy and the climate, there are too many rumor-mongers (“scientists” with an agenda), too many gullible and compliant generals (politicians), and far too many soldiers available as cannon-fodder (the paying public).

Scientists and politicians who stand by models of unfathomably complex processes are guilty of physics envy, at best, and fraud, at worst.

More about Consequentialism

In “‘Natural Rights’ and Consquentialism” I attacked (with logic) the concept of natural rights, and observed that

rights — when properly understood as man-made bargains — are consequentialist to their core, arising as they do (in part) from empathy and (in part) from self-interestedness.

This observation squares with something I said in “Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State“:

Liberty — rightly understood as the universal application of negative rights — is possible only when the Golden Rule is, in fact, the rule. The Golden Rule, which is the quintessential social norm, encapsulates a lesson learned over the eons of human coexistence. That lesson? If I desist from harming others, they (for the most part) will desist from harming me.

It seems that these observations, which I have made in one way or another in many posts, put me in good company. Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek, notes that

Adam Smith … [i]n The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) … wrote that “Our continual observations upon the conduct of others insensibly lead us to form to ourselves certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or to be avoided.”

Just as workable economic arrangements are not, and cannot be, designed and imposed by a higher power, so too, Smith explained, workable morality itself is the product not of any grand design but of the everyday actions, reactions, observations, and practical assessments of ordinary people going about their daily business.

Which is not to say that I am necessarily right just because I am on the same wavelength as Adam Smith (in this and other respects). For, as The New Rambler says,

we have a chicken-and-egg problem. We must measure consequentialism against some value outside itself to see if the results we get are what we want. At the same time, any ideal must be tested by everyday experience to see if it is worth pursuing or in what way we can best attain it.

I admit that when I argue in favor of consequentialism, I am arguing for it (in part) because I believe — with justification (e.g., here, here, and here) — that the consequences of ordered liberty are superior to those of its alternatives: statism (even the statism of our supposedly benign “soft despotism”) and anarchy (which necessarily devolves into something worse than “soft despotism”). But, at the same time, liberty is a value unto itself (an ideal), which can be attained only under a political system with the following characteristics:

  • the general observance of evolved and evolving social norms and, accordingly, their enforcement through social censure
  • an accountable, minimal state, dedicated to the protection of its citizens and the enforcement of those social norms — and only those norms — that rise to the level of statutory law (e.g., acts that are generally recognized as fraudulent, coercive, and aggressive)
  • voice, the opportunity for dissent from social norms and laws (though not the right to have one’s dissent honored)
  • exit, the right to leave without penalty.

Those, of course, are the characteristics of civil society operating freely under the aegis of a minimal state, which is what I mean by ordered liberty. Whether rights are pre-existing entities or social bargains unshaped by the state (but sometimes enforced by it), they will emerge and flourish under ordered liberty.

In sum, The New Rambler‘s “chicken and egg” comment has led me to a reconciliation of natural rights and consequentialism. Liberty is to be sought for its own sake and because of its consequences, among which is the emergence of rights — whatever their source — whose exercise redounds to the benefit of the people who share in those rights.

Will the GOP Take the House? — Update 2

The GOP, once again, enjoys a 10 percentage-point lead in Rasmussen’s generic congressional ballot. Accordingly, the GOP stands to add 70 seats and take a 61-seat majority — a far better performance than the “Republican revolution” of 1994, which vaulted the GOP to a 25-seat majority.  See “Will the GOP Take the House?” for the details of my estimate.

The Vanishing Complete Game

Drawing on statistics available at Baseball-Reference.com, I have plotted complete games as a percentage of games started, by league and for both major leagues, at five-year intervals from 1904 through 2009. (It would have been too cumbersome and not worth the effort to have transcribed the statistics for every season from 1901 through 2010).

The result:


Observations:

The rise of complete games in the American League following the introduction of the designated hitter was a transitory phenomenon.

The statistics for the National League are therefore more indicative of long-term trends.

The complete game has been on the wane since the early 1900s, but the trend has accelerated since 1970. (The use of the logarithmic scale for the vertical axis highlights that acceleration.)

It is likely that the incidence of complete games has reached a minimum, at around three percent of games started. That is to say, the percentage is unlikely to drop further because there will always be those (infrequent) occasions on which a starter is still throwing well and has thrown fewer than 100 pitches as he goes into the eighth and ninth innings of a game in which his team is leading, tied, or only a run or two behind.

Monday Musings

Seven years ago yesterday I became a resident of Austin, Texas. To put it differently, yesterday was the seventh anniversary of my residency in Texas. Note well that I say “seventh anniversary,” not “seven-year anniversary,” in the usage of the day.  Why? The word “anniversary” means “the annually recurring date of a past event.” To write or say “x-year anniversary” is redundant as well as graceless. To write or say “x-month anniversary” is nonsensical; what is meant is that such-and-such happened “x” months ago.

A long life is a good thing if it is lived well and in good health. Among my male ancestors, I have a paternal great, great, great, great (g-g-g-g) grandfather who lived to the age of 92. Perhaps he owed his longevity to a vigorous life; he emigrated from Dusseldorf to the colony of Pennsylvania, and fought on the wrong side in the Revolutionary War, for which he was rewarded with a tract of land in Canada. One of his grandsons (my paternal g-g-grandfather) lived to the age of 80. On my mother’s side, I can claim a g-grandfather who made it to 84 and a g-g-grandfather who lived to the age of 87. I do not know how well these ancestors lived, or the state of their health as old men, but they have (in some measure) bequeathed to me a good chance for a long life. Living well and to doing what I can to stay healthy are my responsibilities.

Speaking of genealogy, if you want to trace your “roots” without spending a lot of money, buy a software package (like Legacy Family Tree), consult your relatives and whatever materials they may have compiled, and hit the internet, where there is a wealth of free information. It takes a lot of searching and cross-checking to make connections and fill gaps, and what you find may not be well documented, but in the end you will have a much richer picture of your origins. I have traced 16 generations of my family, from Orne, France, in the 1500s to Virginia, U.S.A., in the 2000s.

All of this revelatory rambling reminds me of Facebook. I acquired a Facebook account so that I can follow the remarks of my daughter-in-law, who posts (usually) funny notes about events in the life her and my son’s household. Unfortunately, I have acquired a few other Facebook “friends” whose musings are of no interest to me. I have solved that problem by (a) hiding them on my home page and (b) going directly to my daughter-in-law’s Facebook “wall.”

Facebook “friends,” in most cases, are like work “friends.” It is possible to have a real, long-standing friendship with a work “friend,” but (in my experience) almost all work “friendships” end when “friends” no longer share an employer. Moreover, the older one gets, the less interested one is in acquiring friends (work-related or otherwise). I have two long-standing friendships; both started at work, but a long time ago (40 and 38 years, respectively), and neither is a close or deep one. I made my last work “friend” (and last friend of any kind) about 25 years ago, and that “friendship” dissolved about 15 years ago, even while both of us were still working at the same place. Other friendships — with neighbors, school-mates, and fellow collegians — have long since died of geographic, economic, and intellectual distance. I  have a small circle of acquaintances in Austin; they are good for a laugh over dinner and drinks, but I have no wish to become close to any of them (nor would I, even if they weren’t lefties, which is about all you can find in Austin). Given what I have just said, it is possible that I owe my dearth of friendships to my aloof personality (see this, this, and this). Friendships are said to contribute to good health and longevity, to which I say “bah, humbug!”

Which brings me to families. Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with this famous sentence: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I believe that happy families are as rare as close, long-standing friendships. I have a rough model of family relationships and the degree of lovingness and mutual regard that is to be found in them. From closeness to distance, it goes like this:

Spouse-children-grandchildren (all about the same)

Grandparents

Parents

Nieces and nephews

Cousins

Siblings

There are, of course, exceptions for those members of a family who are especially sunny, gloomy, nice, nasty, hard-working, indolent, temperate, drunken, etc. But my money is on a model in which sibling relationships are the most fraught of any.

You may have noticed the absence of in-laws from my model. I am loath to generalize about them. In my own case, I have a highly esteemed daughter-in-law. But it is easy to imagine cases in which many of one’s in-laws are at or near the bottom of the list.

Happy Monday.

Is Obama a Racist?

Obama, by his own standards, is a racist:

By the standard of “disparate impact,” Obama is a racist because the effect of his soak-the-rich economics is to punish high-income individuals for the sin of making a lot of money. It should go without saying that whites are disproportionately represented among high-income individuals. Q.E.D., Obama’s soak-the-rich policy is racist.

But, but… haven’t I said many times that the ultimate effect of soak-the-rich schemes is to harm the poor, because soak-the-rich schemes hamper economic growth and job creation? True. But what counts in Obama’s world of justice is not the effect of one’s actions but the motives behind them. (“Hate crimes” anyone?) If Obama hates “the rich” — as he evidently does — it must be because they are overwhelmingly white. Q.E.D. Obama is a racist.

Sexist Nonsense

Rebecca Frankel, writing at Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog, says:

The article Daring to Discuss Women in Science by John Tierney in the New York Times on June 7, 2010 purports to present a dispassionate scientific defense of Larry Summers’s claims, in particular by reviewing and expanding his argument that observed differences in the length of the extreme right tail of the bell curves of men’s and women’s test scores indicate real differences in their innate ability. But in fact any argument like this has to acknowledge a serious difficulty: it is problematic to assume without comment that the abilities of a group can be inferred from the tail of a bell curve….

[I]magine that you had a large group which you divided in half totally at random. At this point their bell curve of test scores looks exactly the same. Lets call one of the group “boys” and the other group “girls”. But they are two utterly randomly selected groups. Now lets inject the “boys” with a chemical that gives the ones who are very good already a burning desire to dominate any contest they enter into. And let us inject the “girls” with a chemical that makes the ones who are already good nonetheless unwilling to make anyone feel bad by making themselves look too good. What will happen to the two bell curves? Of course the upper tail of the “boys’” curve will stretch out, while the “girls’” tail will shrink in. It will look like the “boys” whipped the “girls” on the right tail of ability hands down, no contest. But the tail has nothing to do with ability. Remember they started out with the same distribution of abilities, before they got their injections. It is only the effect of the chemicals on motivation that makes it look like the “boys” beat the “girls” at the tail.

So, when you see different tails, you can’t automatically conclude that this is caused by difference in underlying innate ability. It is possible that other factors are at play — especially since if we were looking to identify these hypothetical chemicals we might find obvious candidates like “testosterone” and “estrogen”.

The first comment, by Sue VanHattum:

There is also the work of Janet Mertz et al, showing massive cultural variability in the percentage of women in the far right tail, making it clear that there is more nurture than nature in this.

Thank you for this post. I hadn’t known about Tierney joining Summers in this sexist nonsense.

My comment:

So “ability” now has a new definition. It is a hypothetical state of equality that is disturbed by a natural difference between males and females. And the fact that this natural difference has an influence on performance is somehow “proof” that males and females are born equally able. By that kind of reasoning, the fact that I cannot see well enough to hit a major-league fastball proves that I belong in the Hall of Fame, along with Babe Ruth. If you’re looking for “sexist nonsense,” look no further than Rebecca Frankel’s hypothesis.

Memories of a Catholic Youth

I was never abused, sexually or otherwise, by a priest or nun. Priests and nuns were figures of dignity and authority. They were aloof at worst, kindly and caring at best.

Attendance at Mass, which began as a boyhood obligation, became an anticipated and uplifting event. The Mass was in Latin, but it was not mysterious to anyone who parted with a few dollars for a missal. The majestic language of the Mass then took life and never dulled, no matter how often repeated. Its glory was not tarnished by being translated into the language that we used for mundane and sometimes harsh and profane discourse.

That the Church was a human institution, with a share of humanity’s scandals and scoundrels, was to be expected. It was not cause for condemnation of the Church as the keeper and teacher of a faith that enriched lives and gave meaning to them.

My lapse of faith came when I was a college sophomore, in both senses of the word: a second-year student and a know-it-all. Whether or not I ever return to the Church, I will not (and never have) joined the chorus of critics who condemn it for their own failings or the failings of a small fraction of its clerics.

The Left

The “left” of the title refers, specifically, to left-statists or (usually) leftists.

I describe statism in “Parsing Political Philosophy“:

Statism boils down to one thing: the use of government’s power to direct resources and people toward outcomes dictated by government….

The particular set of outcomes toward which government should strive depends on the statist…. But all of them are essentially alike in their desire to control the destiny of others….

“Hard” statists thrive on the idea of a powerful state; control is their religion, pure and simple. “Soft” statists profess offense at the size, scope, and cost of government, but will go on to say “government should do such-and-such,” where “such-and such” usually consists of:

  • government grants of particular positive rights, either to the statist, to an entity or group to which he is beholden, or to a group with which he sympathizes
  • government interventions in business and personal affairs, in the belief that government can do certain things better than private actors, or simply should do [certain] things….

I continue by saying that left-statists (L-S)

prefer such things as income redistribution, affirmative action, and the legitimation of gay marriage….L-S prefer government intervention in the economy, not only for the purpose of redistributing income but also to provide goods and services that can be provided more efficiently by the private sector, to regulate what remains of the private sector, and to engage aggressively in monetary and fiscal measures to maintain “full employment.” It should be evident that L-S have no respect for property rights, given their willingness to allow government to tax and regulate at will….

L-S tend toward leniency and forgiveness of criminals (unless the L-S or those close to him are the victims)…. On defense, L-S act as if they prefer Chamberlain to Churchill, their protestations to the contrary….

L-S have no room in their minds for civil society; government is their idea of “community.”…

It is no wonder that most “liberals” (L) and “progressives” (P) try to evade the “leftist” label. (I enclose “liberal,” “progressive,” and forms thereof in quotation marks because L are anything but liberal, in the core meaning of the word, and the policies favored by P are regressive in their effects on economic and social liberty.) L and P usually succeed in their evasion because the center of American politics has shifted so far to the left that Franklin Roosevelt — a leftist by any reasonable standard — would stand at the center of today’s political spectrum.

Indeed, the growing dominance of leftism can be seen in the history of the U.S. presidency. It all started with Crazy Teddy Roosevelt, the first president to dedicate himself to the use of state power to advance his cause du jour. (I do not credit the anti-Lincoln zealotry of  the Ludwig von Mises Institute.) TR’s leftism was evident in his “activist” approach to the presidency. No issue, it seems, was beneath TR’s notice or beyond the reach of the extra-constitutional powers he arrogated to himself. TR, in other words, was the role model for Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover (yes, Hoover the “do nothing” whose post-Crash activism helped to bring on the Great Depression), Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. (For more about American presidents and their predilections, see this, this, and this.) Countless members of Congress and State and local officials have been, and are, “activists” in the image of TR.

In sum, the problem with America — and it boils down to a single problem — is the left’s success in advancing its agenda. What is that agenda, and how does the left advance it?

The left advances its agenda in many ways, for example, by demonizing its opponents (small-government opponents are simply “mean”), appealing to envy (various forms of redistribution), sanctifying an ever-growing list of “victimized” groups (various protected “minorities”), making a virtue of mediocrity (various kinds of risk-avoiding regulations), and taking a slice at a time (e.g., Social Security set the stage for Medicare which set for Obamacare).

The left’s essential agenda  is the repudiation of ordered liberty of the kind that arises from evolved social norms, and the replacement of that liberty by sugar-coated oppression. The bread and circuses of imperial Rome have nothing on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, and the many other forms of personal and corporate welfare that are draining America of its wealth and élan. All of that “welfare” has been bought at the price of economic and social liberty (which are indivisible). (For a broad enumeration, see this post.)

Leftists like to say that there is a difference between opposition and disloyalty. But, in the case of the left, opposition arises from a fundamental kind of disloyalty. For, at bottom, the left pursues its agenda because  it hates the idea of what America used to stand for: liberty with responsibility, strength against foreign and domestic enemies.

Most leftists are simply shallow-minded trend-followers, who believe in the power of government to do things that are “good,” “fair,” or “compassionate,” with no regard for the costs and consequences of those things. Shallow leftists know not what they do. But they do it. And their shallowness does not excuse them for having been accessories to the diminution of  America. A rabid dog may not know that it is rabid, but its bite is no less lethal for that.

The leaders of the left — the office-holders, pundits, and intelligentsia — usually pay lip-service to “goodness,” “fairness,” and “compassion.” But their lip-service fails to conceal their brutal betrayal of liberty. Their subtle and not-so-subtle treason is despicable almost beyond words. But not quite…

Related posts:
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come

On Liberty
Parsing Political Philosophy
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Fascism and the Future of America
Inventing “Liberalism”
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Is Liberty Possible?

The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government
The Mega-Depression
Does the CPI Understate Inflation?
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
The Rahn Curve at Work

Is Liberty Possible?

I must begin at the beginning, with my definition of liberty:

A state of liberty exists where people cohabit an extensive geographic area in peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. The condition of peace requires mechanisms for thwarting fraud, coercion, and aggression inside the group, and from without. The condition of willing coexistence requires a combination of mutual restraint and mutual forbearance, that is, a general willingness to accept certain of others’ foibles and, in return, to honor certain constraints on one’s own behavior — even beyond fraud, coercion, and aggression.

Inherent in that definition, and essential to its fulfillment, are four things:

  • the general observance of evolved and evolving social norms and, accordingly, their enforcement through social censure
  • an accountable, minimal state, dedicated to the protection of its citizens and the enforcement of those social norms — and only those norms — that rise to the level of statutory law (e.g., acts that are generally recognized as fraudulent, coercive, and aggressive)
  • voice, the opportunity for dissent from social norms and laws (though not the right to have one’s dissent honored)
  • exit, the right to leave without penalty.

That we do not have liberty in the United States should be evident in the number of statutes and regulations that a far-from-minimal state imposes on us. With a few exceptions — most notably and laudably in the area of civil rights for blacks — liberty has been in retreat since the onset of the Progressive Era in the early 1890s. For, contrary to Fourth of July oratory, America has descended into statism. And, pace the The Star Spangled Banner, America is the land of the regulator and the home of the regulated.

Those of us lucky enough to have experienced life in small cities, towns, and villages in the 1940s know that something like liberty is possible. Ironically, and tragically, the small-town ethos that undergirds liberty has been the object of pseudo-intellectual scorn since the days of Main Street and Babbit.

Apropos the small-town ethos, I once said:

Think of life in a small town where “eveyone knows everyone else’s business.” The sense of being “watched” actually tends to foster liberty, in that it discourages crime. As a result, one’s life and property generally are safer in small towns than in large cities. By the same token, the sense of being “watched” can seem oppressive; one feels less free to do things that might draw social opprobrium, even if those things do no more than offend others’ sensibilities.

Why should everyone in a small town have to put up with small-town mores for the sake of a safer, saner life, you may ask? Well, if you don’t like small-town mores, fine, pack up and go to the big city, but don’t forget to take your handgun (if you’re allowed to have one in the big city), and keep your life and homeowner’s insurance paid up. (Alternatively, you can stay in the small town and try, through example and persuasion, to change its mores so that there is greater tolerance of social diversity.)

It seems to me that America began to lose its way as urban political machines came to dominate national politics in the early 1900s. It is true that populism, from which arose Progressivism, had its roots in small-town and rural America. But Progressivism and its later incarnations (“liberalism” a.k.a. “progressivism”) have hijacked the anti-elite rhetoric of populism in the service of a different kind of elitism: the “technocratic” regulation of personal and business conduct by puritanical, falsely omniscient bureaucrats.

Even in the unlikely event of a string of electoral victories by a Republican Party restored to its small-government roots, it seems unlikely that America can “go home” again. Urbanization — which leads citizens (wrongly) to believe that government must regulate our daily lives — is irreversible, barring an environmental or industrial catastrophe that throws us back onto the land.

Then there is the deep inculcation of statist habits of thought by schools, universities, the media, and various organizations with “progressive” agendas (e.g., teachers’ unions, labor unions, and issue-oriented organizations like AARP). As a result, a truly minimal state is beyond the imagination of most Americans.

Finally, there is the law itself, through which the “progressive” agenda has infiltrated almost every kind of decision made by Americans in their personal and business lives, from cradle to grave and from planting crops to disposing of waste. An electoral and intellectual revolution would have to be accompanied by a legal one, but the wheels of the law grind slowly and often in perverse ways.

Is liberty possible? Liberty, as I define it, seems impossible. All we can hope and fight for are second- or third-best outcomes. I would settle for an America like that of the 1940s and 1950s, with an overlay of equal treatment under the law (but not in private matters) for all citizens — even the putative white-male majority.

Rawls Meets Bentham

Steven Landsburg writes:

Paul Krugman is at it again, casting aspersions on everyone who opposes extended unemployment benefits while offering absolutely no positive argument for those benefits. Let me explain what would count, to an economist, as a positive argument.

There’s no question that extending benefits would be good for the currently unemployed, and no question that it would be bad for those who are called on to foot the bill. Economists usually deal with that kind of conflict is by asking what policy you’d prefer if you had amnesia, and and didn’t know your own employment status…. The amnesiac is an impartial judge who is forced to care about everyone, because he/she might be anyone.

I have no wish to defend the indefensible Paul Krugman, but Landsburg’s attack is equally indefensible, combining — as it does — John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” and the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and his philosophical progeny. The “veil of ignorance,” according to Wikipedia, requires you to

imagine that societal roles were completely re-fashioned and redistributed, and that from behind your veil of ignorance you do not know what role you will be reassigned. Only then can you truly consider the morality of an issue.

This is just another way of pretending to omniscience. Try as you might to imagine your “self” away, you cannot do it. Your position about a moral issue will be your position, not that of someone else. Moreover, it will not truly be your position unless you put it into practice. Talk — like happiness research — is cheap.

Pretended omniscience is the essence of utilitarianism, which is captured in the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” or, more precisely “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” From this facile philosophy grew the patently ludicrous idea that it might be possible to quantify each person’s happiness, sum those values, and arrive at an aggregate measure of total happiness for everyone.

But there is no realistic worldview in which A’s greater happiness cancels B’s greater unhappiness; never the twain shall meet.  The only way to “know” that A’s happiness cancels B’s unhappiness is to put oneself in the place of an omniscient deity — to become, in other words, an accountant of the soul.

Landsburg, in the space of a single post, has put himself in company with “liberals” like Krugman, who arrogate to themselves the ability to judge the worthiness of others. A pox on both their houses.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Inventing “Liberalism”
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul

As the Fourth Approaches, Good News

Obama’s net approval rating has retreated to -20, following an inexplicable spike a few days ago:

Net approval rating: percentage of likely voters strongly approving of BO, minus percentage of likely voters strongly disapproving of BO. Derived from Rasmussen Reports’ Daily Presidential Tracking Poll. I use Rasmussen’s polling results because Rasmussen has a good track record with respect to presidential-election polling.