The Case of the Purblind Economist

Purblind: lacking in insight or understanding; obtuse

Steven Landsburg just doesn’t get it. Uwe Reinhardt lectures him about the folly of “efficiency” (or “social welfare”), and Landsburg continues to act as if there were such a thing:

Suppose you live next door to Bill Gates. Bill likes to play loud music at night. You’re a light sleeper. Should he be forced to turn down the volume?

An efficiency analysis would begin, in principle (though it might not be so easy in practice) by asking how much Bill’s music is worth to him (let’s say we somehow know that the answer is $10,000) and how much your sleep is worth to you (let’s say $25). It is important to realize from the outset that no economist thinks those numbers in any way measure Bill’s subjective enjoyment of his music or your subjective annoyance. Only a crazy person would think such a thing, and I’ve never met anybody who’s that crazy in that particular way. Instead, these numbers primarily reflect the fact that Bill is a whole lot richer than you are. Nevertheless, the economist will surely declare it inefficient to take $10,000 worth of enjoyment from Bill in order to give you $25 worth of sleep. We call that a $9,975 deadweight loss.

The problem with this kind of thinking should be obvious to anyone with the sense God gave a goose. The value of Bill’s enjoyment of loud music and the value of “your” enjoyment of sleep, whatever they may be, are irrelevant because they are incommensurate. They are separate, variably subjective entities. Bill’s enjoyment (at a moment in time) is Bill’s enjoyment. “Your” enjoyment (at a moment in time) is your enjoyment. There is no way to add, subtract, divide, or multiply the value of those two separate, variably subjective things. Therefore, there is no such thing (in this context) as a deadweight loss because there is no such thing as “social welfare” — a summation of the state of individuals’ enjoyment (or utility, as some would have it).

Landsburg persists:

Take a more realistic example: Should we spend, say, a billion dollars a year to subsidize end-of-life health care for poor people? It would be, I think, a terrible mistake to settle this question without at least asking whether the recipients might prefer that we spend our billion dollars some other way — say by subsidizing their groceries or just giving them cash. If so, the difference in value between what they’re getting and what they could be getting (as measured by the recipients) is a deadweight loss. The bigger that deadweight loss, the more we should reconsider our spending priorities.

Who is “we,” Prof. Landsburg? Do you presume to speak for me, one of the taxpayers who would share in the cost of subsidizing end-of-life health care for poor people? The “recipients” have no right to prefer anything. It is my money you’re talking about, not some pot of “social welfare” that sits in the sky, waiting to be distributed by omniscient economists like you. The deadweight loss, as far as I’m concerned, is whatever you take from me to “give” to others, in your omniscience. I have better things to do with my money, thank you, and whether or not they’re “charitable” (they are, in part), is no business of yours. Who made you the accountant of my soul?

Related posts:
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Inventing “Liberalism”
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Landsburg Is Half-Right
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
Enough of “Social Welfare”

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